Sunday, January 18, 2015

Tea for Three

The title: Tea for Three (includes Death by Darjeeling, Gunpowder Green and Shades of Earl Grey)
The author: Laura Childs
Publication: Berkley, 2001, 2002, 2003
Got it from: Indigo Saint John, 2014

One of the things I have discovered about mystery series is that there are mysteries with themes and then there are themes with mysteries.  The Tea Shop books definitely fall into the latter category.  The main character/sleuth in these stories is Theodosia Browning, an outgoing 36-year-old entrepreneur who runs the Indigo Tea Shop in historic Charleston, South Carolina.  Besides being a crack shopkeeper, Theodosia is also deeply involved in the lives of her friends and neighbours, who have a habit of killing each other for some fairly flimsy reasons.  Like many cozy detective stories, the mystery often takes a backseat to the setting.

And what a setting!  Let me first start with the Indigo Tea Shop itself.  It is the kind of tea shop that dreams are made of.  Theodosia's employees include a gentle, grandfatherly tea expert named Drayton and an adorable pastry chef named Haley.  While Theodosia often forgets about work to run around solving mysteries, her two employees run the shop without a hitch.  There is always a kettle on the boil and batches of delicious scones being pulled out of the oven.  Regulars are always dropping in to gossip and rave about the shop and drink tea by the fire.  No one is ever angry, demanding or asking for a refund. Everyone is always neighborly and helpful.  Let's face it, by the time I finished reading, I was ready to move in.

Then there is Charleston itself, a place that before I read these books, I wouldn't want to go anywhere near on account of the heat and humidity.  But Laura Childs paints such a cozy picture of the city, with quaint shops and friendly shopkeepers and historic charm, that I now I want to go.

The mystery aspects of the books are, I'm afraid to say, not that great.  The mysteries are fairly easy to solve and not super exciting.  (In the third book I actually figured out who the perpetrator was in the first chapter, before they were even introduced or the crime was committed).  I feel kind of bad saying this, because I did enjoy the books.  If you're as into tea shops and as steeped (heh) in tea culture as I am, you will probably also love them.  Bonus - you will get to learn about new teas to try and there are recipes for all the food described in the book.  Yum!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Revolutionary Mothers

The title: Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence
The author: Carol Berkin
Publication: Vintage Books, 2005
Got it from: Visitor Center, Quincy, Massachusetts

I've been learning a lot about the American Revolution ever since I became interested in Abigail Adams, and I bought this book when I was on a tour of their home in Massachusetts.  I have to confess it's taken me forever to read, even though it's not a long book at all.  I started it on my holiday last June and finally when the new year rolled around, I told myself to just get it done.

Because this book is slight and doesn't spend too much time on any one woman, it feels like more of a jumping-off point for further research into this fascinating subject.  It covers the everyday life of women on both sides of the war, from the well-to-do ladies of Boston to the camp followers to the plight of women who were slaves.  The author is a professor of American history and this book suffered somewhat from sounding at times like a PhD thesis (x happened because of y, and here are the footnotes to back it up).  I did enjoy some of the fun stories, especially of the Loyalist women who were exiled to my old hometown of Saint John.  A poem of the day summed up the Loyalists' feelings: "Of all the vile countries that ever were known/In the frigid or torrid or temperate zone/From accounts I had there is not such another/It neither belongs to this world nor the other."  Yeah, that's Saint John alright! 

Predictably women went back to their confined lives after the war, despite having done some incredible and exciting things during the conflict.  Maybe that's what makes the Revolution so much more fun to read about than the times of peace surrounding it.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

When Everything Changed

The title: When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present
The author: Gail Collins
Publication: Little, Brown and Company, 2009
Got it from: Seneca Falls Women's Rights Museum, 2014

Happy 2015!  What a great book to be starting the new year with.  I bought When Everything Changed last fall on a trip to Seneca Falls and could hardly put it down.  

There's so much women of my generation and younger take for granted.  Yet when this story opens in 1960, women weren't much further along than they had been in the nineteenth century. (Once upon a time, I used to think that 1960 was ancient history but - paradoxically - the older I get the closer in time it seems.)  Which is why I think every girl and woman from 8 to 80 should read this book: to learn about a time when women weren't allowed in certain bars, on certain planes and in a lot of workplaces.  There was once a time when women couldn't get their own credit cards without their husband's signature, or buy a house for themselves, or (gasp!) wear pants in public.  And then Women's Liberation happened, and everything changed.  As the author herself says, "Even people who were there don't actually remember what it was like."

What makes this book so engrossing is that Collins is able to seamlessly move from from describing the really big stories about landmark legal victories and big-name feminists like Betty Friedan to stories about ordinary women and their day-to-day lives, in their own words.  There is honestly never a dry or superfluous passage. It all feels important and fascinating.  Nor do white women hog all the limelight.  A sizeable portion of the book is devoted to the Civil Rights movement and how it helped pave the way for the Women's Liberation movement.  The profiles of the courageous African-American women who fought for both movements are some of the best parts of the book.  Out of all the women in the book, Ella Baker is by far my biggest hero.

Most of the book is devoted to what happened between 1964-1973.  As the author later admitted in an interview, everything after that has been an attempt to come to grips with the seismic shift of that short decade.  Some of the ways that things haven't changed are infuriating (as is the section on Phyllis Schlafly, who has arguably done more to destroy feminism than any woman in history).  Still, the story ends on a positive note: the U.S. has recently come close to having a female candidate run for president, and may very well soon have a woman in the White House.  Now that would be amazing.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Lost Animals

The title: Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record
The authors: Errol Fuller
Publication: Bloomsbury, 2013
Got it from: The library

Lost Animals charts the story of a handful of recently extinct species through photos and eyewitness histories.  Most of the species went extinct at the beginning of the 20th century, so photographs are inevitably black and white (with a few exceptions).  Like a detective, the author had to go to great lengths to track down some of these rare pictures.  The stories of the efforts made to obtain photos of these vanishing creatures are almost as fascinating as the animals themselves.

Some of the animals in this book may be familiar, such as the passenger pigeon and the quagga, but others are more obscure.  Species range from New Zealand's laughing owl to the Yangtze River dolphin (whose last member was the adorably name Qi Qi). Their stories all end the same way: humans.  More specifically, hunting and habitat destruction.  It's enough to make you think that Voluntary Human Extinction group may have the right idea.

This isn't exactly cheerful Christmas fare, but this is one of those rare books that feels like essential reading for anyone who cares about animals.  Which is not to say it was a chore to read - far from it.  This book made me feel a variety of emotions: fascination, anger at the thoughtlessness and cruelty of humans, despair, and a new appreciation for the precious animals still remaining on this planet.  Thankfully it's not all doom and gloom.  For every group of destructive humans, there seems to be an euqally passionate group of  conservationist who speak up for the animals.  Still, with global overcrowding becoming inevitable, one wonders how we will be able to maintain future diversity. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Master of Heathcrest Hall

The title: The Master of Heathcrest Hall
The authors: Galen Beckett
Publication: Spectra, 2012
Got it from: Amazon 2012

I finally got around to reading the 700+ page conclusion to the Magicians and Mrs. Quent trilogy.  I like to read books by the season.  The first one I read in the dead of winter, the second in the middle of summer, and I planned to save the third for the long fall evenings.  I started it in October, a perfect time for reading about eerie primeval sentient forests.  But then work compilations, back-to-back illness and a busy holiday season threw my reading schedule way off track.  This book proved the perfect antidote to all the stresses in my life.

The story opens with an extended flashback to a Neolithic Britain and the origins of many of the series' central elements: the arrival of the planet Cerephus and the Ashen, the first magicians, the true nature of the Wyrdwood and the first women who spoke to the trees.  Naturally, the significance of the events don't become clear until the end, but it still made for gripping Stone Age action.  

Thus far in the series, I've been of the opinion that the story and characters are great but nothing actually happens.  Well, The Master of Heathcrest Hall totally did a 180 on the action front.  Tons of things went down in a dramatic fashion, and in some parts I couldn't turn the pages fast enough.  There were mornings when I had to (reluctantly) wrench the book away so I could finish getting ready for work.  

It's difficult for me to say what actually happens without potentially spoiling the plot.  Suffice to say that some of my predictions came true and some didn't.  There were a lot of plot threads going on that had to be wrapped up, and most of them satisfactorily did.  Much to my pleasure, the one I deemed most important to the overall series was saved for the very last few pages.  Yes, that's right.  I spent the book swooning over Mr. Rafferdy.  He had big-time character growth over the series but in The Master of Heathcrest Hall he pulls a Mr. Darcy and becomes wiser and more selfless, while still being awesomely snarky.  Jane Austen fans will note that the primary romance bears a striking resemblance to Pride and Prejudice, albeit with feminism and gay rights and evil ancient aliens.  Really, what more could you ask for?  This is a trilogy well worth the huge time investment - a pleasure from start to finish.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Claimed by the Laird

The title: Claimed by the Laird
The author: Nicola Cornick
Publication: Harlequin, 2014
Got it from: The library

I do seem to be in the habit of picking up books based on plot, regardless of whether it's in the middle of a series.  Look, ain't no busy thirtysomething woman got time to read a whole series unless it's amazing. 

And the plot for this book really had to hook me to have me drop everything else and read it, especially considering it's Scottish and I'm not a fan of Scottish romance.  But Nicola Cornick's name hooked me, given my earlier enjoyment of Desired

Also, consider the following plot elements:
Thirty-three year old spinster?  YES.
Who's a secret whisky smuggler who disguises herself as "The Lady"?  YES!
And a younger hero who is out to bring down her gang?  YES.
But he's really there to find out who murdered his brother?  YES.
And he has to secretly go undercover as her footman/gardener to do so?  OMG YES.

Don't go by the cover of this book or the title.  They're both stupid.  The fact that the hero, Lucas, is a laird barely plays any role at all in this book.  In fact, it all takes place at the heroine Christina's family estate. 

I loved this book.  It was fun, had hilarious one-liners, great dialogue, sparkling banter and an intriguing mystery.  It also had a wonderfully developed hero and heroine who were smart and interesting and funny and vulnerable and lovely.  It's not often I consider a romance novel to be a page-turner but the plot was so masterfully executed and the characters so appealing I zipped through this satisfying novel in a few days.  My only (minor) complaint is that there wasn't enough time spent on Christina's role of "The Lady."   Bravo to this book and to Nicola Cornick for achieving my rare must-read author list.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

An update

I have had limited opportunities to read much in the last month and what I read hasn't seemed worthwhile posting.  It's pretty hard to follow up after The Blue Castle. 

I did actually finish Northern Fascination by Jennifer LaBrecque (Harlequin, 2011), as I was interested in the Alaskan setting. But I didn't feel like writing a review, as I felt overwhelmingly meh about the whole thing.  I liked the concept of "businessman attempts to buy out town lived in by woman who once scorned him in high school."  But the whole thing felt like one big promo for the rest of the "Alaskan Heat" series and the main conflict got resolved way too quickly.  There was an intriguing side plot about the relationship between a local medicine man/doctor and a friend of the heroine's, but it got fairly short shrift.

However, things should be perking up because I just got back from a trip to the New York Finger Lakes region and got to visit one of my all-time favourite bookstores, the Paperback Place in Canandaigua.  Hunting down secret gems and favourite authors in used bookstores is one of my all-time passions.  They have a gigantic wall of 1000's of romances.  Check out my haul!

I also got to visit Seneca Falls and the Women's Rights National Park and the National Women's Hall of Fame.  I was really sad to see how modest both museums were, in the case of the former, a lot of the interactive exhibits were actually broken.  Still, it didn't deter from the awesomeness of the subject matter.  The Hall of Fame had so many women who I love and admire already, and many who I learned about for the first time and was intrigued by.  Both exhibits were really inspiring.  I bought a "I Would Have Been a Suffragist" t-shirt in the gift shop.

I should have a review up soon of Nicola Cornick's latest book, which is excellent.