A Quartet of Good Books

I am very behind in my reviews and so it’s mini-review time once again!  I enjoyed all four of the following books so this should be a pleasant run-through.

The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig

2006. Recorded Books. 10 discs. 12 hours.

Performed by: Jonathan Hogan

In a nutshell: In 1909, Oliver Milliron and his three sons – Paul, Damon and Toby – live as homesteaders on the Montana frontier.  The previous year had seen the death of their mother, and Oliver decides to hire a housekeeper to handle the domestic side of the homestead, responding to an amusing ad that reads “Can’t cook but doesn’t bite.”  The arrival of said housekeeper – widow Rose Llewellyn – and her intelligent debonair brother, Morris Morgan, is just the beginning of seismic changes for the Milliron household.

Review: I loved driving during the days I was listening to the book.  The Whistling Season is great storytelling from the start, starting with a thrilling horse race between Paul Milliron (also the first-person narrator) and the schoolhouse bully, with all their classmates in attendance.  I adored all the Milliron brothers, each distinct and charming in his own way.  I loved their loyalty to each other.  Doig brings the trials and joys of a one-room schoolhouse to life, especially when a dynamic new teacher enters the scene. I was a little crushed and disappointed by what happens at the end of the story.  That said, writing about this book instantly makes me relive its warmth, making this is book I can easily recommend to others.

Another review: Bloody Hell, It’s a Book Barrage – “The Whistling Season is a kinder, gentler novel free of our current social obsessions and self-involvement.”


Devil’s Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America’s Great White Sharks

by Susan Carey

2005. Henry Holt. Hardcover. 304 pages.

The Farallon Islands are in a San Francisco zipcode, but might as well be in the middle of the Pacific Ocean as far as accessibility.  Subject to nasty weather, the islands’ jagged edges make them difficult to approach by boat.  Added to this, the islands are also the seasonal playground for great white sharks.

Susan Carey gives a well-researched and engaging account of the Farallon Islands’ history, the sharks, and the researchers that have made this environment their focus.  She had the privilege of visiting the islands herself, a privilege that is rarely granted.

Sadly, the last third of the book is a harsh lesson in how breaking the rules for the sake of a story can land one in a heap of trouble.  Having used up all her permitted visit time on the islands, Carey – with help from several researchers – uses a borrowed sailing vessel to anchor off the islands to continue her story.  It all goes downhill from there.  It makes for uncomfortable reading, but I don’t see how Carey could have left it out.  She made some huge mistakes with unfortunate repercussions and to omit this from her book would have seemed deceptive on her part.

Carey’s writing is excellent and the sharks are awesome so I still really liked the book.  I would just advise future readers to be aware that the last third will take an abrupt narrative turn.


Half-Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

2009. Scribner. Hardcover. 288 pages.

I loved Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle.  When Walls gave a talk at the National Book Festival in 2009, she spoke about Half-Broke Horses, which is the story of her maternal grandmother, Lily Casey Smith.  I thought Walls was a fantastic speaker and I knew I wanted to read that book.

Half-Broke Horses is listed as fiction only because Walls can’t actually say for sure what her grandmother was thinking or feeling during life events.  Those life events, however, are true stories, passed to Walls mainly by her mother, Rosemary.

I found Lily Casey Smith to be refreshingly rough around the edges.  She felt very real, a person of her time and place.  Lily possessed that frontier attitude, that dislike of rules and regulations.  She bootlegged during the Prohibition, raced horses, and helped run a cattle ranch with her husband.  As a teacher in remote Southwest outposts, she risked her job to give her pregnant unmarried sister refuge, played cards with the locals, and tried to teach daughters of a polygamous sect about feminism.

Reading Half-Broke Horses, you get a sense not just of this one person, but how people in her day and time lived.  I do wish that I had read The Glass Castle more recently, to compare the young Rosemary in Half-Broke Horses to the negligent mother that is portrayed in The Glass Castle.  I think you could read the books in either order, but they definitely seem like companion books to me.

Another review: Literate Housewife – “Although she only knew her grandmother as a young child, the voice she gave to Lily Casey was authentic and powerful.  What touched me the most was the sense of place.”


Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

2003. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Hardcover. 307 pages.

In a nutshell: Purple Hibiscus tells the coming-of-age story of Kambili, a young woman whose outwardly pious and charitable father exacts harsh standards on his family at home.  Kambili’s emotional and social growth is stunted by her desire to please her father and her inability to do so.

When her Aunty Ifeoma convinces Kambili’s father to allow Kambili and brother Jaja to stay with her family in university-town Nsukka, Kambili’s life is allowed to expand for the first time.

Review: I’ve heard a lot of praise for Adichie’s work and this book.  I didn’t end up loving it as much as others have, but I did feel invested in Kambili’s story.  My favorite aspect was the friendship that developed between Kambili and her cousin Amaka, how they are able to eventually be so frank with each other.  The one part that didn’t quite work for me was the character arc of Jaja, Kambili’s brother.  I felt that he dropped out of the story too much in the middle and that this took the impact out of his role in the story’s ending.

Another review: things mean a lot“Purple Hibiscus is wise, perceptive, subtle, and perfectly paced.”


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9 responses to “A Quartet of Good Books

  1. What a wonderful mix of books you’ve been reading, particular liked the sound of Half Broken Horses have made a note of that.

  2. I loved Purple Hibiscus, but Half of a Yellow Sun blew me away. I hope you’ll try that one sometime!

  3. Eva

    That’s too bad about Devil’s Teeth…I’m not a fan of authors who do dumbass things. It tends to alienate me & then I don’t like the book!

  4. Jessica – Half Broke Horses is like listening to really awesome family stories, handed down to us the readers, instead of just to the grandchildren.

    nymeth – I’ve heard a lot of good things about Half of Yellow Sun, so yeah it’s definitely on my radar to try sometime.

    Eva – Judging by the reviews on goodreads, a lot of people found this aspect alienating, so good call on your part to maybe avoid Devil’s Teeth. It really is too bad though, as the sharks are so fascinating.

  5. Wonderful mini-reviews, Christy! I have ‘Half Broke Horses’ on my ‘TBR’ list. I am hoping to read it soon. I will add ‘Purple Hibiscus’ also to my ‘TBR’ list.

  6. Vishy – One of the blurbs on the back of Half-Broke Horses said that it was like Little House on the Prairie for adults, and I thought that was fairly accurate. There’s a kind of ‘western’ feel to it too, and though I don’t read westerns generally, I liked that feel in Half-Broke Horses.

    • Wonderful to know that, Christy! I can’t wait to start ‘Half-Broke Horses’ now 🙂 I love westerns! Though I prefer the comic version and the movie version more than the novel version 🙂 Tex Viller is one of my favourite western heroes. Have you seen ‘The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’? That is my alltime favourite western movie! I also love ‘High Noon’.

      • The Western genre does not seem to be a favored genre in the blogosphere generally speaking. I didn’t know there were graphic novel westerns, but I guess there are graphic novels for most genres now. The only ‘spaghetti’ western I’ve seen is Once Upon a Time in the West. I liked it, but haven’t watched more of its type. I haven’t seen High Noon either.

  7. The Whistling Season is an upcoming book club selection that I was feeling iffy about so I’m glad you liked it (and now I’m thinking of getting the audio!) I just got Half-Broke Horses too. Always good to have upcoming reads validated!

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