Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Great Christmas Knit-Off (Book Review)

Title: The Great Christmas Knit-Off
Author: Alexandra Brown

Publication: William Morrow, trade paperback, October 2015
Genre: Chick Lit
Plot: Stood up at the altar by her fiancee and in disgrace at work, Sybil and her dog impulsively jump on a train to visit her best friend Cher, now running a pub in the picturesque village of Tindledale, somewhere in England. Expecting a quick weekend visit, Sybs woefully underpacks and winds up staggering miserably through the snow without boots.  Luckily, despite her misery, she is warmhearted and makes friends easily with the quirky inhabitants who feed her, clothe her, and – in the case of the local doctor, whose name is [clue] Darcy - romance her. However, the fun part of the story is when Sybs, an obsessive knitter, helps the twittery owner of a yarn shop revitalize her store and pay off all her bills by enlisting all the villagers in a massive knit-off making hideous holiday sweaters in large numbers.    

Audience: Fans of light English romantic fiction; authors such as Katie Fforde, Sophie Kinsella, Carole Matthews.

Tag Line:  When life unravels, it's time to knit . . .
What I liked: I enjoy a novel with a Christmas setting (although it was chiefly the snow and ice that gave this book its December atmosphere), and this is definitely a feel good story with an appealing heroine and village setting, lots of engaging characters, enough gossipy back-story to help the reader keep everyone straight, and the obligatory happy ending.  Although not much of a knitter myself, it was fun to read the descriptions of Hettie’s House of Haberdashery, and I will look forward to another trip to Tindledale (at first I misread as Tinderdale which would likely have been a very different type of book).

Points for the charming map of the village, and I hope the grumpy bookstore owner gets his own story as the series continues!

What I disliked: I am still perplexed about the message Sybs found in her newspaper: “Give me a try.  X.”  It was later explained as a shopping recommendation which does not make much sense.
Source: I received a copy of this book from TLC Book Tours in return for an honest review. This review is the last stop on the tour but you can read other reviews of the book by clicking here. Recommended for those who enjoy a chick lit version of Cranford!

KnittingIf you want to see some pretty knitting, visit my friend Leah's blog.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Indian Summers – Season 1, Episode 5 – Recap

The Viceroy is hosting a very elegant party at his residence to celebrate Ralph’s and Madeleine’s engagement – Alice says everyone has been invited, and this includes both blackmailing Sarah and the beautiful Indian teacher, Leena. “Prepare to eat cake!” is the theme of the party.

Ralph is negotiating with Dr. Kamble, an Untouchable (at the bottom of the caste system), to prevent the Untouchables from making a deal with the Indian Congress, which would go against British interests. Dr. Kamble is not impressed by his arguments and asks when Ralph’s family first came to India. Ralph is proud his family has been in the Indian Civil Service since 1824 but Dr. Kamble opines that his family had a hundred years to help his people, had they so chosen.

Weird little boy Adam and his equally strange mother have reunited. She tells him to wait for her and they’ll find his father (could it be Ralph?). Adam is scared of his mother but does not fit into the orphanage. The rest of the orphans are enjoying the story of Cinderella and want Leena to go to the ball, but she says she only has a hand me down dress. The orphans make her an outfit that looks beautiful but Leena wears the hand me down silver dress instead, which does nothing for her. Not that it matters; the missionary is still in love with her and with a wife like Sarah, who can blame him?

Alice tells Aafrin that she knows he stole the evidence linking the assassin to the Indian nationalists and accuses him of asking her to betray her own brother. Aafrin asks worriedly if she will tell but she’s not sure. This prevarication usually winds up with someone getting murdered but I think Alice is safe because she is the only character I like. Or does that mean she is more likely to be eliminated?

Sarah made one of her first blackmail demands of Alice – she wants to sit near the Viceroy at the engagement party dinner. However, the man in charge of protocol is immune to Alice’s coaxing and says as the wife of a missionary Sarah is stuck next to a man who works in sewage (at least, in an office job; not cleaning or shoveling it – that would indeed be insulting).

Ralph is regretting his engagement and asks Alice what she really thinks of Madeleine, complaining that Alice avoids her. Alice says Madeleine has been very kind to her and tries to explain she is just giving the couple privacy. “Oh, you’re jealous!” Ralph exclaims, because he finds that easier to understand, and from the way he is fawning over Alice we know he’d be very jealous of her spouse. Lucky spouse is far away, we think, albeit not dead.

“I don’t know if I’m in love or following orders!” Ralph complains. This could refer either to his engagement or the absurd costume he is wearing. I think the engagement is doomed. I hope for her sake Madeleine isn’t pregnant!

There is a first mention that Ralph may be spending more than he can afford although I guess it was implied when Alice commented on the gorgeous house in Episode 1. It would be nice if Madeleine really is an heiress but I suspect she and her brother are frauds.

When Sarah finds her name tag down at the uncool end of the dinner table she is furious and tells Alice it would be a pity if people found out her husband was alive (Alice was an idiot to say she was a widow). As a result, Alice switches their name tags, which doesn’t go over well with Protocol Guy, although Alice is perfectly happy sitting next to the Sarah’s morose husband, Dougie. When Alice notices that the servants are deliberately ignoring Dr. Kamble, she makes them serve him but the poor man is given something offensive – which must have been pig. Sarah does get to dance with the Viceroy which is more than she deserves. I doubt she will be grateful.
Madeleine and Ralph are dressed as Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI (hence the cake theme – bizarrely appropriate for the last days of the Raj although surely that wasn’t Madeleine’s intention) which is strange because it’s not a costume party and no one else is dressed up; plus it makes Ralph look extremely sinister, kind of like John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons. Cynthia is watching them dance and taking pleasure in the engagement because she helped engineer it until Eugene reveals there is no fortune! Cynthia is stunned by this news and can’t decide what to do. And if Eugene thinks Ralph is too much the gentleman to break the engagement, he is quite wrong.

However, Ralph doesn’t know the bad news yet and is in good spirits because the Maharajah at the party was gracious to Dr. Kamble, which Ralph and the Viceroy had not anticipated. It turns out that the Maharajah outlawed Untouchables in his admittedly small region. Aafrin has been put in charge of Dr. Kamble and tells him that Ralph is trustworthy (which is clearly not true) smoothing the way for Ralph to make another attempt to win Dr. Kamble over for his political purpose. Don’t Ralph and his cronies know the British will have to leave India? Are they just trying to feather their nests before they leave?

Then Ralph takes Madeleine for a turn in the garden just as Adam and his mother appear. They seem bent on accosting Ralph, so I guess he really is Adam’s father (we can tell from the mixed race children at the orphanage that half-Indian, half-English children are not unusual but they are kept out of sight so I suppose this might destroy Ralph’s career). Ralph seems to recognize Adam’s mother and tells one of the servants to get rid of her. Alice and Aafrin are watching, out of sight, and Alice impulsively kisses Aafrin passionately. He responds (I could tell he was getting tired of girlfriend Sita when she kept chattering to him earlier but maybe it was also because she never delivered the warning note. Although Aafrin doesn’t know it yet, the police found the forged document in his family’s home) but although this embrace was predictable, it is not very convincing. Aafrin is not a very appealing character (although intended to be) and was very petulant throughout this episode. Combined with the fact that he asked Alice to betray her brother by concealing his theft of the evidence relating to the assassin, she should steer clear of him. Does Alice not realize that if Ralph turns her out, she will have no choice but to go back to England to the dreadful husband?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Indian Summers – Season 1, Episode 4 – Recap

The Viceroy of all India has arrived in Simla to enjoy the cool breezes after a business trip to London, and everyone bows very low indeed as he passes by. When he reaches the office, he naturally asks for his private secretary. One of Ralph’s servants runs to the house to alert him and, catching sight of Madeleine in his bed, averts his eyes (I am sure all the servants have been speculating like mad on her exact status). When Ralph comes downstairs looking very debonair, Eugene (furious that his host and sister keep retiring to the bedroom) announces that he and Madeleine are returning to Chicago that very afternoon unless Ralph plans to propose. Ralph is very taken aback but does not plan to be pushed into marriage by an upstart American. Eugene complains about the carrying-on he has been forced to observe and asks what Ralph’s intentions are. Ralph hesitates but then Madeleine comes downstairs, all smiles, and is mortified when she realizes what is going on. Eugene insists they are leaving at 4:00 unless Ralph has something to say to Madeleine.
“I wish you a safe passage,” says Ralph, the coldest fish in the sea, because he has to rush off to see his boss. Although not sure I like Madeleine, I felt bad when her face fell and she realized how indifferent Ralph really is to her.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Indian Summers – Season 1, Episode 3 – Recap

Aafrin is back at work after being shot, despite appearing to be at death’s door at the hospital in last week’s episode. Ralph’s previous condescending attitude has changed now that Aafrin saved his life, and he asks if Aafrin is interested in a high level position in the Indian Civil Service (ICS), perhaps one day as magistrate. The ICS, which ran India, was called the 'heaven born service' during the Raj days.   Although by the late 19th century a few Indians were admitted, it was expensive to travel to London to study for and take the necessary exams, which kept the numbers low.
Sarah scolds her husband's girlfriend
Aafrin says the ICS is exactly what he wanted but he couldn’t take the exams due to financial constraints.  “It’s all a matter of timing,” smiles Ralph, his new best friend, and offers him a position as Head Clerk which pays enough to subsidize his studies (amusingly, the people in my office who are clerks do not take it as a compliment but Aafrin is delighted).  Aafrin should be suspicious of this dramatic change in his fortune.  “I’ll be joining the ranks of the heaven-born!” he says to his delighted parents, while his sister is participating in nationalist rallies. Aafrin’s girlfriend is very happy too

Ian McLeod, the somewhat uncouth nephew of the drunken landowner, is discovering that his uncle is in debt to an Indian neighbor, Mr. Sood.  Not wanting to be caught in the middle, he suggests the man go discuss the matter with his uncle at the club, not realizing the Indian is banned from the club.  Mr. Sood comes to a fair organized by Cynthia to talk to the uncle, but when their argument becomes physical the uncle has a stroke or heart attack.  He is totally incapacitated.

Alice and Percy are playing with some other mothers and babies when Cynthia pops over to tell her there is going to be an inquest into the shooting and she will need to testify.  Alice doesn’t see why this is a problem and Cynthia tells her pointedly that she can’t possibly remember anything that happened.  Alice resents her interference and it is likely that Cynthia’s attempt to protect Ralph is likely to make Alice even more curious about what inspired the assassination attempt.

Dougie Raworth, the Old Testament-looking missionary and Leena his beautiful helper are in the middle of a passionate embrace when Alice stops by to volunteer at the orphanage.  Alice remembers Leena from the train (she was able to pronounce Persephone when Sarah could not) and is much friendlier than other English ladies would have been.  Leena is wary but eventually responds to Alice’s sincere desire to help.

In the meantime, Aafrin’s sister was arrested at the Nationalist protest.  Aafrin has been invited to the Whelans’ for drinks and, reluctantly, asks for Ralph’s help getting Sooni out of prison.  Ralph promises to do what he can.

It’s clear that Ralph wants to be sure Alice’s and Aafrin’s descriptions of the assassination attempt are the same as his.  “All I recall is his shouting, ‘You British devil!’” Ralph says pleasantly.   Aafrin says he remembers very little.  But when Ralph brings Aafrin to sketch Madeleine (who reveals her American background by shaking hands with him; I suspect an Englishwoman would not do so until he has risen much higher in the social strata), Alice leaves the room.   She confronts Ralph, and tells him she will not perjure herself.

I thought Dougie was going to tell Sarah he was in love with Leena, but Sarah, guessing what is wrong, starts sobbing, and Dougie merely says he will behave more like a Christian in the future.  I guess that included giving his son Matthew’s shoes to Adam, the boy who was hit by the train!  When Ralph sees Adam at the fair, he recognizes something about him, and the mysterious music that starts playing shows that Adam is linked to Ralph’s secret past.  Sarah takes the opportunity to tell Leena that her claim on Dougie is over and to stay away.

Madeleine’s brother is angry that Ralph is sleeping with Madeleine but has not proposed.  He suggests she play a little harder to get (I expected him to trot out that old adage about Ralph not buying the cow if he can get the milk for free).

When Alice and Aafrin are deposed, separately, they are asked if the assassin said anything.  Both hesitate, then respond as Ralph suggested, “You British devil.”  This way it will seem that the attack was part of the Nationalist movement, not anything personal towards Ralph, which might uncover whatever is in his past.  However, the Englishmen conducting the deposition leave for some fresh air and Aafrin takes a look at the assassin’s file.  As his sister had warned him, the English falsified identity papers to show the assassin was a political protestor.  When Aafrin sees this proof, he realizes he is being used.  Sooni is equally upset when she is released from prison due to Ralph’s influence.  Her prison-mate advises her to fight from the outside.

A somewhat disappointing episode!  I hope the plot begins to pick up.

Image copyright to PBS

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Indian Summers - Season 1, Episode 2 - Recap

If Alice was expecting a relaxing summer visiting her highly-placed-in-the-British-hierarchy brother, she had a rude awakening within hours of arriving in Simla.   First, a scheming brother and sister seem to have moved into her brother Ralph’s house, and then there is an attempted assassination on Ralph while she is inches away. Not much happens to advance the plot in Episode 2. Although Ralph had seemed very hot and heavy with his American guest, Madeleine’s brother Eugene tells Cynthia (aka Mrs. Weasley) that Ralph is losing interest. Madeleine is very pretty and allegedly rich: why did she have to come to India to look for a husband? What is her secret? Does she really like Ralph?
Aafrin, pre-assassination attempt
Ralph, who is private secretary to the Viceroy, and the other British civil servants don’t seem to do much at work except talk about discouraging Gandhi and other attempts at nationalism. Back at the house, ladies of leisure Alice and Madeleine are thinking about going to a gymkhana (which makes me think of the Pullein-Thompson sisters) when Suspicious (and doubtless friendless) Sarah drops by, hoping to ingratiate herself with her betters. She continues to ask nosy questions about Alice’s husband – Alice mendaciously told her the man is dead but we know he is alive back in England. Whatever he did (is it worse than just cheating on her?) was sufficiently painful that whenever he is mentioned, Alice has to rush outside for fresh air.

Aafrin is still in the hospital, and his female relatives are concerned that his recovery is slow. Ralph is more concerned about negative publicity when an Indian newspaper reporter from the Delhi Herald comes asking questions. He doesn’t even want to pay Aafrin’s hospital bill! The assumption is that the attempted assassination was politically motivated but the would-be assassin won’t speak. “But he’s wearing a Gandhi hat!” says one of the Brits triumphantly, i.e., it must be political. Mr. Khan, the polite Indian reporter, points out it is merely a hat everyone wears to keep off the sun! However, the Indian servant listening to this conversation finds an identity card hidden in the lining of the hat that I think shows the man is a nationalist.

Ralph visits the assassin and says they’re in a bit of a hole. Well, it was pretty obvious they had some relationship! Startlingly, the man first strokes Ralph’s face (this surprised me because I couldn’t believe they were secret lovers) and then begins beating him viciously. The man does some damage before someone pulls him off; then Ralph visits Cynthia to be cleaned up and cuddled, in a semi-motherly way. This seems odd although we know both Alice and Ralph lost their mother early, and he has known Cynthia for years. Ralph seems to cherish sentimental memories of his childhood that aren’t identical to Alice’s recollections; for example, he bought Alice a piano because he remembers her accompanying her singing as a child but Alice says she doesn’t play. Ralph also seems to cherish a drawing (done by him?) of Alice as a child. If he is so obsessed with her, why didn’t he ever go back to England to visit her? He doesn’t seem to be hurting for money but perhaps was too busy pursuing a career. Alice says she didn’t come to India just to practice the piano but she doesn’t explain why she did come. I think it is obvious that she was escaping from the husband and visiting Ralph was expedient. No sign of the baby in this episode but that’s why you have an ayah.

Mr. Khan says if there wasn’t a political motive for what everyone politely calls “the incident,” there must be another reason. He does some digging and finds out that Ralph was an Assistant Magistrate at some point in the past; he wonders if there is a connection. When Khan goes to visit the man in prison; he is too late, the man has killed himself. Mr. Khan won’t stop pursuing the matter, so Ralph distracts him by bringing him to visit Aafrin. Ralph tells the reporter that Aafrin saved the life of this “very grateful Englishman.” Ralph even charmingly poses for a picture with Aafrin, more proof he is hiding something, as he does not like Aafrin and does not seem grateful.

Last week I ignored a character named Ian, a young man who was on the train with Alice and Sarah, coming to live in India with his uncle. He is beginning to find out that the uncle is in debt and very disreputable, but he continues to be forgettable (except that I think he had a flingt with Sarah on the way home from the Club in Episode 1).

Alice covers her bright hair to venture discreetly to visit Aafrin’s family to inquire about his recovery. It turns out his family kept the news of his injury from the father who has a weak heart (and did he say they are living in a cow byre or did I misunderstand?), so everyone is annoyed with Alice for coming, plus they hate that she saw their humble home.  Aafrin’s elder sister Sooni meets up with his Hindu girlfriend, who tries to give her a letter for Aafrin. Sooni opens and reads the letter and seems unlikely to pass it on.

Adam, the child who nearly was killed on the train tracks, runs away from the orphanage, and lovely Leena, the assistant teacher, wanders around until she finds him. She sent for Dougie, the missionary/orphanage director, to help her search, but jealously Sarah insisted he stay with her.

Ralph and some other guy competed at the gymkhana, which looks quite jolly, especially when everyone heads off for drinks, but then they leave Sarah behind, and you know what a woman scorned is likely to do…

Madeleine accosts Ralph while he is taking a bath (American hussy). She wants to talk about their relationship. As my Latin teacher used to say, “Nihil novi sub sole – there is nothing new under the sun.” Like all men, he has no interest in the Serious Talk but it’s boring taking a bath by oneself, so he beckons her to join him in the bathtub and she does not realize she should play hard to get.

Sarah, still smarting about being ignored at the gymkhana, writes to a friend in England to do some sleuthing about what Alice is hiding. Wouldn’t you think the mail back and forth to India would be unreliable? Yet I am sure Sarah’s correspondent will write back by return of post with all the dirt about Alice’s husband, which we are eager to hear!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Tonight the Streets Are Ours (Book Review)

Title: Tonight the Streets Are Ours
Author: Leila Sales
Publication: Farrar Straus Giroux
Genre: YA Fiction
Plot: Arden is that rarest of things – a selfless teenager – but it is stressful to be surrounded by a host of selfish people: her parents (including her mother who just walked out on the family), her boyfriend, and her best friend Lindsey. Wearied by the people in her life who take and offer nothing back, Arden finds escape by reading the blog of a young New Yorker. Naturally, his life seems more interesting and more perfect than her own, so when everything seems to go wrong in her small town of Cumberland, Arden impulsively heads to New York to find the blogger, with her friend Lindsey in tow. As in all quests, not everything one finds turns out to be exactly what one sought...

Audience: Fans of YA authors such as Sarah Dessen, Susane Colasanti, and Sara Zarr
Leila's Booksigning
What I liked: Each of Sales’ four books is very different but friendship and loyalty play an important role in each. This Song Will Save Your Life, her third book, is a unique blend of darkness and irrepressible humor. I have recommended it to people who don’t usually read YA but were captivated. This book is just as readable but much lighter, although Arden’s family situation is as complicated as Elise’s in This Song. Arden’s mother decided she was being taken for granted and simply left her family. Arden could cope without a mother but her little brother seems lost, and their workaholic father is clueless. Arden’s teachers and principal (and father!) don’t know her well enough to realize she does not use drugs, and her boyfriend is narcissistic and thoughtless. I also enjoyed the description of Just Like Me Dolls, which chose little girl Arden to be the face of one of its dolls and matching books:

Out of all the thousands of girls between the ages of eight and twelve who sent in their essays, Just Like Me Dolls had chosen Arden as their winner.

Because Arden was Girl of the Year, she got free copies of her books, with titles like Arden in Charge and Arden’s New Friend. She got a free doll, designed with peach-colored skin and light brown hair and hazel eyes, just like her. She got every single one of the Arden Doll’s accessories for free, too: a doll-size tire swing and doll-size metal detector, a doll-size cat and doll-size dog to mimic her own pets.

Arden’s impulsive decision to drive to New York to find the boy who writes the blog she has become obsessed with and her interaction with him is the best part of the book, as she matures before our eyes in one night. It’s also great that Arden realizes her happiness does not depend on a teenage (or older) boy.
Alice and Leila
What I disliked: A minor quibble, but I thought the beginning, which jumps into the middle of a pivotal 24 hours for Arden, then goes back two months in time, was both abrupt and unnecessary. Sales could just have begun with the day Arden gets called to the principal’s office. The author told us that some readers complained the plot was improbable: I found it reasonably convincing although would not have been brave enough to drive a car to NYC at 17! I don’t really enjoy it even now.
With the author
Source: I bought this book at Leila Sales’ recent booksigning at the Brookline Booksmith. By attending with my friend Alice, who is the librarian at the school both Leila and my nieces attended, I got to meet Leila (pronounced Lye-la) and her delightful parents as well. I recommend all Leila's books, especially This Song Will Save Your Life.