Masterpiece Miniseries: Les Miserables

I fell in love with Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables when I first read it. The book transported me to a captivating historical time and place populated by vivid characters motivated by dire circumstances. And while I am haunted by the music in the Broadway show, I have longed for a dramatic adaptation of the book that delves more deeply into the characters’ lives and full stories. I got my wish with the Masterpiece Theater miniseries of Les Misérables starting Sunday, April 14 and continuing for six Sundays through May 19.

My husband, daughter, and I have been transported with each episode we previewed, taken to the early 1800s in France, a time when life was tenuous and any setback could have dire consequences. Here the lives of the criminal Jean Valjean, his relentless pursuer Inspector Javert, Fantine, the woman who tried to do the best for her child, and Cosette, the innocent girl, intersect in unexpected ways.

The cast is strong, with standout performances by Lily Collins as Fantine, Dominic West as Valjean, and David Oyelowo as Javert. Watching them we felt as though we knew these people, their motivations, and their emotions. Settings, costumes, and smooth transitions between intimate scenes and those with action all added to the feeling that for 60 minutes at a time we were right there with the characters.

I haven’t felt this excited about a production in years, and I’m such a fan that I signed up for the PBS Masterpiece official companion e-newsletter, Les Misérables Insider. I can’t wait for the promised weekly roundup of exclusive interviews, behind-the-scenes info, historical content and other bonuses. Here’s the link if you’d like to sign up too:

I received a preview copy of this production in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Angel Thieves by Kathi Appelt

Angel Thieves

Sixteen-year-old Cade Curtis and his dad steal angels—the stone kind that sit atop forgotten graves in forgotten cemeteries. They only do it out of necessity, like when the lady who owns the antique store where they both live says they need money to keep getting by. But Cade wants to stop, wants to be someone Soleil Broussard would be proud to go out with.

Cade doesn’t know how his story intersects with that of Achsah, a slave who lived near the bayou in his part of Houston more than 150 years ago. Or how he will cross paths with Zorra, an endangered ocelot suffering in a cage waiting to be sold as part of a market that trades in illegal wildlife. All of their stories come together during one particular storm in Kathi Appelt’s compelling story, Angel Thieves.

A masterful storyteller, Appelt weaves a tale that touches on injustices of the past and how they impact the present in ways both seen and unseen. She looks at the horrors of slavery through the eyes of a mother trying to save her daughters. She touches on wildlife poaching from the perspective of an animal stolen from her home. She delves into teen parenthood, and the heartbreak of young parents being rejected by their own families. Through all of the human drama, the one constant is the bayou that anchors the lives of those who live along its banks.

Angel Thieves combines history with the present and a sprinkle of magical realism to create a compelling story that flows as easily as the waters of Buffalo Bayou. I highly recommend it for mother-daughter book clubs and readers aged 14 and up.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this title in exchange for my honest review.

Masterpiece Miniseries: Mrs. Wilson

Mrs. Wilson

Mrs. Wilson, a Masterpiece miniseries drama presented on PBS starting Sunday, March 31, 2019, tells the story of Alison Wilson and her husband, spy-novelist Alexander Wilson. When Alec dies suddenly, Alison is shocked when another woman shows up on her doorstep claiming to be his wife. Determined to prove her wrong, Alison digs into Alec’s activities just before and during World War II. What she discovers tilts her world in unexpected ways.

Ruth Wilson, granddaughter of Alison, stars as the title character in this true-life story of lies, deceit, and intrigue. The tension builds throughout as Alison uncovers more unknown parts of Alec’s life, a life he kept hidden from her even as she thought they were a happy couple raising two sons. Desperate to keep her sons from experiencing her own growing sense of betrayal, Alison tries to hold everything together even though she is slowly falling apart.

Because the story is true, viewers know that the charade can’t last. But the mystery of how it will all play out will keep them riveted throughout. The drama has been nominated for four 2019 Television Awards and Television Craft Awards by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts:

  • Miniseries
  • Leading Actress, Ruth Wilson
  • Supporting Actress, Keeley Hawes
  • Make Up and Hair Design, Konnie Daniel

The Boston Globe calls is “compellingly dark and twisty,” and I agree. It’s entertaining television at its best; don’t miss it. Find more, including the trailer and background info, on the Masterpiece website.

I received a preview of this production in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Invictus by L.L. Holt

Invictus cover image

When Beethoven was born he had a dark complexion, darker than anyone in the family. His father, who was prone to drinking and angry outbursts, was suspicious that the baby’s mother had not been faithful. But the young Louis had a champion in his grandfather, who nurtured his love for music.  As Louis grew he endured late-night, hours-long piano practices, abuse by his father, and poverty. But he also knew his mother’s love and cared for his younger siblings.

Invictus, by L.L. Holt, provides a glimpse into the life of young Beethoven and the times he grew up in. It was a time when great composers were revered and musicians were valued by the church and the government. Those who could afford music lessons for their children paid well, and Beethoven began teaching as soon as he could so he could help his always-cash-strapped family.

Readers also learn about the patrons who helped the young musician and fostered his knowledge of music and composing, individuals without whose help the great composer may not have become so accomplished and known.

Invictus is an interesting look at Beethoven’s life, the discrimination he faced because of the color of his skin, how he overcame the prejudiced opinions of many people of the times, and how he excelled despite being abused and bullied. The story will leave readers with a desire to find out more about his rise to greatness. I recommend it for readers aged 14 and up.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Fly Girls by Keith O’Brien

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Fly Girls cover image

The first female pilots in the U.S. had to fight for the ability to fly airplanes and compete in races against men. At the time, during the 1920s and 30s, it was thought that women didn’t have the stamina and capacity to perform in stressful situations the same way men did. There was also a societal emphasis on protecting women and limiting the roles they could take on outside of being wives and mothers.

Five daring women in particular pushed against those boundaries and paved the way for others to be taken seriously as pilots. Keith O’Brien chronicles their lives and the struggles they faced in his book, Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History.

Most everyone is familiar with one of those women, Amelia Earhart, whose disappearance over the Pacific Ocean 1937 is still being puzzled over. The others, Florence Klingensmith, Ruth Elder, Ruth Nichols, and Louise Thaden, are lesser known but played as crucial a role as Earhart. They all risked their lives for a passion that at the time was dangerous for anyone, as planes often failed and crashed.

O’Brien brings the stories of these trailblazers to light, revealing the challenges they faced and how they overcame them. It’s a great way for young readers to not only learn about these specific pilots, but also about the early days of aviation and gender roles from the early 20th century. I recommend Fly Girls for mother-daughter book clubs with girls ages 10 and up.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt

Pay Attention Carter Jones cover image

On the first day of sixth grade Carter Jones opens his front door to find a butler, sent to help his family as part of a bequest in Carter’s grandfather’s will. And the family certainly needs help. Carter has three younger sisters, a dad deployed in Germany, and a mom trying to keep everyone organized. Plus, the family is still grieving the unexpected death of Carter’s younger brother, Currier.

The butler, Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick, brings much needed authority and organizational skills to daily life, and he soon has the household running smoothly. But he also introduces something new to Carter and his fellow classmates at Longfellow Middle School: cricket. As Bowles-Fitzpatrick gathers a team and teaches them the rules, he also teaches Carter how to step up in the game of life.

Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt has both light-hearted and serious moments as it tells the story of a boy trying to find his way during a confusing time. He knows he’s at the bottom of the social ladder as a sixth grader in middle school, but he finds a way to stand out through cricket. He knows he needs to help out at home more, but he’s not sure how to do it until Bowles-Fitzpatrick guides him in making good decisions. And by taking things one step at a time, he figures out how to move forward even though life isn’t turning out the way he expected. It’s a great look at how children can confront grief, overcome obstacles, and navigate whatever life throws their way.

I recommend Pay Attention, Carter Jones for readers aged 10 to 13.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: The Giver (Graphic Novel) Adapted by P. Craig Russell

Both of my daughters loved reading Lois Lowry’s The Giver, a story of a future world where only one person in society takes on the role of keeper, the person who remembers what life used to be like when it wasn’t regulated by the government: there was pain, and war, and disease, color, birdsong, and joy to be found in simple pleasures. Each generation the keeper becomes the giver, when he transfers those memories to someone new. The book is a much-beloved classic that has also become a play and a movie. Now it is also a graphic novel.

P. Craig Russell adapted Lowry’s story for the graphic novel format. He also created the illustrations. The result is a beautiful rendition that stays true to the story while also creating new ways to appreciate it. The format is likely to attract new readers as well as please those already familiar with the tale.

A Q. and A. at the end with Lowry gives insight into how she feels about her story becoming a graphic novel. Another Q. and A. with Russell uncovers the challenges he faced adapting the original. He also talks about the technique he used to make his black and white illustrations more visually interesting to readers.

This graphic novel adaptation of The Giver is a great edition to keep on your bookshelf to read over and over again, finding something to discover and appreciate in the story and illustrations each time.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Herstory by Katherine Halligan

History is often told through the exploits of men, because for the most part they held the most powerful positions and made the decisions that changed the world. But that’s not always the case. Elizabeth I is an exception, a queen who helped solidify England’s place as a nation with world-wide impact. Mother Teresa made a difference in a different area, helping to found an organization that has grown to more than 500 centers in more than 100 countries to better the lives of the poor.

These are just two of the influential women profiled in Herstory: 50 Women and Girls Who Shook Up the World. Written by Katherine Halligan and illustrated by Sarah Walsh, Herstory focuses on 10 women in each of five categories—Believe & Lead, Imagine & Create, Help & Heal, Think & Solve, and Hope & Overcome.

The profiles include women from ancient history like Hypatia, who was an Egyptian mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher, born around 360 AD, as well as women making modern history, like Malala Yousafzai, born in northern Pakistan in 1997. Malala won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 and champions the cause of education for women and girls.

Each woman is featured on two pages in an over-sized format, which allows for illustrations and photos to go along with information about when and where they were born and what they accomplished. The bios discuss how cultures differed during historical time frames to explain how sometimes actions that would not be acceptable today were common for the time period.

Herstory provides inspiration as well as information about influential women and girls throughout history. I recommend it for readers aged 9 and up.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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