Happiness for Beginners

Looking for an escape? Katherine Center is usually a good choice. What You Wish For, Things You Save in a Fire, and How to Walk Away all received four and a half stars from me. Pretty solid. While Happiness for Beginners was another good escape, I didn’t like it as much as the prior novels I enjoyed. “Helen Carpenter can’t quite seem to bounce back. Newly divorced at thirty-two, her life has fallen apart beyond her ability to put it together again. So when her annoying younger brother, Duncan, convinces her to sign up for a hardcore wilderness survival course in the backwoods of Wyoming—she hopes it’ll be exactly what she needs. Instead, it’s a disaster. It’s nothing like she wants, or expects, or anticipates. She doesn’t anticipate the surprise summer blizzard, for example—or the blisters, or the rutting elk, or the mean pack of sorority girls. And she especially doesn’t anticipate that her annoying brother’s even-more-annoying best friend, Jake, will show up for the exact same course—and distract her, derail her, and . . . kiss her. But it turns out sometimes disaster can teach you exactly the things you need to learn. Like how to keep going, even when you think you can’t. How being scared can make you brave. And how sometimes getting really, really lost is your only hope of getting found.” (Amazon) So, if you have a chance, this is an OK one, but the other three (reviews are linked above) are better options.

The Four Winds

I generally like Kristin Hannah and The Nightingale is one of my favorites (if you haven’t read it, read it immediately). The Four Winds is a story about the Dust Bowl. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. Amazon describes: “Texas, 1921. A time of abundance. The Great War is over, the bounty of the land is plentiful, and America is on the brink of a new and optimistic era. But for Elsa Wolcott, deemed too old to marry in a time when marriage is a woman’s only option, the future seems bleak. Until the night she meets Rafe Martinelli and decides to change the direction of her life. With her reputation in ruin, there is only one respectable choice: marriage to a man she barely knows. By 1934, the world has changed; millions are out of work and drought has devastated the Great Plains. Farmers are fighting to keep their land and their livelihoods as crops fail and water dries up and the earth cracks open. Dust storms roll relentlessly across the plains. Everything on the Martinelli farm is dying, including Elsa’s tenuous marriage; each day is a desperate battle against nature and a fight to keep her children alive. In this uncertain and perilous time, Elsa—like so many of her neighbors—must make an agonizing choice: fight for the land she loves or leave it behind and go west, to California, in search of a better life for her family.” (Amazon). If you are a fan of Kristin Hannah (and was I the last to know that “Firefly Lane” on Netflix was based on a series of hers?), I would read this one, but, to me, it wasn’t her best.

Black Widows

Save yourself some time and don’t read Black Widows by Cate Quinn. It had a great start and seemed like there was potential, but it was all downhill for the second two thirds. “Polygamist Blake Nelson built a homestead on a hidden stretch of land—a raw paradise in the wilds of Utah—where he lived with his three wives: Rachel, the first wife, obedient and doting to a fault, with a past she’d prefer to keep quiet. Tina, the rebel wife, everything Rachel isn’t, straight from rehab and the Vegas strip. And Emily, the young wife, naïve and scared, estranged from her Catholic family. The only thing that they had in common was Blake. Until all three are accused of his murder. When Blake is found dead under the desert sun, all three wives become suspect—not only to the police, but to each other. As the investigation draws them closer, each wife must decide who can be trusted. With stories surfacing of a notorious cult tucked away in the hills, whispers flying about a fourth wife, and evidence that can’t quite explain what had been keeping Blake busy, the three widows face a reckoning that might shatter all they know to be true.” (Amazon) Sadly, not worth the hype.

This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing

I am not sure how This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing by Jacqueline Winspear got on my reading list, but I am glad it did. I have never read a book by Winspear, but this memoir was wonderful. “After 16 novels, Jacqueline Winspear has taken the bold step of turning to memoir, revealing the hardships and joys of her family history. Both shockingly frank and deftly restrained, her story tackles the difficult, poignant, and fascinating family accounts of her paternal grandfather’s shell shock; her mother’s evacuation from London during the Blitz; her soft-spoken animal-loving father’s torturous assignment to an explosives team during WWII; her parents’ years living with Romany gypsies; and Winspear’s own childhood picking hops and fruit on farms in rural Kent, capturing her ties to the land and her dream of being a writer at its very inception. An eye-opening and heartfelt portrayal of a postwar England we rarely see, This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing chronicles a childhood in the English countryside, of working class indomitability and family secrets, of artistic inspiration and the price of memory.” (Audible) A great memoir.

Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

I have a thing for chef memoirs. Blood, Bones, & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton was a good one. “Before Gabrielle Hamilton opened her acclaimed New York restaurant Prune, she spent twenty hard-living years trying to find purpose and meaning in her life. Blood, Bones & Butter follows an unconventional journey through the many kitchens Hamilton has inhabited through the years: the rural kitchen of her childhood, where her adored mother stood over the six-burner with an oily wooden spoon in hand; the kitchens of France, Greece, and Turkey, where she was often fed by complete strangers and learned the essence of hospitality; Hamilton’s own kitchen at Prune, with its many unexpected challenges; and the kitchen of her Italian mother-in-law, who serves as the link between Hamilton’s idyllic past and her own future family—the result of a prickly marriage that nonetheless yields lasting dividends. By turns epic and intimate, Gabrielle Hamilton’s story is told with uncommon honesty, grit, humor, and passion.” (Amazon) I really enjoyed this read, though as with all chef memoirs, it made me hungry!

The Women in Black

The Women in Black by Madeleine St. John was recommended to me and then appeared in my Little Free Library. It’s a sweet story about four women who work in an Australian Department Store in the 1950s. Amazon: “The women in black, so named for the black frocks they wear while working at Goode’s department store, are busy selling ladies’ dresses during the holiday rush. But they somehow find time to pursue other goals…Patty, in her mid-thirties, has been working at Goode’s for years. Her husband, Frank, eats a steak for dinner every night, watches a few minutes of TV, and then turns in. Patty yearns for a baby, but Frank is always too tired for that kind of thing. Sweet, unlucky Fay wants to settle down with a nice man, but somehow nice men don’t see her as marriage material. Glamorous Magda runs the high-end gowns department. A Slovenian émigré, Magda is cultured and continental and hopes to open her own boutique one day. Lisa, a clever and shy teenager, takes a job at Goode’s during her school break. Lisa wants to go to university and dreams of becoming a poet, but her father objects to both notions. By the time the last marked-down dress is sold, all of their lives will be forever changed.” It’s a sweet story and a good read. I recommend!

White Ivy

I didn’t much like White Ivy by Susie Yang. I couldn’t sympathize with Ivy’s choices and it just left me frustrated and sad. Amazon says, “Raised outside of Boston, Ivy’s immigrant grandmother relies on Ivy’s mild appearance for cover as she teaches her granddaughter how to pilfer items from yard sales and second-hand shops. Thieving allows Ivy to accumulate the trappings of a suburban teen—and, most importantly, to attract the attention of Gideon Speyer, the golden boy of a wealthy political family. But when Ivy’s mother discovers her trespasses, punishment is swift and Ivy is sent to China, and her dream instantly evaporates. Years later, Ivy has grown into a poised yet restless young woman, haunted by her conflicting feelings about her upbringing and her family. Back in Boston, when Ivy bumps into Sylvia Speyer, Gideon’s sister, a reconnection with Gideon seems not only inevitable—it feels like fate. Slowly, Ivy sinks her claws into Gideon and the entire Speyer clan by attending fancy dinners, and weekend getaways to the cape. But just as Ivy is about to have everything she’s ever wanted, a ghost from her past resurfaces, threatening the nearly perfect life she’s worked so hard to build.” The ending was too easy and overall, I just was left feeling cold and unsettled by this one. I’d give it a skip, if I were you.

Love Lettering

Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn was just as you would think it would be – saccharine sweet, but a nice respite from the world right now. And, it was free for Kindle. So, all in all, not a bad quick binge read. “Meg Mackworth’s hand-lettering skill has made her famous as the Planner of Park Slope, designing custom journals for her New York City clientele. She has another skill too: reading signs that other people miss. Knowing the upcoming marriage of Reid Sutherland and his polished fiancée was doomed to fail is one thing, but weaving a secret word of warning into their wedding program is another. Meg may have thought no one would spot it, but she hadn’t counted on sharp-eyed, pattern-obsessed Reid. A year later, Reid has tracked Meg down to find out how she knew that his meticulously planned future was about to implode. But with a looming deadline and a bad case of creative block, Meg doesn’t have time for Reid’s questions—unless he can help her find her missing inspiration. As they gradually open up to each other, both try to ignore a deepening connection between them. But the signs are there—irresistible, indisputable, urging Meg to heed the messages Reid is sending her, before it’s too late…” No amazing book of the year here, but a good diversion.

She Come by it Natural

She Come by it Natural by Sarah Smarsh was a good, quick read. Amazon says: “Growing up amid Kansas wheat fields and airplane factories, Sarah Smarsh witnessed firsthand the particular vulnerabilities—and strengths—of women in working poverty. Meanwhile, country songs by female artists played in the background, telling powerful stories about life, men, hard times, and surviving. In her family, she writes, ‘country music was foremost a language among women. It’s how we talked to each other in a place where feelings aren’t discussed.’ And no one provided that language better than Dolly Parton. Smarsh challenged a typically male vision of the rural working class with her first book, Heartland, starring the bold, hard-luck women who raised her. Now, in She Come By It Natural, originally published in a four-part series for The Journal of Roots MusicNo Depression, Smarsh explores the overlooked contributions to social progress by such women—including those averse to the term ‘feminism’—as exemplified by Dolly Parton’s life and art. Far beyond the recently resurrected ‘Jolene’ or quintessential ‘9 to 5,’ Parton’s songs for decades have validated women who go unheard: the poor woman, the pregnant teenager, the struggling mother disparaged as ‘trailer trash.’ Parton’s broader career—from singing on the front porch of her family’s cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains to achieving stardom in Nashville and Hollywood, from ‘girl singer’ managed by powerful men to leader of a self-made business and philanthropy empire—offers a springboard to examining the intersections of gender, class, and culture. Infused with Smarsh’s trademark insight, intelligence, and humanity, She Come By It Natural is a sympathetic tribute to the icon Dolly Parton and—call it whatever you like—the organic feminism she embodies.” It’s a good read, nothing amazing, but enjoyable.

The Midnight Library

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig was described by the Washington Post as “A feel-good book guaranteed to lift your spirits.” Sounds like just what everyone needs right now. “Somewhere out beyond the edge of the universe there is a library that contains an infinite number of books, each one the story of another reality. One tells the story of your life as it is, along with another book for the other life you could have lived if you had made a different choice at any point in your life. While we all wonder how our lives might have been, what if you had the chance to go to the library and see for yourself? Would any of these other lives truly be better? In The Midnight Library, Matt Haig’s enchanting new novel, Nora Seed finds herself faced with this decision. Faced with the possibility of changing her life for a new one, following a different career, undoing old breakups, realizing her dreams of becoming a glaciologist; she must search within herself as she travels through the Midnight Library to decide what is truly fulfilling in life, and what makes it worth living in the first place.” (Amazon) This was thoroughly enjoyable, though a little fluffy.