The Invisible Wall (Biography) by Harry Bernstein

The Invisible Wall

The Invisible Wall

Harry Bernstein (Adult Biography)

“It was a quiet, little street, hardly noticeable among all the other larger streets, but what distinguished it from all others was the fact that we lived on one side, and they on the other.  We were the Jews and they were the Christians.”

Harry Bernstein describes growing up on a street in the English mill town of Lancashire—one of two sides of the same street separated by an invisible wall, but bonded by poverty.  He writes with fearlessness and bittersweet honesty about his selfless and strong mother who tries to make ends meet with the money left over from his father’s constant gambling and drinking.  The reader is taken on an emotional rollercoaster that goes from tragedy and despair to triumph and delight.  We cringe at his father’s heartlessness and disinterest in his own family, while we hold out hope for his mother who continues to wait for that elusive steamship ticket to America.

At times, Bernstein’s story is painful to read as dream after dream and opportunity after opportunity are unmercifully shattered.  If this was a work of fiction, one could justifiably harbor resentment toward the author for his unusually cruel treatment of his characters.  Knowing that this story is true makes it all the more unforgettable.  This book truly took my breath away and kept me engaged from the very first page to the last.

The Invisible Wall made Harry Bernstein a first-time author at the tender age of 96.  After reading his incredible and compelling story, all I have to say is, “Better late than never, Harry.”

Rating: 5/5

The Year We Were Famous by Carole Estby Dagg (YA)

The Year We Were Famous

The Year We Were Famous

Carole Estby Dagg (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

It’s 1896 and the Estby family is just one auction away from losing their family farm.  They must either raise more than $1,000 or lose everything.  Inspired by her daughter Clara’s story of Nellie Bly, the American journalist who traveled around the world in 72 days, family matriarch Helga begins writing letters seeking a financial sponsor who will pay them to walk from Washington to New York.  When a publisher in New York City offers them $10,000 to make the cross-country trek, the game is officially…so to speak…afoot.

Based on the true story of 17-year old Clara Estby’s walk across America, Carole Estby Dagg gives us the ultimate mother-daughter road trip story.  Using newspaper articles and journal entries, Dagg reconstructs the 4,600-mile journey made by her great-grandmother and great-aunt.  Since the story is based on actual events, the author does take several artistic liberties when presenting us with Helga’s and Clara’s adventures.  I really loved this book until I read the Author’s Note at the end, where I learned exactly what embellishments were made.  I was disappointed when fact and fiction were revealed, but understand how these particular fabrications gave Clara a little more depth of character.  However, the incredible journey these two women embarked upon made these particular elaborations unnecessary.  Helga and Clara survived highwaymen, lava fields, floods, heat, snowstorms, near starvation, personal injuries, and dehydration.  Along the way, they also met Indians, political dignitaries, and managed to make a positive impact toward the advancement of women’s suffrage.

Early in the book, Clara mentions that the only thing she has in common with her mother is the gap between their front teeth.  By the end of their multi-million step journey, Clara realizes that despite their differences, the bond between mother and daughter may be pulled, flexed, and twisted, but will never be broken.

Rating: 4/5

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Major Pettigrews Last Stand

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

Helen Simonson (Adult Fiction)

Ernest Pettigrew (that’s MAJOR Pettigrew to you) is retired and enjoying his tea, books, garden, and a rather predictable life in Edgecombe St. Mary.  That is until his brother unexpectedly dies, his son is dating some leggy American from New York, and he’s suddenly developed a rather uncontrollable fancy for Mrs. Ali, a widowed woman from Pakistan who runs the village shop.  Why, it’s enough to leave this settled, retired gentleman rather…unsettled.  And that won’t do.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand was Simonson’s first novel and she didn’t shy away from sensitive and controversial topics.  Instead, she fearlessly jumps in with both feet and tackles cultural and religious conformity head on.  The book begs the question, “Is it possible for someone in the minority to be accepted by the majority: fully and unconditionally?”  She broaches the subject with honesty and respect and, most importantly, shows us the fallout of when the heart overrides the horde.  The front flap states, “Sometimes love does conquer all”, but I found that not to be entirely accurate.  Love may conquer most, but it is not infallible.  While the war may be bravely fought, there will be casualties and lives will be changed—whether for the better or worse depends of which side of the battle line you happen to fall.

All in all, Simonson succeeds in delivering a witty, charming, and delightful read and she gives us a main character deserving of his own BBC series.  The writing is crisp and intelligent, the story advances at a steady and comfortable pace, and the list of characters range from the exasperating to the enchanting.  All combine nicely—like a good cup of tea, a nice plate of biscuits, and a robust fire in the grate—to fulfill even the most particular of palates.

Rating: 5/5


The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (YA)

The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows

Kenneth Grahame (Young Adult Fiction)

Mole was working hard to clean his little home when something enticing and intriguing and beguiling begins to beckon.  It is spring, and spring waits for no man…or mole.  So when she calls, it’s best to answer, which is exactly what Mole does on this particular day.  He pops out of his burrow and—with the sun warming his dark and rather dusty fur—heads out to see what he can see and what he sees…is a river!  Unbeknownst to Mole, this very river would be the beginning of many wonderful adventures to come.

When The Wind in the Willows was written in 1907, Kenneth Grahame delighted the world with four unforgettable characters: impetuous and curious Mole, kind and generous Rat, indulgent and self-important Toad, and reclusive and wise Badger.  But those who think this is merely just another children’s book should think again!  Between the pages of this dusty jacket is a story that features a brazened auto theft, a bold prison escape, breaking and entering by a gang of ruffians and hooligans, and a good old-fashioned brawl thrown in at the end for good measure.

The Wind in the Willows is a beautifully-told tale of courage, mischief, greed, and friendship and Grahame continues to delight readers with an adventure book for the ages.

Rating: 5/5


I Love You, Michael Collins by Lauren Baratz-Logsted (J)

I Love You Michael Collins

I Love You, Michael Collins

Lauren Baratz-Logsted (Juvenile Fiction)

It’s 1969 and the day before the last day before summer vacation.  Ten-year old Mamie Anderson and her class have to write a letter to one of the astronauts of Apollo 11.  Mamie chooses Michael Collins because, quite simply, no one else did.  After all, where is the glory for the one who gets left behind?

Through a series of letters written to Michael Collins, Mamie shares details about her life, her family, and her best friend, Buster.  We even get to learn more about Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 Mission, and the dangers of space travel.  As the time for the moon landing draws closer and as Mamie’s world pulls apart, she’s left asking, “Doesn’t anyone stay with the ship anymore?”

This is an enchanting and absolutely delectable book to read.  Was it sentimental and nostalgic?  You bet!  I couldn’t get enough of Mamie’s references to Magnavox color TVs, Erector Sets, TV dinners served in compartmentalized metal trays, and doing research at the library by pulling periodicals.  And despite the racial riots and Vietnam War, for one rare moment in time, the world united in witnessing a truly extraordinary event.  Everyone came together not as multiple races, but as one race—the human race—to watch a man from the planet Earth set foot on the moon for the very first time.

I loved experiencing the awe and thrill of the lunar landing through the eyes of a 10-year old girl who decided to write to the astronaut who she considered to be “the best one”, not because he walked on the moon, but because he stayed with the ship so that he could bring everyone safely back home again.

Rating: 4/5


A Cup of Tea by Amy Ephron

A Cup of Tea

A Cup of Tea

Amy Ephron (Adult Fiction)

A Cup of Tea is based on the short story (of the same title) by Katherine Mansfield.  It is set in New York City during World War I and primarily centers around three characters: wealthy and privileged Rosemary Fell, her fiancée and self-made shipping mogul Philip Alsop, and homeless, penniless, and “astonishingly pretty” Eleanor Smith.  When Rosemary happens to see Eleanor huddled beneath a street light one rainy evening, she offers to take the destitute woman home for a cup of tea.  This seemingly innocuous and kind gesture sets events in motion that will have unintended and unimaginable effects on all three of their lives.

This book has good bones, but unfortunately there is little to no flesh and blood to go along with it.  The story lacks depth and feeling and so little attention is paid to the main characters’ development, that by the end of the book, I neither cared nor sympathized with any of them.  By skimping on details and providing no thoughtful backstory for Rosemary, Philip, or Eleanor, Ephron falls far short of delivering her readers the love story that this book professes to be.  Although this story had so much potential and possibility, this particular cup of tea did nothing more than leave me unsatisfied and wanting something else.

Rating: 3/5


Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson (YA)

Fever 1793

Fever 1793

Laurie Halse Anderson (Young Adult Fiction)

It started with the sudden death of a young and healthy girl.  Within a week, 64 more would die from yellow fever and the capital city of Philadelphia would be filled with the endless ringing of bells—one toll for every year the victim had lived.

In the summer of 1793, 14-year old Matilda Cook helps run her family’s coffeehouse, where folks idly gossip or talk politics.  Lately, the conversations have turned to the fever:  Is it a sign from God?  A punishment for sinners?  Did the refugees bring it with them?  As death draws closer, she and her grandfather are forced to flee the city for the safety of the country.  But Matlida soon discovers that death is not easily escaped.

Anderson gives us a compelling, gripping, and suspenseful account of one of the worst epidemics in the history of the United States.  Wiping out 10% of Philadelphia’s population in under three months, the effects of the fever were devastating.  Many fled the city to escape the carnage, but it was those who stayed and tended to the sick, as well as the dead, that were the true heroes.

You don’t have to be a fan of history to thoroughly enjoy this book.  From the first page, the plot never slows and the story will keep you on the edge of your seat.  It reminds us how even the direst of circumstances can often bring out the best in people and that both disease and heroism are not bound by either social status or race.

Rating: 5/5

Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith

Joy in the Morning

Joy in the Morning

Betty Smith (Adult Fiction)

            “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

                                    —Psalm 30:5

 Carl Brown and Annie McGairy are young and deeply in love.  Just past her 18th birthday, Annie travels from her home in New York to the Midwest to join her beloved in marriage.  Much to their mutual surprise, Carl and Annie’s first year proves to be unexpectedly difficult.  Carl is attending the university studying law and holding down several jobs while Annie tries to adapt to her new surroundings without the security and familiarity of friends and family.  Together, through lean times and unforeseen events, they must rely on their faith and love to pull them through.

What I admire most about Smith is that she gives us a strong, witty, and self-assured female character without diminishing her male counterpart.  All too often we see one character being lowered for the sake of elevating the other.  Despite their differences in education and social standing, Carl and Annie view each other as equals and share a mutual respect and passionate devotion for one another.  This alone is refreshing to see in a novel.

Set in 1927, Smith presents us with a small university town populated with principled (albeit flawed) people who all share a strong work ethic, solid moral compass, and innate desire to be decent, kind, and fair to their fellow man.  Her stories are charming and heartwarming without being overly sentimental or trite. A truly uplifting book that focuses on the goodness of humanity rather than its faults and follies.

Rating: 4/5

Ben and Me by Robert Lawson (J)

It’s Tween and Teen Tuesday where we review either a juvenile (J) or young adult (YA) book.

Ben and Me

Ben and Me

Robert Lawson (Juvenile Fiction)

Do you recall seeing portraits of Benjamin Franklin where he wore an old fur hat?  Little did you know that inside that hat lived one very intelligent, outspoken, and opinionated mouse by the name of Amos.  Amos was Franklin’s closest friend, adviser, and the one largely responsible for Franklin’s greatest innovations and achievements…regardless of what historians may have recorded.

Lawson writes with wit and charm and provides readers with whimsical drawings that give life to both Ben and Amos.  From lightning rods to “Liberty Forever!”, young readers will get a glimpse into the greatness and brilliance of one of history’s most accomplished individuals.  Of course, we need to temporarily overlook the flamboyant embellishments of one overly enthusiastic rodent, but when you do, you get a delightful story that is just the right length to hold a young reader’s attention while capturing the imagination.  Throw in a revolution…or two…and you have a tale that is sure to delight and amuse.

Rating: 4/5

Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall

Whistling Past the Graveyard

Whistling Past the Graveyard

Susan Crandall (Adult Fiction)

Whistling past the graveyard.  That’s what Daddy called it when you did something to keep your mind off your most worstest fear…”

Starla Claudelle is nine and growing up in 1963 Mississippi.  At the age of three, she is abandoned by her mother, who is busy chasing dreams of country music stardom in Nashville.  Her father works months on end on an oil rig in the Gulf, which leaves the responsibility of her care and upbringing to her strict and overbearing paternal grandmother, Mamie.  On the fourth of July, Starla decides to run away from home—convinced that if she locates her mother, she will have a real family once again.  Along the way, she gets a ride from Eula, a black woman traveling alone with a white infant.  Together, they embark on an extraordinary road trip that will change both of their lives forever.

Not since Francie Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith) have I delighted in a literary heroine so thoroughly. Starla is sassy, plucky, loyal, reckless, and fearless.  Because of her youth and naiveté, she often makes decisions based on her heart rather than her head, ultimately leading her into some precarious situations.  However, Starla’s spunk and spirit are endearing and allow the reader to readily forgive her of these seemingly foolish transgressions.  The story has a nice and steady pace, the main characters have heart, and Starla’s narration is full of honesty, humor, and charm.  A truly enjoyable read that will undoubtedly find a spot on our Best Of list at the end of the year.

Rating: 5/5