Book Review: Jo & Laurie

Jo & Laurie
by Margaret Stohl & Melissa de la Cruz

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Romantic retelling, YA historical fiction

If you’ve ever read Little Women and wondered what could have been between Jo and Laurie, if the author had allowed it, this book might be for you (or even if you haven’t). It’s a bit meta and can be difficult to fully understand, but the authors are not so much rewriting the second half of Little Women as they are imagining that the book that we know was itself written by another fictional Jo March (and it was, within the context of the book), and that the second half (originally published as a sequel novel titled Good Wives) was more of a departure from her real life than the first half was.

I’d say the primary audience for this book is those who really wish Jo and Laurie had ended up together. However, I think there’s still a place for the rest of us to read it, out of curiosity if nothing else. Or for die-hard fans of Little Women who want to revisit that world in a way. (Though those seem to be the strongest opponents to this retelling.) As for myself, I only really read this book to see if it’s something I’m okay with my 10-year-old daughter reading. We read the Great Illustrated Classic version of Little Women together just over a year ago, and the little romantic that she is, she was quite unhappy that Jo and Laurie both married other people. I’ve since read the original book, and personally have no problems with the way the whole thing worked out.

My rating on this book, however, is wholly unrelated to the re-imagining of fictional-author Jo’s life and love, but based on the book itself. I think the authors did a pretty good job with the historical fiction feel to the book, and even with making it feel similar to the source material (though understand I’ve only read it once, so I’m not exactly an expert). However, to me, it seemed repetitive and a bit slow through most of it. Jo rehashed her confusion about how she felt about Laurie so many times. And for being a feminist and bucking against the way women are treated in her time, Jo doesn’t have the slightest problem seeing a woman she doesn’t care for only as a pair of bosoms. That really bugged me.

In the end, I did like the culmination of the romance, which itself was fairly unromantic most of the time (though even that is true to who Jo is). I think that Laurie himself reflects the reaction a lot of readers would have, especially those that I mentioned above, who read Little Women and really wished Jo and Laurie had married each other. The book is listed as young adult, though I do think it’s good for readers of all ages.

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If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!

Book Review: The Orchard House

The Orchard House
by Heidi Chiavaroli

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Christian drama

After a difficult childhood, Taylor is adopted by her best friend’s parents. But sisterhood is not all it’s cracked up to be, and Taylor ends up leaving home at 21 with the determination to never see her family again. However, when informed 18 years later that her adopted mother is going through treatment for cancer, she returns home. But what starts as a brief visit turns into something more as old wounds are re-opened and this make-shift family struggles to make sense of present struggles. That’s when Taylor and her sister stumble across a story that captivates them and helps distract from real life. In the 1860s, the death of a soldier sparked a friendship between the soldier’s sister, Johanna, and Little Women author Louisa May Alcott. This friendship, and the life and marriage of Johanna, were hidden away for 150 years, to be discovered by Taylor and Victoria just when the story could most affect their lives.

I spent the first half of this book uncertain about a lot of it. Two different storylines had to be established–both the past and the present–and the present one covered several years in a few chapters. Even when the story slowed down and started unfolding in the present day, I struggled to get into it. Taylor’s adolescence had turned her into a confused, broken woman, and she essentially second-guessed her decisions, thoughts, emotions, and reactions every step of the way. And I questioned often what the past storyline had to do with the present one. It was a slow build, to be sure. It did pick up in the second half, but for a while, all I could think about was how terrible each of the characters seemed to be, in one way or the other.

The main thing that I really liked about the story was the way the Christian message was presented. While some reviewers found it “too religious,” I spent at least half the book wondering how on earth this had been labeled as Christian. But the slow build I mentioned earlier can also be applied to the way the main characters learned to first believe in and then trust in Someone bigger than themselves. Though in the end, I felt the “conversions” and overall Christian message were a little light, I still liked the way they shaped up.

There were some things in the book that confused me, and I re-read some passages more than once trying to understand. As an example, Louisa was said to have 2 sisters, but over the course of time 3 were mentioned–Anna, Nan, and Amy. However, Anna and Nan were the same person, and while the author did seem to realize we needed that explanation (I certainly did), it didn’t come until after the sister was referred to by both names at least once. There are other things that confused me too, but fortunately there was less of this in the second half too.

I think that people who love Louisa May Alcott’s books, or at least have read one or more of them, might enjoy this book. Though Louisa herself is only a small part of the story, her books and lasting effect on future fans are prevalent themes. I’ll admit to having a different view of a particular aspect of Little Women than the author (or at least than the main character), but as fiction, it’s certainly open to interpretation. If you’re looking for a light Christian read, this is not it. It’s full of drama and covers some dark topics such as abandonment, abuse (both physical and emotional), and betrayal. If you like time-split novels and stories about finding “home” or families trying to piece themselves back together, you might enjoy this book.

Thank you to Netgalley and Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. for providing me a copy of this book to review.

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January in Review

I read 12 books last month, which is on the high side for me. Though I do think my monthly numbers should be a little higher overall from here on, since I’ve started listening to a few audiobooks a month. I’m glad I managed to figure out how to make use of idle time and which types of books work best for me in audio format!

Here are the books I read in January:

Maus by Art Spiegelman (5 / 5)
The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien (4 / 5)
A Noble Masquerade by Kristi Ann Hunter (3 / 5)
The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas & Jennifer Graham (4.5 / 5)
The Haunting at Bonaventure Circus by Jaime Jo Wright (2 / 5)
Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders by Tessa Arlen (5 / 5)
Anne of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery (4 / 5)
The Warden and the Wolf King by Andrew Peterson (5 / 5)
There I Go Again by William Daniels (5 / 5)
Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics by Chris Grabenstein (4 / 5)
When Twilight Breaks by Sarah Sundin (4 / 5)
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (5 / 5)

This list includes 2 ARCs and 2 re-reads. My favorite book from January was There I Go Again. I finished 2 series, continued 2 series, and started 3 (short) series. My ever-changing short list of to-be-reads, as well as a flag for the book I’m currently reading and an ongoing list of those I’ve read and posted about can be found here.

*One of the re-reads involved listening to the author read a few chapters of his book every night live on Facebook/YouTube to beat the quarantine blues. I count it the same as listening to an audiobook.

I’m also keeping my Goodreads page updated with a more extensive list of to-be-reads. Despite my almost too-long TBR list, I’m always looking for more to add. Feel free to offer suggestions of your favorites or just recent reads you enjoyed.

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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If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!

December in Review

I read 9 books last month (10 if you count the super, super short one). To be fair, several of them were pretty short books; apparently it’s a bit of a trend amongst Christmas books. Still, I’m happy to have picked up the pace since such a slow November (thanks mostly to NaNoWriMo), even with the holidays eating up my reading time.

I’m also going to do a look back at the past year of reading, which is more like the past 6 months, since I started reading and writing reviews in July.

Here are the books I read in December:
The End of the Magi by Patrick W. Carr (4 / 5)
Catching Christmas by Terri Blackstock (2 / 5)
Skipping Christmas by John Grishom (3.5 / 5)
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, adapted by Lucia Monfried (4.5 / 5)
The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans (3.5 / 5)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (3.5 / 5)
A Plain and Simple Christmas by Amy Clipston (2 / 5)
12 Days at Bleakly Manor by Michelle Griep (4 / 5)
Cape Light by Thomas Kinkade & Katherine Spencer (review pending) (3 / 5)

This list includes 1 ARC and 0 re-reads. My favorite book from December was The End of the Magi (not counting Little Women, which I read with my daughter, so the rating was partially influenced by her). I finished 0 series, continued 1 series, and started 3 series. My ever-changing short list of to-be-reads, as well as a flag for the book I’m currently reading and an ongoing list of those I’ve read and posted about can be found here.

I’m also keeping my Goodreads page updated with a more extensive list of to-be-reads, if anyone is interested in that. Despite my almost too-long TBR list, I’m always looking for more to add. Feel free to offer suggestions of your favorites or just recent reads you enjoyed.

Book Review: Little Women (adapted for younger readers)

Little Women
by Louisa May Alcott, adapted by Lucia Monfried

My/my daughter’s rating: 4.5 / 5
Genre: Classic children’s, coming of age

Little Women adaptation.png

The classic tale of the March sisters as they become women around and after the time of the American Civil War is adapted for children around age 8-10 in this book, complete with an illustration for every 2 pages. I read the book aloud with my daughter, who is 9, and am writing this review based more on her opinion of the book than my own.

I knew the story fairly well already, having seen the 1994 movie adaptation, though I’ve never read the original book (yet). My daughter was new to the story though, and overall, she really enjoyed it. The rating reflects how much she liked it, and the missing half a star was because she was super disappointed with a particular pairing that did not happen in the book (I know this book is old, but I can’t seem to bring myself to spoil it anyway, just in case).

Though I worried that much of what I was reading to her was going to go above her head, even with the adaptation, she was able to understand most of it as we went. Or if she didn’t understand something, she didn’t really realize that she didn’t. Now and then I’d stop and explain something that I thought she might not get (usually because of vernacular that is not in use these days) or that she questioned as we went.

I would recommend this book for children around 8-12, with the extra note that with younger kids, it might be helpful (and enjoyable) to read it with a parent or older sibling/friend.

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If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!