Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Last Books

Simon from Stuck in a Book started this but I couldn't stop with 10!

1. The last book I gave up on - probably The Underground Railroad for my book group.   I am sure it is well written and compelling but the first chapter was so violent and depressing I put it down until it was due at the lib.

2. The last books I reread – the entire Flambards series; how I love these books by K.M. Peyton.
3. The last book I bought for myself – The War That Saved My Life.  Initially, I read this from the library but recently I bought one copy for myself and one for my niece Katherine, who also loved it.

4. The last book I lost - I lent my hardcover copy of Betsy in Spite of Herself to a friend who was going to Milwaukee with her daughter.  I am sure it is somewhere in their house so perhaps not lost forever.
5. The last book I wrote in the margins – when I was in law school, I wrote in the margins of my textbooks but I don’t do this normally.   However, within the last couple months I came across an error in a library book and corrected it in light pencil.  Someone (perhaps not a librarian) will thank me.

6. The last book I had signed – The Game: Harvard, Yale, and America in 1968 by George Howe Colt at the Harvard Coop in November.  You can’t get an ebook signed now, can you?

7. The last book I said I read but actually didn't – The Faerie Queene - despite being a 16th century History and Lit major.  Sorry, Edmund Spenser!

8. The last book I had to replace – Autumn Term by Antonia Forest.   Both my copies are missing and although I hope they will turn up, I didn’t want to risk not being able to find one so I ordered a paperback from England several months ago.

9. The last book I argued over – Dawn’s Early Light by Elswyth Thane.   I was practically (but not quite) speechless when some of my book group did not appreciate one of my absolute favorite books.  

10. The last book I couldn’t find – I read about an Irish mystery series by Jo Spain but the first entry, With Our Blessing, had not been published in the US so I had to order it from England.

11. The last book I insisted someone read – The Professionals by Owen Laukkanen.  This is the first in a great series about two detectives.
12. The last book I gave as a gift – I like to give every reader in my family a book for Christmas.  One I gave this year was The Incredible Crime by Lois Austen-Leigh, part of an appealingly repackaged Crime Classics series I saw in England (and had to restrain myself from bringing them all home) from the British Library.  I chose this one for my mother because of our trip to the other Cambridge in April.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Virtual Advent Calendar

Thank you to Sprite Writes for including me in the Virtual Advent Tour she has organized for four years. For those who don’t know, Advent is a liturgical season leading up to Christmas which includes the four preceding Sundays. Growing up, my family often had an advent wreath with pink and purple candles which we loved lighting before dinner.
Katherine reads the enclosed note to Winona

As an adult, my favorite holiday tradition is the Betsy-Tacy ornament exchange. Every year, the fans of Maud Hart Lovelace’s beloved Betsy-Tacy series, set in turn of the century Minnesota, participate in secret ornament exchange to honor a Christmas shopping expedition our heroines made in 1903 or so with their friend Winona Root:
There on a long table Christmas tree ornaments were set out for sale.  There were boxes and boxes full of them, their colors mingling in bewildering iridescence.  There were large fragile balls of vivid hues, there were gold and silver balls; there were tinsel angels, shining harps and trumpets, gleaming stars.
“Here,” said Betsy, “here we buy.”She looked at Winona, bright-eyed, and Winona looked from her to the resplendent table.“Nothing,” Tacy tried to explain, “is so much like Christmas as a Christmas-tree ornament.”“You get a lot for ten cents,” said Tib. 
They gave themselves then with abandon to the sweet delight of choosing.  It was almost pain to choose.  Each fragile bauble was gayer, more enchanting than the last.  And now they were not only choosing, they were buying.  What each one chose she would take home; she would see it on the Christmas tree; she would see it year after year, if she were lucky and it did not break. 
They walked around and around the table, touching softly with mitten hands.Betsy at last chose a large red ball.  Tacy chose an angel.  Tib chose a rosy Santa Claus. Winona chose a silver trumpet.They yielded their dimes . . . [t]hey walked to Ray’s Shoe Store, smiling, holding Christmas in their hands.
Katherine received a vintage bicycle
ornament on behalf of Winona Root
Each year a number of human “elves” make random assignments so that we can send ornaments anonymously to each other in the guise of the series characters or using incidents in the books as inspiration. Each ornament I have received is my favorite but two I especially love are the very first one I received, a dressmaker’s dummy from Miss Mix, Betsy Ray’s seamstress, and a more recent one, a Big Ben ornament that evokes Betsy’s sojourn in London just before WWI.
In the past, the basketball came from Tib, a frog from
Kalil, and Big Ben from Betsy's time in London
My tree is not yet trimmed but here is this year’s ornament – sent by the piano from Betsy’s home. How did my kind sender know how the image of Betsy and her friends rolling up the rug so they could dance while Mrs. Ray pounded out a two-step is one I see so clearly in my mind’s eye and cherish? (Betsy-Tacy fans often yearn for a television show to bring attention to the tomes we love but we also fear a cartoonish depiction that would make us cringe; our imaginations are preferable.)
Piano ornament - with rug!
My younger nieces, also Betsy-Tacy readers, participated in the ornament exchange this year, and you can see Katherine (11) received a lovely vintage bicycle ornament for Winona (above).  Tess (7) received an ornament from Tib.   You can also check out some of my ornament posts from previous years.
Tess is a 2nd grade Betsy-Tacy fan
If you have not read Betsy-Tacy (what are you waiting for?), it is Betsy-Tacy Goes Downtown in which the girls make the first ornament expedition but I recommend Heaven to Betsy for first time adult readers.

Thanks to Nan of Letters from a Hill Farm - I read about this Advent tour on her charming blog.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Christmas on the Island (Book Review)

Title: Christmas on the Island
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publication: William Morrow, trade paperback, October 2018
Genre: Fiction
Plot: On the remote Scottish island of Mure, winter is stark, windy, and icy—yet the Christmas season is warm and festive . . .
It’s a time for getting cozy in front of a fire and spending time in the one pub on the island with the people you love—unless, of course, you’ve accidentally gotten pregnant by your ex-boss, and don’t know how to tell him. In the season for peace and good cheer, will Flora find the nerve to reveal the truth to her nearest and dearest? Will handsome but troubled future-father Joel think she’s the bearer of glad tidings—or is this Christmas going to be as bleak as the Highlands in midwinter? 

Recent arrivals to the Island are facing serious challenges as well.   Flora’s family is trying to say goodbye to Colton Rogers, the American magnate who found love in Mure but has now received the worst medical news imaginable.  And Saif, a doctor and refugee from war-torn Syria, is trying to cope with his first western Christmas with his sons on this remote island where he’s been granted asylum. Yet his wife is still missing, and her absence hangs over what should be a hopeful new life. Can his small family possibly find comfort and joy without her?  And what about the crush Flora’s friend Lorna has on the handsome but somber doctor?

Audience: Fans of Rosamunde Pilcher, Marcia Willett, and Sophie Kinsella will enjoy this glimpse of a distant island. Colgan is a New York Times bestselling author and has a US following. 

My Impressions: This is a book that pulls the reader in immediately with vivid characters and a stark but appealing setting (although you won’t find me visiting Mure in December!).  While I hadn’t realized that it was part of a series, it held up well as a standalone (I made a quick dash to the library to grab the first, The Café by the Sea) and it was easy to figure out that had happened in the previous two books.  Colgan is known for her humor but this story is very serious: Flora, who runs the Seaside Kitchen, knows her boyfriend’s wariness about relationships is due to abuse he suffered as a child, Colton is dying and his family is only interested in his money, Saif can’t move on with his life until he knows if his wife is alive and he is unaware of his elder son’s misery, and Mure may be beautiful but job opportunities are very limited – Flora’s café includes scrumptious-sounding baked goods but she is barely breaking even.  

UK cover - not as strong but the
houses are more realistically sized

Usually, I don’t care for so many crises being tossed about by an author (angst overload) but she weaves the plot lines convincingly enough to disarm me.  If I were a Colgan character, I suspect I would quit my job, move to Mure and open a bookstore – in fiction, it would probably all work out for the best!

One of the minor characters Colgan depicts so skillfully is Jan, part of a husband-wife team who run a sort of Outward Bound program, who reminded me of Mrs. Elton in Emma.  Jan resents Flora because Flora (who is more attractive) once kissed her ordinary husband (when he was single) so Jan is very snide, which the husband mostly doesn’t see and Flora has to ignore.   But it is Jan’s irritated assumption that Flora should comp her bakery purchases (just because) that annoys Flora and rings so true to me.  Annoying, entitled people are everywhere and not everyone in Mure can be congenial.  But Colton’s unpleasant brother is positively affected by his visit and unexpectedly helps Flora:
‘Got any pancakes?’They didn’t normally do pancakes either, but Flora desperately wanted to vanish into the kitchen for a bit and had no objection to making something as incredibly simple as a stack of pancakes so she smiled and said, ‘Sure thing,’ as he requested maple syrup and bacon, both of which she could manage. (She wasn’t sure how many he’d want, so she made nine in the end, of which he ate nine and looked slightly regretful there weren’t more.  During this period, no fewer than four separate groups of people came in, looked at what he was eating and decided they too wanted pancakes, and as they were super-easy  to make and cost absolutely nothing.   Flora ended up putting them on the menu full time and they turned into an absolutely brilliant little brunch money-spinner.
Off the Blog: In preparation for Mary Poppins Returns with Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, last night I watched the DVD of the original Mary Poppins with two of my nephews (“Why are they singing all the time?” “It’s a musical!”) and a more appreciative niece last night.  It was one of the first movies I saw as a child; I owned the soundtrack and knew every song by heart.
Source: Recommended for those who enjoy light women's fiction, although I would advise starting at the beginning of the series with The Café by the Sea (which I have finished and am about to begin the sequel). I received a copy of this book by the publisher and TLC Book Tours for review purposes. You can visit other stops on the tour and read the reviews by clicking below:

Review Stops

December 3rd: BookNAround
December 4th: A Bookish Way of Life
December 5th: A Chick Who Reads
December 6th: bookchickdi
December 7th: Into the Hall of Books
December 10th: Ms. Nose in a Book
December 11th: Jackie Reads Books
December 14th: Kahakai Kitchen
December 18th: A Book a Week
December 19th: Books and Bindings

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Message from Absalom (Book Review)

Title: Message from Absalom
Author: Anne Armstrong Thompson
Publication: Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1975 (available as an ebook from Endeavor Press)
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Plot: Susannah Clarke is former CIA, now safely in the antiques business. On an extended group tour of Bulgaria, she encounters John Novak, once a colleague but now operating under cover. He recognizes Susannah and secretly visits her, arranging for her to receive a secret message relating to the operation he is running which must be hand delivered to the President. When Novak is killed outside her hotel, every American tourist in the vicinity is under suspicion by Novak’s enemies, which include local Bulgarians and their Russian masters. In fact, Susannah falls under dangerous suspicion and must try to outwit the brutal KGB in order to finish her vacation without further incident - if she wants to see her home again . . .

Audience: Fans of Helen MacInnes, Evelyn Anthony, Mary Stewart, Anne Stuart

My Impressions: I requested Message from Absalom from the library when I saw it had been recommended by Susanna Kearsley, an author I have enjoyed for many years (in fact, since I read about her book, Mariana and persuaded someone to get me a copy from Transworld in London nearly 30 years ago).  It reminded me a lot of the best work of Helen MacInnes, whose books I started reading in high school (another author introduced to me by my mother). MacInnes wrote 25 books from 1941 to 1984 (four of which were made into movies) about smart, attractive women who find themselves caught up in espionage and use their ingenuity to live (mostly) to tell the tale. My favorite is While Still We Live which is set in Poland (and which I just recommended to a coworker today). As mentioned above, this book by Anne Armstrong Thompson is reminiscent of MacInnes.  Thompson  is an American who earned a graduate degree at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy just outside Boston.  I don't know if she actually had espionage experience but clearly she was very interested in international affairs and that is why she applied to Fletcher.
Anne Armstrong Thompson

Susannah is an intrepid heroine but this is a very scary book, set primarily in Bulgaria, which at the time was a communist country, and I was on edge the entire time I was reading it. The fearful locals don’t interfere with the Bulgarian security police and they don’t interfere with the KGB. There are a number of men who wish Susannah ill and the reader knows, chillingly, that they could make her disappear painfully and effectively. Ironically enough, one of the threats to Susannah is an American traveling with her who thinks she can be blackmailed into sleeping with him. There are some plot developments that seem like overkill but reveal one of the book’s most interesting characters, a man involved with Israeli Intelligence, who at first seems like a possible love interest for Susannah (by this time she really needs someone on her side!). I can see why this book is a favorite of many - the chemistry between Susannah and one of the main characters is very well done, as is the ongoing tension - and I will keep my eyes open for a copy to own, as well as pursuing some of Thompson's other books (easier now that several appear to be available in ebook format).

Off the Blog: This is the week I mail (and receive) mysterious packages in the annual Betsy-Tacy Ornament Exchange!  Stay tuned!

Source: InterLibrary Loan. Thank you to the Rockland Memorial Library!

Map image copyright to

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Once a Midwife (Book Review)

Title: Once a Midwife, a Hope River Novel
Author: Patricia Harman
Publication: William Morrow, trade paperback, 2018
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: Welcome to Hope River, West Virginia as midwife Patience Hester, along with her family and friends, face the challenges of the home front during World War II, in Patricia Harman's latest novel.

The women of Hope River trust Patience, whose skill in delivering babies is known for miles around. But though the Great Depression is behind them, troubles are not, for Europe is at war . . .  and it can only be a matter of time before the U.S. enters the fray.

And while some are eager to join the fight, Patience’s husband, Daniel, is not. Daniel is patriotic—but he saw too much bloodshed during the First World War, and has vowed never to take up arms again.  His stance leaves Patience and their four children vulnerable—to the neighbors who might judge them, and to the government, who imprison Daniel for his beliefs.  

Patience must support their family and fight for her husband’s release despite her own misgivings. And with need greater than ever, she must also keep her practice running during this tumultuous time . . . relying on generous friends, like her old pal Bitsy, stalwart neighbors, and her own strength to see them all through.

Audience: Fans of historical fiction, particularly books about the WWII home front; those who enjoyed the PBS show Call the Midwife.

Purchase Links: HarperCollins * Barnes & Noble * IndieBound * Amazon

My Impressions: Hope River's midwife, Patience, arrived at this small West Virginia town in an earlier book when she was on the run, and has since built a happy life with her veterinarian husband, his child from a previous marriage, one they had together, and two they have adopted. However, their life together is threatened when America is brought into WWII after Pearl Harbor because Daniel decides, as a newly determined pacifist, he cannot register for the draft. No one in Hope River, including his wife, understands his position when the cause is good and the enemy is undeniably evil (not to mention, his family needs Daniel’s financial support). 

 Harman’s depiction of a man whose conscience prevents him from doing the easy thing and the mixture of abuse that he and his family suffer as a result – and the friends who don’t understand his reasoning but remain loyal – is well drawn. Harman also does a good job showing how conflicted Patience is about her husband’s controversial stand on the war; she is liberal in some ways but her patriotism limits her perspective. I haven’t read the first book where she was apparently on the run from the law but that and her activist past should make her more sympathetic to her husband’s plight.

Despite the drama of periodic births/deliveries, this book is primarily a story of small town life with the backdrop of war, reading at times like inspirational fiction. It is pleasant if not memorable. Readers who are interested in midwives may wish for more on that topic and should check out my recommended reading list on midwife fiction.

Off the Blog: I was privileged this week to attend the commissioning of the USS Thomas Hudner destroyer in South Boston. It was a dramatic and emotional event, particularly because Medal of Honor winner Hudner died only a year before the ship was completed. I am eager to read the book that captures his story.

Source: I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher and TLC Book Tours for review purposes. You can visit other stops on the tour and read the reviews by clicking below:

November 20th: A Chick Who Reads
November 26th: Into the Hall of Books
November 27th: bookchickdi
November 28th: M. Denise Costello
November 29th: Kritters Ramblings
November 30th: Instagram: @simplykelina
December 1st: The Book Diva’s Reads
December 3rd: Literary Quicksand
December 4th: Tina Says…
December 7th: What Is That Book About