Jo’s Boys by Louisa May Alcott — Reread Review

Cover: bookshop.org

Previous in the series: Little Men.

Despite my best efforts to keep track of who was who in Little Men, I opened Jo’s Boys to a bewildering array of names. The events of the book were enough that I eventually figured out Tom, Stuffy and Josie, but I had to resort to Google to remind me of Jack, Dolly, Ned, Dick and Billy. Obviously, a school the size of Plumfield needs to be well peopled, but Louisa May Alcott may have tried to spread the attention too thinly between all these boys, as only some of them are sufficiently memorable.

‘I never can forget this — I hope it’s cured me; if it hasn’t, I am afraid I ain’t worth saving,’ answered Ted, pulling his own hair as the only way of expressing his deep remorse.
‘Yes, you are, my dear; I felt just so at fifteen when Amy was nearly drowned, and Marmee helped me as I’ll help you.’


Jo’s Boys, Louisa May Alcott

As usual with Louisa May Alcott’s writing, it’s the characters who develop over the course of the novel that really stand out. In this case: Nat, Dan, Ted and Josie. Dan’s story is particularly heartbreaking, and while the ending is probably realistic, it feels like less than he deserved, especially in comparison to almost everyone else’s most-cherished desires coming true. That said, the relationship between Dan and Mrs Jo is enviable to the very last and is the greatest triumph of both these sequels.

A few quiet weeks followed, during which Dan chafed at the delay; and when at length word came that his credentials were ready, he was eager to be off, to forget a vain love in hard work, and live for others, since he might not for himself.

Jo’s Boys, Louisa May Alcott

Other romances are less doomed than poor Dan’s, and while they’re all sweet enough, Louisa May Alcott did a good job of balancing them out with Nan. Her refusal to bow to heteronormative pressure to find a husband is not only explicit and explicitly praised, she also gets the chance to monologue on the subject of why she doesn’t want a husband.

The March sisters and Laurie continue to delight. Mrs Meg’s mingled horror and admiration that her daughter inherited her flair for dramatics and wants to make a career of it was particularly enjoyable, as was her relationship with her older children becoming adults. The only fly in the ointment comes at the end, when the narrator expresses a desire to call up an earthquake to end the series. It feels like Louisa May Alcott’s way of saying she’s tired of these characters, which somewhat tarnishes a reader’s enjoyment of them.

Similarly, there’s a section early in the novel where Mrs Jo has to deal with autograph-hunters and the effects of her own celebrity. For anyone who has read a biography of Louisa May Alcott (or the annotations in Little Women), this section feels a little too lazily drawn from life. Overall, there’s a sense that the narrator (who is probably the author) doesn’t really want to be writing this book at all, which might make the reader for guilty for enjoying it.

As a long time fan, I came away from Jo’s Boys with mixed feelings, but I definitely want to read more of Louisa May Alcott’s work and see what she did with characters other than the March family.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho — New Review, Bookclub Edition

Cover: bookshop.org

In addition to being a book club book, The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water was recommended on a list of queer heist novels. I’m glad I read it for book club, and not as a fan of heists, because it’s really not what I want from that description. There are bandits, yes, and (debatably) stolen treasure and negotiations, but little of this is the result of forethought or organisation.

If the first bandit was a porcelain vase, this one was an everyday clay vessel, suitable for holding water or budu or rice wine, as the occasion demanded.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, Zen Cho

Putting aside heist-y expectations, Zen Cho’s world-building is lovely. The religious Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water has a great name, and the details about the goddess and her followers are spread through the story, building up a background which feels significant and convincing. Without giving anything away, the religion-specific compliments and treasures were a really nice touch.

Zen Cho’s pacing worked well, until the very end, which felt a little abrupt. While there had been hints about the relationships between different characters, these didn’t really have enough time to build before they were suddenly impacting the plot in surprisingly big ways. To a reader used to enjoying novellas, this might not be a problem, but in comparison to a full-length novel it felt somewhat light. While the prose of The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water didn’t stand out, it was pleasant enough, and a longer novel would be enjoyable.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Love and Other Four-letter Words by Carolyn Mackler — Reread Review

Cover: thestorygraph.com

I remembered liking Love and Other Four-letter Words as a teen, but didn’t recall any details of the plot. If I had, I might not have picked a story about a young person rocked by their parents separation so soon after reviewing The Suitcase Kid. While the circumstances are similar, Love and Other Four-letter Words is a more mature, more rounded story, as befits Carolyn Mackler writing for an older audience. That said, the themes of friendship (both old and new) certainly recalled Best Friend Next Door.

As we unlaced our sneakers and waded into Cayuga Lake, a motorboat whipped by, towing a small boy on an oversized yellow inner tube. The kid, both hands gripping the plastic handles, had a frantic expression on his face as his pleas to stop were swallowed by the rumble of the horsepower. The spotter was consumed with smearing on sunblock, the driver consumed with bikini-clad women capsizing a Sunfish. Which left the boy with two options: to catapult himself into murky waters, or to get dragged along, completely out of his control, until the powers-that-be decided to terminate his joyride. He chose the latter.

I kept revisiting that image over the next few weeks, as I watched my life being disassembled, one familiarity at a time.

Love and Other Four-letter Words, Carolyn Mackler

Sammie Davis was immediately sympathetic as a main character, her entire life changing around her and out of her control. Adult readers can see the places where she makes mistakes in how she handles things, but they are realistic errors given her age, and they build up to a satisfying emotional conclusion. Carolyn Mackler writes Sammie’s friends and family like real people, who all have their own lives going on, even when those lives aren’t particularly centred in the narrative.

The romance felt realistic, with all of that teenage held-breath excitement, without stealing focus from the rest of the story. There isn’t space for Sammie’s love interest to get a whole lot of personality, but he has enough for a book which is only about the very, very early stages of their relationship, and it’s nice that Sammie’s friendship with Phoebe gets more attention and feels like it has more of an impact on her life. Friendship is important and, as an author, Carolyn Mackler really seems to get that.

Love and Other Four-Letter Words is probably the reason I keep reading and rereading novels by Carolyn Mackler. None of the others quite live up to this level, yet, but I still have more to go so maybe I’ll discover another favourite.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex — New Review, Bookclub Too

Cover: bookshop.org
Cover: thestorygraph.com

When book club nominated a book with a lighthouse on the cover, obviously I had to vote for it! The Lamplighters actually has two covers, both with lighthouses, but which give wildly different ideas of what the book is going to be like, so I was curious to see which one would prove more accurate.

A fifty-metre column of heroic Victorian engineering, the Maiden looms palely magnificent against the horizon, a stoic bastion of seafarers’ safety.

The Lamplighters, Emma Stonex

Like most of the lighthouse books on this blog, The Lamplighters is historical fiction, set when lighthouses were still manned rather than automatic, but it’s more recent than most, only going back to the 1970s. What also sets it apart is that it’s about a tower lighthouse, jutting directly out of the sea, where there isn’t space for keepers to bring their wives and families with them. Perhaps that was why it was difficult to keep the threads of the marriages straight. Arthur-and-Helen and Bill-and-Jenny merged into such a shapeless muddle that I had to make a note in my reading notebook which I referred back to every time there was a chapter from one of the wives’ perspectives.

Even after finishing The Lamplighters, it’s not entirely clear what happened in a couple of of the plots. Emma Stonex was clearly keeping information back from her readers, raising questions which you’d hope would be answered by the conclusion to the story. Except, several of them weren’t. Maybe it was intentional, because real life rarely offers neatly-wrapped solutions to every question, but in a novel billing itself as a mystery, it was more frustrating than thought-provoking.

The truth is that women are important to each other. More important than the men, and that isn’t what you’ll want to hear because this book, like all your others, is about the men, isn’t it? Men are interested in men.

The Lamplighters, Emma Stonex

Those plots which did feel complete were enjoyable, particularly the stories of those left behind: Jenny, Helen and the novelist Dan Sharp. (Michelle, despite being the most distinct of the female characters, sadly got a bit abandoned.) Bill’s storyline could have been more effectively handled, because the bare bones of it were interesting.

There was certainly a lot going on in The Lamplighters, arguably too much because no single plot or detail really got the attention and weight that it deserved. Maybe a less complex structure would’ve delivered the story with more impact. While I’ll be keeping this for lighthouse reasons, I won’t necessarily be running out to buy more books by Emma Stonex, unless one catches my interest or comes highly recommended.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

The Suitcase Kid by Jacqueline Wilson — Reread Review

Cover: bookshop.org

The Suitcase Kid might have been the first Jacqueline Wilson book I ever read; I think I picked it up to fill one of those post-sleepover mornings at a neighbours house when I was the first to wake up. I didn’t have my own copy, so it wasn’t one of the books I could revisit and I’d forgotten almost everything except the basic premise and the inclusion of a Sylvanian Families toy, of which I was envious even as a child. (Not of the toy itself, so much, as of the specialness. Despite priding myself on my imagination, I never had a special toy, let alone one that I believe was real and treated as an imaginary friend.)

I saw another hole in the tree. There was a small doll-size doormat at the edge with WELCOME in very tiny cross-stitch. I peeped past the mat and there was my own darling radish stretched out happily on her own little wooden sofa, her head propped on a blue velvet cushion.

The Suitcase Kid, Jacqueline Wilson

Jacqueline Wilson’s plot is simple enough, but charming. Reading children’s books, it’s often much easier to see the structure of a story than in more complicated works. In this case, Andy is sad about her family circumstances, and Jacqueline Wilson slowly introduces things which help her adapt to her new situation until she feels happy again, with a small crisis just before the resolution. It’s not ground-breaking, but the details are delightful, especially all Radish’s adventures, and Nick Sharratt’s illustrations of them.

And I get to live in my mum’s house one week and my dad’s house the next. It’s as easy as ABC. I don’t think.

The Suitcase Kid, Jacqueline Wilson

Even for someone who’s never been in Andy’s situation, her character felt relatable. While her step-siblings aren’t given vast amounts of page time, they felt more-or-less real, especially Katie and Graham. Zen and Crystal, by contrast, aren’t as fully fleshed-out as they could have been. The theme of finding a new home, and getting used to a new family situation, is definitely relatable outside the specific circumstances of divorce, and the way Jacqueline Wilson tied that to the arrival of new infant siblings was particularly effective.

The Suitcase Kid was a very welcome change of pace, and I’ll definitely be holding onto my copy now that I have one of my very own!

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.