Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Favorite Reads of 2019

Happy New Year and wishing you many delightful reads in 2020! I am enjoying seeing other people's "Best of" year-end lists, even when I haven't read any of their books.  There is always room on my TBR pile for books that sound appealing.

Historical Fiction
Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce (2018)
This wound up being my favorite book of the year!  A warm and emotional story of a young woman who yearns to be a war correspondent during WWII but finds a job instead working on advice magazine during the day (what the Brits call an Agony Aunt) while doing her bit for the war at night as bombs fall.  You know how much I like books with WWII settings but some have become almost a cliche of tired plots.   This was fresh and appealing, humorous at times, heartbreaking at others, and altogether delightful. Those who remember Dear Lovey Hart will love it.

Fiction

Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal (2019)
NPR called this "Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan" in which Elizabeth Bennet becomes Alysba Binat and Fitzwilliam Darcy is Valentine Darsee.   There are a lot of P&P tributes and imitators out there but this was outstanding.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2017)
The lives of a suburban family in Ohio are disrupted when an artist and her teenage daughter move to town and when friends adopt a Chinese baby whose mother wants her back.   This was my favorite book group choice of the year.

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary (2019)
A gem of a story in which Tiffy, broke after a bad breakup, moves into a London apartment with Leon, with the plan that they will never meet, as he is a nurse working nights and she works for a publisher during the day, communicating via post-it notes.

Suspense/Mystery

Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny (2010)
I read the first book in the series, Still Life, in 2013 and found it pleasant enough but was not compelled to read more until I went to Québec in June with my sister.   Seeking something appropriate to listen to in the car, I got A Fatal Grace on CD and listened to it driving home and this time I was captivated by Armand and Three Pines.   This installment provides the Quebec City history and setting I wanted and is brilliantly told in flashbacks while interspersed with two current investigations, as Chief Inspector Gamache of the Canadian Sûreté and his sidekick Jean Guy Beauvoir recover from a case that went disastrously wrong and has left them both anguished in mind and body.

A Borrowing of Bones (2018) and Blind Search (2019) by Paula Munier
In this new series, Mercy Carr, a retired military police officer, and Elvis, her bomb-sniffing Belgian Malinois, have settled in Vermont to recover from the loss of Elvis’s handler/Mercy’s boyfriend.  Their therapy is being outdoors but that leads to murder, which Mercy feels compelled to investigate.   My sister and I both felt this series reminded us of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s books, which we like very much.    I don't need to tell you to read these in order, do I?

Romance

Act Like It (2015) and Pretty Face by Lucy Parker (2017) (reviewed in May)
I am indebted to Stephanie Burgis for recommending Parker’s romances.  Parker is a New Zealand author who is a fan of Austen and Heyer and writes sizzling contemporary romances that are intense, funny, and impossible to put down.   The first two have a London theatre setting.  I have the third and fourth books waiting for me.

Nonfiction
Mornings on Horseback: The Story of an Extraordinary Family, a Vanished Way of Life, and the Unique Child Who Became Theodore Roosevelt by David McCullough (1981)
I listened to this fascinating biography of young Theodore Roosevelt and his family leading up to and during my drive to Quebec, having been fascinated by McCullough’s book about The Wright Brothers last year.  I especially enjoyed the parts set during Teddy’s years at Harvard and his family’s travel abroad.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean (2017)
This book started out as an investigation of an infamous fire at the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986.  Far more interesting than the fire, however, is the history of the library and the staff who work there now.  I am sure listening to this book on audio in July was partially responsible for my enrolling in library school in August!

YA
The Bookworm Crush by Lisa Brown Roberts (2019)
When shy teen Amy McIntyre needs help to win a contest she goes to a brash surfer, Toff Nichols, to show her to be bold and sassy – but perhaps they can both teach each other something.  And, yes, I bought the book for its cover to give my sister but then found it completely charming.

A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood (2018)
A fabulous coming of age novel set in Cornwall, with echoes of I Capture the Castle and The Great Gatsby.  I had to special order this from England.

Unclaimed Baggage by Jen Doll (2018) (reviewed in February)
The Skylarks’ War by Hilary McKay (2018)
This beautifully written book follows Clarry Penrose (disliked and neglected by a horrendous father), her brother, and cousin from childhood through WWII.  A book you want to own, not just borrow from the library!  Like all McKay books, it can be both funny and poignant, and it reminded me a little of my beloved Flambards.   Really pitiful that the US publisher changed the title to Love to Everyone.

Children’s 

The Crystal Snowstorm by Meriol Trevor (1997)  (reviewed in August) This is the first of four in a Ruritanian series that is full of adventure and appealing characters.

Withering-by-Sea by Judith Rosell (2014) (reviewed in July)  For fans of Eva Ibbotson, this is the first in a trilogy about orphaned Stella Montgomery.  Fans are waiting for Simon & Schuster to publish the third book in the US.

Best Rereads

The Blue Sapphire by D.E. Stevenson
Mrs. Tim Christie by D.E. Stevenson

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Through the Evil Days by Julia Spencer-Fleming

Title: Through the Evil Days 
Author:  Julia Spencer-Fleming
Publication: St. Martin’s/Minotaur, hardcover, 2013
Genre: Mystery

Plot: In the tense and emotional eighth book of the series, Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne and Reverend Clare Fergusson are finally married but their lives remain professionally and personally complicated.  Clare is pregnant (as we learned at the very end of the last book), Russ is unhappy about becoming a parent at what he considered his advanced age, and a fire and related kidnapping threatens to derail their postponed honeymoon.  In the meantime, Hadley Knox, a relatively recent addition to the Millers Kill police force, is somewhat regretting having blown off coworker Kevin Flynn merely because he’s younger and she is getting over a bad divorce (soon she will have real problems!).   When Russ and Clare finally leave town for a week to “enjoy” an isolated cottage convenient to ice fishing (my idea of hell), they find the criminals are hiding out nearby.  Marooned by bad weather, Russ and Clare are caught between old rivalries and new enemies.

My Impressions: Despite the fact that Julia Spencer-Fleming is one of my favorite authors, I somehow had been saving this so long for a special occasion that I hadn’t read even read it! (I suspect my mother borrowed it and did not return it promptly but it is nice that she and my sisters and I all like this author so much.)  I reread One Was a Soldier to get in the mood – that is really exceptionally well done with flashbacks that advance the plot instead of exasperating the reader (a pet peeve) and vivid characters.   While I enjoyed this one, I had a hard time following the plot and need to reread it to fully grasp what was going on.  Russ is a pain for most of the book but I especially like Hadley and Kevin and was hoping things would work out for them: great cliffhanger ending!

One advantage of waiting this long to read Through the Evil Days is that her new book, Hid from Our Eyes, is coming out in April!   I had missed the sad news that Ms. Spencer-Fleming lost her husband in 2017; I am sure that getting back to writing after such a loss is much harder than simply going back to an office, so I am glad she was able to finish a new book and I hope it was a good distraction for her.

This is the tenth of twelve books that are part of my 2019 TBR Challenge, inspired by Adam at Roof Beam Reader, to prioritize some of my unread piles.  Two more to read by the end of the year!

Off the Blog: Merry Impeachmas!

Source: I highly recommend this series but do suggest you begin at the beginning with In the Bleak Midwinter.  My mother and I enjoyed meeting Julia Spencer-Fleming at the Brookline Library several years ago and I thus own an autographed hardcover.  She told us her daughter was studying for an MLIS at Simmons, making a tough commute down from Maine.  My mother, a (retired) librarian, sympathized as she commuted to URI while earning her library degree.  

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Virtual Advent Calendar

Thank you to Sprite Writes for including me in the Virtual Advent Tour she has organized for five years. For those who don’t know, Advent is the liturgical season leading up to Christmas which includes the four preceding Sundays. 
Can you guess?  See below.
This post is about a family tradition started by my father, who we lost three years ago.  I think about him whenever I wrap a present because, although he was not good at shopping, when he came up with a gift he enjoyed making tricky tags!  He would add a message to the tag but put dashes instead of some of the letters so the recipient would have to guess what was inside.   The first one I remember was a little datebook when I was in high school or college, with a tag said something like, “For CLM, so she will K _ _ W   WH _  _  E  TO  G _.

They got more complicated over the years and the rest of the family occasionally joins in.  You have to strike the right balance between a little mystery but not so obscure no one can hazard a guess! 
I think Buddy was telling me to look in the box for some awesome gardener's gloves that go practically to my elbows, protecting me from poison ivy!   (Not that they keep the plants alive - now, that would be quite a gift!)
I found this one from several years ago stuck to some wrapping paper.  I am trying to guess what it stands for!  We'll have to see if my brother remembers.

* * *

Answer to Samantha's tag:  Quiet Moment.  Yes, any working mother with three children and a dog finds that quiet moments are in short supply. 

Thursday, December 12, 2019

The American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin

Title: The American Heiress
Author:  Daisy Goodwin
Publication: St. Martin’s, paperback, 2010
Genre: Historical Fiction
The American Heiress is the ninth of twelve books that are part of my 2019 TBR Challenge, inspired by Adam at Roof Beam Reader, to prioritize some of my unread piles.  I have another one read but not yet reviewed and two more to read by December 31st.  Can she do it?

Plot: Cora Cash is the beautiful daughter of an affluent and ambitious mother, who wants English nobility for a son-in-law.  Following a glamorous (although marred by a fire) ball in Newport, Cora leaves behind her local admirers and heads to England with her mother and her shrewd black maid, Bertha.  Conveniently, Cora immediately encounters a very eligible bachelor, the Duke of Wareham, who is high on pedigree but low on cash, and unenthusiastically recognizes an opportunity when he sees one.  The reader, if not Cora, anticipates the obstacles in the way of turning a marriage of convenience into a relatively happy union (condescending servants, jilted lovers, shrewish mother-in-law, poor heating) but there is more to Cora than desire for status.   Cora slowly learns how to defend herself and begins to figure out what she needs to do to master her new position, act befitting a duchess, and cope with her moody husband in what turns out to be an entertaining novel. 

My Impressions: By chance, I happened to read two books called The American Heiress close together and this one, although enjoyable, suffered a little in comparison to the one by Dorothy Eden, which is also about a rich New York heiress determined to marry into the English nobility.   The difference is that Eden’s heroine is actually the maid and half-sister of the heiress.  When the real heiress and ambitious mother go down with the Lusitania as they head to England for the wedding, Hetty begins a dangerous masquerade.  Like Cora, she is tormented by her mother-in-law, snobbish servants, and a jealous ex-girlfriend of her new husband but somehow the story is more fun and more suspenseful.  Still, both Cora and Hetty have to muster their wits to cope with their new lives and in each book that is the most interesting part of the story, as we have seen plenty of Newport parties and drafty English house parties elsewhere, haven’t we?  

Sadly, Cora has little loyalty to her maid Bertha, who accompanies her to England, despite suspecting she will never see her family in the South again.  Bertha is not treated well by the English servants and she is lonely except for the friendship of the Duke’s manservant. Bertha yearns for independence and security, and suspects her days with Cora are numbered because the Duke resents her possible influence on Cora, so tries to save her wages so she can one day have her own business.  This is an interesting contrast to Cora, who may not be thrilled with her husband but cannot seem to imagine a future without a man.  Her parents, having bought her the Duke with a generous dowry, are not interested in any dissatisfaction she may have with her bargain.

Off the Blog: I am making deviled eggs for the OWD holiday party, which I now wish I had done last night!   My friend Barb suggested a clever way to get them out of the shell by shaking them in a jar with a lid: of course, I cannot find a jar that is suitable.

Source: Personal copy

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Six Degrees of Separation: from Sanditon to Mrs. Tim Christie

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

Sanditon, the unfinished Jane Austen, was Kate’s starting book. I read this long ago and unfortunately don’t remember it at all.  However, I am looking forward to the new dramatization on Masterpiece Theatre beginning January 12, 2020.
Joan Aiken came to mind because I thought she had completed Sanditon, but "her" Austen is Emma Watson, The Watsons Completed, which is my first book (not to be confused with actress Emma Watson!).  She also crafted several elegantly written books about Austen characters long before everyone was doing it!  Of course, Joan Aiken is best known for her children’s books, beginning with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.   I met her once in New York, which is a cherished memory.  I am so glad that Joan's daughter Lizza Aiken is actively managing her mother’s estate.
My second book is by Joan Aiken’s sister (my mother and I always wondered why a poet like Conrad Aiken would give his daughters what is essentially the same name), Savannah Purchase by Jane Aiken Hodge.  This is my favorite of all her books; it’s a historical romance about identical cousins.  Don’t you love an impersonation story?
My third book is Juliette Low, Girl Scout from the Childhood of Famous Americans series.  Do you remember these books? They have been repackaged since my childhood but I managed to find the cover I remember.  Low was from an affluent Savannah family, unhappily married, and a chance meeting with British general Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts, led her to help found a similar group for girls, which became the Girl Scouts in America.  As a former Girl Scout, I have always enjoyed stories about Low and wish I'd had time to visit her home when I was in Savannah!

The fourth book is a summer camp story, Sal Fisher at Girl Scout Camp by Lillian S. Gardner (1959).  This is a three-book series that I found in my grade school library.  My favorite was when Sal went to Girl Scout camp, full of girls learning life lessons, hikes, cookouts, and fun (although preserve me from actually going to overnight camp; much better to reach about it).

It is literally freezing outside and warm weather is a distant memory but my fifth book is Star Spangled Summer by Janet Lambert. This was my favorite series when I was growing up and I did some pretty crazy things to collect all 54 books by this author.  Set just prior to WWII, it’s about Penny Parrish, a teen who invites lonely Carrol Houghton to visit her lively army family.  Naturally, this changes both their lives and many books follow (now back in print from Image Cascade).  The description of military life was fascinating to me, especially in later books when they live near West Point.
Finally, my sixth book is Mrs. Tim Christie by D.E. Stevenson, set in 1934.  Life is a series of misadventures for this attractive and charming heroine, married to a British army officer and trying to manage on a budget (her "frugal lifestyle" includes boarding school for the son, a cook, and a maid, but that was the era).  I am rereading this currently because the three sequels – Mrs. Tim Carries On, Mrs. Tim Gets a Job, and Mrs. Tim Flies Home are back in print from Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press.  Also, I recently read Diary of a Provincial Lady for the first time, which was written about ten years before Mrs. Tim and is clearly influential.  But I think Mrs. Tim is much funnier!
I recommend this series if you like to laugh out loud while you are reading.  Several of my other favorite DES books are now back in print: I need to complete my collection!

Off the Blog:  I saw the Moby Dick musical tonight at the A.R.T.   It was good (although too long in the middle - die already, Pip!) but it took an hour and a half to get home on the subway and bus.

See you next month, if not before!