Sunday, February 28, 2010

Island of the Swans by Ciji Ware

Island of the Swans by Ciji Ware
Copyright 2010
Orig. published 1989
Sourcebooks Landmark - Historical fiction
569 pages

In case you're wondering about the kitten's droopy eyes, Island of the Swans is far too entertaining to put anyone to sleep, although she did require a bit of help holding up the book.

Island of the Swans is the story of Lady Jane Maxwell of Edinburgh, who became the 4th Duchess of Gordon. Jane was known as a fashion icon, patroness to Robert Burns, close friend and advisor to King George, a politically savvy, passionate and beautiful woman. The story takes place between 1760-1797 and focuses on Jane's fiery spirit, her place in society, her family life and a love triangle. I found a very interesting page in which Jane is featured as the Tart of the Week at a blog site about Jane's rival, the Duchess of Devonshire, which is well worth reading for a little background if you're interested in reading this splendid book about her life.

Island of the Swans opens with a pig race between Jane and her sister, Eglantine, down the steep High Street in Edinburgh. Her best friend, Thomas Fraser serves as the judge and the scene is a delightful introduction to Jane, her family and Thomas. At the time the book opens, Jane, her mother and her sisters live in Edinburgh on the strict allowance doled out by her drunken, land-holding father who, in typical fashion, has chosen to banish his daughters but not his male heirs to a life of genteel poverty.

Thomas Fraser is an orphan whose family lost their land holdings after siding with Bonnie Prince Charlie in the dreadful Battle of Culloden. Although Thomas and Jane's friendship eventually turns to love, Thomas has no money or land and becomes a soldier to earn his keep. After he is presumed dead in an attack by Indians in the American Colonies, Jane marries Alexander, the 4th Duke of Gordon. But, Thomas is not dead. Jane's marriage is described as passionate but fraught with jealousy after the Duke realizes that Thomas will always hold Jane's heart.

Island of the Swans is a little heavy on fairly graphic love scenes and angst about Jane's never-ending affection for Thomas, but the historical setting is rendered in such stunning detail that I was never bored or annoyed by the love triangle. Jane's life was fascinating. While her marriage may have been essentially loveless, she didn't let her husband slow her down. In addition to her political activities and the social whirl, Jane gave birth to six children and was a devoted mother.

The book is not so graphic that it's yucky, but for those who prefer to keep their kids from reading anything overly erotic, I'd say it's at least PG-13, maybe R-rated. And, yet, the richly-described historical setting is so amazing that reading the book is definitely a learning experience.

4.5/5 - Meticulously researched and detailed; an engrossing read, highly recommended for history and historical-fiction afficianados. Apart from the fact that the book is romance-heavy (and I don't care for elaborate sex scenes), I was never, ever bored with this fairly densely word-packed chunkster and enjoyed learning about Jane Maxwell and the time period in which she lived. A family tree at the front of the book came in very handy.

My thanks to Danielle of Sourcebooks for the review copy!

Other reviews:

In other news . . .

About that kitten - We adopted a 6-month-old tabby with white socks and bib on Thursday. Wahoo! It is wonderful having a fur baby in the house, again!! Sookie is her adoptive name, but we plan to rename her Fiona and are currently calling her Sookie Fiona, since she knows and responds to the name Sookie. She is playful and cuddly and we are besotted with her.

Reviews. Big sigh. No swearing allowed. I need to review the following:

Making Rounds with Oscar by David Dosa, M.D.

So Long, Insecurity by Beth Moore
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
We The Children by Andrew Clements
The Wives of Henry Oades by Johanna Moran
The Last Surgeon by Michael Palmer

When will I get to them? Your guess is as good as mine. Obviously, blogging has not held priority in my life, so far this year. I'm fine with that, but I do intend to review everything I read -- if humanly possible. This might be a good time to take up drinking, if I could tolerate alcohol and didn't happen to hold the opinion that all alcohol has the smell and taste of paint remover.

What else is coming up, besides (hopefully) at least 6 reviews?

At least 2 more drawings. I won a pair of reading sunglasses in a drawing at Book-a-Rama Chris's blog and love them so much that I asked if I could hold a drawing, as well. And, I'm going to help promote a new read-along program that I think is all kinds of awesome (a book giveaway comes with the territory). The book hasn't arrived, but I've heard it read aloud and I know I like it.

Happy Sunday!

Friday, February 26, 2010

What is he up to, now? A chat with Simon Van Booy

What is he up to, now? A chat with Simon Van Booy. (Photo by Ken Browar)

I wrote to Simon Van Booy to ask him some updated questions in celebration of the re-release of The Secret Lives of People in Love and he answered me from London!!! Argh, envy! This gal has to work very hard to tamp down the envy of such a well-traveled friend.

First of all, I asked Simon if there's anything new about the re-release of The Secret Lives of People in Love, or is it exactly the same as the Turtle Point Press edition? Simon said, "It's the wonderful Turtle Point edition, but with a long bonus story that you can't get anywhere else, and also a long P.S. section with stationary from all the eccentric hotels I've stayed in."

In case you haven't read my 2007 interview with Simon, let me fill you in on eccentric hotels. Simon loves to travel and he is crazy about authenticity. He doesn't stay in boring, Americanized hotels where the tourists typically go. He likes to be surrounded by the people who live and work in the locations he visits, often in offbeat places. He blends in, eating and dressing like the locals and speaking their language.

I asked Simon what inspires him. His answer: "My daughter, my daughter, my daughter. And compassionate people."

Both The Secret Lives of People in Love and Love Begins in Winter are full of stories of people who are filled with hurt or longing and the compassionate people who touch their lives in some way.

Simon told me about some of his favorite characters. "I really like Michel, the French ex-convict who takes care of the child and raises him as his own son [in "Little Birds" from The Secret Lives of People in Love]. Actually, I adore Michel. From Love Begins in Winter, I like George's ex-girlfriend's new fiance who suggested she call the real father of her child and invite him to Sweden [in "The City of Windy Trees"]. I also like the Polish priest from "The Missing Statues." I like all the eccentric side characters who help often help the main characters during their crises."

The next question was one that I've felt personally when writing. When you finish a story, do you feel like you're completely satisfied or do your characters ever return to haunt you? Simon says, "My characters haunt me and I'm not satisfied." He didn't elaborate, but I was happy with that answer because there's a part of me that loves many of Simon's characters so much that I want to know they continue to have a life in their creator's mind.

Since Simon enjoys moving from place to place to live in different environments and write using the settings he grows to love, I asked him to list a few places he'd like to live. Here's his list:

Little Rock
Cape of Good Hope

For those who are shy on geography (I rely heavily on the computer to fill me in), I looked a few of those locations up, just to make sure I knew what exactly he was referring to. That long, long third name on the list is the city in Wales commonly known for having one of the longest place names in the world. I think we can all guess Simon's listing it with a wink and a nudge, although he is Welsh and has mentioned to me that he would like to return to Wales to live and write, someday.

Hokkaido is in the northern part of Japan. From Google Earth, it looks remote and stunningly beautiful with snowcapped mountaintops surrounded by emerald-green trees. I couldn't even spot a single bit of civilization until I realized I was looking too far to the right. Oh, yes. People do live there. Yellowknife is in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Google Earth is showing me a spectacular lake nearby.

At this point, I'd say I would like to just skip right behind Simon, wherever he goes, but wait . . . Alabama and Arkansas? I've been to Mobile and Little Rock, of course. Neither is far from us and Little Rock is on the route home to Oklahoma. There are some beautiful little corners in Little Rock, but those two surprised me. Maybe they shouldn't. Simon has mentioned that he finds the heat of the Southern U.S. invigorating and he loves the people. He has lived in Kentucky and returns there, whenever possible, to visit his friends.

I asked Simon if he gets a lot of mail from his fans and he said, "I do, thankfully, and I adore them. I get about half handwritten letters, and half e-mail letters. I prefer the former because when I'm an old man, I'll have something to look at in between trips to the post office. I'm so grateful to anyone who reads my books, I can't even tell you, I want to shake their hands--actually hug them."

In the extra material (the "P.S." section) at the back of Love Begins in Winter, Simon described his scrapbooks, filled with notes and photos of the places he's lived or visited. I asked him if he took the photos used on the covers of his books and this is what he had to say:

"The covers are lovely aren't they? I'm very lucky. I don't know who took the shots nor the people in them--but if I did know, I'd put them in the acknowledgments and send them each a cake in the mail (you can do that now)."

Yes, you can. I recommend cake from Zingermans in Ann Arbor, Michigan, although it's a bit on the pricey side. I can tell you for certain that Simon has been to Ann Arbor.

Many thanks to Simon Van Booy for taking time out of his busy schedule to chat with me, again, and best of luck with the new release! Thanks, also, to Erica Barmash for her assistance and for sending me the photo of a very formal Simon by Ken Browar. I believe it's a couple years old and Simon has changed eyeglass frames. Someday, I hope to meet up with Simon, again, and snap some updated photos of my own.

Don't forget to sign up for my Super Duper Simon Van Booy Giveaway, which involves some pretty tricky rules (swearing on produce, for example) but is definitely worth the effort.

Also, I would like to extend my thanks to Roger Ebert for linking up to my blog, yesterday, making the little map at the bottom of my blog look stunningly crowded with stars. Hopefully, that link drew a little added attention to Simon, who is a very deserving author.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Simon Van Booy Super Duper Giveaway!!!

This post is now closed to further entries. Results coming, soon!

No, Simon doesn't come with the books. Sorry. :)

HarperPerennial has graciously agreed to let me host a giveaway of Simon Van Booy's fabulous books of short stories to promote the re-release of The Secret Lives of People in Love. I'm a serious Van Booy Fangirl, you see, so I asked what I could do to help promote him. This is not something you'll see me doing often at Bookfoolery as I'm limiting my drawings to only authors or books I already know I love. And I absolutely think Simon's writing is the bees' knees. You undoubtedly know that if you've hung around my blog.

So, what can you win? I'm offering up 4 copies of each of Simon's books, but you can only choose one:

The Secret Lives of People in Love


Love Begins in Winter

Who, What, When, Where, Why, How (aka, "The Rules") - Warning: You must follow all the rules or you will be struck by lightning, shoved into the mud and tossed out of the drawing!!! Okay, I'm kidding. You'll just be kicked in the shins and tossed out.

1. Choose. Which book would you like to win? You can only win one!! Tell me your choice and leave me your email. If you don't leave your email, I will reject your entry -- it won't even show up in the comment section. I moderate, so I have the power. Mwah-ha.

2. Think like a North American and be one. HarperPerennial will send the books directly and they prefer to ship within the U.S. or Canada. No P.O. Boxes. You must have a street address.

3. One person, one entry. There are no opportunities for extra entries in this drawing and you may only sign up once.

3 1/2. The drawing will be held on Sunday, March 7 unless I change my mind. It's a woman's prerogative, you know. This is not technically a rule. I just wanted #4 to stay fresh in your mind.

4. Swear on a stack of tomatoes that you will read this book - not sell it, not swap it until you've *read it*. A promise will do, if you're not into swearing.

I may be away from the computer for a few days, so don't fret if your comment doesn't show up. We've got some things to attend to and since I moderate, comments don't show up until I've approved them.

Congratulations, again, to Simon!!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

*REPRINT* An Interview with Simon Van Booy

Simon Van Booy's first book of short stories, The Secret Lives of People in Love, is being re-released, today, by HarperPerennial. Wahoo! I've only mentioned this book and the author at least a dozen times, since he became a personal favorite.

I've sent Simon some interview questions to bring us up to date on what's happening in his world. While I wait for his reply, I've decided to reprint my first interview with Simon, which was published in Estella's Revenge in August of 2007. The image, at right, shows the first book. I don't yet have an image of the new release.

An Interview with Simon Van Booy by Nancy L. Horner
Originally published in Estella's Revenge
August 1, 2007

The first time I spoke to Simon Van Booy by phone, he told me about his youth in rural Wales. “I grew up around sheep,” he said. “Always sheep; lots of sheep.” The second time, I gave him very bad directions to the Barnes & Noble on Washtenaw Avenue in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The third time we spoke, he said, “I am now completely lost.” As it turned out, Simon was able to see the “real” Ann Arbor, the part with character, the funky and beautiful downtown area, thanks to my terrible directions and the emergency assistance of a spouse with a talent for navigation.

Simon parked on Main Street and we met at Main and Liberty, in front of one of the many Starbucks coffee shops, to introduce ourselves. He wore a white shirt with thin stripes, a pink striped tie, a navy blue blazer and a black cap with black frame glasses. Tendrils of dark hair escaped below his cap. Turning a circle, Simon suggested we go to the Greek place, The Parthenon, for coffee. He pointed out the statue in the window of our booth. “This is perfect,” he said, removing his cap.

Simon ordered coffee for himself, a Perrier for me. “The Greek make the best coffee. When you get to the bottom there are coffee grounds. It’s very strong,” he said. His coffee arrived in a tiny cup, liquid sloshing onto the saucer. The waitress apologized and Simon warned her that he would probably pick up the saucer and drink it. He loves his Greek coffee. He ordered moussaka and dolmades, and when they arrived he pushed a plate toward me. “This is for you,” he said. “I’m always mothering people." He split both dishes with me. When my Perrier glass ran low, he picked up the bottle and refilled my cup.

Simon chattered a mile a minute. He’s easy to talk to and, as expected, has a big heart. I asked him if he’s always written. “Always, always,” he said. “I feel car sick if I don’t.”

He told me his grandfather was the news agent for Dylan Thomas, that when he returned for his grandmother’s funeral in Wales, he closed his eyes as the funeral procession passed by so that his memory of home wouldn’t be replaced.

Simon has lived in a number of interesting places and spoke so rapidly that I couldn’t seem to get down the order of where he lived and when. He’s lived in Oxford and London, Kentucky, Paris, Athens, and now New York City. His smile is shiny and white, “not a very British” smile, because he was in an accident, his teeth knocked out and replaced.

He told me that Athens is dangerous because it‘s home to many refugees. “They carry guns,” he said. “I was robbed in Athens at gunpoint. It was midnight and I took a different path from my usual route, through a park. They held a gun to me and patted me down, stripped me of everything they considered valuable. I don’t know if the gun had bullets, but the man who took my wallet came back. After the man who held the gun on me left, he came back and gave me the picture of my girlfriend from my wallet.” Simon patted his heart and said he wondered what that man’s story was. He must have had some great love to have understood, to care to bring back that photo.

I asked him about the story, “Little Birds”, the first story in The Secret Lives of People in Love and one of my favorites.

“Didn’t you love Michel?” he asked.

“I did,” I said. “And, I wondered about the child. Did he have a name?”

“He was nameless,” Simon explained. I told him I thought so. I didn’t remember seeing a name, just “peanut”. The story adoptive father Michel has told his child about how he was found in a subway station is elaborate but, I asked, was it fabricated by Michel?

Simon told me that I’d gotten it right. The story Michel told his little peanut is wild enough for other people to see it’s impossible; it can’t be true. And, yet, the boy is so firmly convinced that when the train stops at the subway station where Michel says he was found, he “remembers” the station. Michel has planted a beautiful history in the mind of the child. “What matters,” Simon told me, ”is that he has so much love for this child, not where he came from.” Simon mentioned that one of his reviewers commented upon the fact that all the children in his stories are loved and cared for. I nodded. Maybe that’s one reason that each of the stories -- in spite of the fact that they often involve pain and loss -- retain an aura of hope.

I asked him if his characters are based on reality. The Russian shoemaker, he said, is real. He fixes Simon’s shoes; he lives in New York.

I asked if The Secret Lives of People in Love is his first book. He took my copy and opened it up. It’s his second book, he said, but see . . . the first was absorbed into the second.

But he’s widely published, I added, in major magazines. “I’ve sold every story I’ve ever written,” he told me. “But, for every sale I’ve had 76 rejections.”

“You keep track?”

“Yes.” Simon told me that number may not be precise, but it’s close.

I asked him how he ended up living in so many wonderful places. He replied that people ask him to come live in their country and write about it. “For some reason I’m dear friends with several diplomats,” Simon told me. “I would love to travel to different countries, meet locals, and then write about their triumph and tragedy. Of course, this requires knowing some language, so I plan a year or two in advance and then study the language. . . . I also love strange food and will wear anything.” He has a story he wants to set in Wales and he plans to move back to Wales, at some point, so he can write the story, but “won’t be leaving New York any time soon."

The weekend before we met, Simon acquired an agent because the L.A. Times wrote a spectacular review that garnered his book a lot of attention. Having an agent, he said, could get him some exposure. Since the review, he had spoken to people about movie rights. He said he was thrilled and surprised that such a great review came from California, that he was pleased to know they actually read and it’s not all just movies and breast implants. He told me silicone breast implants make great paperweights and we both laughed at the thought of someone explaining a breast implant holding down papers on a crowded desk.

I asked Simon if he has a routine. “My routine is to not have a routine,” he said. He isn’t, “one of those people who can set a time to write.” If he tells himself he must sit down to write, he can’t write a thing. He carries a notebook everywhere and takes notes.

But, does he have any habits or rituals? “I must have a desk at a window and an uncomfortable chair (or I fall asleep),” Simon said. “I drink endless coffee or green tea while I’m working. I work best between 4AM and 11AM, which means going to bed early. If I’m going to write, I have to wake up alone. I don’t drink anymore because it interferes with the process. I haven’t had a drink in almost eight years. Without solitude and sobriety I wouldn’t write a word.” He went on to say that he understood why writers “rent hotel rooms or find a shed in the middle of the forest”, and that he “even considered the long term parking lot at the airport,” when he was living with someone. “The most important element to my process is silence, so after listening to some music, maybe Satie or Pablo Casals, I slip in my earplugs and start.”

How does he begin a story? What sets off the spark? “I always start with one character, and then I write to find out what their story is. I often wake in the night and think of them. They just won’t go away until I’ve finished a piece. I can feel a character’s heart moving around inside of mine. It’s like having a relationship with an invisible person, though often they feel more real than people around me.”

And, how does he know when a story has ended? “This might sound odd or precious, but if I don’t cry, I know the work is rubbish. If my characters’ stories don’t move me to tears, then how could they possibly affect my readers?"

Apparently, his method works. I kept a box of tissues nearby, while I read the stories in The Secret Lives of People in Love. A friend who read the book agreed that most of his stories moved her to tears. “I love his phrasing and allusions,” she said. “Just beautiful.” She admitted that she still wells up just thinking about the Indian gentleman who sets a young boy and his father on the path to healing in “Where They Hide is a Mystery.” That makes three of us.

We talked about television. Simon gave away his television set three years ago and my family has gone without cable or satellite service for at least the same length of time. “People are always trying to give me one,” he said. He told me about how people in New York proudly scrounge things from the trash, that there’s a kind of bartering system in New York. If you see something of value, you can have it. But, you must hurry. He has a friend who saw three beautiful chairs sitting by the garbage. Someone told her, “You have 15 minutes.” The woman hailed a cab, put the chairs inside and took them home, then returned for dinner.

“It’s really a source of pride,” he said, “for someone to obtain something wonderful from the curbside on garbage day. They proudly tell you they found this beautiful thing in the trash. I have a 9-foot stainless steel table that I got that way. A restaurant had put it out at the curb. They weren’t going to use it anymore.” He emphasized it doesn’t matter how wealthy a person is, that it’s a source of pride to have found some treasure in the trash. And, what of Simon’s has ended up at the curb? All but “the bed, a desk, a chair, A Himalayan crystal (with a light bulb inside), and two small trees” were recently removed from the place he likes to write, in his bedroom, as he found even a penny on the floor or a picture on the wall too distracting. The possessions he left at curbside were “gone in 5 minutes,” he said.

Simon has also written Pobble’s Way, a children’s picture book due to be released in 2008 with Flashlight Press, and is currently working on writing a novel. “People tell me to write a novel -- that if I write a novel they can sell it,” he told me. “But, I couldn’t because my characters told their stories and then left.” He only recently figured out a technique that works for him, writing each chapter in a way that it can stand alone, yet tells a part of the larger story.

I mentioned that he’s unusual in having people tell him to write something so they can sell it. “You mean I’m lucky,” he said.

He wrote down the name of the writer he most admires, Anne Michaels, “the most brilliant writer living, today, and she’s in North America. She’s Canadian,” he says. “And, she’s a recluse. I would give a kidney to her.” He paused. “Not that I don’t value my kidneys.”

Simon is most touched by composers, though, “especially Bach” and “I have also been heavily influenced by Erik Satie. . . . 90% of the books I start I never finish. Books I do finish I will read regularly for the rest of my life. I have a special shelf for these writers.”


Congratulations to Simon on the re-release of The Secret Lives of People in Love! Besides a second interview, I will be posting some info about how you can win one of Simon's books, later this week.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Home is Where the Wine Is by Laurie Perry

Home is Where the Wine Is: Making the Most of What You've Got One Stitch (and Cocktail) at a Time by Laurie Perry
Copyright 2009
HCI Books - Memoir/Humorous
200 pages, incl. knitting patterns

Ah. Here's the one thing the Sock People forget to mention when they convert you to their religion. You'll love knitting up a sock; you'll love how portable and fast and addictive they can be. You'll be amazed at your own skills and dexterity for picking up stitches where none have ever existed. What they don't tell you is that the second sock is a lonely, desolate outpost of obligation. That second sock is just the stepchild of the first sock's exuberance. Oh, the second sock! It takes forever and a day to finish it. By the time I cast off the last stitch and weaved in all my little yarn ends, I had lost the first sock. It turned up weeks later at the bottom of my laptop bag.

In Home is Where the Wine Is, Perry's personal narrative continues a few years after her first memoir left off. I was dashing between Oklahoma and Mississippi when I read her first book, but you can read my thoughts at this link ---> Drunk, Divorced and Covered in Cat Hair (Hint: Page down a bit to get to my comments on the book and then be sure to peek at the photos of Miss Spooky, who was a well-traveled cat for a short period of her life).

Home is Where the Wine Is tells about the author's new resolutions as she considers the fact that she's only a few years away from 40. To improve her fitness level, she tries out a couple of fitness clubs. She works on her love life by jumping into dating online. She takes two Extremely Nice Vacations (Rome and Hawaii) by herself. Perry even decides to try gardening, although her decision to grow square watermelons is a little unusual. Whether attempting to get around Rome on her own whilst fearing pint-sized pickpockets or sitting on the floor with a friend cutting out magazine pictures and gluing, she tells about her life with zany wit and humor.

Oh, how I love Laurie Perry (aka "Crazy Aunt Purl"). Her blog is a hoot, her second book is equally fun and inspiring and, most important of all, she loves cats. Home is Where the Wine Is includes a section with knit and crochet projects.

5/5 - Light, entertaining and upbeat reading fun with the queen of knitting humor.

Thanks to TLC Tours and HCI Books for the review copy.

Friday, February 19, 2010

If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period by Gennifer Choldenko

If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period by Gennifer Choldenko
Copyright 2007
Harcourt Books - YA
217 pages

Kirsten is going through a really rough time. Her parents argue constantly and sometimes won't even talk directly to each other.

"Tell your father to leave you alone," my mom says.
"Tell your mother I'm just asking," he tells me.

Kirsten and her brainy little sister Kippy are very close. They often hang out together when their parents are arguing. Kippy is the only person who doesn't seem to care about Kirsten's biggest problem, the one her parents frequently mention when they're not fighting: her weight.

On the school front, Kirsten has started a new year and is shocked to find that her best friend has abandoned her for the popular crowd. But, the new boy -- a black guy named Walker Jones (aka "Walk), who has been sent from a dangerous city school to the exclusive, mostly-white private school -- and his new friend, Matteo, turn out to be decent allies. Walk even convinces Kirsten that homework and extra credit are worth the effort.

As Walk tries to survive and thrive in his new environment and Kirsten tries to survive on the home front, they are both stunned to find that they have more in common than they ever could have dreamed.

Gennifer Choldenko is probably best known for her Newbery Award-winning book, Al Capone Does My Shirts. I haven't made it through Al Capone, yet, (wrong mood when I tried it -- typical) but If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period grabbed me immediately. I absolutely loved the characters; even Kirsten's annoying parents were lovable and fun. Kirsten's angst about losing a best friend is realistic only to a certain point -- she finds new friends a bit easier than most outcasts and she's not anxiety-ridden in spite of all that's going on in her life -- but the story is not so much about the school experience as it is about prejudice, friendship, and acceptance.

4.75/5 - I loved this book. Great characters, terrific writing, excellent theme of accepting yourself and others for who they are rather than based on looks or color. The author has a sense of humor, so it's a nice, light read but one with plenty of meaning.

I bought this book with my very own money, earned by shoving my husband out the door regularly and sending him to travel the world without me.

Cherries in Winter by Suzan Colón

Cherries in Winter by Suzan Colón
Copyright 2009
Doubleday Books - Memoir/Cooking
202 pages

When Suzan Colón was laid off from her six-figure job at a magazine in 2008, she had already been tightening the budget for months in anticipation. Her husband was still employed and she was able to negotiate a contract to do some freelance work, but their health insurance was no longer covered and the finer things in life had to go. No vacations, no meals at fancy restaurants. Suzan needed to learn to cook the old-fashioned, frugal way or "put up the soup" as her family referred to conserving in hard times.

I received an ARC of Cherries in Winter and picked it up primarily because I read somewhere that it's now been released and it appeared to be a quick read that I could wedge into the reading schedule between Bible readings, chunkster and the Beth Moore non-fic that's just a wee bit longer. The brevity of this book is actually a bit of a blessing. It's nothing to call home about. The author jumps from the 2008 and 2009 time period to telling stories about the struggles of her relatives in past times. She shares some recipes -- most of which do not appeal to me, although there's a quick apple cake recipe I intend to try.

My biggest problems with the book are that it read like an excuse to toss something together to sell in order to boost the family income and that her struggles were nothing by comparison with those of anyone else in her family -- the single mother who saved money in a coffee can so they could vacation in Bermuda off-season (the cut-rate time of year turned out to be hurricane season), the grandmother who nearly starved to death and watched a man jump to his death during the Depression, the grandfather who loved to eat raw potatoes because they reminded him of how happy he was to find food to eat while he was serving in France in WWI . . . all of her ancestors endured some major strugges.

It's also notable that Suzan had saved 6 months' income (remember, her income was 6 figures) and was able to obtain unemployment while her husband was still working, in addition to making money for freelance work. It just doesn't sound like she had it all that hard to me.

What I liked about the book was the relaxed style, the fact that it's a quick read, and the stories about her family's history -- the way her great-great-grandmother Matilde wasted an entire week's pay on two beautiful vases (which are still in the family) and the family had to eat nothing but bread and applesauce for a week because she figured there would always be another week of eating, but it's not every day you can buy something beautiful to look at for the rest of your life. Stories like that were what kept the pages turning.

3/5 - An average read, not inspiring or helpful if you're looking for money-saving ideas and most of the recipes sound frankly awful. I preferred the ancestral stories to the author's own and at times thought some people might consider the book a bit offensive at a time when many people are truly struggling. The author has had to watch her money more carefully, but she was certainly not suffering.

Favorite Quote:

We lived in a small one-bedroom apartment where the living room doubled as Mom's bedroom and our dining room, depending on whether the convertible couch was opened or one side of the drop-leaf table was up. When I told her our television was broken, Mom said we couldn't afford to fix it. "What am I supposed to do until you get home?" I whined. "Go to the library," she said in a voice filled with warning, "and get a book." (My reading level shot up from fifth grade to high school level that year).

Other reviews:

Book-a-Rama (I agree, the cover is wonderful!)
Redlady's Reading Room

My thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Wahoo! Wednesday - Snow Wahoos

I have a pounding migraine, today, so I figured this is a good time to do some wahooing -- something that doesn't require much brain power. Life is better when you wahoo. And, since we have to savor our snow experience, I'm making this a snow wahoo day. Apologies to those who are completely fed up with snow.

1. Wahoo! for funky snowpeople. This fellow hung loose on our street:

2. Wahoo! for awesomely huge trees (about 100 feet tall by our estimate) that didn't lose any limbs while I was standing directly under them to snap this photo. The tree at left lost a limb just seconds after I stepped back under the porch. I've never heard a noise quite like the whiny creaking sound of splitting wood before the limb crashed to the ground. Well, maybe I have but I don't recall.

3. Wahoo! for Poppets, who are immensely patient about being posed in the midst of cold, wet stuff. This Poppet is named Violet:

4. Wahoo! for advance preparation that paid off. I thought I didn't own any warm, waterproof boots but on the morning of our big snow, I spotted some Timberland boots that I'd purchased at a 70%-off winter shoe sale (I live for the end-of-season 70% sales), several years ago. They were way up in the top of the closet, still in the box and they kept my feet nice and warm all day. I do hope they get more than one day of use in my lifetime.

Wahoo! for the tall guy who pulled them down from the top shelf, also. You can see the ground was a slushy mess (but not slippery -- that's a wahoo!). In fact, I dropped poor Simone, my blue Poppet, and she landed face-down in the slush. In that admirable manner of Poppets everywhere, she didn't complain. Poppets are very well-mannered.
Happy Wednesday!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Stealing Heaven by Elizabeth Scott

Stealing Heaven by Elizabeth Scott
Copyright 2008
Harper Teen - YA
307 pages

Danielle is 18 years old and she's a thief. Her mother has trained her to live under false identities, scope out the homes of the wealthy and then help steal their silver. She and her mother can never stay anywhere long enough for her to do normal things like go to school and develop lasting friendships.

When Danielle and her mom move to a small town called Heaven, things change. Danielle starts to make friends and, even worse, realizes she's falling for a police officer. Then her mother becomes gravely ill. With so many alterations occurring in her life , Danielle has some serious decisions to make. Should she continue pursuing the only life she's ever known? Or, is it time to transform herself into someone new and follow her dreams?

I have mixed feelings about Stealing Heaven, the first book I've read by Elizabeth Scott. I liked Danielle and I adored Greg, the police officer who pursues her. And, Danielle's unexpected, new best friend was a really lovable character. But, there were some niggling little annoyances and one big one. First, Danielle's mother never addresses her by name; she refers to her as "baby", as in: "I've been out a lot, been seen a lot, and this is a small place, baby." I hate that. "Babe" is fine, but "baby" as a term of endearment (if that's what it is) drives me nuts. It's a personal issue, but one that really grates my nerves.

Second, I really disliked Danielle's mother. Not only does she think it's fine and dandy to keep her daughter out of school and involve her in breaking the law on a regular basis -- she's insistent. She doesn't want Danielle to change. I suppose the testing of loyalties makes for a nice bit of tension but it still ticked me off. Should she continue to do whatever her mom, essentially the only person she's ever really known, says she should? Or, should she listen to Greg, a man who makes his living putting handcuffs on people like Danielle and her mother?

In fact, Danielle's mom is just a terrible mother, all-around and . . . . SPOILER ALERT!!!! I'M ABOUT TO GIVE AWAY A SHOCKING REVELATION THAT YOU MIGHT NOT WANT TO KNOW IF YOU PLAN TO READ THE BOOK!!!!

. . . the biggest thing that bugged me about Stealing Heaven was the revelation that Danielle's mother, who casually slept around, allowed one of her flings to sleep with Danielle and even encouraged him. That nearly made me throw the book across the room. Involving her daughter in theft was one thing, but encouraging statutory rape (Danielle was 15 at the time) and then standing in the hallway, kissing the guy and laughing at her daughter was just a bit too much.


I continued to read, although I could never soften toward Danielle's mother one bit and kind of wished someone would lock her away and throw away the key so Danielle could get on with her life.

Some positives:

1. Stealing Heaven is a quick, light read with a heroine who is confused but basically good at heart.
2. Apart from the fact that her mother called her "baby" (sound of fingernails on chalkboard), I thought the dialogue was well-written and I liked most of the characters.
3. The ending is pretty terrific.

3/5 - If you're going to come up with a character who sinks as low as Danielle's mother, I want to see her punished. I've knocked off a couple of points for Disturbing Crime Encouraged by Mother and the minor annoyances I mentioned. Overall, an average read - good writing, but too disturbing for this chick. If you plan to let a teenager read it, I'd advise reading the spoiler and talking to your teenager to make sure he or she knows just how wrong Danielle's mother was.

In other news: We had our 4th snow, last night!!! It was just flurries and Mr. Snowman has gone bye-bye (actually, he's Mr. Snowball, now), but I am not jaded. I walked outdoors in bare feet to take some lousy pictures of white dots. It was fun.

Speaking of which - my feet are cold. I still can't get used to that. Being barefoot and going out in flip-flops are just facts of life in Mississippi. On our Big Snow Day, we took a side jaunt to buy some fuzzy socks at the 70%-off winter sale. There's just no excuse for paying full price on fat socks when you live in It's Ding-Dang Hot And The Humidity's Likely to Kill Ya If the Skeeters Don't country.

Book-wise: I'm still reading the Beth Moore book for which I posted a sneak peek earlier today, So Long Insecurity. The first chapter was a little repetitious, but the rest of the book has been enjoyable. I will review it when I finish, of course. I haven't gotten far into Island of the Swans but what little I've read is fabulous and I'm looking forward to focusing on that book, soon. I'd say, "That'll give me time to catch up on some reviews," (oy, she's a chunkster) but making comments like that is serious jinx material. Been there, done that.

Gotta go. Happy President's Day to the Americans!

I bought this book with my very own money, earned by shoving my husband out the door regularly and sending him to travel the world without me.

So Long Insecurity by Beth Moore (sneak peek)

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

So Long Insecurity: You’ve Been a Bad Friend to Us

Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (February 2, 2010)

***Special thanks to Vicky Lynch of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. for sending me a review copy.***


Over the past decade, Beth Moore has become an internationally known and respected Bible teacher, teaching over 250,000 women annually in Living Proof Live Conferences and regularly sharing God’s Word with an interdenominational community at her church in Houston; teaching the Bible on the nationally syndicated Life Today with James Robison; and through her best-selling books and Living Proof radio program.

Visit the author's website.

Product Details:

List Price: $24.99
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (February 2, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1414334729
ISBN-13: 978-1414334721


Mad Enough to Change

I’m seriously ticked. And I need to do something about it. Some people eat when they’re about to rupture with emotion. Others throw up. Or jog. Or go to bed. Some have a holy fit. Others stuff it and try to forget it. I can do all those things in sequential order, but I still don’t find relief.

When my soul is inflating until my skin feels like a balloon about to pop, I write. Never longhand, if I can help it. The more emotion I feel, the more I appreciate banging on the keys of a computer. I type by faith and not by sight. My keyboard can attest to the fact that I am a passionate person with an obsession for words: most of the vowels are worn off. The word ticked really should have more vowels. Maybe what I am is peeved. That’s a good one. How about irrationally irritated to oblivion? Let that one wear the vowels off a keyboard.

The thing is, I’m not even sure exactly who I’m ticked at. I’m hoping to find that out as I hack away at these chapters. One thing is for certain. Once I figure it out, I probably won’t keep it to myself. After all, you know how the saying goes: hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. And I’m feeling scorned.

But not just for myself. I’m feeling ticked for the whole mess of us born with a pair of X chromosomes. My whole ministry life is lived out in the blessed chaos of a female cornucopia. I’ve been looking at our gender through the lens of Scripture for twenty-five solid years, and I have pondered over us, taken up for us, laid into us, deliberated over us, prayed about us, lost sleep because of us, cried for us, laughed my head off at us, and gotten offended for us—and by us—more times than I can count. And after a quarter of a century surrounded by girls ranging all the way from kindergarteners to those resting on pale pink liners inside caskets, I’ve come to this loving conclusion: we need help. I need help. Something more than what we’re getting.

The woman I passed a few days ago on the freeway who was bawling her eyes out at the steering wheel of her Nissan needs help. The girl lying about her age in order to get a job in a topless bar needs help. The divorcée who has loathed herself into fifty extra pounds needs help. For crying out loud, that female rock star I’ve disdained for years needs help. When I read something demeaning her ex said about her recently—something I know would cut any female to the quick—I jumped to her defense like a jackal on a field mouse and seriously wondered how I could contact her agent and offer to mentor her in Bible study.

Several days ago I sat in a tearoom across the table from a gorgeous woman I love dearly. She has been married for three months, and they did all the right things leading up to that sacred ceremony, heightening the anticipation considerably. After an hour or so of musing over marriage, she said to me, “Last weekend he seemed disinterested in me. I’ll be honest with you. It kind of shook me up. I wanted to ask him, ‘So, are you over me now? That quick? That’s it?’”

I’m pretty certain her husband will perk back up, but what a tragedy that she feels like she possesses the shelf life of a video game.

I flashed back to another recent communication with a magazine-cover-beautiful thirty-year-old woman who mentioned—almost in passing—that she has to dress up in costumes in order for her husband to want to make love to her. I’m not knocking her pink-feathered heels, but I wonder if she is paying too much for them. I’m just sad that she can’t feel desirable as herself.

Then yesterday I learned that a darling fifteen-year-old I keep in touch with slept with her boyfriend in a last-ditch effort to hold on to him. He broke up with her anyway. Then he told. It’s all over her high school now.

I’ve got a loved one going through her third divorce. She wants to find a good man in the worst way, and goodness knows they’re out there. The problem is, she keeps marrying the same kind of man.

I’m so ticked.

If these examples were exceptions to the rule, I wouldn’t bother writing, but you and I both know better than that. I hear echoes of fear and desperation from women day in and day out—even if they’re doing their best to muffle the sound with their Coach bags. Oh, who am I kidding? I hear reverberations from my own heart more times than I want to admit. I keep trying to stifle it, but it won’t shut up. Something’s wrong with us for us to value ourselves so little. Our culture has thrown us under the bus. We have a fissure down the spine of our souls and, boy, does it need fixing.

This morning while I was getting ready for church, my cell phone nearly vibrated off the bathroom counter with six incoming texts from a single friend who was having a crisis of heart. I answered her with what little I had to give, even as I grappled with my own issues. I decided that what I needed was a good sermon to keep me from crying off my eyeliner, so I flipped on the television to a terrific local preacher. Lo and behold, the sermon was about what a woman needs from a man.

Deep sigh.

Actually, it was a great message if anyone had a mind to do what he was recommending, but knowing human nature and feeling uncharacteristically cynical, I could feel my frustration mounting. The preacher had done his homework. He offered half a dozen Scripture-based PowerPoint slides with state-of-the-art graphics describing what men should do for women. “Women want to be told that they are captivating. That they’re beautiful. Desirable.”

I won’t deny that. What woman wouldn’t thrive under that kind of steady affirmation?

But here’s my question: What if no one tells us that? Can we still find a way to be okay? Or what if he says it because he’s supposed to, but to be honest, he’s not feeling it? Are we hopeless? What if a man is not captivated by us? What if he doesn’t think we’re particularly beautiful? Or, understandably, maybe just not every day? Are we only secure on his “on” days? What if he loves us but is not quite as captivated by us as he used to be? What if his computer is full of images of what he finds attractive, and we’re light-years from it? What if we’re seventy-five, and every ounce of desirability is long behind us? Can we still feel adequate in our media-driven society?

Adapted from So Long Insecurity by Beth Moore. Copyright © 2010 by Beth Moore. Used with permission from Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Veracity by Laura Bynum (review)

Veracity by Laura Bynum
Copyright 2010
Pocket Books - Scifi/Dystopian/Futuristic
376 pages

"In a world where critical thinking skills are almost wholly absent, repetition effectively leapfrogs the cognitive portion of the brain. It helps something get processed as truth. We used to call it unsubstantiated buy-in. Belief without evidence. It only works in a society where thinking for one's self is discouraged. That's how we lost our country. And why it's stayed lost for so long."

Harper Adams was six years old when the Pandemic hit. The Confederation of the Willing came into being after the Pandemic devastated the world. Now, the utterance of any of the forbidden words is immediately noted through the chip, or "slate" implanted in each citizen's neck and punishments are severe.

A "sentient", or a person who sees auras, Harper has risen to an important position in the government. When her best friend is killed, Harper makes plans to leave the city, her job, everything she's known. After burning out her slate by uttering forbidden words, she must face the brutal police, known as "Blue Coats", who are sent to stop her. Harper's skills are needed to overthrow the government and bring back the old way of life. But, time is short and the task is daunting. Are there even enough people to start a war? Or will it all be over before it begins?

Oh, where to begin. I enjoyed Veracity on so many levels, but I did have a few quibbles with the storyline. Let's start with what I liked. I liked the description of Harper's special ability to see auras. I had a friend, now deceased, who told me she had seen auras for as long as she could remember. Her description wasn't exactly the same and, if anything, I thought Harper's talents were a bit overblown. But, the way she described seeing colors was similar and the strength of Harper's ability was necessary to the plot.

In general, I loved the storyline and the way the author gradually revealed bits about this new world and how it came into being by smoothly jumping between time periods. There were a few little twisty bits; some I figured out and one I didn't. The fact that I managed to unravel some of the secrets of the Pandemic didn't ruin the book one bit and the single surprise made me laugh. I thought it was a terrific twist.

My biggest problems with the book had to do with the timeline and the world. The Pandemic in this dystopian novel occurred in 2012. I always feel like one of the biggest mistakes -- and the most frequently made -- in futuristic writing is that authors don't shove their timeline far enough into the future. 2012 is just two years from now! When that year passes, the book will have lost its meaning and it's potential to become a classic of science fiction, simply by virtue of the fact that a futuristic fictional event will have been rendered a revision of the past. Date is important. It would have been much more believable, in my opinion, if the inciting incident was set 50 years in the future, rather than 2.

Having said that, I truly enjoyed this book. It's extremely dark; the punishments for even the slightest infractions are shocking -- rape, torture, death. Because of that, I took my time reading Veracity. I can only stand reading about a fictional world that is utterly depressing and horrifying in short bursts. And, yet, I loved the theme of this book: Those who don't think for themselves are easily persuaded to believe what those in power want them to believe, with devastating results.

4.5/5 - A well-crafted world, a strong moral theme and solid writing made this book a winner for me. Half a point off for not setting the dystopian world far enough into the future to be wholly plausible.

Addendum: I asked my 18-year-old what he thinks about setting futuristic sci-fi novels too close to the present. He said he thinks the timeline is irrelevant because, "All futuristic sci-fi eventually becames alternate history." Okay, someone explain to me why that kid has such a lousy grade-point average. He is so not stupid. Maybe he's one of those smart, bored kids? His ACT score would bear that out. Anyway, I thought his thoughts were worth sharing.

God Sightings: The One Year Bible in NLT (review)

God Sightings: The One Year Bible
New Living Translation
Tyndale House Publishers

God Sightings Website
1396 pages . . . and I'm not finished

I'm going to go ahead and review what I've read of the God Sightings Bible because it's obviously going to take all year to read it. God Sightings is a Bible divided into 365 daily readings. It comes in different versions, apparently, but I got a copy of the New Living Translation for review.

The God Sightings Bible is not a chronological Bible but a Bible with a unique character in that it's got several readings from different parts of the Bible for each day. In addition to each day's Old Testament reading (in the order of a typical Bible), there's a passage from the New Testament, a passage from Psalms and a passage from Proverbs. I think this Bible is particularly great for people who have already read the Bible from front to back or in chronological order because it's a little less dull than reading straight through.

However, since I tried to read a chronological Bible, last year, and failed (I think because I was also taking Bible studies and doing reviews, I had just a bit too much on my plate) I decided to read not only the God Sightings Bible but another version, the Daily Bible, and compare the two. The Daily Bible I've got is a New International Version and it has some added "devotional insights". It's interesting reading them side-by-side because I've discovered that reading two versions at once is really helpful. Sometimes a passage that isn't clear in one version is plain in another. And, I do like the extra insights, although I've found that the God Sightings Bible is the more readable of the two and there've actually been some errors in the added material in the Daily Bible -- nothing major, but I wouldn't have caught them if not for the fact that I was reading two Bibles at once.

There's a companion guide to the God Sightings Bible, a website (link at the top of this post) where you can discuss the daily readings with other readers, and many churches are meeting to discuss the readings weekly as a Bible study. My church is doing so, but I opted to read on my own. I may change my mind. The great thing about this particular study is that you can dive in any time if you're caught up on the readings since everyone will be at the same place at the same time; and, particularly if you use the website, you don't have to worry about feeling like you're barging in.

As a side, note, there is no additional commentary in the God Sightings Bible. So, if you have no need for study helps or find them distracting, the lack of interruptions can be an added benefit.

When I first received my copy and flipped through it, I asked what the point of this version is and I got an excellent answer from publicist Audra Jennings of B & B Media Group. Audra said the intent is to help see God as "active in our daily lives". The companion guide helps with that. You don't necessarily need to be in a group or meet with people online, but I think it probably is a better idea than reading on your own. Each week, there's something specific to watch for in your daily life. In Week 1, for example, I believe it was "new beginnings" -- a great subject for focus at the beginning of a new year.

I'm not going to give this Bible a numeric rating, in part because I'll be reading it for another 10 1/2 months, but I am truly enjoying the daily readings and highly recommend it, especially to those who are looking for a way to read the entire Bible without getting bogged down in the Old Testament. The mixture of Old Testament, New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs is really refreshing. I've always had a problem with what I call "all those begats" but I'm actually getting through them and not bored. There's a guide for leaders of groups, as well, although I haven't seen it.

My thanks to Audra Jennings of B & B Media for the review copy!

In other news:

Happy Valentine's Day!!!

For our Valentine's Day, we're doing housework!! My husband had blocked off the path to my swap shelf and I managed to both forge a path to the shelf and throw out a lot of junk that was lying in the way. Amazing how papers accumulate if you don't keep up with them. The guys are out and about, right now, so I'm about to curl up to finish The Last Surgeon by Michael Palmer.

We had a really stressful week because of a personal issue and the kiddo's illness, but the snow ended things on a high note and hopefully our "issue" has been resolved. Only time will tell. Kiddo has completely recovered from his stomach virus and is very, very happy not to be sick. He seldom gets ill, so he was just plain angry at the universe. It's nice to see him back to his old, happy self.

Are you doing anything special for Valentine's Day?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

January Reads in Review (2010)

Funny how blog posting can get away from you when you're distracted by life. At least February isn't over! January was a so-so month in quantity, certainly a lesser month by comparison with most months in 2009, but I enjoyed something about every book I read so it was an excellent month from the standpoint of sheer enjoyment.

Bookfool's January Reads in Review (links where applicable):


Hist - History
NF - Nonfiction
M - Memoir or Personal Narratives
SS - Short Stories
YA - Young Adult

1. Custer Survivor by John Koster (NF/Hist) - After years of research and forensic testing on handwritten documents, John Koster is convinced he has enough evidence to prove that one man survived The Battle of Little Bighorn. Custer Survivor describes Custer's Last Stand and how a man who enlisted under a false name got away and then managed to stay unknown most of his life.

2. Fidelity by Grace Paley (Poetry) - Paley's last book, a set of poems written as she neared death and reflected on life, art, aging, friendship, family and home. Written with a little humor, a bit of frustration and a lot of flair.

3. First Comes Love, Then Comes Malaria by Eve Brown-Waite (NF/Memoir) - The true story of a woman who fell in love with her Peace Corps recruiter, worked for a time in a small village in Ecuador (in part to impress him), married him and then ended up living in Africa. This was one of my favorites.

4. The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova - A psychiatrist seeks answers to the reason for a troublesome patient's difficulties and ends up falling in love and solving a mystery. I loved the senses in this book but was underwhelmed by the mystery and the ending.

5. The Great Automatic Grammatizator & Other Stories by Roald Dahl (SS/YA) - A collection of Roald Dahl's adult stories (marketed to young adults). Some are creepy, one is a war story, all are crafted beautifully but with somewhat abrupt endings. My favorite is a WWII story, "Katina".

6. They Were Just People by Tammeus & Cukierkorn (Hist/NF/M) - Stories of rescues in Poland during the Holocaust. The authors interviewed both survivors and rescuers or their direct relatives. Solidly written, amazing stories with a great deal of excellent extra material.

7. The Making of the African Queen by Katharine Hepburn (NF/M) - Katharine Hepburn's rambling description of her experience preparing for and filming The African Queen, complete with loads of photographs.

8. Elephant à la Mode by T. Roy Nakai (NF/M) - The memoir of a dentist who was forced to retire early after a devastating accident and then experienced an even worse loss -- and how he coped by using the principles he learned from his parents, who were imprisoned in a Japanese Internment Camp during WWII.

9. I'd Tell You I Love You, But Then I'd Have to Kill You by Ally Carter (YA) - The first in the Gallagher Girls spy series introduces Cammie Morgan, her friends and their exclusive spy school for girls. Cammie meets and falls for a civilian boy but pretends to be homeschooled because the locals think Gallagher Hall is a school for rich snobs. Adventurous fun. I love this series.

10. The Cat Inside by William S. Burroughs (M) - Part allegory, part personal memoir of the author's life with cats. Hint: He wasn't very fond of dogs, but he did love the felines.

11. Stealing Heaven by Elizabeth Scott (YA) - Danielle has spent her entire life moving from place to place with her mother, living under false identities and then stealing silver from wealthy residents. When they move to the small town of Heaven and Danielle falls for a police officer and her mother falls ill, she has to make some important decisions about whether or not to change her life.

12. Veracity by Laura Bynum (SciFi) - In a dystopian, post-plague future world, the United States (no longer the U. S. of A.) has become a place of terror. Chips embedded in each citizen's neck monitor every word spoken and punishments are severe. When an important government worker escapes from the city in which she lives and works, she finds out that the "pandemic" wasn't quite what it seemed and her presence is crucial to the coming rebellion. This is a dark, dark read but I loved it.

I hope to review those last two on the list, soon.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mr. Darcy's Great Escape by Marsha Altman

Mr. Darcy's Great Escape by Marsha Altman
Copyright 2010
Sourcebooks Landmark - Historical Fiction
489 pages
Author's website

Mr. Darcy's Great Escape is the third in Marsha Altman's "The Darcys & the Bingleys" series. I've read all three and I'll just warn you now: they need to be read in order. Altman has created a wild, action-packed world for the cast of Pride & Prejudice; she takes the characters in a direction that would undoubtedly turn Jane limp and have her whispering for smelling salts. But, that's not a bad thing. In fact, it's all good because Altman's stories are adventurous and massively entertaining.

Check my reviews of the first two, if you're interested:

The Darcys & The Bingleys - A story in which the Darcy and Bingley couples are wed, several children are conceived, the women giggle a great deal about coupling, the men require a little visual help, and then . . . swashbuckling fun ensues. I suppose this one will always be my favorite.

The Plight of the Darcy Brothers - In which Mr. Darcy discovers not one but two half brothers. Astonishing. More action and adventure, more childbirth; the fun continues.

Back to the current installment . . . At the end of The Plight of the Darcy Brothers, one of Mr. Darcy's brothers returned to his home in Europe. In Mr. Darcy's Great Escape, however, Darcy becomes concerned when no word arrives from the continent for several months. What's become of his brother? Has he been driven from his home by Napoleon? Caroline Bingley's husband is also concerned about his wayward brother, Daniel Maddox (who appeared in Book 1). Napoleon has everyone on edge.

When Darcy and Dr. Maddox (Caroline's husband) get together to air their concerns, they end up hatching a plan. They will travel together and then, eventually, split off in search of their respective relatives. But, things don't go as planned. Without a hint of the whereabouts of either man apparent, they travel a bit farther in search of the Count, Brian Maddox's father-in-law . . . and end up imprisoned in his castle.

Elizabeth and Caroline are distraught when they receive no word. Where have their husbands gone? Not the kind of women to sit by idly while men do the dirty work, a pregnant but determined Lizzy and headstrong Caroline head for Europe to rescue their husbands; that is, if they can find them.

Oh, goodness gracious. Seriously, Marsha. You have one heck of an imagination, lady!

I had a terrible time getting into Mr. Darcy's Great Escape, at first, but it was merely because I couldn't stop snuffling about my cat. Well, that and the fact that I had trouble figuring out which children belonged to whom; a family tree in the front of the book would have been extraordinarily helpful. Once I got back on an even keel and accustomed to the many characters, I finally got into the story and really, really enjoyed it. It's a tremendously fun read. If you're not afraid to go where Jane would never have dared to tread without a nice, long sword, this series is for you.

4/5 - Adventurous, complex enough to satisfy without becoming overdone, light and consistent with the tone of previous books and Jane herself, in manners and style. Marsha Altman has a fabulous sense of humor and an excellent ear for dialogue. I will follow this series for as long as it lasts.

In other news:

I've got a sick kid home, today, but he seems to be improving. It's a quiet day at Ye Olde Ranche House.

A few scattered snowflakes have fallen but we're expecting the big stuff after nightfall. Did you know we have snow coming? In Mississippi?? In February??? Our normal temps for this time of year average in the 60's. We have daffodils blooming. This could be really fun. The weather man has warned us that we may even have thunder!!! Thunder snow! Hopefully, that is not a guarantee of power outages, but we've got our water and sandwich fixin's. Should be interesting. Here's a quote from WLBT First Alert Weather in Jackson:

It will be very hard to NOT see accumulating snow...Dallas has seen upwards of 6+" today & it is headed toward us.

Cool. Except . . . I don't believe I own any waterproof boots or, in fact, a coat that fits. But, I loves me some snow.

I still haven't managed to write a summary of my January reads because I want to make sure they're all reviewed and I can link back to them, but it seemed really helpful to write up a list and then come back to scratch them off, last month, so here's another list of recent reads that are lying around, feeling unloved, in the review pile:

1. Stealing Heaven - Elizabeth Scott
2. Veracity - Laura Bynum
3. The Wives of Henry Oades - Johanna Moran
4. If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period - Gennifer Choldenko
5. Benjamin Pratt & the Keeper of the School: We the Children - Andrew Clements
6. The Things They Carried - Tim O'Brien
7. Home is Where the Wine Is - Laurie Perry (expect this review on Feb. 22)

The short view: I loved all but one, which I'll tell you about when I get to it. Also, you might recall that I sat down to read 6 children's books the afternoon they arrived, so I've technically got another 6 to add to that list. But, there's no point to that. I'll get to them when time is right.

So far, this month: I'm catching up with myself. I read 12 books in January. I've read 6 in February, not including the 6 children's books. I try not to let myself dwell on numbers, but it's just a fact of life that I love numbers; I can't help but ponder them. I'm so stoked when I'm reading a lot of books. If everything counts (and I do count children's books, as long as they contain words), I've read 24 books in 2010. Squeeee!

New thoughts brewing in an old brain: While reading Home is Where the Wine Is, in which Crazy Aunt Purl, aka Laurie Perry, talks about making resolutions to change her life, it occurred to me that maybe the problem with resolutions is that we only come up with them once a year (if at all). This year, I opted not to make any resolutions, although I have some goals. But, if I were to reevaluate how I'm doing monthly instead of waiting till a year has gone by? Doesn't that sound better? I've really fallen on my face when it comes to my fitness goal, for example, and I could stand to talk myself through that a bit. Anyway, just a thought. We'll see where it goes.

Still no kittens. But, I went to pay the vet bill in person, deliberately, with the intent of dropping a hint. The hint: I NEED KITTENS! They listened and took down my phone number and, in fact, one of the ladies even bounced on her toes. Apparently, kitten population explosions occur in the spring -- normally a few weeks from now, but I can wait if it takes longer because of some stupid rodent in Pennsylvania. The point is . . . I've got someone listening for news of available kittens in a place where lives revolve around furballs.

Well, there you go. A whole lot of wahoos, don't you think? Maybe I should get back to working on Wahoo! Wednesday posts, too. I'd better go check on sickie. Hope everyone is having a fabulous week!

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Sort of a Teaser

I've read a lot of books in the past week, but I haven't felt like writing and the poor old blog is languishing. Today, I finished The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. More on that in a second.

I'm not sure why I did this, but at some point this week, I ended up with my little point-and-shoot camera in hand. I took photos of some customers in Sam's, a row of strange little ceramic animals in Target, and the pizza we ate during the Super Bowl in a half-empty restaurant.

At home, I photographed of some of my favorite passages in two of the books I was reading. One of them was the second passage that moved me to tears in The Things They Carried. I'm not even sure why it made me cry -- maybe because I've experienced so much loss in my life. Maybe because and I can understand the concept of writing a story that contains an essential truth but isn't factual. Maybe because I'm just a little too much of an empath (I am; it's miserable). But, since I haven't said anything in a few days and I don't know when this inability to write coherent reviews is going to end, I thought I'd share a passage that moved me. Taken out of context, it might not mean anything, but it meant a great deal to me.

I'll review this book when I'm able. In the meantime, I can tell you only that The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien has just become a personal favorite and I'll be making space for it on the good shelves.

Friday, February 05, 2010

They Were Just People by Tammeus & Cukierkorn

They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust by Bill Tammeus and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn
Copyright 2009
University of Missouri Press - History/Biography
236 pages

They Were Just People includes extensive additional information including a chronology of events related to rescuing Jews in Poland, bibliography, reader's guide and index

Before I describe this book, I want to give you a tiny bit of background regarding my interest in WWII. When I was roughly 9 or 10 years old, I read a "Drama in Real Life" in Reader's Digest. That particular true story took place in London during the Blitz. I was thoroughly impressed by the casual, everyday courage of the two Londoners in the story, how they continued to go to work and get on with their lives knowing that any minute they could be blown to smithereens. Since I read that story, I've continued to read about WWII, eventually branching out to fiction, although the true stories are still the ones that really capture my interest. When my friend Cindi told me about They Were Just People, I jumped at the chance to review it. I love history in general, but WWII is by far my favorite time period.

They Were Just People tells all sides of the Polish Jew's story -- the experience of living in hiding and how survivors ended up surviving, the experience of hiding the Jewish and why those who hid people chose to do so, how those who were hidden played a major role in their own safety and what the lives of those involved were like after the war.

The authors don't shrink from the reality that there were both courageous and greedy and/or cowardly people involved in hiding Polish Jews. Some sheltered Jews merely because they were fellow humans or because they had been friends before the war. Others hid people in exchange for money, valuables or property. Even those who were able to pay for shelter had no way of knowing whether they would eventually get sent packing in spite of their payment or, worse, end up being turned over to the Nazis.

Bill Tammeus and Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn sought out and interviewed survivors and those who sheltered them (or their immediate relatives) specifically in Poland, the first country invaded by the Nazis and the nation where the greatest number of Jews were killed. There were shockingly few survivors in Poland and that makes the stories of its few Jewish survivors even more remarkable than most.

I learned an awful lot from They Were Just People. For example, most of the survivors interviewed didn't stay in a single location for the duration of their time in hiding. In fact, they seemed to move and move and move to the point that I wondered how on earth they could remember the details. Some even returned to their ghetto homes for a time. Most of them had numerous close calls; one escaped naked after being forced to strip and line up next to an open grave in preparation for execution by machine gun.

Those who did manage to stay in one place were not spared the horror of filthy, rancid living spaces; they experienced just as much hardship and horror -- even, in one case, the mutual decision to poison a baby to spare the lives of the adults who were sharing hiding space with the child.

The stories in They Were Just People lead to a lot of questions. I found myself wondering What would I do if I were the person in hiding, if I were asked to hide someone, if I were faced with the choice of poisoning a child to spare myself and others? Would it make a difference if I was not only putting my own life in danger but that of my family? Hard, hard questions. I was really quite surprised to find that the authors had incorporated those questions and more into the book. They Were Just People is probably the most thorough, well-rounded book I've ever read about Holocaust survival. Here's part of the intro to the Reader's Guide:

This book raises profound questions about how people make excruciatingly difficult decisions, choices that can result in life or death. We think that the stories we tell in this book can be useful tools for asking such questions of ourselves, our families, our students, our congregants and our friends. There is no way to know specifically how we might act in traumatic times, of course, but perhaps we might not be caught completely off-guard by trouble and by our reaction to it if we have thought through various options before disaster strikes.

There is no doubt in my mind that this book would serve as an excellent resource for teachers who want to really dig into the reality of the Holocaust. Besides the Reader's Guide, there are extensive notes, some of which are every bit as interesting as the text. If you buy this book, definitely take the time to put a post-it or some kind of marker in the back of the book and flip to the notes as you go. A few examples:

30. Roman told us that there is a drawing of the room in which he was hidden in Srodula in Art Spiegleman, Maus: A Survivor's Tale (New York: Random House, 1986), the Pulitzer Prize-winning illustrated narrative of Holocaust survival.

57. In Polish, a wife's last name will end in -ska when her husband's last name ends in -ski.

59. Hitlerites was a common Polish term for Germany's troops and Nazi authorities.

I could go on all day about this book, but I'll just stop with a few more words that impressed me. As I was reading the accounts of those who hid people, it occurred to me that at least a few of them were really icky people. The authors clearly got some strong vibes from those who told their stories. Some, they said, were genuinely kind people and some they found "insufferable". Insufferable is a much better descriptor than "icky". I think I need to work on my vocabulary.

It's also notable that the authors are of two different faiths: one a Christian and one a Jewish rabbi. While in some accounts of Jewish Holocaust experience, you get a little bit of a "We're the most tormented people ever," vibe, there's none of that in They Were Just People. The authors acknowledge that religious persecution has never been limited to Jews, although the Jewish religion has certainly been around longer than most. As a Christian who is descended from persecuted French Protestants, I appreciated such comments.

5/5 - Clearly written, thoroughly researched, gut-wrenching, amazing stories of survival. Absolutely one of the best Holocaust books I've ever read. This cannot have been an easy book to research and write; all the stories were based on personal interviews with Jewish survivors and their protectors or living relatives. I was so impressed with this book that I feel inadequate describing it. Highly recommended.

All royalties and part of the authors' speaking fees go to Holocaust-related charities, such as the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous.

My thanks to Bill Tammeus and the University of Missouri Press for the review copy.