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The Oregon Trail: An American Journey
The Oregon Trail: An American Journey
by Rinker Buck
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.52

5.0 out of 5 stars History, memoir, adventure story, travelogue, and lots of fun..., April 24, 2015
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The Oregon Trail: An American Journey by Rinker Buck is the most enjoyable tale that combines history, adventure, memoir, travelogue and fun. The promotional material said this book would appeal to fans of Tony Horwitz and Bill Bryson. These authors are two of my favorites, and I can now add Rinker Buck to that list.

Buck is a history nut who was surprised to discover on a trip to Kansas that he knew next to nothing about the Oregon Trail. A major pathway to the west, the 2,100 mile trail saw approximately 500,000 pioneers who went toward the Pacific Ocean seeking a better life. Today, the trail is “meticulously marked and charted,” even though some of it is covered by highways and railroad tracks. Buck decides to follow the trail in a covered wagon—something last done in 1909. Not only will he experience the trail firsthand, but he’ll get a chance to relive a similar trip with his family taken in 1958. That summer, his father took his family on a covered-wagon journey from North Jersey to Gettysburg, PA.

Buck spent a few years preparing for the trip—doing research, talking to people, reading old letters and journals, mapping out the trail, and securing equipment. He decided to ask along his brother, Nick, and if it’s possible for two brothers to be total opposites, it’s Rinker and Nick. “Essentially, crossing the Oregon Trail together, we were a case of collaborating DNA presenting symptoms of incurable bipolar disorder. I proceed with an abundance of caution and prefer not to be dead. Nick is thrilled by danger and proceeds with an abundance of risk.” From the start, the brothers had the same experiences as those pioneers of yore. Not only did they over-pack (Rink—did you really need that bocce set and salad spinner?), but they experienced equipment failure, bad weather, treacherous terrain, washed out and flooded roads, lack of water, and getting lost. Throughout, they couldn’t have made it without the kindness of strangers (their trail family) who offered meals, hay, showers, rides, helped with repairs, gave advice, and even gave a few tows. These trail families were some of the true heroes of the book. Many of them also actively work to save the trail through OCTA (Oregon-California Trails Association), where they are nicknamed Rut Nuts. If these individuals were the heroes, it was Buck’s mules that were the stars! There three mule team, Bute, Beck and Jake were true characters with distinct personalities. Bute behaved like a “Hollywood diva.” Beck seemed patient at first, but “was saving all her craziness for later.” Only Jake proved to be a steady, dependable worker. I also enjoyed reading the history of mules in the United States.

Reliving Buck’s journey takes one back to a more simple time in America. The challenges that the Bucks faced and the obstacles that they overcame make this a heart-warming story. At the end, Rinker writes “The Americans today who like to whine all the time because they say that taxes are too high and that government costs too much should leave their television sets behind for a while and go out and see the country they live in. For a change they could educate themselves about America by reading a book. They would learn by such activities that nothing happens by accident, and that the cordiality of the American West exists because real Americans with real problems willed over more than a century that it be so.” How true…


I'd Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them
I'd Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them
by Jesse Goolsby
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Three and a half stars..., April 20, 2015
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I’m not sure exactly why I ordered Jesse Goolsby’s I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them on Amazon Vine. I’m not usually one to read books about any war except the Civil War. But something compelled me to order this debut novel. Maybe it was the clever and attention-grabbing cover. While Goolsby exhibits talent as a writer, the plot is extremely depressing.

I’d Walk With My Friends follows three soldiers who are stationed in Afghanistan. Dax, Torres and Wintric had issues before they became soldiers, which will only be magnified once they return home after their deployment. What makes things worse is that while in Afghanistan, they were forced to make a decision that will haunt them the rest of their lives and further hinder their homecomings. Goolsby provides some background in their pre-Afghanistan days, and then much more about their post-Army years.

All three men find life after Afghanistan an adjustment and Goolsby writes about this very poignantly. Years later, Wintric’s wife finally convinces him to march in a Fourth of July parade in uniform. “Wintric ignored her requests for years, claiming that he was no longer a soldier, that he had despised his time in the army, that the single reason he kept his uniform was to remind himself of what he so gladly gave up, but the truth is harder for him to reconcile—the rage at his uniform, at hearing the words army, sacrifice, honor, the anger and price he feels when someone thanks him for his past service or when he sees a map of Afghanistan or photos of flag-draped caskets or White House Medal of Honor receptions on the Internet. He can’t list all the reasons that he said he would wear the uniform this year, and his son may be one of those reasons, but he knows that if he can get it on and walk through the fury and the Main Street chaos, he may just snuff out some of his attacking memories.” Of the three men, I found that the post-Army story of Dax the weakest and the least fleshed-out. I wish that the author had expanded on his life and what happened in a little more detail.

I think that I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them is a powerful first novel, but I feel that it still needs some tweaking.


The Hypnotist's Love Story: A Novel
The Hypnotist's Love Story: A Novel
Offered by Penguin Group (USA) LLC
Price: $6.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Ended better than I thought..., April 20, 2015
I have been trying to read all the novels written by Liane Moriarty and the latest is The Hypnotist’s Love Story. As with most Moriarty novels, the focus alternates between several characters. In The Hypnotist’s Love Story, the two are Ellen O’Farrell (the hypnotist) and Saskia Brown (a stalker). At first, I wasn’t even sure that I was going to enjoy The Hypnotist’s Love Story. I didn’t like the way the story was progressing. But leave it the author to swing things around to a successful resolution.

Ellen O’Farrell has had a few long-term relationships, but nothing that led her to the altar. She meets Patrick Scott through an on-line dating service and the two seem to hit it off very quickly. Unfortunately, he informs O’Farrell very quickly that he has a stalker. Scott is a young widower with an elementary-aged son. After his wife died, he dated and even lived with Saskia Brown. But since breaking up with her, she now stalks Scott. She phones him, texts him, and sends him emails. She follows him on dates, sends him presents, and enters his house when he’s not at home. At first, O’Farrell seems a bit excited by the stalker, but she can never actually spot her. What she doesn’t know is that Brown is actually one of her hypnotherapy clients (under an assumed name). As O’Farrell and Scott become closer, the stalker seems to be taking more and more risks and there is a possibility that she will do something that could be dangerous.

Moriarty is so deft at bringing life to her characters and especially, their thoughts. Saskia Brown is an especially complex character. She envies O’Farrell and her ease with herself. She thinks that O’Farrell doesn’t have a filter. “Of course, she must have some sort of filter. Everyone has a filter. It’s just that her filter is something quick and simple that carefully discards anything that might accidentally offend anyone. Whereas my filter is a labyrinth of pipes and funnels and sieves that converts everything I think into something acceptable to say, depending on the situation and the person and what I’m trying to prove at that particular moment.” She always tries to deal with her addiction to stalking Scott and O’Farrell. “Just stop it, I always thought when I heard about somebody wrecking their life because of a stupid addiction. But now I get it. It’s like telling someone to stop breathing. Just stop breathing and you’ll get your life back on track. So you hold your breath for as long as you can, but it doesn’t take long before you’re gasping for air.”

Through much of the book, I thought that maybe there was a little too much sympathy for the stalker and that Moriarty was even forgiving Saskia for her actions. But I thought the ending was good, although a little unbelievable although things didn’t end up like I thought they might. Overall, I’d give The Hypnotist’s Love Story a solid four stars.


Whistling Past the Graveyard
Whistling Past the Graveyard
by Susan Crandall
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.41
126 used & new from $2.64

5.0 out of 5 stars Should become a classic..., April 20, 2015
Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall is a heart-warming, haunting, and beautifully written book about a 9-year old girl trying to navigate through life in 1963 Mississippi. I loved Whistling Past the Graveyard and main character, Starla Jane Claudelle from the very first page.

Starla Claudelle lives with her stern grandmother, Mamie, in Cayuga Springs, Mississippi. Her father works on an oil rig in the Gulf. Her mother, Lulu, ran off to Nashville to become a famous singer when Starla was 3. About the only time she hears from Lulu is on her birthday, although she has dreams that her parents will one day reunite. The feisty and independent Starla has wild, curly red hair, a bad temper and a sassy mouth. “My mouth always worked a whole lot faster than my good sense.” Mamie wants Starla to grow up to be a fine, young lady although that seems against Starla’s nature. Always on restriction and threatened with reform school, Starla finally does something so terrible that she decides to run away to Nashville to live with Lula. She gets picked up by Eula, a black woman who happens to have a white baby in the car. Their ensuing road trip will expose Starla to a world she could never imagine that includes violence, prejudice and discrimination (against both blacks and whites), but also the kindness of strangers. This trip also teaches Starla that sometimes dreams become nightmares and that the most important family is the one that you make for yourself. It will also expose Starla to the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, which will open her eyes to the true feelings of blacks in the south. The lessons that Starla learns will change her sense of sense and her view of the world.

Whistling Past the Graveyard should surely become a classic and Starla Jane Claudelle reminded me of Scout Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. She’s definitely a character you won’t forget.


Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West
Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West
by Matthew Dennison
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.77

4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating but haunting..., April 17, 2015
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In many books that I’ve read about England in the early 1900s, I kept running across the name of Vita Sackville-West. She sounded like a fascinating character, although I never knew that much about her except for her lesbian relationships. I saw Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West by Matthew Dennison offered through Amazon Vine and just had to order this book. This biography is well written and researched, but even Dennison admits that this is not a blow-by-blow chronology of her life.” Also, while fascinating, I also found Behind the Mask depressing at times.

Victoria Mary “Vita” Sackville-West was born in Knole House, the granddaughter of Lionel, 2nd Lord Sackville. Knole House is one of the grandest and largest homes in England, and it haunted Vita that she would never inherit her family home as she was a daughter, instead of a son. Early on, Vita developed a love of writing. As an adult, she was a prolific and bestselling author of poetry, short stories, novels and biographies. In her teenage years, she developed lesbian relationships with at least two schoolmates. Even though she eventually married author and statesman Harold Nicolson, she continued a string of affairs throughout her marriage—mostly with women. Harold also had relationships with other men. “In the decade following the collapse of her relationship with Violet [Keppel], Vita’s affairs results in three broken marriages, at least one career ruined, threats of legal action…” Perhaps her most well-known relationship was with fellow-author Virginia Woolf. Yet, what is perhaps Vita and Harold’s most lasting legacy is the garden they created at Sissinghurt Castle which still draws visitors from around the world.

But while I Vita’s life is fascinating, I also found it depressing and even haunting at times. Although a popular writer at the time, Vita’s writings have not aged well. Even she admitted that her books were good, but not great. Vita lived through the end of the Edwardian Era and two world wars. These events would forever change the lives and fortunes of the upper class in England. Vita had a toxic relationship with her mother, and would forever search for that excitement of new conquests. As she aged, Vita became almost a recluse. And she was tortured by a number of things including her English vs. Spanish sides, love vs. sex, femininity vs. masculinity, and especially, her writing. Dennison liberally quotes from her novels, which were in large part autobiographical for examples of her feelings and desires.

But I did think that there were important aspects in Vita’s life that were shortchanged or overlooked. I was interested in learning more about her education. How is it that when Vita was only 10, she could write essays in English, French and German? She wrote diary entries in Italian so that her mother could not read them. Also, in doing some research into Harold and Vita’s house, Long Barn, I discovered that they rented it to Charles Lindbergh and his family after the kidnapping and murder of their son. I would think that this was newsworthy and important to Vita’s story.

Still, in Behind the Mask, Matthew Dennison definitely exposes the complicated life of Vita Sackville-West during a very interesting period in English history.


Bones of the Lost: A Temperance Brennan Novel
Bones of the Lost: A Temperance Brennan Novel
by Kathy Reichs
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $7.99
179 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Ended up better than I expected..., April 6, 2015
I might be one of the rare few who enjoys Kathy Reichs Bones-series as novels, but not as a television series. Featuring Dr. Tempe Brennan, Bones of the Lost is Reichs’ 17th book in this series. At one point, I thought Reichs had lost her way in the plot, but she ends up tying it together very nicely and I came to enjoy it much more than I expected I would.

Forensic anthropologist Dr. Temperance Brennan splits her time between Charlotte, NC and Montreal, Canada. While in NC, a young girl is found dead in the road. This unknown victim in her early teens was intentionally run down. Brennan becomes personally involved in the case when the homicide detective with whom she usually works, Erskine Skinny Slidell, writes the girl off as a prostitute and isn’t much interested in solving the murder. Then a subplot sends Brennan to Afghanistan. I thought that this angle was totally bizarre, but Reichs manages to pull everything together at the end.

One of the things I like about reading Kathy Reichs is that I always manage to learn something new. There are a number of new nuggets of information here. First, I learned about the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System which “is free, online, and available to everyone.” The three categories available on this database are Missing Persons, Unidentified Persons, and Unclaimed Persons. Second, I learned a lot about human trafficking. “At any given time, 2.5 million people worldwide are in forced labor as a result of trafficking…The majority of victims are between eighteen and twenty-four years of age, but roughly 1.2 million are also trafficked annually…Forty-three percent of all trafficking victims end up in involuntary commercial sexual exploitation. Ninety-eight percent are women and girls.” They are alarming statistics. Because of this body of knowledge, I am willing to forgive Reichs the ongoing drama of the men in Brennan’s life as well as some issues with the plot. Also, I’m sure that most forensic anthropologists won’t be found trying to solve a case on their own. In fact, they’re probably not even allowed out of their labs. Still, Kathy Reichs and Temperance Brennan remain one of my favorites.


A Fatal Grace: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel
A Fatal Grace: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel
by Louise Penny
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.95
109 used & new from $4.49

4.0 out of 5 stars Not quite as good as Still Life..., April 5, 2015
I was happy to be introduced to the Armand Gamache mystery series by Louise Penny. But while I thought that her first book, Still Life, was excellent, I thought that book number two, A Fatal Grace, had too many issues. While not many characters in A Fatal Grace were sorry to see the death of CC de Poitiers, the plot itself and the explanation of the death were totally unbelievable. Yet the writing was quite stunning in spots and redeemed the book overall.

I was glad when the murder of CC de Poitiers brings Chief Inspector Gamache and his team back to the picturesque Canadian town of Three Pines. What makes it even more alluring is that it is the Christmas season with all the ambience found in a beautiful, small town. CC de Poitiers is marketing herself as the new Martha Stewart. But while she tried to promote herself with her Be Calm-label, she tortured her 14-year old daughter and was condescending to her meek husband. She purchased a house in Three Pines a year prior and her family is there for Christmas. While the entire town is out to watch a curling game on Boxing Day, CC is electrocuted while sitting in her chair. Gamache believes that he has to find out why CC settled on the town of Three Pines before he can find her murderer. Also, there seems to be a connection to CC and the death of a homeless woman in Montreal. But even when it seems as if Gamache has finally solved the mystery, there is still one surprise left for the reader.

As mentioned before, the plot is definitely a stretch and I found it to be a definite weakness in A Fatal Grace. After two books, I am also tired of agent Yvette Nichol and her antics. There is also a subplot about a former case (Arnot) which we’re finally getting more information about. I guess we’ll just have to see how this plays out in future books. But I do enjoy Penny’s writing. Many people attend Christmas Eve midnight services at St. Thomas Anglican Church. “This night the church was full of Anglicans and Catholics and Jews and non-believers and people who believed in something undefined and unrestricted to a church. They came because St. Thomas’s on Christmas Eve was full of greenery and light.” On a darker note, Gamache believed that “Murder was deeply human, the murdered and the murderer. To describe the murderer as a monstrosity, a grotesque, was to give him an unfair advantage. No. Murders were human, and at the root of each murder was an emotion. Warped, no doubt. Twisted and ugly. But an emotion. And one so powerful it had drive a man to make a ghost. Gamache’s job was to collect the evidence, but also to collect the emotions.”

While I didn’t quite enjoy A Fatal Grace as much as Still Life, I will definitely continue with this series.


Still Life (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Mysteries, No. 1)
Still Life (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache Mysteries, No. 1)
by Louise Penny
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.01
169 used & new from $2.06

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Delightful!, March 26, 2015
A friend highly recommended the Armand Gamache series by Louise Penny, and I decided to start with book one, Still Life. What a lovely novel and a delightful series! Of course, murder isn’t such a lovely topic, but the setting, Three Pines in Canada is a town that would be perfect inside a snow globe.

In the small village of Three Pines outside of Montreal, a retired school teacher, Jane Neal, is found dead in the woods. At first, it looks like it might be the result of a hunting accident. It is hunting season and “Every year the hunters shot cows and horses and family pets and each other.” Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec is sent with his team to investigate. Neal was well-loved by everyone in the town and it is difficult to imagine that someone would have murdered her. But that is just the conclusion that Gamache comes to as he continues to investigate. And the chief inspector believes that Neal’s death is tied to the “natural” death of her best friend, Timmer Hadley, as well as Neal’s own artwork.

The town of Three Pines has a colorful assortment of residents including artists, a poet, a retired psychologist-turned book seller, and a gay couple who run the local bistro and bed and breakfast—just to mention a few. But it’s entirely possible that one of these residents is also a murderer. I enjoyed Louise Penny’s writing. Sometimes she was funny: “The only reason doors were locked was to prevent neighbors from dropping off baskets of zucchini at harvest time.” Other times she is perceptive. Gamache tells someone “’The funny thing about murder is that the act is often committed decades before the actual action. Something happens, and it leads, inexorable, to death many years later. A bad seed is planted. It’s like those old horror films from the Hammer studios, of the monster, not running, never running, but walking without pause, without thought or mercy, toward its victim. Murder is often like that. It starts way far off.’” She also weaves poetry throughout the book to augment the story to good effect.

I’m so happy to have discovered Louise Penny and Armand Gamache. I have already begun book number two, A Fatal Grace.


A Spool of Blue Thread: A novel
A Spool of Blue Thread: A novel
by Anne Tyler
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.02
114 used & new from $9.79

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rich and nuanced and rewarding..., March 21, 2015
Nobody writes about the trials and tribulations of family life as eloquently as Anne Tyler. Her 20th novel, A Spool of Blue Thread is as rich and nuanced and rewarding as we’ve come to expect. I didn’t want it to end and once I finished, I went back to reread some sections in case I missed something.

A Spool of Blue Thread follows three generations of the Whitshank family from Baltimore, MD. The book opens with Reds and Abby Whitshank, who in their 70s are starting to show age-related health issues. Reds, a builder, had a heart attack not too long ago. Abby, a former social worker, is showing early signs of dementia. Three of their adult children live in the area with their spouses and they pitch in to help in various ways. But their 4th child, Denny, has always been their problem child. “It seemed jobs kept disappointing him, as did business partners and girlfriends and entire geographical regions.” He would come home, usually unannounced, and then take off when someone said something with which he took offense. Sometimes he would be gone for months, but other times for years. But when Abby and Reds need help, he shows up and moves back home. Denny’s arrival also brings tension and his siblings don’t believe he has the staying power to help. But his arrival also makes all of them examine their feelings, their hurts, their resentments, and ultimately their love for each other. The house itself is a major character—lovingly built by Red’s father, Junior. At one point, Tyler takes us back to the early days of Reds and Abby. Then she reaches further back to the history of Junior and his wife, Linnie.

Anne Tyler writes so beautifully about simple family issues. Abby has always walked on egg shells around Denny. She thinks that “One thing that parents of problem children never said aloud: it was a relief when the children turned out okay, but then what were the parents supposed to do with the anger they’d felt for all those years?” Abby also believes that “She had always assumed that when she was old, she would have total confidence, finally. But look at her: still uncertain. In many ways she was more uncertain now than she had been as a girl. And often when she heard herself speaking she was appalled at how chirpy she sounded—how empty-headed and superficial, as if she’d somehow fallen into the Mom role in some shallow TV sitcom.” Although I loved this book, there were a few loose strings that Tyler never quite tied together. It was mentioned that Junior and Linnie were killed, but she never really goes into detail. Whatever happened to the house? Also, the ending was a bit open-ended, but I guess that leads to great discussion about whether a person can really change. A Spool of Blue Thread would make a great book club selection.


Kindness Goes Unpunished: A Walt Longmire Mystery
Kindness Goes Unpunished: A Walt Longmire Mystery
Offered by Audible, Inc. (US)
2 used & new from $28.95

4.0 out of 5 stars Fun and entertaining, but not without some issues..., March 19, 2015
Once again, my husband and I listened to Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series on audiobook for a long road trip. Kindness Goes Unpunished, read by George Guidall, was entertaining and fun, although I don’t think it was quite up to the quality found in books one and two. Kindness Goes Unpunished is book three in this series.

Unlike the previous two books that we’re listened to, Kindness Goes Unpunished mostly takes place in Philadelphia, PA. Although sheriff of fictional Absaroka County in Wyoming, Longmire’s daughter Cady is a lawyer in the City of Brotherly Love. Longmire’s best friend Henry Standing Bear has an exhibition of his photographs opening at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. So the two men take off in Henry’s vintage T-Bird for Philadelphia. It doesn’t take long to realize that Walt and Henry are fish out of water. Maybe it’s the cowboy hats and boots. But the first night in town, something terrible happens to Cady and Walt goes from visiting tourist to visiting law enforcement. Walt’s deputy, Vic Moretti, is from Philadelphia. She comes from a cop family (father and four brothers). Soon, the Moretti family, including Mama Moretti is involved. What at first appears to be a domestic situation goes much deeper and has more sinister connotations than originally believed.

I have enjoyed all the Longmire books that I’ve read so far and find them to be much funnier than the television series. But I have a few problems with Kindness Goes Unpunished. I enjoyed that Kindness Goes Unpunished took place in Philadelphia. I was born in Philadelphia and have spent my entire life within its shadow. But Johnson tried to turn this book into a travelogue. It was as if the author felt the need to mention every tourist spot, statue, local foods (although he forgot cheese steaks), store, sports teams, square, park, historic building, etc. But I did just about fall over when I heard someone say “prolly,” which is Philly-speak for probably. Also, anyone familiar with law enforcement knows that as a sheriff from a distant state and especially one who was emotionally involved in the crime, he would never have been given a role—official or otherwise.

But no matter what small issues that I had with Kindness Goes Unpunished, it was fun to listen to and helped make a long car trip seem much shorter.


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