January 19, 2015

The West, Damascus & Down Under

The Diary of Mattie Spenser by Sandra Dallas

Release Date: June 1997
Publisher: Macmillan | St. Martin's Griffin
Pages: 229 pages
Source & Format: Bought; Paperback
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Summary (from Goodreads)
No one is more surprised than Mattie Spenser herself when Luke Spenser, considered the great catch of their small Iowa town, asks her to marry him. Less than a month later, they are off in a covered wagon to build a home on the Colorado frontier. Mattie's only company is a slightly mysterious husband and her private journal, where she records the joys and frustrations not just of frontier life, but also of a new marriage to a handsome but distant stranger. As she and Luke make life together on the harsh and beautiful plains, Mattie learns some bitter truths about her husband and the girl he left behind and finds love where she least expects it. Dramatic and suspenseful, this is an unforgettable story of hardship, friendship and survival.

Thoughts on The Diary of Mattie Spenser
After reading The Doctor's Lady by Jody Hedlund, I became obsessed with books set in the early days of the West. Traveling by covered wagon, claiming up your land, setting up your homestead... I was craving stories from this time period! This desire was solidified after I re-watched The Magic of Ordinary Days. It's not set during this time period, but it has a similar feeling to it. And during this re-watch, I realized why I have such a fondness for this setting: it reminds me of my love for the Little House series!

In researching books set during this time period, I came across The Diary of Mattie Spenser. I hadn't heard of this book before, but I was intrigued by the summary and excited by the high Goodreads rating. When I spotted it on Book Outlet not long after, I automatically added it to my cart. The Diary of Mattie Spenser opens with a character discovering the journal hidden in a trunk in their attic. Interestingly, the prologue and epilogue were the big things that annoyed me about the book. The prologue felt unnecessary - these characters only reappear at the very end of the book (in the epilogue). I would have much preferred it start off immediately with the diary entries. And the ending is quite abrupt, and I didn't care for the way it jumped forward in time.

But once I got past that random beginning, I was hooked. Mattie is shocked when Luke Spenser asks her to marry him. She says yes to his proposal, which also means she's also agreeing to build a home on the Colorado frontier with him. She starts a journal to record the joys and sorrows of her life - her only real company in her new life, as her husband is like a stranger to her. The rest of the book chronicles their life together. I'll admit - this is often a sad, somber read. There are so many difficult, serious things mentioned in these pages. A few didn't sit right with me, including the portrayal of Native Americans, though I can't argue that the attitudes expressed are likely historically accurate. It's a problematic portrayal, but I think most readers will recognize that fact.

The writing style wasn't my favorite, but I'm glad I read The Diary of Mattie Spenser. I honestly don't know if I would have been able to survive this kind of life! It's a hard, lonely existence. I admired Mattie's resilience, and I lost myself in her story. I disliked the way the story was sometimes too sensational - the plot drives the book more than the characters. But overall, I won't soon forget this read. In fact, I went back and read the last 20 or so pages (before the stupid epilogue) a few hours after I finishing. I just needed a bit more time to say goodbye.
City of Jasmine by Deanna Raybourn

Release Date: February 25, 2014
Publisher: Harlequin MIRA
Pages: 354 pages
Source & Format:
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Summary (from Goodreads)
Famed aviatrix Evangeline Starke never expected to see her husband, adventurer Gabriel Starke, ever again. They had been a golden couple, enjoying a whirlwind courtship amid the backdrop of a glittering social set in prewar London until his sudden death with the sinking of the Lusitania. Five years later, beginning to embrace life again, Evie embarks upon a flight around the world, collecting fame and admirers along the way. In the midst of her triumphant tour, she is shocked to receive a mysterious—and recent—photograph of Gabriel, which brings her ambitious stunt to a screeching halt.

With her eccentric aunt Dove in tow, Evie tracks the source of the photo to the ancient City of Jasmine, Damascus. There she discovers that nothing is as it seems. Danger lurks at every turn, and at stake is a priceless relic, an artifact once lost to time and so valuable that criminals will stop at nothing to acquire it—even murder. Leaving the jewelled city behind, Evie sets off across the punishing sands of the desert to unearth the truth of Gabriel's disappearance and retrieve a relic straight from the pages of history.

Thoughts on City of Jasmine
A while ago, April from Good Books and Good Wine recommend this book to me. I hadn't read anything by Deanna Raybourn before, but she totally sold me when she described the type of romance I'd find in this book. So, when I spotted City of Jasmine at the library recently, I knew I had to give it a shot. The heroine, Evangeline Stark, is an aviatrix. Her husband died years ago when the Lusitania sank... so why does she receive a recent photo of him in the mail?

Determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, Evangeline sets off for Damascus. This setting was entirely new to me, which I loved. I haven't read many books about life in the British colonies in the 1920s - but now I want more! Evangeline is such a delight - she's the got that spark that makes her jump off the page. I was hooked on her adventures and couldn't wait to see how they'd turn out. Would she find Gabriel? How is he still alive? And what has he been doing these last five years? The result makes for such fun! Danger is lurking around every corner, and I spent much of the book anxiously waiting to see how it'd all turn out.

The only thing that annoyed me a bit is that the writing is a little detail heavy. There are a few too many info dumps, which made the pace a little inconsistent for me. However, overall, this was an enjoyable escape! The unique setting and plucky characters won me over! I'm glad this was my introduction to Deanna Raybourn, and I'm interested in reading more from her in the future.

Release Date: April 9, 2013
Publisher: Simon & Schuster | Touchstone
Pages: 416 pages
Source & Format: Gifted; Paperback

Summary (from Goodreads)
In 1901, a ship sinks off the coast of Queensland, Australia. The only survivor is Isabella Winterbourne, who clutches a priceless gift meant for the Australian Parliament. This gift could be her ticket to a new life, free from the bonds of her husband and his overbearing family. But whom can she trust in Lighthouse Bay? 


Fast-forward to 2011: after losing her lover, Libby Slater leaves her life in Paris to return to her hometown of Lighthouse Bay, hoping to gain some perspective and grieve her recent loss. Libby also attempts to reconcile with her sister, Juliet, to whom she hasn’t spoken in twenty years. Libby did something so unforgivable, Juliet is unsure if she can ever trust her sister again.

Thoughts on Lighthouse Bay
I absolutely loved Kimberley Freeman's Wildflower Hill, so I had high hopes for Lighthouse Bay. Once again, she combines contemporary and historical time periods into one book and connects them in interesting ways. While this didn't live up to its predecessor for me, I still liked it!

Now, I'll be honest: I started this book before and always ended up setting it down after the first chapter or two. The contemporary portion focuses on Libby Slater who has just lost, as it's revealed in the first chapter, the man she's loved for a decade. The only problem? She's his mistress. Because of the secretive nature of their relationship, she doesn't even know how to grieve him. No one even knows what he meant to her and she to him. So, I could never quite get into this book because I so disliked what she was involved in.

I told myself I'd give it one last shot, and this time I pushed through. I made it to the historical portion, and then I was hooked. Set in 1901, the heroine is Isabella Winterbourne: the only survivor is a terrible shipwreck. She's escaped with not just her life, but also a priceless gift meant for the Australian Parliament. Will she deliver it to the intended recipient - or will she use it as her means to escape the life that has her trapped? I was dying to find out what she would do!

Honestly, I wish this had just been historical fiction. I never liked the contemporary portion or connected to Libby - it felt like it was "getting in the way" of what I really wanted to read. I struggled a bit with Isabella at times, but I could at least understand because she was a bit lost and broken. Libby just made me irritated, and I didn't respect for the way she'd run from her problems. Because I never loved either character (and many of the secondary characters seemed a bit too caricature-ish), this wasn't a favorite for me. I hope my next read from Freeman works better for me! I wouldn't dissuade anyone from reading this book, but I'd be more likely to push them to read the underrated gem that is Wildflower Hill.

3 comments:

  1. The longer I read your blog, the more I love your reading selection. The Diary of Mattie Spencer was one of my first reads when I went back to reading post college/adult life. I loved it, I've always been interested in the American West and this book hit all my hot buttons then. I grew to love Sandra Dallas and for awhile she was on my auto-buy list. I have "True Sisters" on the top of my TBR pile.

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  2. I loved the Little House books. I'm actually in the middle of rereading them for the re-read challenge even. So I'd definitely think I'd enjoy The Diary of Mattie Spencer as well. I know rereading the little house books I've been struck by how hard their lives really were, something I couldn't quite grasp growing up, so it makes sense that would be one of your takeaways from a similar book as well.

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  3. What an intriguing set of reads, Hannah! Of them all, The Diary of Mattie Spenser is the one that is most appealing. I think it's because I love the Little House series so much, and to have you mention it in your review was a clincher! I'm thinking I'll potentially have to check this one out (or reread the Little House series, or read both).

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