Swiss Cheese

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel about a 72-year-old retired schoolteacher who lives in Maine. Olive is a controlling woman who thinks she knows better than everyone else. We’ve all known people like her. Understandably, she’s not very popular, not even with her only son. In this novel however, Olive gets her comeuppance. As the story unfolds, we as readers, witness Olive’s transformation and even come to see her goodness along the way.

What I loved most about this story is Strout’s masterful command of character development. This isn’t the first novel I’ve read by Strout and I think she’s amazing! There are a wide variety of characters in this story and I came away feeling as if I knew each one well. That’s a rare gift. Many heavily populated stories have well-defined main characters and the others pale by comparison. This is not the case here. Why I even felt like I knew Olive’s dog! That’s excellent writing.

If you haven’t read this novel, I hope you will do so. I loved it!

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The Case of the Secret Author

Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak is a book I just couldn’t pass up. Like many other women, in my youth, I was a Nancy Drew fan. I read her mystery books and watched the movies based upon them. Until reading this book, I never knew how far back the books dated.

The women who wrote the books were like Nancy in many ways – strong and independent. The primary contributors were college educated in the early days when women broke down the barriers which previously kept women in the home.

Contributing writers in the series signed away their rights in order to work for Edward Stratmeyer, who in 1930 began publishing the books under the pseudonym Carolyn Keene. Times were tough during the depression and struggling writers were grateful to write books for money upon completion. Further down the road, they came to realize what they had signed away in future royalties as well as relinquishing credit for their work publicly. All were sworn to secrecy.

Much of this book is about women’s suffrage juxtaposed with the history of the Nancy Drew novels and the people connected with them. I thought it was quite interesting. There’s a lot of ground covered and it is well-done. I recommend it!

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Amazing Grace

Code Name: Lise: The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Decorated Spy by Larry Loftis is an incredible biography based on the life of Odette Sansom who left three young daughters alone while at the same time, her husband was serving in the military and away from home. Odette believed it was her duty to serve England as a courier behind enemy lines in occupied France.

The way this all came about and Odette’s early health encumbrances, which include being blind, are beyond belief, but it’s all true. Her bravery in circumstances before and after her capture left me speechless.

Ironically, Odette served under a man with the surname of Churchill and her cleverness turned this to their advantage after they were captured; ultimately saving their lives.

This story is even more intense than the previous book about the Alice Network. I believe this is the better of the two. This is a book I will remember for a very long time. It honors many brave women and men who risked their lives in the name of freedom.

Odette endured more suffering than one can even imagine. She sacrificed years with the children she loved which would never be regained. I am leaving much of her story for my readers to experience because I don’t wish to reveal more than I think necessary. The writing is superb. This is a story which gripped me to my soul. Highly recommended.

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Unsung Heroines

I just finished reading The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. It would be difficult for me to fully convey how deeply moved and impressed I am by this novel.

This is a fictional history based on a female network of spies during World War One. It is amazing! In it, we encounter a former WWI spy and fellow female spies working against the Germans in occupied France.

The novel also includes a young girl who is searching for her beloved cousin who went missing after World War Two. This character ties the two time frames together by her association with a broken down former spy who aids her in the search. While doing so, her history as a spy unfolds.

So many horrible things happened during both wars. This story, based on actual people and events, really drives the point home. I learned many new facts about the War to End All Wars. I highly recommend this book. It’s one I will never forget. This phenomenal novel is being made into a film. I’ll be watching for it.

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Bombs Away

The Light Over London by Julia Kelly turned-out to be a big disappointment for me. Even though I generally find merit in many World War II themed fiction books, I was kicking myself for following this one all the way until the end.

In this fictional tale, we find the lives of several woman used in contrast and comparison format. One is a divorced young woman named Cara who discovers a hidden diary written by a female stranger during World War II, the other is the stranger Louise, who wrote the diary, and the last is Cara’s grandmother. Like many current works of fiction, the story waivers back and forth in time.

This is one large collection of tragic tales heaped on top of each other and I failed to appreciate it because the main characters where just too pitiful. No amount of my wishes made this novel any better.

Bottom line – I didn’t feel anything for any of the characters no matter how miserable they were or how many poor choices they made. It just didn’t work for me as a whole. The redemption of the characters wasn’t given enough space in the story to change my opinion of the novel. My recommendation is: take a pass on this one.

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Mistaken Identity

Carnegie’s Maid by Marie Benedict is a recently published historical fiction novel. It is a story about a young woman named Clara Kelly who immigrated from Ireland in the 1800’s and arrives in the U.S. during the Civil War.

When Clara departs the boat from Ireland, she has no plans other than to secure employment and a place to live in Philadelphia. A twist of fate occurs when Clara hears someone calling her name at the dock. Confused, she responds and finds herself transported to a woman in Pennsylvania who assumes Clara is another woman with the same name who was scheduled to arrive. Little does the head-hunter imagine that there were two Clara Kellys on the same ship. Sadly, the Clara she’s secured employment for died while in transit.

With no malicious intent, the surviving and confused Clara steps into the dead woman’s identity. Her starving family back in Ireland is depending on her financial assistance.

Clara is placed in the employ of Andrew Carnegie as a personal maid to his mother. She has no clue what’s required of the position, but she fakes her way because Mrs. Carnegie, who came from nothing is faking her way as well.

The rest of the novel has Clara giving business advice to Andrew Carnegie and they fall in love to boot! This was pure fiction of course.

I had high hopes for this novel, but found it disappointing on several levels. I didn’t buy Clara’s ability to step into another’s shoes especially since her rural background in that time frame would probably have produced a much less knowledgeable woman. Her vocabulary was way over that of a poor farm girl from Ireland. I’m not saying she couldn’t be intelligent, it’s more that she probably wouldn’t have been highly educated and worldly.

Sadly, I can’t recommend this novel. It has an interesting premise, but I couldn’t buy it.

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Obsessed Genius

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson is a new biography based on the great master’s notebooks. Leonardo was a copious note taker so there’s a lot here to digest, but I learned much I never knew about his life and times.

Born out of wedlock, this great man-made quite a name for himself. His obsessions were numerous and his curiosity led him to make discoveries in many disciplines hundreds of years prior to others. The only drawback was Leonardo had a tendency to leave his projects unfinished and never published his findings. Procrastination and perfectionism were not always beneficial for Leonardo.

He was held in high regard for works he did complete, such as The Last Supper and The Mona Lisa, but up until the end of his life in France, he faced frustration because his rich and powerful benefactors never took full advantage of his many talents.

Other than highly recommending this book, I suggest you read the hard copy because it comes with pdf visual aids which enhance the written material. I listened to the audio version and missed a great deal because I was unable to quickly access the photo references.

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