July 1, 2020

Book Review: Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie

Death in the Clouds (Hercule Poirot #12)

by Agatha Christie

Genres: Mystery, Fiction, Detective, Crime, British, Series
Publisher: William Morrow
Length: 253
Published: June 14, 2011 (originally published March 10, 1935)
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Hercule Poirot must solve a perplexing case of midair murder in Death in the Clouds when he discovers that the woman in seat two of the airborne aeroplane he’s traveling on is quite unexpectedly—and unnaturally—deceased.

From seat No. 9, Hercule Poirot was ideally placed to observe his fellow air passengers on the short flight from Paris to London. Over to his right sat a pretty young woman, clearly infatuated with the man opposite; ahead, in seat No. 13, sat a countess with a poorly concealed cocaine habit; across the gangway in seat No. 8, a writer of detective fiction was being troubled by an aggressive wasp.

Yes, Poirot is almost ideally placed to take it all in, except what he did not yet realize was that behind him, in seat No. 2, sat the slumped, lifeless body of a woman. Murdered, and likely by someone in Poirot’s immediate proximity." 


"There are more important things than finding the murderer. And justice is a fine word, but it is sometimes difficult to say exactly what one means by it. In my opinion the important thing is to clear the innocent."


"The September sun beat down hotly on Le Bourget aerodrome as the passengers crossed the ground and climbed into the air liner Prometheus, due to depart for Croydon in a few minutes' time.

Jane Grey was among the last to enter and taker her seat, No. 16. Some of the passengers had already passed on through the centre door past the tiny pantry-kitchen and the two toilets to the front car. Most people were already seated. On the opposite side of the gangway there was a good deal of chatter--a rather shrill, high-pitched woman's voice dominating it. Jane's lips twisted slightly. She knew that particular type of voice so well.

'My dear--it's extraordinary--no idea--Where, do you say? Juan les Pins? Oh, yes. No--Le Pinet--Yes, just the same old crowd--But of course let's sit together. Oh, can't we? Who--? Oh, I see...'

And then a man's voice--foreign, polite:

'--With the greatest of pleasure, Madame.'

Jane stole a glance out of the corner of her eye.

A little elderly man with large moustaches and an egg-shaped head was politely moving himself and his belongings from the seat corresponding to Jane's on the opposite side of the gangway."

My Book Review:

Book twelve in Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot detective series was a wonderful story and in my opinion, every bit as good as Murder on the Orient Express. I'm surprised I hadn't heard it singled out before as one of Agatha Christie's best mysteries.

A locked room mystery, Death in the Clouds begins when twelve passengers are on board the Prometheus, an airplane traveling from France to England. The mystery ensues when toward the end of the flight one of the stewards notices a woman at the back of the plane slumped over. The crew and passengers discover she's been killed. Each of the passengers on board immediately becomes a possible suspect, including our beloved Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.

Questions of revenge drive the detective case and twists and turns set a suspenseful pace, including when Poirot himself becomes suspect #1 when the the murder weapon--a blowpipe that shot a poisoned dart into the deceased woman's neck-- is found disposed behind his seat. Hercule sets out to solve the murder which becomes increasingly complicated as the seating chart, possessions, possible motives, and gains and losses from the murder are each weighed in turn.

The story is so clever. I mistakenly thought I knew who the actual murderer was very early on, only to discover I fell hook, line, and sinker for a very deceptive red herring. To my knowledge, out of all of the Hercule Poirot novels I've read thus far (a good twenty or thirty to date), this is the only one where Poirot becomes one of the accused. A truly fantastic story and one I highly recommend to any fan of Agatha Christie or suspenseful mysteries.

If You Like This, Then Try:

Other Books from the Hercule Poirot Series
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (#4) by Agatha Christie
The Big Four (#5) by Agatha Christie
Murder on the Orient Express (#10) by Agatha Christie
The ABC Murders (#13) by Agatha Christie
Murder in Mesopotamia (#14) by Agatha Christie
Cards on the Table (#15) by Agatha Christie
Death on the Nile (#17) by Agatha Christie
Five Little Pigs (#25) by Agatha Christie [read my review here]
Halloween Party (#39) by Agatha Christie [read my review here]

Other Agatha Christie Mysteries
Crooked House by Agatha Christie
Murder at the Vicarage (Miss Marple #1) by Agatha Christie
The Secret Adversary (Tommy & Tuppence #1) by Agatha Christie

Nonfiction about Agatha Christie

Other Mysteries
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield (historical fiction, fantasy, magical realism)
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (historical fiction, mystery)
The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton [read my review here] (historical fiction, romance, mystery)

Young Adult Mysteries
Truly Devious (#1) by Maureen Johnson
Sadie by Courtney Summers
One of Us is Lying (#1) by Karen M. McManus [read my review here]
Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M. McManus
Stalking Jack the Ripper (#1) by Kerri Maniscalco [read my review of #3 in that series here] (historical fiction)
A Study in Charlotte (#1) by Brittany Cavallaro (retelling, mystery, crime)

June 29, 2020

Book Review: The Witchcraft of Salem Village by Shirley Jackson

The Witchcraft of Salem Village

by Shirley Jackson

Genres: History, Nonfiction, American History, Paranormal, Middle Grade
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Length: 160 pages
Published: First published in 1956, reprinted 1987
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Stories of magic, superstition, and witchcraft were strictly forbidden in the little town of Salem Village. But a group of young girls ignored those rules, spellbound by the tales told by a woman named Tituba. When questioned about their activities, the terrified girls set off a whirlwind of controversy as they accused townsperson after townsperson of being witches. Author Shirley Jackson examines in careful detail this horrifying true story of accusations, trials, and executions that shook a community to its foundations."


"Much of this gossip died away naturally, but people did not forget the incident."


"Note: Salem, Massachusetts, and Salem Village, Massachusetts, were two separate places in 1692. Although only a few miles apart, they differed a good deal. Salem, where the witchcraft trials were held, was a large town, busy and active. Salem Village was a small community, self-centered and frequently almost isolated in the winter, although one of the main highways of Massachusetts ran, and still runs, past the site of Ingersoll's inn. The witchcraft cases began in Salem Village, although Salem has had to accept full responsibility. Salem Village no longer exists. Even the ghosts of George Burrough's two wives would have trouble finding it today."

My Book Review:

I love Shirley Jackson and have been a big fan of her fiction. While she's widely known for her famed short story "The Lottery" which is frequently taught in U.S. high schools,  I'm a die-hard advocate for reading her novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle--both are fantastic. To date, I've only read one of her other nonfiction titles, Life Among the Savages, a likable, dry humor approach which recounts her daily frustrations and reflections of raising four young daughters.

I've long been curious about the Salem Witch Trials, growing increasingly curious after taking an absolutely phenomenal graduate literature course themed "Saints, Witches, and Madwomen." When I stumbled across Jackson's historical account and saw that it was designed for young readers, I was immediately intrigued. I've read Stacy Schiff's tome The Witches: Salem, 1692 (you can read my full book review here), and dabbled in fictional retellings like Arthur Miller's play The Crucible, but I really wanted to see how Jackson told the story to middle-grade audiences.

Part of Penguin Random House's Landmark Books Series, The Witchcraft of Salem Village by Shirley Jackson is an accessible but short and comprehensive middle-grade account of the Witch craze in Salem Village, Massachusetts in 1692. During the chaos, eighteen innocent people were sentenced to death, others died while imprisoned in jail, and many more were terrorized and falsely accused.

Jackson's account is a great read for young readers: it's clear and fascinating. The discrimination, racism, sexism, and pervasive ignorance throughout the entire situation is haunting and still timely. The fact that the girls who found themselves at the center of attention in this scandal continued to carry on and sent people to their death while they ended up living free lives wholly unpunished is terribly messed up.

Jackson also does a fine job including a really important discussion of spectral evidence--where an accusation is considered as good as solid evidence--and continued examination into these incidents is especially significant today. It's crucial to study Salem Village to avoid repeating history, particularly as  recurrence today in new forms, modern-day ongoing manifestations of injustice, discrimination, sexism, and racism.

If You Like This, then Try:

Books about the Salem Witch Trials
The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff [read my review here] (history, nonfiction)
The Crucible by Arthur Miller (drama, fiction, American history)
Six Women of Salem by Marilynne K. Roach (children's books, history)
Tituba, Reluctant Witch of Salem by Elaine G. Breslaw (history, nonfiction, biography)

Other Books by Shirley Jackson
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson [read my mini review here] (Gothic, horror)
Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson [read my mini review here] (memoir, humor)
The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson (short stories, fiction, horror)

Books about Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin (biography, nonfiction)

Other Titles from the Middle-Grade Landmark Books Series
Gettysburg by MacKinlay Kantor (American history, nonfiction)
Meet Abraham Lincoln by Barbara Cary (American history, biography, nonfiction)
Meet Martin Luther King, Jr. by James T. deKay (American history, biography, nonfiction)
The American Revolution by Bruce Bliven Jr. (American history, nonfiction)
The Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt by Elizabeth Payne (history, nonfiction)
The Wright Brothers by Quentin Reynolds (American history, biography, nonfiction)

May 22, 2020

Book Review: The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton


The Secret Keeper

by Kate Morton

Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Publisher: Atria
Length: 484 pages
Published: October 9, 2012
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"During a summer party at the family farm in the English countryside, sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson has escaped to her childhood tree house and is happily dreaming of the future. She spies a stranger coming up the long road to the farm and watches as her mother speaks to him. Before the afternoon is over, Laurel will witness a shocking crime. A crime that challenges everything she knows about her family and especially her mother, Dorothy—her vivacious, loving, nearly perfect mother.

Now, fifty years later, Laurel is a successful and well-regarded actress living in London. The family is gathering at Greenacres farm for Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday. Realizing that this may be her last chance, Laurel searches for answers to the questions that still haunt her from that long-ago day, answers that can only be found in Dorothy’s past.

Dorothy’s story takes the reader from pre–WWII England through the blitz, to the ’60s and beyond. It is the secret history of three strangers from vastly different worlds—Dorothy, Vivien, and Jimmy—who meet by chance in wartime London and whose lives are forever entwined. The Secret Keeper explores longings and dreams and the unexpected consequences they sometimes bring. It is an unforgettable story of lovers and friends, deception and passion that is told—in Morton’s signature style—against a backdrop of events that changed the world."


"It's a terrible thing, isn't it, the way we throw people away?"


"The man came round the corner and she glanced sideways. The smile slipped from her face.

'Hello there,' said the stranger, pausing to press his handkerchief to each temple. 'Fine weather we're having.'

The baby's face broadened in delight at the newcomer, and he reached out his chubby hands, opening and closing them in excited greeting. It was an invitation no one could refuse, and the man tucked the handkerchief back into his pocket and stepped closer, raising his hand slightly, as if to anoint the little fellow.

Her mother moved then with startling haste. She wrested the baby away, depositing him roughly on the ground behind her. There was gravel beneath his bare legs, and for a child who knew only tenderness and love the shock proved too much. Crestfallen, he began to cry.

Laurel's heart tugged, but she was frozen, unable to move. Hairs pricked on the back of her neck. She was watching her mother's face, an expression on it that she'd never seen before. Fear, she realized: Ma was frightened.

The effect on Laurel was instant. Certainties of a lifetime turned to smoke and blew away. Cold alarm moved in to take their place.

'Hello, Dorothy,' the man said. 'It's been a long time.'

He knew Ma's name. The man was no stranger.

He spoke again, too low for Laurel to hear, and her mother nodded slightly. She continued to listen, tilting her head to the side. Her face lifted to the sun, and her eyes closed for just one second.

The next thing happened quickly.

It was the liquid silver flash Laurel would always remember. The way sunlight caught the metal blade, and the moment was very briefly beautiful."

My Book Review:

I first read Kate Morton's novels when a friend recommended The Forgotten Garden. I read it--more aptly, I devoured it--while on vacation. The stunning writing blew me away and the depth of her characters and the setting greatly reminded me of Charles Dickens, whom I adore. It was a 4.5 out of 5 stars and I could not wait to read another one of her books.

The beginning of The Secret Keeper is fantastic and drew me in immediately: a young girl named Laurel witnesses her mother murder a man who comes walking up the driveway and greets her with a familiar tone. When the narrative followed this Laurel’s journey to discover the truth behind her mother's relationship with this stranger and what happened that day, the reading flew by. I was endlessly curious and loved fitting the puzzle pieces of this mystery together. The narrative, however, alternates between Laurel and another character Dorothy (aka Dolly) and I really struggled through these sections. In large part, this is due to Dorothy's obsession with Vivien, an upper-class woman whom she meets, admires, and then becomes obsessed with stalking. This obsession made no sense to me, her motivation felt lacking, and ultimately I was so bothered by her choices that I set the novel aside. However, my love for The Forgotten Garden and my desire to find out the truth motivated me to pick it up again and press forward. I'm glad I did.

About a hundred or so pages from the end, the mystery intensifies and as elements arise, clash, and confuse. This made both Laurel's and Dorothy's narratives increasingly tense and intriguing and I found myself hooked. The novel’s ending completely threw me, I did not see it coming, and for that I applaud it. All at once, everything made sense. Serious props to Morton for pulling this off.

Morton excels at combining strong characters, vivid historical settings, and complicated mysteries. The emotional vascillation betwen Laurel and Dorothy's narratives can be jarring, but the payoff is well worth the investment.
You can also check out Morton's newest novel, The Clockmaker's Daughter. What's your favorite Kate Morton novel?

If You Like This, Then Try:

Other Books by Kate Morton
The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
The Lake House by Kate Morton
The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

Other Historical Fiction Mysteries
Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield (historical fiction, fantasy, magical realism)
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (historical fiction, mystery)
These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly (young adult, historical fiction, mystery, thriller)

April 6, 2020

Book Review - The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White


The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein

by Kiersten White

Genres: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Horror, Retelling
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Length: 304 pages
Published: September 25, 2018
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Elizabeth Lavenza hasn't had a proper meal in weeks. Her thin arms are covered with bruises from her "caregiver," and she is on the verge of being thrown into the streets . . . until she is brought to the home of Victor Frankenstein, an unsmiling, solitary boy who has everything--except a friend.

Victor is her escape from misery. Elizabeth does everything she can to make herself indispensable--and it works. She is taken in by the Frankenstein family and rewarded with a warm bed, delicious food, and dresses of the finest silk. Soon she and Victor are inseparable.

But her new life comes at a price. As the years pass, Elizabeth's survival depends on managing Victor's dangerous temper and entertaining his every whim, no matter how depraved. Behind her blue eyes and sweet smile lies the calculating heart of a girl determined to stay alive no matter the cost . . . as the world she knows is consumed by darkness."


“I sought to puncture Heaven and instead discovered Hell.”

Excerpt (from Part One, Chapter One):

"Lightning clawed across the sky, tracing veins through the clouds and marking the pulse of the universe itself.

I sighed happily as rain slashed the carriage windows and thunder rumbled so loudly we could not even hear the wheels bump when the dirt lane met the cobblestones at the edge of Ingolstadt.

Justine trembled beside me like a newborn rabbit, burying her face in my shoulder. Another bolt lit our carriage with bright white clarity before rendering us temporarily deaf with a clap of thunder so loud the windows threatened to loosen.

'How can you laugh?' Justine asked. I had not realized I was laughing until that moment."

My Book Review:

This was the first time I'd read a Kiersten White book and I was blown away. As a huge fan of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, my expectations were high. She met them all.

White’s narrative is simply beautiful. Her writing is eloquent, the story is very well crafted, and it's evident she's done her research. White’s knowledge of Shelley’s life no doubt influenced the choices she made in retelling this story from Elizabeth Lavenza’s point-of-view. The result is a compelling narrative that will easily engage both young adult and adult audiences.

The emphasis on a woman's perspective within this tale of horror is a real tribute to Mary Shelley. The novel explores Elizabeth's complicated position and in so many ways thematically reflects Shelley's own coming-of-age. I absolutely loved what White did with Elizabeth Lavenza and Mary Shelley as characters (yes, Mary appears in the novel as well) and how well she wrote Victor Frankenstein as a Byronic hero who gets his just desserts.

The book's setting is spectacularly Gothic. White perfectly captures the dark, haunting mood of classic horror novels and includes stomach-churningly specific, grotesque details (picture body parts rotting in old trunks). At times, these descriptions might make audiences squeamish, but the story is so compelling they'll have to keep reading.

After completing this novel, I am definitely a new fan of Kiersten White's writing. If all of her young adult novels are this fantastic, I cannot wait to read more.


January 16, 2020

Book Review - Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats

by T.S. Eliot
illustrated by Axel Scheffler

Genres: Poetry, Children's Poetry, Classics, British Literature, Animal Literature, Humor
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Length: 80 pages
Published: October 19, 2019 (originally published in 1939)
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"T. S. Eliot’s playful cat poems have delighted readers and cat lovers around the world ever since they were first published in 1939. They were originally composed for his godchildren, with Eliot posing as Old Possum himself, and later inspired the legendary musical Cats. Now with vibrant illustrations by the award-winning Axel Scheffler, this captivating edition makes a wonderful new home for Mr. Mistoffelees, Growltiger, the Rum Tum Tugger, Macavity the mystery cat, and many other memorable strays. It’s the perfect complement to the beloved previous edition, which remains available."


“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn't just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there's the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, or George or Bill Bailey -
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter -
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular,
A name that's peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum -
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there's still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover -
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.”

My Book Review:

This was my first time reading T.S. Eliot's full collection of cat poems (originally written for his godchildren). I haven't seen Andrew Lloyd Webber's stage adaptation, Cats, but like many people I'm familiar with the songs that have permeated popular culture. It sounds like the recent film adaptation was a bit of a mess, but longtime fans, cat-lovers, or those who are curious might want to check out the original inspiration for the adaptation that brought us songs like "Memories."

I must admit I definitely liked some poems in T.S. Eliot's collection more than others. I openly admit to not enjoying some at all. Overall, I particularly enjoyed the ones that had a more consistent meter and rhyme scheme.

Stand-out poems include "The Rum Tum Tugger" (the only one I'd read previously), "Macavity: The Mystery Cat," "Mr. Mistoffelees" (probably due to my familiarity with the song), "Gus: The Theatre Cat," and "The Ad-dressing of Cats" (which explains to children how cats' personalities are nothing like dogs').

While I wasn't surprised by the signature high level of Eliot's vocabulary which readers don't normally find in children's literature (words include raffish, sampans, terpsichorean, prestidigitation, and legerdemain), I was surprised to find I respected that Eliot didn't dumb himself down when writing for this new audience--if kids don't understand everything they hear, they'll ask. That trust feels implicit in his poetry and his love of language adds to the fun of this text, as do Axel Scheffler's accompanying illustrations. If you enjoy this, check out Edward Gorey's original illustrations as well.

Is anyone out there a fan of the musical? Has anyone seen the film and lived to tell the tale?

November 13, 2019

Book Review - Victoria: Portrait of a Queen by Catherine Reef

Victoria: Portrait of a Queen

by Catherine Reef

Genres: Young Adult, Biography, Nonfiction, British History
Publisher: Clarion Books
Length: 256 pages
Published: November 7, 2017
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Catherine Reef brings history vividly to life in this sumptuously illustrated account of a confident, strong-minded, and influential woman.

Victoria woke one morning at the age of eighteen to discover that her uncle had died and she was now queen. She went on to rule for sixty-three years, with an influence so far-reaching that the decades of her reign now bear her name—the Victorian period. Victoria is filled with the exciting comings and goings of royal life: intrigue and innuendo, scheming advisors, and assassination attempts, not to mention plenty of passion and discord. Includes bibliography, notes, British royal family tree, index."

Excerpt (from Chapter One):

"If another princess had not died tragically and young, Victoria would have never been born.

The ill-fated princess was Charlotte. She was the only child of the prince regent, the man who occupied the British throne. The prince was ruling in place of his father, King George III, who had been deemed mentally ill. Upon his father's death, the prince regent would be crowned King George IV. Charlotte was twenty-one years old on November 6, 1817, when she delivered a stillborn son. Within hours hse sickened, and soon Charlotte too was dead.

The English people had loved the princess. 'She stood on high,' wrote a newspaperman. Charlotte had embodied 'images of young, and promise, and blooming womanhood.' Eighteen months before, the public had rejoiced in Charlotte's marriage to handsome Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. They had felt secure knowing that she would reign one day, upon her father's death, all in good time."

My Book Review:

In Victoria: Portrait of a Queen, Catherine Reef presents an illustrated biography of Queen Victoria adapted to young adult audiences.

Though compared to other more exhaustive biographies of Victoria Reef's text is short and simplified, it is nonetheless a helpful starter for interested readers. Reef undoubtedly did an extensive amount of research before composing her text. While some aspects of Victoria's personal life, political views, and public perception are a bit more complicated and nuanced that what is presented, these are likely areas of Victoria's biography that are not of key importance to young adult readers.

Reef paints a clear portrait that helps her audience understand the significant role Victoria played in the nineteenth century. She does well explaining the unique position Victoria was in when she inherited the throne from her uncle at age eighteen, and shares details about Victoria's courtship with her cousin, Albert, their marriage, and her position as the queen.

I would recommend this book to any young adult audience who has an interest in women's history and biography. Victoria is a fascinating and complex figure, and it's exciting that Reef has composed this text with a young audience in mind.

September 5, 2019

Book Review - Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt

Angela's Ashes

by Frank McCourt

Genres: Nonfiction, Memoir, Irish History
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Length: 452 pages
Published: October 3, 2005 (first published September 5, 1996)
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"Imbued on every page with Frank McCourt's astounding humor and compassion. This is a glorious book that bears all the marks of a classic.

"When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I managed to survive at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."

So begins the Pulitzer Prize winning memoir of Frank McCourt, born in Depression-era Brooklyn to recent Irish immigrants and raised in the slums of Limerick, Ireland. Frank's mother, Angela, has no money to feed the children since Frank's father, Malachy, rarely works, and when he does he drinks his wages. Yet Malachy-- exasperating, irresponsible and beguiling-- does nurture in Frank an appetite for the one thing he can provide: a story. Frank lives for his father's tales of Cuchulain, who saved Ireland, and of the Angel on the Seventh Step, who brings his mother babies.

Perhaps it is story that accounts for Frank's survival. Wearing rags for diapers, begging a pig's head for Christmas dinner and gathering coal from the roadside to light a fire, Frank endures poverty, near-starvation and the casual cruelty of relatives and neighbors--yet lives to tell his tale with eloquence, exuberance and remarkable forgiveness.

Angela's Ashes, imbued on every page with Frank McCourt's astounding humor and compassion, is a glorious book that bears all the marks of a classic."


"You might be poor, your shoes might be broken, but your mind is a palace."

Excerpt (from Chapter One):

"My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet the miserable Irish Catholic childhood."

My Book Review:

Reading the first two-thirds of Angela's Ashes is a five-star experience.

Listening to the audiobook and McCourt’s Irish accent as he tells the story of the heartbreaking poverty of his childhood growing up in Limerick, Ireland is so memorable. I was floored by the pain he went through: the hunger, the grief, the uncertainty, and the burden of his helpless situation. McCourt excels as recreating the setting and emotions of his painful coming-of-age. He experiences the deaths of siblings, his mother’s ill health and depression, Irish Catholic guilt, cruel schoolmasters, deadly illness, untreated chronic infections, and worst of all, an alcoholic father who is unreliable and increasingly absent. All of this is told in a very strong, powerful voice. I cannot recommend this section of the book strongly enough.

Sadly, however, the last third of the memoir is a disappointment. McCourt focuses on repeated and unnecessarily crude sexual content to describe his experience of puberty when what lies at the heart of his coming-of-age is his religious crisis of faith. Had he shifted frameworks and further explored how he reconciled his pain with his cultural heritage, I would have been on board. That not fully being the case, I was left wishing the book had ended a couple hundred pages earlier.

Overall, McCourt's memoir is amazingly powerful, but be warned about some of this concluding content.

August 30, 2019

Book Spotlight - Wilderness of Hope by Quinn Grover

Wilderness of Hope:
Fly Fishing and Public Lands in the American West

by Quinn Grover
(Outdoor Lives series)

Genres: Memoir, History, Nonfiction, Nature, American Literature
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
Length: 248 pages
Published: September 1, 2019
Purchase Links: Amazon, University of Nebraska Press

Official Book Summary:

"Longtime fly fisherman Quinn Grover had contemplated the 'why' of his fishing identity before more recently becoming focused on the 'how' of it. He realized he was a dedicated fly fisherman in large part because public lands and public waterways in the West made it possible. In Wilderness of Hope Grover recounts his fly-fishing experiences with a strong evocation of place, connecting those experiences to the ongoing national debate over public lands.

Because so much of America’s public lands are in the Intermountain West, this is where arguments about the use and limits of those lands rage the loudest. And those loudest in the debate often become caricatures: rural ranchers who hate the government; West Coast elites who don’t know the West outside Vail, Colorado; and energy and mining companies who extract from once-protected areas. These caricatures obscure the complexity of those who use public lands and what those lands mean to a wider population.

Although for Grover fishing is often an 'escape' back to wildness, it is also a way to find a home in nature and recalibrate his interactions with other parts of his life as a father, son, husband, and citizen. Grover sees fly fishing on public waterways as a vehicle for interacting with nature that allows humans to inhabit nature rather than destroy or 'preserve' it by keeping it entirely separate from human contact. These essays reflect on personal fishing experiences with a strong evocation of place and an attempt to understand humans’ relationship with water and public land in the American West."

Author Bio:

"Quinn Grover teaches courses in writing and literature at Brigham Young University–Idaho. His research interests include the literature, lands, and cultures of the American West. Quinn's work has been published in national fly-fishing magazines such as the Flyfish Journal, the Drake, and American Angler as well as literary outlets such as Newfound, Cirque, and Juxtaprose."

Excerpt (from the Prologue):

"I caught my first fish using a fly rod on a Boy Scout outing. I was thirteen years old. We were camped along a small creek in central Utah, and I had insisted on taking my fly rod, even though I had yet to actually catch anything using it. The stream--just three or four feet wide in many places and bordered by bunches of willows--snaked through a meadow carpeted with the green grass of a wet summer.

"I spotted the fish rising in a flat, unprotected section of river between willow bunches and I felt suddenly--alarmingly--visible. I decided to kneel before making the cast because the landscape was so wide open. I felt exposed--as a fisherman, as a beginner, as an outsider in a wild place. I'd like to believe that I sensed something divine in the presence of the rising of a trout, some sort of holiness, something that demanded reverence. But really, I was just scared I was going to screw up my one chance." (Grover xiii)

Early Praise: 

Wilderness of Hope joins a long tradition of books—including The River Why and A River Runs through It—which remind us all that, of the many possible paths toward understanding the universe, few are as reliable as fly fishing. Quinn Grover makes a strong case for passion as the key ingredient of a meaningful life, but also for knowing how the planet might make best use of us.”—Brooke Williams, author of Open Midnight: Where Ancestors and Wilderness Meet

“Quinn Grover’s Wilderness of Hope provides a life compass for those of us who pursue wild and native trout on our public lands and waters. He preserves our capacity for wonder by weaving together the fabric of family and fishing friends, wilderness, and the importance of preserving and protecting our public lands and resources for future generations.”—Craig Mathews, author of The Yellowstone Fly-Fishing Guide

“On his first trip out, Quinn Grover lands a whopper! There’s a casting and reeling rhythm to his writing, long luxurious passages on nature’s elusive tributaries, then—zing!—thrilling bites of witty insight spilling into pools of reflection. He seems to have spawned a new genre, the Ichthysroman. In Grover’s own words, he’s a ‘middle-class man’ in love with places ‘worth knowing.’ I say he’s the high-class author of a book worth keeping. I’m hooked!”—Matthew James Babcock, author of Heterodoxologies

“With meditations born from experience, Grover conveys the mystery and pull of the trout rivers that run through the American West. These essays make one want to pick up a fly rod, wade into the nearest swift water, and revel Thoreau- or Dillard-like in the wild atmospheres found there.”—Braden Hepner, author of Pale Harvest

August 26, 2019

Book Review and Infographic: Grit by Angela Duckworth

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

by Angela Duckworth

Genres: Nonfiction, Self Help
Publisher: Collins
Length: 352 pages
Published: May 3, 2016
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 3.5 or 4 out of 5 stars (infographic down below!)

Official Book Summary:

"In this must-read book for anyone striving to succeed, pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth shows parents, educators, students, and business people both seasoned and new that the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a focused persistence called grit.

Why do some people succeed and others fail? Sharing new insights from her landmark research on grit, Angela Duckworth explains why talent is hardly a guarantor of success. Rather, other factors can be even more crucial such as identifying our passions and following through on our commitments.

Drawing on her own powerful story as the daughter of a scientist who frequently bemoaned her lack of smarts, Duckworth describes her winding path through teaching, business consulting, and neuroscience, which led to the hypothesis that what really drives success is not genius, but a special blend of passion and long-term perseverance. As a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Duckworth created her own character lab and set out to test her theory.

Here, she takes readers into the field to visit teachers working in some of the toughest schools, cadets struggling through their first days at West Point, and young finalists in the National Spelling Bee. She also mines fascinating insights from history and shows what can be gleaned from modern experiments in peak performance. Finally, she shares what she's learned from interviewing dozens of high achievers; from JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon to the cartoon editor of The New Yorker to Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll.

Winningly personal, insightful, and even life-changing, Grit is a book about what goes through your head when you fall down, and how that not talent or luck makes all the difference."


"Enthusiasm is common. Endurance is rare."

Excerpt (from Chapter One):

"Why were the highly accomplished so dogged in their pursuits? For most, there was no realistic expectation of ever catching up to their ambitions. In their own eyes, they were never good enough. They were the opposite of complacent. And yet, in a very real sense, they were satisfied being unsatisfied. Each was chasing something of unparalleled interest and importance, and it was the chase--as much as the capture--that was gratifying. Even if some of the things they had to do were boring, or frustrating, or even painful, they wouldn't dream of giving up. Their passion was enduring.

"In sum, no matter the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in two ways. First, these exemplars were unusually resilient and hardworking. Second, they knew in a very, very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination, they had direction.

"It was this combination of passion and perseverance that made high achievers special. In a word, they had grit."

My Book Review (Plus My Infographic!):

The premise for Angela Duckworth's Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is a great idea. Duckworth proposes many valid points about our individual ability to develop and increase grit to help further personal character. However, I'm not fully satisfied with many of her examples. Duckworth places extreme value and repeated emphasis on fame, celebrity, and money. She also dances around fully addressing issues like mental health, life-work balance, socio-economic disadvantages, gender, race, and prejudice.

I've translated some of my thoughts about Duckworth's key ideas and my responses into this infographic below:


August 7, 2019

Book Spotlight - Four Tales of Troubled Love by Matthew James Babcock

Four Tales of Troubled Love

by Matthew James Babcock

Genres: Fiction, Novellas, Contemporary Fiction
Publisher: Harvard Square Editions
Length: 342 pages
Published: January 25, 2019
Purchase Link: Amazon

Official Book Summary:

"Enter this tetrad of tangled love tales at the turn of the last millennium when what were then the latest technologies--personal computers, fax machines, and mobile phones--started to short-circuit pacemakers. This tour de four of realistic love stories operates operatically, like a piece of music in four movements, sometimes zany and tragic, at times surreal and sublime.

'Help Phone Thirteen' (scherzando con misterioso): A young father moves his family across the country to escape his oppressive in-laws and, when his job and marriage implode, gets guidance from a mystical voice on a "help phone" at the local mall and a professional clown masquerading as social savior.

'Meer, Tarn, Water, Fell'
(marcia moderato con fuoco): A poetry-loathing Dutch tour bus driver on a stopover in The Lake District plots revenge on his German ex-wife, unaware that the daughter he never knew he had has followed him half way around the world for the love she was denied.

(appassionato): An ex-military pilot turned tech CEO finds his unconventional marriage and newfound faith at odds when he discovers the joys and dangers that come with waiting for answers from heaven and the heart.

'The Seal'
(eroico non troppo): A young family, caught between the baby blues and the deep blue sea, battles professional and personal pressures, but thanks to a homeless benefactor and captive harbor seal, learns that loving the environment and loving each other are a matter of instinct.

T. S. Eliot had his Four Quartets of poetry, now comes a foursome of fiction. For beach readers, literature connoisseurs, and book club junkies alike, these tales will quadruple the pleasure in reflecting on how we live and love. Wherever you take them, they will find you once again, in love with trouble and troubled by love."

Author Bio:

A veteran presenter, professor, and reader, Matthew James Babcock has traveled, studied, and written in Utah, New York, Pennsylvania, Great Britain, Germany, and has come home to roost in the great basins of the Rocky Mountain Northwest. He lurks online under the code name ‘Wordman.’ He is also the author of Private Fire: Robert Francis's Ecopoetry and Prose, Strange Terrain, Points of Reference, and Heterodoxologies. You can visit his website here.

Interview and Excerpt:

Available here.


"Matthew James Babcock is charming with a poetic bent.... Throughout all the stories there is a push and pull for what love really means. For all those beach readers or book clubs looking for their next read -- this is it." ⎯J Bowen West, The Times News

"With sentences like, 'His sick heart swings like a clapperless bell,' Matthew James Babcock's Four Tales of Troubled Love is a banquet of rich, abundant and wildly inventive language. In these novellas, only oddly matched lovers survive, and the fantastic and hilarious are indistinguishable from the painful and dismal. A unique and exceptional book." ⎯John Vernon, Author of Lucky Billy