The Literary Salon: The Perfect Couple

Beach Book

We all know them – the perfect couple.  Or are they?   The Perfect Couple is the perfect book for Valentine’s Day, because who doesn’t like to read about relationships, perfect and otherwise.    At the very least, you can escape winter for a few hours  – just keep an eye out for any dead bodies washing up on shore!

The Publisher’s Blurb:

It’s Nantucket wedding season, also known as summer – the sight of a bride racing down Main Street is as common as the sun setting at Madaket Beach. The Otis-Winbury wedding promises to be an event to remember: the groom’s wealthy parents have spared no expense to host a lavish ceremony at their oceanfront estate.

But it’s going to be memorable for all the wrong reasons after tragedy strikes: a body is discovered in Nantucket Harbor just hours before the ceremony-and everyone in the wedding party is suddenly a suspect. As Chief of Police Ed Kapenash interviews the bride, the groom, the groom’s famous mystery-novelist mother, and even a member of his own family, he discovers that every wedding is a minefield-and no couple is perfect. Featuring beloved characters from The Castaways, Beautiful Day, and A Summer Affair, The Perfect Couple proves once again that Elin Hilderbrand is the queen of the summer beach read.

A bit about the Author:

Elin Hilderbrand is a graduate of The Johns Hopkins University and the Iowa Writers Workshop. She has lived on Nantucket for 25 years and is the mother of three teenagers.   The Perfect Couple is her twenty-first novel.

My Goodreads Review:

My Goodreads Review:The Perfect CoupleThe Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Perfect Beach Read. Her best book yet, the usual island fare with the added twist of a murder mystery. After a dead body is found floating in the water the morning of a fancy wedding all the guests and family members are suspects. Intricately plotted, the characters and descriptions are so real you will feel like you just spent a week on Nantucket. If you take this book to the beach you will not look up once it is so engrossing…..I could hardly put it down. I hope she does more murder mysteries…..looking forward to her new winter series.

Discussion:

The first book in my Literary Salon series – An Unwanted Guest – was a study in plot development, just how does one plot a murder mystery?   One of the reasons I chose this second book was for it’s characterizations.  If you have written 21 novels, how do you keep coming up with new characters?  Or are they just cookie-cutter people – change the job, name, appearance?   Her characters are usually flawed beings who make bad choices.  They drink a lot….like fish since we’re going with the water theme.   Sometimes they are so annoying and make such stupid decisions that you feel like abandoning them altogether.   You want the reader to like your characters or at least sympathize with them, not think they are fools.  (Note to self –  make my characters smarter and sober…..no vino for them).    

Elin Hilderbrand is the Queen of Beach Fluff, a genre that is often romance but usually just something lighthearted enough to take to the beach.    She comes out with a big fat beach novel every July, and often a short novella before Christmas.    While I have always enjoyed her books, I had grown a bit weary of the format.   The same old bed-hopping, drinking, even worse drinking while driving, piss-poor parents (her words) whose uncontrollable teenagers are doing the same thing – tale grows stale after awhile, and I admit the books wouldn’t be half as appealing if they weren’t set on the island of Nantucket.   (In much the same way I had tired of Joanna Trollope but her last novel, An Unsuitable Match, about a late in life marriage, was actually quite good – but that’s a whole other topic).    These books are fast food fiction, you already know what you are going to get.   There’s usually plenty of family dynamics and complicated romances all destined to work out (or not) in the end, because hey – it’s beach fluff.   But in this her latest book, you have all of the above, plus she has added a murder mystery and the book seems to have taken on a more serious tone.   She is older now and survived breast cancer in 2014.    I enjoyed the mystery aspect of it, and hope she does more in that vein.    I am currently reading the first of her new winter series, Winter in Paradise – see link, in which a wife loses her husband of 25 years in a helicopter crash in the US Virgin Islands, and finds out he had a whole other life on the island.   (not good – back to trashy again….five drinks on a boat cruise before 10am????)   In the jacket blurb the author says she vacations on St. John’s for five weeks every spring, so she can get big chunks of her writing done in privacy.  (maybe that’s my problem – I need to rent a Caribbean villa with turquoise views).   She does seem to like writing about islands, and the island lifestyle.   She’s certainly been a very successful author financially, and if the format works keep at it, but I can’t help but wish she would tone it down a bit.   But then I probably fall into this category, wherein, Tag the father in law, (who was having an affair with the maid of honor), describes the average reader of his wife’s books.         

‘Her fan base is nearly down to no one but the devoted cat ladies.  Tag is thinking about the devoted cat lady – tucked away in her Cotswold cottage fixing a cup of tea and preparing to spend a rainy afternoon in an armchair with a tabby spread across her lap as she cracks open the latest exotically located Greer Garson mystery.’

In his view, this is a dull life, but it sounds appealing to me and I don’t even own a cat.   But then I am older and her books are pretty much the only romance genre I read.   Although she is a good storyteller, I sometimes find her books are just too trashy.   I would love to see what she does with a theme and characters a little less shallow….and a little less preoccupied with booze and infidelity.   That may seem like an odd thing to criticize as we read escapist fiction to escape, but she is such a good writer that I wish she would tackle some more important stuff, like Jodi Picoult does.   Despite that, The Perfect Couple does have something to say about relationships, both old (how many long term couples stay together for financial reasons despite the affairs) and new, plus a riveting story-line.    If you grew up in the eighties with the Not-Married- Before-Thirty-Terrorist Theory of Love and rom.coms like When Harry Met Sally (doomed IMO, totally incompatible all that arguing) and Sleepless in Seattle (flying all the way across the country to meet someone whose voice you liked on the radio?) then love at first sight may seem perfectly plausible – but do the couple at the end of the book stand a chance?  What do they know about each other?  Yes, there are red flags, but isn’t it all unpredictable anyway – fate is fickle.    Success in love and marriage happens for some people and not others, but hopefully you don’t drown in the process.

Quote of the Day:    “Remember that sometimes not getting what you want, is a wonderful stroke of luck.”   (Dali Lama)  

Song of the Day:  Makin’ Whoopee – because the lyrics are fun

 

Downton Abbey Revisited

Downton Abbey

‘Village for sale in Yorkshire – property includes a great house with 43 low rent cottages,’ said the ad on the internet.   For only 28 million pounds you could have your very own Downton Abbey, complete with a butler saying, “Welcome to Downton” or whatever you wished to call your estate.  Downtown Abbey

I was late to the British Television drama Downton Abbey, having binge-watched five seasons over the winter of 2015, when it’s ending was already rumoured.   Forty some episodes later, I was addicted, and could see why it was watched by over 100 million people in 200 countries and considered the best drama series ever.   I had heard people talking about the show and had even tried watching a bit here and there but there were so many characters and relationships to keep straight.   The librarian suggested the only solution was to go back to the beginning, so I did.   It helped make a long snowy winter pass pleasantly, as I spend it in balmy Britain in the early part of the twentieth century.   Recently our local Public Television station has been airing the re-runs, which inspired me to revisit the world of Downton and make some observations, focusing on the fun, food, and fashions.

As a history lover, I found the era of the show fascinating, as it was a time of much change and innovation in the world, which is one of the reasons that producer Julian Fellowes chose it for his period drama.    He starts his saga in 1912 with the fateful sinking of the Titanic (and the death of the Downton heir apparent), and subsequently covers WW1 and the 1920’s, all the while working many of the decades most famous innovations into the script – cars, electricity, telephones, early airplane travel, listening to the king’s speech on the wireless/radio plus household appliances like refrigerators, toasters, mixers, sewing machines, typewriters, curling tongs and hair dryers as well as covering changes in women’s fashions, hairstyles and roles.   Looking back, Downton is a strange world in many ways, one many of us may find hard to relate to, especially if you are not British and your only exposure to the aristocracy is a picture of the Queen on your Canadian money.   The show is interesting because it depicts the rigid class structure of the time, the wide gulf  between the social classes and the upstairs downstairs aspect of running a great house, as well as the developing increase in the middle class and the importance of education.  Of course, we would all like to have lived such a life of leisure, and never have to worry about cleaning the house, making supper or childcare – there were nannies for that.   It was an envious lifestyle in many ways, even if they did tend to spend very little time with their children – an hour after tea time, but as the Countess Dowager exclaimed, it was an hour every day!

The Food

While some things would have been lovely, such as having a breakfast tray brought to you in bed, (only for married women, spinsters like Edith were expected to show up at the table) and having an elegant five course meal prepared for you every night, other things like being a slave to the 7 pm gong (dinner at eight seems way too late), and eating in the formal dining room in your best clothes in the presence of the butler and footmen, would have seemed very rigid on a regular basis.   (No sneaking leftover pizza in the kitchen of that household.)   Could you eat when someone was standing there like a statue, pretending not to watch you  or listen to the conversation whilst being ready should you require any attention.  It might be a tad uncomfortable, but maybe preferable to trying to flag down a waitress to bring you a coffee refill.    There was always conversation over dinner, and after they “went through” to the living room, more conversation.   So different from today when so many people dine with their cell phones instead of their companions.  

Downton Abbey

One would think they were a family of anorexic alcoholics from the dining room scenes.   While they served themselves from the platters proffered by the footmen, there never seemed to be much food on their plates, (especially the deserts, and I watched!) which might explain why they were so thin.    They tended to savour small exquisite portions – certainly no supersized meals there. 

Strawberry Trifle

Strawberry English Trifle

And the wine, so many different ones for each courses, but as Carson said, they usually only take a sip.   What a waste of good wine, why not just open one bottle for the meal, and be done with it.    The china and crystal were lovely however – why don’t we use the good china anymore.   It’s so much more elegant – as long as you don’t have to wash the dishes, and why did they never ever show anyone washing all those dishes night after night?Teacups

And the tea – so many cups poured, so few sips taken…but such pretty teacups.  But no scones or treats?   It’s a long way until supper  – ah yes, the crumbs and calories.  Teacups are elegant, but they hold 4 oz at most, and when I want a cup of tea, I want a bracing hot mugful.   Recently I saw a lovely silver tea service at a thrift shop, but it would need polishing and I already own too many teapots I seldom use – no one entertains like that anymore, which is why it was in the thrift shop.     

Downton Abbey The Fashions

Oh, the clothes – that long elegant silhouette, nothing too clingy, or skin tight like today’s fashions with everything emphasized and/or overexposed.    I especially liked the flapper style when they entered the 1920’s, and all the jewelry and hair ornaments….and the hats, so many stylish hats, week after week.    Even their nightgowns and robes were feminine and elegant.Hat

 For a fashionista it was worth tuning in just for the clothes.  The show must have been a wardrobe persons dream job.   The colours and fabrics were exquisite too.   But did they really need a lady’s maid to help remove their jewelry and undress themselves before bed, like a bunch of toddlers?   I found this 1912 book The Chronicles of Downton Abbey, by Jessica Fellowes (Julian Fellowes niece) most interesting in explaining the jobs of the various household servants. Downton Abbey

There were chapters on each of the characters, as well as general historical information about the running of such an estate and depictions of common household items.   Downtown Abbey Part of the lady’s maid’s job was to maintain, mend and care for the clothing.   Sign me up – I hate doing laundry and despise that half hour of ironing every week.   Imagine having someone to pack and unpack for you when traveling – it would be pure bliss.   Downton Abbey

While women’s clothing can be delicate and in need of more care, the valet’s role was even more puzzling and seemed to consist of nothing more than brushing the dandruff off the shoulders of the men’s evening jackets and polishing their shoes.  But again, there was the packing and maintenance and plenty of rules for black tie,  white tie and tweeds.   In one of the early episodes, Lady Mary inadvertently insults one of the staff by commenting that he was only a footman, but a staff position in such a great house was a steady and respected job, guaranteed employment and a step-up for many in the village.

Jessica Fellows has published a number of these lavish hardcover coffee-table type books, including this earlier one, The World of Downton Abbey, 2011, with lots of behind the scenes photos.  Downton Abbey      Highclere Castle, where the filming takes place, is a real working estate, and the present day countess, Lady Fiona Carnarvon has published At Home at Highclere:  Entertaining at the Real Downton Abbey, which chronicles the food, menus and entertainment of four historic weekend house parties held at the estate from 1866 to 1936.   There seems to be no shortage of books about Downton as recently I ran across this book, Downton Abbey and Philosophy, edited by Adam Barkman and Robert Arp, with contributions by 22 writers, about such diverse topics as the War Years, Master and Servant and Lady Edith and the Trials of the Modern Woman, as well philosophical ventures into morality, manners and socialism. Downton Abbey

The Fun

What did they do for fun?  They seemed to read a lot of books – at least they are always opening and closing them, and wouldn’t it be splendid to have that red carpeted library, although many of the books look like dusty tombs.    The dinners and parties and dances look splendid, especially the waltzes and the jazz tunes on the phonograph.   The fox hunting and horse race scenes were gorgeously filmed as was the grouse hunting in the heather filled moors and the visit to the Scottish castle.   A life of privilege would certainly have its pluses, but would it be enough?   (see the philosophy book – finding the meaning of life in Downton Abbey).    I suppose you wouldn’t question it if that was all you knew, but I am reminded of Sybil’s remark after the war was over, when they had grown accustomed to having a purpose in life (in her case nursing).   Instead of going to dress fittings and endless teas and charity events she said she wanted to be tired at the end of the day, tired from doing useful work.  Well Darling Sybil, I’m sorry they killed you off in Season Three, but work is tiring, very tiring – try it for twenty years or so and let’s check back or let’s change places.   I think I could adapt to being a lady of leisure –  are there any British castles where they will let you sample the life of a lord and lady for a month?     Highclere Castle does host some daytime events and there are cottages you can rent overnight, which brings me back to that ad?    Anyone have an extra 28 million pounds they can spare?    Or if not, then anyone care for tea?   We can always pretend…..

The Cast

I know some people who stopped watching after Season 3 as they could not handle the deaths of two of the main characters, but apparently those two actors had specified they only wanted 3-year contracts.    Maybe they were afraid of being typecast, but having watched Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens in The Man Who Invented Christmas, well seriously – Mathew was all I could see.  The story-line of Downton Abbey really draws you in, it is multilayered with many characters.   The scenes are short for the most part, and the pace quick.   Having such an excellent cast of strong actors helps, they really inhabit their roles.    My least favourite characters were Mr. Bates (bad temper, shady past and way too old for Anna), Cora with her breathy baby-like voice and snobby ways, Shirley McClain as her American mother (horribly typecast), as was Miss Bunting (rude and much too short).   I’m glad they ended the show on a high note after six seasons, as I really couldn’t take Bates facing jail time yet again…..and Mary’s multiple suitors were no replacement for Mathew.   Although she did eventually chose one, none of them could ever measure up.Downtown Abbey

In some cases, (the pigs anyone?) they seemed to have run out of story-lines.  But I was very glad poor Edith was happy at last, and ranked higher socially than Lady Mary, (but then I was a middle child too).      Downton Abbey Epilogue:     There are rumors of a Downton Abbey movie swirling, with a tentative release date of Sept 2019, but I wish they had left them frozen in time at New Years 1926.    It ended perfectly, with all the story lines wrapped up nicely, so why run the risk of spoiling it – but then I may be convinced otherwise.   I’ll be watching…..I wonder if the movie theatres will be serving tea and scones?

The official movie trailer: 

 

 

The Literary Salon – An Unwanted Guest

An Unwanted Guest

This is the perfect book to curl up with by the fire, when the first big January snowstorm descends, perhaps with some mulled wine in hand to calm your nerves, for it is so well done you may feel like you have checked into the country inn yourself.     

The publishers  blurb:  When the storm hits, no one is getting away….

A remote lodge in upstate New York is the perfect getaway. . . until the bodies start piling up.  It’s winter in the Catskills and the weather outside is frightful. But Mitchell’s Inn is so delightful! The cozy lodge nestled deep in the woods is perfect for a relaxing–maybe even romantic–weekend away. The Inn boasts spacious old rooms with huge wood-burning fireplaces, a well-stocked wine cellar, and opportunities for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or just curling up with a book and someone you love. So when the weather takes a turn for the worse, and a blizzard cuts off the electricity–and all contact with the outside world–the guests settle in for the long haul. The power’s down but they’ve got candles, blankets, and wood–a genuine rustic experience! Soon, though, a body turns up–surely an accident. When a second body appears, they start to panic. Then they find a third body. Within the snowed-in paradise, something–or someone–is picking off the guests one by one. They can’t leave, and with no cell service, there’s no prospect of getting the police in until the weather loosens its icy grip. The weekend getaway has turned deadly. For some couples, it’s their first time away. For others, it will be their last. And there’s nothing they can do about it but huddle down and hope they can survive the storm.

A bit about the Author:

SHARI LAPENA  is the internationally bestselling author of The Couple Next Door and A Stranger in the House. She was a lawyer and an English teacher before turning her hand to fiction.
She lives in Toronto.

 

 

My Goodreads review:

An Unwanted GuestAn Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Best to save this book for a dark and stormy night in January when a sudden snowstorm has descended and you are safe by the fire with a hot toddy. Absolutely loved it, so creepy and suspenseful I went around and checked all the locks before bed. It’s a simple premise, probably done before, a group of strangers snowed in at a country inn with no outside communication, and one by one they get picked off – by an unwanted guest. Vivid descriptions of the inn and the weather, a twist turning plot, and solid characterizations all make for a great read. A well developed story, from a psychological point of view – how well does anyone really know anyone else……psychopaths dwell among us.

Some thoughts:

It’s a deceptively simple premise for a murder mystery, take a group of people, in this case eleven, nine guests and two staff, and confine them to a space, a la Murder on the Orient Express, so you know the murderer must be among them.    Although this book generally received good reviews there was some criticism that it was too similar to Agatha Christie’s, And Then There Were None, which I have not read, having only ever read her Orient Express book.   But as a famous author recently proclaimed in one of his podcasts, all possible ideas have been done before anyway, what makes a book different is the authors unique spin on it.    At 290 pages it is a slim book, with the author giving us just enough information about the guests in the first few chapters to enable us to differentiate between them…..and then slowly revealing more background. 

‘The large diamond glittered when she picked up her champagne glass, her eyes sparkled when she looked at her fiance.  Everything about her was shiny and bright.  She has a bright shiny life, Lauren thinks.  Then she directs her attention to the man to whom she is engaged.  What does she think of him?  She thinks he is someone who collects bright, shiny things.’

By the end of the book five of them are dead and I still had no idea who did it until the last couple of pages, although I was a bit let down as there was no dramatic climax, just a slow unraveling, and one clue which I found rather cliche.    Perhaps all the clues have been done before too.     

I always like to check out the authors background, and an English major with a law degree is a lethal combination –  grammar and details.   I hope she sells the movie rights because I’m already casting it in my head.    Her first novel was published in 2007, and her second, Happiness Economics, was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Medal of Humor in 2011.    Just how does one switch from writing humor to murder, but I suspect there is more money in murder mysteries.   This is her third mystery and best so far.   Her two previous books had simple plot ideas as well.    In the Couple Next Door, a couple is invited to dinner at the townhouse next door, but when the babysitter cancels at the last minute, they decide to go anyway and rig up the baby monitor and one of them goes home hourly to check, except when the evening is over, the baby is gone.   In A Stranger in the House, a newly married couple find they don’t know much about each other’s background at all.    As a Canadian writer she has a Canadian agent, and while not as well known as Claire MacIntosh or Ruth Ware, I think she is well on her way, and certainly an inspiration for those of us still struggling to find a plot.   How hard can it be to write such a simple thing…..it turns out very hard indeed.   

(See introduction to The Literary Salon link). 

Song of the Day:

 

A Christmas Carol as Applied to Modern Life

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol remains one of my favorite books and I try and read it at least once during the Christmas season.   It is a short book you can finish in a couple of nights, with a cup of tea when you are worn out from shopping, and it always reminds me of the true spirit of the season.   (see last years blog for the inspiration behind the book).     Although it was first published, with great fanfare, in 1843, more than 170 years ago, I was struck by how relevant the story is and how timeless the descriptions are even today in our modern world.   Dickens was always as a wordy fellow…but ah…the food, the fun, the family dynamics…

The Weather

Let’s begin, as the book does, with the weather….

Once upon a time — of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve — old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already — it had not been light all day” and a few pages later, “Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold.”

As I write this, it is just the sort of foggy night that Dickens describes, a night which calls for Rudolph to be on standby.   December is a damp bone chilling cold as opposed to January which is just bitter cold.   The book of course is set in England where such damp chilly weather is common but it is as good a description as any for setting out the gloomy atmosphere of the first chapter, Marley’s Ghost.

The Workplace

Of course Scrooge’s miserly treatment of his clerk Bob Cratchit is central to the story, but who among us hasn’t had a Scrooge for a boss, without the heartwarming ending.    And poor Martha late on Christmas Day again.    

“Why, bless your heart alive, my dear, how late you are!” said Mrs. Cratchit, kissing her a dozen times, and taking off her shawl and bonnet for her with officious zeal.  `We’d a deal of work to finish up last night,’ replied the girl,’ and had to clear away this morning, mother.’   

And a few pages later, ‘Martha, who was a poor apprentice at a milliner’s, then told them what kind of work she had to do, and how many hours she worked at a stretch, and how she meant to lie abed to-morrow morning for a good long rest; to-morrow being a holiday she passed at home.’

If you haven’t arrived home late on Christmas Eve, exhausted from the demands of too much last minute work (much of it unnecessary and poorly planned – folks, Christmas comes the same day every year, no need to be standing in a lineup at 6 pm on Christmas Eve buying a present or box of chocolates), in order to have one day off, two if you are fortunate like Martha – then count yourself lucky.   I try not to go near the stores in December, certainly never the week before Christmas, as I pity the poor retail workers.  No matter what kind of work you do, there may be many days in the countdown to Christmas where you might wish to borrow that torch the Spirit of Christmas Present sprinkled in order to re-establish goodwill. 

‘And it was a very uncommon kind of torch, for once or twice when there were angry words between some dinner-carriers who had jostled each other, he shed a few drops of water on them from it, and their good humour was restored directly. For they said, it was a shame to quarrel upon Christmas Day. And so it was. God love it, so it was.’

Count yourself even luckier if your work doesn’t follow you home…..I recall one Christmas night spend huddled in the back bedroom with all the coats piled on the bed, the only quiet place in the house, on the phone trying to solve a work problem and thus save myself a drive over dark snowy roads.  How many of us are often simply too exhausted to enjoy Christmas, although too little sleep never seems to affect the children, who just get more and more wound up from the excitement of it all!   Of course, work can be a refugee if you are experiencing an overdose of family dynamics  – one year I went in for a few hours on Boxing Day just to get away from all the drama, (popping out to the Boxing Day sales works too, or taking the dog for a walk).  

But then we often have to pay for our merry-making with a backlog of work, as did poor Bob Cratchit, being caught late for work the next day, a full eighteen and a half minutes behind his time.   

`It’s only once a year, sir,’ pleaded Bob, appearing from the Tank. `It shall not be repeated. I was making rather merry yesterday, sir.’

Although I doubt bosses today would be inclined to invite you out for a bowl of Smoking Bishop, which brings us to the Christmas work party.  

The Office Party

Was there ever a better office party than the one old Fezziwig put on for his staff, including his two young apprentices Scrooge and Wilkins, and how they admired him for it.   

A Christmas Carol

‘Clear away…..the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the warehouse was as snug, and warm, and dry, and bright a ball-room, as you would desire to see upon a winter’s night.

In came a fiddler with a music-book…..and made an orchestra of it…..In came Mrs Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile. In came the three Miss Fezziwigs, beaming and lovable. In came the six young followers whose hearts they broke. In came all the young men and women employed in the business. In came the housemaid, with her cousin, the baker. In came the cook, with her brother’s particular friend, the milkman. In came the boy from over the way, who was suspected of not having board enough from his master; trying to hide himself behind the girl from next door but one, who was proved to have had her ears pulled by her mistress. In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and everyhow. Away they all went, twenty couples at once; hands half round and back again the other way; down the middle and up again; round and round in various stages of affectionate grouping; old top couple always turning up in the wrong place; new top couple starting off again, as soon as they got there; all top couples at last, and not a bottom one to help them. When this result was brought about, old Fezziwig, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried out,’ Well done.’ 

There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer. But the great effect of the evening came after the Roast and Boiled, when the fiddler struck up Sir Roger de Coverley. Then old Fezziwig stood out to dance with Mrs Fezziwig. Top couple, too; with a good stiff piece of work cut out for them; three or four and twenty pair of partners; people who were not to be trifled with; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking.

When the clock struck eleven, this domestic ball broke up. Mr and Mrs Fezziwig took their stations, one on either side of the door, and shaking hands with every person individually as he or she went out, wished him or her a Merry Christmas. When everybody had retired but the two prentices, they did the same to them; and thus the cheerful voices died away, and the lads were left to their beds; which were under a counter in the back-shop.’

We will leave the lads signing the praises of their boss who had spent but a few pounds of his money but who ‘has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then. The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.’

Well, I can’t say that I’ve ever had that good a time at a work party, which was likely to have been a more sedate affair, usually dinner at a restaurant,  but maybe the key here is “plenty of beer” and “negus” (a beverage made of wine and hot water, with sugar, nutmeg and lemon).    From my recollection, there was sometimes more fun to be had in getting ready for an evening out than in the event itself, which brings us to the clothes….

The Fashions

Even the poorest church mouse likes to dress up at Christmas.   Who can forget, 

‘Mrs Cratchit, dressed out but poorly in a twice-turned gown, but brave in ribbons, which are cheap and make a goodly show for sixpence; and she laid the cloth, assisted by Belinda Cratchit, second of her daughters, also brave in ribbons;

and those girls sallying forth for a party,

‘and there a group of handsome girls, all hooded and fur-booted, and all chattering at once, tripped lightly off to some near neighbour’s house; where, woe upon the single man who saw them enter — artful witches, well they knew it — in a glow.’

What man hasn’t at some point been bewitched by a woman in a velvet dress and a bit of glitter?   I even remember wearing velvet dresses and fur trimmed coats and hats to attend Christmas Eve services…..now I might don a casual pair of velveteen pants and a dressy top to stay home, but I know the fashion magazines are still full of dressy evening wear.  

The Food

While the Cratchit’s dinner of goose and stuffing is legendary, we seldom dine on goose anymore, but we still like to comment about how this year’s turkey rates.  

A Christmas Carol

‘Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds; a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of course — and in truth it was something very like it in that house. Mrs Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table; the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped. At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. It was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving-knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all round the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried Hurrah.

Christmas on the Farm

Christmas Dinner on the Farm – 1920

There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last. Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows.

And then there is the famous turkey scene where Scrooge awakes on Christmas morning and yells down to the boy in the street.  

‘ Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there — Not the little prize Turkey: the big one.’

`I’ll send it to Bob Cratchit’s.’ whispered Scrooge, rubbing his hands, and splitting with a laugh. `He shan’t know who sends it. It’s twice the size of Tiny Tim. ‘

Dickens descriptions of the marketplace are also marvelous to behold, as fruit was a rarer commodity than it is today, with oranges being an annual Christmas treat. 

A Christmas Carol

The poulterers’ shops were still half open, and the fruiterers’ were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts……there were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown…..there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner….

The Grocers, oh the Grocers, nearly closed, with perhaps two shutters down, or one; but through those gaps such glimpses……the blended scents of tea and coffee were so grateful to the nose, or even that the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint and subsequently bilious. Nor was it that the figs were moist and pulpy, or that the French plums blushed in modest tartness from their highly-decorated boxes, or that everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress; but the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that they tumbled up against each other at the door, crashing their wicker baskets wildly, and left their purchases upon the counter, and came running back to fetch them, and committed hundreds of the like mistakes, in the best humour possible;’ 

Then there is the bounty at the foot of the Ghost of Christmas Present when he makes his first appearance:

Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.’

I always thought it would be interesting to make a twelfth-night cake, which brings us to dessert.

The Dessert

Who can forget that famous pudding…

‘But now, the plates being changed by Miss Belinda, Mrs Cratchit left the room alone — too nervous to bear witnesses — to take the pudding up and bring it in.

Hallo. A great deal of steam. The pudding was out of the copper…..In half a minute Mrs Cratchit entered — flushed, but smiling proudly — with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.

Oh, a wonderful pudding. Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.’   

While Christmas pudding may not be as popular as it once was, it is still a part of many Christmas traditions, in my case a store-bought version from The British Shop, although the rum sauce is homemade. 

The Table:

While the Cratchits may have toasted their Christmas punch from a meager collection of glassware and tumblers,  Scrooge’s nephew Fred laid out a more prosperous spread.   Who can remember the anxiety of cooking their first Christmas dinner,

‘They were looking at the table (which was spread out in great array); for these young housekeepers are always nervous on such points, and like to see that everything is right.’

and the satisfaction of pulling it off successfully.

`”Here, he takes it into his head to dislike us, and he won’t come and dine with us. What’s the consequence. He don’t lose much of a dinner.’

`Indeed, I think he loses a very good dinner,’ interrupted Scrooge’s niece. Everybody else said the same, and they must be allowed to have been competent judges, because they had just had dinner; and, with the dessert upon the table, were clustered round the fire, by lamplight.

`Well. I’m very glad to hear it,’ said Scrooge’s nephew, `because I haven’t great faith in these young housekeepers. What do you say, Topper.’

Topper had clearly got his eye upon one of Scrooge’s niece’s sisters, for he answered that a bachelor was a wretched outcast, who had no right to express an opinion on the subject. Whereat Scrooge’s niece’s sister — the plump one with the lace tucker: not the one with the roses — blushed.’

The Decorating

‘It was his own room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time, or Marley’s, or for many and many a winter season gone.’

Proof that a little decorating can make any room more cheerful, and don’t we all love to decorate when there are so many lovely new things to be found each year.        

The Presents

While there weren’t many presents exchanged in 1843, there is one scene in the book where they are mentioned, 

‘But now a knocking at the door was heard, and such a rush immediately ensued that she with laughing face and plundered dress was borne towards it the centre of a flushed and boisterous group, just in time to greet the father, who came home attended by a man laden with Christmas toys and presents. Then the shouting and the struggling, and the onslaught that was made on the defenceless porter. The scaling him with chairs for ladders to dive into his pockets, despoil him of brown-paper parcels, hold on tight by his cravat, hug him round his neck, pommel his back, and kick his legs in irrepressible affection. The shouts of wonder and delight with which the development of every package was received. The terrible announcement that the baby had been taken in the act of putting a doll’s frying-pan into his mouth, and was more than suspected of having swallowed a fictitious turkey, glued on a wooden platter. The immense relief of finding this a false alarm. The joy, and gratitude, and ecstasy. They are all indescribable alike. It is enough that by degrees the children and their emotions got out of the parlour, and by one stair at a time, up to the top of the house; where they went to bed, and so subsided.’

The Music

There is music throughout the book, from the Fezziwig’s ball, to Tiny Tim’s plaintive fireside song, to nephew Fred’s party, as well as scenes of the miners and sailors singing on Christmas Eve with a pint in hand.   And it’s nice to know that God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman is still being heard today. 

‘The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge’s keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of

`God bless you, merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay!’

Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror.’

The Church Service

And how did little Tim behave”asked Mrs Cratchit…..”As good as gold,’ said Bob,’ and better.  Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.’

While attendance at church may be dwindling, many people still make the effort to attend Christmas Eve services or watch midnight mass at the Vatican on TV.     

The Hustle and Bustle

‘He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure.’

Some people actually enjoy the hustle and bustle of the days leading up to Christmas, while others prefer to avoid it altogether…..but the reformed Scrooge was like a child reveling in all the festivities for the first time. 

The Company Coming

“By this time it was getting dark, and snowing pretty heavily; and as Scrooge and the Spirit went along the streets, the brightness of the roaring fires in kitchens, parlours, and all sorts of rooms, was wonderful. Here, the flickering of the blaze showed preparations for a cozy dinner, with hot plates baking through and through before the fire, and deep red curtains, ready to be drawn to shut out cold and darkness. There all the children of the house were running out into the snow to meet their married sisters, brothers, cousins, uncles, aunts, and be the first to greet them. Here again were shadows on the window-blind of guests assembling; …..But, if you had judged from the numbers of people on their way to friendly gatherings, you might have thought that no one was at home to give them welcome when they got there, instead of every house expecting company, and piling up its fires half-chimney high.’

Christmas Day doesn’t officially start until your company has arrived, which is especially a relief if the weather has been snowy and the roads bad.  

The Fun

Nothing beats the description of nephew Fred’s party for sheer fun and games. 

‘But they didn’t devote the whole evening to music. After a while they played at forfeits; for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself. Stop. There was first a game at blind-man’s buff. Of course there was. And I no more believe Topper was really blind than I believe he had eyes in his boots. My opinion is, that it was a done thing between him and Scrooge’s nephew; and that the Ghost of Christmas Present knew it. The way he went after that plump sister in the lace tucker was an outrage on the credulity of human nature.’  

A Christmas Carol

Scrooge himself remarks, in the final chapter, that it was a wonderful party,

`It’s I. Your uncle Scrooge. I have come to dinner. Will you let me in, Fred.’   Let him in. It is a mercy he didn’t shake his arm off. He was at home in five minutes. Nothing could be heartier. His niece looked just the same. So did Topper when he came. So did the plump sister when she came. So did every one when they came. Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, wonderful happiness.

The Family Dynamics

As Tolstoy remarked, “All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in it’s own way.”     Although Dickens family appeared to be a large and happy one (he had ten children), his own childhood was not a carefree one, with a stint in a black-making factory and a father in debtors prison, and in his later years he was separated from his wife due to rumors of an affair with a young actress, plus he was frequently debt-ridden – it was a far from perfect life.    Still, A Christmas Carol was written early in his career and you don’t want to spoil a perfectly happy book with tales of dysfunctional families, no matter how often they may exist in real life.   If you have a happy fun-filled family like Fred or are poor but content like the Cratchits, consider yourself blessed.

“They were not a handsome family; they were not well dressed; their shoes were far from being water-proof; their clothes were scanty; and Peter might have known, and very likely did, the inside of a pawnbroker’s. But, they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time; and when they faded, and looked happier yet in the bright sprinklings of the Spirit’s torch at parting, Scrooge had his eye upon them, and especially on Tiny Tim, until the last.’

The key phrase here is pleased with one another…and contented with their  own company.    Sadly, some families are not content with each other’s company…or they were at one time but have fallen apart.   I wonder if this is due to modern times, families no longer live close by, it takes more of an effort to get together and social media seems to have promoted the expressing of hostile opinions which years ago people may have kept to themselves for civility’s sake.   If divorce, money quarrels or BB (Bad Behavior) have torn apart your once happy family celebrations then it’s best to accept it, and realize that a) no one can take those happy memories away from you and b) be grateful you are not the person exhibiting the Bad Behavior who most likely is a desperately unhappy soul otherwise why would they act the way they do.    Scrooge was nasty and cruel because he was miserable.   If the same people exhibit BB year after year or if the thought of spending even a few hours with Drama Queen Debbie, Mean Tease Tony or Narcissistic Nina, is ruining your Christmas once again then it may be time to wish them well and move on.   Some things cannot be mended.   Real Life is not always like a Hallmark movie.    The only reason the theme of the book works is that Scrooge is WILLING and ABLE to change.  He wants to be a better person, a nicer kinder man.   Sadly, some people lack the ability or desire, be it because of alcohol or drug abuse, mental illness, self-centeredness or just a general lack of self-awareness, to express goodwill towards others. 

A Christmas Carol

      Most people want a bit of a crowd around at Christmas, the more the merrier.   But if you find yourself alone at Christmas, remember that many people in the world share this as a sad time, as 40% of the population now lives alone, many of them older people who have lost love ones.  Keep busy, and concentrate on the parts of Christmas you enjoy – the lights, the music, the decorations, the food, the movies, the company of good friends – there is much to love about Christmas.   If you are grieving and just can’t face the pressure of trying to act festive, it is perfectly okay to skip Christmas this year.   Stay home or travel someplace new, a friend of mine went to Paris.  Far better to be home alone with a good book for company, as the young Scrooge was in his schooldays, than to suffer through another round of socializing which may only end up making you feel worse.

‘The Spirit touched him on the arm, and pointed to his younger self, intent upon his reading. Suddenly a man, in foreign garments: wonderfully real and distinct to look at: stood outside the window, with an axe stuck in his belt, and leading by the bridle an ass laden with wood.

`Why, it’s Ali Baba.’ Scrooge exclaimed in ecstasy. `It’s dear old honest Ali Baba. Yes, yes, I know. One Christmas time, when yonder solitary child was left here all alone, he did come, for the first time, just like that. 

To hear Scrooge expending all the earnestness of his nature on such subjects, in a most extraordinary voice between laughing and crying; and to see his heightened and excited face; would have been a surprise to his business friends in the city, indeed.

`There’s the Parrot.’ cried Scrooge. `Green body and yellow tail, with a thing like a lettuce growing out of the top of his head; there he is. Poor Robin Crusoe, he called him, when he came home again after sailing round the island. `Poor Robin Crusoe, where have you been, Robin Crusoe.’

The Theme 

Was there ever a better message of goodwill towards men?

‘These held the hot stuff from the jug, however, as well as golden goblets would have done; and Bob served it out with beaming looks, while the chestnuts on the fire sputtered and cracked noisily. Then Bob proposed:

`A Merry Christmas to us all, my dears. God bless us.’

Which all the family re-echoed.

`God bless us every one.’ said Tiny Tim, the last of all.’

A Christmas Carol

My favorite part of the 1951 movie is the scene at the end where a hesitant Scrooge, with a bit of encouragement from the maid, opens the door to his nephew’s parlour.   He is ready, and his transformation and redemption are complete.     

‘He passed the door a dozen times, before he had the courage to go up and knock. But he made a dash, and did it:

`Is your master at home, my dear.’ said Scrooge to the girl. Nice girl. Very.

`Yes, sir.’

`Where is he, my love.’ said Scrooge.

`He’s in the dining-room, sir, along with mistress. I’ll show you up-stairs, if you please.’

`Thank you. He knows me,’ said Scrooge, with his hand already on the dining-room lock. `I’ll go in here, my dear.’

A Christmas Carol

And so we come to the perfect ending…  

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

A Christmas Carol

(Post script:  The illustrations are by John Worsley from my 1985 edition) 

The Bestseller Code

The Bestseller Books

 A Review of Three Writing Manuals           

      “What if there was an algorithm that could reveal the secret DNA of bestsellers, regardless of their genre?     Thanks to authors Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers such an algorithm exists, and the results bring fresh insight into how fiction works and why we read.”    

      This jacket blurb of The Bestseller Code – Anatomy of the Bestseller Novel promises to unlock all the secrets.  

The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster NovelThe Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel by Jodie Archer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a scientific person I found the computer analysis of the DNA which makes a book a bestseller very interesting, but I’m not sure you can distill the magic of writing down to such generic common denominators. Still this was a worthwhile read, especially considering the growing field of AI. Plus we all like to read about books like The Help being rejected multiple times, as it gives us hope….

Although this book was published in 2016 it only recently came to my attention, through another blogger’s review.  As I had half-jokingly written in my One Year Blogging Anniversary of my wish to write a murder mystery, I thought reading this book might give me some tips as to what might sell in the unpredictable world of publishing.    Normally I do my book reviews on Goodreads, but as there are many writers on WordPress who may secretly be harboring the wish to write a novel or are actively pursuing that goal, this book might be of interest to some.   I made notes, as it was a library book and had to be returned prior to posting this.           

Some points and random notes:    (The observations in brackets are mine)

Pg 3    In the US about 50-55,000 works of fiction are published every year.   Of these, about 200-250 make the New York Time bestseller list.    That’s less than half a percent.     (The odds are slim).

Pg 3.   The sudden and seemingly blessed success of books like the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy, 50 Shades of Gray, The Help, Gone Girl and The DaVinci Code is considered as lucky as winning the lottery.   But is it really?    After feeding 20,000 books into a computer program and developing an algorithm, the authors feel they can predict with a fair degree of accuracy which ones will make the bestseller list due to certain common characteristics.  

Pg. 27 you have about 350 pages to take us somewhere and back.     Journeying is the main thing, as is the theme/topic of human closeness/connection.  (The Goldfinch was awful, 600 pages of nothing.   So was All the Light We Cannot See.   But Gone with the Wind was wonderful at over 1,000).  

The average age of the heroine is 28???   (With Mary Higgins Clark it is usually 32, although lately they have aged a bit with her.    I’m not sure age matters that much as long as you have sympathy for the character.   I never thought I would read a Young Adult novel but Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games was totally captivating.    I loved the middle-aged protagonist in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, but those four sixtyish women in Frances Mayes new novel, Women in Sunlight, annoyed me to such an extent that I would not recommend the book to anyone….yes, four main characters that I could not keep straight and not one likable.   Tuscany was the best part of the book by far).   

 There was a chapter devoted to themes and topics, what sells best, crime/legal thrillers/romance etc, and getting the right topics in the right proportions.    The computer model picked Danielle Steel and John Grisham as the two names who did this best.   (But then how to explain the success of Orphan Train, Water for Elephants, The Help, all diverse topics indeed.    The Help was rejected 60 times, mostly because editors thought the topic, black maids in the South in the 1950’s, would not be of interest to anyone.   I remember someone reading Water for Elephants in the lunch room at work and saying what a really good book it was and thinking they were crazy, who would want to read a novel about the circus during the depression?  After I read it, I thought it quite wonderful).

Pg 67 – The most common topic among bestselling writers was human closeness and human connection, which crosses all genres.    (perhaps self-evident as books do tend to be about people?)

Pg 89 – There are seven different types of plot-lines with sample charts of peaks and valleys.   You must hook your reader within the first 40 pages or they will nod off forever.   (I persisted through 150 opening pages about thet the poor and lonely protagonist in Ruth Ware’s latest The Death of Mrs. Westaway and was glad I stuck it out, as the last half was well worth it.   Some novels are slow going at the beginning).

Pg 115   The compute algorithm could detect with great accuracy whether a book was written by a female or male, even those such as JK Rowling writing under aliases. 

Pg 121   Opening sentences must be gripping and create an authentic preferably active voice, but a comparison of the opening sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with a Jackie Collins novel???   (I think not.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that one is classy and one is trashy.   But then the authors appear to have an obsession with the success of Fifty Shades of Gray/Garbage).  

Pg 136     Sentences do not need decorating with additional clauses.   Verbs prefer not to be followed with a string of really very pretty lovely little words ending in ly.     (Oh no…my nemesis….sighs sadly).   The sentences of the bestseller are not gaudy Christmas trees, carrying the weight of lights and baubles and tinsel and angels and stars.  Better the plain fir tree brought into simple relief.  (But wouldn’t that be like imitating Hemingway who famously never used a word you needed to look up in a dictionary and ignoring Dickens whose verbose descriptions ran on forever?)

Pg. 148   There was a  chapter on the dark heroine or the Girl phenomena – The Dragon Girl, Gone Girl, The Girl on the train.  The Girl is not your average heroine.  What is their popularity saying about our society?   (These are strong women, but are they nice?  Is this anything new – Scarlet O’Hara was not nice either – she was strong, selfish and determined.   Frail Melanie Wilkes was the nice one, but where did it get her in the end – she died young).

Pg. 194   In the final chapter, the computer picked the one novel 100% most likely to succeed.  (I will not spoil it for you, but it was not a book or an author I was familiar with, nor do I have any desire to read based on subject matter, but it was somewhat ironic).  

Pg. 209 In the epilogue there was a discussion about whether we will ever see a machine-written novel.    As far back as 1952 they tried to set up a program for a computer to write a love letter by feeding it common words used in such, but it was a complete failure, (and sounded like one of those spam comments I occasionally receive on WordPress – “It is lovely worth sufficient for me.  In my view, if all siteowners and bloggers made excellent content as you probably did, the web will probably be much more helpful than ever before.  I can help make very pretty….”    Poor Mr. SpamBot is not going to get anywhere using all those adjectives that end in ly!)   

To sum up, while this was a worthwhile and interesting read, but other than a few tidbits, I don’t think there was any major earth-shattering advice or analysis offered.    It was based on what was popular at the moment, but tastes change.   Some books endure, and others don’t.   I believe most writers write about what they find interesting, which is what makes the book world so diverse and unpredictable….and magical.   While common denominators may predict a winning formula for what sells, you can’t sell your soul either trying to imitate them.   I do read some of the authors on the bestseller lists, Jodi Picoult, John Grisham, Kate Morton, Elin Hilderbrand, (all of their latest  books have been great), but not others such as James Patterson and never ever Danielle Steele or Gray Garbager.   I don’t care how much money they make.    An analogy would be, while there may be a large market for reality TV shows, how many times do we tune in because that is all there seems to be on TV?   Shouldn’t we strive for something unique, something better than the norm no matter how well it sells….or just be content with more of the same…luckily as both readers and writers we get to decide.   

Perhaps we should turn to Jane Austen, who has endured over the centuries, for some writerly inspiration.  

The Jane Austen Writers’ Club: Inspiration and Advice from the World’s Best-loved NovelistThe Jane Austen Writers’ Club: Inspiration and Advice from the World’s Best-loved Novelist by Rebecca Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an entertaining guide to writing by a five times great niece of Jane Austen who has also been writer-in-residence at the Jane Austen House Museum, and so is well qualified to write about her methods, characterization and plotting. There were some useful tips such as writing an autobiographical sketch on each character, but I found the extensive quoting of large swaths of JA’s novels (sometimes for pages and pages), to be irksome, and in truth I skimmed most of it only ever having read P&P and Emma. There were lots of exercises suitable to a classroom setting. In truth, a book only for true Janeites, who know the novels inside out.

Last spring, I picked up The Jane Austen’s Writer’s Manual, by Rebecca Smith, at a discount store.   Written by a many-times great descendant of Jane Austen, it too had some interesting points, but as it quoted extensively from her seven novels, (at least half the book consisted of pages of direct quotations), I found myself just skimming it.     Jane Austen had many years between the first drafts of her novels and the finished products, long enough to perfect them into the polished gems they were.   One of the most useful pieces of advice in this book was to write an autobiography of each of the characters before you start.    But then what about writers who don’t write with any plot-line in mind, and just let the story and characters evolve?    Sometimes characters have a mind of their own and may take you places you might never even have thought of.    Plan the ending scene before you begin.   I believe Jane did this, but as all six of her completed novels end with weddings, the happy endings readers have been longing for, that’s not much of a stretch.   Much of the book was devoted to writing exercises as the author holds writing workshops at the Jane Austen House Museum.   This book is probably more for true Janeites, of which I am not, having only ever read P&P and Emma a long time ago.   I find her life more fascinating than her books, as is sometimes the case with writers.     

The Best Advice Manual: 
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Although I read this book well over twenty years ago, it remains the best book on writing that I have ever read. Time to re-read it again, plus I loved the inspiration for the title. When you are overwhelmed, that’s what you need to do, take it bird by bird…..or rather page by page.

Although it’s been twenty years, the best advice manual I have ever read on writing, was Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.    I have a copy somewhere down on the basement bookshelves…..I should re-read it, but that would be procrastinating…..  

Best to just get on with it then……

So, we need a 28 year old Girl Detective who is vacationing in Provence when she sees a man walking up the lane of her rented farmhouse.   There has been a dead body discovered in the nearby sunflower fields.   (see April in Paris Part Two blog for the muse of this story).    It is Monsieur Darcie Leduc, une inspector with the French police force, (but much more Mr.Darcy-like than Hercules Peroit with his ridiculous mustache and undiagnosed OCD).   

Opening sentence:    “Paige Protagonist was tired of thinking for everyone.   She had come to Provence to rest, mind body and soul, and intended not to think of a single thing for the next two weeks.    Let them solve all their own problems back home – she would not be there.   She would be here on this lovely terrace with a glass of wine in hand, looking out over the lavender fields…..and wondering who was that man walking up the lane to the farmhouse.”      

Um……would a 28year old be tired of thinking for everyone….no…..best to make her older….and that “lovely” adjective has got to go.     I think I’ll rest now.   I don’t want to overdo it….a little at a time…..page by page….

PS.  On Cyber-Monday I was browsing on the http://www.bookoutlet.com site for books about Provence when I noticed that this story has been done before, several times, and the proof is in the remainder bin, but alas, as John Grisham said in a recent writing workshop podcast, everything has been done before.    I hope Santa brings me a nice plot-line and some characters for Christmas as I have no idea where to go from here…..  

Song of the Day:   Paperback Writer – the Beatles

  

   

Bronte Country

Heathcliff is dead……again.    This is the third time I have tried to grow heather, but alas, it was not meant to be.   I have resigned myself to the fact that you can not grow heather in North America, there is a reason it is only to be found in abundance on the windswept moors of the UK.    Here is a photo of  Heathcliff (the-Plant-formerly-known-as-Heather), from last June, all healthy and blooming and alive.  

Heather  And here is a picture of him in September at his funeral.    

Heather

 I arranged a few red maple leaves around his skeletal remains, for a more poetic look, otherwise he might have been mistaken for a stringy birds nest which had fallen to the ground.    I had planted him in the same kind of poor rocky soil I imagined on the moors, and basically neglected him for the rest of the summer.   Heather likes full sun, (see care sheet), but the days were cloudy and melancholy and he took up drinking and drowned his roots in sorrow, (kind of like Branwell).    I must console myself though, that while we were not meant to be, he died young at the end of the rainiest season ever.   It was nothing personal, he just did not like our Canadian soil or climate.     

Heather

While doing some postmortem research, I discovered too late that heather likes well-drained acidic soil, and mine is clay and clumpy, so once again I had been lured in by a pot of pretty flowers.   I had thought they were more hardy souls (like lavender), who would grow anywhere.   Apparently there are many different types, and this  Better Homes and Gardens article says anyone can grow heather and heaths……well perhaps not the truly heartbroken gardener like myself who may never fully recover.         

Heather 

I have occasionally seen heather for sale in nurseries here in early spring, sometimes with pinkish flowers.   One July I bought some half-dead half-price specimens from the bargain bin.   I knew when I bought them they were probably beyond CPR, but they were only a dollar.   I planted them one week and dug them up the next.   My other futile attempt involved a specimen which the nursery clerk told me was the only heather they stocked.   It lived one short season, spread out a bit, produced 2 or 3 purplish blooms, then died off never to be seen again.   I knew it was not real heather because the foliage was too soft.    A friend who used to visit Scotland regularly, brought me back a piece of heather once as a souvenir – lucky for him the plant police did not catch him as smuggling plants is generally against the law.   I was surprised by how coarse it was.    I had expected from the pictures that it would be softer to the touch.

The moors must be beautiful in the summer and early fall, with all that heather blooming and the sky a bright blue, very Wuthering Heightish.  

Bronte Heather

Before Heathcliff, my only exposure to heather was from the window of an  tour bus in a downpour.   I was in Ireland in September where it rained every day – so why did my poor heather not survive?    The Irish heather (which was near a bog where they were cutting turf), was not nearly as stunning as the English heather in Downton Abby, the last episode of Season Five where they pack up the whole household and go grouse hunting at a castle on the moors and Mary and Edith meet their future husbands.    (You see, heather does inspire romance).   That was a beautifully filmed scene and inspired my mother to paint a picture called The Moors, which she included in her last art exhibit, (but then she has been known to paint shipwrecks from Poldark too).

The Moors - AMc

The Moors

 Victoria magazine is one of my favorite sources for inspiration, and in this past September issue they had a feature on Exploring the Bronte Legacy and the village of Haworth where they lived.  (September is always the British issue and there was also a Susan Branch picnic party in the Lake District for any Beatrice Potter fans). 

Victoria Bronte

Here are some of the pages, including the famous heather.

Bronte

We have Emily to thank for the popularity of heather, as we will forever associate it with her descriptions of the moorland in Wuthering Heights, as this quote attests,  “I have fled my country and gone to the heather.”   Although I have never been to England, I hope some day to put those words into action, as a literary tour is definitely on my bucket list. 

No wonder the Bronte sisters wrote such wonderful books, having that lovely vista to gaze at during their daily constitutional on the moors.  (Although no matter the scenery, I find that after a particularly fruitful writing session, a little walk can be beneficial for mulling things over).

Below, the steep cobblestoned streets of the small village of Haworth.

Bronte

Here’s the dining room table where they wrote their works of art and paced and plotted how to find a publisher, and no doubt discussed what to do about Branwell. Bronte

 The magazine article mentioned the 2017 PBS movie, To Walk Invisible, the story of the Bronte’s, which I watched and was somewhat disappointed in, although it is certainly worthwhile for any Bronte fan.   In truth I found the movie as dark and dreary as the moors must be on an overcast winter’s day.  There did not seem to be much joy in that household, but maybe I am confusing their rather bleak existence with that of the moors.     

I thought Charlotte and Anne well-cast, Emily miscast, and Branwell just plain annoying.   The movie ends with them walking on the moors after Branwell’s death, so it is not as depressing as if they had ended it later after they had all died.   But then their story is not a happy one.   I wonder if they would have traded their fame for more happiness and a longer life.   

This year is the bicentenary of Emily’s birth in 1818.   Here is Emily’s small and cozy room with a wonderful window view, as befitting a genius at work.  

Bronte

Emily remains the most puzzling one, so reclusive, yet the creator of such a  stormy and passionate tale.   No doubt she drew inspiration from her beloved moors but perhaps it’s very wildness was a reaction to their isolated existence.   She had a lot of time to think and imagine.   Her novel was considered dark and disturbing and somewhat shocking at the time, while Charlotte’s more conservative Jane Eyre was the more popular.    In the movie there was a scene where Emily was talking about where she got the idea for Wuthering Heights, but she spoke so quickly I could not follow, and I have since tried to research it to no avail.  Although googling did reveal plenty of theories about Asperger’s syndrome, as it seems popular these days to slap anyone the least bit anti-social with that label (think Doc Marten).     There are plenty of books about Charlotte, (see postscript), but not so many about Emily or Anne (who I think of as the forgotten middle child).    After seeing disheveled, weak, whiny immature Branwell it seems unlikely he could have been the muse for such a strong character as Heathcliff.    (But would any sane woman want a Heathcliff in real life?  All that anger and rage and jealousy just creates a whole lot of drama and angst, and wasn’t he a bit too possessive?  Somewhat stalkerish?  Better to marry someone more stable and level-headed if you want a happy home life, but I suppose if a wild passionate affair is your aim, then Heathcliff is your man).    

The movie contained nothing new, if you have already read such bio’s before, including the usual dose of family dynamics.   The ending was well done, three bright suns who were expected to dim their literary lights and walk invisible, in order to prevent embarrassment for the male heir of whom much had been expected, but little produced.   As for the issue of addiction so rampant in our modern world, that too is an age old question.  Their clergyman father could not decide whether to give in and supply his feckless son with drinking/opium money or just say no – the parent’s universal dilemma, to be an enabler or an enforcer of tough love?    In the end, it didn’t matter anyway –  TB won out.   Tuberculosis caused by a drafty old parsonage and those windblown moors.   Unfortunately, he took his two sisters with him.    

I have to admit the part I found most disappointing in the movie was the cinematography of the moors.   They must have filmed the outdoor scenes in  winter for there was no heather to be seen, just a bleak and brown landscape and overcast skies.   Perhaps they didn’t  have a choice, or more likely they wanted that gloomy depressing atmosphere, for it all looked as dull and dreary as a November day.           

Now that we are in late November, the weather has grown chilly and darkness descends early, and tonight the winds are howling and there is sleet against the windowpane.   The perfect night to settle in by the fire with a cup of tea, and re-read Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte’s masterpiece.  Although, I noticed that her name is not even on the cover of my 1984 copy, one of those classic editions with the fancy gold edging that are hard to find anymore.    

Wuthering Heights

I must confess, it has been a long time since that high school book report, and I cannot recall much of the story, other than it was a sad tale with a layered multi-generational plot.   But I do remember the descriptive imagery of those famous windswept moors, and the tragic ending of Cathy and Heathcliff, two star-crossed lovers who were never meant to be, but who remain immortalized forever between a marble and gilt cover.        

Postscript:   Most likely Charlotte, Anne or Emily never dreamt at the time that their books would still be bestsellers over 150 years later.    I wonder how those classics would fit into the Best Seller Code, which I will be blogging about next week. 

Postscript:  A goodreads review of  Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart 

Charlotte Brontë: A Fiery HeartCharlotte Brontë: A Fiery Heart by Claire Harman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This latest 2016 biography of Charlotte Bronte is well worth the read, even if I do wonder why Charlotte always gets all the attention. I enjoyed it so much, I bought a bargain bin copy. A good choice for fans, both old and new.

Bronte Country - AMc

Bronte Country

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WW2 Bomber Tour and Swing Dance

         As a fan of Big Band music, I was happy to see the announcement for a WW2 Bomber Tour and Swing Dance last June, an event promising a retro evening of dinner and dancing to a 23 person orchestra in an airport hanger, just like they did back in the wartime.   Tickets were $75 per person, with the proceeds going to a children’s charity, but a bit too steep for most of my friends as it turned out.   While I have “medical/work” friends, (shop talk and free dinners from drug companies), “artistic” friends, (art galleries and theatre), “book” friends ( book clubs and literary talks) and “shopping” friends, I have no one who shares my love of history and museums.    My mother was not interested, she had already lived through that decade once she said and had no wish to revisit it.    My mother had worked in a war plant for two years (1942-1944), from the time she was 16 to 18 years old.   She remembers the young boys in her hometown volunteering for the war effort, and many did not come back.   At ninety, she does not like to go out at night, but she was interested in seeing the airplane as she is always looking for new subjects to paint.    So off we went to the local airport one sunny afternoon, along with a hundred guys, including a whole brigade of firemen on their lunch hour.   There may have been a few other women there, dragged along by their spouses, but certainly we were outnumbered.   My mother was not able to climb the stairs to tour the airplane but sat under one of the wings out of the sun and had an enjoyable chat with the pilot in charge, who was from Mesa Arizona but whose Canadian mother was from her hometown and had also worked in one of the war plants.   Although he had moved to the US when he was younger, his mom had died the previous year at age 89, so he was happy to reminisce about her Canadian roots.        

The Flying Legends of Victory Tour is organized by the Commemorative Air Force Air Base out of Arizona.   Their mission is to take antique bombers on tour around the country, to educate people so they do not forget this important part of aviation history, especially now that there are fewer WW2 veterans left and those remaining are well are up in years.   They tour all fifty states and Canada and you can sign up on their website to be notified if one is visiting your area next year.   The plane they were flying that day was a B17 bomber.  A four engine bomber, they were manufactured during WW2  – about 13,000 were made, about 5000 were lost during the war.  (see Wikepida for more info).   Those are not good odds, although the bomber developed the reputation of being able to bring their crews home safely despite being badly damaged.   There are only about ten surviving in the world which are fly-worthy, restored versions which had never seen action, including The Sentimental Journey on display.   The cost to tour the inside of the plane was only $5, so off I went, leaving mom visiting with her new friend. 

Bomber

Bomber

Before we start the tour, a bit about the crewman positions on the plane.  Here’s a link to a very excellent B17-Queen of the sky blog explaining the various crew positions and also a link to a Wikepedia article with more information than you might care to read.     I wish I had made notes at the time but it was over a year ago, and I scarcely remember what everyone did.  There was no official tour, but you could ask questions if you wished.   Of course, all my questions came later, like how they decided who got which position? 

This B-17 bomber, re-christened Sentimental Journey, had a picture of Betty Grable, a famous pin-up girl from the wartime, painted on the side.   This nose art, as it was called, was designed to boost morale and although the planes were often named after women, sweethearts or wives, other subjects included hometowns, states, cartoon characters, mascots or something designed to scare the enemy.       

Bomber

I climbed the six steep steps to the front of the plane, which gave you a view of the cockpit and the pilot seats, off limits of course.Bomber

They were in town for a whole week, with certain days set aside for touring, and others for flights.   The flights, ranging from $425 to $850 US, were all sold out, and well worth the money for flying fans because when would you ever get such an opportunity again.   I did see the plane overhead periodically during the week, flying low along the river, and once over the farmers market but by the time I grabbed the camera the photo-op was gone.   Even though you could hear its rumbling roar coming, I still wasn’t quick enough to capture it.   It made me stop and think about what an air raid must have been like, the planes upon you before you could seek shelter.    

Bomber

Behind the cockpit, the bomb bay doors were open below, and there was a bridge with ropes you had to walk across to get to the rest of the plane, but with my fear of heights, I decided I just couldn’t do it.   It was not for the claustrophobic either, as it was very tight quarters inside. 

Bomber

Bomber

I exited back down the stairs, and went in the back entrance (below) to tour the rest of the plane.

Bomber

First up after the bomb bay were three seats, two on one side and one on the other, for the navigator, the wireless operator and the bombardier, whose job it was to get the bombs dropped on target.   

Bomber

The next time you are on an airplane and tempted to complain about the seats, think about these.   Note the overall lack of insulation, it must have been cold as hell up there despite their flight suits.    I can’t imagine those poor kids (and they were mostly 18-25 year old’s), spending 12-14 hours in those tin cans, because that’s exactly what they were……pieces of steel held together by tons of rivets.      

Bomber

Next up was the ball turret position, and the turret jettison kit.   Pity the poor soul who got that position.   Located on the underside of the plane it was designed to prevent attack on the aircraft from below and was usually manned by smallest member of the crew. 

Bomber

The left waist gunner below.     I asked a guy to take my picture here but he missed and took the floor instead.   Note the spool of ammunition attached to the machine gun.   There’s a better picture in this article link

Bomber

The rear/tail gunner position was also bad……so exposed, but important for protecting the back of the plane.     

Bomber

For me, the most poignant part was reading the signatures written on the bomb bay doors.  Back on the ground, I looked underneath, where visiting WW2 veterans were encouraged to sign their names and list the number of missions and their crew members.   Here’s a sample, written on July 21 2014.  Earl Morrow, age 93 years old, but still able to remember everyone and their position, and his three crew members KIA killed in action – something you never forget.  The “Delores” was shot down over Germany after 17 missions, POW 5/45.    The doors were covered with signatures from the stops around the country.   I wish I had taken more pictures of these.  

Bomber

Bomber

Back to those rivets, while my mother was not a Rosie the Riveter, she worked on the inspection table at a die casting plant making aircraft engine parts – nose cones similar to the ones in this picture, but she says they were larger. 

Wallaceburg museum

 Her job as part of the inspection team was to check for holes in the unit, and check the threads for any defects.   About 3 in every 100 were sent back.   She left school at age 16 and was lucky to get hired so young, but an aunt had pulled her in.   Coming out of the Depression, money was not plentiful, but her parents and brother had decided to try and save enough to buy a farm.   They worked long shifts, sometimes up to 10 hours if it was busy, barely seeing each other for weeks.   Because of her young age, she was put on the inspection team.   She can’t remember her exact wage, but thinks it was less than $20 a week, or about $1000 per year.    She said some of the farm girls who came in from the countryside paid $35 every two weeks for room and board and their wages barely covered the cost.    She worked there for almost two years, with no time off for vacation, and when they had enough money saved for a down payment they bought a farm several hours away, right across the road from my dad’s farm, so essentially she married “the boy next door.”    The 100 acre farm cost $5000, but with the expense of buying a team of horses and other livestock and supplies, they had to take out a mortgage, but it was a start to a more prosperous life.   

My grandmother worked in the Brass factory, but married women had shorter hours, as this plaque explains.      

Wallaceburg museum  Wallaceburg museum

These pictures are from a museum in her hometown which we visited this past summer.   She had not been back in many years but was showing some art as part of a jury art show in the adjacent gallery.   The museum was just down the street from where she used to live, so we went to visit her childhood home, and the owner let her come inside.   I had knocked on the door as I didn’t want them to think there was some random stranger taking pictures of the outside of their house.   It was quite nicely renovated.   It sold for $1000 when they moved.   My mom remembers my grandmother sending her down the street with a dollar to pay the hydro bill at what is now the museum building.    And now eighty years later, she is showing her art there, which just goes to show life holds surprises, even when you are older.   Like most women of her generation she did not work outside the home after she married, so it’s nice she has this chance at a late in life career.    

The plane tour over, we stopped at the airport office and although I knew all 300 tickets had sold out quickly, just out of curiosity I asked if there were any tickets left for the dinner dance, and it turned out there were two cancellations, so we grabbed them for the following evening, my mother having now been enticed by the prospect of a nice meal and some big band music.  (When my parents were dating they used to go to dances at a venue on the lake, where Glenn Miller and other famous Big Band musicians played).  You were encouraged to dress in the style of the era, (and a few people did), but because it was so last minute, I ended up raiding my closet – thank god for that 80’s closet. (see The Vintage Corner)   I had made a quick trip to the vintage store looking for some evening gloves or a hat, something to make it more retro, but no luck.   It turned out the night was so hot and sultry, there was no need for gloves.   The first thing I noticed near the entrance to the airport hanger was a yellow dress on a mannequin, similar to mine, only mine was a Laura Ashley sundress with a fuller  skirt.   But I do think mine was nicer, yellow is not a color I wear well but the material was so lovely I had kept it, even though I hadn’t worn it in decades.  (I will admit, the waist was a bit tighter than I remembered).   

Bomber

They had made an effort to dress up the space with white tablecloths and chairs and army décor, but it was still an airplane hangar.   The smell of diesel lingered in the air because the side doors were closed to the evening breeze.      

Bomber

Here’s the orchestra setting up, The Toronto All Star Band, none of them over the age of twenty-five.   That surprised me, as I did not expect young musicians to be too interested in Big Band music, but I suppose a gig is a gig.    You could attend the dance itself for $25.    (Perhaps it was a good thing the airport hanger was so spacious, as last Sunday at the International Symphony Orchestra’s tribute to the Big Bands, we just about got blasted out of the back of the theatre, the music was so loud it drowned out the female vocalist, all those lovely Gershwin lyrics basically inaudible.   So this band in the corner was a nice comfortable distance from the tables, with the dance floor up front the way my mother remembered).   The buffet meal was excellent, well worth the price.   Unfortunately, our table mates were not exactly great dinner companions.   Three couples, who didn’t seem to know each other, two of the guys well on their way to being red-faced inebriated.  The guy beside me was a pilot from a nearby city, but that was the only information I got out of him.   His wife never said a thing all evening.    It’s annoying when you sit beside someone you don’t know at a dinner function and they can’t be bothered to make conversation.  I had introduced my mother as a local painter and said she had worked in a war plant – here is a living piece of WW2 history, in case you want to ask any questions.   No one was interested, except in another drink.   And while the music was excellent, no one danced.   I saw the same ten couples on the dance floor all evening.    After the dinner and speeches and silent auction, they opened the side airport hanger doors to let in some air, and a big gush of wind blew all the table decorations over.    There was lightening in the sky and a storm threatening, so we left after the second set.   My mother was tired by then, and wanted to beat the storm home, which we did, barely.   Before I left, I said, goodnight to my table mates and said, hey guys, don’t forget to ask your wives to dance.   You can bet those young WW2 soldiers did.    It may have been one of the last evenings of their too short lives, but I hope they danced.  Lest we forget. 

If you wish to read more about the airplanes of WW2  I can recommend two excellent books.    The first, Unbroken, by Lauren Hillenbrand, was made into a movie a few years ago, directed by Angelina Jolie, and is based on the true story of a plane crash in the Pacific, the pilot adrift on a raft for weeks, and then rescued and held in a Japanese POW camp.   The thing that struck me about the first part of this book, (his training and missions), was the poor condition of the planes.  They knew a high percentage of them would not even return from the first flight, and the chance of death was even greater when couldn’t parachute to dry land……but still they sent them up.   If they came back damaged, they’d repair them as best they could and send them out again.       

The second book, A Higher Call, by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander, is also a true story about a German flying ace who escorted a badly damaged B-17 Bomber (flown by a 21 year old US pilot on his first mission),  back across the English channel to a British airbase, instead of shooting him down.  Flash forward fifty years later, and the US captain sets out to find the German pilot who saved his life, they meet and become friends.   This too may sound like a Hollywood movie, but a similar thing happened to a local man here.   Late in life, he hunted down the POW’s from the German submarine crew his ship had captured in the Atlantic, and they held a reunion in 1992.   He said it was one of the highlights of his life….a reminder of how the world has changed……and how much it stays the same with war still raging.   Lest we forget.            

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Gothic Read for Halloween

Here’s a spooky book to read while handing out the Halloween candy….and a link to last years blog on decorations, Come In For A Spell

(I had not intended on doing a Halloween post other than this short book recomend, but the opportunity arose for A Visit with the Paranormal – so stay tuned for Fright Night at the Museum early next week). 

The Death of Mrs. Westaway

 

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had  enjoyed British Crime Writer, Ruth Ware’s earlier books (In a Dark Dark Wood and The Woman in Cabin 10) but found this one very slow going at the start, to the point where I thought I might abandon it altogether, but I am glad I stuck with it because the ending was brilliant. The stage must be set, but I don’t know if we needed seventy or so pages to establish the protagonist as poor, cold and alone, and then the next seventy pages to establish the Gothic mansion as decrepit, cold, creepy and full of magpies…and well Gothic. I noticed she used the same descriptions over and over……her breath huffing in the frosty air……the cold draft at the window…..shivering in the rain etc……it made me long for a cuppa hot tea. But once the story got going, it took flight just like those menacing magpies…..and I couldn’t put it down. Even though I had guessed part of the ending half-way through, there was still a surprise twist.  Jolly well done.

Add the soundtrack from some classic Hitchcock….

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Farmer’s Market

           If you have ever dreamed of packing in city life and moving to the country then this book is for you.    Canadian author, Brent Preston turned fantasy into reality in this account of starting an organic vegetable farm and ten years of trial and error and back breaking labor before finally achieving a profitable outcome. 

The New Farm: Our Ten Years on the Front Lines of the Good Food RevolutionThe New Farm: Our Ten Years on the Front Lines of the Good Food Revolution by Brent Preston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A must read manual for city dwellers and lovers of the organic food movement about a family who chose to leave the rat race and follow their dream of running a profitable organic vegetable farm. Dust off those fantaseeds and learn the gritty reality of where your food comes from.

           Although he might have started out with a simple plan in mind, by the end of the ten years he had mechanized his operations, hired agricultural co-op students for summer labor, perfected a delivery service and marketing campaign, and ended up specializing in just three crops, one of which was lettuce.   One of the things he did initially was to participate in the local farmer’s market every Saturday morning, but after a few years of this he packed it in.  If you think about it, never a weekend off for you or your kids, up at 4 am to load up the truck and then later in the day unloading the unsold produce.   Plus, while he said while he enjoyed the social aspect with the regular customers and the other vendors, there just wasn’t enough profit in it to continue.   Better to cater to the fancy restaurants who would pay premium for anything fresh and organic.   

           There is no doubt we are what we eat and organic food is in – food in it’s natural state.   Ask a person who has been lucky enough to live to be over ninety and chances are they grew up on a farm.   So farmers markets are booming because organic food is so popular, but are the farmers doing well?  I grew up on a farm, 100 acres, so I know how hard it is to make a living on one and how much work is involved.   We had a dairy farm with Holsteins  when I was a child and my dad had a small herd, three milking machines and a cream contract.   He got up at 4:30 am every day to milk the cows, then he would come in, shave and have breakfast (bacon and eggs and perked coffee), as we were getting up for school, by 7:30 he would have left for his other job, home at 4:30, early supper, then milk the cows again, and he would be in bed by ten or falling asleep while reading the paper.   On the weekends there were all the other chores to do.   Even back then you couldn’t quite make a living on a farm without a second job, and with a growing family, he finally switched to beef cattle instead and cash cropped corn, soybeans and wheat, and while that was a lot of work too, we were finally able to take a family vacation without being tied to the milking schedule.   Now farming is big business, a thousand acres or bust.  There was an article in the local paper recently about the International Plowing Match which listed a combine as worth $500,000, and a tractor with GPS the same.   My dad’s first tractor in 1948 cost $1000 and had a side seat upon which we kids would ride – heaven forbid, no one would let kids do that now.   My elderly grandfather who died in 1951, was against the new-fangled modern machinery, as they had to sell his beloved Clydesdale horses in order to buy it.  HorseThe last tractor my dad bought came equipped with air conditioning and a few years after he died, they had CD players, now they are steering themselves.   While farming may be mostly mechanized now, organic vegetable farming is still labor intensive, especially during the harvest.   It’s not a job many people want to do, and often the farmers must hire seasonal workers from Mexico or Jamaica to help out.

        September is the best time of year to visit a farmer’s market as it is bursting with the last of the summer produce and the early fall harvest.   While the peaches and berries may be almost done, the  plums, pears, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, new potatoes and onions are coming in.   

tomatoes

potatoes

Our local market is open Wednesdays in the summer and Saturdays year round.   Even in the winter, the inside of the old building is full of root vegetables and cheese and butcher shops, but in the nice weather the outside stalls see the most action.    They really need more space, but it’s been in the same place for eighty plus years and you don’t mess with tradition.   Located in an older residential part of town, there is one small parking lot and you have to drive round and round waiting for someone else to leave.  With about 50 spaces for 200 people it’s kind of like musical chairs for grownups.  Luckily, no one lingers long.   While you can get a pour over coffee with freshly roasted beans, there is no cafe to sit in or cooked food available.   We don’t see a lot of homeless people here but one day a woman with her cart piled high with all her worldly possessions asked me for some money, and with my hands full I shook my head no, but then after putting my produce in the car, I went to find her, and gave her ten dollars, which I suspected might go to drugs but who knows?   A friend of mine keeps Tim Horton’s coffee shop gift cards to hand out for this reason, but there is something so very sad about begging in front of a place with so much plenty.     

              Even in the winter I will visit about once a month, because there is still cheese, and apples and oranges to buy, but I’ve often wondered why they open at 6 am.   All the vendors are yawning by noon, or closing up early as they have been up since four loading their trucks.   Wouldn’t 8-2 be more civilized hours?   If they are supplying restaurants do they need to buy that early?    If I don’t get there by 11:30 (or  I’m still playing musical chairs), I may miss my favorite cheese stall or they might be out of Gouda.  

The cheese wars can be fierce.  There are two cheese vendors, right across from each other, and the Battle of The Gouda got so bad last year, they both decided not to post their prices.    They will glare across the aisle if they think you have abandoned camp, but if they have run out, what is the alternative?  My grandmother was Dutch, so I grew up on Gouda, the mild form, not the spicy seeded variety she bought from The European Shop.   

Dutch Inheritance - AMc

Dutch Inheritance

The market cheese is better than at the grocery store and they will give you a sample if you are undecided.   Even if you know you will like it, a sample will often tied you over if you got up early and missed breakfast.    Buying cheese at the market is also much cheaper than in the grocery store so I usually stock up on aged cheddar as well as the Gouda.    The one cheese vendor has recently retired and been bought out by the egg lady beside them, who I don’t think has gotten the hang of the weigh scale yet as she is very generous with her pounds, or kgs.   I don’t buy eggs from her though as I can’t stomach those brown eggs with the bright yellow yolks.   It reminds me of the eggs growing up on the farm, but I know free range chickens are all the rage and I am sure they are full of omega-3’s.    

I like to look at the flowers, the glads are out now, but I seldom buy as I have lots of flowers at home. 

glads

I have my own semi-successful potager, so I don’t feel the need to buy tomatoes, cucumbers or lettuce, but one whiff of the dill brings back memories of my mother canning dill pickles.    You can get a free bunch of dill with every large purchase. 

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dill

The early apples are starting to come in, which will soon mean spies and pies.  I can smell the cinnamon now.

apples

 My favorite time of year is when the summer fruits are available, the strawberries and peaches.   You can get a bushel of overripe fruit for ten dollars and make a whole batch of jam for what you might pay for two jars.    There is a jam vendor also, for when you run out, who also sells homemade fruit pies.  So definitely there is a cost savings, and the food is so much fresher and better tasting, not to mention not loaded with tons of preservatives and artificial ingredients. 

Not everything is better at the market though.   Sadly, it is home to the world’s worst bakery which sells the most tasteless bread ever baked, not to mention tarts with uncooked dough and a scant quarter inch of fruit filling.  The next time I walk pass, the owner asks if I want something so I venture a tactful complaint – I figure if no one tells him he can’t fix it.   He tells me he hired a new baker so I bought butter tarts this time.  Same thing.  I gave up.  There must be an art to making play-doh like that?    Butter tarts are a national institution in Canada but I have a fine recipe inherited from my mother.   We have much better bakeries in town but I suppose once a vendor has tenure in the building, it’s for life, and so many people don’t know what good pastry tastes like.   But the bread – there’s simply no excuse.    Bread is the staff of life, but so is good nutritious food.   If you ate today, thank a farmer!    

PS.   Happy (Canadian) Thanksgiving today! 

Wild Turkeys - AMc

Wild Turkeys

Beach Books Blog

Beach umbrella

With only a few weeks of summer left there’s still time to get some good beach reads in and often the best time for beach reading is September when the crowds have gone back to school and work.   Here’s my annual list with links to my Goodreads reviews plus a link to last summer’s Beach Blanket books, (a bonus if you are a library patron like me is there won’t be a waiting list for last years).

My number one favorite award of this year goes to The Perfect Couple – by Elin Hilderbrand……set on Nantucket it was the perfect beach book…..so engrossing you never want it to end and you won’t even notice the waves sweeping that dead body out to sea.

waves
The Perfect CoupleThe Perfect Couple by Elin Hilderbrand

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Perfect Beach Read. Her best book yet, the usual island fare with the added twist of a murder mystery. After a dead body is found floating in the water the morning of a fancy wedding all the guests and family members are suspects. Intricately plotted, the characters and descriptions are so real you will feel like you just spent a week on Nantucket. If you take this book to the beach you will not look up once it is so engrossing…..I could hardly put it down. I hope she does more murder mysteries…..looking forward to her new winter series.

Here’s another good domestic drama.   I had grown tired of Joanna Trollope lately but this one definitely held my attention.   
An Unsuitable MatchAn Unsuitable Match by Joanna Trollope

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A thought provoking novel about late-in-life marriages, complete with spoiled millennials, an attractive but penniless suitor, and a divorced people-pleasing protagonist who attempts to keep everyone happy but herself. It’s an intriguing premise, and like the title, a totally unsuitable match. If the book had ended any other way I might have been tempted to boycott all her future books. Fortunately, although love is blind, with age comes wisdom. I used to be a big fan of Joanna Trollope but have found her books lately to be a bit of a struggle, I couldn’t even read The Soldier’s Wife, but this restores her to what she does best, a nice Jane Austen-like drama about the tangle of family relationships.

Who doesn’t love a good murder mystery?     Mary Higgins Clarke never disappoints.   Can be read in one sunny afternoon.  

I've Got My Eyes on YouI’ve Got My Eyes on You by Mary Higgins Clark

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not as suspenseful as her usual, I guessed who did it and why about a third of the way through, but it was still a good read from the  Queen of Mystery.    She is still churning them out at age 91 but lately I have been preferring her Under Suspicion (fall) series with Alafair Burke.

For a more in depth psychological thriller, Clare MacIntosh is a good choice.    While I enjoyed her spring release LET ME LIE  it wasn’t as good as I SEE YOU, which I read last October and which had me deleting all the personal pictures on my social media accounts.  
I See YouI See You by Clare Mackintosh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A murder mystery thriller perfect for reading on Halloween night in those lulls between handing out the candy…..ok maybe not such a good idea. Guaranteed to have you double checking all the locks before you go to bed, and I personally ended up deleting all personal pictures from social media. I liked the fact that the characters were flawed, which made the ending so much more delicious – a real treat.

You’re at a cottage and it’s raining so you browse the bookshelves for gems other people might have left behind.    SLEEPING MURDER,  Agatha Christie’s last book written in 1976, is the reason why they call her the original Queen of Mystery.   (80 books, over 1 billion sold).   Miss Marple may be a bit dated and the descriptions tame by today’s standards, but it’s still a masterful plot.   While I had never read much AG, other than Murder on the Orient Express where I already knew the ending, this kept me enthralled on a rainy afternoon and I finished it the next day at the beach in brilliant sunshine.

Beach Book

These are all by female writers, so here’s one for the guys.     A thought-provoking read about the origins of the universe and the future of artificial intelligence.     Dan Brown always tells a good story – book contains the usual steady stream of chase scenes where Professor Langdon is on the run from the bad guys and accompanied by a beautiful much younger woman.   Dream on Dan.
Origin (Robert Langdon, #5)Origin by Dan Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good read – Professor Langdon is back, the usual cloak and dagger, church versus science, fast paced suspenseful affair. But why does he always seem to be running from danger, in every chapter, usually with an attractive much younger female? I guess it makes for good movie rights. The book got off to a great start, but then kind of sagged in the middle, but I had guessed the ending by then. The plot line was simpler than some of his other books, but I learned some interesting facts about artificial intelligence and the big bang theory – see title.

Lighthouse

A Canadian find and locale.   The Lightkeeper’s Daughters by Jean E. Pendziwol  (plural – not be be confused with similar titled books).     I can’t remember how I stumbled upon this book, but it was mesmerizing.   A five star read.   Good for a trip to a cabin in the northern wilderness.  
The Lightkeeper's DaughtersThe Lightkeeper’s Daughters by Jean E. Pendziwol

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In her acknowledgements, this first time author thanks her writing group for encouraging her to take the giant leap to send her work out there. I’m so glad she didn’t keep the manuscript in her sock drawer because this is a marvelous book, by far the best novel I have read in awhile. Somewhat reminiscent of The Light Between Oceans, but with an Ontario locale as the lighthouse island is set in northern Lake Superior. The author who lives in Thunder Bay, grew up sailing in the area, and has done extensive research to keep the story authentic for the time period – it is set in the 1930-40’s. It is a beautifully crafted book, wonderfully plotted, well written, good characterization, with a perfectly satisfying ending. Why doesn’t something like this win the Giller prize? The author also thanks a ninety-four year old light-keeper’s wife who said wistfully after reading the book that she felt like she was back on the island. That was how I felt too – totally immersed in this other world, and really like the author acknowledged, there is no greater compliment than that for a writer.

So put your toes in the sand, open a cold drink and start reading.    Don’t forget to wear sunscreen.

Toes in the sand