This month I tackled four books! They were all very different and I loved the places they took me. You will find in my book reviews I am going to be very honest about the way I feel about each book. Please understand that I do not intend to be mean about the reasons I do not like something, but I feel that my words matter so if I don’t like it–I won’t mince words. More about that when we get to book number 3.
Book #1 As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner
First up, a dear friend of mine suggested that I read this. I have read several of Susan Meissner’s books and always enjoyed them so it was not a hard sell to get me to purchase this book. I knew it was about the Spanish Flu. I didn’t know; however, how often I would check to see when this book was published. I felt like someone had taken pages out of 2020 and written a fiction story about it. Eye-opening would be an understatement.
From the book cover:
“In 1918, Philadelphia was a city teeming with promise. Even as its young men went off to fight in the Great War, there were opportunities for a fresh start on its cobblestone streets. Into this bustling town, came Pauline Bright and her husband, filled with hope that they could now give their three daughters–Evelyn, Maggie, and Willa–a chance at a better life.
But just months after they arrive, the Spanish Flu reaches the shores of America. As the pandemic claims more than twelve thousand victims in their adopted city, they find their lives left with a world that looks nothing like the one they knew. But even as they lose loved ones, they take in a baby orphaned by the disease who becomes their single source of hope. Amidst the tragedy and challenges, they learn what they cannot live without–and what they are willing to do about it.”
As Bright As Heaven is the story of the Bright family; Thomas and Pauline and their daughters Maggie, Evelyn, and Willa.
I may have mentioned before that I don’t particularly care for books that are told from alternate points of view. So when I discovered that each chapter alternates between each of the females in this story– different points of view–I wasn’t a fan. It always seems to take me a little more time to attach myself to the characters when they each take a turn telling the story. If that doesn’t bother you then this book might be for you!
This historical novel is based on the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic that wiped out nearly fifty million people worldwide, though very few people know much if anything about it.
The story is a dark one. At least it was to me. It might be the timing for me. Perhaps it is because I watch the news every day and see the death totals rise or maybe because I heard the stories of the bodies in New York that didn’t have graves because there was no time or place to accomplish a proper burial. All in all, reading this book made me think of everything we are going through now. On the other hand it was also incredibly hopeful. Life goes on. There is always hope.
There is also something to be said for a story that doesn’t wrap everything up into a neat little package. The reality is that, at times, we all hurt in our real lives. The events in As Bright as Heaven make our hearts hurt a little and that’s okay. The events are written with love to answer the following question posed by the author at the end of the book concerning the fact that death will come for us all one day.
“How does this knowledge that we are mortal affect our choices? The risks we take? The risks we don’t? …… We are, all of us, living out the stories of our lives. Each of our stories will end, in time, but meanwhile, we fill the pages of our existences with all the love we can, for as long as we can. This is how we make a life.”
By far my favorite thing about the book was the details about the Spanish Flu. I loved her acknowledgements and resources at the end of the book. Susan described vividly the impact of the flu on the old and young alike-even making us consider the children who ultimately have family and friends die. Sometimes having to consider if their own carelessness caused the death of their loved one. Ouch! Sound like something we are experiencing now?
It is important to note that she reminds us that even if you cannot see the wounds no one escaped without wounds of some sort.
“We only see a little bit of our stories at a time, and the hard parts remind us too harshly that we’re fragile and flawed. But it isn’t all hard. Your story isn’t all hard parts. Some of it is incredibly beautiful.”
You think you have a view of what’s waiting for you just up the road, but then something happens, and you find out pretty quick you were looking at the wrong road.”
“I think that grief is such a strange guest, making its home in a person like it’s a new thing that no one has ever experienced before.”
“Home isn’t a place where everything stays the same; it’s a place where you are safe and loved despite nothing staying the same.”
Who should read this? If you love historical fiction this book is for you. The details alone make it worth it.
Warnings: Death is almost its own character in this book so it is dark and heavy at times.
Book #2 Educated by TaraWestover
Turning toward our house on the hillside, I see movements of a different kind, tall shadows stiffly pushing through the currents. My brothers are awake, testing the weather. I imagine my mother at the stove, hovering over bran pancakes. I picture my father hunched by the back door, lacing his steel-toed boots and threading his callused hands into welding gloves. On the highway below, the school bus rolls past without stopping.
I am only seven, but I understand that it is this fact, more than any other, that makes my family different: we don’t go to school.
–from Educated by Tara Westover.
The inside cover of the book jacket reads: “Tara Westover was seventeen the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her ‘head for the hills’ bag. In the summer she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged metal in her father’s junkyard.”
After reading that and a few other details about how Tara was raised you open the book and read this:
“This story is not about Mormonism. Neither is it about any other form of religious belief. In it there are many types of people, some believers, some not; some kind, some not. The author disputes any correlation, positive or negative, between the two.”
And instantly I am intrigued. I read this book at the urging of my husband. He read it and couldn’t wait to talk to me about it. I dragged my feet. The title sounded boring and I’m not really a non-fiction reader. I much prefer to escape in my reading. But I read her note and wondered, “What are you going to tell us about that makes you write a disclaimer like that???”
What we know:
Tara Westover grew up in an extreme survivalist Mormon family in Idaho. She didn’t receive a birth certificate for years, she didn’t go to school, and never went to the doctor. Although many details seem to be debatable she must have received enough home-schooling from her mother or other siblings along with effort she put into it herself to allow herself to gain entrance into Brigham Young University.
Although that is an amazing part of the story, much of the memoir is about her childhood.
Tara is the youngest of seven children. Her three oldest brothers experienced a different early childhood than the younger Westover children did. Tony, Shawn, and Tyler were allowed to attend school for a few years before Tara’s dad, Gene, began to get paranoid that the federal government would come and interfere, like the FBI did to the Weaver family.
There is something about the way Tara writes that is fascinating to me. I could easily picture her working in the salvage yard, or singing on stage or looking at all the burns and injuries that she dealt with over the years. She writes in a way that just makes you “see” it-almost experience it with her. It indeed did almost seem fictional that Tara could have escaped the countless incidents that she tells us about. Chapter after chapter has us holding our breath for tragedy the family will experience. How can so much happen to one family??
I connected with Tara not because I have ever experienced the horrors that she had, but there was something in her writing that pulled me along. I wanted to cheer for her. She helped me see things through her eyes. She gives several notations through the book that other people in her family don’t remember things the way she does and honestly, that was also okay with me.
Whoever we are, we hear and listen through the lens of our own experiences. We analyze what has happened through that lens. So when you tell a story it might not be the same way your sister remembers it. I thought it made Tara more human to me.
Much of Tara’s younger years are filled with horrific instances. As she tells story after story you root for her to get away–go somewhere safe.
She finally makes it onto campus and immediately begins to judge the people she lives with. “This person wears clothes too tight and too short. That person works on Sunday!”
I had to put the book down.
Not because I didn’t like it. But because it caused me to look at myself.
How often have we prejudged someone because we have been taught that a simple act of wearing the wrong color lipstick or dress at the knees instead of below the knees makes them a….”—–“? Tara carried the lessons of her family with her. She couldn’t escape them. Sometimes we are not that far removed from the very things we dislike in others.
There are other moments that are more horrifying. Burns and injuries, beatings and abuse. Sadly, all done by the people that are supposed to love you and protect you. I think that is one of the saddest parts about the book is that I think Tara really loved her family, but couldn’t live with their beliefs and behaviors any longer.
Do you think that perhaps Tara wrote the book to “educate” others? Do you think she wrote it so that it would heal what was broken in her?
After I finished this book I began to search the web for stories from her family. I wanted to know how they responded to the stories she told. I discovered that many people are not sure the book is indeed true.
Interesting. I will let you do your own research to make that decision for yourself. Once thing is sure. She definitely is educated now! She even has her PH.D. That is inspiring enough for any read.
“To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both. It is a frailty, but in this frailty there is strength: the conviction to love in your own mind, and not in someone else’s.”
“You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them,” she says now. “You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.”
“It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you, Ihad written in my journal. But Shawn had more power over me than I could possibly have imagined. He had defined me to myself, and there’s no greater power than that.”
“what a person knows about the past is limited, and will always be limited, to what they are told by others.”
“The most powerful determinant of who you are is inside you,” he said. “Professor Steinberg says this is Pygmalion. Think of the story, Tara.”
He paused, his eyes fierce, his voice piercing. “She was just a cockney in a nice dress. Until she believed in herself. Then it didn’t matter what dress she wore”.”
I could go on and on. I really really loved this book. I hope you will pick it up and read it and then I’d love to hear what you think.
Who should read this book? Adults who love stories about beating the odds. Those who love memoirs. Those who believe in family. Those who believe in the power of education.
Warnings: Extreme graphic violence and abuse. Not for sensitive minds.
I did not finish this book. I almost didn’t list it at all, because I honestly don’t want to promote this book. However, as I contemplated that fact, I realized that if I had seen a negative review such as this then I wouldn’t have wasted my money. So, here goes.
I am soooo disappointed in this book. I was excited to read something that was advertised as having “strong female friendship.” I loved the book cover and it’s colors and I felt like it was going to be a fun book to read. The book was recommend by one of the the book blogs I follow. It was recommended by someone that I thought would put a content warning if necessary.
I don’t necessarily consider myself as being a hyper sensitive reader, but the language choices and sexual content was extreme. When I got to the first swear word I paused. I read a little more and was confronted with a sexual innuendo. I wondered if I was reading too much into it and letting my mind fill in the wrong blanks so I kept reading. I’m sorry to say that I feel I read too much. The thought, “Set no wicked thing before mine eyes” kept going through my head so I finally said “enough was enough” and put the book away.
My take away:
Don’t just wholeheartedly read books that get recommended to you. Take a moment and do a little research to make sure you have the same values/opinions as those who are doing the recommending.
Book #4 If For Any Reason by Courtney Walsh
From the book cover:
“Emily Ackerman has traveled the world, her constant compass and companion a book of letters her mother left for her when she died. With no father in the picture, her mom’s advice has been her only true north. But when professional failure leads Emily back to Nantucket to renovate and sell the family cottage she inherited, she wonders if her mom left advice to cover this . . . especially when her grandmother arrives to “supervise.” And especially when her heart becomes entangled with Hollis McGuire, the boy next door–turned–baseball star who’s back on the island after a career-ending injury.
As sparks fly between her and Hollis, Emily is drawn to island life, even as she uncovers shocking secrets about the tragic accident that led to her mother’s death. With her world turned upside down, Emily must choose between allowing the voices from her past to guide her future or forging her own path forward.”
I’m pretty sure most anyone who is reading this blog right now has already heard of Courtney Walsh. If not, then hurry up and get your hands on any of the books she has written.
Courtney is my new favorite author. There are probably many reasons, but at the top is her wonderful writing style. Her word choices paint a picture for me that almost has me smelling the salt air and feeling the sand between my toes.
This particular book charmed me for another reason.
When Emily arrives in Nantucket she pulls her suitcase through town on the way to her Grandparent’s beach home. (Yes, I said beach) She suddenly finds herself looking at the arts center and entering the building and looking at the empty stage. I was hooked. I loved that so much of who Emily was started on that stage.
The characters were incredibly human and realistic, but my favorite character was Emily’s mom. We mainly hear her voice through the letters that Emily carries with her and we instantly realize the importance of such a treasure.
Families are complicated and navigating through this one kept me captivated and breathless as I turned page after page.
I loved that the story has layers. It isn’t just a light romantic read. Each character is thought out and comes with their own backstory, pain and dreams.
Sometimes you just want to sit down and read something that entertains you and sweeps you away. But if you can add plot and depth to your story you truly have discovered something priceless.
Who should read this book? Lovers of clean romantic fiction. If you like an entertaining story that tugs at your heart-strings. You should read this story if you love to read about the relationships between mothers and daughters. If you love Courtney Walsh!
That’s it for this month! Please let me know if you have read any of these books. Also, I’d love it if you would share these reviews and follow me!
By the way, I do not receive any compensation if you chose to order one of these books. It’s just me sharing my love of reading!