The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

blueAlthough I’m a big L.M. Montgomery fan (Anne of Green Gables meant so much to me and yes, I’ve even traveled to P.E.I. to see her sights), I had never read this book before. A friend gave it to me for Christmas and I was even more interested to read it after I read in Colleen McCullough’s obituary that she had received criticism for similarities between her book, The Ladies of Misssalonghi, and this.[I had read Ladies of Missalonghi many years ago and really liked it, though I could only remember a few details and not the actual plot.  I’m afraid after reading The Blue Castle I still don’t remember the plot of Missalonghi, so I’m looking forward to re-reading it.]

Anyway, The Blue Castle.  Valancy Stirling-such a name! is 29 years old and has lived a miserable life.  It won’t take many pages before you can perfectly imagine her dreary existence and feel damp and cold within your own bones. She has a large family that rules her, never lets her forget that she is an ugly old maid, and does not allow for any gaiety.  They are preposterously terrible and Valancy lives with it.  Then one day she gets a terrible diagnosis that prompts her to cast her family aside and live life to its fullest, which includes taking up with people that everyone looks down on. And oh! how Valancy prospers! It’s all very magical and romantical (as Anne might say) and she is living life like a woodland nymph.  There are secrets and surprises that are not too surprising and all works out as it should.

I enjoyed this tremendously, though I can acknowledge that the whole thing reads as if it were written by Anne Shirley herself, perhaps at age 13.  Heady dreams about what a romantic carefree life would be like, romantic dreams that show a certain naivete (the limits of physical contact are an arm around the waist, a whisper in the ear), declarations of love that include calling one a “jolly chum”, and flowery, flowery prose. It’s a little bit mockable. But I love that kind of stuff and it was fun to read, very quick, and I loved seeing Valancy blossom (as usual in these sorts of things she has a “queer beauty”, and people routinely say that she is not pretty, but those who appreciate her see that she has an unusual beauty that makes her unique and striking and possibly not quite human) into someone who had love in her life.

Small Blessings by Martha Woodroof

smallA charming feel good story. I think you can tell right from the get-go the happy ending this story is headed for, but how it gets there is a delight.  I very much enjoyed the style in which the story was told, though I’m hard pressed to put my finger on what exactly that style is. The setting is a small college town/campus (which was nothing like my college, but I kept picture it there anyway) with a few professors and their odd habits as colorful characters. Tom is an English professor who is well liked, quiet, ordinary, people speak nicely of him because he’s stuck with his completely crazy wife for 20 years. He lives with her and his mother-in-law and accepts that this is his life.  But then complications-welcome?-arise. First there is Rose, the new employee at the college bookstore. He feels an instant spark with her (and she with him), but even stranger is that his crazy wife Marjory seems to have a moment of clarity upon meeting her.  Then there’s the bombshell of a letter Tom receives.

Tom’s life is definitely upended, along with pretty much everyone around him.  This is a very warm story with lots of feel good moments.

And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard

stayThis was a  beautiful story, nicely told between standard writing and then the inclusion of the main character’s original poetry.  Emily (no actual relation to Emily Dickinson) is off at boarding school (in Emily Dickinson’s hometown) for a fresh start away from the terrible memories, looks, and stories after her boyfriend killed himself in the school library in front of her.  A fresh start is difficult and Emily is deeply scarred by the tragedy and coming to terms with it.  However, a powerful need to write poetry, along with a growing friendship with her roommate, K.T., help her through it.  I appreciated that though this was a bit sad, it was not an overwhelmingly sad or depressing book.   And how could I not love a boarding school story which includes a brief shout-out to the The Secret Language-the very first boarding school book I read and loved? The bits about Emily Dickinson, along with Emily’s original poetry, are beautifully incorporated. This was a lovely story.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

oveWhat an absolutely wonderful story! I loved this and am so glad my mom passed it along to me. (Apparently, according to the back cover, it’s a European sensation already. It is from Sweden.)

Ove is a grouchy old man, set in his ways, horrified by the modern world around him and all the idiots in it.  So fed up with this world is he, that he is determined to kill himself. But, like with everything else, he will do it the proper way. Except his plans are thwarted by those idiots of the world, specifically some noisy new neighbors. And a bedraggled cat.  As the story spins out flashbacks to earlier years build the picture of how Ove came to be the man he is today, of how love was in his life, and how his little neighborhood has changed but been in a part of it all.  It all fits together perfectly.  And for someone who is so patently unlikable, Ove really is a character who you side with, your heart feels for, and you wish nothing but the best for.  I also really enjoyed the gaggle of secondary characters who refuse to let Ove’s gruff exterior stop them from caring for him.

Funny, touching, and warm, this is a beautiful story about life (and brand loyalty to Saab.)

*I would recommend this to those who liked Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.

The Wedding Bees: A Novel of Honey, Love, and Manners by Sarah-Kate Lynch

After a pretty depressing book I needed something sweet fun and this was just the ticket. I came across it as a Goodreads recommendation if I liked Sarah Addison Allen, and indeed it had a similar tone and flavor. (and btw, there were a million recommendations in this vein, so apparently I could read magical sweet books from here until the end of the year.)
Sugar moves every spring to a new place in the U.S. and starts anew. The one constant is her bees, including a queen that is descended from her grandfather’s original queen.  Her sweet and friendly way and strict adherence to Southern charm and manners have made it easy for her to make new friends every place she goes.  She’s practically like a Mary Poppins what with how she touches people’s lives and changes them.  You can tell that this time it will be the same.  She moves into an apartment building in the Alphabet City part of NYC and promptly meets the other tenants, also known as the colorful secondary characters.  Two grouchy old people, a shy chef, an anorexic, and a crass single mom.  You know Sugar’s unrelenting cheerfulness and honey will somehow fix up all these people. Sugar’s bees have a special connection to her that is, if not magical, definitely special (and anthropomorphic). But what about Sugar herself? What happened in her past that has made her never return home? Why is she so reluctant to give her heart to Theo, whom she meets her first day in NYC and immediately feels an electric connection to him?

Charming and sweet as golden honey itself.

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer Holm

I’d heard something good about this and when my son said he wanted to read it I was so pleased I got it right away. He doesn’t usually gravitate towards realistic fiction that is not diary/funny/gross so I was so pleased that he wanted to read this. He read it and said he liked it, and then I read it. I liked it very much, though was surprised at the non-realistic element of the story. Ellie’s grandfather shows up one day but guess what? He’s not an old man anymore, he’s discovered something and tested it on himself successfully and has turned back into a teenager. There are some funny elements, such as teenage Melvin clashing with his adult daughter (Ellie’s mom) and attempts to break back into the lab to get his research.
The thoughtful message of the book seemed to beyond my son, who remarked “I don’t know why it was called that, it doesn’t have anything to do with goldfish.” Well, the goldfish connection and theme seemed very obvious to me, so I explained it and we talked about it and I hope he can improve his deeper connection to reading.

The Grimm Conclusion by Adam Gidwitz

I wasn’t even sure if I’d read this one or not, and at times I thought “maybe I did read this?” because it is quite similar to the previous two books. It’s got the same wonderful style, gleeful delight in the gore of Grimm, and absolutely engaging storytelling. And then a wonderful meta-surprise that did indeed make this a wonderful conclusion to the other two books.
I would love to share these with my 4th grader, but honestly even though the gore and and violence is tempered by the humor, I think it may actually be too much for him. I thought this was funny, touching, and clever.
This final installment is about Jorinda and Joringel, whom I vaguely remember from the Andrew Lang fairy tale collections. It doesn’t matter what you remember about the original Grimm tale, though, because in the must-read afterward Gidwitz tells you that it was mostly their names that he liked and used.