They Left Us Everything

They Left Us Everything, Plum Johnson’s account of her parent’s illnesses and deaths, is refreshing in its candor and will resonate with anyone who has gone through something similar. She’s candid, too, about her family.

Plum grew up in Singapore, Virginia, and finally Canada – which was a compromise for her British father and American mother. Her parents spent the ends of their lives in the family home on Lake Ontario. Her mother was from Virginia – her ancestors and cousins were attorney generals and ambassadors. While her mother was exuberant, eccentric, and a writer of letters and a copywriter in her youth, her father was British, reserved, and quite eccentric, as well. Their relationship endured but was volatile and complicated.

Plum and her three brothers all have skills, roles and competencies related to caregiving. Some are hands-on and some help at a distance with financial, legal and real estate matters. Sibling Suppers are mostly supportive and cooperative, but, as she is the oldest, divorced, single, and the daughter, Plum is most directly involved in her parents’ care and the settling of the estate.

Plum sometimes compares her life at 63 with her mother’s relative freedom at the same age.  She details the steps and the incredible energy and patience it takes to do routine tasks – like going to the mall. Just reading the description is exhausting.  “It feels as though the last twenty years have leached out my patience, my empathy, my compassion – the best parts of me- until I feel unrecognizable, a person I don’t like very much.” “Nineteen years, one month, and twenty-six days of eldercare have brought me to my knees.”

The house is as much a character in this book, as her various family members. Plum loves the house and it’s setting by the water, and it’s through the house that she comes to terms with the contradictory feelings she had toward her parents. She is overwhelmed by her parent’s house and it’s contents, but she doesn’t succumb to the temptation to discard and give away their belongings immediately and without thought. She ultimately decides that those items are a curse, but they are also a blessing. “This house I am now slicing apart is theirs – the place that we’d taken for granted would always be here as a backdrop to our lives.” Later, she says, “Now I believe this clearing out is a valuable process – best left to our children. It’s the only way they’ll ever truly come to know us…”

In the end, she acknowledges the truth of what funeral guests tell her: “When your mother dies, you’ll wish you’d asked her some questions.” When it’s too late, she realizes, “Now there are questions I didn’t even know I had.”

 

 

Little People, Big Dreams

I happened upon a charming series of books for children called Little People, Big Dreams. (Not to be confused with the TV series Little People, Big World.) These are picture book biographies of notable figures from different parts of history. I loved reading them and learning more about the protagonists along with my children. The depictions of the heroines are captivating and, although they do not all have the same author and illustrator, they share an endearing similarity in style – large, round faces and colorful attire and settings.

I first read Frida Kahlo to my kindergartener. He came up with so many follow-up questions, I soon realized I didn’t know as much about this famous artist as I would like. I mentioned this to a friend and she insisted I should see the 2002 film Frida starring Salma Hayek as the title character and Alfred Molina as Diego Rivera. I did (alone), and enjoyed the sensual interpretation of the artist’s life.

Then an idea occurred to me. Wouldn’t it be nice to read a bedtime story for the kids and after they are fast asleep, read or watch something more adult on the topic? You know how a wine will sometimes be suggested that pairs well with your food? Couldn’t we do that with the books we read, as well? With that thought in mind, here are some recommendations you might want to try.

In Maya Angelou, author Lisbeth Kaiser and illustrator Leire Salaberria present to children the difficult topics of racism, domestic and sexual abuse, and mental health sensitively. Don’t let the fact that this book covers a difficult childhood deter you from reading aloud to your little ones what is a very inspiring story. Angelou’s story is, ultimately, one of hope. Most of us are aware of Angelou’s prolific career as a writer and civil rights activist, but how many knew her as a cook, streetcar conductor, dancer, singer, and world traveler? Share this inimitable woman’s story with the children in your life. Then on your own, read her classic I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings if you haven’t already done so (or even if you have, it may be time for a re-read). Also, listen to Angelou read her poetry in the book on CD entitled Black Pearls: The Poetry of Maya Angelou. I’d recommend the kids not be within listening range of this one, as there are vulgarities in it.

 

I will be the first to admit I am not a couture kind of gal (my style would more aptly be described as thrift store eclectic). Still, I enjoyed learning about Coco Chanel in the book written by Isabel Sanchez Vegara and illustrated by Ana Albero. Tired of seeing her contemporaries unable to breathe in their tight corsets, she designed clothing that was looser and easier to wear while dancing. She also designed hats and, of course, let’s not forget about the perfume. For more on the life of the woman once known as Gabrielle Chanel, you may wish to check out the 139-minute DVD Coco Chanel, a 2008 made-for-TV movie starring Barbora Bobulova as the young Chanel and Shirley MacLaine as old Chanel. You may also enjoy the coffee table style book Chanel: Collections and Creations by Daniele Bott. With 159 illustrations, it goes into delightful detail on Coco’s unique styles. My favorite was the chapter on the Camellia flower, which is pictured on the cover. Other chapters detail ‘The Suit’, ‘Jewelry’, ‘Fragrance & Beauty’, and ‘The Black Dress.’

All the suggested children’s books are from the Little People, Big Dreams series.There are more books in this series and you can find all the ones the library owns by doing a series search for Little People Big Dreams. If you have favorite books or movies that you think go together like Chardonnay and Gruyere, please let us know.

 

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan is a fascinating glimpse into the homefront of World War II England. Set in a village in Kent, this focuses on the women who maintain their communities, families, and the war effort after their sons and husbands have joined the military services. I didn’t realize how real the fear was that the Nazis were going to arrive on English soil – people near the coast really began to feel that an invasion was imminent. I also didn’t comprehend the extent of the damage  outside of London  during the Battle of Britain. We’re so used to seeing the rubble of London, that we forget the impact on the countryside.

Several women of Chilbury describe their fears and the strength they gather from each other and from singing together; we read their first-hand accounts through letters and diary entries. At first, they seem to be stock English characters, but they begin to show their complexity as the war and tragedy change them.  Venetia Winthrop was particularly interesting, I thought. At the start of the novel and the war, she’s vain, selfish, and revels in her power over men. As she suffers pain and loss, she becomes more a more generous sister and friend. Not only are the accounts from the point of view of women, but we see them become stronger and more independent. They find their voices both musically (the power of music is movingly conveyed by Ryan), and in their ability to stand up for themselves and for other women.

Not everyone is admirable; there are men and women behaving badly, sometimes criminally, but, overall, there is a sense of hope, and satisfaction is watching a community and country support each other.

One Step Too Far by Tina Seskis

Opinion is truly divided on One Step Too Far by Tina Seskis.  People who don’t like it, really HATE it. They feel manipulated and ticked off at the author and the main character – Emily/Cat. I have to admit, I began to fall into the second camp midway into the book, but still had to finish it. Seskis subverts expectations over and over again, and I think this is part of why people get upset. It seems to be one sort of book and then it goes in a completely different direction

The author tantalizes the reader by withholding critical information. Why has Emily left her life? What exactly was the tragedy that set her flight from her family and home into motion? Some of the most interesting parts of the book are the methods Emily/Cat uses to disappear. Because her passport is in her maiden name, which is a common one (Brown) and because she alters her first name, she is able to get lost in London.

As Emily transitions to Cat, it’s gratifying to see her gradually re-build her life – she gets a job she is good at, a place to live, and a new friend. However, it doesn’t take long for Cat to spiral out of control – she alienates co-workers as her drug use and drinking escalates. The actions of her truly awful sister and the series of events that lead to her becoming a national pariah, make you wonder if these things are really happening or if they are part of Cat’s hallucinations. 

If you like intricate plots, and don’t necessarily need a cuddly heroine, you may enjoy this domestic suspense novel.

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis alternates between the present day New York City and 1952 via the lives of the women who live at the Barbizon Hotel. In 1952 it was known as the Barbizon Hotel for Women, catering to young, single women who aspired to be secretaries or models. Darby comes from Ohio to enroll in the Katharine Gibbs College, which taught young ladies business skills and etiquette. Very soon, she becomes friends with Esme, a maid, singer and aspiring actress. When Esme encourages Darby to perform with her at a jazz club downtown, Darby’s world view changes radically; she discovers passion – creatively and romantically. These chapters are tinged with nostalgia and a sense of impending tragedy. Davis does a marvelous job of immersing the reader in a very different era, with different assumptions for women – and she does it with a subtle, realistic way.

The chapters set in contemporary New York feature Rose, a journalist for an online magazine, and a current condo dweller at the Barbizon. As her own life falls apart, she becomes fascinated by the earlier inhabitants – some of which still live at the Barbizon (in rent-controlled apartments).  Rose wants to tell the forgotten story of these women, but needs the hook of a fatal accident more than 50 years ago, to get the interest of her editor.  She doesn’t want to exploit Darby, who just wants to be left alone,  but, in the end, that is what she does.

Rose herself undergoes a transformation – from a woman who had a successful career, and a rising politician for a boyfriend to someone who is in the process of losing her job, her home and her father. Ultimately, she comes through it all a wiser and more independent person.

The Dressmaker

The Dressmaker, starring Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth, tells the story of Tilly Dunnage, played by Kate Winslet. This movie is based on the novel of the same name by Rosalie Ham. Tilly is an accomplished dressmaker who spent years traveling the world learning her trade. She has returned to her small Australian hometown in 1950s Australia. Tilly escaped from this town when she was young after being accused of murdering a young boy. She has returned to learn the truth.

Upon arriving back in town, Tilly finds her eccentric mother, played by Judy Davis, living in squalor. She begins taking care of her and scheming to get revenge on those who accused her of murder. Tilly’s way of dressing shocks the town. She begins to offer her dressmaking services to women in town, seemingly as a kindness, but really as a way of revenge. She begins working with the local sergeant, a man who has secrets of his own. Tilly also falls for a local farmer, Teddy, a man who lives next door to her mother and whose family has been stopping in to care for her mother while she’s been gone.

This small backwoods Australian town is rife with secrets and scandals, more than just Tilly’s exile for the supposed murder of her young classmate. More and more of these secrets are exposed as Tilly works her magic on the local women. This movie shows that nothing is what it seems and that everyone has secrets. Tilly struggles to find out the truth, remember her past, and clear her name. I really enjoyed this movie because Tilly clearly knows how to get revenge on people. While she may appear strong, she also has a lot going on under the surface.

Turncoat by Ryan Sullivan

Turncoat is not your traditional superhero graphic novel. Duke is a superhero assassin. He’s the world’s worst superhero assassin, a fact that is lost on him because on every contract he is sent out on, those superheroes end up dead. He’s never the one that kills them though. His partner ends up doing the killing and Duke gets the credit. (And his partner usually ends up dead as well).

The company that Duke works with keeps pairing him up with weird loser partners and also only gives his contracts to kill D-list superheroes. Who wants to be known as the assassin who killed Bug-Boy or Freedom-Fighter?! Certainly not Duke! He just wants to kill a big name superhero, somebody from the Liberty Brigade. Duke is also battling against his ex-wife, Sharon. This battle isn’t a domestic one; Sharon is also a rival assassin who just happens to be way better at killing than Duke. She keeps stealing his contracts and his money! This bothers Duke. He just can’t win.

When a contract comes through to kill the entire Liberty Brigade, Duke first thinks it’s a mistake, but then realizes that this is the best thing that could have happened to him! He will finally have the opportunity to kill the big heroes, but also to beat his ex-wife at something. Killing the members of the Liberty Brigade will also give him the motivation and the prestige to move on from his ex-wife. Chaos ensues as Duke goes after the Liberty Brigade and realizes that there are other major players behind the scenes pulling the strings. This anti-hero graphic novel was a fantastic palette cleanser from all of the traditional Marvel and DC comic books I had been reading.

Floret Flower’s Cut Flower Garden by Erin Benzakein

Happy first day of Spring! This is, by far, my favorite time of year, when the earth wakes up from it’s winter slumber and all things are new and possible. And best of all, flowers are blooming in the garden again.

There is always a surge of new gardening books published in late winter and early spring – you will find many of them on the new book shelves at the library. Gardening books tend to fall into one of two categories – practical or beautiful. Now, there’s nothing wrong with beautiful – you can find a lot of inspiration and ideas from those gorgeous pictures and who doesn’t like whiling away a winter afternoon dreaming of colorful gardens? And there’s nothing wrong with practical – these are the books that get you through the growing season. (My favorite is Barbara Damrosch’s The Garden Primer) But the fact is, there’s not always a lot of overlap. Happily, this year there’s a gardening book that is both practical and beautiful – Floret Farm’s Cut Flower Garden by Erin Benzakein.

If you have ever dreamed of being a flower farmer, or if you’re passionate about growing your own flowers (that’s me!), or if you simply want to grow a few flowers for your kitchen table, this book is for you. Over 170 plants are included in this book, all of which are easy to grow, some of which you may not have considered for bouquets (like vines, branches, and grasses). There is well-written practical information for each plants as well as lovely photographs (I love the use of lighting and perspective in these photos). And there are instructions for creating beautiful bouquets, arranged by season so that you can use readily available flowers from your yard or the farmers market. Erin includes “minor” flowers that are easy to grow but that you’re unlikely to find at the florist (something that I’ve been an advocate of for years) such as grape hyacinth and nasturtiums. It doesn’t take a lot of land or expensive tools to add a lot of life and beauty to your corner of the world.

I’ve long been a fan of the floret website and blog – there is an incredible amount of helpful information on the site (and, much like the book, it’s overflowing with gorgeous photography). I also enjoy the behind-the-scenes views of the job of growing flowers for a living – romantic yes but mostly lots of hard work. Much like their book, it’s the perfect combination of beautiful and practical.

OK Spring – bring it! I can’t wait!

 

 

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

Looking for a new book in OverDrive, I offhandedly asked another librarian if she had heard of The Queen of the Tearling. She said she had heard of it, that it had won some awards or been on some lists and that it was supposed to be a good read. Taking that as a good enough endorsement for me to read it, I checked it out and started listening to it after work. Holy smokes! I LOVE THIS BOOK! It’s the first book in a series and I honestly can’t wait to read the rest of the books. I am hardly ever motivated enough to finish the next books in a series unless I am blown away by the first. Johansen blew my mind with the first book, so my hopes are up for the next two.

The Queen of the Tearling is a fantasy novel packed full of adventure, journeys, and self-discovery, while also telling the story of a young girl’s coming of age. Kelsea Raleigh Glynn is a young exiled princess, who, on her nineteenth birthday, is summoned back to the castle where she was born to take her rightful place on the throne. Her mother died when she was young, but before she died, she sent baby Kelsea into exile to be raised and hopefully kept out of harm’s way. Every Raleigh Queen is murdered by assassins and therefore her mother wanted to keep her safe. Rumors swirled around the young princess with some thinking her dead while others believed her to be alive and as frivolous and vain as her mother. Mysteries abound and young Kelsea must work tirelessly to secure the trust of her people.

Kelsea looks nothing like her mother and also acts nothing like her. She knows the throne is her rightful place, whether she wants it to be or not. Trained and schooled in exile, Kelsea was only privy to the information her two guardians would give her, leaving her with wide gaps in her knowledge of Tearling history and her own mother’s life. Once Kelsea finds her way to the castle and proves she is the rightful queen, her troubles begin. Her uncle has been acting as regent since her mother’s death. He wants the kingdom for himself, despite the fact that he is rather unpopular amongst both the commoners and the nobility. He has also made a rather complicated alliance with the sorcerous Red Queen in neighboring Mortmesne, something that doesn’t sit well with Kelsea and a wide variety of the Tearling people.

This apocalyptic universe has a lot going on. Kelsea, having grown up in isolation, finds herself smack dab in all the problems. She is identified as the true queen by the fact that she is marked and is wearing the Tearling sapphire around her neck, a necklace that she has been wearing since birth. The longer she wears this jewel, the more she realizes that it is more than just your traditional necklace. It has magical powers and Kelsea isn’t quite sure how it exactly works… In addition to being protected by her sapphire, Kelsea is accompanied by the Queen’s Guard, a group of knights who have sworn an oath to protect the queen. They are a dedicated selection of men who sometimes are the only thing standing between Kelsea and her enemies. This book is a treasure trove of fantasy, dark magic, journeys, adventure, and self-love. Kelsea loves books and learning, a fact that I related to well. This book was incredibly put together and kept my interest the whole time. This heroine is no damsel in distress. Kelsea may need help at times, but she will ask for it and will strive to make herself better. She may be idealistic, but given her age and sheltered life, that is to be expected. I’m hoping that the next books explain the backstory further, but other than that, The Queen of the Tearling  sets up an intriguing world that will hold your interest all the way through.


The Queen of the Tearling is also available in the following formats:


This book is the first in the trilogy. The second book is The Invasion of the Tearling and The Fate of the Tearling. (Stay tuned for reviews of those once I finish them!)

 

Memory Man by David Baldacci

Memory Man by David Baldacci is the very first Baldacci book that I have ever read. His books have never caught my eye before, ie. the covers just don’t appeal to me, but I decided to give one a try. Looking through OverDrive, I found Memory Man. The premise was intriguing and seemed to be marginally similar to author Robert Galbraith’s Detective Cormoran Strike series.

Memory Man grabbed my attention with this tagline from the publisher: “A man with perfect memory…must solve his own family’s murder”. Interesting premise, right? I thought so. The idea that someone with a perfect memory would have difficulties figuring out who murdered his family had me instantly thinking about how frustrating that must be. I knew I had to read it. (And bonus: It’s the first book in a series!)

Amos Decker is a big man, not just personality wise, but size wise as well. In college, Decker played football. He was so good that he was able to go pro. Decker was the only person from his hometown of Burlington to ever go pro, a fact that everyone in town was proud of and something that Decker cherished. His life was changed because of football though. Decker’s very first pro football game, his very first play on the field, he was the victim of a violent helmet-to-helmet collision that destroyed his chances of ever playing ball again. It also left him with an extremely rare side effect: Decker never forgets anything. His mind seems to record everything.

Flash forward twenty years and Decker’s life is about to change again. Now he’s a police detective married with a young daughter. Returning from work late one night, he discovers the murdered bodies of his wife, daughter, and brother-in-law in his house. Decker is broken, his life is destroyed, and he quickly spirals out of control. He quits the police force, ends up losing his home, and finds himself living on the street. He ends up doing odd jobs as a private investigator, just enough work to provide him with a place to live in a somewhat seedy motel.

Over a year after his family’s murders, a man walks into the police station and confesses to the murders.  At the same time, Burlington is rocked by a catastrophic event that has the ability to cripple the town. Decker’s old partner comes to him seeking his help. He soon finds himself investigating his family’s murders and helping with the other police investigation. In order to get to the truth though, Decker must rely on his perfect memory, something that he has tried to manage and get control of over the years.

I really enjoyed this book. It was fast-paced, dealt with sticky subjects, and had me wondering who the bad guys were the whole time. I sometimes find thriller plots to be convoluted and even predictable, but Memory Man was a blessing. It is a thoroughly engaging, mysterious, suspenseful thriller that had me on edge until the very end.


This book is also available in the following formats: