Friday Book Whimsy: These Is My Words

Tuesday was my second meeting of the Happy Bookers Book Club at Wind Crest. Just like the first time I attended, I enjoy our discussion so much. Every one of the women loved the book we read, which was These Is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, by Nancy E. Turner. It was the third time I’ve read the book, and I liked it just as much as I did the first time. Following is a review I did of the book back in 2020, and my feelings haven’t changed

I love books that take place during the days of the pioneers. Oh, I know. We aren’t supposed to like pioneers any more. I can’t help it. I find that period fascinating. I had an unusual break between books that have been pouring in from the library as of late. I took the opportunity to reread a book that I read many moons ago, and really enjoyed: These is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, by Nancy E. Turner.

One of the reasons I enjoyed the book the first time — and again this time — is because it takes place in the Arizona Territory in the late 1880s. Since I am a part-time resident of Arizona, I am particularly interested how that uniquely-western state was founded.

The book is unusual in that it is written entirely as a journal. The journal’s author is young Sarah Prine, who documents her family’s travels from their original home in the northwest United States to the Arizona Territory. Land was available at a cheap rate for those brave enough to face the obvious dangers and willing to work hard.

In addition, the diary continues after they have settled and become successful ranchers. Their imminent success didn’t come easy, and the tales she tells of Indian attacks and robbers and rattlesnakes and birthing children in the wilderness are as interesting as they are horrifying. I enjoyed every word of the book.

The author goes on to write two more novels, making the books a trilogy. Sarah’s Quilt and The Star Garden are equally good, at least as I remember.

The books make me glad I live in the 21st Century, even with a pandemic.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Tobacco Wives

The Tobacco Wives, by Adele Myers, is the story of how one industry can impact the lives of an entire city.

It’s 1946, and following the death of her father, young Maddie Sykes and her mother are struggling to make ends meet. One day, Maddie’s mother packs the teen into her car with all of her things and takes her to Bright Leaf, North Carolina, where she leaves her with her Aunt Etta without any warning. Maddie had spent many summers with her aunt, but this time it was different. Her mother was leaving her for good, off to find a husband to take care of her.

Bright Leaf is a tobacco town. Nearly everyone has a connection to cigarettes. They work long shifts at the factory. They support the tobacco people through grocery stores and schools and gas stations. In turn, the tobacco company keeps everyone employed.

Aunt Etta is a magnificent seamstress, and over the years, has taught Maddie her skills. Etta creates the beautiful clothes for the wealthy wives of the tobacco executives. She takes Maddie under her wing, and has her help her sew the gowns and other clothes for the women.

While missing her mother, Maddie becomes friends with the women, and improves on her skills. But she begins noticing that there are a lot of sick people in the town. When her aunt takes ill and is hospitalized, Maddie takes over her business entirely in preparation for the biggest event of the year. She stumbles across a letter that indicates there is a lot the tobacco people aren’t saying. Eventually, Maddie must choose between spilling the beans and risking the lives of the people with whom she has grown close.

The Tobacco Wives is the story of how an industry can practically own a town, especially back in the days before working conditions were improved. Just as important, it tells readers how a young woman finds her voice.

The novel was a debut for the author, and has some typical debutitis. Still, I enjoyed the book.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Where I Come From

I first became familiar with journalist/author Rick Bragg when I came across his book The Best Cook in the World: Tales From My Mama’s Southern Table. That book contained some old-fashioned southern recipes from that person he considers the best cook in the world — his mother. Accompanying each recipe is a story somehow connected to the recipe. I loved that book, and began reading other books crafted by this amazing writer.

Where I Come From: Stories From the Deep South is a collection of vignettes — some that have appeared in his column featured regularly in Southern Living Magazine. Bragg talks about his childhood growing up in the deep south, a child from a hardworking and often struggling family. However, he doesn’t write sad stories. He grew up in the 1950s, and the tales and thoughts he shares with his readers are funny, poignant, relatable, and beautifully written.

There were many times that I had to stop and reread one of the short stories again, just to enjoy the sound of his words. He writes in such a way that you can feel the humidity, hear the crickets chirping, and taste the lunch he buys at the meat-and-three near his boyhood home. His descriptions of food that is characteristic of southern cooking especially grabbed me.

The south of Rick Bragg has nothing to do with antebellum mansions or lifelong seats to UGA’s football games. His south is the south of fishing and hunting, of eating tomato sandwiches, of red dirt and fire ants. His childhood paralleled mine and all Baby Boomers despite not living in the south. Like the rest of us, he was outside barefoot all day long. He collected bugs in tin cans. His descriptions of life in the deep south like Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Florida read like a Pat Conroy novel.

For reasons I can’t explain, I have always been drawn to the southern United States. Perhaps that’s the reason that about halfway through the book which I had borrowed from the library, I stopped reading and bought the book. That way I can read his lovely prose any time I want.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The It Girl

The It Girl is the latest novel from prolific author Ruth Ware.

Hannah Jones was a quiet, studious girl, thrilled to have been accepted into one of the Colleges of Oxford University. She immediately is taken with her roommate, the beautiful April Clarke-Cliveden, daughter from a very wealthy family, the ultimate It Girl. The two of them become thick as thieves and gather a very close group of friends who support each other through everything.

And then April is found murdered in their room, and the world changes for Hannah. Hannah has had run-ins with a creepy employee of the university named John Neville, and just before entering the room to find her roommate dead, she sees Neville sneaking away from their apartment building. Hannah testifies in court, and Neville is sent to prison.

Fast forward 10 years, and Hannah, now married to one person from their group of friends and pregnant, learns that Neville has died in prison from a heart attack. His death brings Hannah again face-to-face with the horror of that day. A short time later, she receives a phone call from a reporter who claims to have information that will prove that Neville was innocent.

Hannah’s world begins to crumble, and she begins to wonder if she helped put an innocent man in prison. She begins to investigate on her own, and eventually learns that you can’t always trust those you think you know very well.

The author begins to set the stage for reasons why nearly every one of the group might want April dead. Red herrings abound, ala Agatha Christie. Though I guessed the murderer before he/she was revealed, I was fooled nearly until the very end.

Though I have read almost all of Ware’s novels, and have liked some and felt more neutral about others, The It Girl kept me reading long into the night. It is probably my favorite of her novels thus far, at least the ones that I have read.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Little Souls

Sandra Dallas is one of my favorite authors. Not only is she prolific, but many of the stories take place in Colorado. Little Souls, in fact, takes place in Denver in 1918.

The world is in the middle of the Great War, and America has entered the battles. If that isn’t bad enough, a new strain of influenza has made its way from Europe to the United States via the return of soldiers, and people are dying by the thousands. Does this sound familiar?

Following the deaths of their parents, Lutie and Helen move from Ohio to Denver. Lutie has a job working at Neusteters, a Denver department store, drawing advertising ads. Helen is a nurse, and she is in the middle of a pandemic that is causing chaos and deaths every day. To make matters worse, their tenant — a woman married to an abusive husband who has deserted her — dies from the flu, leaving her daughter Dorothy, for all intents and purposes, an orphan. Lutie and Helen take Dorothy under their wing, and begin to make arrangements to adopt the girl.

One day, Lutie comes home from work to find a murdered man (who turns out to be Dorothy’s abusive father) and Helen standing over the body with an ice pick. Helen proclaims it was self defense. The women panic, and decide to move the body out into the street where he will hopefully be mistaken for a victim of the Spanish flu. Eventually the body is discovered and found to have been murdered. The two women are facing legal action while at the same time, people claiming to be Dorothy’s aunt and uncle have come to Denver to take the child with them.

This story line is complicated by the fact that Lutie’s fiance has joined the other men fighting in France, and Helen’s boyfriend is a doctor who works every day with people suffering from the flu.

I love Dallas’ writing. Her stories are relatable, even when they are not contemporary. Being a resident of Denver, it was fun to read about the city as it was in the early years of the 20th Century. Names familiar to me from long ago — Neusteters, Denver Dry Goods, Elitches, made this story particularly interesting to me.

But at the end of the day, it was the plot that caught me and didn’t let go. I really liked this book. The descriptions of the Spanish flu were so similar to COVID-19.

As an aside, I looked up why it was called the Spanish flu. In reality, very few Spanish people were victims of this influenza strain. But the governments of the nations fighting in World War I didn’t want to be associated with a pandemic which would further panic the folks back home. Only Spanish newspapers would write about the influenza that was killing Europeans. Thus, it became referred to as the Spanish flu.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Marple

Ever since I was in elementary school, I have loved the books written by Agatha Christie. I’ve loved all of her characters, from Hercule Poirot to Tuppence and Tommy. I particularly enjoyed Miss Marple, the elderly woman who lived in the small English village of St. Mary Mead. She was single and had spent her whole life in her little town, but she was wise about people. She saw that no matter where you lived, whether it was London or St. Mary Mead, people were all the same. She used her wisdom to solve murder mysteries that perplexed the police.

Always carrying her purse and her bag of knitting (for she was always making sweaters for this baby or that child), she sat in the lobby of the hotel or the deck chair overlooking the beach, watching, always watching. Eavesdropping was her particular specialty. In the end, she got her man (or woman).

Because of my love for Miss Marple, I was intrigued by the volume entitled simply Marple: Twelve New Mysteries. What? How can there be new mysteries when Agatha Christie has been dead for 47 years. Marple is a collection of brand new adventures of Miss Marple, written by contemporary authors who are renowned mystery writers in their own right. Some of the authors include award winners Elly Griffiths, Lucy Foley, and Alyssa Cole.

The stories are quite varied. Some are more contemporary; others take place in Christie’s original time frame. One of the authors places Miss Marple in New York City. Admittedly, some of the stories were better in my opinion than others.

Continuing the stories originated by Agatha Christie isn’t a new idea. Sophie Hanna has been writing new Poirot mysteries for some time, and quite successfully. The difference is that Hanna tries to replicate Christie’s voice, while these authors use their own styles to assist Miss Marple in her adventures. Quite successfully, I might add.

I enjoyed some of the stories more than others, but overall, the book was fun. It was wonderful to have the ability to connect with one of my favorite detectives.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man

I’m not a big fan of memoirs. I almost always wonder why the authors think they have a life interesting or important enough to document. Give me an objective biography anytime.

Occasionally, however, a memoir will capture my attention. As a Baby Boomer reader, an opportunity to learn more about the incredibly handsome, charismatic, and frankly, sexy actor Paul Newman was intriguing. I read the book. I was glad I did.

The idea for this memoir originated way back in 1986. Newman convinced a friend — screenwriter Stewart Stern — to work with him to create an oral history of his life. He convinced all manner of people from throughout his life to contribute stories and memories of the actor. His only provision was that they tell the truth, the good, the bad, and the ugly. He committed to do the same.

He and his friends worked on the project for five years, but the book wasn’t published until years after his death, at the insistence of his children. The result is a candid story of a very interesting life that included not only acting, but film directing, car racing, philanthropy, and politics. His marriage to actress Joanne Woodward is a love story of a lifetime. But it, like much of the actor’s life, wasn’t smooth sailing.

Newman was born to a wealthy Ohio family where he lived in a small, well-to-do community. His father owned a very successful hardware store, and spent much of his time working. His mother was more concerned about appearances than in taking any kind of immersive role in his life.

He served in the military, and his accounts of his time served display his candor about his drinking and carousing. I found his honesty to be refreshing, and a realistic picture of growing up in white upper-class America in the period between the two world wars.

I found myself researching his stories and watching his streaming his movies. While he apparently never considered himself to be a great actor — at least not as good as his wife — I certainly disagree. I think he was an outstanding actor, and the movies that I watched were tremendous. But what do I know.

If you enjoy memoirs that are honest and funny and self-deprecating, you will enjoy The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Mr. Dickens and His Carol

One Christmas movie I’m always committed to seeing is A Christmas Carol, starring George C. Scott. The ghosts are just scary enough, and I love the change in Mr. Scrooge after he decides to change his life. This novel is the story of how the story came to be written, at least from the perspective of author Samantha Silva.

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the much-loved story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his three ghosts. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, defines much that we know about Christmas. But apparently Charles Dickens’ life wasn’t a bed of roses when he reluctantly wrote A Christmas Carol.

Samantha Silva’s debut novel, Mr. Dickens and His Carol, provides readers with a glimpse — in novel form — of what the famous author’s life was like around the time that he wrote the famous story of Scrooge and his ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.

Though he and his family had been living a very comfortable life, his most recent novel had been a flat-out bust. Money was tight, and the family members who had long lived by Dickens’ handouts, and the charities he had supported, are coming out of the woodwork asking for more funds. His wife is unaware of their dire straits, and is moving forward with their annual Christmas soiree despite its immense cost. Dickens is getting more and more frantic about his finances and his family responsibilities.

His publishers come to the rescue by suggesting, well, ordering really, him to write a Christmas story for the masses, something Dickens is loathe to do. He thinks Christmas stories are silly, and his lack of holiday spirit prevent him from writing the story that his publishers are seek Oh, if he only had a muse.

And then a muse appears in the form of an actress named Eleanor Lovejoy, who encourages Dickens to write a story with London as its background, and the Christmas spirit as its driving force. After much angst and many tries, the story Dickens writes changes Christmas forever.

Silva takes great liberties with Dickens’ story, and she admits as much in her Afterword. Her writing style reminds me of the style of Dickens himself. That, I’m sure was no accident. Dickens’ whining and moaning goes on a bit longer than necessary, but the ending, which has a surprise twist, makes up for the redundancy.

Mr. Dickens and His Carol was a wonderful Christmas story, making me want to reread A Christmas Carol.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: A Redbird Christmas

I read this book every year because it’s one of my favorite Christmas stories. Enjoy this repeat review..

No one writes the South like author Fannie Flagg, and nobody can beat her when it comes to cozy stories as well. A Redbird Christmas is one of my favorite Christmas books, and I rarely miss a year of reading it. It doesn’t take long, as it’s more of a novella than a novel, but it’s well worth the couple of hours you will spend in Lost River, Alabama, with the Mystic Order of the Royal Polka Dots Secret Society and a redbird named Jack.

Oswald T. Campbell makes his annual visit to the doctor. There he receives a startling and depressing diagnosis: his emphysema has worsened to the point that he now only has a few months — at the most — to live. His doctor suggests he can perhaps lengthen his lifespan a bit if he doesn’t spend a winter in his hometown of Chicago. The doctor recommends a spa that his own father used to recommend to his patients. It is located in the southernmost point of Alabama in a town called Lost River.

Oswald isn’t very interested in spending his remaining time alone in Chicago, and so he telephones the spa, only to learn that it no longer exists. Still, the woman who answers the phone tells Oswald to come down anyway, and he can stay with her. He agrees.

What happens next is simply magical. Oswald’s life changes when he discovers a hidden talent, makes many friends, and comes face-to-face (or maybe face-to-beak) with Jack, a cardinal that the local shopkeeper rescued several years ago. Jack is the heart and soul of the small community, and has enhanced the life of many of the townspeople. One of Jack’s biggest admirers is a young girl, crippled from abuse, who comes to live in Lost River, and is saved as well.

A Redbird Christmas is, in a word, charming. The characters are quirky but loveable in the way that only Flagg can make her characters.

You haven’t really had Christmas until you have spent it with the people of Lost River, and, of course, Jack.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Carrie Soto is Back

In the summer of 1978, I took tennis lessons. The lessons lasted six weeks. I’m pretty sure that was the last time that I held a tennis racket in my hands. It should come as no surprise that I don’t know anything about tennis. I don’t know how to score. I don’t know the difference between playing on hard courts, clay courts, grass courts, or carpet courts. In fact, I had to look up the types of tennis court surfaces to write that last sentence.

Because of my lack of knowledge or even interest in tennis, I would never have picked up this book if it hadn’t been written by one of my favorite authors. Taylor Jenkins Reid has written two of my all-time favorite novels: Daisy Jones and the Six and The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. Because of my high regard for these novels, I was willing to give this book a try.

I’m very glad I did.

Carrie Soto retired from tennis a highly successful professional player. She was well regarded, but not particularly popular given the intensity in which she approached the game. Her mother died young, and her father — a well-regarded tennis player himself — became her coach. He taught her the ins and outs, the correct way to hold her racket, the tricks of playing exceptional competitive tennis. Carrie brought a dedication to being the best, letting no one get in her way,

But when she saw one of the newer players seemingly filling her retired shoes, she elected to come out of retirement to see if she could finish the season as the number one tennis player in the world once again.

While there is a lot of detail about tennis in the novel, the story is really about the relationship between Carrie and her father, and the importance of having people who love you in your life. Having said that, I will tell you that I LOVED learning about the game of tennis. Reid made the game interesting even to a tried-and-true non-tennis player such as me.

What I like best about Reid’s novels is that the writing style is always unique, and the characters are always unforgettable. Carrie Soto is Back is no exception. This will be one of my favorite books of 2022.

Here is a link to the book.