Gifts to Last and The Christmas Secret

Gifts to Last - Christmas Stories from the Maritimes and Newfoundland, selected by Walter Learning

From the blurb on the back - 

"Christmas a-glitter, Christmas on a shoestring, Christmas wrecked, Christmas salvaged, Christmas in city, village and country, in church and shopping mall and barn - they're all here, in stories by the best writers in the Maritimes and Newfoundland."

Some wonderful reading here, but not always the sweet stories and happy endings you find in many Christmas collections. These are glimpses of real life - a little gritty, sometimes sad, a bit of language here and there - but beautiful and touching in their humanity. I liked it even better this second time through.

The Christmas Secret - An Atlantic Canadian Christmas Reader, edited by Dan Soucoup

Again from the blurb on the back -

"...a wonderful collection featuring twenty tales of Atlantic Christmases of the past and present from some of the region's most beloved writers...Experience the celebrations and preparations of a lighthouse-keeping family on Bon Portage Island; the holiday humour of a Cape Breton coal mining community; the spirit of "old Christmas" in Island Cove, Newfoundland, and plenty more.

These stories are a bit more light-hearted than in the one above. Entertaining, nice reading for the holiday season.

Two Christmas Audio Books

 Lady Osbaldestone's Christmas Goose by Stephanie Laurens

A delightful audio book read by a narrator with the perfect tone and accent for the story. It's a romance of course, but the characters are interesting and there's more to the story than just the romance. 

When all the geese disappear from a farm the village relies on for their Christmas birds, Lady Osbaldestone resolves to find them. Enlisting the help of the three young grandchildren in her care while their parents recover from colds, they set out to save their Christmas dinners and do a bit of matchmaking in the process. 

Their cupid's arrows are aimed at a local Lord recently returned from battle and keeping to himself to hide his facial scarring, and a lovely young woman bearing the burden of responsibility for her younger brother and the havoc he and his school chums create.

The writing was a pleasure to read, or heard read in this case. In the hands of a good writer, the genteel language of the era and the setting of polite society is a style of which I never tire. There's something about it that lifts any story to another level. Christmas stories like this are often a little too sweet to be palatable, but this one, thankfully, wasn't. Though there were parts of the story - children being corrected, and the young brother and his friends being "taught a lesson" - that could have come across as preachy, they were handled with a light enough touch to go down easily.     

The outcome was no surprise, but the journey to it was entertaining. A light-hearted diversion in a hectic season.      

On Christmas Day by Grace S. Richmond

Another audio book, this one with two of the author's stories: On Christmas Day in the Morning and On Christmas Day in the Evening. 

The first begins with an older couple making the best of another lonely Christmas Eve without their children, all busy now with work and families of their own. A wonderful surprise awaits them the next morning when they find all have arrived to celebrate the day together and mend any differences that may have kept them apart. 

In the second book, several years have passed with the family now gathering every year for the holiday. This year they want to re-open the local church and gather a community still at odds with each other over old differences. It won't be easy, but they'll decorate the church, find a preacher, prepare some music, then wait and see what God will do.

 With conclusions a little too good to be true, perhaps, they are still uplifting stories for the season.   

Two More Christmas Stories

To Every Thing There is a Season, A Cape Breton Christmas Story by Alistair MacLeod

A short story in gift book format, beautifully illustrated by Peter Rankin. The story and drawings together create a time and place more real than would seem possible in so few pages. Narrated by an 11 year old boy in Cape Breton, it tells of a family preparing for Christmas and the return of a son who has been away for many months. The joy of his homecoming will be tempered by worry over the change he finds in his father.

This gem of a story takes only a few minutes to read, but it's wonderfully written and it captures completely that particular blend of happiness and melancholy that is Christmas. All I can say is, it's perfect. 


The First Christmas by Stephen Mitchell

This tells the Christmas story from the perspective of the different characters involved. First the Innkeeper tells of his experience, then the Ox, the Shepherds, Maryam (Mary), Yosef (Joseph), the Wise Men, and the Donkey. It concludes with a brief epilogue. 

I've read similar things but found this one more vivid in certain sections. Mary's and Joseph's stories look honestly at the difficult feelings and many doubts they must have had when Mary became pregnant, had to tell Joseph, and then face the social consequences. I found their stories moving. 

Having said that, I probably won't add it to my list of Christmas re-reads. I'm not sure I liked it, though I can't say why exactly. Something seemed off, but it could be I read it too quickly and didn't hear all it had to say.

A Blessed Christmas To You All!


Two Christmas Stories

Miracle in the Wilderness by Paul Gallico

A short Christmas story about a couple and their infant son held captive by a group of people seeking revenge for a loss. On Christmas Eve a miracle occurs, leading to forgiveness on all sides and hope for a peaceful future together. 

As a story it wasn't bad, what there was of it. A longer one with more insight into the characters might have been more memorable. I haven't seen the movie, but tells me there was one made in 1991 with Kris Kristofferson and Kim Cattrall. At an hour and a half long they must have added more to the story than what's in this little book, but sadly I've been unable to find it on any of my streaming services. 

A Redbird Christmas by Fanny Flagg

This is my second reading of A Redbird Christmas and I'm happy to say I liked it better this time, maybe because it was an audio book narrated by the author herself. Her calm voice is perfectly suited to the gentle people of the story and her soft, southern accent made me feel I was right there in the folksy (fictional) town of Lost River, Alabama.  

It isn't very Christmassy, but it is a sweet, if unlikely, story.

The Mistletoe Matchmaker

 The Mistletoe Matchmaker by Felicity Hayes-McCoy

Cassie Fitzgerald's grandparents visit her family in Canada, and Cassie goes back to Ireland with them. Meeting family members and making new friends in Finfarran, she gets involved in community work, joins a group at the library, and starts seeing a man who seems genuinely interested in her. The romance is only a small part of the plot, which mainly focuses on relationships between family and friends. There are enough of them that I needed a list to sort them out, but once I figured out who belonged to who it was easier to keep them straight.

The audio book was narrated by an Irish woman whose lovely lilting accent was positively addictive. She made the characters identifiable by the tone she used for each of them but unfortunately the voice she gave the Canadian girl just sounded weird to this Canadian. The 'r' sound was quite comical and the overall effect was unlike any accent I've ever heard, in Canada or anywhere. The reading of the female character's lines made them sometimes sound a bit silly, an impression I probably wouldn't have gotten from the written book. It made Cassie hard to relate to - or even like - but those musical Irish accents and a fairly good story kept me listening to the end. Still, I wish I'd read it instead of listening.

The story isn't terribly Christmasy and the title is questionable, but the characters come across as authentic for the most part and the plot is more complex than would have I expected. Though part of a series, I found it stood on its own quite well. It was good light reading. Or listening - I'm never sure it's ok to call it reading. 

When you've listened to a book, do you consider yourself to have read it? 

Loch Down Abbey

 Loch Down Abbey by Beth Cowan-Erskine

Listening to the audio version, narrated by Eilidh Beaton, got me through this one. I wasn't drawn into the story for the first hour or so, but her voice and accent were so appealing that I wanted to keep listening, and before long found myself more interested. 

Set in 1930s Scotland in the massive Abbey of Loch Down, it's the story of a wealthy family whose financial future becomes precarious when the head of the household dies. His death leads to a police investigation, and that leads to the uncovering of some uncomfortable family secrets. I think the mystery around his death was meant to be the main story line, but the more memorable story turned out to be the family's financial problems and how to solve them. 

It reminded me of Downtown Abbey in many ways, only this family is far less likeable. Most of them have never done a moment's work in their lives or considered anyone's needs but their own. The supercilious attitudes will have you both laughing and longing to slap faces. You'll like the housekeeper though; she's much like Mrs. Hughes, and the Bulter somewhat like Carson. 

I can't say it was a very good story, but it was mildly entertaining. I enjoyed the setting but I'm not a fan of the wrap-it-all-up-in-a-convenient-package ending. It seemed almost too neat, and rather unlikely. All that said, if you enjoy a mystery - I think it could be called a 'cozy mystery' but that description makes me cringe - set in a fabulous house with a haughty family and sensible staff, you'll probably like Loch Down Abbey.

Breakfast in Burgundy

 Breakfast in Burgundy by Raymond Blake

In this travel memoir, Blake, from Ireland, buys a house in the Burgundy region of France. He writes about the frustrations of getting renovations done, the beauty of the area, the people he meets and the meals they share. In the vein of Peter Mayle's Provence books, but for me not quite as entertaining.

The stories about fixing up his house are great, as are the descriptions of French food and countryside, but a great deal of the book is about wine. The depth of detail he goes into about vineyards and vintages would probably appeal more to someone with a lot more knowledge than I have. 

He's a terrific writer and parts of the book were fun to read, but the sub-title "A Hungry Irishman in the Belly of France" had me hoping for something lighter. It got bogged down in wine talk and lost me about half way through. 

Lilac Girls

 Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

My thoughts on this one won't be popular with the many who loved it because I found it had more weaknesses than strengths. It covers some intense subject matter and seems to be very well researched, but in the end the writing simply wasn't strong enough to tell the story well. 

In alternating sections three characters share the events of 1939 to 1959 as they experienced them:

Caroline, 37, does volunteer work for the French Embassy in New York City, assisting the many people trying to either get out of France or get home to France with war looking more likely every day. Her work and her involvement in the organizing and shipping of care boxes to children displaced in Europe's chaos lends some gravitas to what otherwise seems like an often frivolous character. 

Kasia, 16, and two friends are outside when low flying planes approach and she  watches in horror as the first bombs are dropped on their small Polish town. Caught helping the resistance movement, she, along with her mother and sister, will be sent to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women. There Kasia and her sister will be among a group of women subjected to horrific Nazi medical experimentation.

Herta, a young German doctor frustrated by the lack of jobs open to females in civilian practice, is excited when she hears of an opportunity to work at a women's 're-eduction' camp. On arrival at Ravensbruck, she is at first unsettled by what she sees being done to prisoners, but then comes to see it as necessary for the protection of German racial purity.

Is anybody else getting tired of the alternating viewpoints and timelines device? It seems to be the go-to format in fiction now, but for me it's wearing thin. It works here to a point, but only Kasia's comes to any sort of conclusion, with the other two just fading out. 

A number of things seemed off. The title has little to do with the story and the cover art is a little misleading. It can't represent the three main characters, who would never be found arm in arm like chums. Some of the dialogue, especially Caroline's, felt shallow and tone-deaf. Inconsistencies in her character show her being kind and compassionate with some people, then inexplicably rude with others. Her story relies heavily on a romance that never ends up going anywhere. Kasia's coldness toward her daughter and husband don't come across as reasonable, and there's no explanation of Herta's quick change of attitude about the brutality in the camp.

The three women are based on actual people and though the sections dealing with their true experiences are riveting, it falls apart in the purely fictional parts of the story. I want to admire Caroline and Kasia for the heroes they are, but the attitides and dialogue given to them make them unlikeable, which to me defeats the purpose and prevents any emotional connection with them. 

This story had a lot of potential, with solid subject matter and real people to build it around, but I think the writing let it down.  

The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted

 The Provence Cure for the Broken Hearted by Bridget Asher

To appease her mother, Heidi and her son Abbot head out to spend a summer in their family home in Provence, ostensibly to begin renovations after a small fire, but really because her mother feels they aren't recovering from the loss of Heidi's husband two years earlier in a car accident. She hopes a change will help them move on.

Travelling with them is Heidi's teenage neice, a sullen girl who doesn't seem to get along with anybody but Heidi. She's going because her father and Heidi's sister have just married and want some time to themselves, but Heidi has a secret nobody will be able to ignore for long.

In France, they get off to a rough start when they are robbed of their luggage and most of their devices before they even get to the house. Fortunately a neighbour rescues them - a man Heidi knew as a child when she spent summers in Provence. He's handsome, kind, and also dealing with loss since his wife divorced him and took up with his brother. The fact that she and their daughter now live with the brother brings another layer of family tension to the plot, and on the romance front,  well, you can guess where that is heading.

It's fairly well written with mostly credible characters and plot, and it addresses real life issues, albeit in a romantic setting that isn't anything like real life for most people. It's predictable and a little corny, but as Anna Quindlen said in "How Reading Changed My Life":  

"...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."

The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted is that: a pleasureable whiling away of time. I enjoyed it. 


 Seveneves by Neil Stephenson

"The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.

With that first line I was hooked. And it get's better, or worse as it happens for characters in the story. An extinction level event is coming. The earth has two years to figure out how to make sure the human race survives what is being called the Hard Rain, when the moon's debris will start falling to earth. It will bombard the planet like nothing ever before, creating a dome of fire that will cook everything on the surface. 7 billion people will die.

The book is divided into three parts:

Part 1 covers one year after the moon's disintigration. Scientists and world leaders make desperate plans to put as many people into space as they can, while others choose to try their luck underground, and some even under water. A "casting of lots" in every country decides who will be sent to the Iternational Space Station, which is being expanded and stocked as fast as possible. 

Part 2 covers the year leading up to the Hard Rain, the event itself, and then the desperate attemps of those who were sent "up" to survive in space. They have to avoid colliding with fragments of the moon without getting too close to the burning earth, and then deal with unrest and violence among the survivors. Eventually, they reach a place of safety, but by then there are very few left.

Part 3 jumps ahead 5000 years - 5000 years! - to see how the human race has fared. The earth is being "TeReFormed" and contact, at times hostile, has been made with descendants of those who went underground and under water.

The story is fascinating but the amount of technical information left my head spinning at times. I must confess I scanned some of those parts instead of really reading them. I didn't dare skip them entirely for fear I'd miss some things. And there are So. Many. Things. A little overwhelming at times, but much too interesting to quit. 

861 pages of science fiction - or anything really - is a lot, but I guess it takes that long to destroy and create a whole new world. The world created in Seveneves is complete with new scientific, cultural, economic, and political realities. The thoroughness of it is amazing. 

That's not to say it's without its flaws. The last section being 5000 years in the future, all the characters you've gotten invested in are gone, and although they are still, in a way, part of the continuing story and referred to often, the break is jarring. It's a little like starting a new book, one that isn't quite as riveting as the last one because you aren't holding your breath to see if the human race survives. They have survived and flourished, and once you begin to read about how that happened it grabs your full attention again.

There is a lot of detail - enough to make me wish I had a degree ...physics...orbital something? but there is also great writing and strong, likable characters. And a plot that is nothing short of an epic vision. 

I thought it was brilliant.

Fairwell to Fairacre & A Peaceful Retirement

These are the final two in the Chronicles of Fairacre series - twenty books in total and every one a delight.

#19 Fairwell To Fairacre sees Miss Read suffering declining health and considering early retirement. But until that time her days are filled with the antics of her school children; run-ins with Mrs. Pringle, the disagreeable school cleaner; the never-ending problems of friend, Henry; and a marriage proposal from a charming man with "silvery hair" and "devastating blue eyes". 

#20 A Pleasant Retirement finds Miss Read adjusting to a busier retirement than she had anticipated. Visitors at the door, telephone calls, and friends and neighbours seeking her participation in community activities now that she "has all this empty time on her hands" give her little opportunity for solitude. Henry's problems come to head, John continues to propose regularly, and Miss Read enjoys a vacation in Italy with her best friend Amy. The series concludes with a new beginning for her as she puts pen to paper and begins chronicling tales of Fairacre and its people.

Reading through this series is one of the best things I've ever done for myself. When I grew weary of more troubling stories - war, grief, illness, disaster - I'd return to Fairacre to be reminded that there are gentle people in quiet places doing the best they can and appreciating the beauty in everyday things. Not that it's all sweetness all the time. No, Miss Read's often barbed wit injects enough reality - not to mention entertainment - to make the books both comforting and realistic. They have been my "happy place" for the past few years and I'm sad now to have come to the end, but happily our library still has the full series in their catalogue. I'll probably read them all again one day.

I've quoted this from Publisher's Weekly before but it sums these books up so beautifully that I'll use it one more time:

 "Miss Read has created an orderly universe in which people are kind and conscientious and cherish virtues and manners now considered antiquated elsewhere...An occasional visit to Fairacre offers a restful change from the frenetic pace of the contemporary world" 

And I'll throw in the one from Kirkus Reviews too:

"A soothing oasis of tidy living for the frazzled reader weary of an untidy world." 

Wonderful, wonderful books. It's best to read them in order but you'll be doing yourself a favour by picking up any one of them and spending a little time in Miss Read's Fairacre village.  

To Dance With the White Dog

 To Dance With the White Dog by Terry Kay

I very nearly missed this one. I've tended to shy away from dog stories since reading Fifteen Dogs. It was brutal and did nothing to encourage my already somewhat tenuous relationship with creatures of the canine variety. I'm not afraid of them as I once was, but I still don't completely trust them. Sure, they can be loving companions - I know dogs who are exactly that - but I've heard too many stories of sudden, unexpected violence to let my guard down entirely. 

All that to say, I happened to come across a review of To Dance With the White Dog that made me think I'd like it, and indeed I did. Loved it, in fact. It's a heart-warming story about Sam, an elderly farmer, who has just lost his wife of 57 years and doesn't know quite how to live without her. His well intended children fuss over him when all he wants is to be left alone to figure it out. 

One day he sees a white dog watching him from a distance. He leaves out scraps of food and eventually gets the dog to come closer and then into the house. At first no one else can see the dog and they worry their father is imagining it, but after a while they begin to see him, too, though they never hear him bark.  

Always seeming to know when help or comfort is needed, White Dog becomes Sam's companion in all things. Without his children knowing, Sam and the dog sneak off to attend a school reunion in another town, but on the way Sam becomes confused and loses his way. After spending an uncomfortable night together in the truck, a kind stranger rescues them and takes them home with him so Sam can rest and have a hot meal.

Collected by his children and safely home again, he realizes his days of venturing off on his own are over, but he finds other ways to fill his time. White Dog stays with Sam until he knows he won't be needed anymore, then he disappears as quietly as he came. 

A simple story, but it isn't about plot it's about Sam. We get to know him - and he's worth knowing - through seeing him in everyday situations, struggling with grief and the changes aging brings. His story is a celebration of life, written with tenderness and humour, reminding us that life goes on and is worth living even in changing circumstances. And, yes, he does dance with the White Dog.

I'll end with one of my favourite lines:

"he knew her voice would be the same - light, lilting,rushing to the next word and the next, her voice as cursive as her signature."

The Colony

 The Colony by Audrey Magee

A remote island off the western coast of Ireland, is, in the turbulent summer of 1979, set in the old ways and fearful of change. There, Mairead, a beautiful young widow who lost her husband to the sea, lives with her son, James, James' grandmother and great-grandmother.  

Regular breaks in the narrative report news items of violence related to the "troubles" happening on the mainland. At first they seem unrelated to the islanders, but eventually the killings creep into their conversations and though they aren't directly involved, you worry about James. His mother urges him "Stay away from that, James."

With summer come two visitors to the Island. Mr. Lloyd is an artist, here to paint the cliffs and the people of the island in hopes of reviving his flagging career. J.P. is a liguist in the fifth and final year of his study of the Gaelic language and its decline. The two men take an instant dislike to each other, Mr. Lloyd frustrated that he will not have the quiet and solitude he expected, and J.P. angry that Lloyd's presence has the islanders speaking English, the language of the colonizers.

The locals are suspicious of the artist, not knowing what he wants of them or what his work will say to the world about them, and when Mairead begins posing for him, their unease only increases. Her sneaking out of J.P.'s room in the mornings is one more reason to want both visitors gone. 

When Lloyd discovers that James has artistic talent, he invites the boy to accompany him to London to exhibit some of his art with Lloyds. Eager for a life beyond the island, James creates pieces to exhibit but begins to suspect Lloyd of copying some of James' ideas for his own work. Lloyd, realizing James is a better artist than he is and will outshine him in London, decides he can't allow that to happen. 

You get to know the characters from the changing points of view and the access the author gives us to their thoughts. A sense of melancholy infuses every part of the story, but I wouldn't say it weighs it down. It creates an atmosphere of forboding that keeps you wondering, almost worrying, how this is going to end. As the reports from the mainland become more intense, so things on the island build to an unsettling conclusion. 

Alice Adams

 Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington

Alice Adams, tired of being a poor nobody (...not really poor, just less rich than her friends), has set her hopes on the high life. She and her grasping mother hope Alice will raise the Adams' standing in society by marrying a rich somebody. Her only other option would be to enroll in the dreaded local business college to learn a marketable skill. She is horrified at the very thought.

At a party she meets Arthur Russel, who takes an immediate interest and courts her throughout the summer. Their time together is spent on the Adams' front porch because Alice doesn't want him to see the inside of the shabby house or to meet her father who is not as well-to-do as Alice has let on. She has let on a lot of things. 

Eventually the mother insists on Arthur coming to dinner, which turns out to be one of the most awkward, disasterous social occasions ever. It was painful to read. Every illusion Alice and her mother have so carefully built comes crashing down. Arthur sees who they really are and comes to visit Alice one more time, both of them understanding it will be the last. 

Alice's mother blames her husband, Virgil, and guilts him into going into business for himself to increase his income and make his children's lives easier. But to do that he has to steal a formula from his long-time boss, who, of course, eventually finds out and is not amused. Meanwhile Alice's brother, Walter, working for the same company as his father, robs his employer and takes off, leaving Virgil responsible for that debt as well as his own theft. 

In a wonderful, if unlikely, turn of events, the boss forgives Virgil and offers to buy his business, making it possible for Virgil to pay Walter's debt and avoid prison. Even better, he gives Virgil his old job back with a raise in pay. Isn't fiction great?  

Alice, her illusions of grandeur shattered, faces up to real life and finds it not so bad after all. She decides to enroll in the business school so she can get a job to help support the family. The ending is fairly positive, lessons learned and all that, for everyone but Walter. He and the money are still missing.

Unfortunately none of the characters were very relatable, or even likeable really. They are more caricatures than real people so it was hard to make any emotional connection with them. I've read several other Tarkington books and found the same thing in all of them, and yet there's something about them I like. I enjoy his writing and the era he's writing in and about, and the situations he puts his characters into and seeing how they respond to them makes for good stories. I guess the bottom line is I find them pleasant reading, realistic or not.  

Alice Adams, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, is available to read free of charge at Gutenberg Press here:

Merry Christmas, Mr. Baxter/Greenlights

Merry Christmas, Mr. Baxter by Edward Streeter

Mr. Baxter, an affluent business man living in New York City, is at a loss to understand why otherwise sensible people all lose their minds at Christmas. Every year he and Mrs. Baxter decide they will be reasonable and do things more simply this Christmas, and every year as the day approaches they forget  their good intentions and go overboard again. Mrs. B. succumbs joyfully, happily planning, shopping, and wrapping. Mr. B. sighs and grumbles.  

There isn't much of a plot, but it's great fun seeing the holidays through Mr. Baxter's slightly jaded eyes. He's not a curmudgeon exactly, just a bit more down-to-earth than Mrs. Baxter thinks is necessary. They remind me of tv couples from the 1950s - darling this and darling that, then completely ignoring whatever the other is saying. It's very entertaining. 

I searched for a paper copy without finding one at any kind of sensible price, but then stumbled onto, a remarkable site where there are all sorts of old books available to read free. I'm not terribly keen on reading from a computer screen - too hard on the eyes - but on an old tablet that isn't good for much else it wasn't too bad at all. If you haven't checked out the archive, you can do that here: internet archive.

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey

This one had the look of a scrapbook with its pictures of post-it's and lists and Mr. McConaughey's pithy sayings throughout. I can't say I enjoyed the format but some of his story is interesting.  

Parnassus on Wheels

 Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley

The delightful tale of Helen McGill, who, tired of keeping house for her older brother, Andrew, buys a book wagon called Parnassus, and takes to driving about the countryside selling books. The previous owner, Ralph Mifflin, rides with her for a few days, showing her the ropes and giving her the first opportunity she's had in years to talk about something other than farm life.  

When Andrew finds out what she's done, he goes to the police and  accuses Mr. Mifflin of defrauding Helen. Ralph ends up in jail, Helen is furious with Andrew and now has to convince the authorities it's all a misunderstanding.   

The beating heart of this book is Helen McGill, an endearing soul, full of practical wisdom and eager to see the positive in everyone. It's not a long story but it's memorable, funny and sweet, and pleasingly scattered with literary references. 

I listened to an audio version narrated by a Wanda McCadden, who did it so well that it felt like she was sitting at my kitchen table telling the story to me personally. I seldom recommend audio over the printed word, but I have to this time. If you can find this one (I got it through Chirp) do try it. It's pure joy. 

The Bostonians

 The Bostonians by Henry James

Olive Chancellor, a feminist of independent means, invites her southern cousin Basil Ransom to visit her in Boston. They attend a party where young Verena Tarrant is introduced as a speaker for women's rights. Both Olive and Ransom are immediately drawn to her, Olive as someone to mentor in the cause and Ransom on a more personal level. 

Olive and Ransom quickly become enemies, she urging Verena to understand that marriage would be a betrayal of her committment to the cause, he intent on making her see that a life of speaking such "foolishness" would be the ruination of a woman meant (as all women are, in his thinking) to be a wife spending her talents on pleasing her husband. 

Spoiler alert...

In the early part of the book I thought Ransom and Verena could be good for each other, that he might begin to support her work and she could be with him and still serve the interests of women. I didn't dislike him until close to the end, when I was finally convinced that he simply wanted to own her. Which is pretty much the same thing Olive wanted - to own Verena and control everything she did, thought, and felt. 

I was frustrated with both of them, and not only them. Verena seemed throughout most of the book to know her own mind, but as Ransom wore her down with his persistence she became little more than his puppet. She let herself be led away into a life she didn't want. Even then I held out some hope for them, but the closing sentence ruined that. I won't tell you what it said, just that it almost made me throw the book across the room. 

Almost. But you see, it's Henry James. I love Henry James. I don't always care so much what he does to his characters, so long as he does it in such beautiful writing. His language is exquisite, even when there's an excess of it, as there generally is. He talks and talks and talks, and his characters talk, and talk, and talk - and I am mesmerized. He reels me in as Ransom does Verena, and though I hate her capitulation, I'm just fine with mine. 

Something Rotten

 Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde

Book 4 in the Thursday Next series sees Thursday and her two year old son, Friday, leaving BookWorld to return home to the real world, accompanied by none other than Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark. The Prince is on a break to reflect upon why everyone considers him "a ditherer", while Thursday's intentions are to have her eradicated husband uneradicated, get back her job as Literary Detective at SpecOps., find childcare, protect the President from his appointed death six days from now, make sure the the local croquet team wins the Superhoop thereby preventing the apocalypse, avoid the assasin trying to kill her, and stop Yorrick Kaine, a character escaped from BookWorld, from taking over the world and being worshipped as God. 

That list should make it clear how completely ridiculous and wonderful these books are. Wonder-full. Lunatic things happen and you just go along with it all as if it's perfectly normal. There's not been a boring moment in any of them. I don't know how from the great depths of his imagination he comes up with this stuff, but that imagination should be declared a national treasure and protected so he can write books 9 to at least 100. Eight is not going to be enough.

Visual Thinking

 Visual Thinking by Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin, professor, author, animal behaviourist, and designer of industrial equipment, was non-verbal at three years old and just learning to read at eight. Her doctor recommended she be placed in an institution but her mother chose to send her to private school instead, where her intelligence was recognized, her abilities encouraged, and lessons were tailored to her learning style. She went on to earn a bachelor's degree in psychology, followed by a masters and then a doctorate in animal science. 

She's had a highly successfull carreer as an industrial designer, has written several books, and travels and speaks to audiences on the topics of animal behaviour and autism. She is currently a professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University and acts as a consultant to the livestock industry. Spending her life advocating for people on the autism spectrum and for the humane treatment of animals, in 2010 she was named one of the Time magaizine's 100 Most Influential People in the world. A movie based on her life won a Golden Globe for actress Clair Danes who played the role of Ms. Grandin.

In this book she looks at how people think and learn in different ways. What she wants us to understand is that people whose brains work the way hers does, i.e. visual thinkers, are not disabled. And she's not only talking about people on the spectrum. Many people with abilities not encouraged in our educational systems, if nurtured and given opportunities, will go on to fill essential roles in our world. For too long students who struggle with math have been held back and not given the chance to excel in their own strengths, and this affects not only the students, but all all of us. Every kind of intelligence will be needed to build a better future. Ms. Grandin shares story after story of disasters that might have been avoided had there been visual thinkers as well as linear thinkers on the design teams of the equipment involved. That emphasizes, with a sense of urgency, the importance of hearing what she has to say.

If you are a teacher, a parent, or think you may be a visual learner yourself, this book will give you good insight into how the visual mind works and how essential it is that we not neglect them, for all our sakes.      

Changes At Fairace

 Changes at Fairacre by Miss Read

I have only two books left to read in this series and dread coming to the end. I already miss this little country village and the homey folks who live there, even when those folks are stubborn or unreasonable. They are so much a part of the fabric of village life that it couldn't be Fairacre without them. 

This time around Miss Read grapples with the death of a dear old friend, the possibility of unprecedented low attendance closing her school forever, and a destructive storm that brings the chimney crashing down through the roof of the school house. 

In this eighteenth book in the series, Fairacre is beginning to change. Larger towns offer more jobs with better pay, and over time the village has lost residents, services, and shops. Miss Read, herself, moves away from Fairacre, though her position as school mistress keeps her in the thick of things and the usual cast of characters continue to play a large part in her life.

I want to read the final two right away, but also never read them at all so things will stop changing. How is it possible to become this attached to a place that isn't even real? 


Flight of Dreams

 Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon

A riveting Hindenberg story, well-researched and plotted and filled with characters you anxiously hope will survive this ill-fated flight.

The plot is fictional but the characters are named for actual passengers and crew on the flight and some of their personal details are factual. The author took the bones of a real event, constructed a plot and fleshed out characters to give us one possible scenario of how the disaster could have unfolded. No official reason for the explosion was ever given and this story is pure speculation, but it is very well done.

The inner workings of the airship are described - in just enough detail - so we can see what held it all together behind the elegant surroundings the passengers experienced. At 16 stories high and 804 ft long, it was the largest aircraft ever built. I was surprised to learn it been in service for a year - for some reason I'd always thought its last flight was its first - before the fatal flight that destroyed it and ended the era of zepplins for good. 

Another thing I learned - and this is why I like historical fiction - is that zepplins were a key component of Hitler's air force and, had the Hindenberg not gone down, might have given Germany the edge in the battle for the skies.  
The main characters, whose points of view we get in alternating sections, are The Navigator, The Stewardess, The Cabin Boy, The Journalist, and The American.

The Navigator, Max, is intelligent, good at his job, and sweet on the Stewardess. He quite by accident discovers a secret she'd intended to keep hidden, and is alarmed to find that the gun he'd been issued as an officer of the crew is missing.

The Stewardess, Emilie, has the distiction of being the first female flight steward ever hired. Grieving the loss of her husband and hesitant to care that deeply again, she has allowed herself to flirt with Max, but no more. Besides, she has a secret, and and the hidden documents in her cabin could get her into serious trouble at work and with the German government.

The Cabin Boy, Werner, 14, has a crush on a pretty passenger, knowing in three days they'll be landing and he'll never see her again. The youngest member of the crew, he wants to prove himself a man to gain the respect of the others. He gets  into a number of precarious situations when he is blackmailed into doing favours for people who want to know what he knows. 

The Journalist, Gertrud, and her husband, Leohnard, are going to America for a book tour at the insistance of the Nazi government. Forced to leave their infant son at home as a guarantee of their return, she worries that after a three month separation he may not remember her. Gertrud's keen observational skills tell her some things are not quite what they seem aboard the airship, and her insatiable curiosity leads her into situations even she couldn't have imagined. 

The American grieves the loss of his brother and is intent on two things: getting revenge on the man aboard this aircraft who is responsible for his brother's death, and making sure Hitler's fleet of zeppelins is stopped from becoming the most powerful airforce in the world. 

As you begin to feel a connection with the characters, the tension ratches up. You know that 35 of the 97 people on board will die. That's a historical fact that won't change just because you know these people now and want them to live their lives. And in case the question of who dies is not enough to make you hold your breath, each chapter heading tells you how much time is left till the explosion. About halfway in, it becomes a real page-turner. I tried to wrench myself away to get some sleep - on the page that said "7:03 pm - twenty-two minutes until the explosion" - but sleep was wishful thinking at that point and I ended up back in the living room reading again. 

Now, having finished, I wish I hadn't read it so quickly. You know that feeling of closing a book and feeling the loss of the world created between the covers? I miss this one. It's a well-written enlightening story, inevitably sad in the end but immensely entertaining in the reading.

The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek

 The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

In the 1930s the Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project hired people to deliver books and magazines to the remote hill-people of that state. In this tale of historical fiction, Cussy Mary Carter, 16, is one of those pack horse librarians, riding her mule through trails fraught with danger from animals and people, to bring the joy and power of the written word to people living in desperate poverty. She was welcomed, or at least tolerated, by her patrons who were happy to get the books, but ostracized by  others because she looked different. Her skin was blue.

The blue people of Kentucky actually existed, though when I bought the book I thought that was fiction, too. There's information online if you'd like to learn more about them. In the 1960s the cause of blue skin was identified as methemoglobinemia, easier to pronounce if you read it as met-hemoglobin-emia. An enzyme deficiency turned the blood brown and the skin blue, but once it was known to be a medical issue a treatment was developed to turn the skin back to it's natural colour in mere minutes if they took the daily medication.

Troublesome Creek is also an actual place, and not - as in my ignorance I thought likely - made up to create a good book title. An online description says this "The creek, which runs through Knott County, was so named because of its nearly impassable game trail. Even experienced hunters could not weave their way through the valley, as large trees, creeping vines, and misshapen stones guarded the pathways of the creek."

As "a blue", Cussy Mary is treated as different, inferior, and dangerous - a devil people were afraid to even touch. Her father is worried that when he's gone there'll be on one to protect her, so he sets out to find a man willing to court her. Soon he marries her off to one who turns out to be ignorant and abusive, but fortunately (oh did I write that out loud...) he dies on their wedding night. That's not a spoiler because it happens early in the story.

Cussy Mary returns to her father's house and her job as a bookwoman among the hill people. She meets a man who doesn't care about her different colour and that friendship develops throughout the rest of the story, though to me they don't spend enough time getting to know one another to call it a romantic relationship. 

The main themes of the story are the expansion of minds and lives through access to books, the harsh realities of poverty, and the terrible injustices of prejucide. The romance thread weaves through it but is thin.  

Life is brutal for many of the characters - destitution, children dying of starvation, suffering and deaths from lack of medical care -  but there are enough moments of tenderness and natural beauty written into the narrative to relieve the harshness of it. I think she strikes a good balance between the two.  

I had no knowledge of the blue people, or the terrible conditions in which they and others in the mountains lived, and I'm glad I read it for that, but the interesting history wasn't quite enough to make this a great read for me. I found parts of the dialogue - and even a few circumstances in the plot -  unconvincing. It had nothing to do with their Southern accents or colloquialisms, or with Cussy Mary being blue or a bookwoman, just something in the writing that didn't seem quite realistic at times. That will not be a popular opinion, as I haven't found a single reviewer who agrees with me, and it could be my reading of it has been too shallow. This was an audio book, which I seldom find I get as much from as from reading, but for me the history lesson was better than the story.

I bought the sequel, The Bookwoman's Daughter, at the same time as this one and will listen to it next, though to be honest it's more because I already have it on my Kobo than from any keen interest in knowing how the story progresses.

The Bookwoman's Daughter

I listened to a bit more than a third of this and quit. No real plot, too many irrelevant details and a lot of dialogue that only filled up space. Nowhere near as interesting as the first one.

Before We Were Yours

 Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

This story is told in two timelines:

The first is set in the 1930s, where Rill Foss, 12 yrs old, and her 4 younger siblings Camellia, Fern, Lark, and Gambion, live with little money but much contentment aboard their parents shantyboat on the Mississippi river.

The other timeline is present day, where Avery Stafford, lawyer, moves home from New York to help her father, the State Senator, after he is diagnosed with cancer. She is engaged to a man considered by all to be the perfect match for the daughter of a Senator and with whom she's been friends since childhood, but who is now away much of the time working on his own career.

The Foss family on the Mississippi are poor, but more than content with each other and the natural world around them. The Stafford family are wealthy and well-known, but have secrets of which even they aren't aware.

When Rill's mother needs medical help during labor, her father rushes her to the hospital leaving the children alone on the boat. They are quickly scooped up and taken to the Tennessee Children's Home Society Orphanage, surely one of the most evil instituations ever to have existed. Some of the children are given to families looking to adopt, with no records kept so they can never be found again. Others live in cruel conditions under the direction of Georgia Tann, so vile a human being that it's hard to accept her as real, but you have to because both she and the orphanage actually existed. The Foss family is fictional, but their story  is based on those of people who suffered such things in reality.   

Back in the present day, Avery's grandmother, Judy's, fading memory causes her to mistake Avery for someone named Fern, leaving Avery curious as to who Fern might be. When Trent Turner, a real-estate agent on Edisto Island, calls asking that Judy come pick up an envelope he was instructed to deliver into her hands only, Avery tries to convince him to let her pick it up on Judy's behalf. But Trent says no, he promised his grandfather he would give it to Judy, and Judy only. Frustrated, Avery travels to the Isand where, with persistence, she finally talks him into giving the envelope to her. Confused and concerned by its contents, they begin to put together the pieces of the puzzle. 

Eventually the two timelines come together and there's a satisfying conclusion for everybody. Well, maybe less so for one character, but you'll be as happy about that as about the ones that work out well.

A good story in both timelines that perhaps comes together a little too perfectly at the end, but by then I was more than ready for good things to happen so I didn't really mind. Descriptions of life on the river and Edisto Island create a strong sense of place, the characters are credible and on the whole relatable, and the plot moves along at a good pace. Each section in alternating timelines ends with a bit of a cliffhanger that kept me reading longer than I should have. With effective tension building, a solid plot, good dialogue, and things to learn about river culture and Tennessee history, this one is a good read worth recommending.     

The Right to Write

 The Right to Write by Julia Cameron

The author believes that to be a writer you have only to write, not publish or make money from what you write. Writing should be done for the process, she says, and not the product, and then she tells you how to get started and how to keep going when you get stuck. 

After reading this and doing several of the excercises she suggests, I find myself happily able to write more freely, less contrained by shoulds and shouldn'ts, and enjoying it more than I ever did. The 43 (short) chapters with a very practical exercise at the end of each one, will help you silence your "inner censor" and write simply for the joy of it, no longer worrying if it's "good enough". I feel a confidence I didn't have before, and am not embarrassed to say yes, I write, and even yes, I write poetry, and no, I've never been published. I came away from this book feeling relieved, and with exactly what the title promised - knowing I have the right to write, that I am, in fact, a writer, even if I'm the only one ever to read my writing. Writing really is for everyone, not just the famous few.

Here are just a few of the ideas she presents:

  • Writing without trying to make it good.
  • Writing what you're thinking about instead of thinking about what to write. 
  • Writing to figure things out, to find out what you really do think.
  • Using your life expereiences as creative fuel
And there is much more that that. I can't recommend this book strongly enough for anyone who loves to write but struggles with doubt. It's enormously encouraging and full of practical, right now, help. My applause and gratitude to Julia Cameron for this book and the help it has been to me. 

Cloud Cuckoo Land

  Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

It felt a little disjointed in the beginning with three different timelines, sets of characters, and settings, but soon hints of a connection between them started to pop up, a connection that developed at just the right pace until it became one story - the story of an ancient book that affected all the lives in all the timelines.   

Timeline One: The Lakeport Public Library, 2020. 

Zeno, an elderly war veteran, is upstairs helping a group of 5 children enact a play about Aethon, a boy who set out to find a magical world of peace and beauty. Zeno has spent years translating the story into English from the original Greek.

Seymour, a teenager obsessed with making people understand that we are destroying the planet and must change our ways right now, is on the first floor. He has a bomb in his backpack.

Timeline Two: Constantinople, 1400s

Oemir, a young boy living in the mountains of Bulgaria, is forced to join an army intent on invading the great city of Contantinople, an army with a powerful new weapon never seen or even imagined before. 

Anna, 8, and her sister live and work inside the city walls, stitching robes for the rich and powerful. At night, Anna sneaks into the city's abandoned buildings looking for manuscripts she might sell to pay her sister's medical expenses. But she can hear the forces amassing outside the walls and knows that time is running out.      

Timeline Three: The Argos, Mission Year 65 

Konstance lives with her family in a completely self sustaining spacecraft overseen by an AI named Sybil, who, programmed with all earth's knowledge, has the answer to any problem that arises. Earth is in ruins and they are on their way to a new planet, one so far away they will never see it themselves but hope their future generations will. Konstance spends much of her time in the ship's virtual library, trying to discover how Aethon's story is connected to her own, until the one problem arises that Sybil can't solve.   

This is a layered, beautifully written story with details and descriptions that bring each part of it to vibrant life. Relatable characters reach out from the page to make an emotional connection. You fear for them when things are precarious, feel relieved when they come safely through and are sad when they don't. 

The further into it I got, the more I didn't want to put it down. As the tension rose toward the end I simply couldn't leave it and stayed up till 1:45 am to finish. It was worth every yawn the next day. 

With good writing, three intriguing plots, and authentic characters, this is everything you want a story to be. I thought it was amazing.