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.


 Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

What a fantastic, mind-bending story this is. I don't know whether to call it science fiction, fantasy, fairy tale, a combination of all three, or something new entirely. Around page 30 I wondered if it might be too weird and wasn't sure I liked it enough to continue. I tried a bit more, and the next time I remembered that thought I was on page six hundred and something. I was mesmerized. (It isn't actually that long - small e-reader pages). 

It begins with Rachel, a scavenger living in the ruins of a city destroyed by climate change, finding an unusual thing in an unusual place. Are you ready for this? She's combing through the thick golden hair of a gigantic flying bear called Mord. Mord is bio-tech, possibly human at one time, serveral stories tall and given to flying over the city killing and destroying at will. Rachel waits till he's asleep and quietly picks through the odds and ends of debris he picks up in his destructive rages through town. She finds usable things to take back to Wick, her partner/lover, a drug dealer who makes tiny beetles that placed in the ear, can help you forget bad memories or imagine good ones. And if you think that's weird, hang on. 

On this particular day of scavenging, Rachel finds something unlike anything she's seen before. She describes it like this:

"a hybrid of sea anemone and squid: a sleek vase with rippling colours that strayed from purple toward deep blues and sea greens. Four vertical ridges slid up the sides of its warm and pulsating skin. The texture was as smooth as waterworn stone, if a bit rubbery. It smelled of beach reeds on a lazy summer afternoons and, beneath the sea salt, of passionflowers. Much later, I realized it would have smelled different to someone else, might even have appeared in a different form."

Not sure if it's plant, animal, or something else, she takes it home to nurture as if it were a child. Wick is not enthusiastic - the city is a dangerous place, no living thing should be trusted, especially an unknown thing - and when it begins to grow, and walk, and talk he wants it gone. But Rachel by then has adopted it, even feels love toward it, and can't let it go. 

In the background of all this is The Company, the bio-tech people responsible for unleashing Mord on the stricken city. Other results of their experiments roam the streets creating havoc for the few remaining humans trying to survive there. 

There's far more to the story than what I've covered. More articulate reviewers have done a better job of explaining it:   




As I read over what I've written it sounds totally ridiculous, but it's not. It's incredible. The characters and the setting are so real you are there with them. You feel their vulnerability, their fear, an eerieness that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Even the "thing", which she calls Borne, is relatable. It's cute when it's small and later admirable in it's protection of Rachel, even when you begin to understand its true nature.    

This is a dystopian, bio-tech bad dream, sweet and terrifying and unlike anything I've ever read. Well written. Unimaginably imaginative. Amazing.

The Provincial Lady in Wartime

 The Provincial Lady in Wartime by E.M. Delafield

I can't imagine why I waited so long to finish this quartet of fictional journals after finding the first three so delightful. My very thick paperback containing all four, The Diary of a Provincial Lady, The Provincial Lady Goes Further, The Provincial Lady in America, and this one somehow got shoved onto one of my "unread" shelves and ignored for six years. 

I was only a page in when I was reminded that for sheer entertainment, these books are hard to beat. Ms. Delafield is smart, funny, and has just enough bite in her attitude to make her relatable. Her lifestyle is light-years from mine in that she lives in a huge house, has staff to cook and clean for her family, and is a successful author; but when she tells us about her flaws and fumbles you realize she's no different than the rest of us. And the way she tells those stories is brilliant. Situations that might leave you and I shaking our heads, grumbling and complaining, are for her the makings of lively anecdotes, even when nothing much is happening. They are all just "Standing By", waiting for the fighting to begin in earnest, but she sprinkles her wit and candor over the daily grind and creates magic. Oh, how I wish I could see life the way she does. 

According to online info these are fictional journals based partly on her own life. Whatever else they may be, they are excellent, excellent reading. 

Cover Her Face

Cover Her Face by P.D. James

In this mystery novel, Mrs. Maxie, the matriarch of Martingale, hires a young single mother to help care for her invalid husband. Sally manages to alienate everyone in the household, so when she is found strangled in her bed there is plenty of reason to suspect all of them. Chief Superintendent Adam Dalgliesh arrives on the scene to investigate and the interrogations reveal secrets, putting further strain on already rocky relationships.  

The novel is structured in a way similar to Agatha Christie's in that it builds up to a final scene where, after the detective has figured everything out - but hasn't yet revealed to the reader what he knows - he calls everyone together and tells them exactly what happened. He explains the course of events leading up to the murder and then declares one them them guilty. I'm not a great fan of that style but I don't think it's enough to keep me from reading more of them. 

It's a good story, with flaws. For a mystery there isn't much intrigue, so it's not what you'd call a page-turner. And there were so many characters introduced right off the bat that I had to use a list to keep up - a whole raft of them and none at all likeable. I might have liked Dalgliesh if I'd learned anything about him but he's almost a minor character in this one. Granted this in only the first in a series of fourteen based on the detective and his cases but it would have been nice to get to know him a little better. 

On the other hand, the good writing made the flaws seem less important. Her phrasing, command of the language, and the slight edge to some of the dialogue all made for good reading. I admire the way she can, in half a dozen words, clearly make a point that I'd still be fumbling to explain after thirty. And I love the Britishness of it all, enough to try at least the next couple of books in the series.   

Gutenberg's Apprentice

 Gutenberg's Apprentice by Alix Christie

All I knew about Gutenberg before reading this was that he built the first printing press and then printed the first mechanically produced Bible. I don't recall ever stopping to consider what went into the constructing of the press or the page by page creation of the book, and now I can't understand why I wasn't more curious. It was a massive undertaking with unimaginable (in this day and age) difficulties, delays, and opposition. A fascinating story. 

Also woefully ignorant of life and culture in the 1400s, I was naively shocked at the level of corruption in the Church, the ruling power at the time. The power hungry leeches making and changing laws to achieve their own ends, the over-taxing of the poor while the rich lived in luxury at their expense, the lying and stealing done in God's name - these were both enlightening and heart-wrenching to read. 

The years of labor that went into the building of the press was another surprise to me. When you consider there had never been a metal letter that could be inked and stamped, that no one knew such a thing was possible, you begin to understand what a radical idea it was. Letters had to be hard carved - the whole alphabet many, many times over, and in different fonts. Metals in various combinations were tested until a strength was finally achieved that would survive being pounded onto paper without breaking or smearing the ink, and without tearing the paper or wearing out too soon. 

Different inks, made from expensive and often hard to find plants and alcohols, were experimented with. They needed it to be thick enough to stay on the metal form and transfer clearly to the paper, thin enough to not be sticky or gum up the press, and dark enough to stand out against the white of the page and not fade once printed.

All of this took years to accomplish, with much scheming to beg, borrow and steal supplies, not to mention the satisfying of the petty demands of governing powers who all wanted a piece of the action. Then there was what amounted to the paying of "protection" to local guilds and artisans who promised to keep the secret of the new invention, but only for a price.   

Once the press was built there were still problems. More money had to be raised, and huge supplies of paper, all handmade and expensive, had to be sourced out and shipped. Security became a constant concern because If the church found out what they were doing, they would simply sweep in and claim the press for their own. 

There was surprising (to me) opposition among the people, who upon seeing the first printed material could not understand how such uniform lettering was possible. All they had ever seen was the hand lettering of scribes, who they believed were gifted by God to write out His words and will for the people. It was not possible for human beings to write letters so perfectly aligned and identical, therefore there must be some evil power at work. People of faith were terrified and wanted nothing to do with it. 

I was intrigued by the political, religious, and cultural conditions of the time, and all that went into the process of printing. The characters were interesting, if not relatable. Guttenberg in this story was not someone to admire, and though his apprentice, the main character, was more likable, he, too, became tiring after a while. I did appreciate that his personal story of family and a love interest allowed calmer passages to alternate with the very intense, often frantic, story of the press.  

This book was total immersion in a time, a place, and a culture. That made it a good read for me. And it was overall a good story, I just think it could have been told as well in fewer pages and with less detailed description. 

Bottom line though, fellow readers: it is very much worth reading.           

Talk Radio

Talk Radio by Ham Martin

In a small town in Maine, Vivien Kindler applies for and gets a job hosting a radio talk show, a position left vacant when the former host, Fred Boyland, suffered a debilitating stroke. After Vivian and her husband moved to this new town for his job, he walked out on her, leaving her alone in a place where she knew no one, but as people call in she begins to connect and learn about the town and its residents. There are regular callers - Brownie, the poet; JJ's Mom (JJ is a dog); George, the Welder; Paul, the piano tuner; a local teacher; and random callers who choose not to leave their names. The poet calls to share his latest efforts, another reads his original short stories, some comment on local happenings or express their opinions on whatever topic Vivien has introduced for the day, and some call simply to have someone to talk to.  

Fred Boyland becomes an unwelcome caller, criticizing the different direction Vivien is taking the show and stirring up his supporters by telling them she stole his job. Harrassing calls increase and then she learns that Fred is organizing a protest to be held outside the radio station, just below her window where she will see and hear it all. Rattled by some of the more aggressive calls, she grows nervous as the day of the protest approaches.   

The story is told largely through the dialogue of the calls, with a few short chapters adding a little about what's going on outside of the studio. That makes it fairly quick to read, but still a story with impact. There was a moment in the middle of it where I hoped something would happen soon, and then it did so that was only a momentary lull. 

The dialogue is good, witty, with different styles for different characters that remained consistent. The characters are endearing - you even feel sorry for Fred by the end - and the overall tone encouraging. I wish there was a sequel; I'd like to read more about these folks and their town. 

An appealing story told in a different way; a nice read.

The Grumbler's Guide to Giving Thanks

The Grumbler's Guide to Giving Thanks by Dustin Crowe

This book changed my perspective. a change I needed more than a little. It's about being grateful - and expressing that gratitude - for the things we've been given. But more than that, it's about taking the time to consider what the gift says about the Giver, and how that can give us a clearer understanding of who God is and how He feels about us.   

"What does the nature of this gift tell me about the giver? What does it tell me about what they want for me or how they're seeking my good? How does what someone did for me provide insight into their heart, character, intentions, and attributes?"

"As we take this step into thanksgiving, it builds our trust in God. Here our fears, anxiety, and worries get smaller as our view of God gets bigger. This doesn't happen because problems go away but because we've encounterd a God who is in all circumstances still good, in control, at work. providing for us, and acting on our behalf."

Some of it was repetitive, but maybe it needed to be to drill the message into my thick head. I appreciated the practical suggestions at the end of each chapter that help you actually do something instead of just nodding agreement and putting it back on the shelf. This one offers something real that you can do now to improve your outlook and the way you feel about life. And really, who doesn't need that?

It's a fairly quick read but it's changed the way I look at giving thanks, and for that, this grumbler is indeed grateful.  

Girl in Hyacinth Blue

Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

Oh my, I nearly forgot about this one. I noticed the title on the list of books I'd read lately but couldn't remember one thing about it till I found an online summary to jog my memory. And it's only been two weeks! But don't let give you pause; it is worth reading for a lot of reasons. It's full of good history, culture and story. I've got to start writing about books immediately after reading them so my aging brain doesn't lose details or, as in this case, the whole freaking plot. 

The Vermeer painting, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, is fictional, invented for this story, and the book is a series of short stories that trace the ownership of the painting backwards through generations until it at last reaches it's point of origin. Each one is a snapshot of someone's life in a particular time and place, some of which paint a more vibrant picture than others. The one I liked best was about a family in the 1700s trying to save their farm after a massive flood. Two days after the disaster, in a small boat tied to the house, they find a baby, the painting, and a note saying "Sell the painting. Feed the child." With these particularly vivid characters I felt more of an emotional connection than with some others.

In a later story we meet Vermeer himself and learn something about his painting style and artistic vision. The painting is fictional, yes, but the author does give us some idea of how he thought and what he tried to capture in his work.  

This is my third of Vreeland's novels and they've all been well-written historical novels with interesting and unique plots. Her keen eye for detail, sensitivity, and insight bring her novels to life in a way that plunks you down in the middle of them in a satisfying way. She's written one about the designer of the Tiffany lamps that sounds good, so that will be my next of hers. I'd like to read it soon, but it will be added to a long list of books all of which that I want to read soon. So many books...

Still Life With Bread Crumbs

Still Life With Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen

One of the benefits of getting older is that you can re-read your books and they seem new. I did remember bits of this one but could never have strung the bits together to make a story. I also remember thinking it was ok, but nothing special. Happily, I liked it better this time, probably because it's about an aging woman struggling to adjust to her changing circumstances. Not that she's as aged as I am, but I could certainly relate. 

Her name is Rebecca Winter and she's a famous photographer or more accurately, she was a famous photographer. She isn't working much now - the jobs just aren't coming in - and she's feeling the pinch. Her income has shrunk but her expenses have not: rent and upkeep for her New York apartment, her mother's nursing home expenses, helping her father with his rent and her son with whatever he needs at the time, and all the other ongoing expenses of day-to-day life.

She decides to sublet her apartment, which in N.Y. will bring in a very good price, and look for someplace smaller and less expensive for herself. Finding an ad for a cottage in the country, she takes it based only on a couple of internet pictures - not a good idea. It's cold, barely furnished, and has a raccoon in the attic, though ultimately the raccoon is a good thing because it leads her to Jim Bates. He will get rid of it for her, fix her roof so it can't get back in, and become a friend. She finds two more friends in Sarah, who runs the local coffee shop, and Tad, self-employed as a clown for children's parties. 

Hiking every day to keep busy, she comes across a series of white crosses in the woods near her cottage, each one with some personal item nearby, and begins to photograph them, though she has no idea what they mean or who put them there. These photos will be the beginning of her come back as a photographer, and the start of a new life with a new love.  

The characters were likeable, the plot (mostly) believable, and the writing quite enjoyable. It was worth reading again, and this time I have no hesitation recommending it.  

Paris to the Moon

Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik

I should have loved this. How could I not love a well-written book about moving to Paris for five years? For a time I was obsessed with moving-to-a-foreign-country stories, and those about France are, for me, the cream of that crop.  

So, where did this one let me down? Well for one thing, in spots it felt more like a class lecture than a travel journal. There was a detailed chapter about a soccer tournament and another about the trial of a war criminal, both of which might be interesting as stand alone essays but not so much in a story about life in Paris.    

For another, the number of French words he used without telling us their meaning became annoying. Yes, you can look them up, but there's a lot of them and looking them up got old fast. 

There are positives as well. He writes with wit and candor about his family's daily life, the frustrations of French bureacracy, the pleasures of French food, and the ups and downs of raising a young child. I'd be reading along with great enthusiasm but then find myself bogged down again in a few pages that didn't seem to fit. It was a very uneven reading experience.

He's certainly a good writer - articulate and knowledgable - it just got to be a bit much at times. Some reviewers raved about it, others tore it to shreds. I'm somewhere in the middle I think - not sorry I read it, but can't say it's a 'must read'. 

How I Became a Famous Novelist

 How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely

Pete Tarslaw wants to be rich but he won't get that way at his current job working for EssayAides, writing application essays for people trying to get into college and grad school. They send him their sad attempts and he polishes them till they are the impressive, if not so truthful, applications the institutions are looking for.    

He decides novel writing is the best way to get the things he wants, which include a beautiful home, "new avenues of sexual opportunity", and not having to work for the rest of his life. But what he wants most is to be a best selling author in time for his ex-girlfriend's wedding, where he hopes to walk in and take all the attention from her, ruining her day and getting revenge for her leaving him. 

Pete's belief is that anyone can write a novel, so with just a few ground rules (abandon truth, write a popular book and don't waste energy making it a good book, etc.) he writes an outline, fills it in enough to make a manuscript, and finds a publisher. 

The income is considerably less than he expected but it does sell moderately well for a time. After he publicly criticizes a more popular author for doing exactly what he himself has done, i.e. written a bad book for quick money, his own book sales start to pick up. Unfortunately his remarks land him in a face-to-face public confrontation with the offended author that does not end well for Pete. 

Meanwhile, having accepted a less-than-ethical job (not that anything he's done has been ethical to this point) writing letters for a shady investment company, he finds himself in hot water for bilking seniors out of their hard-earned money. This, too, does not end well for Pete. 

The book is funny, but not as funny as advertised. Pete is a jerk who wants something for nothing and makes a mess of everything, especially his ex-girlfriend's wedding where he wreaks unbelievable havoc. I tried but couldn't work up much sympathy for him.

The skewering of the publishing industry was enteraining - authors, editors, publishers, reviewers - no one escaped his ripping off of masks and tearing down of pretenses. It was amusing, and refreshing, to hear him say out loud things the rest of us think but won't say.  

I liked the concept, just not the main character. I suppose that shouldn't make a difference, but evidently I am not evolved enough to get past it.  2.5/5


Taste by Stanley Tucci

If you aren't hungry when you begin this you surely will be when you're done. The recipes! And most of them simple enough to create in our own kitchens. I can vouch for the fact that the eggs poached in tomatoes are easy to make and absolutely delicious.

This is not a cookbook as such. It's Mr. Tucci's life story puctuated by mouth-watering descriptions of meals he's had along the way, meals his mother made for him, those he's experienced in restaurants around the world, and the ones he now makes for his own family. 

He's an interesting writer, telling his stories with humour and humility, and letting us share the happy and the less-than-happy events that have made him who he is today. Just a heads up for those of you who like to be forewarned, there is some language. Toward the middle a few pages are laden with it but it does ease up again after that. 

They say you should never meet your heros - Mr. Tucci has long been a favourite actor of mine - but having met him in this book and gotten to know him a little, I can say he's remains up there in my estimation. He seems like a genuinely likeable guy. This was a good read. 

Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend

Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend by Michael Munn

There were some good stories in this biography but I wasn't keen on the way it was put together. It jumped around a lot making it feel choppy and repetitive. Quotes from Mr. Stewart's wife, Gloria, and others made up much of it, and summaries of the plots of his films made up the rest. The latter filled up the pages but didn't tell me anything about the subject.

It was fun to read about his co-stars - familiar names of that era:  Henry Fonda, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Katherine Hepburn, Olivia DeHaviland, Gregory Peck, Van Johnson, etc - and his WWII service and later involvement with the FBI were interesting, but I didn't come away with a real understanding of who he was as a person. There was an inordinate emphasis on the number of women he had flings with, on the dangers of his losing his temper, and of his discomfort around people of colour. True or not they were brought up so often as to stretch credibility and again seemed to be more to fill the pages than anything else. The image I'm left with feels more like a caricature than a well rounded picture of a real person. 

It wasn't awful but I do think there must be better biographies of Jimmy Stewart out there. 


New America

New America by Poul Anderson

My initial reaction was...hmm...different, confusing, yet so, so interesting. But it appears I've done it again, i.e. read a set of short stories that I thought was meant to be a novel. They were connected with shared characters, etc., but  I should have known by the lack of flow - the changed focus in each section - that it wasn't a novel. I thought it could be some quirky new writing style; It wasn't nearly as weird as Ulysses and that was hailed as a brilliant new literary innovation (she said with a barely concealed eye-roll).

So, knowing now that these are short stories about colonizing distant planets, followed by an essay on the feasibility of star travel, I can say that it was pretty good. I want science in my science fiction and I found quite a lot of it in these stories. The essay at the end is all science, much of which I won't pretend to have understood, but oh, what fun it was to read. I love this stuff.

The gist of the story is that with earth no longer a good place to live, people have set out among the stars to find something better. The planets they've found are inhabited, setting up all sorts of interesting scenarios and adding to the challenges of adjusting to new atmoshpheres, producing food, and building communities. As these stories begin, the characters are already established in homes and even jobs, so I'm thinking this book might be part of a series I've stumbled into. I really need to start doing more research on the books I read before I read them.  

I chose this one because of the author, whose book Brain Wave I liked, and I do want to try another one, but a full novel instead of short stories. Any recommendations?  

A Pale View of Hills

 A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

I was mesmerized reading this book, then came to the end and was thoroughly confused about what had actually happened. I knew there were things I was missing and that I should start over and read it again, but I couldn't find the will to do it. I have done before, a number of times, and each time found it well worth the time and effort for the insight gained. I don't understand why I couldn't make myself do it this time, especially as Ishiguro is one of my favourite authors. My fear is that I'm becoming a lazy reader and I hate the thought of it. Maybe it's age or maybe - hopefully - it's only a temporary slump in energy, but I'm disappointed in myself. 

On the up side, though, I found a very, very good summary and explanation of A Pale View of Hills themes and characters here. It's far better than anything I could have written and gave me the insight into this novel that I was too lax to observe on my own. I will try to do better.  

The Saint of Lost Things

The Saint of Lost Things by Christopher Castellani

A family of Italian immigrants puts down roots in 1950's New York City. When Maddelena agreed to leave her village and her family to marry Antonio and go with him to America, she had no idea how hard it would be. She missed her family and the boy she'd been in love with, but having made her choice she set her mind to creating a life for herself in a new country with Antonio's family. 

Their marriage is far from perfect, but they are committed to staying together. Antonio himself isn't faithful, but he becomes wildly jealous when his wife finally becomes pregnant and he thinks it may not be his child. He's wrong, and deep down he knows it, but he punishes her anyway, with silence, until the baby is born. He's not a terribly likeable character. 

I'd have liked Maddelena more if she'd been a little more assertive. Antonio's self-centeredness was something she simply accepted because eventually he'd come to his senses and tell her again how much he loved her. I guess because he never was the love of her life she could stay detached on some level. I discovered only after I'd finished this one that a previous book told Maddelena's earlier story. If I'd read that first I might have understood her better. 

There is one character I found more appealing. Guilio Fabbri is 40, unmarried, unemployed, and grieving the loss of the parents who had been the center of his world. There's something authentic in his character that makes you want good things to happen to him. His developing friendship with Maddelena will give him the confidence to begin to move out into the world and when he does he becomes, for me, the heart of the story.   

This is a book about the ups and downs of marriage and the subtle interactions of family and friends in everyday living. There's not a lot of plot - the element of racism comes in when Antonio's family try to drive out a black family who move into their white-Italian neighbourhood, and there's some tension when Maddelena goes into a coma after the birth of their daughter. Even the ending is undramatic, just a quiet settling down of problems and a generally satisfying outlook for most of the characters. 

It was entertaining and I did enjoy the reading of it, but can't say it's a favourite. 


 Relativity by Antonia Hayes

12 year old Ethan Forsythe is a gifted child with an obsession for physics and the unusual ability to see sound waves and other things most people can't. But how much of his giftedness is natural and how much is the result of a traumatic head injury sustained when he was still an infant? 

Ethan is determined to find out why he has never met his father, Mark, and when an illness in Mark's family brings him unexpectedly back into their lives, the secret Ethan's mother, Claire, has been protecting the boy from all these years is jeopardized. 
Clair remains cautious, desperate to shield the son she gave up a career and a marriage to keep safe. Ethan, who has a father for the first time in his life, wants to know Mark and to understand what drove their family apart. Mark, still gutted by what he feels are unjust losses and wasted years, wants his life back. Bonding over a shared passion for science, Mark and Ethan grow close and slowly Mark begins to face the truth of the damage he has done. As they all take tentative steps toward one another they must question whether love and forgiveness could ever make up for the mistakes of the past.

It's a poignant story of three people trying to overcome a single incident that drastically changed all their lives. Each character is vulnerable in their own way and you find yourself rooting for all of them; you want them to heal as individuals and to make it as a family. 

A compelling (an overused word but so apt, isn't it?) plot, authentic characters you can get invested in, good writing, and science. I loved it!

Early Autumn

 Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1927, Early Autumn tells the story of a declining New England family - the old money, closed ranks kind of family you are either born into or forever shut out of. And whose members would most likely never be guilty of ending a sentence with a preposition. 

Olivia married into the family when she wed Anson Pentland, son of family patriarch, John Pentland. It was not a love match but she was beautiful and tolerably acceptable and he needed a wife to bear his children. Two children and some years later, their only son suffers from a fatal illness, threatening the end of the Pentland line and inheritance. Their daughter falls in love with an Irish boy who does not meet Pentland expectations and Olivia attracts the affections of an up and coming local man, causing Anson to sit up and take notice when he'd much prefer to continue pretending his family is all genteel respectability.  

I usually love the language of this period but the vocabulary here was repetitive. Certain words, enchantment/enchanting among them, were used often enough to lose any meaning they were meant to convey. The dialogue was good but the prose in a few places was a bit slow and tedious to wade through.

There's not a great deal of plot, but the insight into an established society family at that time in history makes it interesting, and its observations about life, family, and duty give it depth. The story may not stick with me but I did enjoy the reading of it. 

The Chronicles of Narnia

 The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

I read this series long ago, but had forgotten most of the plots. I've been reading them again over the past few months and waited till I was finished the series before posting. Just finished the last one so here they are...

#1 The Magician's Nephew

This book was published midway through the series, but because it tells the story of how Narnia came to be, I decided to read it first this time. Digory and his friend Polly, using his uncle's magic rings, take themselves to a decaying world where they inadvertently wake up the evil Queen Jadis from her long sleep. They try to get home using the rings again, but find themselves in another world, one just becoming Narnia where we meet Aslan for the first time. Jadis becomes The White Witch of Narnia in later books, and Digory becomes the elderly professor of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

#2 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, like many other English children during WWII, are sent to live in the country when London is bombed. Their host, an elderly professor now, is Digory from Book #1. Lucy is the first to discover that an old wardrobe in an otherwise empty room is a passageway to the land of Narnia, but the others won't believe her when she tells them of her adventure there. Edmund follows her the next time and he meets the White Witch, the one responsible for Narnia being "always winter, never Christmas" who bribes him to bring his siblings to her. When the other children back on our world are looking for a place to hide from the housekeeper and guests, they hide themselves in that same wardrobe. It is full of coats but pushing toward the back Peter and Susan are surprised to find the coats are behind them and they are walking through trees in snow. 

They meet Aslan the Lion, the creator of Narnia, who is going to fight the witch and restore Narnia to the beautiful, peaceful world it is meant to be. But unknown to the children, things are going to get (or appear to get) much worse before they get better.  

#3 The Horse and His Boy

Shasta lives with the old fisherman he calls father until a Tarkaan arrives and demands to purchase him for a servant. The Tarkaan's horse, Bree, a talking horse from the land of Narnia and also a captive, suggests they run away together and so they set out for Narnia.

Soon they meet a young girl, Aravis, who is running away from a marriage, arranged by her hateful stepmother, to a much older, evil man. Accompanying her is her horse, Hwin, whom they soon discover is, like Bree, a talking horse from Narnia.

Their journey is full of adventures and danger, and some surprises. Shasta learns he's not the fisherman's son, but rather the son of King Lune of Archenland and twin brother to a young prince. 

Although Shasta and Aravis are the central figures in this story, Aslan the Lion and the four children from the previous book, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, now royalty in Narnia, appear throughout this book, tying it in with the larger story.

#4 Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia

Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are on their way back to boarding school after the holidays when they are suddenly pulled out of their world and back into Narnia, where their help is needed to fight the evil King, Miraz. 

The King's nephew, Prince Caspian, was meant to inherit the throne, but Miraz now wants his own infant son to follow him as King and so he must get rid of the Prince. Caspian makes his escape and soon finds himself in a land of talking animals, with the King and his armies fast bearing down on them. 

When the four children arrive and are recognized as the Kings and Queens they are in Narnia, they take council with the animals and realize there is no way to avoid war with the King. They prepare to fight, knowing that unless Aslan himself comes to help, they could very well lose this battle.   

#5 The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Edmund and Lucy are at their Aunt and Uncle's for the summer when they and their rather nasty cousin, Eustace, are pulled into a painting of a boat on open water. They find themselves, dripping wet, aboard the Dawn Treader with Prince Caspian and his crew on a quest to find seven missing Narnians. The seven had set out to find the End of the World and had never been heard from again.

Their adventures include: being taken prisoner in The Lone Islands, Eustace becoming a dragon (after which experience he becomes a less-nasty boy), fighting off a Sea Serpent, finding a lake that turns whatever touches it to gold, a visit to the Island of Voices where the inhabitants are under an invisibility spell that only Lucy can reverse, and stopping at an island called "The World's End". 

Beyond that there is only "The End of the World". Ship and crew set sail to find it and when they do, Aslan meets them and sends Edmund, Lucy, and Eustace home where they find themselves back in the room with the painting that started it all. 

The journey is successful in that they are able to account for all seven of the missing Narnians though not all of them have survived. It ends on a wistful note as Aslan gives the children some news they are sad to hear. 

#6 The Silver Chair

Jill and Eustace leave school and visit Narnia, where Aslan gives them an assignment. They are to find Prince Caspian's son, Rilian, who 10 years ago left to seek vengence on his mother's murderer and never came back. Aslan gives them four 
signs to obey but Jill forgets three of them, causing all sorts of trouble.

They meet a giant owl called Master Glimfellow and attend a Parliament of Owls. A marsh-wiggle named Puddleglum becomes their guide as they set out on their quest. Arriving in the Ruined City tired and hungry, giants tell them about Harfang and encourage them to go there for the Autumn Feast. When they finally reach that city they are warmly welcomed by the evil Queen who intends to serve them up as a tasty dish at said feast.

In the end they escape all the dangers and Prince Rilian is re-united with his father, King Caspian, now a very old man. Jill and Eustace find themselves back at school, but not before a very special stopover in Aslan's country.  

#7 The Last Battle

As Naria's days are winding down, an ape (Shift) and a donkey (Puzzle) find a lion's skin that Shift insists Puzzle wear. Shift will tell everyone that Puzzle is Aslan and Shift is his spokesman, telling the people what Aslan now requires of them. 

Meanwhile Tirian, the last king of Narnia, learns of the trouble and sets out with his unicorn friend, Jewel, to set things right. Captured and in need of help, Aslan sends Jill and Eustace to his aid. Fierce battles are fought, but just when it seems all is lost they are rescued by the sudden appearance of seven Kings and Queens. Among them are King Peter, Queen Lucy, King Edmund, Lord Digory, Lady Polly and other characters from the previous books. 

Though sad to see Naria come to an end, they are overjoyed to find themselves in Aslan's country with all the old compaions they'd thought were lost to them forever. Here, reunited with their parents, they find that what they thought was the end is only the beginning of the best possible happily-ever-after there could be.