Les Miserables by Victor Hugo has been much celebrated in part, thanks to theater and musical productions in the past century. However, Hugo wrote this lengthy masterpiece in 1862. I am guessing most people are familiar with the basic storyline. What made this masterpiece worth the time it took to read, it is that I gained a great deal of additional insight into the characters as well as the tumultuous times in France which proceeded it.

This novel is a philosophical statement disguised as a story about a man who is branded and hunted for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving relatives. The novel is jam-packed full of Hugo’s lengthy pontificating. So much so, that it became annoying. As I muddled through many of these sermons, I lost track of where the story left off.

Still, this novel holds exceptional value in a historical perspective. Revolutions were taking place around the world. I think Hugo sought to make sense of the common man’s longing for freedom. His characters portray the good, the bad, and especially, the victimized.

I highly recommend this novel. It’s a classic!

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The Hatfields and McCoys

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis by J D Vance is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long while. This is a sad, but true tale written by a young man who had a tumultuous childhood. Thankfully, Vance was able to successfully overcome the fate which many others born and raised in Appalachia often succumb to.

The story told is unfortunately one which is all too common, but what I liked about this book is Vance’s social commentary and analysis of the causes which continue to fuel poverty and ignorance in certain segments of the population in our country. As an Appalachian, he addresses the need for significant social and economic change.

During his formative years, Vance lived in poverty, had a drug addicted mother, multiple father figures, and influential grandparents to whom he could run. After high school, military service in the United States Marines helped him learn many lessons which fueled his success at Ohio State and ultimately at Yale Law School.

Vance succeeded in breaking the cycle of poverty and his memoir goes beyond his experiences to offer advice and hope for others in similar circumstances.

With the exception of the preponderance of curse words employed in this memoir, I learned a great deal about the plight of people living in Appalachia. I pray it’s message is heard and helps others to change their lives for the better. Recommended!

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Keep Swimming

Make Your Bed: Little things that can change your life … and maybe the world by William H. McRaven is a quick read with a message. Written by an Admiral/Navy Seal, this book grew out of a graduation speech he gave in Texas which gained a huge audience afterward. In it, McRaven uses his military experiences as analogies to demonstrate lessons on how discipline and wise choices can be made and practiced in order to become a responsible human being.

We don’t need to be in the military to learn about sacrifice and teamwork, but I think there is much truth and good advice in this autobiography. Recommended!

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The Patsy

Gather Ye Rosebuds by Jeannette Covert Nolan is a delightful novel published in the 1940’s which I came across while searching for a different book in the Library of Congress catalog of books on tape. My gamble paid off which is more than can be said for one of the characters in the story.

The tale begins in 1910 with Major Cameron, a former officer in the Confederate Army, sitting in full regalia in a small Indiana town seeking attention as he alone commemorates the anniversary of Appomattox 45 years afterward. By this action, the author establishes the quirky nature of the man.

Major Cameron heads a household consisting of a wife Amy, who is much less reserved than her husband, and their five children. The Major lives in a dreamworld believing his financial circumstances will greatly change when the book he is writing is published. Then he’ll use his “riches” to travel with his daughters in hopes of securing suitable husbands for them in distant places. In the meantime, he’s gainfully employed as a traveling salesman of tobacco products. However, fate steps in when he is drawn-in by two conmen who separate him and others from their money. The Major, an easily duped man of honor, innocently accepts the offered position of President of the company and begins selling stock certificates in the fictitious company to anyone who will purchase them; many of them are tobacco customers along his sales route.

The two Cameron daughters of marrying age are different as night and day. One is a realist and the other, a dreamer. Without their knowing, both cross paths with one of the conmen who attempts to woo them without knowing they are related to each other, much less the Major’s daughters.

The story follows a year of the family’s lives as the Major struggles to sell stock certificates and his eldest daughter Rose falls in love with one of the conmen clueless she is being duped in a different way than her father who has kept secret his involvement in the oil company which he naively believes is legitimate.

Predictably, the truth eventually comes out and it’s an exciting narrative. There are additional plot lines involving other family, relatives, and acquaintances, but the cons are at the heart of the story.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and am grateful it found me! They don’t write books like this anymore and that’s what makes this one so special! Highly recommended!

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Living in Fear

The Siege and The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore are historical fiction novels based in Leningrad during World War Two. The first novel introduces a family of three Anna Levin, her 5-year-old brother, and her father who is a writer. Andrei is a young doctor who becomes involved with the family. Anna, who is in her early twenties, works in a day care center up until the time when many children are sent out of the city for their safety during the siege. Stalin is in power and the Germans have blockaded Leningrad during the harsh winter. People are starving and countless die for lack of life’s basic necessities.

The Betrayal is a sequel to The Siege and takes place afterwards. It follows Anna, her brother, and Andrei as they continue to struggle in the oppressive political environment of Stalin’s regime.

For anyone who has knowledge of Russian history, this is an interesting novel written from the perspective of a young adult woman, her family, and friends who live in fear and poverty due to the way in which Russia was governed during and for many years during and after World War Two. It is not a pretty picture and Dunmore has done an exceptional job of making it real for her readers. I recommend both books.

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Things We Cannot Change

The Sacrifice by Indrajit Garai is a collection of fictional short stories which I read in exchange for an honest review.

The three stories in the novel introduce the reader to people who find themselves in exceptionally difficult circumstances.

The first story is about a dairy farmer who is trying desperately to hang-on to the family farm.

The second story centers on a young boy who discovers his beloved hiding place in the nearby forest is being destroyed.

The final tale is about a writer in his early 60’s who is destitute and trying to sell his manuscript in order to care for the grandson he is raising.

All of the short stories are about people who feel helpless and seek a way out of difficulties beyond their control. Unfortunately, the feeling of powerlessness is one which many people encounter at one time or another in various ways. This makes these stories relatable.

The writing is descriptive, but I had difficulty with parts of the second story because of the way in which the author used incorrect grammar to convey the boy’s lacking vocabulary skills. I got hung-up on them because that wasn’t what I took it as while reading.

Still in all, the stories are interesting and convey human suffering. I had hoped for happy endings, but real life doesn’t guarantee those all the time. I congratulate the author for his honesty.

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Hold On I’m Coming

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce opens with the receipt of an unexpected letter from a former coworker who is dying in a distant city in England. Recently retired Harold encounters difficulty in writing an appropriate response. After setting out to mail what he believes is an inadequate letter to the friend and influenced by a story told to him by a total stranger, Harold takes a very long detour. Deciding he must say goodbye in person, he sets out on foot to journey hundreds of miles to the hospice. He believes making this pilgrimage will save his friend’s life.

For the majority of his life, Harold has been a bystander. He is sixty-five and guilt ridden. His wife of many years blames him for everything. When he doesn’t return from his walk to the mailbox, she is completely baffled and thinks he must have Alzheimer’s. What she fails to realize is that for perhaps the first time in his life, Harold is taking a risk.

This is an interesting novel about life, regret, and the repercussions of our actions. It is a sad story in many ways, but I thought it was beautiful. It certainly made me reflect on my own life. The story’s message is poignant and a little soul searching never hurts! I recommend it!

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