Usually I don’t mind January even if it is cold, dark and dreary. It’s a quiet month, a welcome respite after the rush of the holidays and a perfect time for quiet reflection or creative projects. But as we start year four of the COVID pandemic, (yes, hard to believe), along with flu, RSV and those nasty Christmas colds still circulating – well, it’s hard not to resent being stuck inside once again. For some inspiration on how to turn a bad attitude into gratitude (so cozy to be cocooning among the comforts of home), I turned to Danish author, Meik Viking’s latest addition to his growing list of hygge/happiness books.
Here’s the publishers blurb:
The author of the New York Times bestseller The Little Book of Hygge, helps you turn your home into your happy, cozy safe place.
The urge to nest and control our close environments has never been stronger. We spend more time in our homes than anywhere else—but the way in which our homes impact how we feel has remained relatively unexplored until now.
Backed with Danish design principles, years of research, case studies and a sprinkle of hygge, Meik Wiking has created the ultimate guide to turning your home, office, or wherever you may be, into your happy place.
The Hygge Home will teach us all how to create a much-needed cozy safe space in our homes into which we can retreat to escape the tough things going on in the outside world. Meik will explore the size of our spaces, the way we decorate our homes, the amount of natural light coming in, how much access to green space we have and how we can extend these design principles from inside our homes to our neighbourhoods and beyond. Meik is guaranteed to help you create a home and safe space where you can both live and thrive.
If you have read his previous books, The Little Book of Hygge or The Little Book of Lykke, (Denmark is home to the world’s happiest people and the author is the CEO of the Happiness Institute) this is basically the same book, although much larger in dimensions (9X11) but with the same small print. There are plenty of pretty pictures of fireplaces scenes and cocoa…
….and advice about cooking and stocking your pantry. “A well stocked pantry is comforting….if there is an abundance of food, mankind would preserve it from earliest times.” Of course stockpiling provisions for the winter was always a matter of survival for our ancestors, so when my relatives reported those 10 bushels of apples on the 1861 census they were also preventing scurvy as there was no fresh fruit available at the general store. “No matter what is going on if there is something to eat at home and a well-stocked pantry, fridge or kitchen cupboard, there is a fail-safe way to hygge hunker down during events beyond our control, whether it is a blizzard or a global pandemic.”
There is a section on pre-cluttering – a term I had not heard before, but he says stop and think before you buy that pancake batter dispenser. Does anyone really need a pancake batter dispenser – no but I’m tempted, it sounds like a handy thing if you make pancakes.
There are also readers stories, like the man who wrote and said what a difference lighting a candelabra at supper had made to his family’s dinner table conversation, no more teenagers shoveling food in and then disappearing back to the company of their electronic devices, plus it saves on hydro too. (This is so true, walk into any candle-lit restaurant and don’t you feel an instant sense of calm descend…..until you see the bill.)
There are anecdotes, like Cezanne designing his studio in the south of France for the best possible painting conditions, and the author’s own search for a writing room of his own. I envy him his walnut desk which he bought with his first royalty cheque. I myself would love to find “a desk that begs you to sit down and write,” although I’m usually okay once I get started.
Overall, there was less about what constitutes hygee (book one) or happiness (book two) here, and more about lighting, design, workplaces, green spaces and city planning etc – he is Danish after all and so many people have been working from home…..and hope to stay there.
I suppose if you have great literary success with a unique formula you can just keep re-inventing it and readers will continue to buy it. Although it was somewhat repetitive, I did enjoy this book because it was fun and sometimes you just need a light comforting read. Plus it made me feel better about hibernating indoors.
What else helped? (or applying the principles)
The weather has been mild and above freezing most days with little to no snow, other than that mini-blizzard at Christmas – very strange weather for January, but good for walking, if you don’t mind walking in the misty rain. It hasn’t been very hygge though – hygge requires the contrast between coming in from the bitter cold to a warm and comforting environment.
Almost a month into winter, and the most snow we’ve seen has been on my mother’s puzzle.
I haven’t worn my down-filled parka even once as…..
the only thing chili has been in a pot.
There have been plenty of books, (reviews to follow sometime) including this one which I’m just starting. The 86 yr old Swedish author, Margareta Magnusson, wrote The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning – a bestseller several years ago, the gist of which was don’t leave a mess for your heirs to clean up. (That’s fine but how do you know when you’re going to die – you might live another ten years and wouldn’t you want your treasures around you until then? Where’s the hygge in that?) She must have decluttered the book, as it’s a very slim 130 pages, more of a memoir really than a decluttering guide, although there is an appendix chapter at the end. I seem to have zero interest in cleaning and reorganizing this January – the maids cancelled again and I just don’t care – let the dust and the glitter from the Christmas decorations reign supreme.
There was a batch of brownies – the kind with lots of icing – always comforting on a bleak winter’s day.
And if all else fails, there’s always pie…..channeling my ancestors again.
Happy January – from my hygge home to yours! Two more months until spring….yea…..
There are three kinds of people – those who love Christmas cake, those who hate it and those who just want a piece or two, preferably made by someone else. Count me in the later category. Christmas cake was a staple of the season for decades but is now one of those Dickensian desserts which have fallen out of favor, along with mince pie and plum pudding, with many younger people not being familiar with any of them.
My mother used to make Christmas cake every year – one big round pan and two or three smaller loaf tins, and it all got eaten, but by whom I don’t know. Certainly, none of us kids ate it. My dad was fond of it, as was my grandmother, who also made her own, a single round one. Perhaps some of it was given away? It was always passed around on the same gold glass platter after the big turkey dinner, with a few cookies on the side, as everyone was much too full for a regular dessert. It was something to nibble on with a cup of coffee or tea. I also have a memory of my dad enjoying a slice of it on Christmas Eve with a glass of port, while watching midnight mass or A Christmas Carol, and sometimes I would join him. The port was an old family tradition, as he seldom drank and a bottle would last from year to year. Port, which also heralded from Dickens day, is a type of fortified wine like brandy and strong stuff if you’re not used to it.
Christmas cake is a dark fruit cake often made a couple of weeks before Christmas, and tightly wrapped, to give it a chance to age. A friend adds brandy to hers once a week to keep it moist. My grandmother added cocoa to hers to make it darker. It seems every family had a different recipe. As it keeps well, it was traditionally a popular choice for wedding cake. At peek at my mother’s 1945 cooking bible, The Purity Cookbook, has two recipes for dark fruit cake, one for Wedding Cake calling for 12 eggs and 3 and a ½ cups of flour and 8 assorted sized pans, and one for six loaf pans requiring 10 eggs and 8 cups of flour. My mother’s recipe called for 8 eggs, and made one round bundt cake and 2 or 3 loaf tins.
In mid-December out would come the big turkey roaster, as it was the only thing large enough to mix all the ingredients in. She would usually make it in the evening after supper was done, when I could help if I was home, and my dad would be in charge of adding the rum – “Maybe a bit more” although it’s debatable whether one splash or two would make much difference with so much batter.
Here’s her recipe….sort of….as we last made it five years ago and I wrote the instructions down afterwards in an effort to have something on paper. Like many experienced cooks, her measurements were not exact, but it always turned out good. I believe we froze some of it for the following year, as it freezes well (if you’ve ever found a piece of wedding cake stashed away sometimes the cake lasts longer than the marriage) and gave some away to a snow-shoveling neighbour and a couple of her art friends. It’s always best to ask first if you don’t know what category people are in (see intro) as you don’t want to subject someone to an annual gift of something they have to pretend to like.
So because I had a craving for it this year, (that store bought stuff is dreadful – see song) I decided to attempt a small loaf tin, using the recipe for my Date and Nut Loaf as a starter, (see link), as it is basically a foolproof recipe. I made a rare visit to the Bulk Barn store for the mixed dried fruit as the packages available in the grocery store were almost expired and had papayas (?) in it instead of dried pineapple. I hate those bulk food places – the germs – everyone handling the same utensils – but I sanitized before and after, and tried to avoid the green pieces in the mixed fruit bin as those were the ones I always used to pick out of the cake. I also bought currants there, as what would I do with a whole bag of currents, although I put some raisins in too. (NB: the pioneers never had access to raisins/dried grapes, hence the preponderance of currents in those old recipes.) Total cost about $6, although it could have used a bit more fruit.
Here are the ingredients.
I mixed 2 tablespoons of butter, ¾ cup of sugar, one egg, one teaspoon of vanilla. Added ¾ cup of water to the currant/mixed fruit mixture, (but you could substitute milk or OJ) and a splash of rum – (15ml/1/2 ounce) and added 1 ¾ cups of flour (the kind with baking soda and salt already in it). Plus a smidgen of spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice. The only thing I forgot was the dates, as I didn’t have any, but in retrospect the stewed dates/water mixture would have made it a darker color, as it turned out much too pale, not fruit-cake color at all. I added the walnuts after I had prepared a cute little mini-loaf for a friend who reminded me how much she loves fruit cake but is allergic to walnuts. Baked at 350 for about an hour.
It came out more like a tea bread than a traditional Christmas Cake.
It tasted okay – a bit sweeter than I liked but next time I would definitely add the dates for color, plus more spices, more fruit, less flour and cut back on the sugar a bit. Overall, for a true Christmas cake it needs more work but I would make this again as is for a nice treat with Christmas morning coffee. Maybe this will be the start of a new Christmas tradition!
In the meantime a neighbour gifted me a chunk of her more traditional cake, which satisfied my craving.
And now for the silly song – Miss Fogarty’s Christmas Cake – by the Irish Rovers. This was part of the song set of a play I saw last September and was very funny with the animated actions of the actors and Miss Fogarty of course. It’s by the Irish Rovers and the lyrics sum up what Christmas Cake haters think about Christmas cake! Hope you enjoy it!
Miss Fogarty’s Christmas Cake – lyrics
As I sat in my window last evening
A letter was brought round to me
A little gilt-edged invitation sayin’
“Gilhooley come over to tea”
Each Christmas the Fogarties sent it
So I went just for old friendships sake
And the first thing they gave me to tackle
Was a slice of Miss Fogarty’s cake
And there were plums and prunes and cherries
There were citrons and raisins and cinnamon too
There was nuts and cloves and berries
And a crust that was nailed on with glue
There were caraway seeds in abundance
Sure if I’d work up a fine stomach ache
That would kill a man twice after eating a slice
Of Miss Fogarty’s Christmas cake.
Miss Mulligan wanted to try it
But really it wasn’t no use
For we worked on it over an hour
But a piece of it wouldn’t come loose
Till Halley came in with the hatchet
And Murphy came in with the saw
But Miss Fogarty’s cake had the power
For to paralyze any man’s jaws
Miss Fogarty proud as a peacock
Kept smiling and talking away
Till she tripped over Flanagans brogans
And spilt the potcheen in her tea
Aye Gilhooley she says you’re not eatin
Try a little bit more of me cake
“Oh no Mrs Fogarty” said I
Any more and me stomach would break
Maloney was sick with the colic
O’Donnell a pain in his head
McNulty lay down on the sofa
And he swore that he wished he was dead
Miss Bailey went into hysterics
And there she did wriggle and shake
And all of us swore we were poisoned
From eating Miss Fogarty’s cake
And there were plums and prunes and cherries
There were citrons and raisins and cinnamon too
There was nuts and cloves and berries
And a crust that was nailed on with glue
There were caraway seeds in abundance
Sure if I’d work up a fine stomach ache
That would kill a man twice after eating a slice
Of Miss Fogarty’s Christmas cake
Yes it would kill a man twice after eating a slice
Of Miss Fogarty’s Christmas cake
This is Part Two of my summer review of books – see last week for Part One. Welcome to my virtual bookstore – Happy Browsing!
Anne Tyler was typical Anne Tyler – French Braid was a quirky family saga – it opens with a long-ago family vacation with three teenagers who have nothing in common and their peculiar parents, including a mother who put her aspirations to be a painter ahead of her children and gradually moved out of the family home over the years to a studio. Perhaps she thought they wouldn’t notice? I don’t often read Anne Tyler as I just don’t get her – sure it’s readable, but what was the point of it all? I actually had to google this one to refresh my memory as I read it last spring, it was that forgettable.
Our House won a 2019 British mystery award, so I thought I’d give it a try. I loved Louise Candlish’s last book, The Other Passenger, but this lacked by comparison. I guess you could call it a domestic drama. A woman arrives home to find another couple moving into their house, which her estranged husband has sold without her knowledge and then vanished. You could tell it was going to be a train wreck, so it wasn’t very suspenseful.
The Personal Librarian – Historical tale about the life of Belle da Costa Green – a black woman who passed for white in the 1920’s, she was employed as JP Morgan’s personal assistant and helped him assemble the vast treasures of the Morgan Library and Museum. Something about the writing was off – perhaps because it was co-written. She led a fascinating life, so it should have been a better book, but then I’m generally not a big fan of first-person narrative…especially by two different people.
I really enjoyed The Lost Chapter even though I tend to avoid multi-generational/female friendship sagas. Partially set at a finishing school in Lyon France in 1957, a friendship between a proper British girl and an independent brash American, ends badly. Decades later, 80 year old Flo discovers that her friend has written a fictional book about their time there. An artist, she befriends Alice a troubled teen, and along with her mother Carla, they impart on a road trip to France to confront her past. Well done – I would like to read more by Carolyn Bishop. As for the finishing school and the rules for female behaviour – how the world has changed.
The Long Weekend – another one I had to google to refresh my memory. Three women go away for a long weekend in a remote corner of England, (without cell service of course) only to find a note waiting for them saying that one of their husbands will be murdered. Suspenseful, from what I remember.
Verity – The librarian said this book was popular, but I am not familiar with the author, probably because I don’t read romance novels. She also wrote It Ends With Us. Billed as a romantic thriller, I abandoned it about fifty pages in and googled the ending on Goodreads, which justified my decision not to waste any more time on it. A struggling young writer is hired by a charming man to finish a book his injured wife was writing. If you want to read graphic details about two people having an affair while the wife is lying comatose upstairs, then I guess this is the book for you. It was reissued recently with an exclusive new chapter after the author did a reading of it somewhere. I think it was supposed to clarify the shocking ending? Or perhaps it was a money grab?
Iona Iversons’ Rules – charming tale about a group of people who ride the same London subway car every day, and how they meet, as the first rule of commuting is don’t talk to strangers. A cheery read – I find I’m reading more light fiction by British novelists these days. It might have to do with the sad state of the world – they’re always good for a cuppa tea and a keep calm and carry on reading mentality. I was so impressed with this, I ordered Clare Pooley’s second book, The Authenticity Project, which was also a selection of my library book club.
A lonely elderly patron leaves a green notebook in a local café with his life story in it, and urges others to write down the truth about their lives. The cafe owner finds it, adds her story and passes it along. Very good for light fiction, but in real life does a recovering cocaine addict who called you a bad name ever turn into the man of your dreams?
Bloomsbury Girls – I loved this book and blogged about it in my literary salon (see link) – combines two of my favorite genres, historical fiction and bookstores. Three women working in a London bookstore during the 1950’s – the times they are a changing….
The Family Remains is a stand-alone sequel to Lisa Jewell’s, The Family Upstairs from several years ago, which was about two families sharing a cult-like existence in an old Chelsea mansion, until 3 of the adults turn up dead. The author said her readers wondered what happened to the four teenagers in the house, so she felt the need to write a sequel. I found The Family Upstairs to be a disturbing story, but this was better, except for that little unnecessary twist at the end.
The Last to Vanish – a mystery about a North Carolina inn set in a small town near the Appalachian trail, named the most dangerous town in the country. Six hikers have disappeared from the area in the past ten years. Heavy on atmosphere (how much rustling in the woods can there be), and a fairly slow plot, but a nice ending.
The Couple at Number Nine – British murder mystery about a young couple who are gifted a cottage when her grandmother develops Alzheimer’s and is placed in a care home. They uncover two bodies while digging for an extension, and a crime investigation ensues. This is more of a family drama/saga than a true suspense thriller, but the characters are well developed, and I enjoyed it. I would order more books by this author.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris – a short novella (120 pages) about a British char woman (cleaning lady) who scrimps and saves to buy a Dior dress. Written in 1958, I found the style dated and the Cockney slang/dialogue, difficult to read. A lot of repetitive description of Mrs. Harris being twinkly eyed and apple cheeked although wrinkly, gray-haired and middle aged but I found the tone of the book somewhat disparaging when she was described as a grotesque sight upon donning the vision of her dreams, a long frothy tulle and velvet concoction suitable for a jeune femme. I guess views on aging have changed. I love vintage fashion from the 50’s and am curious to see what they have done with the movie, which had fairly good reviews. The book was written by a male author I had never heard of, and I was astonished by his extensive list of books, 50 according to the flyleaf, including Thomasina the Cat, which I remember as a 1963 Disney movie and The Poisideon Adventure, from 1972. He must have been popular in his day. The second part of this book, was Mrs. Harris Goes to New York, which I did not read as I had to return to the library, and I just couldn’t handle any more of the accent and the description. There are four books in the series, including Mrs. Harris Goes to Moscow……not likely.
Out of Her Depth – was like the The Great Gatsby only set in a Tuscan villa a hundred years later – the young and beautiful and then the outsider. (Yes, the rich are different than you and me.) A young protagonist from an unfashionable part of London can’t believe her luck in landing a summer job at a Tuscan villa, where she meets a group of rich British college students on vacation. Even though I’m not the demographic for this type of psychological thriller I ordered it because it was a murder mystery set in Italy, although there was so little description of the country and the food (other than a few plates of pasta) that the novel could just as easily have been set anywhere. More character than plot driven, the story is told partially in flashback twenty years later when one of the group has just been released from jail for a murder he didn’t commit. There was some bad language, (it was young people and they tend to talk that way) but the characters were so mesmerizing and the plot-line so suspenseful, I managed to ignore it, although I was disappointed in the ending.
The other book, The Lost Ticket, was another heartwarming light British read – strangers aboard a London bus unite to help an elderly man with dementia find his missed love connection in this new novel from the author of The Last Chance Library. He lost the bus ticket with her phone number on it back in 1962. It sounded promising but I had to return it to the library as I had too many books out. (Two or three is comfortable, as I read about book a week, but seven is way too many and then I start to feel stressed…..I know, I know…..but such is retirement stress….that and medical appointments.)
It’s been a long time since I’ve read a decorating book, but I saw this mentioned on another blog. It was okay to browse through, but the print was so small (is this a trend, and no I don’t have cataracts yet) but as I’m not a fan of the serene staged minimalist look, I didn’t find it too inspiring, although I did like all the white/cream backgrounds and some of the photos were pretty. There are four sections on how to beautify your home according to the seasons. I vote for fall – bring on the scented candles.
And last but not least, Between Two Kingdoms – a memoir of a life interrupted – a riveting but depressing account of a 22 year old college graduate who is diagnosed with leukemia with a poor prognosis shortly after she moves to Paris, and her grueling three year battle to survive. The last third of the book deals with her cross-country road trip, after she is declared in remission, to visit some of the people who had written her letters during her ordeal. (She had a blog and syndicated newspaper column.) This book was also my library book club selection and the consensus was, it was a good read but not for everyone. Certainly not for anyone facing a cancer diagnosis as it was heavy on horrible details. (While the treatment for leukemia can be notoriously long, I’ve known some cancer patients who were well enough to work throughout their treatment, and one treated for lymphoma who didn’t even lose his hair.) There was lots to discuss about this book, as in A) Why did it take so long to diagnosis her? B) I can’t believe her boyfriend/fiance stuck around as long as he did, he must have been a saint. Two years without a day off? And C) The whole road trip thing at the end just seemed like such a foolhardy decision – to put her life at risk like that when she wasn’t fully recovered, especially for a person with very little driving experience. She left New York in a borrowed car, driving the wrong way down a one-way street, not even knowing how to merge into expressway traffic, not to mention she was alone, camping, mostly in winter, staying in isolated places and sketchy motels. I wondered if she embarked on the trip to have something to write about? Really I was horrified by it, and worried about her having a relapse. Having fought her way out of a such an excruciating ordeal, you’d think she would have been a bit kinder to her body, although she admitted she has had to learn to accept the limitations of her immune system. Very well written though. (pg. 274 – “After you’ve had the ceiling cave in on you – whether through illness or some other catastrophe – you don’t assume structural stability. You must learn to live on fault lines.”) Sadly, this past year her cancer returned after a six year remission, and she underwent a second bone marrow transplant.
To recover from that read, I switched to TV for light entertainment.
I’m sure this will be the last Downton Abbey movie. While it was nice to see the old gang again, the story-line was thin, the fashions and scenery frumpy, except for the bit in the south of France, and don’t get me started on the ending…. it will be forever how I remember them.
Hotel Portofino – I missed the first two episodes of this Masterpiece mini-series set at in hotel along the Italian Riviera in the 1920’s during the fascist/Mussolini period, so I ordered the DVD from the library. The setting was gorgeous and the fashions lovely, but the storyline wasn’t that good, and some of the characters seemed miscast. I found the main character, Bella, the hotel proprietress, particularly annoying. It’s no Downton Abbey, but worth tuning in for the scenery – maybe Season Two will be better. It’s set in the same area as Enchanted April, a movie and book I loved.
And finally, I was excited to read that our library headquarters was holding their annual book sale of redundant copies – these would be excess copies from book club kits, once popular bestsellers, generally fairly good stuff unlike most book sales which are often the dregs from someone’s basement. I’ve never gone as it’s always early on a Saturday morning, and the location is out of the way, but because it was from 1-8pm and well advertised and there would be three years of books on sale, over a thousand people showed up in the first TWO hours. By the time I got there around 3 pm, (it rained, so I dawdled, plus I knew there would be parking issues as it was at the fairgrounds), there was NOTHING left but empty tables. The organizers were surprised at the turnout, as it usually only attracts a couple of hundred people. It was so disappointing, as I’m still trying to accumulate books for my little library, but also encouraging in a way, as it tells us the pandemic has made so many of us into READERS!
My quarterly review of books has morphed into six months again – I guess I must have been too busy reading. Since I last posted a general review in February (see link – Review of books Winter 2022) I’ve read so many books that I can’t remember what some of the earlier ones were about, other than the vaguest impression, so I’ll just try to hit the highs (and lows) of my reading list. While I read many excellent books last winter, this selection was more mixed, (although all are rated a 4 or 5 star on Goodreads), not necessarily an issue when nicer weather prevails. Sometimes you just want a book you can pick up and put down, without staying up too late. So pretend you are in a bookstore browsing, and perhaps there will be something to tempt you when those chilly days arrive.
(Note: these are not necessarily in the order in which I read them. This is Part One of a two Part post….because you know….it was long.
Ann Patchett is one of my favorite authors – I’ve enjoyed her novels, (State of Wonder, Commonwealth) so when her book of essays – on home, friendships, family and writing – came out I ordered it. I loved the first half of the book, about growing up wanting to be a writer, and having her three dads at her wedding, her difficulty in getting rid of her old typewriter, her decision years ago not to have children. I felt like I had found a new friend, but then I came to a very long piece which comprised the latter third of the book, about her relationship with Tom Hanks publicist, Sooki, who was diagnosed and eventually died of pancreatic cancer. Ann Patchett owns an independent bookstore in Nashville, and their acquaintance came about when she scheduled an in-store reading of Tom Hank’s book of short stories, (Ordinary Type) many of which were about typewriters. (That book is a whole other topic, and while I love Tom Hanks he should stick to acting as struggling writers in garrets all over the world could have done better given the opportunity. Maybe it was a pandemic project but he is now working on a novel about the movie industry due out next year, which is being billed as an ambitious project.) Ann Patchett and her physician husband helped Sooki find an oncologist for experimental treatment and even invited her to stay with them in their home for six months while she was undergoing treatment during the pandemic. She warns that the downside of staying with a writer is that you get written about but perhaps she thought she was memorializing her? Sooki, being a very private person, and fighting for her life, mostly kept to the basement flat. She was probably too sick to socialize, but the author seemed somewhat obsessed with the idea that their friendship should have been closer. That’s the problem with memoir – you can unknowingly reveal some less attractive aspects to your personality. Otherwise, the book was good, and the writing lovely, but that last essay just spoiled the whole thing for me. Sometimes when something about a book really bothers me I’ll hop over to Goodreads and read the reviews – all five star and glowing, so it must just be me.
I’m a big fan of British mystery writers, including Ruth Ware, so I really enjoyed this, her sixth and best book so far – a who-done-it about a group of six first year students at Oxford. She’s come a long way since her first book, In A Dark Dark Wood. (Others are The Woman in Cabin 10, The Turn of the Key, One by One) Although the two female room-mates have nothing in common, they strike up a friendship, until one night the popular one, The It Girl, is found murdered in her room. The creepy dorm porter is charged and found guilty, but ten years later, after he dies in jail still pleading his innocence , a journalist starts snooping around. The book is told, partially in flashback, by the other room-mate who is by then married to the It Girl’s old boyfriend. It was very well done and very suspenseful, and fairly long at 400 pages. It took me back to my university days, where the friendships you made were often forged during the first few weeks, although our porter was a kind elderly gentleman, whose job seemed to be sorting the mail into the mail slots (yes, those were the days my friends, you got mail), while keeping an eye on the front door, although he could certainly glare with disappointment when you came creeping in in the wee small hours of the morning, so I totally understand why the protagonist chose to climb over the stone wall near the back entrance. This was easily my favorite suspense novel of the year so far.
The other book, Local Gone Missing, is about a female British detective on medical leave in a small seaside town when a local man disappears on the night of a music festival. A good read – this was my first book by this author.
I was a big fan of Grantchester, the Masterpiece series set in 1950’s Cambridge about a whiskey-swilling, jazz-loving young vicar and his crime-solving detective friend Geordie, at least I was until the storyline descended into repetitive dross, probably inevitable given it is currently in season seven. While there is always a murder in each episode, and a moral of sorts, I find the secondary characters are often the best part. The TV series was based on a series of books by the author James Runcie, whose father was a vicar in that era. I read the first book in the series, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, (it sounds like a Hardy Boys title) more out of curiosity, and then the second, Sidney Chambers and The Perils of the Night. The books are composed of self-contained chapters of some of the murders in season one and two, but as I already knew the outcome from the tv show I didn’t find it too suspenseful, although it was well written and sometimes insightful. At the end of book two, they married him off to that simpering Hildegarde, and that was it for me, although his snobby friend Amanda was an equally annoying choice. Poor Sidney, such terrible taste in women. There are six books in the series, including the prequel in the war years.
The Tenth Nerve – a brain surgeon’s stories of the patients who changed him – was a memoir written by a Vancouver doctor, with each chapter about one of his more memorable cases. I love a good medical book and the brain is such an interesting thing. The tenth nerve refers to a new cranial nerve he discovered while operating on several patients with the same painful throat condition. I found it well written and very interesting, if you like that kind of thing.
I love Frances Mayes so I was anticipating a travelogue in the vein of her usual Under the Tuscan Sun format, but this was more of a National Geographic guidebook, with sections on different parts of Italy – perfect if you were traveling there and wanted some background info on what to see and do in each region. Unfortunately, the print was so tiny that I didn’t even skim through it. There being no Italy in my foreseeable future, I returned it to the library, where the librarian, who has been to Italy five times (pause while I recover from turning green with envy) devoured it and pronounced it very good.
I abandoned the Carl Bernstein book, which deals with his early years in the news industry in the 50’s and 60’s, after about fifty pages as I just didn’t find it interesting.
The Truth About Melody Jones – is early Lisa Jewell, 2009, and yes she wrote about dysfunctional families even then. A single mother has no memories of her life before age nine and seeks to uncover the truth behind her early life. This was a paperback with very tiny print, but I persisted as I didn’t have anything else to read at the time.
Bittersweet – How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole – Susan Cain is the same author who brought us the wonderful 2012 non-fiction book, Quiet – a gift for introverts everywhere. I was expecting an equally fascinating read. I can’t even describe what this book was about, as the concept was so vague and shifting, that the book left me baffled and disappointed. Not recommended – unless you want to wade through 300 pages looking for a few insights. Billed as a masterpiece on the power of a bittersweet outlook on life, I would pass….and pass the dark chocolate.
This Agatha Christie autobiography was easily my favorite biography of the year, even though it was written in the 1960’s and published in 1977, a few years after the authors death. I knew next to nothing about this elusive author, who led such a fascinating life. See blogs – Agatha Christie – An Autobiography and Some Thoughts on Writing.
When I was growing up short stories were to be found in every periodical, even fashion bibles like Seventeen, and women’s magazines like Redbook and Ladies Home Journal. (I used to devour my mother’s copies and not for the recipes.) I vaguely remember short story collections coming back in favor for a brief moment in the 1980’s, but other than a few authors like Alice Munroe (who may be Canadian but I have never understood the exultation of, ditto for Margaret Atwood), they seem to have become extinct in popular fiction. So I was surprised to see these two selections under New Releases. Maybe Tom Hanks started a trend? Unfortunately, I abandoned both after skimming a few of the stories as they just didn’t grab me, although I admit I didn’t give the Lily King one much of a chance. As for the Brooker Prize winner, Roddy Doyle, it was set in Dublin in the early days of the pandemic. The first story involved a middle aged man who is diagnosed with coronary heart disease – yes, the 60’s is the decade when things start to fall apart – and faces his own mortality. I don’t get why he is a Brooker prize winner – when his command of English includes so much unnecessary profanity.
Historical fiction about Jane Austen’s long neglected sister, Cassandra. Excellent – blogged about it – see link. A first novel from this promising author.
Classic Elin Hilderbrand beach read about the restoration of an old Nantucket Hotel. The usual flawed characters, with too much bed-hopping, alcohol and food, but I did like the bit about the ghost. She keeps saying she’s going to retire, but I don’t see any sign of it as she has a book of short stores coming out soon, Endless Summer.
Sparring Partners – a novella and two short stories, one of which is about a prisoner who receives a visitor in his final hours on death row. Sparring Partners is about two brothers who loathe each other and inherit their father’s once prosperous law firm. I devoured these, but then anything by John Grisham is immensely readable. His annual legal thriller, Biloxi Blues is due out soon. I recently read an older novel of his, The Broker, (in large print, which pleasantly passed the time while waiting seven hours in ER for a CAT scan – only in Canada, folks), which was about a DC white-collar criminal jailed over secret documents who is issued a last minute pardon during the waning days of a corrupt US presidency. (How prescient of him, given it was written in 2005) He is provided with a new identity by the CIA and set down in the middle of Italy where he must learn to blend in and learn the language with the help of a tutor. (Ah, the food, wine and scenery, such a hardship) The aim – to see which foreign government will pick him off – the Saudis, the Chinese, the Russians or the Israelis? A good read and satisfying ending. I think back then he took more care with his endings.
Speaking of endings, I’ll wrap this up. See you next week for Part Two.
PS. The squirrel above squirreling away books instead of nuts, reminds me that my 2018 blog, How To Make A Chestnut Wreath, is trending again. It’s my second most popular post.
Historical fiction seems to be a popular genre these days, especially books set in Europe or Britain during WW2. Starting with The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah, there have been so many of this type released over the past few years it’s hard to keep track of them all, let alone read them. Another popular choice involves anything with a bookstore in it’s title. While I tend to be a sucker for these kinds of books, they sometimes don’t live up to the hype, but combine the two, and you get the absolutely delightful read, Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner.
The internationally bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society returns with a compelling and heartwarming story of post-war London, a century-old bookstore, and three women determined to find their way in a fast-changing world.
Bloomsbury Books is an old-fashioned new and rare book store that has persisted and resisted change for a hundred years, run by men and guided by the general manager’s unbreakable fifty-one rules. But in 1950, the world is changing, especially the world of books and publishing, and at Bloomsbury Books, the girls in the shop have plans:
Vivien Lowry: Single since her aristocratic fiance was killed in action during World War II, the brilliant and stylish Vivien has a long list of grievances – most of them well justified and the biggest of which is Alec McDonough, the Head of Fiction.
Grace Perkins: Married with two sons, she’s been working to support the family following her husband’s breakdown in the aftermath of the war. Torn between duty to her family and dreams of her own.
Evie Stone: In the first class of female students from Cambridge permitted to earn a degree, Evie was denied an academic position in favor of her less accomplished male rival. Now she’s working at Bloomsbury Books while she plans to remake her own future.
As they interact with various literary figures of the time – Daphne Du Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, Sonia Blair (widow of George Orwell), Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim, and others – these three women with their complex web of relationships, goals and dreams are all working to plot out a future that is richer and more rewarding than anything society will allow.
About the Author: Natalie Jenner was a new find of mine, after reading The Jane Austen Society, which I blogged about in 2020 (see link) – a post WW2 story about how a group of diverse villagers came together to save Jane Austen’s Chawton cottage. It was a good read for a first book, if a bit uneven, but this newest one is just brilliantly done. She must feel a great sense of satisfaction having two bestsellers, after five failed publishing attempts earlier in her life. (link) A life long lover of books, she owned an independent bookstore in Oakville, Ontario for awhile, so she knows her subject matter. She graduated from U of T with degrees in English literature and Law and worked as a corporate lawyer in Toronto, which probably came in handy for reading all those book contracts. (Translation rights sold to 20 countries.)
Discussion: This book was described by one Goodreads reviewer as Mad Men meets You’ve Got Mail. I never watched the TV show Mad Men – although I loved the fashions, I couldn’t get past the sexist attitudes, (not to mention the cigarette smoking), and abandoned it after the first few episodes. This is a 50’s book, but told from a feminist point of view.
I loved the clever way the author used the manager’s rules for employees at the head of each chapter, and then had the characters proceed to break each and every one. The characters are well drawn and not cliche, as so many of these books can be. Properly cast, it would make a good movie or tv series of the kind PBS/Masterpiece is famous for. I also liked the way she wove the real life authors and historical figures of that era into the plot. Plus it had a suspenseful but heartwarming ending. I always enjoy a bit of karma in my books.
I liked the way the author has carried forward several of the characters from her first book, including Evie Stone, the maid in the Great House at Chawton who helped to catalogue the library and then went on to study at Cambridge. Although connected, each book can be read as a stand alone. In an interview the author discusses her upcoming third book, due in 2024, where she transports one of the Bloomsbury girls to 1950’s Italy – shades of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday – bring it on!
This is a book about strong women and a great read for book and bookstore lovers.
PS. While we may admire the elegant fashions of the 50’s who would want to go back to the chauvinistic rules and inequality of those years? I was lucky to grow up in the first wave of the women’s movement, with the invincible feeling that I could do anything if I worked hard enough. I think sometimes people forget what we fought for. Rise up, women of the world, rise up!