Book Review: Sarah, Plain and Tall

Sarah, Plain and Tall
by Patricia MacLachlan

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Children’s classic

Anna and Caleb have had no mother for 6 years, as theirs died the day after Caleb was born. When their father decides to place an advertisement for a wife and mother, Sarah Wheaton answers it, coming from her home in Maine to visit the Whittings in Kansas to see if they’re a good fit.

I remember watching the movies with Christopher Walken and Glen Close when I was younger and liking them. I was surprised to see how short the book is, and I wondered how much depth it could really have. When my daughter read it recently and pushed me to read it too, so we could then watch the movie together, I was really glad I did. For being so short, it’s very charming and sweet. Because it’s so short, there is little in the way of character development, but I still felt like I got a good enough feel for them.

As the kids grew more and more attached to Sarah, Anna worried that she wouldn’t stay, and Caleb kept looking for clues that she would. I loved how he’d say things like, “Sarah said ‘later.’ That means she’ll stay.” The worry about her missing the sea too much to stay, and the culmination of that along with Caleb hoping she’d bring the sea with her from Maine, made for a great ending to the book. I loved it and look forward to reading the next book.

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Book Review: Wives and Daughters

Wives and Daughters
by Elizabeth Gaskell
read by Nadia May

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Classic Victorian literature

When 17-year-old Molly Gibson’s long-widowed father remarries, she gains a step-mother and step-sister, the latter of which is near her age. However, she now has to share her father and defer to her new mother, both things that are completely foreign to her. There are some clashes beyond that, though, as step-sister Cynthia, who becomes Molly’s dear friend, is keeping secrets that will shock the entire town of Hollingford. As Molly matures into a woman, she befriends the Hamley family with their two young, eligible sons, and Lady Harriet, much to the chagrin of Molly’s new mother.

This book is long, originally written as a serial of shorter parts for publication in a magazine, and it does tend to meander a bit, without seeming like there’s much of a central plot at first. However, once things pick up a few chapters in, I found almost every bit of it interesting, even if it didn’t seem to add to a main plot. There are so many things happening, probably because the story was meant to be more of a snapshot of everyday life at the time, rather than a single, solid novel. Yet with all of that, I was never bored (well, maybe when someone’s style of dress was described or when Molly’s step-mother Hyacinth’s thoughts about someone or something was explained). I think that is mostly because the characters were so well written, I enjoyed following them through this life they were living. I really liked Molly, but also loved her father, the town doctor who was an incredibly wise and caring man. And Squire Hamley, for all his blustering and cultural prejudices, found his way into my heart.

Cynthia is probably the most complex character–I’m not sure she knew her own mind for more than a moment at a time. The exploration of what a child who was raised by a single mother who showed no love or affection would grow into was fascinating, even as she drove me crazy. But I felt for her. While she did make her own choices, and as she grows older will be held more and more accountable for them, she didn’t enter into womanhood with a very good example. Hyacinth was a selfish, uncaring individual, bordering on sociopathy, really. Her utter lack of empathy and penchant for manipulation were very well written, though, and are a large part of the reason it seems, in a way, that Cynthia never had a chance to be normal.

I know that if I had been reading the text, rather than listening the audiobook, it would have taken me a lot longer to finish this book. However, of all of the audiobooks I’ve listened to in the last several months that I’ve started opening myself up to them more, this was the first one that I felt a strong desire to come back to whenever I could, rather than simply putting it on when doing the activities that allow me the chance to listen. This is mostly because of the story itself, of course, but I also want to be clear that Nadia May did a superb job with the narration. The way she differentiated all of the larger characters was astounding, and I especially loved her voice for Mr. Gibson (Molly’s dad). There were times that I’d get so caught up in it that I’d completely forget this was one person doing all of the voices. This is my second read by Elizabeth Gaskell, and I think I liked it a little more than North and South, which really surprised me. Though I do still prefer the North and South mini-series to the one based on this novel, but I’m probably biased there for reasons I won’t get in to right now.

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Book Review: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
The Chronicles of Narnia #1 (original order)

by C.S. Lewis

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s classic fantasy

This is my first foray into The Chronicles of Narnia. I’ve seen the movies (or at least some of them), but only once when they first came out, and don’t remember much past the first one. So overall, this will all be very new for me. This is yet another book I wish I’d read when I was younger; I have a feeling I would have liked it more as a kid. Overall, I did enjoy it, but it was a lot shorter and shallower than I would have expected it to be. Be aware, there will likely be spoilers ahead.

I can appreciate the parallel to Christ in Aslan, though I went into the story expecting the entire thing to be an allegory, just from things I’ve heard. So some things really confused me, like Father Christmas showing up and giving everyone gifts. Or the kids needing to fight against the witch and her army, weakening her before Aslan could then defeat her. However, I’m understanding more that the entire book (and series) was not necessarily meant to be an allegory, even while one can certainly draw a Christ-like parallel in Aslan’s actions in this book. That does change my perspective on it after the fact.

Now to Edmund…oh, Edmund…he’s a bit of a brat, even before he betrays his siblings, but I kinda get it. He’s a middle child and struggling to find a place under his big brother. I’m in the same position in my family of 4 kids and definitely remembering struggling sometimes to feel special (though I have all sisters, we did not always get along at all). Of course it seems as though he went too far, though we’re supposed to understand he was under some sort of enchantment. His mental reasoning, though, as he prepared to betray his siblings, sounded less like enthrallment and more like sibling rivalry to me. In the end, though, I did like how the entire thing turned out.

As soon as I finished this book, I recommended it to my 10-year-old daughter. I can see similarities in it to books that she has already read and enjoyed, so I think she’ll love it. I’m looking forward to hearing her thoughts; it’s always fun when we both read and enjoy the same books and then get to talk about them, and I see that being a possibility with this series.

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Book Review: John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress
as retold by Gary D. Schmidt

My rating: 2 / 5
Genre: Christian allegory

I have long felt that I should read The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. I even started to once, but only made it a page before putting it down. So when I found this retelling, putting the story into contemporary language, I knew it was my chance to at least see what the book was all about. So understand going into my review that this is in no way a comparison of this retelling to the original. And my comments are specific to this version, because I can’t say what might be different from the original. With that being said, I do think that some of what I didn’t like about this story would extend back to the original source.

After I finished reading this, as I tried to analyze what I’d read and did some research to understand others’ views on the allegory, I flashed right back to high school. After reading The Great Gatsby, I wrote that I didn’t understand why my teacher would have us read a book that so glorified the drinking and partying in the book. She wrote back about her disappointment that I thought she’d promote those things, and that perhaps I didn’t really understand the book. That it’s the type of book one might have to read multiple times to grasp. That’s kind of how I feel about this book.

My first apparent misunderstanding is that it seemed to me that Christian had to essentially earn his salvation. He struggled with his burden on the way to the cross, after coming to an understanding that he had this burden and needed external help to release it. Others say that he was actually saved when entering through the gate that started this journey, and releasing his burden at the cross was simply an illustration about how we don’t often let go of our guilt upon salvation and have to still come to that understanding that Jesus wants to relieve us of that guilt. However, it was at the cross, after losing his burden, that Christian was handed the Roll, which seemed to be needed in order to enter the Celestial City. I took this as a symbol of his salvation, but then, when he was audacious enough to rest a little too long, he lost the Roll and later had to go back and look for it.

I won’t go into any other details, but for whatever this book might mean to some people, at least the people who “get it,” to me it looks like a book that could send the wrong message to new Christians or curious unbelievers, especially those who, like me, aren’t so great at understanding allegory. From start to finish, it makes me feel like a Christian walk is nothing but trial and tribulation. Constant struggling to stay on the right path, to stay good. Yes, some of that is true to a degree, because it can feel like a constant struggle to avoid temptation to sin, but where’s the other side? Why do we not see much of the joy and peace that can come, in this life, from following Christ? For that matter, why is God so completely absent until Christian reaches the Celestial City? If I were to write an allegory about a Christian journey, it would include God interacting with the pilgrim in a much more tangible way (or at all…).

I seem to be pretty hit-or-miss in my enjoyment of much-loved older books and classics, and this is another for my pile of misses. I’m glad I read it, though. Originally I thought it might end up being a stepping stone to going on and reading the original. I’ve decided to leave it right here, at this simplified version, and just be one of the few who’ve never read the original.

Find out more about this Pilgrim’s Progress retelling and its source material, The Pilgrim’s Progress

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Book Review: Little Women

Little Women
by Louisa May Alcott
read by Barbara Caruso

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Classic children’s/YA coming of age

This is another classic that I had never read before, but have seen a movie or other adaptation of more than once in the past. In this case, I’ve only seen the 1994 movie with Winona Ryder as Jo, though I have seen it more than once over the years. I also did read the Great Illustrated Classic adaptation with my daughter just over a year ago, but this was my first time reading the full, unabridged version, technically listening to the audiobook. Be aware, there will be spoilers in this review, so read on at your own risk.

One of the things that struck me the most about the full story is how much these sisters thrive in their environment. This is a time period where women are oppressed and kept in their place, and while at some times this makes tomboy Jo unhappy, she doesn’t have to completely rebel in order to make some inroads and even do what she wants to do. In fact, most of what gets in her way as a writer is her own ideas, plans, hopes, dreams, failings, and attempts to be a better person. In modern times, we if we want to write historical fiction where women aren’t just stuck in a box, they are often wild and outrageous (but at least they manage to meet that one man who’s okay with the woman who refuses to wear a dress or attend any formal functions). I think that’s one of the biggest things I love about Jo.

I also really like the fact that most of the way through the story, the March sisters are striving to better themselves. They are quite poor, but vow to be happy with what they have and avoid grumbling, even as they allow themselves hopes for the future in which they find wealth in one way or the other (different for each girl). And though I speak generally, Beth is usually perfectly content with what she has. Speaking of Beth, how well did I relate to that quiet, shy girl. Even too scared to go to the neighbor’s house who’d extended an open invitation so she could exercise her talent on his piano…that would definitely be me.

I loved the references made to Pilgrim’s Progress in the first half of the book, which plays a lot into what I mentioned above, about the sisters trying to be happy with what they have and be good “pilgrims.” I’ve never read Pilgrim’s Progress, though I’ve always thought I should (tried once, but I’m really not good at sticking with books that are hard to read), and now I wish I had. The reference back to the pilgrims and the game the sisters played when they were younger, shortly before Beth’s death, made the tragedy of her death all the more emotional to me.

On probably the most disputed point of this book, though I never lamented over the fact that Jo rebuffed Laurie, it did always seem strange to me that he ended up marrying little Amy. However, after reading this book, I think Louisa May Alcott did a fine job setting up the ways the various romances went. I could certainly see that Jo had no romantic feelings for Laurie and had good reason to think that they wouldn’t have a very pleasant marriage. And when Amy was still young, a connection grew between her and Laurie that paved the way for their love later. Jo’s feelings for Professor Bhaer came very naturally, and it was easy to see why she fell in love with this mature man of integrity and morals.

Before I wrap up, I want to say a few words about Barbara Caruso, the narrator of the audiobook I listened to. I haven’t listened to many audiobooks and can really only listen to certain types of books that way, since my mind tends to miss details if I’m not careful. Also, like many others I’m sure, the narrator can really make or break my enjoyment, and I’ve discovered that I’m really picky about it. Which is why I’m really glad that this is the narrator I listened to for this book, because she did a fantastic job! I really liked how she brought the characters to life and even managed to have slight differences between the sisters. Her reading of foreign words or sentences (French and German) and accents for characters like the German Bhaer are incredible. I will definitely look for her when I listen to other books that she has narrated.

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Book Review: Anne of Ingleside

Anne of Ingleside
Book #6
by L.M. Montgomery

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s/YA classic

See my review for book #1, Anne of Green Gables.

After watching Anne grow up and become a wife and mother, this book chronicles several years of motherhood, with an eventual six children. Like many of the other books in this series, there’s not exactly a single plot to the book, more a series of vignettes about the children’s antics and some of Anne’s own activities. Some of her children are a lot like her, fanciful and whimsical, and in some ways, it was like seeing Anne as a child again.

It was interesting, and I’m not entirely sure how realistic, that so many of her children’s scrapes led them to be outside on their own at night. I really felt for some of them, considering the ways they tended to let their imaginations run away with them. I can remember being a kid and not fully understanding what was going on, and that leading me to be scared, unhappy, sad, etc. when I probably didn’t need to be.

I did not care at all for Aunt Mary Maria, which I’m sure was intentional, but she when had the audacity to tell one of the kids, as they were about to leave home for 2 weeks, that if he was naughty, a man would grab him up in a big, black bag, I couldn’t believe it! And this after scoffing at one of the other kids for still believing in Santa, which is such hypocrisy. I don’t care what generation you’re from, you wouldn’t get away with scaring my kids like that.

I liked seeing some of the characters back from previous books, and overall, I didn’t mind that Anne had grown up so much. It wasn’t my favorite of the sequels (that honor goes to the previous, Anne’s House of Dreams), but I still liked it a lot. It’s the last book in the series proper, and I may someday read the final two books, but for now, I think I’ll stop here. When I re-read Anne of Green Gables in the future, I may skip past the next few and only re-read books 5 & 6. I’m just not a huge fan of the rest.

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Book Review: The Return of the King

The Return of the King
The Lord of the Rings #3
by J.R.R. Tolkien
read by Rob Inglis

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Classic fantasy

Like with my “review” of the other books in this series, this is going to be less of a real review and more just my thoughts on my experience with this book. This is my first time through the trilogy, and I’m listening to the audiobooks, because I don’t think I’d make it through if I was reading. Also to reiterate–I have watched the movies several times, though it’s now been a few years since I last did so. And keep in mind, there may be some slight spoilers ahead.

So first, let me just say that wow, was I surprised when the ring was destroyed so early in the book! Seriously, does anyone get away with pacing like that these days? I understand a lot more now why the film had so many “endings,” which never bothered me like it did some others. It’s not hard to see how such an epic tale is owed so much wrap-up. But to see that the movies actually toned down the amount of story that took place after the climax was a surprise. And while I could have done without the storyline with Eowyn and Faramir, overall, I didn’t hate all of that follow-up like I expected to. The story of the hobbits taking back the Shire was interesting and gave a culmination for a major character that, when last seen, had become weak and whiny. I’d say maybe Tolkien should have kept this story for another book or appendix, but to be honest, I may not have read it then. So I can’t really complain about the length of the book after the climax. It’s still strange, though.

And in a related note, the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen, which is a huge deal in the movies (maybe too huge) is mostly shown in an appendix, as I understand it. So without reading that, it’s pretty lacking for me. Maybe someday I will, but I’m going to let Middle Earth sit for a while right now.

One more thing–I know a lot of people see Eowyn as a great example of a strong female character. In some ways, yes, she’s strong and determined. But I think I would have admired her more if she had chosen to stay behind. She essentially states that she has sworn to rule Rohan in place of those who are going to war, but seems to simply decide she’s tired of doing so. And she assumes that she was left to do so only because she was a woman. Whether or not that last part is true, I think the important factor here is that she agreed to it, and then decided to leave her homeland anyway. To me, honesty and integrity are more important than showing that women can do as much as men can. But yes, good did come of the action she chose, and if nothing else, it shows her as a real, flawed character.

I find it interesting that the 2nd book in the series was my favorite of the 3, even while I’m pretty sure it was my least favorite of the movies (though I did still like it plenty). I don’t think I’ll ever appreciate these books or the author as much as the diehard Tolkien fans do. However, I do anticipate re-reading these books more than once in the future (probably still as audiobooks, but who knows) and picking up something new each time.

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Book Review: The Two Towers

The Two Towers
The Lord of the Rings #2
by J.R.R. Tolkien
read by Rob Inglis

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Classic fantasy

Like with my “review” of The Fellowship of the Ring, this is going to be less of a real review and more just my thoughts on my experience with this book. This is my first time through the trilogy, and I’m listening to the audiobooks, because I don’t think I’d make it through if I was reading. One note about the audiobook–Rob Inglis, the narrator, does a fantastic job! He even sings the songs, and while I suppose it would be strange if the narrator of these books with so many songs didn’t attempt to sing them, I still think it’s particularly neat.

I liked this book more than the previous, as we jump right back into the story. It felt more swiftly paced, too, even during the part where Frodo and Sam were wandering for a while. As with the previous book, my notes on this book are from a standpoint of having seen the movies several times, and I prefer the movie that goes back and forth between the two storylines, rather than showing all of one, then all of another. But I do appreciate that they were written to be two separate books, and then had to be combined into one. I also liked better, in the movie, not knowing that Sam had taken the ring from Frodo when he thought he was dead, or knowing that Sam was even following him, until the right moment.

One of the things I’m getting most out of reading the books after having a cursory understanding of the story from the movies is getting to understand the world and the characters more. For example, I like having a better understanding that Gandalf is something special (celestial, even), not just a simple wizard (whatever that would mean anyway). Also, Gollum is so wonderfully sarcastic in the book, which I just loved!

I know that I’m not going to appreciate these books the way that many others do; I don’t think I’m the right kind of person to really get into the history and depth Tolkien put into his world. But I’m still enjoying them and am glad I’m reading them.

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Book Review: Anne’s House of Dreams

Anne’s House of Dreams
Book #5
by L.M. Montgomery

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Children’s/YA classic

See my review for book #1, Anne of Green Gables.

After the first book in the series, I have liked each one just a little less than the one before it. It didn’t seem quite the same anymore and also began to feel repetitive. Fortunately, this book brought me back to the love I had for the first book.

It’s not as if there are no more characters or situations that in some way mirror those from earlier books. But there was a lot less of that, and overall, everything felt new and fresh again. I’d say the characters introduced in this book, as well as getting to see Marilla and some of the others a bit more, really made the book for me. Not to mention Gilbert and Anne starting their lives together. I loved Captain Jim and got a kick out of Miss Cornelia, especially the way she and Captain Jim bantered.

Then there’s Leslie Moore. Of all the ways her story could have gone–and I had a few different predictions, believe me–I never imagined that twist.

Overall, I loved this book about as much as I loved the first book in the series. Unfortunately, it only highlighted the slower, drier books in between. I have no idea what to expect of the rest of the books in the series, but I can’t wait to find out.

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Book Review: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Fellowship of the Ring
The Lord of the Rings #1
by J.R.R. Tolkien
read by Rob Inglis

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Classic fantasy

Like with my “review” of The Hobbit, this is going to be my less of a real review and more just my thoughts on my experience with this book. After reading The Hobbit, I knew I had to go on to read the LoTR series. However, I also knew that I would never make it through if I read the text. My sister once suggested listening to the audiobook instead, so though it’s not normally my preferred method of reading a book, I gave it a try. For something like this, it turned out to be great.

As someone who has seen these movies many times, it’s interesting to read the source material. I can also see now how other authors and books I’ve read are very influenced by this series of books. It was again, and even moreso in this book, interesting to get more depth on the story, on the world, and on some of the characters that are in the movies I’ve so enjoyed.

The main downside to me is that it just feels like the adventure takes way too long to get going. The events in the Shire before Frodo even leaves weren’t so bad, but I was astounded by how far into the book I was by the time the Hobbits got to Bree. After that, everything else felt super fast by comparison.

I know my reading of these books will be tainted in many ways by having seen the movies first, but there’s nothing I can do about that. But while I knew some things were made up or expanded in The Hobbit movie, and of course I knew that several events and characters were left out of the LoTR movies, I was surprised by some of it. Frodo selling Bag End was a sad shock. Arwen is barely mentioned in the book, and both Legolas and Gimli feel much less important than the movie makes them to be. And again, the amount of time that passes between plot points just amazed me (Frodo is 50 when he begins the journey!).

I am so glad I read The Hobbit first, too, because it adds a connection and even some emotion to know who Gimli’s father is, to know who Balin is, and to understand a bit more about who the dwarves that died in the Mines of Moria were. It’s also interesting to me that the elves know of Frodo, through Bilbo, and that Frodo even knows some of the elvish language! That’s completely lacking in the movies, but makes total sense, given the events of Bilbo’s adventure.

I’ve already started on The Two Towers, and look forward to finishing the series.

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