A Tale of Two Mysteries

     One hundred years later, Agatha Christie remains the most famous of mystery writers, with a prolific output of 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections, six fiction novels under a pseudonym and the theater’s longest running play, The Mousetrap.  One of the highest selling authors of all time (2 billion copies) her books are still in print and movie versions abound even today.  I recently saw Crooked House on Netflix (mixed opinion on that one) and Death on the Nile is on my to-see list.  

   As I’ve only read a couple of her books, Murder on the Orient Express, and And Then There Were None, I can’t say that I’m a big fan.  The flaw I find in her writing is the sheer number of characters in some of them, it’s hard to keep them all straight, especially when she gives such a small amount of description and background about them.  In my opinion, we never really get to know the people in her books, except perhaps for the recurring ones, like Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot and I’ve always disliked that ridiculous mustache.

    The same with the movie adaptations, on both Crooked House and the 2017 version of The Orient Express, there were so many actors with similar appearance – the same tall dark looks (the men) and thin with bobbed hair (the women) that it was hard to keep them all straight.  In Crooked House, the filming was so dark and the camera so distant that we seldom got enough of a close-up of a face to be able to distinguish between them.  This is perhaps a problem with casting and scripts however, not the books.  

     I know only the barest outline of her life – her first marriage to a husband who left her for another woman, and who, it was reputed, never bothered to read any of her books after the first, (good riddance to him), her second marriage to a younger archaeologist, her stints as an apothecary’s assistant during both world wars, which resulted in her extensive knowledge of poisons.  (I can’t say I share that expertise despite my forty years experience, but medication was mainly compounded from scratch back in the day.)  But one thing has always puzzled people – her disappearance for eleven days in 1926.   While all of England searched for her, she was holed up in a hotel, registered under the name of her husband’s mistress.  Her mother had died earlier in the year and rumors abounded that her husband had asked for a divorce. Had she suffered a nervous breakdown, or perhaps intended to embarrass him? There was even speculation it might have been a publicity stunt.  Once found, they got back together again, but she eventually left him and he married his mistress.

So it was with interest that I read the new release, The Christie Affair, by Nina de Gramont – a fictionalized account of her mysterious disappearance. The reviews were great, and it did not disappoint.  I would consider this one of the best books I’ve read this year, deserving of being a Reese Book Club selection, which is not always the case.

The writing was excellent and suspenseful, and I am in awe of how the author spun the various stories together, with a very satisfactory ending, and of course there was a crime to solve, although it wasn’t the main focus.  I can’t say too much because of spoilers, but I do wonder how they got this book past the Christie estate because of that one pivotal detail. It’s all pure fiction of course, but masterfully done.  In short, it’s difficult to summarize this book, it’s historical fiction, it’s a suspense novel, but it’s mainly it’s just a very good story.

I’m not familiar with the author, but she has five other books I will check into. This book has also inspired me to read more about Agatha Christie’s life.  She never discussed the disappearance the rest of her life, only mentioning it briefly in her autobiography as “So, after illness, came sorrow, despair and heartbreak. There is no need to dwell on it.”

Contrast this to my experience a week later reading Lucy Foley’s latest – The Paris Apartment – a modern day locked room mystery. 

Goodreads Publisher’s Blurb: Jess needs a fresh start. She’s broke and alone, and she’s just left her job under less than ideal circumstances. Her half-brother Ben didn’t sound thrilled when she asked if she could crash with him for a bit, but he didn’t say no, and surely everything will look better from Paris. Only when she shows up – to find a very nice apartment, could Ben really have afforded this? – he’s not there. The longer Ben stays missing, the more Jess starts to dig into her brother’s situation, and the more questions she has. Ben’s neighbors are an eclectic bunch, and not particularly friendly. Jess may have come to Paris to escape her past, but it’s starting to look like it’s Ben’s future that’s in question. The socialite – The nice guy – The alcoholic – The girl on the verge – The concierge. Everyone’s a neighbor. Everyone’s a suspect. And everyone knows something they’re not telling.

Reading this book a week after The Christie Affair, I couldn’t help but compare the two.  Lucy Foley also wrote the previous locked room mysteries, The Guest List (destination wedding on an island off the coast of Ireland) and The Hunting Lodge (a Scottish lodge during a snow storm).  Now I have to admit I’m not the demographic the author is writing for (young, lots of beverage imbibing and bad language, some of it in French) but in my opinion any book which starts with an offensive opening sentence has nowhere to go but more of the same. Where were the editors?  Is there anything wrong with a simple “Ben, answer your phone – I’m freezing out here.”  No, but in a modern day mystery, it seems we must use explicit adjectives, and maybe that is the way young people talk, but I almost closed the book after the first page.  I was discussing this with the librarian when I returned it, and she argued that the author was trying to establish that the protagonist was from a disadvantaged background. I suppose there’s that….but she’s also unlikable.  It seems to be the fashion now to have an unlikable protagonist, but really, none of the characters were likable.  Which made me think – do I really want to spend 300 pages with these people? Still, I persisted….because I know Lucy Foley can spin a good tale.

It’s not a bad book, suspenseful, more character development than what Agatha Christie was prone too, but that is to be expected today.  We must have multiple motives, and in order to have motives you must reveal something about your characters, disagreeable or not.  I’m a sucker for any book with Paris in the title, but it’s like the author threw everything stereo-typically French – thin chic women afraid to eat, lots of wine, extramarital affairs and a rather sleazy descent into the seedier side of Moulin Rouge – into a pot and this is the plot she came up with.  There isn’t really even that much about Paris in it, it could be an apartment building anywhere, as that is where the majority of the story is set, although I think she ate a croissant, despite her dwindling cash reserves? I can see it being a Hollywood movie – lots of passion and sizzle, a rather thin plot, but a suspenseful ending.   It was somewhat better the last hundred pages, and was certainly a fast paced read for a book where nothing much happens, but will it stand the test of time?  That remains to be seen.   

Both were good books, in their own way, but my preference was for The Christie Affair – tell me an interesting story along with my dose of suspense.  

Which begs the question, does every mystery author eventually succumb to being dated?  Have you read any good mysteries lately?

The Maid – The Literary Salon

     One of the pleasures of staying in a hotel room is someone else cleans up, but do we ever really think about that person?  We may see them moving their trolleys up and down the hallway, and hopefully we leave them a tip, but it’s a job a lot of people take for granted.  It’s hard work, plus, you’d have to like cleaning.   

     Thankfully, Molly, the protagonist in the new bestseller, The Maid, loves her job and takes great pride and enjoyment in returning the rooms at the Regency Hotel to “a state of perfection” as their training program emphasizes. When she happens to clean away some murder evidence which along with her unusual behavior makes her a prime suspect, that provides an interesting premise for a murder mystery.    

Reading is better than spring cleaning…

Here’s the Publisher’s Blurb:

Molly Gray is not like everyone else. She struggles with social skills and misreads the intentions of others. Her gran used to interpret the world for her, codifying it into simple rules that Molly could live by.

Since Gran died a few months ago, twenty-five-year-old Molly has been navigating life’s complexities all by herself. No matter—she throws herself with gusto into her work as a hotel maid. Her unique character, along with her obsessive love of cleaning and proper etiquette, make her an ideal fit for the job. She delights in donning her crisp uniform each morning, stocking her cart with miniature soaps and bottles, and returning guest rooms at the Regency Grand Hotel to a state of perfection.

But Molly’s orderly life is upended the day she enters the suite of the infamous and wealthy Charles Black, only to find it in a state of disarray and Mr. Black himself dead in his bed. Before she knows what’s happening, Molly’s unusual demeanor has the police targeting her as their lead suspect. She quickly finds herself caught in a web of deception, one she has no idea how to untangle. Fortunately for Molly, friends she never knew she had unite with her in a search for clues to what really happened to Mr. Black—but will they be able to find the real killer before it’s too late?

A Clue-like, locked-room mystery and a heartwarming journey of the spirit, The Maid explores what it means to be the same as everyone else and yet entirely different—and reveals that all mysteries can be solved through connection to the human heart.

About the Author: 

Nita Prose is a longtime editor, serving many bestselling authors and their books. She lives in Toronto, Canada, in a house that is only moderately clean.

 As an longtime editor, Nita Prose obviously had publishing connections, but this book is so good and so unique I’m sure it would have been found a home anyway.  I suspect the hotel in the book is based on The Royal York in Toronto, where I have stayed on occasion when work was footing the bill, (it’s handy to Union train station, but when I have to pay, I stay at the pleasant but cheaper Marriott) or it could be any one of those grand old dames with an impressive lobby which pride themselves on style and service.   

Discussion:    I loved everything about this book – the protagonist, the plot-line, the descriptions, the dialogue – it’s just a charming story.  I was already casting it in my head, when I read on Amazon that it is in development as a major motion picture produced by and starring Florence Pugh. I don’t know enough about this English actress to say whether she would suit the role or not, but it’s the kind of quirky movie the British do best.  Hollywood would probably Hollywoodize it, with sexy uniforms and lots of bed-hopping.

One thing to note, this murder mystery has nothing to do with the Netflix series of the same name, which is a totally different story. I haven’t watched it, but believe it deals with the struggles of a single mother working a minimum wage job. I don’t know what the pay is for hotel maids but personal maid services here charge $35/hr with $25 going to the maid, and even home care agencies charge $25 for light housekeeping, but the bigger hotel chains may be closer to minimum wage $15 as they are often staffed by people whose English is a second language. This is addressed in the book, as one of the employees does not have the proper immigration papers and Molly herself has difficulty making her big city rent. (These rates may even have gone up given the low unemployment rate and difficulty in attracting employees.)

Molly is such a memorable character that you can’t help but root for her.  Alone in the world after her grandmother’s death, she is unable to understand or read social cues, and takes everything at face value. The book is written in first person, which I often find annoying, but which works here as we are seeing the world from the point of view of someone whose thinking and behavior would be considered outside of normal. Although the author is very careful not to label her, she is probably somewhere on the spectrum, possibly Asperger’s Syndrome with a good dose of OCD thrown in.  She seems literally clueless when it comes to interpreting other people’s words and actions which leads her into trouble.  (I wonder if people who fall prey to obvious financial scams might be struggling with the same perceptive difficulties.)      

The dialogue is clever, (hence the movie), and the descriptions creative – her nest egg which was stolen is her “Faberge”, her restaurant date was “the Tour of Italy”( which made me want to eat at an Olive Garden, if only we had one here).

The plot was fast-paced, although but I had a small problem with the ending, but understand why it had to happen that way.  Overall, the book was a brilliant debut and also a gentle reminder that there are many “invisible” people in society, whose perceptions of the world may be somewhat different than our own.  

PS.  I use a maid service for my mother’s house, and also occasionally for myself for bigger jobs like windows, as I simply don’t have the energy to keep up two houses.  What I like about them is they send two, occasionally three, people so they are in and out in a couple of hours, so you’re not in their way all afternoon. They do an excellent job, but cleaning houses all day is hard work, so many of them don’t last long, although the head cleaner is always the same. She told me she loves to clean, as did the Molly Maid franchise owner I used before. I’m grateful that some people do…now if I could only find someone who loves ironing. Vacuuming is my second hated task, but give me something to organize and I’m happy.  While I used to enjoy the feeling of satisfaction after cleaning my house from top to bottom, now that I’m older I prefer that someone else return my house to “a state of perfection.”  If only it would stay that way.     

PS. Cleanliness in a hospital is a priority, so I would like to add a note of thanks to the hospital cleaners who have to deal with the COVID-units. I remember the floors in my rural hospital being so clean and shiny you could eat off them.

Do you enjoy cleaning? Any hated household tasks?

Review of Books – Winter 2022

          Last July I did a review of the most memorable books I had read over the previous year – see A Reading Sabbatical.   I intended to do a quarterly review going forward, but other blog topics beckoned.  Since we’ve nothing much to do this time of year when we’re shut by the weather, here’s a summary of the (mostly) wonderful books I’ve read since.   Hopefully there will be something to tempt you to escape to another world for awhile….

Golden Girl – Elin Hilderbrand.    The protagonist, author of 13 beach novels and mother of three almost grown children is killed in a hit and run car accident while jogging near her home on Nantucket.  She ascends to the afterlife where she meets her guardian angel who allows her to watch what happens for one last summer.  She is granted three nudges to change the outcomes of events on earth but with her kids lives full of turmoil must decide when to use them.  

I can’t recall any other book where the protagonist was killed in the first chapter, so this was a unique twist on her usual drama-filled beach read.  This was intended to the author’s last novel, and seems somewhat semi-autobiographical, considering her bout with breast cancer five years ago.  For a swan song, it was a surprisingly good read, although being Elin Hilderbrand not without its annoying immature characters.   I wonder what she’ll do next?

Hostage – Clare MacIntosh –   You can save hundreds of lives – or the one that matters most.  A claustrophobic thriller set on a twenty hour plane flight from London to Australia.  The protagonist, a flight attendant with a five-year old daughter and a fracturing marriage back home, is handed a note by a hijacker, who knows exactly how to make her comply.  The anonymous skyjacker is part of a radical climate change group, and there is more than one of them seated among the passengers.   

If you can get past the premise that post 911, any flight attendant would ever allow anyone into the pilot’s cabin, then this was a very suspenseful read, and well done.  Clare MacIntosh at her best.  It seems like all my favorite suspense writers had excellent books out last year.  Perhaps one blessing of the pandemic was more time to write.

The Rose Code – Kate Quinn   A tale about the intertwined lives of three women codebreakers during WW2 and what destroyed their friendship. 

I honestly don’t remember much about this book, other than it was a good read.  There seem to be so many of these historical fiction books about WW2 lately that it’s hard to keep them all straight.

The Maidens – Alex Michaelides    A therapist becomes fixated on The Maidens, a secret society of female students at Cambridge associated with a handsome and charismatic professor of Greek Tragedy, after one of the members, a friend of her niece, is found murdered. 

The author’s first psychological thriller, The Silent Patient, was so successful (number one on the 2019 Goodreads mystery and thriller list), that it would be a hard act to follow, which he acknowledges in the notes.  This one also involves a therapist, and the author himself went to Cambridge, so perhaps he was writing about what he knows, but while I found it suspenseful, I didn’t find it nearly as good.  The whole idea of a secret sorority with slavish devotion to a professor seems like a throwback to the fifties, but then I’ve never been to Cambridge. 

A Slow Fire Burning – Paula Hawkins.    Psychological thriller about a young man found murdered on a London houseboat, and the three women who knew and resented him. Laura, the troubled one-night stand last seen on his boat, Carla his grief-stricken aunt, already mourning the death of another family member, and Miriam the nosy eccentric neighbour who lives on an adjacent houseboat. 

Paula Hawkins wrote The Girl on the Train, and seems to specialize in damaged characters or misfits, but the character of Laura was so well done, you found yourself cheering for her.  It was interesting to read the point of view of someone normally shunned by society.  An excellent read with a satisfying ending, this was rated number one in the Goodreads Mystery category for 2021.  

L.M. Montgomery – The Gift of Wings – Mary Henley Rubio    The definite biography of L.M. Montgomery, by the esteemed author who edited her five published journals and had extensive access to papers and interviews never published before, including with LM Montgomery’s son.

I blogged about the life of L.M. Montgomery back in May (see link), and having read several biographies over the years thought I knew a lot about her, but I found this book absolutely fascinating, especially from a psychological point of view, as Maud was a very complex woman.  The depth of research in it was amazing, but then she knew her subject well from decades of study.  It’s a 2008 publication, so I had to order it from the library, but it was one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read this year.

The Other Passenger – Louise Candlish   Jaime, an older well-off male protagonist meets a group of fellow (“river rats”) passengers during his daily commute on a Thames riverboat in downtown London, including Kit a young hip debt-ridden twenty something, and they go for Christmas drinks.  The next time he takes the ferry the police meet him when he disembarks – Kit has been reported missing by his wife Melia and he was the last person to be seen with him…arguing.

Wow, this certainly had a lot of twists and turns.  So well done, which just goes to show you can tell a riveting story about the most dislikeable and unrelatable of characters.  The dedication at the front of the book said “For all those who think they want more” or words to that effect.  This was my first read with this award-winning British mystery author, and I was impressed.

The Four Winds – Kristen Hannah    Historical fiction novel set in the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, with a strong female protagonist who after being abandoned by her husband, goes west with her children in search of a better life.  

This was interesting read, but although it’s been compared to The Grapes of Wrath, it’s not Steinbeck.  Kristen Hannah wrote The Nightingale (2000), a novel about fleeing Paris during WW2, but I didn’t find this one quite as good, although she is excellent at describing the plight of refugees, and it is a forgotten historical period, one I knew little about.  I absolutely hated the ending, although I concede it was probably necessary.

The Comfort Book – Matt Haig    A slim collection of one-per-page notes, quotes and observations that serve as gentle reminders that life is not all gloom and doom.

I sometimes enjoy a Philosophy-Lite book, and while I liked his novel, The Midnight Library, I was never able to get into any of his other non-fiction essay type books, most of which deal with depression.  Some of the quotes were memorable, and I thought I might write them down, but now I’ve forgotten them.   

Not a Happy Family – Shari Lapena    When a wealthy couple is murdered the day after a contentious Easter dinner with their three estranged children, they stand to inherit the family fortune, unless one of them is responsible for the murder.

Well, the title says it all.  Shari Lapena is one of my favorite murder mystery writers, and I look forward to her annual offering.  This was good and certainly well done, but we’ve become so accustomed  to unexpected twists at the end, that when there isn’t one, it’s feels somewhat disappointing.

The Night She Disappeared – Lisa Jewell    A teenage mother leaves her baby with her mother while she goes out for the evening with friends, and never returns.  She was last seen going to a party at a mansion in the woods.  A cold case, an abandoned mansion and the kind of dysfunctional family Lisa Jewell does so well. 

Lisa Jewell is another of my favorite mystery authors and she’s really outdone herself in this latest one.

World War C – Sanjay Gupta     Lessons from the COVID Pandemic.

I debated not reading this, as aren’t we all sick of hearing about the pandemic, but it was quite interesting, but then I like a good science book.  His style is immensely readable, and I picked up some facts about the coronavirus I was unaware of.   25% of all mammals in the world are bats, and they tend to have immunity to coronaviruses.   Since the book went to press in the summer, it’s already out of date, but still a worthwhile read.

The First Survivors of Alzheimer’s – edited by Dale E. Bredesen MD   Seven patients talk about how they recovered life and hope in their own words.

I saw this on the shelf at the library and was curious, especially since I had read Sanjay Gupta’s book about building a better brain and the preventative changes we can make in middle age.  It’s edited by a physician who has developed a certain treatment regimen.  The patients were in the self-reported early stages of mild cognitive decline. While the patient’s stories were interesting, they never really explained what the regimen involved. I guess you have to buy his first two books for that. After I got to patient seven who was gulping down 40 pills a day, I lost interest. Not recommended at all.   

Taste – My Life Through Food – Stanley Tucci    Food memoir by the actor Stanley Tucci.

I loved this book and blogged about it in November. (see link)  This was my favorite non-fiction read of the year, and you feel like you’ve found a new friend when you’re done. 

The Bookseller’s Secret – Michelle Gable –  A Novel of WW2 and the Mitford sisters

I’m a sucker for any title with a bookstore in it.  Another historical WW2 novel involving a modern-day journalist and a forgotten manuscript but as I don’t care about the Mitford sisters I never got past the first few pages. 

Wintering – Katherine May  –  a book of personnel essays about wintering the difficult periods of our lives.  

Blogged about it – (see link) – loved it – such wonderful writing.   Hope we hear more from this British author. 

The Last Painting of Sara De Vos – Dominic Smith   A novel about art and forgery, spanning three continents and three time periods.  A rare landscape by a female Dutch painter of the golden age, is on a collision course between the inheritor of the work in 1950’s Manhattan and the celebrated art historian in Sydney who painted a forgery of it in her youth.

I would like to know more about the art world and thought this was a good premise for a novel.  A good read, nice writing.  A prize-winning author, but it’s the first book of his I’ve read.     

The Last Thing He Told Me – Laura Dave   Wife is handed a note – Protect Her.  Mystery about a man living a lie and his new wife and 16-year-old daughter who band together to discover what happened after he suddenly disappears. 

This was a selection of my book club and a Reese Witherspoon pick as well.  Very well done for one of those how well do you really know your spouse genre mysteries.  A satisfying ending.   

Wish You Were Here – Jodi Picoult     Thirty something art specialist who has her life all mapped out, travels to the Galapagos Islands alone when her surgical resident boyfriend must stay behind in New York to deal with the early days of the COVID crisis (2020), and then starts to re-evaluate her life, job and relationships.

She’s one of my favorite authors, but I’ve barely recovered from her previous disaster The Book of Two Ways – that 400-page tome about death doulas/Egyptian mythology/archeology digs/AI/old boyfriends/parallel universe with the totally ambiguous ending.

First of all, I hate a dumb protagonist. If an island is closed and they tell you to go home, don’t act like a rich entitled tourist and stay and then gripe about it.  I was so irritated by the main character and the whole premise that I was going to abandon it, because of course she meets someone on the island, and there are some truly laughable love scenes……but then……around page 190…..it all changes.  What a brilliant piece of trickery! So, my advice would be to stick it out, although after the “sudden revelation,” I did guess the ending. I wouldn’t go so far as to say she’s gotten her groove back, but it’s close.  I just hope she doesn’t start writing romance novels because love scenes are not her forte.  

One word of caution though – do not, repeat, do not read this in the ER dept as I did, (for a non-COVID issue), and also if you have lost someone to COVID or are paranoid of catching it then best to skip it altogether.  Her boyfriend’s texts/emails contain way too much ICU detail, and aren’t we all sick of the pandemic anyway – do we really want to read about it, even in a novel?   

So curl up with a cat and a cup of tea, and a good book! I hope this wasn’t too long, but for book lovers can there ever be too many books to check out?

A Food Memoir and Some Music

My regular readers may have noticed my lack of baking blogs lately. That’s because I had my cholesterol tested last June and it was borderline. Borderline is worse than bad, as borderline means you should watch it, whereas bad means you absolutely must, but either way you feel guilty when you don’t.

But there’s nothing to say that you can’t read about food. I absolutely devoured this month’s Literary Salon selection – Stanley Tucci’s bestseller, Taste: My Life Through Food. (goodreads link) This is a book for both foodies and non-foodies alike.

I must admit, I didn’t even know who Stanley Tucci was, other than that guy who ate his way through Italy last spring on those CNN TV specials – Searching For Italy, where he would visit a different city each week and explore their food culture, of which I only caught the episodes on Florence and Milan. (It’s been renewed for season two next year) He was sort of a replacement for the late Anthony Bourdain, but they must have known he had the book coming out. (His wife is a literary agent in London.) So when I saw the reviews were unanimously positive, I put it on reserve. As well as being an author, he has starred in 70 movies, although the only ones I can recall are Julie and Julia (where he played Paul Child) and The Devil Wears Prada, and also The Hunger Games. He’s the kind of nondescript actor you can easily overlook, but his book is one of those interesting reads you can’t put down.

Growing up Italian, food was always important to him, especially pasta. There are a few recipes scattered throughout the chapters, but maybe you have to be a pasta-lover to fully appreciate them. It may be blasphemous, but to me all pasta tastes the same. Yes, I know, the different textures help pick up the various sauces and fillings, but to me it’s all just pasta. But I do have a mild allergy to garlic, so I might not be the best judge.

I had many Italian friends growing up as I attended a Catholic high school. Their food was different than the meat-potato-veg fare we ate at home. Their desserts were different too – I remember in particular a cake so liquor-soaked you could get drunk on it. While Stanley Tucci came from Italian roots, he grew up in the suburbs of New York. I had to laugh when he wrote about his class-mates wanting to trade their peanut butter or baloney sandwiches for whatever tasty leftovers his mother had put in his lunchbox, scoring some extra Twinkies in the process. (My favorite was always those chocolate Hostess cupcakes with the cream filling in the centre, which we did not get very often.)

As Stanley Tucci has just turned sixty, the first few chapters are about growing up in the 60’s and 70’s. When he was thirteen his father took the family to Florence for a sabbatical year, (in the TV episode he took his parents, now in their eighties back to revisit the city), so the first time he ever ate in a restaurant was in Rome. They did not eat out very often in Florence, as a high school art teacher’s salary did not extend to dining in restaurants, but his mother cooked wonderful meals at home.

It’s hard to imagine not eating out in restaurants, but if you grew up in that era, most people didn’t, other than MacDonalds or a diner or burger joint. I was 19 before I ate Chinese food, let alone experience any other culture. My mother’s nod to pasta was spaghetti with Campbell’s tomato soup as the sauce. Ragu was a big improvement. By high school my Italian had stretched to pizza.

There’s a chapter about the food and catering on movie sets (I haven’t quite forgiven him for eating puffin in Iceland, even if there are 8 million of them), and a chapter on cooking during the pandemic while at home with his wife and children – he has two young kids and four over 18. He lost his first wife to breast cancer in 2009. He met his second wife at her sister’s (Emily Blunt) wedding (they bonded over their shared love of food) at “a venue that could be George Clooney’s villa” – there’s some name dropping, but in a fun jesting way. “A man who resembles Colin Firth” was very helpful in taking him to ER when he was nauseated after his chemo treatments. And Ryan Reynolds, what a kind soul to lend him his New York apartment while he was undergoing radiation treatment.

On the tv episodes I often wondered how he stayed so slim? He says he has always had a fast metabolism, but the last chapter of the book deals with his 2017 bout with tongue cancer. For a person so devoted to food, to have such a diagnosis must have been devastating, especially having been through cancer with his first wife, and now having a young family with a two year old and a baby on the way. After surgery, chemo and radiation, he endured 6 months of tube feeding, and then two years of not being able to taste food, and a heightened sensitivity to hot and cold. But he came through it, being all the more appreciative of surviving, and being able to taste once more.

This is an entertaining read, as well as a revealing personal memoir. The descriptions are witty and funny and it’s just lovely writing. One small complaint, which spoiled it for me a bit, was the number of swear words. It seems to be a fad these days, but to me it’s just not literary, and if that is the only adjective you can come up with to describe a dish or restaurant, then you must be channeling Anthony Bourdain. So for that I subtract one star….and maybe another half-star for the lack of any reference to gelato.

And now for the music part – I saw Billy Joel sing this in concert when I was a poor student in the 70’s – back when Italian food was a plate of homemade lasagna and a bottle of Mateus.

“A bottle of white, a bottle of red
Perhaps a bottle of rose instead
We’ll get a table near the street
In our old familiar place
You and I -face to face

A bottle of red, a bottle of white
It all depends upon your appetite
I’ll meet you any time you want
In our Italian Restaurant”

The Literary Salon – Mary Higgins Clark R.I.P.

I did not include Mary Higgins Clark’s latest in my Books and Brownies round-up of the winter’s best reads, as while I enjoyed it, I detected a slight difference in style with this one.   I noted that she had dedicated it to the memory of her late husband (2018) and thanked her son who was with her every sentence of the way, which along with the six months delay (she usually publishes around Mother’s Day), I wrote off as being due to the inevitable life crises which sooner or later affect us all.   So I was surprised to see from an in-memoriam display at my local library that she had passed away on Jan 31 at the age of 92 of natural causes.   As she has blessed us with decades of good reading, this month’s literary salon will pay tribute to the original Queen of Suspense.  

Kiss the Girls and Make Them CryKiss the Girls and Make Them Cry by Mary Higgins Clark

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Her Highness delivers as usual, her latest and unfortunately her last.   R.I.P.

About the Author:     Mary Higgins Clark was born in 1927, of Irish descent.  Her family owned an Irish pub and was fairly prosperous but fell on hard times at the end of the Depression after her father died.   She worked as a secretary, copy editor and airline stewardess before marrying and having five children.   A gifted storyteller right from the start, she took writing classes at NYU, and started selling short stories to supplement the family income, and later turned to mysteries after being widowed in 1964 at a young age.    First published at 43, she had her first bestseller in 1975 with Where Are The Children,which she sold for the low price of $3000.   Six months later when the paperback rights went for $100,000, she quit her day job at an advertising agency and devoted herself to writing full time.   She sold her second book for $1.5 million and was at one time the highest paid female author in the country.   Her net worth is estimated at 140 million and over 100 million of her books are in print in the US alone, plus many international translations.   She has written 56 books, 38 of them suspense novels, four collections of short stories, a memoir (Kitchen Memoir), five books with her daughter Carol and six with Alafair Burke – the Under Suspicion series.   All I might add, with the same publishing company Simon and Schuster, and the same editor Michael Korda – here’s a link from S&S and for more on her story see Wikipedia link.   

Why I Read Her Books:    While the market today is saturated with psychological thrillers, for a long time Mary Higgins Clark was the designated Queen of Suspense, and the only suspense novelist I read.   (I was never a fan of Agatha Christie).    She was popular, and while considered fluffy formula writing by some, her books were immensely readable and you were always guaranteed of a happy outcome.   Her main protagonist was usually an independent young woman no older than 35, and while there was often the suggestion of a romance, it was not the main course.   While suspenseful, there were no gory forensic reports or ambiguous or surprise endings – nor were her books so creepy that you went around double-checking the locks at night.   She was dependable – her books could be counted on for a good light read.   

I remember when Maeve Binchy died in 2012, and she was only 70.   When you are used to reading a favorite author every year, it can be upsetting to realize there will be No More Books!    Although Maeve’s husband continued to publish a few short stories which hadn’t seen the light of day and a biography, it just wasn’t the same as having a new novel to crack open.   I wonder if that will be the case with Mary Higgins Clark, (although having seen the final episode of last weeks PBS Sanditon mini-series, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s last unfinished manuscript, sometimes it’s better if things are left undone).   While I’ve read a few of her early short stories, including one about her experience as a Pan-Am stewardess dealing with a stowaway on board, I’ve never read any of her earlier books including Where Are The Children or A Stranger is Watching, so these will have to do next summer when I need a M.H.Clark fix at the beach.             

What does it take to produce an annual bestseller like that?    Maybe it came easy to her, (Danielle Steele once said she could knock off a manuscript in a weekend), in which case she was lucky, but I suspect it took a fair degree of dedication and determination and a lot of hard work and  perseverance.   As she aged into her 80’s, it amazed me that she was still churning them out – her books stayed up to date, with cell phones/gadgets and modern settings and plots.   Her last book concerned the #metoo movement, and another, a murder at the famous MET gala costume ball.   She had a passion for writing and a zest for living until the very end.    Maybe that’s what everyone needs when they get older – a reason to keep on going.    I hope she is up there in the big library-in-the-sky (which is how I like to think of the afterlife for book lovers), resting in peace and reading her heart out….and maybe sending some gentle plot suggestions to a few of us earthlings looking for guidance.              

 

   

Books and Brownies

It’s winter – prime reading season, so time for a round up of some of the best books I’ve read over the past few months.  These are best savored with a cup of tea and a brownie…or two…..the kind with lots of icing.

Brownies

As I’m trying to practice an economy of words these days, I have condensed the summaries.   Click on the link for the full publishers blurb.    The list is in descending order of greatness. 

The Family UpstairsThe Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A page-turning jewel of a book, her best yet.

Libby Jones receives a letter from a lawyer on her 25th birthday,  telling her the identity of her birth parents and also that she is the sole inheritor of an abandoned mansion in one of London’s fashionable neighborhoods.  Young and struggling, everything in her life is about to change.   But others have been waiting for this day too.   Twenty-five years ago, police were called to the house with reports of a baby crying.   When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib.  Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note, and the four other children reported to live there were gone.

Think your family is dysfunctional?   After reading a Lisa Jewell novel they might seem quite normal by comparison.   I find many of her books disturbing in a creepy psychological way – but this is the most bizarre yet.   There’s definitely an art to weaving a story like that, and she’s mastered it in her latest.        

Someone We Know

Someone We Know by Shari Lapena

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

                                                                                                                   

                                                                                                                     

“This is a very difficult letter to write. I hope you will not hate us too much. . . My son broke into your home recently while you were out.”   In a quiet, leafy suburb in upstate New York, a teenager has been sneaking into houses–and into the owners’ computers as well–learning their secrets, and maybe sharing some of them, too.   Who is he, and what might he have uncovered? After two anonymous letters are received, whispers start to circulate, and suspicion mounts. And when a woman down the street is found murdered, the tension reaches the breaking point. Who killed her? Who knows more than they’re telling? And how far will all these very nice people go to protect their own secrets?

While this is obviously one of those you can’t trust anybody tales, Shari Lapena takes a simple premise, a snooping teenage hacker, and gives it enough twists and turns to make it an entertaining ride.   Having read all of her previous bestsellers (An Unwanted Guest, A Stranger in the House, and The Couple Next Door, I expected this to be good, and it was.   She used to be  a Toronto lawyer – I hope she never returns to practicing law.  

If You Knew HerIf You Knew Her by Emily Elgar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Emily Edgar is a new author and I hope this is the first of many.

                                                                                                                         

The perfect life, or the perfect lie?   Cassie had it all – the fairytale wedding, the stunning home, the perfect husband. But when she arrives on the intensive care ward in a coma it soon becomes clear that she has a secret.   Alice, the chief nurse on the ward begins to feel a connection with Cassie and can’t help but wonder if things are not quite as they seem.  Frank, another patient, can hear and see everything around him but cannot communicate. He understands that Cassie’s life is in danger and only he holds the truth, which no one can know and he cannot tell.

A first time author, Emily Elgar has another one coming out in 2020, Grace is Gone.  She wrote this book after taking a novel-writing course at the Faber Academy UK in 2014.   I enjoyed the medical background, although I did guess the ending.   Still, A for effort and for getting published in 37 countries.  A very auspicious beginning – I enjoyed it so much I ordered her new one.  

Grace is GoneGrace is Gone by Emily Elgar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Meg and her daughter Grace are the most beloved family in Ashford, so when Meg is found brutally murdered and her daughter Grace missing, the town is rocked by the tragedy.   Who would kidnap a sick teenager? Who would murder a mother who sacrificed everything?    As the community come to terms with what’s happened, an unlikely pair start searching for answers: Jon, the most hated journalist in Ashford and Cara, the young woman who found Meg’s body. But once they start digging into the past, they will soon realize there’s no going back.

Her second book is even better, much more layered and complex.  In the jacket photo she looks about twelve, but is married and just had a baby so she must be older.   I hope she finds a good babysitter and continues to write.      

I’m wondering why all these psychological thrillers only have three or four words in the title?    I guess they’re trying to sum up the book in the fewest words possible.  

The Shape of FamilyThe Shape of Family by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From the international bestselling author of Secret Daughter and The Golden Son comes a poignant, unforgettable novel about an intercultural couple facing a family crisis.   Jaya, the cultured daughter of an Indian diplomat and Keith, an ambitious banker from middle-class Philadelphia, meet in a London pub in 1988 and make a life together in suburban California. Their strong marriage is built on shared beliefs and love for their two children: headstrong teenager Karina and young son Prem, the light of their home.    But love and prosperity cannot protect them from sudden, unspeakable tragedy, and the family’s foundation cracks as each member struggles to seek a way forward. Jaya finds solace in spirituality. Keith wagers on his high-powered career. Karina focuses relentlessly on her future and independence. And Prem watches helplessly as his once close-knit family drifts apart.

A family drama about an intercultural couple, and while it might sound predictable, it’s not.   It’s also immensely readable.

The GuardiansThe Guardians by John Grisham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the small north Florida town of Seabrook, a young lawyer named Keith Russo was shot dead at his desk as he worked late one night. The killer left no clues behind. There were no witnesses, no real suspects, no one with a motive. The police soon settled on Quincy Miller, a young black man who was once a client of Russo’s.  Quincy was framed, convicted, and sent to prison for life. For twenty-two years he languished in prison with no lawyer, no advocate on the outside. Then he wrote a letter to Guardian Ministries, a small innocence group founded by a lawyer/minister named Cullen Post.   Guardian handles only a few innocence cases at a time, and Post is its only investigator. He travels the South fighting wrongful convictions and taking cases no one else will touch. With Quincy Miller, though, he gets far more than he bargained for.

One of his better legal thrillers, but his books often make me wonder about  the US justice system, especially in small sleepy southern towns. 

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
How did Fidel Castro fool the CIA for a generation? Why did Neville Chamberlain think he could trust Adolf Hitler? Why are campus sexual assaults on the rise? Do television sitcoms teach us something about the way we relate to each other that isn’t true?   Gladwell also revisits the deceptions of Bernie Madoff, the trial of Amanda Knox, and the suicide of Sylvia Plath.   While tackling all these questions, Malcolm Gladwell (The Tippling Point, Outliers), discusses the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don’t know. And because we don’t know how to talk to strangers, we are inviting conflict and misunderstanding in ways that have a profound effect on our lives and our world.

This book was such a mish-mash of seemingly unrelated chapters, including the bizarre one on Sylvia Plath, that I was left wondering – what was the point of it all.   Unlike his previous books (Outliers, The Tipping Point), it didn’t seem to have a cohesive theme.    I’m not sure what the type of gas stove sold in Britain in the 1960’s has to to with talking to strangers, but maybe anything related to Sylvia Plath sells.   Why not a chapter about Jane Austen’s romances, or a Bookshop in Paris?  (All references guaranteed to sell a book no matter what).   While it could have used more editing, it was an interesting read anyway, and helped to pass the time (6 hours) in the ER dept with a sick family member.   Sometimes that’s the best thing about a good non-fiction book –  you can read a chapter here or there, no need to stay up late to see what happens next.   

I hope you have enjoyed my winter selections, but you’re on your own for the brownies!   Have you read any good books lately?     (1500 words – most of them not mine)

  

The Literary Salon – The Man Who Invented Christmas

A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite books of all time.   I love it for it’s perfect plot, it’s memorable characters and it’s simple message of hope and redemption.  If you want to know the story behind the writing of this Christmas classic then this months Literary Salon selection may be for you.    

The Man Who Invented Christmas Book

I first wrote about Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol in a Dec 2017 blog where there is a link to the 68 page handwritten manuscript on view each year at the Morgan Library in New York.   It’s interesting to see how many revisions he made to the original.   Can you imagine Tiny Tim being called Tiny Fred?  This year it is open to the page with the famous description of the foggy London street and the introduction of Scrooge in his counting-house.   

Last year I blogged about A Christmas Carol as Applied to Modern Life as it struck me how many of the descriptions and themes are still applicable today.   

But back to how the story came about, for don’t we always want to know where other writers get their muse.   

The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday SpiritsThe Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The ultimate Christmas gift for the Dickens fan, this little book makes a great stocking stuffer!

The Publisher’s Blurb:   

As uplifting as the tale of Scrooge itself, this is the story of how one writer and one book revived the signal holiday of the Western world.   Just before Christmas in 1843, a debt-ridden and dispirited Charles Dickens wrote a small book he hoped would keep his creditors at bay. His publisher turned it down, so Dickens used what little money he had to put out A Christmas Carol himself. He worried it might be the end of his career as a novelist.  The book immediately caused a sensation. And it breathed new life into a holiday that had fallen into disfavor, undermined by lingering Puritanism and the cold modernity of the Industrial Revolution. It was a harsh and dreary age, in desperate need of spiritual renewal, ready to embrace a book that ended with blessings for one and all.   With warmth, wit, and an infusion of Christmas cheer, Les Standiford whisks us back to Victorian England, its most beloved storyteller, and the birth of the Christmas we know best. The Man Who Invented Christmas is a rich and satisfying read for Scrooges and sentimentalists alike.

Why I Liked It:   

I first read Dickens in the summer of 67 when the musical Oliver came out, and believe me, at the age of eleven it was a struggle.   He was so wordy if I hadn’t already known the plot from the movie it’s unlikely I would ever have attempted it, but I was madly in love with my first crush, the Artful Dodger (as played by Jack Wild who sadly later died from throat cancer) and so I persisted.    I fared better in high school when I enjoyed reading A Tale of Two Cities for a book report.   A Christmas Carol is a mere novella in comparison, at barely a hundred pages.   Of course it helps that we have seen movie versions and theatrical performances of it too.    It’s such an accepted part of the Christmas culture that we seldom think about what inspired it? 

The Man Who Invented Christmas delves into how the book came to be written, including even the smallest of details like the name Ebenezer Scrooge.   As well, Dickens was writing from his childhood experience of poverty as his father was frequently in debtor’s prison and he was made to work in a blacking factory at a young age to support the family.   The book also provides some background context to the times, such as Tiny Tim likely suffered from rickets, a common medical condition in industrial London where smog frequently blocked sunlight and vitamins had yet to be invented.  While I was familiar with much of the discussion in this book, having read Jane Smiley’s excellent (link) biography of Charles Dickens, two things stood out. 

The first is the absolute genius of the plot.    I can picture Dickens walking the foggy streets of London, late at night, planning it all out.   Normally he would write and publish in installments, (a feat in itself leaving no room for revision), but this was to be a complete book, and for something he dashed off in a mere six weeks, writing in a manic frenzy until it was just perfect, it is a work of pure genius. 

The second thing is Dickens knew when he was writing it, that it was good and possibly had the makings of greatness, although he could not have foreseen it’s enduring power, and as he mentioned in several of his letters he was quite obsessed with the process.   What a wonderfully satisfying thing to be pleased with what you have written, and then to find out other people like it too.  Isn’t that something we all aspire too?   The reviews were all positive, glowing in fact.   It never went out of print.  

Les Standiford’s book is a fascinating peek behind the scenes into the mind of a creative genius and well worth a read, especially for fans of Dickens.    

Postscript:   Skip the movie by the same name and read the book instead.  What the Dickens kind of miscasting was that?   Dan Stevens will be forever known as Mathew Crawley on Downton Abbey.   Any suggestions for who could play Dickens well? 

      

The Literary Salon – A Modern Gothic Mystery

“It’s a dark and stormy night….the November winds are howling around the house as the last of the leaves go scurrying across the yard.   Inside, all is silent except for the sound of sleet pinging against the window.   It will be snow tomorrow.”      

Thus reads my journal entry for last weekend.   We had eight inches of snow on Monday, Veteran’s Day, a record for this early in the season.   It was the perfect day to snuggle inside and read a good book, preferably one with lots of atmosphere.

Gothic mystery is heavy on atmosphere – there’s always a haunted house with a dark history, a slightly sinister caretaker, an unexplained murder or two and some ghostly phenomena to set the proper tone of creepy ambiance.  Add in a determined but solitary heroine who confronts terror head on, and a dash of potential romance with a male of the strong and silent type, and the genre is complete.    Dauphne du Mauier’s Rebecca, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights set the bar high for this standard.    But if you want a modern update on the Gothic mystery then Ruth Ware’s latest book, The Turn of the Key, provides a modern twist – a haunted house with Smart technology set on the windswept Scottish moors…but maybe it’s not a good idea to be too Smart. 

The Turn of the Key - Ruth WareThe Publishers Blurb:

When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the unraveling events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the cameras installed around the house, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman, Jack Grant. It was everything.

She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder. Which means someone else is.

About the Author:
Ruth Ware is an international number one bestseller. Her thrillers In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10, The Lying Game and The Death of Mrs Westaway were smash hits, and she has appeared on bestseller lists around the world, including the Sunday Times and New York Times. Her books have been optioned for both film and TV, and she is published in more than 40 languages. Ruth lives near Brighton with her family. Visit http://www.ruthware.com to find out more.
Why I Liked It:

This is the third Ruth Ware book I have read, and by far her best.   I blogged about The Death of Mrs. Westaway in last years post A Gothic Read for Halloween.   While I enjoyed that book, it took over a hundred pages to establish the protagonist as young, poor and alone, although she did an excellent job of describing what it’s like to live never knowing where your next meal is coming from.   While The Woman in Cabin Ten was more of a psychological thriller, her last two books rely on the haunted mansion theme to supply the needed atmosphere.   Her first book, In a Dark Dark Wood, was my least favorite but they were all good reads.   I do love it when I discover a new author and find she churns out a new book every year that I know in advance will be good.    So often I pick up a promising thriller in the library, start into it and then abandon it from sheer boredom.      

The Turn of the Key is told in first person, which is not my favorite, being so limited in scope, but somehow it works.  The young protagonist isn’t even all that likable, as many of her heroines aren’t, and they’re not always the brightest either.    If someone offered you a nanny position with high pay, but you knew the four previous nannies had quit, would you take it on?   You would if you were poor and struggling….and had another reason.     Scotland seems a popular locale for books these days but there isn’t even that much about it in the book.   At the center is the house with its modern Smart technology – the owners are IT/tech specialists who travel extensively (thus the need for the nanny), so the house is equipped with all the bells and whistles to control everything from lighting to music to locks.    Well, someone is controlling it….   

The annual hospital lottery Dream Home in my neck of the woods is equipped with all the latest technology, and although I intend to buy a ticket I’m not sure I would want to live in such a place.   It creeps me out knowing that Smart TVs and Alexa are listening in on our conversations, but perhaps I am too old-fashioned and you grow used to all these modern devices and wonder how you ever lived without them.   I’ve noticed that many of the protagonists in her books tend to have a wee bit of a drinking problem.   This is a plot device which started with The Girl on the Train but the fuzzy alcoholic memory thing has been overdone IMO.    Or perhaps it is just a reflection of the popularity of binge drinking among young women.   I don’t know, we never had the money or the inclination for that type of recreation.   (Note – the protagonist in The Woman in Cabin Ten is drunk throughout the whole cruise).    Other than that small criticism, the plot here is nicely revealed and the ending well done although perplexing in some ways.   Technology is great but it can sometimes make life more complicated.   Perhaps there’s something to be said for old haunted houses full of ghosts who aren’t too Smart….

Fairbanks mansion

The Literary Salon – Quiet – A Book for Introverts

One of the most common remarks that I read from bloggers on here, is that  she/he is an introvert.   Writers tend to be introverts, with a few exceptions, Hemingway being one, but then maybe he was just an extrovert when he’d had a few too many.   Writing requires introspection, and some peace and quiet.   Your mind be busy and your thoughts multiplying faster than you can get them down, but outwardly you are silent.   Although this book is not a new release (it was a best-seller in 2012 and won numerous awards), I thought it would be a good selection for this month’s literary salon, if only to provide food for thought as summer is winding down and our noisy busy lives resume.        

Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking – by Susan Cain  –  2012 

QuietBookCover

Publishers Blurb

“At least one-third of the people we know are introverts. They are the ones who prefer listening to speaking; who innovate and create but dislike self-promotion; who favor working on their own over working in teams. It is to introverts—Rosa Parks, Chopin, Dr. Seuss, Steve Wozniak—that we owe many of the great contributions to society.

In Quiet, Susan Cain argues that we dramatically undervalue introverts and shows how much we lose in doing so. She charts the rise of the Extrovert Ideal throughout the twentieth century and explores how deeply it has come to permeate our culture. She also introduces us to successful introverts–from a witty, high-octane public speaker who recharges in solitude after his talks, to a record-breaking salesman who quietly taps into the power of questions. Passionately argued, superbly researched, and filled with indelible stories of real people, Quiet has the power to permanently change how we see introverts and, equally important, how they see themselves.”
About the Author:

A self-proclaimed introvert, Susan Cain is an honors graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School and spent seven years working in corporate law for prestigious clients, then worked as a negotiations consultant before quitting to become a writer.   In addition to her two best-sellers (Quiet 2012 and Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts 2016), her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications, and her TED talk on the same theme has been viewed over 23 million times.  She is co-founder of the Quiet Schools Network and The Quiet Leadership Institute.    All in all, a very impressive resume – it tired me out just reading about all her accomplishments, and this is just the shortened version – although she attributes all she has achieved to being an introvert.  I did note that it took her seven years to research and write the book.  

My Goodreads Review:

 

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As an introvert, I really enjoyed this book, especially the last chapter which was addressed to schools and teachers, but then I was the child whose otherwise stellar report card always included the derogatory comment, “Joni fails to participate in class.”  Vindicated – Introverts now Rule!

Why I Liked The Book:    (see review above) 

It’s been so long since I read this book that I can’t remember specific details about it, but it made me feel that introverts were finally being heard and valued for the first time, in a world which basically worships extroverts.  Most of our public leaders, CEOs and politicians are extroverts – anyone who can talk a good game is often successful, justified or not, in a world which often values style over substance.    These are the people who take up all the space in the room, grab all the attention and never lack for anything to say.    But do they ever stop to listen?   Introverts tend to be the best listeners, and often make the best bosses because they listen, ask questions and weigh all the factors before they decide or speak.  They tend to observe and remember things about others, and usually make great conversationalists, a rare trait in this all-about-me world.    They are often creative souls as creativity requires solitude.    Introverts are generally undervalued in today’s society, so I enjoyed reading a book which pointed all that out and felt a certain degree of vindication.  (Not to knock extroverts though, parties would be dull without them!)    Here’s a Wikipedia link with a breakdown of the chapters and principles involved.

Introverts would much  rather stay home and read a good book than go out to a social event, but usually enjoy themselves when they do.   The would rather have a good conversation with one person, than many superficial ones at a crowded party.   They enjoy their own company, and like being with others,  but usually need alone time after socializing, in order to recharge.  

I’ve always been a quiet person, a result of genes, being a middle child and growing up in a fairly isolated rural environment.    I was a quiet kid who turned into a quiet adult.  I might have gone into journalism as I love a good story, only I and others (like the high school guidance counselor) thought I was too quiet.   (But then they ruined my plan of being a girl detective too!)    

I was a details person, as quiet people often are, and was well suited to my career where for decades I had a comfortable level of interaction with people.   Working forced me to become more extroverted, and I was good at it, (no one would know as I can talk for hours if I have to, it’s an Irish thing), but it can be exhausting being an introvert in many jobs today.    Like many work places, mine was eventually subject to downsizing, staff cuts and quotas and my enjoyable job turned into a stressful one, where I was under constant pressure and seeing way too many people – as those Facebook memes say, it was too peoply out there.   I like people, in small doses, but after a day of people in big doses I would come home so overstimulated and drained it would take hours to decompress.   I needed lots of down time.  (I suppose if you are an extrovert who works at home all day you might want to go out at night and see people, but I have to wonder if the author’s change of careers was precipitated by her marriage and raising young children – those little cling-ons require lots of energy).   Plus there is a level of rudeness and impatience in society today which was not there in my earlier working years.  So if you ask me what I miss about not working, it’s the people, (most of them quite wonderful), but then again, it’s not.    If you’re an introvert, you’ll know what I mean. 

Introverts often have an easier time with retirement, as they are used to spending time alone, content in their own company and many retirement activities – gardening, reading, painting, are solitary pursuits.   I guess if you are an extrovert you fill your schedule with volunteering or run for public office or travel the world on bus tours.   While no one wants to be lonely or turn into a hermit, it’s nice to have a balance between the two which is consistent with your level of introversion or extroversion whatever it might be.   (People who fall near the middle of the spectrum are called ambiverts). 

Do they still make kids do public speaking in school?  It was always a dreaded activity for me.   Oh, I could write the speech, but my voice is soft and I can’t hear you would be the usual comment.   Introverts do not like being the centre of attention, hence the dislike of public speaking – hard to avoid unless your speech is so boring the audience falls asleep!    I would hope that teachers are better trained now to value introverts as well as extroverts.   As for those report card comments, it was always the word – “failed” which bothered me.  As if failure to raise your hand and participate was a crime, instead of merely being the innate personality trait it is, belonging to that of a quiet soul.       

PS.  As this is an older book, libraries may have a copy.   It’s a fairly long but interesting read, but if you lack the time, here’s a link to the author’s TED talk.

Upon re-watching the TED talk again (20 minutes), I highly recommend it – some very excellent points, especially about solitude and creativity.    I especially liked that it opened with the author talking about social activity in her family being everyone all together in their comfortable corners, reading their books.   Obviously she grew up in a family of introverts, but her talk/book also has an important message for extroverts trying to understand their introvert spouses (opposites attract!) and children.    

 

 

 

 

 

The Literary Salon – Beach Books Summer 2019

Beach umbrella

What makes a great beach book – any book with summer in the title.   Here’s my summer reading list (four read, two to go), and although only two of my selections qualify with respect to the title, they are all beach-worthy in one way or another.   

First place, as always, goes to Elin Hilderbrand’s annual summer release, Summer of 69.  

Summer of 69

Publisher’s Blurb:  Follow New York Times bestselling author Elin Hilderbrand back in time and join a Nantucket family as they experience the drama, intrigue, and upheaval of a 1960s summer.   Welcome to the most tumultuous summer of the twentieth century. It’s 1969, and for the Levin family, the times they are a-changing. Every year the children have looked forward to spending the summer at their grandmother’s historic home in downtown Nantucket. But like so much else in America, nothing is the same: Blair, the oldest sister, is marooned in Boston, pregnant with twins and unable to travel. Middle sister Kirby, caught up in the thrilling vortex of civil rights protests and determined to be independent, takes a summer job on Martha’s Vineyard. Only-son Tiger is an infantry soldier, recently deployed to Vietnam. Thirteen-year-old Jessie suddenly feels like an only child, marooned in the house with her out-of-touch grandmother and her worried mother, each of them hiding a troubling secret. As the summer heats up, Ted Kennedy sinks a car in Chappaquiddick, man flies to the moon, and Jessie and her family experience their own dramatic upheavals along with the rest of the country.   In her first “historical novel,” rich with the details of an era that shaped both a country and an island thirty miles out to sea, Elin Hilderbrand once again proves her title as queen of the summer novel.

Why I liked it:    Her usual fare, but anyone who lived through the summer of 1969 (sorry millennials), will find this book especially appealing.   I was the same age as Jesse the youngest of the siblings, so I could really relate to the story line, the fashions and the music.    I especially liked how she incorporated songs of the era as chapter titles. 

“For What It’s Worth” I think we had better songs back then.   I’d like to “Get Back” to that year on “A Magic Carpet Ride” as “Those Were the Days” my friend.   I was a “Young Girl” in ’69, a year when “Everybody’s Talking” about “Fly Me To The Moon”, that distant orb in the sky which was “A Whiter Shade of Pale”.    It was the “Time of the Season” for love and as we were “Born to be Wild” we were full of “Midnight Confessions”.   We didn’t need “Help” from “Mother’s Little Helper” or “White Rabbits” or have the “Summertime Blues” as it was a time of peace and hope.   For all it’s protests it was also a time of optimistic change, as politically “Everyday People” who had “Heard It Through The Grapevine” (as opposed to CNN or Fox), did not have “Suspicious Minds” and could look at issues “From Both Sides Now”.    Perhaps, “Someday We’ll Be Together” again, hopefully “More Today than Yesterday.”     Whew – I got them all in!   (How many do you remember?)

Instead of flying to the moon, let’s fly to Paris – One Summer in Paris – by Sarah Morgan

One Summer in Paris

Publishers Blurb:  To celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Grace has planned the surprise of a lifetime for her husband—a romantic getaway to Paris. But she never expected he’d have a surprise of his own: he wants a divorce. Reeling from the shock but refusing to be broken, a devastated Grace makes the bold decision to go to Paris alone.  Audrey, a young woman from London, has left behind a heartache of her own when she arrives in Paris. A job in a bookshop is her ticket to freedom, but with no money and no knowledge of the French language, suddenly a summer spent wandering the cobbled streets alone seems much more likely…until she meets Grace, and everything changes.   Grace can’t believe how daring Audrey is. Audrey can’t believe how cautious newly single Grace is.  Living in neighboring apartments above the bookshop, this unlikely pair offer each other just what they’ve both been missing. They came to Paris to find themselves, but finding this unbreakable friendship might be the best thing that’s ever happened to them…

Why I liked it:   I’m not a big fan of romance fiction, but was attracted by the title and the book jacket.    I’ve never been to Paris, the story line sounded promising and it had a bookstore in it.   Basically this book was pure fluff, albeit readable fluff.   I don’t think I’ll be reading anything more by this author, as she is traditionally a romance writer and it was a bit too predictable for me.   Plus there was actually very little about Paris or the bookstore in it, which just goes to show how we can get sucked in by marketing.     (I swear if I ever write my murder mystery I’m going to call it Murder at the Paris Bookshop even though it’s set in another country – guaranteed sales – but perhaps that title has already been taken?)    

Did I mention I’m a sucker for any title with a bookstore in it, so No. 3 is The Bookstore on the Corner – by Jenny Colgan.   

The Bookshop on the Corner

Publishers Blurb:   Nina Redmond is a literary matchmaker. Pairing a reader with that perfect book is her passion… and also her job. Or at least it was. Until yesterday, she was a librarian in the hectic city. But now the job she loved is no more.  Determined to make a new life for herself, Nina moves to a sleepy village many miles away. There she buys a van and transforms it into a bookmobile—a mobile bookshop that she drives from neighborhood to neighborhood, changing one life after another with the power of storytelling From helping her grumpy landlord deliver a lamb, to sharing picnics with a charming train conductor who serenades her with poetry, Nina discovers there’s plenty of adventure, magic, and soul in a place that’s beginning to feel like home… a place where she just might be able to write her own happy ending.

Why I liked it:    I haven’t read it yet, but with a bookstore, how could it fail?  (I’m reserving judgement, see above).   (Edited to add:  Two chapters in and I’m loving this book – the main character, the humorous style of writing, the Scottish locale, it’s simply charming, and there are actual books in it!)  (Note after finishing:  I’m quite disappointed – two thirds of the way through this book turned into a Hallmark movie.   It was all down hill after the scene with Mr. Darcy wearing a kilt and carrying an injured lamb…..well those were actually two separate scenes but you get the drift….really I m much too old for this romance stuff.  Where is Jane Austen when you need her!)   

It’s summer concert season.   Let’s go back in time again, this time to the 70’s.  Based loosely on the rock group Fleetwood Mac, Daisy Jones and the Six – by Taylor Jenkins Reid was a selection of Reese Witherspoon’s book club.    I can already see the movie being made….now who will play the lead singers?

Daisy Jones and The Six

Publisher’s Blurb:  Everyone knows Daisy Jones & The Six, but nobody knows the reason behind their split at the absolute height of their popularity . . . until now.
Daisy is a girl coming of age in L.A. in the late sixties, sneaking into clubs on the Sunset Strip, sleeping with rock stars, and dreaming of singing at the Whisky a Go Go. The sex and drugs are thrilling, but it’s the rock and roll she loves most. By the time she’s twenty, her voice is getting noticed, and she has the kind of heedless beauty that makes people do crazy things.  Also getting noticed is The Six, a band led by the brooding Billy Dunne. On the eve of their first tour, his girlfriend Camila finds out she’s pregnant, and with the pressure of impending fatherhood and fame, Billy goes a little wild on the road.   Daisy and Billy cross paths when a producer realizes that the key to supercharged success is to put the two together. What happens next will become the stuff of legend.   The making of that legend is chronicled in this riveting and unforgettable novel, written as an oral history of one of the biggest bands of the seventies. Taylor Jenkins Reid is a talented writer who takes her work to a new level with Daisy Jones & The Six, brilliantly capturing a place and time in an utterly distinctive voice.

Why I liked it:  Despite it’s great reviews I wasn’t sure I was going to like this book.   It wasn’t a subject matter that interested me, as I attended a Catholic high school and my recollection of the 70’s was not exactly sex, drugs and rock and roll.    But I ended up loving it – and it’s definitely one of the most memorable books I’ve read this year.  Basically it’s a love story, but not your typical one.   I even liked the unique interview format a la Rolling Stone, which surprisingly readable.  The book is pure fiction but the characters seemed so real that several younger reviewers on Goodreads believed it was a memoir about a real band.   Someone really needs to set those lyrics at the end to music.

Enough of the retro, here’s a psychological thriller to keep you in suspense during those nights when it’s too hot to sleep – The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

The Silent Patient

Publishers Blurb:  Alicia Berenson’s life is seemingly perfect. A famous painter married to an in-demand fashion photographer, she lives in a grand house with big windows overlooking a park in one of London’s most desirable areas. One evening her husband Gabriel returns home late from a fashion shoot, and Alicia shoots him five times in the face, and then never speaks another word.   Alicia’s refusal to talk, or give any kind of explanation, turns a domestic tragedy into something far grander, a mystery that captures the public imagination and casts Alicia into notoriety. The price of her art skyrockets, and she, the silent patient, is hidden away from the tabloids and spotlight at the Grove, a secure forensic unit in North London.   Theo Faber is a criminal psychotherapist who has waited a long time for the opportunity to work with Alicia. His determination to get her to talk and unravel the mystery of why she shot her husband takes him down a twisting path into his own motivations—a search for the truth that threatens to consume him….

Why I liked it:   I don’t usually like first person narratives, especially by male protagonists,  but this was very well done and overall an excellent book for a first time novelist.    Never even saw the ending coming – I am in awe of the brilliance.  

And lastly, because even the best of summers have to come to an end and real life resumes, a family drama – After the End – by Clare MacIntosh.

After The End

Publisher’s Blurb:  Max and Pip are the strongest couple you know. They’re best friends, lovers—unshakable. But then their son gets sick and the doctors put the question of his survival into their hands. For the first time, Max and Pip can’t agree. They each want a different future for their son.   What if they could have both?  A gripping and propulsive exploration of love, marriage, parenthood, and the road not taken, After the End brings one unforgettable family from unimaginable loss to a surprising, satisfying, and redemptive ending and the life they are fated to find.

Why I liked it:   I haven’t read this one yet either.   I’m saving it for August, but it sounds like a departure from her usual crime suspense novels (I Let You Go, I See You).    We shall see….

There – a little something for everyone under the sun – Happy Reading!    

PS.   What are you reading this summer?

Beach pail