Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for February, 2012…
Birds of a Feather, by Jacqueline Winspear (Maisie Dobbs #2) – I always love reading the second book in a mystery series, because I think it is really the first chance the reader has to tell whether the series will be good or not. The first book is always lots of backstory, introducing characters and settings and future multi-book plotlines. After all that, it’s very hard to make the mystery exciting and compelling, too. So while I liked Maisie Dobbs very much, I was anxious to see how Birds of a Feather would shake out. I’m pleased to report that it was great! Maisie and her assistant Billy are able to sink their teeth right into the main mystery, from the very first chapter. And it’s a doozie – they are hired to track down a missing heiress, but soon find themselves in the midst of a string of murders… and wondering whether the young woman they are searching for is the next victim or the killer. There are a couple of interesting side plots about Maisie’s relationship with her father, and some tough stuff Billy goes through with his old war injuries.
Betsy-Tacy, by Maud Hart Lovelace (Betsy-Tacy #1) – I don’t know how I have been missing these books all my life! I thought I was hip to most of the good vintage children’s classic literature, but I had never heard of Betsy-Tacy before reading Katie’s blog and hearing her rave about the series. These stories about five-year-old Betsy Ray and her friend Tacy Kelly, and the adventures they have thanks to Betsy’s imagination, are simply adorable. I loved my first visit with Betsy and Tacy in Deep Valley, Minnesota!
The Social Animal, by David Brooks – I have been a fan of David Brooks’ writing since I was assigned to read Bobos in Paradise back in college. We might be of opposite political persuasions, but I love reading his meticulously researched and wittily written columns and books. The Social Animal, which examines human socialization and achievement in the early 21st century, was fascinating and funny. Win!
The Kitchen Counter Cooking School, by Kathleen Flinn – This one took me just a few hours to read. Kathleen Flinn, a recent culinary school graduate, was adrift and looking for her next project one day when she found herself stalking a woman in the supermarket. Flinn was fascinated by the woman’s buying choices – everything in a box! She was buying “meals” – pot roast, mac ‘n cheese, fettucini Alfredo – but all in boxes. Flinn finally approached the woman and gave her a crash course in home cooking. That chance encounter sparked Flinn’s “chefternal” instinct and she put together a course to teach nine women, all of whom were “from the box” cooks, to cook creatively and joyfully. Flinn taught her students that cooking from scratch was healthier and cheaper, and that it could be just as easy as buying shelf-stable goods. Over the course of the summer, Flinn’s students gained friendships and lost their fear of the kitchen. Great quick and inspiring read! I’m not afraid of the kitchen and I love buying ingredients for a fresh and healthy meal, so I wouldn’t have been in Flinn’s target group… but she definitely inspired me to get into the kitchen and play with food as much as possible, and to be more mindful of using my leftovers and finishing up all those greens I buy each week!
The Palace of Illusions, by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni – I decided to read this book solely because of the gorgeous cover. I’m attracted to all things gold and sparkly, and apparently books are no exception. The Palace of Illusions is a re-imagining of the Indian epic “The Mahabharata,” told from the perspective of Draupadi, or Panchaali as she is called in this book, one of the female characters. I’m not at all familiar with the original epic – had never even heard of it before; it’s just not part of the vernacular I grew up with. So I don’t know how faithful Divakaruni was to the original epic, although some Goodreads reviewers who knew the original story said that she was quite faithful, only taking liberties with a couple of plot points (but in my mind, those plot points – Panchaali’s relationship with Krishna and her secret attraction to Karna – were kind of important). Regardless, it was a great story, easy to follow even if you didn’t know the original epic, and very well-written. I enjoyed it!
Betsy-Tacy and Tib, by Maud Hart Lovelace (Betsy-Tacy #2) – The second book about friends Betsy, Tacy and Tib takes place in 1900. The girls are eight years old and their world is starting to expand. Although they have their moments of getting into trouble – usually over the protests of the sensible Tib – they are best friends making the most of every day.
Betsy and Tacy Go Over the Big Hill, by Maud Hart Lovelace (Betsy-Tacy #3) – In the third Betsy-Tacy book, the girls fall in love with the King of Spain and decide to write him a letter. (Well, Betsy and Tacy are in love, and Tib just likes to do what they do so she goes along with it.) They decide to “have a Queen” for the summer, but get into a big fight with Betsy’s sister Julia and Tacy’s sister Katie, who also want to have a Queen. Betsy, Tacy and Tib end up wandering over the Big Hill behind their houses and down to Little Syria to solicit votes for Tib as Queen, where they learn about another culture and make some wonderful friends.
At Home in Mitford, by Jan Karon (Mitford #1) – Things were getting a little intense for awhile this month and I really needed some escapist reading (more escapist than usual, that is). I decided to check out the first book in a series about Father Tim, Episcopal priest in a small southern town, as a way to soothe my exhausted and overactive brain. It definitely worked. Father Tim spends his time visiting little old ladies, courting his next-door neighbor (who is an author and illustrator of children’s books starring her cat, natch), and ministering to the town homeless guy, who has a cottage and quotes Thoreau. Oh, and he helps solve a jewel heist and saves the criminal’s soul. Bad stuff does happen in Mitford – people get sick and kids are abandoned – but it’s mostly just a sleepy, idyllic place. Not the most intellectually stimulating book I’ve ever read, but Mitford worked for what I wanted it to do. I’ll be continuing to read the series, but I’m saving the next book for the next time I get overwhelmed.
Paris to the Past: Traveling Through French History by Train, by Ina Caro – This nonfiction book has been on my TBR for some time now. I love what the back cover says – it’s a book about love. While ostensibly a book about history, art and architecture, love shines through on every page. It’s obvious that Ina Caro truly loves France – its history, people and food – and Paris, and the husband who travels “through time” alongside her. Ina and Bob have been visiting France for decades, traveling “chronologically” through its history, visiting cathedrals and castles from the oldest to those inhabited by Napoleon. In this book, Ina shares her favorite historical journeys – chronologically, of course – within an hour or two’s journey from Paris by train. Her interest in history tends toward the gossipy, so she glosses over bloodshed and battles and devotes far more energy to divulging juicy details of courtesans’ plotting and queens’ love affairs. Works for me! I was afraid that Paris to the Past might be a bit dry, but it never was – it was just a fascinating, fun, informative and chatty journey through French history (with your new smart best friend who also happens to have an iron stomach, an enviable metabolism and a great memory). Can’t recommend this one highly enough!
The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff – I was fascinated by the news reports of raids on a modern-day polygamist sect a few years ago, so this book caught my attention immediately while I was browsing in an airport bookshop, and I put it on hold at my library as soon as possible. It’s actually a story of two 19th wives – one Ann Eliza Young, the infamous 19th wife of Brigham Young, second Prophet of the Mormon Church (who apparently is a real historical figure; I’m not Mormon and had never heard of her, but I’ll probably look into her story to see how much in this book was true and how much was fictionalized); and one BeckyLyn Scott, wife #19 of a deceased modern-day polygamist, who awaits trial for his murder. The story alternates between Ann Eliza’s tale of how she became a plural wife and how she escaped the lifestyle, and the tale of BeckyLyn’s estranged son, Jordan, who becomes convinced that BeckyLyn is innocent of his father’s murder and sets out on a dangerous quest to find the real killer. I picked up the book because I was interested in reading the Ann Eliza parts, but I found Jordan’s story actually more compelling. It’s not one I’d recommend to everyone, but if you like historical novels and/or murder mysteries and you don’t mind some disturbing content and strong language, check this one out.
Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, by Maud Hart Lovelace (Betsy-Tacy #4) – The fourth book in the Betsy-Tacy series was just as cute and sweet as the previous three. Betsy, Tacy and Tib are now twelve years old and are discovering new pursuits every day. Some involve boys! (Regular ones this time; not the King of Spain again.) As always, the girls have fascinating adventures – Tib rides in a horseless carriage for the first time; new friend Winona takes them all to the theatre, and Betsy gets permission to visit the new library downtown and begins to harbor dreams of becoming a writer. Loved this one even more than the first three, and I can’t wait to dig into the fifth book in the series!
I had such fun reading through this month! I started February on a tear and read steadily through mid-month, when I slowed down a bit. But I can honestly say I enjoyed each book I read this month. Finally discovering the Betsy-Tacy series, thanks to Katie, was the bookish highlight of my month for sure. How did I not know about these books before? LOVE. I’m not sure if Deep Valley will ever supplant Avonlea in my heart, but I do love it there. The rest of the month was spent delving into cultures that are unfamiliar to me, and enjoying some fascinating nonfiction. A good month indeed!