Root, Petal, Thorn by Ella Joy Olsen

“I was the model of efficiency…by taking advantage of the greatest invention since bacon…audio-books.”

First off, this quote was my favorite part of the whole book. How spot on is that statement?!

Anyways, lets jump right in.

Ivy Baygreen is a recently widowed woman with two teens and a century old house. Prior to his sudden death, her late husband Adam had made plans to renovate and refurbish the old home to bring back it’s old charm and character. Now surrounded by the half-finished projects and memories of Adam, Ivy knows she needs something to pull her out of her grief. Her brother, Stephen, suggests making a list and sticking to it, so Ivy creates six steps, including finishing the house projects Adam started. As Ivy starts tackling these projects, she ends up finding “easter eggs” from the house’s past owners. Curious to learn about her beloved home’s past, Ivy finds that her heart wasn’t the first broken in the home.

Going back through the years, the reader is introduced to the home’s first owners, the Lansings. Sisters Emmeline and Cora are new to the Sugar House, UT area. Bringing along few posessions, including a rose bush, the sisters learn to love their new home and a few local young men. From there, we meet Bitsy, Cora’s daughter, who watches her father stuggle to keep the house as the Great Depression hits. After some time, Eris Gianopolous and her Greek family come to owning the home. We watch Eris and her husband update the home as well, Eris’s own form of therapy while she awaits her son’s return from Japan during World War II. Then during the 1960’s, we meet Lainey Harper, the most recent occupant of the Downington Avenue home. Struggling manic-depressive disorder, Lainey is desperate to be a good mother to her daughter Sylvie.

As all the ghost’s of the house come to surface, Ivy learns that “there is a little sad in every story”.

Personally, I liked the idea of this book more that the book itself. I liked the concept of the common plot line where the main character discovers something historical in the attic and connects it with the present, so the reader gets a historical flashback. However, while reading, the entries from the past are rather scattered, in my opinion. I think that would’ve made the climaxes to each storyline have a stronger impact if they had been in a more consistent order. Also, the same goes for the “chapters” being separated by character- I like that style, but there wasn’t a real order to the characters as their stories intertwined. Overall though, once you have all the storylines figured out at the end of the book, the parallels of love and strife come together nicely between all the characters.

All in all, it’s not a ‘keeper’ for the bookshelves, but it wasn’t a bad read. As someone who has recently bought a house, I can definitely relate to the ‘home renovation as therapy’ theme.

 

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

“She gave me a complicated smile. “You’ve heard the joke, haven’t you? Are you married or do you live in Kenya?“”

When my book-loving coworker suggested I read this novel, it didn’t take me long to reserve it at the library, nor did it take me long to read it. 350 pages, each one full of a romantic view of life in the 1920’s British East Africa as experienced by Beryl Clutterbuck. Though a fictional novel, Clutterbuck, who becomes Markham after her second marriage, is actually a nonfictional character, as well as the others described in the novel. When I finished reading, I couldn’t stop myself from doing some more historical research, trying to piece together the timeline and get better images of the people involved. I love when a book does that to me- inspires me to learn more.

Anyways, we are introduced to Beryl as a young girl living with her family in colonial Kenya. Her father is running a horse farm as a trainer and breeder of racing thoroughbreds, and Beryl wants to follow in his footsteps. When her mother and brother leave to return to England, she decides Kenya is her home, and she wants to stay with her father on the farm. As she reaches her teen years, she rebels against her father’s wishes to become a more suitable woman by taunting her new governess and running away from boarding school. She isn’t interested in becoming the expected civilized housewife. Growing up in the bush, she’s followed her best friend Kibii step for step as he learned from his tribe how to be a warrior. Matching his courage and skills, Beryl knows she can take on any man’s job with determination and hard work, and succeed. However, when she reaches the age of sixteen, the tables are turned when she learns her father’s business has gone bankrupt, and he must sell the farm and train at another stable, leaving Beryl to decide if she should stay on the farm, go work for her father, or become a wife.

She decides to marry Jock, a man who just moved to the colony near her father’s farm. The merge leaves Beryl with her father’s horses, but also with a loveless relationship. When it becomes obvious that the marriage isn’t going to work out, Beryl decides to separate from Jock to go work as a trainer on her friend and mentor’s farm. A turning point for Beryl, she becomes the first English licensed female horse trainer (at least in Kenya, maybe the world). As her reputation builds for her training, she also gains a reputation for being a nontraditional wife, if you catch my drift. Despite her successes at the racetrack, her personal life causes her difficulties in keeping clients. After some time, she requests a divorce from her husband. He isn’t willing to grant the divorce because he doesn’t want to be seen as a man who can’t control his wife, nor take a hit to his reputation. They fight- him by drinking and getting into physical altercations, her by holding her ground and occasionally another man. As her relationship with Jock flames out, a new one with Denys Finch- Hatton fires up.

While reading, not only does the personal drama keep things interesting, but the romance of living in such wild country in Africa draws you in. I loved imagining the red clay, the safari trips, the rain season, the flamingo flocks near where Beryl exercised her horses… all the imagery was lovely, even in terrifying moments. Because of McLain’s wordsmithery, I was living right with Beryl in the environment that she loved so much.

With so much depth and strength to the characters, the setting, and the overall complexity of human relationships, I’d recommend it to anyone, and especially for those with the additional interest in the female empowerment and equality. I’m amazed at what barriers Beryl broke back in the 1920/1930s, of how much has changed since pioneers like her broke traditional female roles, and of how we are still pushing to get through the glass ceiling today. “Circling the Sun” is a must read.

The Dalai Lama’s Cat by David Michie

Another recommendation by a coworker, The Dalai Lama’s Cat was a quick and simple read.

It follows the life of (of course) the Dalai Lama’s cat, who goes by many different names including HHC (His Holiness’ Cat), Mousie-Tung, and Rinpoche, as she learns from the His Holiness himself. Through careful observation, she learns how to find true happiness, how to eat mindfully, how to release envy, and how to find love. For example, she observed this couple one afternoon:

“…a panel of more than two thousand people with smartphones and send out questions at random intervals during the week. Always they were the same three questions: What are you doing? What are you thinking? How happy are you? What they found out was that forty-seven percent of the time, people weren’t thinking about what they were doing.”

These types of observations, even though meant from a cat’s point of view, are meant to make the reader reflect upon them. So when I can upon this excerpt, I spent a few minutes thinking about what I was doing versus what I was thinking, and how happy I was about it. What’s funny is, this mention of mindfulness became a small lesson on how to be mindful. Michie wrote novel filled full of little teachable moments like that, passed off as personal observations from the Dalai Lama’s cat. It’s quite clever, truthfully.

While I appreciate those little moments, I found the novel overall to be lacking in action. There wasn’t a large climactic scene, or one giant overarching lesson- and if there was, it totally went over my head. So overall, I wouldn’t recommend the read unless you needed a little inspirational spurring.

 

Tatiana and Alexander by Paullina Simons

I’ll keep this one short because I’m afraid if I say too much, all the plot twists will be revealed! Tatiana and Alexander is the sequel to The Bronze Horseman, one I didn’t realize existed until I started doing a little research after my last book review. I found it online and ordered it, and I think it took longer to ship the book than it took me to read it. It’s over 500 pages, and I couldn’t put it down for about three days.

Now, if you haven’t read the first book, stop right here. Seriously.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Still with me? Okay. The sequel follows Tatiana as she figured out how to live without Alexander in America. She and her little boy, Anthony, take up residence on Ellis Island, and Tatiana becomes a nurse, aiding the sick who enter as refugees and captives of the war. All the while, she holds on to the nagging feeling that Alexander hasn’t left her, that he must be alive…. and though she doesn’t quite know it, he is. He’s narrowly escaped death not once, but a handful of times, and he won’t stop holding on to the hope that he will see Tatiana and their baby again.

It’s an epic love story novel, and if you loved The Bronze Horseman, you’ll love reading their final chapters in Tatiana and Alexander.

The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons

I can’t remember how long this book has sat on my bookshelves, in various homes, and not once been opened. When I was sorting through my stacks not that long ago, I put it in a “to read” pile and have only just gotten to it. I don’t know what took me so long, but let me tell you it will stay on my bookshelves.

The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons is a heart wrenching love story. It follows the lives of Tatiana and Alexander, who are drawn together on the day that the Soviet Union enters World War II. Young Tatiana, age seventeen, can’t help but fall for the man whom her sister, Dasha, has already laid claim to- Alexander, a Red Army soldier. But they can’t help wanting to be together, so Alexander takes on a protective roll for Tatiana and Dasha’s family as they prepare and brace themselves for the war in Leningrad. As Tatiana and Alexander get closer, secrets are reveal, lies are formed, and their romantic interest in each other is put aside, despite their desire.

As the war goes on and the Germans get closer, Tatiana’s innocent optimism is replaced by the need to remain hopeful of survival. She supports her family, but her family treats her more as a servant than a daughter. When her own mother, in hushed tones, said that she wanted her son, Pasha, home safe instead of Tatiana, Tatiana runs off to the war front to try and find her missing brother and bring him home. When Alexander finds out, he gathers a troop of soldiers and leads them to the front to bring Tatiana back. After searching for her, he finds her buried under a pile of bodies, barely conscious but alive. After digging her out, he does what he can to help her, but she has a broken leg and is weak. The railroad systems back to Leningrad at the war front were bombed, so he carried her for kilometers on his back, overnight, to the nearest station and held her up until she was delivered safely to a hospital bed in Leningrad. Through all this, their bond strengthened deeper.

Even as Tatiana healed, she still doted on her family’s needs. Through the winter of 1941-1942 during the Siege of Leningrad, she bared starvation, cold, bombing, and thieves to gather the small rations available for her family. Alexander helped when he could, supplying the family with extra food that he could get with his soldier rations. Things got bleaker and bleaker, with millions dying around them from starvation, cold, and disease. Though terribly weak herself, when Dasha couldn’t physically stand Tatiana went out and sought help from Alexander. He managed to get them evacuated across the Road of Life on Lake Ladoga despite the dangers, but his love-triangle relationship with Dasha and Tatiana did more personal damage. He sent them off with Tatiana’s heart breaking, and Alexander didn’t know if he’d ever see them alive again.

When Tatiana and Alexander meet again, it is six months later. Dasha dies, but the ghost of her remains everywhere in the small refuge village with Tatiana. Tatiana and Alexander have to sort out their messy relationship, and though it wasn’t easy, they finally mend each other’s broken hearts. When Alexander returns to battle, Tatiana knows she can’t survive without him, and follows him back to Leningrad because she knows he needs her to survive as well.

As a hopeless closet romantic, this novel (all 900 plus pages) had me hooked. I had to know what would happen to Tatiana and Alexander. Would they survive the war? Would they be together? What happens if one of them dies? And there is plenty I’ve left out in this summary- sparing you all the great plot twists and turns. If you haven’t read this and you love historical fiction, love stories, Russian culture, or anything about WWII, then you must read Simons’ The Bronze Horseman.

Neither Wolf Nor Dog by Kent Nerburn

Before I get too far into this book review, I just want to state two things.

  1. I am and will always be learning about culture, respect, and what it means to combine the two.
  2. I think Kent Nerburn did an amazing job at trying to explain how the walk the line between the two.

On to the plot summary…

Nerburn is contacted by an elderly Indian man called Dan via his daughter on the phone. She relays the message that Dan read some of Nerburn’s work, and wanted to speak to him in person. Not knowing what he was in for, Nerburn makes the trip to meet Dan. When he finds out that Dan wants him to write a book about what he’s observed over the years with his white and Indian eyes, Nerburn is unsure if he can write it in a way that allows Dan’s stories to be heard without the white polish that’s rewritten so much of America’s history. Together, they go on a journey to figure out how to share Dan’s wisdom.

Now, I feel that if I delve into my thoughts and what I think about this novel, it would almost seem counter-productive from what I’ve learned from reading the story of Dan. Like Nerburn, I want to see further too. So I’m just going to give you some eye-opening lines from a few of the chapters, and hope that I pique your curiosity.

  • On the top of the rock, insignificant to anyone who didn’t understand, some previous passerby had placed a few broken cigarettes…that person had placed the sacred gift of tobacco on the rude image of the buffalo, and in doing so had paid homage to the animal.
  • You have to love your own people even if you hate what they do.
  • You’re writing a story about Indians. But you’re writing it like a white guy. You want everything all neat. Put it all in. Just write it the way it is.
  • You took the land and you turned it into property. Now our mother is silent. But we still listen for her voice. And here is what I wonder. If she sent diseases and harsh winters when she was angry with us, and we were good to her, what will she send when she speaks back to you?
  • You’re learning. I can tell because of your silence.
  • Before you wanted to make us you. But now you are unhappy with who you are, so you want to make you into us.
  • You are trying to learn. White people like to learn by asking questions.
  • If you had listened to us instead of trying to convert us and kill us, what a country this would be.
  • Keepers of the fire cannot be cowards. They are carrying light.
  • You tell us we have to elect a leader to represent us, and he has to represent us in everything. He is supposed to be wise about everything because he is responsible for everything. Even if we don’t want him to speak for us on some matter, he gets to because it says so in the constitution you made us write.
  • “She’s not one to mess with,” Delvin laughed… “Should’ve sicced them on the white man. You guys would’ve gone home in rowboats.”
  • You must forget yourself. You are not here for yourself. You are not here for me. This is Wounded Knee. You are standing on the grave.
  • Perhaps we had to return to the earth, so that we could grow within your hearts.
  • We are prisoners of our hearts, and only time will free us. Your people must learn to give up their arrogance. They are not the only ones placed on this earth.

If any of these strike a chord with you, buy this book, borrow this book, check it out of the library… anything to get your hands on it, and READ. If they don’t resonate with you, then pay no never-mind…you wouldn’t respect and appreciate what Nerburn and Dan have done anyways.