Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Season of Second Chances (Giveaway Below!!)

Joy Harkness moved to New York City to teach at Columbia years ago. The life she expected she'd have in New York - the one with a social life and excitement - never really materialized. At age 48, Joy is given an opportunity to teach at a small college in Massachusetts and participate in an exciting new project. Joy makes this huge life change, complete with an old Victorian fixer-upper. She feels a bit like a fish out of water in her new life. She is unused to dating, or even cultivating friendships yet as she is drawn out of herself, into new situations, she slowly finds her place.

Diane Meier'sThe Season of Second Chances: A Novel
is the sort of fiction I don't find myself reading a lot of. So many books that are geared towards women today and set in the present seem to have the same few story lines that often don't appeal to me. The Season of Second Chances felt different. A smart female protagonist that is an educator and teaches literature can only be a good thing. Diane Meier's career up until now has been one full of style and creating beautiful things. That is apparent in this book as she writes about the makeover of Joy's home and all the bits and pieces that go into it. She writes about personal style and the delicious food being cooked and eaten. I liked the cozy feeling of this book and experiencing Joy's house becoming a home.

I really enjoyed reading this book and was drawn into it right away. I found Joy to be a compelling character, though at times I wanted to yell at her! For such an intelligent woman she sometimes made really bad decisions, particularly about men. I thought about this and realized that was probably because she had kept inside of herself for so long. Dealing with adult emotions and motivations was something she needed practice with.

The Season of Second Chances is being released today. If you are interested in learning more about the author, Diane Meier, here is a link to her blog. It's interesting reading what she has written lately about her upcoming book release. I can only imagine how nerve-wracking that would be.

Now for the good news: Interpersonal Frequency LLC has kindly offered to send a signed copy of The Season of Second Chances to one lucky reader! Not only is this book a really a good read, it's also a gorgeous book. I saw a finished copy today and am in love with the endpapers. To enter the giveaway, please leave a comment on this post telling me what your favorite book of 2010 is so far, and make sure I have your email address. I will draw the winning name on April 7.

Many thanks to Interpersonal Frequency LLC for providing this review copy.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

More and More

Still reading D.E. Stevenson here, though I think I'm going to take a break for awhile. I may try another older and seemingly similar author whose books I came across at the library the other day. This female author wrote from the 40s to the early 80s and was very prolific. The library had a whole shelf of these books with their vintage looking covers. Anyone want to take a guess at the author's name?

The Baker's Daughter, written in 1938, was my least favorite Stevenson book so far, so let's get it out of the way here. This is the story of Sue Pringle, daughter of the baker in a small village/town in Scotland. She is trying to get out from being underfoot at the home of her father and stepmother so takes a job as housekeeper to an artist and his outgoing wife. Sue arrives and the wife vanishes - she wants to be in London, not the wilds of Scotland! Sue gets close to the artist, people think it's not appropriate and try to encourage her to take an interest in the local young men and on and on it goes. I thought the story was a bit flat, and there were a bunch of side stories (too many) that weren't any more interesting. Next!

Listening Valley (1944)is sort of a companion book to Celia's House which I read and enjoyed. It's not a sequel, but many characters from Celia's House make an appearance here. There are many themes in Stevenson's writing and that was very apparent here. This tale begins in a similar fashion to Amberwell (1955), complete with little girls being raised by negligent parents. As in Amberwell, the more socially challenged sibling is left at home when the other marries. This is Antonia, and she becomes friendly with a much older man, older even than her father, who happens to be a wealthy business associate of her father. They marry. I'm not a big fan of this storyline, the young girl of 17 or 18 marrying the 60 something older gentleman. I find it rather creepy. Anyway, they are very happy and move to London and work in the war effort which invigorates him and makes a woman out of her. Eventually he becomes sick, passes away, Antonia moves back to Scotland to live in a house left to her by a distant relative, and she finds a more age appropriate love interest. Antonia becomes friendly with some airmen who are flying on nightly missions to Germany. There is really quite a lot of talk about the war and the reality of these missions so if you're interested in how the war was handled in a very domestic 1944 novel, this might interest you. Overall I wound up really liking this book, all the sorts of things I like about Stevenson are here.

The Blue Sapphire, written in 1963, is one of Stevenson's last 10 books. It's so interesting to see how as time passes Stevenson's writing changes and the landscape of course changes as well. This is the story of Julia Harburn, she is engaged to an overbearing man, Morland, yet somehow finds herself suddenly friends with young Stephen who has just come back from Africa bearing - guess what? - a blue sapphire. Julia wants to get out of house for just the same reasons as Sue in The Baker's Daughter. She takes a room at a boarding house and a job at a hat shop which is quite humorous. There is an interesting flirtation with the stock market here which left me wondering if someone might be evil and the obligatory flight to Scotland where Julia nurses an elderly uncle. There was a little more angst than usual here, but all ends well.

Finally, we have Fletcher's End, the sequel to Bel Lamington.

I cannot say much about this one or it might spoil Bel Lamington for you! Bel has already found her true love and she and her fiance buy a run down house called Fletcher's End and make it their own. Much of the book is about Bel's life in the country and getting the house redone. The romantic part of the story involves Bel's friend Louise. I really liked this one!

Here is a blurb from the dust jacket about the photograph above:

The picture of Fletcher's End on the jacket is an actual drawing of the house owned by the author's son in the Cotswolds, which served as an inspiration for this book.

How about that?

Several people have written and asked me what Stevenson book to start with or what my favorites have been. Of the 10 or so that I've read, my favorites are, in order:

Bel Lamington
Fletcher's End
Celia's House
Vittoria Cottage

In nonbookish news, my new PC is on the truck for delivery today! We are so excited. This computer I am on has been a lemon since day one and I'll be so glad to see the last of it. Wheee!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Books and a Meal

It's been some time since I've shown any cooking photos. The truth is, the cooking around here has been pretty boring lately. I've been cooking a lot of my house 'standards' over and over and let's face it, they aren't' very interesting. Last night I decided to celebrate St. Patrick's Day with an Irish themed meal.

Sort of.

Here is 'Irish' stew and colcannon.

The stew could have been more Irish had I used Guiness, instead I used an English nut brown ale. This was yummy! Now that I've found out how easy it is, I'm wondering why I never made stew before. I practically just threw everything into the pot, cooked it for 3 hours and voila! Dinner. Gotta love that. I used Jamie Oliver's super easy technique from his latest US release, Jamie's Food Revolution: Rediscover How to Cook Simple, Delicious, Affordable Meals. I think I've mentioned this book before, but I will again just because I think it is so good. I'm a pretty experienced cook and I like it, yet it's aim is people who are not used to cooking. Oh, and do you know what colcannon is? Cabbage combined with mashed potatoes. I sauteed the cabbage for a long time in butter, until it was soft and sweet. Want to guess what I'm having for lunch?

Here are a couple things I read recently:

Farewell to the East End by Jennifer Worth

The is the final book in Worth's trilogy about her experience as a midwife in the East End in the 1950s. I am sad there will not be any more installments. This book is very similar to the first in the series in that it focuses on specific experiences the midwives had. They are graphic birth stories, and the subject matter of many of them will surprise and shock you. There are also stories of Worth's life in the convent where she lived while working as a midwife. These stories I found not as compelling, but they do provide some comic relief from the intensity of the rest of the book. I recommend this series highly and while the first book is my favorite of the three, this is a close second.

The Spare Room: A Novelby Helen Garner


That's the main word that keeps coming to mind whenever I think about this book. The Spare Room is the story of two women who have been friends during their adult lives. One of them, Nicola, is ill, she had cancer, and she asks her friend Helen if she can stay with her for a few weeks while she undergoes therapy. I think I was expecting lots of heartfelt conversations and tears. Perhaps thoughts of end-of-life regrets and tender moments. That was not the shape this story took. These characters aren't any cookie-cutter depictions of people dealing with cancer. Cancer doesn't suddenly make everyone a saint. The story of Nicola and Helen is authentic. How difficult is it to care for someone with cancer? How does it affect the caregiver and the relationship? Recommended.
This book was provided by Librarything's Early Reviewers Program.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

New To Me

The Kitchen House: A Novel
I heard great things about this one and no one around had it in stock. Thank goodness for amazon.

Stalin's Children: Three Generations of Love, War, and Survival
A spontaneous purchase while I was reading Child 44. I want to know more.

George Gissing's The Odd Women (Oxford World's Classics)
Read about this one here (check out this blog, I'm in love). Also loving these Oxford editions in general.

The Joy of Eating: The Virago Book of Food
Not sure where I read about this one, but had to have it immediately. I thought it would be a book of essays. Instead, it's more a book of 'blurbs' arranged by topic. Good for dipping in and out of.

These arrived for review.

Beatrice and Virgil: A Novelwas a surprise.

Wild Romance: A Victorian Story of a Marriage, a Trial, and a Self-Made Woman
Received this thanks to the Librarything Early Reviewer program. Sounds like just my sort of book.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Besides being the year of D.E. Stevenson, 2010 is quickly becoming the year of the books I can label DNF - Did Not Finish. I've been casting things aside left and right.

I just like this cactus picture I took.

My personal revelations and goals for this blog have carried over into my reading in a big way. The older I get, the more I read, the more I expect from my books and the less of a chance I am willing to give a book that I consider to be sub-par. I want to read great books, amazing and moving books, that entertain or give me insight or just plain take me away. Friends, I have lost patience.

In years past I would plod through a book that I wasn't thrilled with. I'd sigh and moan and by the end, look at it with loathing. At least I finished the darn thing. Now I know that is no way to read.

How do I decide what I'm going to finish and what I'm not? I like the idea of the 50 page rule I read somewhere: Give it 50 pages to see if you like it. If you're over 50, do some subtracting and give it less pages. Presumably, you have even less time available in this lifetime for bad books. Often though, I don't even need 50 pages. One chapter can be enough to know I don't want to spend 350 pages with this story.

Sometimes it takes longer. A month or so ago I whined that nothing I was reading was catching my fancy. Kay told me to cast them all aside. What good advice! I stopped reading a 600+ page book 250ish pages in. I gave up on a 400 page book 150 or so pages in. The library books, I don't so much care about, but I get annoyed by the ones I've spent money on. How could you sell me this lousy book!

It's easy to tell when you've made the right decision about giving up on a book. It's when you look at it after you've decided and you feel great relief. A sigh of calm. You don't ever have to go back to that if you don't want to. There's a great book, and it's just around the bend. Or in that pile in the corner.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bookclub Wrap-Up

Oh boy, was I ever down on book club yesterday. There were a whole bunch of things going against me yesterday that started with pretty much complete lack of sleep on Sunday night and working all day Monday. Being so tired I can barely string two thoughts together does not put me in the mood for chatty get-togethers. Half of the women stay home with their kids full time so they are all ready for adult interaction whereas I just want to discuss the book and go to sleep. Additionally, an old member recently rejoined our group, a person that I really like, but whose participation skews the conversation in curious ways. Towards camping and yearly trips to Disney World, extreme exercise routines, and long talks about dogs. We are cat people here.

Do I sound cranky? Boy was I ever cranky yesterday. I composed 10 different emails telling everyone that I'm Not Coming! but didn't send any of them. My husband finally convinced me to go and leave early. I'm glad I did. All my complaints melted away as I enjoyed the company of old friends.

The book we discussed last night was Child 44by Tom Rob Smith. It was universally liked my my book club in varying levels.

In a nutshell: Child 44 is set in Stalin-era Russia. Everyone is looking over their shoulder and trying not to draw attention to themselves, for if you are suspected, then you are guilty. And if your child is found dead, they weren't murdered, because there is no crime in the Soviet Union. Leo is a MGB agent and thinks he and his wife safe, until they aren't. On the sly, Leo begins investigating a series of child murders, which puts him family into even greater jeopardy. What he finds, is, well, surprising.

This is a thriller in every sense of the word. It felt like every time I turned the page, there were more twists and turns, and even knowing something was coming didn't damper my enthusiasm for finding out what it was. Setting this story in Stalin-era Russia was a brilliant decision. I found the entire setting so fascinating. I sort of knew that living under this regime wasn't a good thing, but didn't really have any idea of what went on behind the scenes, how citizens were brutalized and lived in fear. It was frightening, creepy, and disturbing. A great read, if you're into that sort of thing!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Spotlight on: The Blue Orchard

{The subject matter of this book is not for everyone. I'm not looking to have a moral or political discussion here, I simply want to tell you about this book.}

Jackson Taylor had me at Hello.

But let me go back to the beginning. You browse in bookstores, right? And the people that work there often ask if they can help you. Here is what passes through my mind, but not my lips, when this happens:

1. Me? Need help in a bookstore?


2. Yes, perhaps you can show me a fabulous book, one that I'll love and adore, that I've Never Seen or Heard of Before.

Good luck with that.

It's pretty rare that I come across a book that I've never heard of or noticed but that's just what happened with The Blue Orchard: A Novel. There it was, on the new fiction table with its appealing cover and heaps of praise. As they say, There's an app for that (Snaptell in this case), so I used my dear friend and looked up this book. All signs pointed to me taking this book home, and that is just what happened.

From the very beginning, we know a few things. Middle aged nurse Verna Krone has been arrested for assisting with illegal surgery performed on a woman. It is the 1950s and the doctor she has been working for happens to be a widely respected, community serving, politically involved black man. How did Verna get to be this woman? That is what we are to find out.

Verna Krone grew up in poverty, removed from school to go out to work and support the family. Also to be abused. Life is rough, but Verna perseveres, working at this job and then that. Finally a little bit of luck comes to this long suffering woman and she is able to train to be a nurse. Verna loves being a nurse, she is conscientious and takes pride in her work. Along comes another opportunity, a chance to make what is to most people quite a lot of money. Verna begins assisting Dr Crampton with his surgeries on women. These woman come from near and far, some are strangers, others familiar. They are all looking for the same thing. Eventually, the arrests come.

Jackson Taylor has done a sublime job of telling this story, that of the life of his grandmother. This is the story of one woman's life but it is so much more. It's a picture of a time in history, when politics and race and the law collided, and Verna Krone just happened to have lived through it. This is storytelling, folks, in its purest form. This is a long and meaty book, one to take your time with and savor and one that I was sad to see come to an end.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Just For Me

I'm still gorging myself on D.E. Stevenson around here. These books are so perfect and simple at the end of the day when I'm tired. Here's what I've read lately:

Summerhills is the sequel to the very wonderful Amberwell, which remains my favorite Stevenson book so far. Summerhills was a good read and I enjoyed finding out what happened to all those familiar characters, as well as some new ones, but this book was not perfect in the way Amberwell was. Summerhills focuses on siblings Nell and Roger Ayrton. Roger decides to open a local school for boys, in part for his own son Stephen who Nell has been raising since the war. The Ayrtons are a few of the single people featured and we get to see how they sort themselves out and couple off. The most curious character in Summerhills is Miss Glassford, nanny to Stephen. Everyone is very surprised by her. She wears pants! And her favorite hobby is running! Early in the morning! They all think her very odd and cannot quite articulate why they simply do not like her or consider her romantically. She is obviously ahead of her time and I felt a little bit bad for her. All ends well for everyone else, though.

Celia's House was written in 1943; what is perhaps most curious about this book is that of course, the war was going on, and while it's definitely in the background here nobody knows what is going to happen. The first Celia is an elderly lady who aggravates her nephew when she decides to leave her estate to another relative, Humphrey Dunne, and his family. She does make a rather unusual stipulation though, as to the future owners of the home. I read this a few weeks ago so I am a little thin on details here. This nice family grows up in the house and the children become successful adults and their is romance and it is all quite nice and enjoyable.

Finally for today, we have Bel Lamington. Bel is slightly different from the usual Stevenson heroines as she begins with a rather sad and lonely existence. She is an orphan who lived with her aunt until adulthood when she died and now Bel is all alone in London, missing the country and working as a secretary to earn her keep. Lots of things happen to Bel in a short time: she meets an artist whom she cares for but who turns out to be a cad, her boss goes out of the country and Bel unexpectedly is fired from her job. This leaves Bel able to accept an invitation to Scotland to join her friend and Bel recuperates there, finds work, and finally true love comes calling.

If you're tired of these old books I've been reading, come back another day as I've read an excellent modern book.