A Reading Sabbatical

I once read about a woman who took a reading sabbatical.   She packed up a whole load of books and escaped to an isolated cottage in another country and read….and read….and read.   Sounds like the ideal vacation to me, and having a whole year to do nothing but read would be like heaven…..and so it has been during the pandemic. Not that there haven’t been other things to do while stuck at home, but there’s certainly been plenty of time for my favorite activity.

quote by Jane Austen

When I was younger and in the habit of escaping the Canadian winter for a week down south, I would always tote a pile of books in my suitcase (this was in the days before e-Readers) and spend at least half of the time poolside with a good book, the other days being devoted to exploring whatever tropical destination we happened to be in.  One vacation sticks out in my mind, a week on Turks and Caicos, long before it was developed, with five boring books and no way to buy more. The only shopping centre was a strip mall of offshore companies and one souvenir shop devoid of even a rack of paperbacks. For a reader, there’s nothing worse than being stuck on a tropical island with a bad selection of books. I don’t scuba dive/snorkel/can’t even swim, so after my daily walk on the lovely and pristine beach I was bored to tears.

I find other people’s bookshelves fascinating. When they’re interviewing some expert on TV about some matter of vital importance, I’m usually studying the bookshelves behind them and wondering what’s on them, and being envious if they are the nice floor-to-ceiling ones, preferably in white, which I can not install as I have hot water heat rads.

I average about one book a week, and start to feel antsy if I don’t have several in reserve, but this past year my intake has increased dramatically. I spent the first few months of the first lockdown working my way through my stash (18) of mostly non-fiction volumes from bookoutlet, but when the library reopened last summer for curbside pickup it was like Christmas in July!

I keep a book journal where I sporadically list the books I’ve read, usually just tossing the library slips in for later recording. I had intended to do a quarterly review here on the blog, but other topics got in the way, so while I’m not going to list or link to all the books I’ve read during the past year, or even make a best of the best list, here’s a sampling of some of them, with some (honest) observations.  

I should note that when I used to do book reviews on Goodreads, before I started blogging, I rated everything a 4, with an occasional 3 or 5, because I only reviewed books I liked. If the book was boring or not to my taste I would not finish it and so left the skewering to other folks. This was partly in an effort to be kind, keeping in mind that the author had poured much time and effort into something which after all did get published, and partly because reading is so subjective. Just because I didn’t like it, didn’t mean someone else wouldn’t enjoy it. But every once in awhile a book, usually a much-hyped bestseller, would annoy me so much that I would pen a fairly blunt review…..so expect things to be a bit more judgmental here. I haven’t had the best selection this past year, not being able to browse the shelves of my local library or bookstore so I was more reliant on the publishers PR, which sometimes can be disappointing.

I love vintage fashion so I thought The Grace Kelly Dress would be an interesting read.  Years ago, I read a historical fiction book about the designers behind Jackie Kennedy’s iconic pink boucle suit so I thought this would be something similar, but more of a three generational saga.   It was not – it was a whole lot of drama about saying yes to the dress, and the lavender-haired multi-tattooed tech CEO millennial granddaughter eventually said no to her grandmother’s historic couture gown and had it cut down into a pair of trousers.  (There I just saved you from a painful read).  I don’t think the author intended to make a statement about the difference between the generations but that’s what came across.  The 50’s were a much classier era, people had manners.

Separation Anxiety was a DNF (Did Not Finish) – it was on a recommended list but I found the plot so stupid (middle-aged woman facing empty nest “wears” her dog by carrying it around in a sling? – see cover photo) that I never even got past the first ten pages, other than to skim the ending and see she if she stayed with her lazy weed smoking husband. It was supposed to be hilarious and heart-breaking – it was neither. Sad, when the author hadn’t written anything in over a decade, that this is the best she could come up with.    

Sophie Hannah had been recommended to me as a good mystery writer and as she has been appointed the heir apparent to carry on Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot series (I read the Killings at Kingfisher Hall) but not being a big AG or HP fan, I decided to try one of her own books.  Perfect Little Children was a long disappointing read – you simply cannot have a murder mystery with only one suspect.   I kept waiting for the twist at the end but there wasn’t one.

I enjoyed the two non-fiction books so much I blogged about them – see The Library Book post and Secondhand – Travel in the new Global Garage Sale.

Every year I swear I’m done with Elin Hilderbrand and yet I find myself ordering her latest.  Her characters are now middle-aged and they need to grow up and stop drinking, and driving, and she needs to stop killing them off in the last chapter.  Troubles in Paradise was was the last of her winter Caribbean trilogy, but I’m long past the age where living in a tropical paradise would have any appeal to me.

In A Time for Mercy – John Grisham revisits the small southern town of his first book (which I’ve never read), 25 years later.  This was a captivating read, but I find sometimes his endings just dwindle away – it’s like he’s done with it, reached his word count, and that’s that. I also read his Camino Winds – a murder mystery set on an island off the coast of Florida during a hurricane. Good descriptions of the hurricane, but again the ending kind of trailed off. The last scene was the middle aged protagonist celebrating in a bar with his buddies. (Female version of Elin Hilderbrand)

I’m a big fan of Lisa Jewell, but her novels can sometimes be disturbing.  Invisible Girl was a good read, more like a murder mystery.   She really knows how to pull you into the story. 

The Talented Miss Farwell – about a small town bookkeeper who collects big time art – was an interesting book, unique in topic and plot line. It was certainly readable, but I’m not quite sure what the point was, and I expected a better ending. I enjoyed it for the view into the elite New York art world.

Elin Hilderbrand – 28 Summers – her annual Nantucket beach read.  (see above) Corny premise – star crossed Lovers meet on Nantucket the same weekend every year for three decades? But they can’t be together the other 51 weeks because he’s married and his wife is running for President. It was such an unrealistic plot it was funny, and not in a good way. If it wasn’t for Nantucket I wouldn’t bother with her, but I’ve always wanted to go there.

The Guest List – murder at a fancy resort wedding on an island off the coast of Ireland – good characterization and suspense.   A Reese Witherspoonl bookclub selection. I enjoyed this one so much I read her previous book The Hunting Party – set in Scotland.

Stranger in the Lake – murder mystery – Kimberly Belle was a new author to me, but I tried her other books and could not get into them.  (see Pretty Little Wife comment) 

I used to love Joanna Trollope, but she’s been more miss than hit the past decade – Mum and Dad was not one of her best.  Drama about a British couple who are vineyard owners in Spain and their millennial aged children. Poor character development, stilted and repetitive dialogue (Are you okay Mum?) and really the parents were only in their early 70’s, not even old enough to really worry about yet.   A lot of stuff about sibling rivalry and not much of a plot.

Hidden Valley Road – non-fiction book about a family of twelve children in the 60/70’s and six of the ten boys were diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Decades later, the two youngest, both girls, collaborate with a journalist investigating a genetic link to the disease.  An Oprah Book club selection, which I normally avoid like the plague, but this was totally fascinating. But then I like a good medical book and have had some exposure to schizophrenics through my work. Be grateful for a sound mind. The research was interesting, particularly the preventative angle. Not sure why they kept having kids when advised not to, but it must have been a nightmare living in that house. Both parents had died, so we do not get their POV.  

Dear Edward was a library bookclub selection which I skimmed but decided I did not want to read, as it was about a 12 year old boy who is the sole survivor of a plane crash which killed 183 people, including his parents.  The world is depressing enough….

Mary Higgins Clark was the Queen of Suspense, and I blogged about her passing last year at the age of 93. (link) Piece of My Heart is the last in the series she co-wrote with Alafair Burke.  It’s clear that even at her advanced age MHClark was the mastermind of the duo. This was so unlike the previous works that Ms. Burke must have finished this one mostly on her own, as it was as dull as toast, with little to no suspense.

The Midnight Library – by Matt Haig was good, but got off to a slow start, and I did not find the writing as a female protagonist quite believable. (In an author interview he remarked that he had made an earlier attempt from a male POV. He also said he was striving for something hopeful like It’s A Wonderful Life).  Writing about parallel universes seems to be a popular theme these days, (who knows how many other dimensions are out there we might be currently living in. Some of them might even contain aliens!) I was close to abandoning it, but LA (fellow book lover and blogger of Waking up on the Wrong Side of 50), convinced me to stick it out and I was glad I did as the ending was worth it.  Besides I love anything with a library in it.

Lean Out – by Tara Henley – I enjoyed this non-fiction ode to time-out so much that I blogged about in My Literary Salon. I seem to have had better luck with non-fiction this year.

Two of these were DNR or did not get even started.   The weather turned too warm for Insta-Pot soup, and World Travel – the Anthony Bourdain book, written by his collaborator after his death but full of his own quotes, had so much swearing in it I found it offensive and merely skimmed a few chapters. I used to watch his tv show occasionally but have never read his first, Kitchen Confidential or any of his other books so I have nothing to compare it to.

When the Stars Go Dark – by Paula McLain of The Paris Wife fame – about a CA detective searching for missing girls, was good for her first attempt at a non-historical/murder mystery.

The Push was a riveting read – motherhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when you have a deeply disturbed sociopath child.   I’m still trying to figure out what I think about this book, so it would make excellent bookclub fare.   As a first-time novelist, I wonder where she got the idea, but then we have only to look at the news and wonder what it would be like to be the parent of a child who commits a violent crime, even if she is only seven.

Pretty Little Wife – DNF – reminder – do not order anything with the wife/exwife/trophy wife as the murder victim/suspect/crime solver etc.

Anxious People – Sorry LA – I know you said to give it a chance, and I may someday but it was overdue and I had to take it back.   By the same author as A Man Called Ove – which I loved and which Tom Hanks is re-making as a movie….I enjoyed the Swedish version.

The Listening Path – by Julia Cameron – a big disappointment which I blogged about anyway.

Keep Sharp – by Dr. Sanjay Gupta.   I loved this book, it’s an easy read for non-medical folks, full of common sense advice but it’s scary to think the decisions we make in middle-age determine how well we live in old age.  I may blog on this later.  He has another book coming out later in the year – World War C – Lessons from the Covid Pandemic.

The Last Garden in England – library bookclub selection, a multi-generational story about an English garden.   A good tale, but nothing much to discuss, character driven with the garden merely a background.

A Promised Land – presidential memoir by Barrack Obama – although it’s not pictured here.  I read his two earlier books but they were slim volumes. I’m sure his time in the White House was interesting but 700 pages was just way too much detail for me.  I got to page 200 and it was still the primaries, and I had to return it and besides, Michelle said it better and more concisely in Becoming.  I’ve not heard too much about this book after the initial buzz, but there is to be a volume two.  I like to read in bed with the book propped up on my lap and it was just way too heavy…..literally, it weighed a ton.

The Last Bookshop in London – this was a surprisingly good read for light historical fiction, but then I love anything with a bookshop.  Set in WW2 England during the Blitz….you can imagine the rest.

The Windsor Knot – cute premise and title with Queen Elizabeth playing sleuth. It was a slow, not very suspenseful read but somehow I do not think the Queen would be amused. Not everyone’s cup of tea.

The Lost Apothecary – also a good historical fiction murder mystery, but then I’m biased towards anything with an apothecary, especially a female one, even if it was a place you went to obtain poison for your intended (male) victim. The 1800 London past woven into a present day story, with a surprisingly hopeful ending. 

Biggest disappointing read of the year which I had been so looking forward to was Jodi Picoult’s – The Book of Two Ways. Book opens with married female protagonist surviving a plane crash. Does she go home to her husband and child or fly off someplace else? Waded through 400 pages on death doulas, AI, Egyptian hieroglyphics and archaeology, much of which was standard university lecture material and had little to do with the plot, only to arrive at a totally ambiguous ending. I guess if you live in a parallel universe you don’t have to chose between your responsible-but-no-longer-in-love-with husband and your sexy grad-school Indiana-Jones type boyfriend because you can have both? Or maybe you the reader gets to decide? The ending was just plain annoying. In the author notes she thanks her editor for making her change it as it was so much better, which only left me wondering what the original ending might have been. I’ve never known Jodi Picoult to write a bad book before so it was doubly disappointing. I found her last one, Small Great Things, (how someone becomes a white supremacist) a timely and outstanding read.

There were many other books I didn’t take photos of…..some the kind you can’t put down.

I particularly enjoyed The Pull of the Stars – by Emma Donoghue about an obstetrical hospital in Ireland during the 1918 Spanish flu, which I found riveting, both for it’s historical obstetrical detail (not advised for anyone pregnant but many of my friends were OB nurses) and for it’s depiction of the pandemic (much the same as today, masks, distancing, fresh air, but thank god no carbolic acid disinfectant). I was surprised by the ending, but after I researched the author it make sense. Only a well respected writer (the Room) could get away with no quotation marks around the dialogue, an odd feature which didn’t seem to distract from the story.

I love murder mysteries and psychological thrillers, if they’re not too gory and I have my favorite authors – One by One by Ruth Ware was excellent, the setting a snowy ski chalet in the French alps with eight co-workers. The End of Her – by Canadian author Shari Lapena who is consistently good also, and Grace is Gone – by Clare McIntosh. Woman on the Edge – by Samantha Bailey, about a woman who hands her baby to another woman on the subway platform before she jumps, was also an interesting read.

For historical fiction, The Book of Lost Names – Kristen Harmel – a WW2 saga about a female forger helping Jewish children escape, and The Paris Library -Janet Skeslien Charles about librarians working at the American Library in Paris during the Nazi occupation, – were both good reads.

I hope you have found something interesting here for your summer reading.  I also have a link to My Literary Salon reviews on the front pages of my website on the main menu under Books.

It’s either feast or famine, and I have little out from the library at the moment, which has been the recent victim of a “cyber security incident” thus disabling the online reservation process. I hope they get it fixed soon, or we Readers will all soon be in withdrawal. I’m always up for a recommendation, so please leave any favorite reads or authors you’ve discovered in comments.

PS. 3000 words – and I was criticizing Obama? Maybe I’ll stick to a quarterly review in the future…

Books and Brownies

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

Brownies

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

The Family UpstairsThe Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

Someone We Know

Someone We Know by Shari Lapena

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

                                                                                                                   

                                                                                                                     

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

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

If You Knew HerIf You Knew Her by Emily Elgar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

                                                                                                                         

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

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

Grace is GoneGrace is Gone by Emily Elgar

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

The Shape of FamilyThe Shape of Family by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

The GuardiansThe Guardians by John Grisham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  

The Literary Salon – Help Me

Help Me BookThis month’s literary review is about one woman’s humorous but perfectly disastrous journey through the world of self-help books.   

The Publisher’s Blurb: 

Marianne Power was a self-help junkie. For years she lined her bookshelves with dog-eared copies of definitive guide after definitive guide on how to live your best life. Yet one day she woke up to find that the life she dreamed of and the life she was living were not miles but continents apart. So she set out to make a change. Or, actually, to make every change.

Marianne decided to finally find out if her elusive perfect life—the one without debt, anxiety, hangovers or Netflix marathons, the one where she healthily bounced around town with perfect teeth to meet the cashmere-sweater-wearing man of her dreams—lay in the pages of those books. So for a year she vowed to test a book a month, following its advice to the letter, taking the surest road she knew to a perfect Marianne.

As her year-long plan turned into a demented roller coaster where everything she knew was turned upside down, she found herself confronted with a different question: Self-help can change your life, but is it for the better?

About the Author:

Marianne Power is a successful British journalist and blogger.  She lives in London, England.    She was a freelance writer at the time the book was written.

My Goodreads Review:

Help Me: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Your LifeHelp Me: One Woman’s Quest to Find Out if Self-Help Really Can Change Your Life by Marianne Power

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Marianne Power’s year long journey sampling the shelves of the self-help section is an enormously entertaining look at the self-help genre.    We’ve all read self-help books, except maybe those with perfect lives and non-dysfunctional families.    But are they…well…helpful?    We tend to read them and then toss them aside, so how intriguing to read about someone who spent a year road testing them.   I absolutely loved this book – it was brilliantly written, hilariously funny and when she spirals out of control into the depths of despair, painfully honest.   Not many people would be so revealing about their less than perfect lives and perceived flaws.  Fortunately, Marianne had her mother, so full of wisdom and sensible advice, to help her through her year of applied psychology.   I can just hear her mother sighing, “Oh Marianne, you’re fine, just the way you are.”   And she is.   PS.  I hope now that she has become a successful author, she makes enough money to pay off all her debts and buy a house.    

Discussion: 

I noticed this book on the Just New Releases shelf at my local bookstore, because pursuing the self-help section is something I’m long past.   When you’re older, you realize that your life doesn’t need fixing…. you’re happy to be still living, reasonably healthy and mostly content.   If I do pick up a self-help book it’s more likely to be one about living with gratitude or something practical like how to get organized – Marie Kondo I may be revisiting you before I empty out those kitchen cupboards! 

The book was so engaging, I just could not put it down.    I enjoyed her witty style of writing.   The chapter on angels was LOL funny, but then I grew up Catholic so I could relate.    

‘My guardian angel was a daily companion who got me through exams and my ever-present fear that a burglar would break in while I slept.  Every night I’d pray to her, turn off the lights, and then when I’d be practicing playing dead, (I figured murderers wouldn’t kill me if I was already dead in my bed), I’d imagine her flying over me, her golden wings flittering, like Tinkerbell.   She was pretty.  As all angels should be.’       

While I was aware of some of the titles and authors she explored, I had only ever read Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway (which surely must be from the 80’s), and The Secret, (during my Gospel according to Oprah phase).   I knew of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and that Tony Robbins was a popular life coach but the chapter on his workshop was just too weird and cult-like.    Of all the books she mentioned, the one that seemed to resonate the most with her was The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.    She had tried to read it once but her therapist recommended it might speak to her now, as sometimes it’s a case of the right book at the right time.   I might check that one out as I tend to be a worrier and have trouble staying in the present.   (Edited to add – sorry to say but I abandoned Mr. Tolle at the halfway point,  although I did find him helpful those nights I had insomnia mulling over all  those kitchen reno decisions – it was so boring that after a few pages I was out like a light). 

She did see a therapist, and that brings up another issue about self-help books – many people turn to them because they can’t afford a therapist or a life coach and there’s only so many times your friends and family can listen to you moaning about the same old problems.   Not everyone has a wise sage of a mother dispensing sound advice, so to obtain nuggets of wisdom and fresh points of view from the pages of a book cannot be dismissed.  Discussions about how to live a good and happy life have been with us since the days of the Greek philosophers.    But is too much introspection a bad thing?   The last chapter sums things up nicely.  

Some Quotes:

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”  (Socrates)

“All this thinking about yourself is not good for you.”  (Marianne’s Mum – Chapter 11)

 Is there a particular self-help book which you have found helpful?

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

 

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:

 

The Literary Salon

I’ve always wanted to own a bookstore and host a literary salon at night for all my witty and talented friends.    A literary salon is different from a book club, as people can just drop in, like a cocktail party.   In Paris in the Roaring Twenties salons were frequented by intellectuals, writers, artists and the celebrities du jour (Hemingway, Picasso, Fitzgerald & Co), with the sole purpose of providing stimulating conversation, amusing repartee and a lively exchanges of ideas…..plus free booze.   With a book club, you can have all of those too, but you are there to focus on the book…..hopefully.  

My experience with book clubs has been poor.  Attempting to infiltrate a library book club proved a disaster as the tightly-knit group had been together for over a decade and there always seemed to one or two members who squashed any opinion which didn’t agree with theirs, or worse monopolized the discussion.  The group was so large (18-25), as to be unwieldy, with some (myself included), being too intimidated to speak up, despite the best efforts of the moderator to make sure everyone had a say.  The structure was rigid, with a list of questions to cover in a set period of time.   Also, there was no food, or even coffee and it was late afternoon, which tended to interfere with my nap time.   I then thought of hosting my own more informal book club evenings with a smaller group of literary friends, perhaps once a season with food, like Southern cooking for The Help….pass the pecan pie please.   A group of local women self-published a book about their book club theme nights, complete with menus and lots of bevies, but they were rich and prone to extravagant weekend getaways, plus the hostess had to buy everyone a copy of the next book.      

What is the difference between a book club and a famous literary salon like the ones Hemingway attended, other than better food and more chic clothing?

Paris salon

Hard to imagine Hemingway at a book club.   Do men do book clubs – possibly in big cities, but not in my neck of the woods.   Only in the movies, like The Jane Austen Book Club, where they may have an ulterior motive ie. a crush on one of the members.   But they might be tempted to drop in on a literary salon if alcohol was provided.   Most afternoon book clubs tend to be female affairs  with tea in china cups and fancy sandwiches and cookies, or evening wine and cheese and gossip….but first we must discuss the book with a list of questions to cover.    Literary salons tend to be more free ranging affairs with small groups of individuals, male and female, congregating and discussions covering any number of topics…..and of course gossip!   It would be nice to combine the best of both worlds, good conversation, good food and drink and a relaxed atmosphere (one where you can hang out in your PJ’s).   Of course, if you are hosting a literary salon, having a Paris address helps, but since WordPress is our blogging home, that will have to suffice.     

So starting in January, I would like to present my new virtual Literary Salon.  We will open with the murder mystery, An Unwanted Guest, by Shari Lapena  (see link).   It’s the perfect book for a blizzard, so button up your overcoat, you don’t want to get chilled.     Please feel free to drop by anytime…..   

Postscript –  Bring Your Own Beverage – a Bloody Mary might be suitable for our first selection. 

Cue some jazzy twenties cocktail music:

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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….

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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