"Friends, Lovers and Chocolate"

Friends, Lovers, and Chocolate by Alexander McCall Smith

In this second installment of "The Sunday Philosophy Club" series, Isabel Dalhousie finds herself running her niece Cat's deli while Cat is traveling in Italy. Isabel meets a man who has been the recipient of a transplanted heart and believes he is having flashbacks of the donor's memory.  Interested in the philosophical implications, she agrees to help him find out something about the donor. Her very practical housekeeper, Grace, and her friend Jamie lend what assistance they can while making their disapproval of Isabel's involvement clear.

Then there is Tomasso. Cat met him in Italy and he followed her back to Scotland to do some sightseeing...and to become a potential romantic interest for Isabel.

I liked this book as well as I did the fist one in the series. They are nice light reads, not great but enjoyable. What I particularly love is their Scottish-ness, the setting of Edinburgh and the language, that British manner of expression that is so appealing to me. Also I'm still waiting to find out what the "Sunday Philosophy Club" actually is. In the first book we were told that a group of people meets on Sundays for discussion but I have yet to hear any more about them. Surely the authour must plan on introducing them to us at some point. That's enough to keep me reading the series but not for a while because I've got a stack of other titles to get through first. It's time to tackle all those books I set aside in favour of Christmas reading. Alas, Christmas is over for another year. I wish you all a safe, happy and healthy new year. 

"Christmas At Fairacre"

Christmas At Fairacre by Miss Read

This is the Christmas book I've been waiting for. One might question why I've been waiting given that it's been in print for several decades. And the answer of course is that this is yet another authour of which I knew nothing till I took my first faltering steps into the blog world. If the rest of the books in her Fairacre series and her Thrush Green series are anything like this one, then Miss Read will be one of the best discoveries I've ever made.

This books reminds me of Anne of Green Gables, or the Mitford books by Jan Karon with small town settings and characters full of common sense and heart. Kindness to one's neighbours, duty to family, and helping the less fortunate are the principles they live by. There is comfort in these stories. They restore your hope in humanity when much of what we read and hear is working to destroy it.

There are three stories here: "Village Christmas", "The Christmas Mouse" and "No Holly For Miss Quinn". "Village Christmas" is about two aging sisters living across the road from a growing young family. Slightly disapproving at first, the sisters remember the true meaning of Christmas when the neighbours need their help in an emergency on Christmas morning.

"The Christmas Mouse" takes us to the home of Mrs. Berry, her widowed daughter and two young grandchildren. It is Christmas Eve, and with everything ready for the next day, the family has settled in their beds for the night. Mrs. Berry is awakened by what she fears is a mouse but turns out to be a small boy, wet, cold and about to eat the Christmas cake she'd made only that day. This encounter will change both their lives and help each one appreciate their many blessings.

The final story is "No Holly For Miss Quinn", which has Miss Miriam Quinn, in need of a new place to live, renting the annex of Holly Lodge. She is looking forward to a quiet, solitary life but things don't go according to her very carefully laid out plans. She is called away when her brother, a busy Pastor, calls to tell her his wife has been hospitalized and asks her to come help with the children. Her plans for redecorating will have to be put on hold, but, she tells herself, "What can't be cured must be endured". As she is swept up in the busyness of family life she finds herself enjoying it - and the company of a surprise visitor - far more than she had expected to.

As I came to the end of each story I wished it would keep going so I could spend more time with these wonderful, very human characters. I loved them, and was utterly charmed by the setting and the storytelling. I can't wait to read more. Very, very enjoyable.

From Some Far Place

I wrote this poem some years ago. I used it then in Christmas cards and sang it in church, and every Christmas my heart wanders back to it. It still brings tears to my eyes when I think of what that first night must have been like for a young girl holding the Son of God in her arms, and her husband wondering how he would ever be worthy of the honour of protecting and raising Him. This is the wonder of Christmas.

From Some Far Place
From some far celestial place
unobserved by human eye,
he came,
unfettered by the chains of time
 and space.
A mystery.
God’s vastness,
concentrated in one tiny seed,
would grow to be a child
of form, and face.

She sat within the starlight
and held him while he slept.
Her firstborn child -
she laughed with joy,
would bear her sin and die -
she wept.
Beyond the distant hills
she thought she dimly heard a song
...did angels sing?
Quietly she stored these things
within her heart and thought
of what the years would bring.

Her husband stood beside her,
an ache to understand
inside his heart.
An angel dream had told him -
he had known 
about this moment from the start.  
And yet -
Jehovah’s son? His wife?
Could it be
that they would give each other life?

From some far celestial place
unobserved by human eye,
he came.
A stranger to the weary race on earth.
A mystery.
He, spirit, took on human life
to give us, human, 
spirit birth.

"Old Christmas"

Old Christmas by Washington Irving

Full of charm - and wonderful sketches - this little book is a collection of observances about Christmas in England many years ago. It begins with the authour rambling a bit about Christmas and how it has changed, then he meets up with a friend, and having no other plans, agrees to join him and his family for Christmas.

The family live in a large manor house where the Christmas gathering includes people of all ages. The Christmas Eve celebrations are described - from the children's games to the grown-ups toasting each other over the wassail bowl - then the next chapter talks about Christmas morning and another details the Christmas feast.

I tend to leave books I like quite marked up and I found lots to underline in Old Christmas:

On society...  "The World has become more worldly. There is more of dissipation and less of enjoyment. Pleasure has expanded into a broader but a shallower stream, and has forsaken many of those deep and quiet channels where it flowed sweetly through the calm bosom of domestic life."

On Christmas..."It is, indeed, the season of regenerated feeling - the season for rekindling, not merely the fire of hospitality in the hall, but the genial flame of charity in the heart."

On family..."It was the policy of the good old gentleman to make his children feel that home was the happiest place in the world; and I value this delicious home-feeling as one of the choicest gifts a parent can bestow."

As good as those are, my favourite quote comes from the last ten lines of the book...but I'll leave you to discover that for yourself. 

This is a treasure of a book. I never get tired of reading it, it's such a pleasure. I class it with "A Child's Christmas In Wales" and "A Christmas Carol" and I think that's probably the best recommendation I can give it!

"The Aluminum Christmas Tree"

The Aluminum Christmas Tree by Thomas J. Davis

This is a somewhat typical Christmas story. It's a bit overwritten, a bit cliche, a bit sappy - but the dust jacket is beautiful!

The story is narrated by Mildred Jackson, an elderly widow telling her cousins about the struggles she and her late husband Jimmy experienced as they married and raised a family. Told in flashbacks, it's a mildly interesting story with a predictably nice ending.

The writing isn't bad but I found the dialogue forced in places. The bottom line is it's one of those stories I can tolerate during the holidays but wouldn't enjoy any other time. I'll keep it on my Christmas book shelf and perhaps read it again one day when I've forgotten the plot. It wasn't anything special for me, but for anyone who is looking for a light holiday read - this may be just what you want. I found it on christianbook.com for $2.99 so you may find it worth checking out.

Three For The Price of One...

Oh my.  Seventeen days since my last post. I have three books to write about but I've been buried in an online Photoshop course for the past few weeks. It required more time than I expected and eventually something had to give. Something turned out to be the blog. Rather than skip these books altogether I'll just say a little bit about each of them in this one post.

A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle
It only took me fifty years to get around to reading this but when I finally did I loved it. The story centers around Meg Murray, daughter of two scientists, one of whom has been missing since he took part in a time travel experiment. Meg, her brother and friend meet three unusual women who help them locate Meg's dad on a far off world, traveling to distant planets and fighting strange creatures before they all arrive safely back home. There's mystery, fantasy, science, faith and all the usual ups and downs of growing up woven into this story. I liked it enough that I bought a copy of the 50th anniversary edition for my eleven year old grand-daughter. Hopefully, she'll love it too.

Back In 6 Years by Tony Robinson Smith    
This is the (true) story of a guy who set out to travel the world without leaving the surface of the planet, which basically meant cars, bikes, boats, trains and feet were acceptable forms of transportation and airplanes were not. The journey took him almost six years, and to be honest I thought it might take me that long to finish the book. I am usually a fan to travel writing but this one was not my thing at all. It chronicled the grittier parts of his adventure; I prefer the prettier parts. He talked in detail about the various horrors of his ocean crossings in small boats; I wanted to hear about the beautiful scenery he saw bicycling across Canada but that whole trip only got a couple of pages. He wrote a blood, sweat and tears adventure story that didn't appeal to my landscape, museum and architecture loving heart. Not my kind of adventure. I didn't like it, but I'm sure there are many who will find this a very good read.

 The Island by Victoria Hislop
Set in Greece, this is the story of an Island leper colony and the people who were taken from their families and sent there to live after receiving the diagnosis. Covering several generations, the story is told in flashbacks as a young American woman seeks to discover her family's history. It's a good story and an interesting subject, the first novel I've ever read that deals with this horrible and misunderstood disease. I didn't find the writing great, but it's pretty good for a first novel and the story is enough for me to give it a good recommendation.

So that's it - my feeble attempt to make up for neglecting these books. They deserve better but that's all they're getting while I'm living and breathing Photoshop. I should have a better handle on it soon, and then it's on to Christmas books, some new and some re-reads, but all of which I am anticipating for the quiet pleasure they bring in a season that is increasingly chaotic. I'll be back....sooner rather than later...I hope...

"The Birth House"

The Birth House by Ami McKay

Dora Rare is the first female born into her family in five generations. That, and having been born with a caul over her face, makes her the subject of gossip in the small community of Scot's Bay and an easy target for pointing fingers when any trouble befalls it's inhabitants.

Miss B. (Marie Babineau) is the local midwife and herbalist. She assists women through pregnancy and delivery, marital problems and sick children. She offers her services free of charge, opening her home to any woman who needs a place of refuge, but once they are no longer in need of her services the women tend to distance themselves from her and her sometimes strange ways.

While Dora is still a young girl, Miss B recognizes the kindred spirit in her and takes her on as an apprentice to learn the arts of healing and midwifery. They face a lot of opposition from the local physician who sees them as doing more harm than good and wants to shut them down. His interest in bringing modern medicine to Nova Scotia is strengthened by his interest in the fees he is hoping to receive for his services.

This book addresses the struggles of women to be autonomous and have control over what happens to their own bodies. It paints a picture that is both harsh and beautiful, looking at a broad spectrum of women from the strong and independent to those who are no more than slaves in abusive marriages. It makes a strong statement about a woman's need for female friendships and support. It is also emphatically pro-choice. Pregnancies are terminated based on the hardship it causes the mother and though the sheer desperation of some of these women is agonizing, I still can't get past the fact that to make one life more bearable, another life has to be ended. As a woman I find myself rooting for wives and mothers whose lives are unbelievably hard and being happy for them when things finally get easier, then as a Christian I sometimes get that uncomfortable feeling that I'm applauding things God doesn't call good. These are not easy issues but they do make me take stock of who I am and what I believe.  

The healing arts that Miss B and Dora practice are an eerie mixture of Mary-worship, superstition, future foretelling and herbal medicine. The "Willow Book" contains all the wisdom of their trade. It prescribes things like this: "Moonbath: Lie naked in a crossroads in the light of a full moon. Makes the womb ripe." Some of it is silliness, some of it seems more like the witchcraft of tv shows and movies.

 I will confess I don't like the messy aspects of being human so that part of the book was not enjoyable for me. When my children were babies I loved holding them and playing with them but I did not at all enjoy the drool, snot, vomit and other bodily function messes. Because this book tells a lot of pregnancy stories, there is blood, etc, and there was too much of it for me.

I thought Birth House was well written and I loved the setting of Scot's Bay, Nova Scotia. The glimpse into life in that time and place was wonderful but it wasn't enough to make me like the book so I can't recommend it. 

"Death Comes For The Archbishop"

Death Comes For The Archbishop by Willa Cather

It took a bit of determination for me to get interested in this story but in the end, Willa Cather's writing got to me again. This is the fourth of her novels I've read. I loved "My Antonia" but was less enthusiastic about "The Professor's House" and "Song Of The Lark". Those two plots didn't appeal to me but the writing made up for it. She has a way of saying things that is simple and clear and that makes it possible to get concepts fully across with a minimum of words, a skill I admire a lot and that makes her books a joy to read.

The same way that Cather was able to bring the land alive almost as a character of it's own in "My Antonia", she made the desert dust and heat of New Mexico so real and vibrant it will be what stays with me most from this book. It's not a climate or culture that held any real fascination for me, but I look at it differently after reading this. It left me feeling I'd just visited a place I could come to love once I breathed it's air.

The central figure in the story is Father Jean Latour. Raised and educated in France with his good friend Joseph Vaillant, both went into the Catholic Priesthood and followed their callings to various locations until they were sent to America. The story of establishing missions among the Spanish and the Indians is filled with hardship and beauty, celebration and heartbreak. It was a difficult and sometimes lonely life, often lived under what seemed like impossible circumstances, but the wholehearted devotion of these two men to their God and their people is inspiring.

This is not an easy book to slot into a particular genre. It's a quiet, gentle story with lots of American southwest history and culture, and it's beautifully written. It's not a mystery or a romance or a page-turner in any way, but it is a most satisfying read and one I can recommend. 

"The Sunday Philosophy Club"

The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith

Isabel Dalhousie is a single woman in her forties living in Edinburgh, Scotland. She is a patron of the arts, editor of a philosophical journal and a fan of cryptic crossword puzzles. Those last four make her a character I will not be able to resist. She is also a bit of an amateur sleuth, although this isn't a mystery in the usual sense of the genre. It's more that she has a healthy curiosity about what goes on around her and doesn't let go of something till she figures it out.

She is a likable enough character, if slightly superior at moments. She's intelligent, down-to-earth and is both interesting herself and interested in others. In this book, the first in the series, Isabel witnesses the death of a young man when he falls from the heights of a theater balcony onto the seats below. She isn't happy with the police report that says it was an accident, so she sets out on her own investigation, confiding in and working with Jamie, the ex of her niece, Cat. Isabel and Jamie have remained friends and it is her hope that Cat will eventually become disillusioned with her current boyfriend, Toby, about whom Isabel has doubts, and will get rid of him and go back to Jamie. Cat has other plans and is less than enthusiastic about her aunt's meddling.

I enjoyed the sheer "Scottishness" of the book. It was a pleasure to read, more for it's atmosphere and characters and the way the authour puts words together than for it's plot. It's a mild mystery, which is fine with me because I'm not much of a mystery fan anyway. I'll stick with the series because it's good reading and also because I have as yet only read mentions of the actual Sunday Philosophy Club and I want to meet the members. Maybe in the next one.

"Faith Like Potatoes"

Faith Like Potatoes by Angus Buchan

I didn't know until after reading this book that there is controversy surrounding it, the movie based on it, and Buchan's ministry, "Shalom Ministries". I had a few qualms while I was reading it, and I still have them, but I'm not sure I would write the whole thing off as some web sources are suggesting.

Angus Buchan grew up in South Africa where his ministry is based but has some Scottish ancestry - hence the name "Angus" I gather. This book is the story of his growing up, establishing a farm, having a family, becoming a Christian and building a global ministry. That's a lot to cram into 175 pages and I think the story suffers for trying to tell it all in such a short space. Some things are described with a lot of detail, but others are barely mentioned, then are referred to later and that gives it a choppy feel.

I couldn't figure out who the target audience is. If it's other Christians and this story is meant to be an encouragement then I think he was partly successful. I think he is a believer and that he tries to live by faith, but there were places where it felt like more emphasis was placed on Buchan's faith than on God's faithfulness. If, on the other hand, he's telling his story in hopes of convincing unbelievers to follow Christ, I don't think it's very effective. That's just my opinion from the book alone. I haven't heard him speak, I haven't seen the movie and I don't know him in any way, I just think the story is poorly presented in this book. He speaks in cliches with his references to being "gripped by the Spirt" and "the pearly gates" of Heaven and people "finding the Lord". It's full of overused church expressions like that and to be honest it got tedious after a while. Overall I found it predictable and boring, but I at least knew what he was talking about because I'm familiar with the language. To an unbeliever it would be a foreign language, so what's the point?

The book tends to emphasize the more dramatic events in his life, which I guess is not unusual, but I think he's overdoing the drama with things like referring to himself as just an "illiterate farmer". He is a farmer, but illiterate people don't usually have websites listing all the books they've written. Is it false humility? Is it playing up his rise from a struggling farmer to the leader of a world-wide ministry? I don't know. I just know it didn't sit well with me and when held up to the light of Scripture some of what the book says doesn't ring true.

I can't recommend this book because I didn't like it; I found it poorly written and too melodramatic. Certain things in it raised questions for me about the credibility of Angus Buchan's ministry, but I don't know enough about it to come to any real conclusion, so I'll limit my comments to those I'm made about the book.


Snow by Calvin Miller

This short novel takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, 1929, in Pennsylvania. It's a fairly typical holiday story, with a poor young widow, a sick child, and a kind young man who comes to their rescue, but there is another layer to the plot with broken relationships in the hero's family. His brother and father parted ways years ago when the father kicked the brother out of the family home. Of course one story gets tangled up in the other and all problems are solved and everybody is happy in time for Christmas dinner.

Predictable? Yes. But aren't they all? I usually read a couple of stories like this during the Christmas season when I'm in a more sentimental frame of mind. Unfortunately that's not now and "Snow" fell flat for me. It was all just a little too perfect.

I've been a Calvin Miller fan for a long time; I loved his "Singer Trilogy" and have had the privilege of hearing him speak several times. I was saddened to read of his passing just a few weeks ago. He was a man of character and imagination and the world is a better place for having had him in it.

Because I like the authour I wish I had a lot of good things to say about his book. Regrettably I can only recommend reading it when you're in that emotional zone just before Christmas when we all think "It's A Wonderful Life" is a great film, that lovely time of year when everybody likes everybody else, even the people they don't like. In that setting it could be charming, but right now I just find it cloyingly sweet.

A Very Special Week In North Carolina

Early Friday morning I returned from a week long trip with my daughter to North Carolina. We spent 4 days in Charlotte then three more near Asheville at the Biltmore Inn. It was my first time in N.C. and I loved it. The people are warm and friendly, Charlotte is a beautiful city full of charm and tall trees, and the Biltmore...well...there really are no words. Most of the pictures I took were at the Biltmore Estate but I can't put them on here because they have a rule about not publishing pictures of their property without permission. However...you can check it all out, the Inn, the spa, the winery, etc. here.

My daughter was attending an ACN conference so I was on my own in Charlotte during the day. I arranged to take a tour of the city with Queen City Tours led by tour guide Jay Whipple who agreed to pick me up and drop me off at the door of my hotel. His knowledge of the city and it's history is impressive. No detail was left out and he was entertaining as well as informative. I had expected a crowded bus but was happy to find out it would be a smaller van with only two other ladies taking the tour. It was fun being able to talk back and forth throughout the tour. I can't say enough about Queen City Tours. If you're going to be visiting Charlotte check them out. The tour is great and the price was lower than I would ever have expected, great value for your money.

I discovered "The Last Word" bookshop on my first day. It was within walking distance of my hotel but I had to cross eight lanes of traffic with no crosswalk so getting there was a little hair-raising. What a find though. Lots of great books and comfortable couches and chairs to relax on. I sat there reading till I felt brave enough to risk the walk back. I had four books in my hand but made myself put two of them back since it was only my first day and there wasn't much spare room in my luggage to begin with. I bought "I'll Never Be French - no matter how hard I try" by Mark Greenside and "Like Water For Chocolate" by Laura Esquivel, both of which have been on my to-read list for a long time.

After four nights in Charlotte we drove to Asheville and checked in at the Biltmore Inn where we had booked a three night bed and breakfast package. Wow. The estate is beautiful and the Inn was nothing short of amazing. Our room was large and lovely with a beautiful view of the mountains and Asheville nestled among them. We had dinner one night in the Inn dining room as well as breakfast each day, and one afternoon tea in the Library Lounge. Every meal was excellent, but the dinner was a true culinary experience with every course imaginatively created and presented. The flavors! So well balanced and so delicious. It's a great place for dinner sometime when you're celebrating and looking for something special. It's pricey, but it's the once-in-a-while kind of place worth saving up for. And if it's still on the menu, order a Moonshine Sweet Tea. Seriously.

We spent our last day driving through the mountains into Tennessee where we drove around Knoxville before heading back. The mountains were absolutely gorgeous. And that was the end of our trip except for one very long day of travel to get back home to New Brunswick. The best thing about N.C. was the people with their charming manners and friendliness; the worst thing was the "stink bugs" that tried to invade our room at the inn. They were dispatched quickly though and all was well. Better than well...it was one terrific week in North Carolina.

"The Elegance of the Hedgehog"

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

This book was a pleasure to read, with gorgeous writing, wonderful characters and a surprising, but beautiful, ending. I loved it and truly hated to see it end. The title seems strange at first but becomes quite clear, and rather touching, later on.

Two characters tell their stories in alternating sections. Each is given her own font, a technique I probably wouldn't have missed had it not been there, but it actually did help to create their two distinct voices, smoothing out the change from one to the other.

Renee is the 54 year old concierge of a Paris apartment building, the apartments of which are owned by wealthy, haughty, dysfunctional individuals and families. Renee hides her intelligence and her love of literature from the residents because she feels she should play the part expected of someone in her low position. She has a good friend in Manuela Lopes, a maid for one of the apartment owners and who Renee describes as a true aristocrat. "What is an aristocrat? A woman who is never sullied by vulgarity, although she may be surrounded by it." Renee and Manuela meet every Tuesday for tea. "We laugh and converse....about one thing or another, in the calm space of an old friendship."

The other main character is 12 year old Paloma. She and her family - mother, father and sister - make one floor of the apartment building their home. Paloma is "an exceptionally intelligent child" trying to be normal and finding it "really takes an effort to appear stupider than you are".  Disenchanted with living as she has experienced it, she has a plan to end her life on her thirteenth birthday.

Their stories unfold gradually. They barely know each other in the beginning, but circumstances bring them together and they begin to understand each other, each eventually finding in the other a "kindred spirit".  Gently helping them both become who they really are is Monsieur Ozu, the middle aged man who recently bought, and - causing quite a stir among the residents - spent enormous sums of money renovating, his new home on the fourth floor.

There is a great deal of beauty and truth in this book, and it is gracefully written. From believing there is no meaning to life at all, Paloma learns to look for the "odd moment of beauty", the "always within never."  (That phrase "always within never" might not mean much till you read the book, but afterwards you'll probably find yourself thinking and saying it often.) Renee learns that there's no need to pretend to be anyone but who she is. She finds freedom in simply being...Renee.

I love Muriel Barbery's writing. It is clear, but not spare, and utterly authentic. It is emotional, but never wallows in emotion. It's refreshing to read an intelligent book that addresses, with great balance, both the head and the heart.

Those who read for the love of an intricate plot should know that this book is character driven with no dramatic conflicts or mysteries, no crimes or passionate love stories. The plot is in the evolving of Renee and Paloma's personalities, what they discover about themselves and each other, and how they reach for, and find, beauty in their lives.

I loved it, loved it, loved it. I'll read it again because, to quote a line from the book, "one really should over-indulge in things that are this good". I wonder if her other books could possibly be this good. I'd love to hear from anyone who has read them. And let me know what you thought about this one too. Did you love it? Hate it? Not care?

If you haven't read it yet, I enthusiastically recommend it!

"The Shadow of the Wind"

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Daniel is the young son of a seller of old and rare books in the city of Barcelona, 1945. One day his father takes him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where he chooses a book that will be his to protect for the remainder of his years. The book he chooses is "The Shadow of the Wind" by Julian Carax.

 The book captivates him and he sets out to find others written by the same authour, a search that becomes a mystery when he is approached by a hooded stranger offering him any amount of money he desires in exchange for his book. Daniel soon discovers that every copy of this book, and every other book written by Carax, is being systematically destroyed.

As he attempts to solve the mystery surrounding "The Shadow of the Wind", he grows older, experiences love and loss, meets an odd and interesting assortment of people and gets drawn deeply into a story of jealousy, revenge, murder, insanity and a magnificent house that practically becomes another character. It takes him nearly 20 years to unravel the tangled threads that weave in and out of every strata of Barcelona society.

Zafon is a master storyteller. There are so many twists and turns and complications in this story that I had to glance back at previous chapters a few times to make sure I was keeping it all straight. The connections between characters and the way their histories overlap and intertwine makes for an incredible story the like of which I haven't seen in a while. I cannot fathom how he kept it all straight in his head while he wrote it. 

The overall tone of the book is a bit dark, but not too dark, just enough to create a good atmosphere for a mystery, a bit like the mood of a Victorian melodrama only much more involved and detailed. The writing is so good you forget all about it till you turn the last page and think "Wow". There are characters you'll like and root for, a few you'll feel sorry for, and at least one you'll quite enjoy hating. There's a good balance of positive and negative outlook so it never becomes either cheesy or depressing. "...the father she had lost when she was still too young - as happens with all good things in life" is balanced with "Come now...cheer up. Things have always been like this, here and everywhere else. The trouble is, there are some low moments, and when those strike close to home everything looks blacker."

This is a highly satisfying tale that offers the reader just about everything you'd ever want in a novel. It's a bit long at 487 pages but once you start it's hard to put down, so though it's not a quick read, it doesn't take too long to get through. I definitely recommend it.


Boundaries: When to say yes, and when to say no to take control of your life by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

I don't like to do a lot of this but I'm going to quote some of the blurbs on the back of the book simply because they describe this book better than I can.
  •  "Having clear boundaries is essential to a healthy balanced lifestyle. A boundary is a personal property line that marks those things for which we are responsible. Boundaries define who we are and who we are not."
  • "Boundaries affect all areas of our lives: physical boundaries determine who may touch us, how and when; mental boundaries give us freedom to have our own thoughts and opinions; emotional boundaries help us deal with our own emotions and disengage us from the harmful, manipulative emotions of others; spiritual boundaries help us distinguish God's will from our own and give us renewed awe for our creator.
  • "Often Christians focus so on being loving and unselfish that they forget their own limitations. Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend offer biblically based insights into how to set healthy boundaries with our parents, spouses, children, friends, co-workers, and even ourselves."
The authours are clinical psychologists and directors of the Minirth Meir New Life Clinics in California. They are award winning authours, a speaking team, and co-hosts of a regular radio program, so they have the education and experience to be credible advisers on this vital and very personal topic.

I've read the book and am now working my way through a workbook that is available as well. You can still get a great deal from the book without doing the workbook so if your time is limited try that first. I find the workbook a little dry but I'm going to make myself complete it, mainly because this is an area of my emotional health that I've neglected and every relationship in my life has suffered as a result. But - it's never too late to change and I am determined to make this one, hopefully becoming more like the person I want to be in the process.

I don't think there's anybody who wouldn't benefit from reading this. It forces you to take a serious look at yourself and it makes you answer the hard questions - the ones we all avoid as much as possible. And yet it's not a heavy book or hard to read at all. It simply makes sense, and who couldn't use a little more sense in their life?

I absolutely recommend this one. If you do decide to read it, I'd love for you to come back and tell me a bit about your own experience with it. This is one of those few books that has made, and continues to make, an actual difference.

"Paris, My Sweet"

Paris, My Sweet by Amy Thomas

This is Amy Thomas' personal tug-of-war between Paris and New York. Paris won a few battles; New York eventually won the war. This book tells us about the battles Paris won and how the authour indulged her love of sweet things and tried to experience as much of Paris as she could in the time she was living there.  

Each chapter takes on a specific dessert: cupcakes, macarons, cookies, cakes, crumbles, hot chocolate, madeleines and muffins are all given equal attention. You get details of which bakeries sell them and the various kinds she was able to find and sample, then at the end of each chapter she tells you where her favourites can be found in both Paris and New York. At the end of the book is a list of addresses for every bakery mentioned.

Around all the talk of sugary goodness is the story of her life in the City of Light, how she got her job and her apartment, her visitors from back home and her visits there, the friends she made and her discoveries as she explored the different sections of the city. She paints quite a vivid picture of the most visited city on the planet.

There was really no way for me not to enjoy this book. It's set in Paris, her story is interesting and her writing is good. There's nothing to dislike. It's a fun, light read and one I'll probably read again when my craving for France and things French needs to be indulged. I definitely recommend it.

"The Face of a Stranger"

The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry

This is the first in Anne Perry's series of Victorian era mysteries featuring inspector William Monk. I've never been much of a mystery fan but I do enjoy Anne Perry's writing and the characters she's created for these books, so I indulge every once in a while.

To open the series, Det. Monk is recovering from a coach accident with no memory of his past or even who he is. He learns from his visiting boss that he is a police detective and when he is physically able, he returns to the office to take up a case he's been working but about which he remembers nothing. He begins again from scratch with a young assistant named John Evans, trying to hide from everyone around him that his memory is gone.

In the process of trying to discover the person responsible for the death of Joscelin Grey, Monk comes up against the rich and powerful Grey family who tolerate the detective with barely concealed contempt and do as little as possible to assist in the investigation.

As Monk gets closer to the truth, it becomes appallingly clear to him that he was somehow involved in the murder, but he can't remember anything about his connection to the victim. His one great regret is that Evans must eventually learn the truth and Monk will lose the only real friend he has.

This quote on the back of the book from the Atlanta Journal & Constitution says it all: "Murder fans who prefer their crimes with a touch of class should heat some scones and nestle back for the afternoon." I didn't have the scones but I thoroughly enjoyed the Victorian era settings and the characters with their slightly strange names. Where else could you possibly meet a woman called Callandra Daviot?

If you haven't tried these Anne Perry mysteries you should check them out. She also has several Victorian Christmas mysteries that are fun reading for the holidays.

What Book Would Make A Good Movie?

It's Friday and time for the weekly blog hop hosted by Crazy For Books. This week she's asking

"What is the one book or series you are dying to see turned into a movie or tv series?"

I'm never very anxious to see any book "Hollywood-ized" because so many of them turn out to be  disappointments, but I did read a good travel book a while ago with a story that I think would translate well to film. It's called A Trip To The Beach by Melinda Blanchard and Robert Blanchard and my review is here. It's an appealing story about a couple who leave their comfortable life in the US to open a restaurant on the Caribbean island of Anguilla. It's a movie I would watch for the setting alone, but there's a good story and interesting characters to work with as well. I think it would be a fun film.

 Book Blogger Hop

Check out the blog hop and visit some of the book blogs listed there. You may find a few new titles to read and maybe a blog or two you want to follow. Have a good weekend!

"The Prodigal Wife"

The Prodigal Wife by Marcia Willett

Yes! This book was so much better than the first one of Marcia Willett's I read earlier this year. I was hoping that first one could be blamed on "first novel syndrome" and that her writing would improve with each book and thankfully, this one was much better.

The difference is quite remarkable - no gaping holes in the story, no weird, unrealistic behaviour on the part of the characters, and none of the cliches that had me rolling my eyes all the way through "Those Who Serve". It was a nice surprise and a relief because she has a long list of titles I've been hoping to explore.

In "The Prodigal Wife" the main character is...a house, the family home of the Chadwicks which they call "The Keep". It's a house full of memories, a large estate in England where several generations of Chadwicks have always lived under the same roof. Large and beautiful, but more comfortable than grand, it is the setting for much of this story.

The current residents of "The Keep" include Prue, the Chadwick grandmother, her son Hal and his wife Fliss, Hal's son Jolyon, Sam, a 12 year old cousin  who came to live with the family when his parents died, and Lizzie, who was Sam's nanny and stayed on to help Jolyon in his gardening business. It's not as complicated as it sounds because each character is unique and has a distinctive, well-detailed personal story.

Maria, who is Hal's ex-wife and Jolyon's mother, causes all sorts of complications when she comes back into their lives after ignoring them for years, and Jolyon meets and falls for Henrietta, the daughter of Cordelia, an old family acquaintance who thinks she is being stalked. There are plenty of story lines which gives it a nice depth.

There are so many things to enjoy in this book: the characters are realistic and interesting, the setting - both the house and the English countryside - is addicting, and the story is complicated, as real life tends to be. I'd grown so attached to these people and their house that I was sorry to arrive at the last chapter.

Willett's writing makes for much better reading now, but I still don't think I can agree with all the comparisons being made to Maeve Binchy or Rosamunde Pilcher. They are in a league of their own when it comes to story-telling. But...this is a good, well-told story and I'm looking forward to reading her other novels, all of which I hope will be as satisfyingly British and comfortingly human as "The Prodigal Wife".

Book Blogger Hop - Aug 17/2012

It's been a looong time since I took part in this meme. It's hosted by Jen of Crazy For Books, but she stopped doing it for awhile and I really missed it at the time. Then she started it up again in May of this year and I had no idea till I stumbled across the logo on another blog. She's back!

Book Blogger HopTo take part, all you do is add your url to the linky list on her site. It should be the link to your actual post about the hop in which you have put the logo and answered the question of the week.

This week's question is:

"What is the one genre you will NEVER read?"

Well I don't know if it's a genre or not, but I will never read books about vampires. I am so tired of vampires, tired of hearing about them, seeing adds for movies about them, reading about the books all over the internet. I think it's time for a new fad. I think it was time a long time ago. No vampires/zombies for me. I will also never read erotica. Ewww.

The purpose of the hop is to find new blogs you may be interested in following, bloggers who may be interested in following you and, of course, to add all kinds of titles to your tbr. It's not designed to just bump up the number of followers you have. If you add your link without posting about the hop your link will be deleted. It is hoped that bloggers will connect through the hop and use it as a way to create community.

Check it out and have a great weekend!

"The Polysyllabic Spree"

The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby

Apparently Nick Hornby is best known for his novel "About A Boy", which I've never read, and for his work as a music critic, which I'm not familiar with. There are times when I wonder if there is any hope for me at all, but then I did find and read this one. I must admit I bought it based solely on the title. The Polysyllabic Spree. Say it - it's fun! It's quirky and smart sounding. I like saying things that sound smart. The word spree sounds reckless and slightly mad. I like saying things that sound reckless and slightly mad.

As it turns out, it's a book about books - the ultimate reader's genre - so maybe you can judge a book by it's cover, or it's title. Hornby wrote a monthly article for "Believer" magazine (published in California) and 14 of those essays from Sept 2003 to Nov 2004 make up this book, with a handful of book excerpts thrown in. Each month he listed the books he bought and the books he read, then wrote a little about each.

I recognized some of the authours he talked about, but very few of the titles, so it wasn't quite as much fun as it might have been. He's funny though and honest, if a bit coarse at times. The odd swear word is probably there because that's how he speaks and it's meant to be realistic. I just think writers can do better.

I like his down-to-earth attitude about reading; book snobbery does get tiresome. You don't have to like Tolstoy, Dickens, Joyce or any of them. You like what you like. As Anna Quindlen said in How Reading Changed My Life: "the uses of reading are vast and variegated and...some of them are not addressed by Homer" and "...reading has as many functions as the human body and...not all of them are cerebral. One is mere entertainment, the pleasurable whiling away of time." Read what you like; there are no rules.

Hornby admits that the beginning of football season had an "adverse effect on book comsumption". Maybe his confession will make it easier for the rest of us to admit that as much as we love books, they do sometimes have to submit to the stronger draw of other, non-literary, things like watching tv, socializing with real people or just sitting and looking at the sky. It's a relief to hear him say right out loud, on paper, that "boredom, and very occasionally, despair are part of the reading life." Yes. Some books are boring and different people will put that label on different books. There's no shame in being bored with any book. War and Peace had some great writing but some of it was almost terminally boring, so bad it has put me off Russian authours, possibly for life.

If a book about books sounds boring to you, it probably will be. But if you like that sort of thing you might find just what you're looking for in "The Polysyllabic Spree". It was rather fun.

"Secret Daughter"

Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

Asha Thakkar was born in India where she lived in an orphanage for a year before being adopted by an American couple, Somer and Kris Thakkar, who would take her back to America and raise her in California. She was aware of looking different than the other kids she went to school with but that didn't bother her much - her father, also from India, looked a lot like her. As she grew into her late teens she felt herself growing farther away from  her mother until the distance became, it seemed to Asha, uncrossable.

Kavita and Jesu Merchant were Asha's birth parents (they named her Usha but it had been misread at the orphanage). She was given up for adoption because she was a girl in a culture that had little use for them, and her parents could not afford to raise more than one child. They would wait for a boy. If you are troubled by the fact that they gave their baby girl away, wait till you find out what happened to their first child, another girl born before Asha. I'm glad I was born in Canada. Inevitably, Asha begins to wonder about them - who they were, why they gave her up, where they are now. Eventually she travels to India where she is welcomed into the family of her adopted father and she begins the search for her biological parents.

These three stories - Asha's, Somer's and Kavita's - are woven together over a period of 25 years, partly set in America and partly in India. The husbands play a fairly large part in the story but the book is really about the women in all their various roles as daughters, wives, mothers and grandmothers. We follow them through the joys and sorrows of love, marriage, motherhood and loss and the constant struggle for an identity of their own.

I thought this book was pretty good for a first novel; the plot has some depth and the characters enough complexity to make them interesting. The parts set in India are well detailed and show the disparity between poor and rich in a convincing way. The colours, sounds and smells of India come to life through the story. I was a bit disappointed at the ending - it seemed weak to me. One situation was left unaddressed and another was resolved too easily. I wanted at least one more chapter to sort out some of the complications in a more realistic way.

As a cultural lesson on India it was good and I thought it was a fairly strong story dealing with some hard topics. Overall it was an interesting read that I can recommend. If you do read it, there's a glossary at the back that would have been helpful if I had found it earlier.

"Missing Mom"

Missing Mom by Joyce Carol Oates

Missing Mom covers one year in the life of Nikki Eaton, a 31 year old newspaper columnist known for her off-beat attitude toward life. Her choices in clothes and hairstyles and her current romantic attachment to a man with a wife and two children are a source of frustration to her sister, Clare, and confusion to her mother, Gwen.

Shortly after the story opens, Gwen is killed in a horrendous criminal act in her own garage. The already shaky relationship between Clare and Nikki is pushed to the limits and beyond by the horror and grief they experience. Families, jobs, everything changes in the months following their mother's death as the police investigation continues and they wait while delay after delay after delay postpones the trial.

As Nikki deals with the aftermath of her mother's death, cleaning out the house and talking to relatives, she begins to see Gwen as more than just Mom - she was a woman with a life of her own, a woman Nikki can begin to relate to. But while she's moving closer to her mother, her relationship with Clare is falling apart. Neither sister understands the words or actions of the other and things deteriorate until they both lose the one person they might have had to lean on.

 Nikki is an interestingly written character; Joyce Carol Oates is an interesting writer. I don't think I've ever read such an in depth experience of grief. It's uniquely personal and goes on and on and is never really understood by others. And isn't that the way grief is? The things we do out of feelings of grief can be difficult for others to connect back to those emotions and as a result people get confused, impatient and angry with the grieving person. Grief is slow, and it isn't easy on anyone.

Though the story is sad, it's life-affirming too. The sisters grow in acceptance of people who think and behave differently than they do, Clare learns that the life you don't have isn't always better than the one you are living right now, and Nikki begins to grow up, becoming less self-centered, less careless about life and the people in it. It's a well-rounded story that takes you beyond the suffering and leaves you with hope for what's next.

In most books there are lines that jump out at me, lines I love for the truth they contain  or the way the words are arranged and it feels strange that I didn't find any this time. I didn't particularly enjoy Oates' writing style - it seemed abrupt or odd or...something...in places. I can't quite put my finger on it. I think we are meant to read it as Nikki's thought process and I understand that, still, I found it awkward sometimes. I probably won't remember the writing but the emotion, the grief, will be with me for a long time.

I recommend "Missing Mom". Most of us have mothers we will either lose one day or have already lost. Even if you've never had a mother figure in your life there is still the common to us all experience of grief that every reader will be able to identify with. I think this book has something for everyone.

"The Lacemakers of Glenmara"

The Lacemakers of Glenmara by Heather Barbieri

Kate Robinson is hiking her way across Ireland, trying to forget the man who walked out on her without warning after 5 years. Her career in fashion design had been faltering, so with nothing to keep her in Seattle she traveled to Ireland, taking the trip she and her mother had intended to take together until cancer ended those plans forever.

After a month in Ireland, Kate has wandered into the tiny village of Glenmara, staying in the house of a recently widowed woman named Bernie, who, along with a group of other local ladies, are crafters of hand-made lace. Kate becomes their student.

There is of course a single man living up the road, and the requisite rocky romance ensues. Actually it's not as predictable as that. Well, yeah, I guess it is. But - there are a number of good stories told around that one. The village women all have their own relationships, families, joys and sorrows, blessings and tragedies, stories that bring a lot of depth and interest to it overall. It's really those stories that provide the real interest and make the book worth reading.

This book isn't great literature, but it is a nice piece of light summer reading, a gentle place to slip away to for a few hours. It's enjoyable if you don't expect more from it than that. And what a great cover!

My favourite line:

"She'd been a quiet person at home, had let the gregarious people in her life - Ethan, her friend Ella, even her mother - take the lead, happy to be the soft spoken sidekick who offered the occasional sage remark, witty aside."

"Lady of Quality"

Lady of Quality by Georgette Heyer

It's never a good sign when you can't decide if you liked a book. That is the position I find myself in with "Lady of Quality". I enjoyed some aspects of it but on the whole found it a little disappointing.

 It opens with Miss Annis Wychwood and her paid companion, Miss Maria Farlow, traveling back to her home in Bath after visiting her brother, Geoffery. Miss Wychwood is 29 years old, rich and beautiful. Miss Farlow is of indeterminate age, poor, and annoying, but she is a necessity if Annis wishes to live independently in her own home without causing a scandal.

On the way they come upon an accident scene involving a young girl, Lucilla Carleton, whom Annis decides to take under her wing until the girl's family situation can be worked out. With the seventeen year old heiress is a young man, Ninian Elmore, (seriously...Ninian? Wonder was his nickname was.) whose protective feelings toward her led him to set out after her as she rashly attempted to run away from home.

Once back home with her new charge, Annis is quickly made aware that everyone disapproves of her decision to take Lucilla in. Her brother Geoffery and his wife Amabel, Maria Farlow, and Lucilla's uncle, Oliver Carleton are all angry and frustrated. Mr. Carleton comes to Bath to make his position clear, which he does forcefully and repeatedly, and Annis for some inexplicable reason is attracted to him. He's very tiresome really, but I think we're supposed to see beyond his arrogance and insufferable rudeness and find something likeable underneath. I never did.

I've read reviews that compare Georgette Heyer to Jane Austen so I had high - too high - expectations. Jane Austen makes me feel like I'm living in the story. Georgette Heyer makes me feel like I'm watching a tv show. The language feels contrived, the characters stereotypical and the plot stale. This story, written in 1972, about life in Regency England doesn't hold up to Austen's writing done in that actual time and place. If I had to give it a rating out of 10 I'd probably say 5. It's not awful, just not very good. I do enjoy novels set in that time period but I found this one weak, insipid.

Will I read any more of her novels? Maybe, sometime when filling my mind with anything but my own reality is what I need. I have a list of authours I turn to when I want only harmless distraction and Georgette Heyer will be on it.