Overrated? THE FOUR WINDS by Kristin Hannah


When a novel is labelled overrated, this creates a temptation for me to read it. Books I have enjoyed have been called so in threads by other readers, books such as The Book Thief and The Couple Next Door.

I’m skeptical when a book is called overrated. What exactly does that mean? Does the person posting know of a similar book they enjoyed better? Are they listing novels people like and labelling them, simply to annoy?

Everyone has their own reading style, of course.

The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah was the subject of many such discussions before it was released. I had an ARC, so I was going to read it anyway, but one of the forums had a thread titled “Reasons Why I’m Not Reading The Four Winds”–with hundreds of people commenting.

I am stubborn. This upset me. I decided to read the book without paying attention to the comments.

I’ve never read a book by this author, though I know she is famous. My first impression of The Four Winds was that the woman described on page one, the young lady who grew up finding friends in books, sounded like me. Plenty of readers can relate to Elsinore as a young girl in the introduction.

I can agree with some critics that the novel started slowly. If I wasn’t so determined to brush off the naysayers, I might have started reading a side book to fill in the gaps (it’s a bad habit I’m developing). I don’t want to feed this habit, so I turned the pages and became hooked on the story four chapters in.

The book is about hard times. Hard times–this phrase is invoked often in The Four Winds, and it means something different for everyone, character and reader alike. Some people during hard times lose the desire to fight, choosing to wilt away. Some lose their minds under the strain to survive. Then there are some, like the main character, Elsa, who become stronger when the going gets rough.

No one ever believed in Elsa. She suffered from the yellow fever as a child, and her mother feared the illness had made her weak for the rest of her life. This prevented her from doing anything that involved work, like playing with friends. She spent most of her time at home, reading books and sewing.

It wasn’t until her twenty-fifth year that she chose to be daring. She made herself a red dress, cut her hair into a bob, and climbed out the window. One night, she decided to be bad; that night would change the course of her life.

Ironically, this storm helped Elsa find herself. When her mother and father tossed her out as a consequence of her poor choices, she found herself living with the Martinelli family as a wife–and soon a mother.

We might call it the first blessing Elsa ever received–because with the Martinellis, she found strength. She had something to fight for. She learned that she was not as weak as her parents made her believe. No longer dragged by the wind, Elsa became a woman with the Martinellis.

Then came the Depression and the disaster of the Dust Bowl. Hard times became infernal.

When someone has already fought to become a stronger person, how much will it take for them to buckle under strain? The land that fed and maintained the Martinellis is dying, becoming sand under their feet.

Elsa packs her children into the car and leaves for California. It’s rumored that they will find relief in California–but rumors so often let us down.

The most powerful element in The Four Winds was Elsa’s relationship with her daughter, Loreda. At some point in her adolescence, Loreda started to behave like a teenager, embarrassed by her mother and blaming Mom for everything. The Four Winds made me cry, though, when this turbulent relationship was set to rest…at a great cost to Loreda.

This is one of the few books that did make me tear up.

Ignore the naysayers and read The Four Winds if you want a story packed with drama and a struggle to survive. There are proud moments; there are fearful moments. There are also moments in which you’ll be thankful that you weren’t alive during the Depression.

Survival and hard times look different for every generation. Read this book to find out how people waded through hard times, long ago–but so long ago.

NEVERWHERE by Neil Gaiman


I know I have written about the book Neverwhere in the past. It’s one of the few books I classify as favorites.

Those stories become favorites because something about them remains in me. It might be a character, or a place, or a phrase I must repeat every few years.

Sometimes, I will have forgotten the rest of a book in question—all of it except for the one thing that made it immortal.

This year, I read Neverwhere again after so long that I’d forgotten most of the story. Very little of it was familiar. Apart from some phrases that inexplicably took root in my memory, the mood and setting of this book felt new.

Halfway through, I remembered why I have always loved the story. The simplicity of main character Richard Mayhew is beautiful every time I ‘meet him’ again.

He is not popular or exciting. He has some aloof friends at work and a girlfriend who treats him like a loser. It seems as if his life will never speed up—until he does an act of kindness which flings him into London Below, a world of monsters and treachery.

Richard is frightened to be there. He is no instant hero, like those we encounter in movies. It takes him a painstakingly long while to accept he isn’t dreaming.

The boldest element in Neverwhere is Richard’s humanity, his ordinariness, something we can all relate to—and something we seek subconsciously in everything we read.

Like him, we feel insignificant sometimes. We grow through trials, some of them tremendous and frightening. These trials can shape us into heroes, if we let them.

We should never feel pressured into instant bravery—that’s not how humanity works. Instead, we should accept ourselves for what we really are; that is the most frightening and brave thing to do.

Neverwhere is a favorite because it has Richard, a character who gives me hope even when he has lost his own. His transformation is not painless; he does not meet the monsters with his chin up every time. Nonetheless, he emerges a warrior.

Richard’s humanity was the thing I needed to revisit in Neverwhere, a place I will never tire of—because his humanity makes it easier for me to accept my own.

Wild Strawberries: Angela Thirkell’s Warped Downton Abbey


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Happy Halloween!

On the most magical day of the year, I’m sure many of you are bracing yourselves for the winter, preparing to write novels, or simply enjoying your pumpkin spice while wearing oversized hoodies (I am).

With a new novel to plan myself, I’m staying in today, but that doesn’t mean I’ll ignore the occasion; every Halloween I read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a tradition I created five years ago. It helps get me into the mood.

I won’t dwell on the spooky in this blog post. I’ve just finished a delightful novel called Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell. I can’t believe I haven’t heard of her before. I got it as an eBook this summer before my trip to Europe, but did not get to it until yesterday. I was not disappointed; short, sweet, and humorous, it had a springtime vibe that made me forget the chill outside.

I’ve never before read a book that made me laugh out loud. Certain scenes had me in tears. Poking fun at aristocrats with their dignified houses, Thirkell has a writing style that leaves you wanting more. She crafts characters you cannot hate, even if they behave in ridiculous ways. It made me think of Downton Abbey, especially scenes where the butler participates, except this butler is more keen to cause a fuss than Mr Carson would be.

I thought I was good at crafting characters; now I envy Thirkell, with her ease for giving each protagonist their color. There is the quirky Lady Emily Leslie, sixteen-year-old Martin who is spoiled and seems to know it, Lady Emily’s daughter, Agnes, who pulls off the “simple-minded” character–I felt like the characters had already existed, and Thirkell was commenting on the things they did, almost in a bored fashion.

After I finished Wild Strawberries, Goodreads told me it is the second book in a series; this means I will need to find the first one. I don’t know where Angela Thirkell has been all my life, but like Rosamunde Pilcher, she is a new voice that I’m glad to have found. They have different tones: Thirkell is humorous, Pilcher seemed rather melancholic, but both told tales that engrossed me.

If you like Downton Abbey, read Wild Strawberries. When I read the other books in the series, I’ll report on those as well.

Enjoy your Halloween, and I hope you get lots of candy!