Monday, December 12, 2011

A Time-Travel Christmas

The title: A Time-Travel Christmas
The authors: Megan Daniel; Vivian Knight-Jenkins, Eugenia Riley, Flora Speer
Publication: Dorchester, 1993
Got it from: PA Library, 2006

There was a time, way back when, when time-travel romances were huge and had their own line at romance publishing houses.  This  book is from that glorious era and it's actually my second time reading it.  Normally I only read new Christmas romances, but I enjoyed this one so much I wanted to give it a second go.

I've talked before about why I love the short story romance format, but I've been burned before when it comes to Christmas romances.  They can feel stale, unbelievable, preachy, or some combination of the three.  But I have to say this collection may be the finest collection of short story romances I've ever read, not even mentioning the Christmas and time-travel aspects.  There's not a dud amongst the four.  The writing is superb, the characters well-developed and the stories extremely entertaining.

"The Christmas Portrait" by Megan Daniel - Cass is a window dresser in New York City who has no family and is feeling lost at Christmas.  She had recreated a scene of a 19th century ball in one of her windows and with the help of a real fairy godmother, manages to step through the window and into the ballroom of Gilded Age New York.  Cass soon realizes that there's a lot of hypocrisy amongst the upper class and although she enjoys being spoiled, she finds herself drawn to poor artist Nicholas Wright.  I love stories of Gilded Age NYC, so I was a big fan of this one.

"The Spirit of Things to Come" by Vivian Knight-Jenkins - Taylor Kendall is on her way home to visit her family in rural Massachusetts when her car goes off the road in a snowstorm and she finds herself back in Puritan New England.   Everybody in the village assumes she's a boy, except for the hunky blacksmith whose lusty loins tell him otherwise.  There's a lot of humour in this one, especially when Taylor tries to argue with the local Puritan sheriff about the ridiculous anti-Christmas laws.  I'm normally afraid of Puritan stories, since they usually end in some poor woman being burned at the stake, but this one was more lighthearted and there's even a party where the villagers go skating and make popcorn.  I liked the way the author resolved the time-travel dilemma at the end, too.

"The Ghost of Christmas Past" by Eugenia Riley - This is the most haunting (ha! pun!) of all four stories, and also unique in that it's told entirely from the perspective of the hero, who is the time-traveller here.  Jason Burke is a jaded world journalist who's on a break to write a fluff story about Christmas tours in London.  He receives a mysterious invitation to a hotel where a young woman claiming to be a ghost gives him a tour.  The next day he discovers that the hotel is a crumbling building and that the ghost was real.  Determined to find out more, he returns and is whisked back in time to Victorian London to save the girl before she can die and become a ghost.  I like that we get to see Jason's perspective and watch him fall in love.  This is definitely a knight in shining armour story, as Jason has to rescue his precious Annie not only from her own death but from a villainous suitor as well.

"Twelfth Night" by Flora Speer - Aline, stricken with grief at her grandfather's death, goes to visit his most prized possession, a medieval book of hours, at the local library.  As she turns the pages, she finds herself whisked back to 1100's England and into the castle of a Norman lord.  This one stretched plausibility a little (the lord would have even, shiny teeth? really?), but I appreciated what the author did with the story.  In her 20th century life, Aline was divorced after an unhappy marriage and in medieval England, she is able to set things right by saving the marriage of a younger couple who made the same mistakes she once did.  Meanwhile she finds love of her own with the lord of the castle.  There's also lots of interesting information here about medieval Christmas traditions. 

This collection is one for my keeper shelf, and I could easily see myself re-reading it several times over.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Black Heart, Ivory Bones

The title: Black Heart, Ivory Bones
The author: Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling (eds.)
Publication: HarperCollins, 2000
Got it from: Vancouver, Chapters, 2001

I bought this book in Vancouver over ten years ago and for some reason, it's taken me this long to get around to it.  This year I resolved to finally tackle it and put it to my all-important reading list.  It's a collection of re-told fairy tales, some by very famous fantasy writers (Charles de Lint, Tanith Lee), some by authors who weren't nearly as famous then as they are now (Neil Gaiman, Susannah Clarke) and others who remain obscure.  

Like many short story collections, the quality of these stories varied widely.  Some of them, like "Rapunzel" were obviously linked to specific fairy tales, others were vaguely fairy tale in theme.  Some were gritty and modern ("Big Hair" was about teenage beauty pageants, "Goldilocks Tells All" was like a Jerry Springer show involving psychiatry, "The Red Boots" made me think of a strange lesbian country-and-western song).  I didn't like the ones that were gross or violent, like "Rosie's Dance" and "My Life as a Bird."  "The Cats of San Martino" by Ellen Steiber was a fun story on its own, while, "You, Little Match Girl" was a haunting tale that accomplished a great deal of emotion in just a few short pages.  Interestingly, "Mr. Simonelli, or The Fairy Widower" from Susannah Clarke's other short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu, first appeared here, long before Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was first published, and it is an excellent story, well worth re-reading.  Was this collection worth waiting ten years for?  Probably not, but it wasn't entirely a waste of time.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Home for the Holidays

The title: Home for the Holidays
The author: Heather Vogel Frederick
Publication: Simon & Shuster, 2011
Got it from: La library

Let me say it up front: I love the Mother-Daughter Book Club the way I loved the Baby-Sitters Club when I was 9.  It doesn't matter if something silly happens, or I find a character annoying, or a plot device wraps things up too neatly.  Inside, I'm going NONONOBUTIT'SSOOOOGOOOOD!!!  This is the fifth book in the series, and I've spent so much time getting to know the girls, their families, their lives and the town they live in, it's like visiting close friends.  It's probably no coincidence that there are a LOT of similarities between these books and the Baby-Sitters Club, which is probably why I'm so drawn to this series now, twenty years later.  But while the BSC became bloated and out-of-control, this series lets its characters age properly and the end is in sight.  (My inner critic says that's a good thing, my inner fan says nooooo!!!!)

How much do I love this book?  When I first saw the beautiful silver-cover foil that looks like wrapping paper (the Internet does it no justice) I almost squealed in glee.  This book is the equivalent of an amazing box of chocolate, and like chocolate I had to slow down to read it so I wouldn't gobble it up all at once and not have anything to look forward to.  In this book, the girls are 15 and each of them is going away for the holidays, but in the meantime the mother-daughter book club is reading the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace.  I haven't read this series, but I'm so tempted to now.  Becca and Megan are going on a tropical cruise (just like Baby-Sitters Club Super Special #1: Baby-Sitters on Board!) and Jess and Emma end up in a lodge in New Hampshire (just like Baby-Sitters Super Special #3: Baby-Sitters' Winter Vacation!) and Cassidy goes back to her old town in California (just like Baby-Sitters Super Special #5: California Girls!).  

Okay, I'll stop with the BSC/MDBC comparisons.  But it didn't take much to make me love a book set during the holidays.  Yes, there's some strife amongst the girls, but there's also lots of presents!  And so, so many loving descriptions of food that will make your mouth water.  Seriously, I would have killed to have been part of such a close-knit, fun-loving, book-oriented group whose members get to travel and do other awesome things.  These are characters that remind me of friends and family from high school, and maybe that's why I love them so much.  They remind me of the best parts of growing up.  Either that, or my theory that these books are laced with crack.

Monday, October 31, 2011


This is my 200th post, all you lovely three people who read this blog!  Woo hoo!  And it's only taken me close to four years to get here!  In honour of such an exciting event, I've added two new reviews this weekend.  I've also been combing through my archives and cleaning up stuff: fixing dead links, replacing non-available videos, and adding a ton of book cover pictures that have mysteriously disappeared.  Thanks to those of you who continue to follow my little private reading diary.

Anne's House of Dreams

The title: Anne's House of Dreams
The author: L.M. Montgomery
Publication: Book in Motion Audio, originally 1917
Got it from: Overdrive

I wish I'd thought of listening to audiobooks sooner.  Ever since I got my iPod touch, I've been discovering apps and things that are so much easier to do with just a few clicks, and suddenly it dawned on me last week that audiobooks could be a great way to add more books to my life.  Previously, the thought of sitting next to some sort of stereo and listening did not appeal to me, but now that I can download them through my library in seconds and listen to them virtually anyway - oh my goodness, I'm hooked.  It's such a great thing to have when you're doing housework.  It's so great, in fact, that I was looking for more chores to do last Sunday night because I was enjoying my book so much and didn't want to stop.

Right now, it's the classics that I'm interested in, and catching up with old favourites I didn't have time for and new-to-me-classics that I've been meaning to get to but just haven't.  Anne's House of Dreams has been on my re-read list for years and with its short chapters and familiar story, it was perfect for listening to.  Actually, it's doubly perfect, considering so much of the story is an homage to oral storytelling.  In this fifth novel in the series, Anne is grown-up and marrying sweetheart Gilbert Blythe, who has taken a post as doctor on the other side of the Island.  (We Maritimers always refer to PEI as "the Island," because really, what other island is there?  Um, sorry, Cape Breton.)  They end up in the idyllic town of Glen St. Mary, along the sea, and settle into a little cottage with a long history, and soon make friends with their neighbours: the loveable old sea captain Jim, the hilarious and man-hating Cornelia Bryant, and the beautiful and mysterious Leslie Moore who has a dark past.  Very little of the story focuses on Anne and Gilbert's actual marriage; Anne's pregnancy is only very coyly referred to until suddenly a baby appears - or doesn't.  A tragic infant death reminds us that in Montgomery's world, childbirth was still a very risky business.  It's hard not to think that Montgomery was working out her grief at her own baby's death with Anne's loss.  

There's so much here that Anne fans will love, despite the tragedy: colourful village characters, lavish descriptions of seashores and gardens, and quaint glimpses into a long-gone rural way of life.  It's the kind of story that just goes with a chilly fall evening.  I felt like I was visiting old friends.  I expect to revisit the rest of the series in audiobook sometime soon.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Everything I Know About Love

The title: Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels
The author: Sarah Wendall 
Publication: Sourcebooks, 2011
Got it from: Amazon

Sarah Wendall, the co-founder of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, has written a guide to the life lessons romance novels teach us.  I've been a regular follower of the site since 2006 and very much enjoyed their previous book, Beyond Heaving Bosoms.  This book was a much more serious defense of the genre and I was disappointed that there wasn't the same high level of hilarity.  A notable exception was a list of problems the protagonists might face in a romance novel, including, "he is buying her father's company, and he's only doing it because he hates her old man, but secretly he lusts in his pants for her." (p.148).

The book is broken up into chapters highlighting the different ways romance novels are good for us: they help us learn how to solve relationship problems, what to look for in a man, how to have good sex, etc.  The only problem is that for those of us who read the site all the time, it feels like walking down the same path.  A lot of the quotes lifted from readers were taken directly from discussions on the site, which I've already read.  Passages from various novels only highlighted authors the Bitches have been praising since the beginning (Cruisie, Chase, Roberts, et al.)  Readers unfamiliar with the site or readers on the fence about romance may find it refreshing, but for the rest of us it feels like preaching to the choir.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Sorcery & Cecelia

The title: Sorcery & Cecilia, or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot
The authors: Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer
Publication: Harcourt, 1988 
Got it from: DC, 2006

I added a few re-reads to my "must read in 2011" list, and I'm so glad I did because reading this book again reminded me why it's one of my favourites.  The authors originally wrote it as part of a letter game, with each author taking a character and writing letters in that character's voice.  Wrede is Cecelia, a young woman in Regency England with an aptitude for magic.  Stevermer is Kate, Cecelia's cousin, who is embarking on her coming-out in London.  Along the way they uncover all kinds of craziness: Cecelia's brother turns into a tree, there's a wizard planning dastardly deeds, a chocolate pot is draining magic from another wizard, magic gardens appear out of nowhere, and somebody's mother takes finding a husband for her daughter to a whole 'nother level of crazy.  

This book is delightful.  I adore books written in letters, and it helped move the pace along quickly - almost too quickly, as I was enjoying things so much.  Kate and Cecelia are wonderfully sarcastic (Cecelia, on the prospect of listening to Reverend Fitzwilliam's lectures, declares, "I am determined to have the headache Thursday, if I have to hit myself with a rock to do it.")  Naturally, each finds a love interest who is mixed up with the plot, but neither lets the boys get away with anything. (Cecelia to James: "I must tell you that you are very bad at sneaking about. You should not have worn that black coat and crossing the lawn to the pavilion was a completely chuckle-headed thing to do.")  If the Regency were always this fun, I'd never want to leave.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

1001 Children's Books You Must Read

The title: 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up
The authors: Julia Eccleshare (editor)
Publication: Quintessence, 2009 
Got it from: SC, Dec 2009

I can't say enough about this fabulous book, which has taken me almost two years to read (mostly over hundreds of breakfasts). Nearly all of the 1001 books features a lavish illustration of the original book cover and sometimes an interior illustration, along with a write-up from one of the children's book experts who contributed to this work. The book is divided into five sections based on age (0-3, 3+, 5+, 8+ and 12+) and goes chronologically after that. Although most of the write-ups are from relatively unknown editors, publishers, professors and writers, a few famous writers contribute: for instance, Meg Cabot writes about Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret and Margaret Atwood talks about her history with Anne of Green Gables.

Fans of children's literature will be delighted to find their favourite children's books (they included The Elephant and the Bad Baby! and Alfie Gets in First!) and probably be outraged that their other favourites were not included (a whole pantheon of amazing Canadian children's literature was left out). The usual big names are there, but also a surprising amount I've never heard of, considering I've worked with children's literature in the library from the age of 13. There are a lot of classics from other countries, but the majority of the works are from the UK, which to be fair is where most of the best children's literature comes from. Oddly enough, the one exception is the 12+ section, which seems to be dominated by Australian works.

I particularly enjoyed the picture book section and reading about the classics from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After reading this, I can't help but wonder if many of the texts were chosen because of their interest to adults rather than being particularly beloved by children. No matter, this is a book to treasure forever, and to consult for years to come.


Okay, I'm getting giddy with excitement here. Two of my favourite internet ladies have just released new books. Sarah Wendall of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books is publishing Everything I Know About Love, I Learned from Romance Novels and Kate Beaton of Hark, A Vagrant is publishing a collection with the same title. I love Hark, a Vagrant like you wouldn't believe. It actually seems to be sold out, since I got notification shipping was delayed on it, despite having pre-ordered it months ago. This should make my fall reading even more fantastic. Have I mentioned I'll be reading and posting a whole lot more now that it's fall? Boo yeah!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Warrior Rising

The title: Warrior Rising
The authors: P.C. Cast
Publication: Berkley, 2008
Got it from: DC, Aug 2009

P.C. Cast returns for another installment of the goddess summoning series. Like Goddess of Spring,* Cast is trying to reinvent the Greek myths. It's hard not to compare the two books, because both are cases of, "they're really not such bad fellows, just misunderstood." In Warrior Rising, the hero is Achilles. The goddesses Hera, Athena and Venus are getting tired after ten years of the Trojan war and feel that by distracting Achilles with a woman, the Trojans can win and the war will be over. Venus chooses a modern-day woman to do the job, but when she and her best friend are killed in a car accident, Venus places their souls into the bodies of a Trojan princess and her handmaiden. Kat (now Princess Polyxena) must help Achilles break the curse that has been inflicted on him since he was a teenager and stop the monster that literally lurks within him.

I confess to being no fan of Achilles. If I'm going to go for anyone in the Trojan War, it's Hector all the way for me. Achilles always seemed like a spoiled brat, but Cast does her best here to redeem him. A secondary love story between Kat's friend Jacky and Patroklas rounds the story out. This is a pretty frothy read and fun if you're familiar with the classics. Expect silliness and warm fuzzies by the end.

* Someday soon I am going to update the graphics on my blog. Some of my old pictures have disappeared.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Teens and romance

A fascinating article from the New York Times' Caitlyn Flanagan on teen girls and romance:

One of the manifold ways our culture fails girls is in its refusal to honor or even acknowledge their deep interest in romance. A girl’s world is drenched in romance, and the process by which she negotiates that deep emotional need with the countervailing force of sexuality — with all its power, pleasure and danger — is the great work of female adolescence. But our present moment is terrible for anyone who is thoughtful or private or introspective, and thus terrible for girls. The impossible music, the normalization of hard-core pornography, the explicitly sexual nature of even supposedly “family friendly” entertainment — everything about modern life mocks the romantic impulse.

One of the last places where girls can encounter the romantic stories they crave is in novels, an art form perfect for anyone who wants to spend time alone with her dreams and her imaginings.

[Emphasis added by me]

Sunday, August 28, 2011

102 Minutes

The title:
102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers
The authors: Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn
Publication: Times Books, 2005
Got it from: The library

Everybody has their story.

Mine goes like this. I was 19 years old. It was the first week of classes, my second year of university. Ten a.m. As the course outline was passed around, a boy I'd known since high school slid into the seat beside me. "Hey," he said. "Did you hear that somebody flew a plane into the World Trade Center?"

This was confusing to me. I had only a vague idea of what the World Trade Center was, and no idea that it was actually two buildings. "Do you think there were people inside?"

"Oh yeah, thousands."

It wasn't until I arrived home after lunch that the magnitude of the situation hit me. My first instinct was to think, okay, it was before 9 am, probably nobody was inside the building. But as the news footage showed the events of that morning, it dawned on me. Hundreds of people were actually killed. Maybe thousands. I was unable to turn off the TV until after supper, trying to make sense of what was going on. It felt like the bottom had fallen off the world.

That fall, I would remember the sense of fear following everything and eveybody. I couldn't watch or think about that day in the weeks and months that followed. It felt too raw, too immediate. That day was seared into everybody's consciousness, but nobody wanted to talk about it.

Six and a half years later. It was a quiet Sunday morning, not unlike the Sunday that will mark the 10th anniversary two weeks from today. My husband and I were in lower Manhattan and ended up on Liberty Street. We were looking at the open space where just a few years before, the world had changed forever. I can't describe that moment. There were only a handful of us, plus a security guard watching the site, and we were completely silent. On the ground, a homeless man played "Amazing Grace" on his flute. Next to me, a woman who couldn't speak English pointed to a picture she had of the twin towers. She pointed to one, and then pointed to the spot just in front of us. The south tower. She put her finger on the picture of the other tower, and pointed slightly northwest. The north tower.

We were standing at the graveyard of a scene of mass murder. It was horrible. I had been to the Colosseum before, but the people there had died thousands of years ago, and not all at once. I felt sick to my stomach, and we had to leave and walk down Wall Street and across the Brooklyn Bridge, but I still felt shaken until much later in the day. But I was also full of questions. I was finally ready to discover what happened that day.

Since then I have read countless books and seen many documentaries about what took place that day. I feel driven by a strange impulse to know every detail of what happened. Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn's 102 Minutes: The Untold Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers is exactly the kind of book that tells the full story. We all know what we saw as we were watching outside, but for those inside, most of whom were unaware of what was really going on, it was a wholly different experience. The stories of those who survived, and most especially, those who didn't, deserve to be told.

Life and death that day was a matter of chance. Some people, like Brian Clark in the south tower,
survived despite all odds, making it from above the impact zones while managing to rescue another man who was trapped. In the 79th floor sky lobby, directly where the plane struck, some survived while others were killed instantly. In the north tower, everybody above the 92nd floor was doomed by impassable stairwells, their horrific last few minutes unimaginable. But there were also stories of hope. Frank Di Martini and Pablo Oritz, the subjects of an upcoming TLC documentary, despite being neither police officers nor firefighters, managed to rescue over seventy people who would have otherwise been trapped in the upper floors. Another group of people trapped in an elevator shaft were able to break the drywall outside the doors and emerge into a bathroom where they descended to safety.

The real protagonists, though, are the towers themselves. Like the Titanic, any number of safety precautions could have been put in place during their construction that would have saved countless more lives on September 11. If, for instance, they had followed the building code used in the construction of the Empire State Building and had more fire-resistant stairwells placed further apart on each floor, it is likely that those on the upper floors would have had an escape route. If the elevators had not had safety locks that prevented the doors from opening when the cars were between floors, hundreds of people trapped in elevators across the towers would not have needlessly perished. And there is also the failure of the emergency crews - that for all their bravery and self-sacrifice, they had serious communication problems that compromised their ability to talk to their commanders, their fellow teams and the other emergency departments. Had it not been for their communication breakdowns, many in the police and firefighting departments would have evacuated in time to save their own lives.

So many myths and conspiracy theories have arisen over that day, and it's so important that books like this exist to get the facts straight now, while the events are still within living memory. I have a feeling that historians will mark September 11 as a turning point in world history, and certainly as a defining moment that forever changed the course of the 21st century. In all the chaos and monumental sadness that permeates those events, it's more important than ever to study it at the individual level, to see how it affected each person who was in those towers that day. But for the hand of fate, it could have been us. Their stories are our own.

Photo taken by me of the World Trade Center, April 2008. The South Tower would have stood directly in front of us. The North Tower was in the northwest behind it.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Things I haven't been reviewing, 2011 edition

I just realized it's been exactly one year since I did my summer roundup of interesting things I'd recently read/seen. So I thought, why not make it an annual event? Thus, here is my list of things I have enjoyed in the past few months, in no particular order:

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer - I had to read this one for book club, and it's one of the few book club books that I've really enjoyed. (I'm working on overcoming the trauma of Still Alice and trying not to freak out when I can't remember something). I can totally see this book as a movie. I love the character of Juliet, and stories written in letters. I wish I belonged to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society!

The Adams Chronicles (PBS, 1976) - I haven't seen the new John Adams movie, and I didn't know anything about John Adams, but it was on sale for $10 at a store last Christmas so I picked it up. I'm not done yet, but I love this series! Such a bargain for ten bucks! Abigail Adams is my hero. I'm so mad I never learned about her before this. She was a feminist AND she was opposed to slavery AND she has her own mystery series! Which makes her 200% awesome. I love her and John as a couple, and how they were so smart and affectionate and loyal to each other. Plus, I really just enjoy the late 18th century as a time period. As much as I love the 19th century, there's something about the 1700's that I think is also great, especially in North American history. I'm not as big a fan of the ostentatious Marie Antoinette-style dresses, but I love the simple ones worn by women of the period - here's an example I found online.

Also, tricorn hats = win!

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See - A really interesting look into 19th century Chinese women's lives. I had no idea footbinding was so brutal. After reading this book, you'll realize how little women were valued in that society and how restricted they were. Although I enjoyed this, I found the ending to be a real downer because everybody dies.

Victorian London by Liza Picard - My love of Victorian London never ceases. I'm fascinated by all the little details, reading this book with a giant map of London by my side so I can locate the places the author talks about. Victorian London is like a vacation spot to me, a place I never get to go to but know so well just from the descriptions. I'd visit in a second if I had the chance, but the smog and cholera would probably kill me after three days.

Manor House (PBS, 2001) - Yes, I'm ten years behind on this one, but I'm enjoying it as much as 1900 House last year. I was glued to YouTube for the few days I watched this show (what would I do without YouTube movies?) This one is set in the Edwardian period and shows just how miserable the lives of servants were. The people playing the rich people, though, loved being waited on hand and foot and didn't want to leave at the end of the three months. Hmm, I wonder why?

The Once and Future Giants by Sharon Levy - I don't talk a lot about my love of science and all my science reading on this blog, but as this is an "anything goes" list and I loved this book, I thought I'd throw it in here. It's an account of what our world looked like at the end of the last Ice Age and how our ecosystems have gone haywire without the megafauna that are supposed to be roaming our landscapes. Some people have even proposed inserting African elephants and other large animals back in North America as replacements for their extinct cousins. All I know is, I want to be the first to sign up to have a wooly mammoth as a pet. They're like elephants, only fuzzier!

Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition. My guilty pleasure reality TV this summer. There's just something about weight loss shows that draws me in. It's three parts inspiration, one part horror at seeing how other people eat. This show is great, because it doesn't just chronicle people losing ten pounds (big deal), but actually hundreds of pounds in one year. Every time I watch this show, I want to immediately go to the gym afterward.

That's it for another year - unless I go wild 'n' crazy and do another one at Christmas or something. In the meantime, lots more good book reviews ahead, as always!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Black Sheep

The title: Black Sheep
The author: Georgette Heyer
Publication: Sourcebooks, 2008 (originally 1966)
Got it from: JL, August 2009

Abigail Wendover is the youngest sister of a formidable clan, "on-the-shelf" and headed to spinsterhood at the ripe old age of 28. She and her much older sister Selina are in charge of raising their headstrong niece Fanny. Abigail has just returned to Bath from a visit to London and discovers that Fanny has taken up with ne'er-do-well rogue Stacy Calverleigh (who is after her
fortune), although Fanny is in the throes of love and can't see Stacy's faults. Chance happens to bring Stacy's uncle Miles Calverleigh to Bath, after having been exiled to India for 20 years. Miles's blunt manner should shock Abby, but instead she finds herself laughing at his disregard for society and family duty. At first he is unwilling to have anything to do with his wayward nephew and refuses to intervene for Abby's sake, but his regard for her soon has him rethinking his stance.

This is a delightful book, my favourite so far of all the Heyer books I've read. (Yes, I liked it better even than The Grand Sophy, whose heroine is a little bit too unconventional for my taste). Heyer is a genius at creating three-dimensional characters, so that even the hysterical older sister is shown to be sympathetic when she sides with Abby against their tyrannical older brother. Abby is one of the most delightful heroines I've ever encountered, right up there with Elizabeth Bennet. She is fashionable and pretty but not overly gorgeous, she has a wicked sense of humour and she doesn't take herself seriously. The real conflict of the novel here is internal, with Abby warring against a sense of duty to her family and desire to do something for herself and marry the man she loves.
This is one of the few novels where I think I actually liked the heroine better than the hero.

Although several reviews I read complain about the ending, I thought it was perfect, and a perfect way for Miles to force Abby to overcome her scruples. As always, the dialogue is excellent, making me grin throughout my reading of the novel. I love how the repartee represented the way both the hero and heroine have had to develop their personalities, given that neither are the best-looking people in town. I found myself eagerly looking forward to when I would be able to fit in a few more chapters, a sure sign of an excellent book. A real summer treat.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Countess of Scandal

The title: Countess of Scandal
The author: Laurel McKee
Publication: Hachette, 2010
Got it from: Chapters, 2011

This is the first in the "Daughters of Erin" trilogy by Laurel McKee, aka Amanda McCabe. Eliza Blacknall and William Denton grew up together in Ireland, best friends who found themselves falling in love. They are both from English families, although Eliza embraces her Irish home more fervently, loving the Irish people in her community and enjoying their legends and folklore. They are torn apart by Eliza's having to marry a count and Will's joining the British army.

Seven years later, and Eliza is a widowed countess living in Dublin, involved in the Irish movement that eventually culminates in the 1798 uprising. Will returns as a commanding officer, and they find themselves once again falling for each other despite being on opposite sides of the Irish rebellion.

I love the time period just before the Regency, and it is refreshing to read a story set in Ireland rather than England. The whole story had an Irish Scarlet Pimpernel feel, and there's even a daring escape with disguises as the aristocracy flee the countryside for the safety of Dublin. I really liked the historical aspects of this book - it's very much a political book, which may weigh it down for those not enthused about history. The romance I felt was a bit on the warm, rather than hot, side. I usually enjoy the "childhood friends become lovers" trope, but I felt like it was such a foregone conclusion that they loved each other deeply. I usually prefer a bit more tension before they hop into bed and declare their love. Overall, I found this to be a pleasant (rather than page-turning) read.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Proof by Seduction

The title: Proof by Seduction
The author: Courtney Milan
Publication: Harlequin, 2010
Got it from: A library

Courtney Milan has been getting a lot of buzz since this book debuted last year, so when I read the premise I just had to try it out. It's 1836, and Jenny Keeble, aka Madame Esmerelda, pretends to predict the future for the rich and titled of London. It's the only way she knows how to make an honest living, with no prospects for a respectable job. One day a young man named Ned comes to her. He's suicidal, depressed, and in desperate need of guidance. Jenny convinces him that it's written in the stars he will thrive and grow into a man.

Flash-forward two years later, and Ned is completely under the spell of Madame Esmerela, believing everything she says without question. This enrages his uncle, Gareth, the Marquess of Blakely, who is a scientist and demands evidence for everything. One night he goes along with Ned to confront the so-called gypsy Esmerelda. Jenny is desperate to retain Ned's trust and bring the haughty Lord Blakely down a peg or two. So she makes a bet with him that she really can predict the future, and he must complete three tasks to win his future wife.

The first two-thirds of this novel were a delight. The time period comfortably straddles the conventions of the Regency and Victorian worlds, giving it a timeless 19th-century feeling. Gareth is an archetypal Mr. Darcy, putting on a cold demeanor while struggling with an overwhelming physical attraction to Jenny. Jenny is no typical historical debutante - she's in her 30's - and she matches Gareth intellectually to produce some fun (and funny) verbal sparring. But this is also an extremely emotional book. Gareth fights the whole way through to break free of his fear of being ridiculed and it takes him a long time to come around to seeing the value in human companionship. Jenny also must face her own demons, and see the consequences of her lies.

The book only loses points because the last third of the book meandered too much, being relentlessly uncheerful and going around in circles of sadness without anything really developing. I felt like both Gareth and Jenny could have come to their senses much sooner. Still, I loved the first part of the book and couldn't put it down. It's now on my list of all-time favourite romances.

Monday, June 20, 2011

O Come Ye Back to Ireland

The title: O Come Ye Back to Ireland: Our First Year in County Clare
The author: Niall Williams and Christine Breen
Publication: Soho Press, 1987
Got it from: London, Ontario used book store 2004

I've only just returned from Ireland, and I re-read this book in anticipation of our trip. It's funny re-reading a book you first read at 16, and it's certainly different looking back now after the trip. It's the story of a Manhattan couple who, in the 1980's, decided to give up urban life and live on a rural farm on the west coast of Ireland. It is far from the idyllic paradise it sounds. The weather is awful, the farm difficult and material comforts are few and far between. The authors documented a world that is ancient but rapidly fading away, something that is still very much in evidence in Ireland today. Although they describe the kindness of neighbours and the beauty of the land, it's not a life I think I could live. It's basically a chronicle of the hardships that nature keeps throwing at them, relentlessly. They really have to eke out a living on the land, no extra money to fall back on for them. Yet I felt it rang true for what Ireland is really like - many of the scenes and people they describe are familiar. It's an interesting book, one of the best "travel" stories I've read and a true portrait of Ireland.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Touch Not the Cat

The title: Touch Not the CatThe author: Mary Stewart
Publication: Hodder & Stoughton, 1977Got it from: Hannelore's, 2010

How is it that I have gone all my life without ever having read a Mary Stewart book? How is it that I have waited so long, after so many online recommendations by people who love the same books I do, to read this book? And how is it that Mary Stewart has managed to take a premise that could be so silly and instead write something that is so wonderful?

Bryony Ashley is the only daughter of the esteemed Ashley clan. Her ancestors were noblemen, but it is now the 1970's and their money has run out. The only thing they have remaining is their enormous, beautiful estate. But Ashley Court has become neglected over the years and is starting to deteriorate. Bryony is in her early twenties and her mother is no longer alive. She grew up on the estate with her father and spent her childhood playing with her three boy cousins and the son of a local farmer who lives on the estate. Bryony also has another companion - the friend she has communicated psychically with since childhood. The Ashleys, you see, had a witch in their history, and ever since then, various family members have been able to communicate with each other via their thoughts. Because of this, Bryony thinks her secret friend (who becomes her secret lover) must be one of her cousins.

The story begins when Bryony is in Spain, and she receives a message from her secret lover that her father has been killed. She arrives back in Ashley Court, grieving, and discovers one of her cousins there. Being female, she is not allowed to inherit the estate, so it is going to her cousins' family instead. As time goes on and Bryony sees past her grief, she realizes that her cousins may be behind the disappearance of several valuable objects from the court. Worse, her father's death may not be an accident. As he lay dying, her father's last words were a riddle that she must solve, along with the true meaning of the Ashley motto, "Touch not the cat."

At first I wasn't sure if I was going to like this book. I thought Bryony was going to be too young and immature, but I ended up really liking her character, as she behaves with dignity well beyond her years. (In fact, I don't think I would have taken the destruction of my childhood home as calmly as she did). And of course, the Big Secret - the identity of her lover - is a perfect reveal toward the end. At first you are worried, because of the cousins' duplicity, that Bryony is going to be burned - but you needn't fear, this is a Jane Austen romance, not a Bronte one. The big reveal is a romantic moment that moved me in a way that most romance novels fail to do, being so sweet, so wonderful and so right. Of course you know who it is when you look back and see all the signs laid out for you.

But it was the writing - oh, the writing! - that literally blew me away. This book was meant to be savoured, slowly. It simply cannot be read quickly. To do so is not merely to miss the many subtleties and hidden meanings, but to miss the point of the book entirely. Read it a few pages at a time, and be amazed at the way it creeps over you, gothic novel that it is, and gets under your skin. There is so much going on, so much complexity, but at the same time it's the simple evocation of the place that gets to you. You are there on a summer's evening at this sprawling, crumbling estate, and you can almost smell the grass and see the shadows. Trust me, you will never look at a hedge maze the same way again.

What I love most about the writing is the way so much is told by what is left unsaid. A lot of authors love to beat you over the head with a stupid stick but Mary Stewart assumes her readers are a lot smarter than that, without being in the least bit pretentious, of course. It's a summer novel with weight to it, and I look forward to many happy hours with her other books in years to come.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


The title: AtlanticThe author: Simon Winchester
Publication: Harper, 2010Got it from: La library

April was a disappointing month for me, reading-wise, since most of my reading material was for work and I didn't really enjoy it
. (Dragon Tattoo, I'm looking at you). But one of the good things was that Atlantic was one of the books I got to book-talk at my library, so that meant I finally got to finish it.

I love Simon Winchester. I first discovered him when I was in university and I won the British High Commissioner's award, and my prize was a signed copies of two of his books (The Professor and the Madman and The Map at the Edge of the World), which my professor had him sign for me when he visited my university. I quickly became enamored of his writing and had the chance to meet him three years later when I was doing my library degree in Halifax, when I was the last person remaining at the Lord Nelson after his talk and I excitedly had him sign his latest book, Krakatoa. I remain in constant awe of the breadth of his travels, his sweeping narrative storytelling and his ability to ferret out the most fascinating little-known facts about the world. So you can imagine my happiness when I discovered that his next book would be about the ocean I grew up next to and adored.

Of course it would be impossible to write the entire history of the Atlantic, so Winchester has done something ingenious: he gives life to the Atlantic by treating it as a human being and chronicling its birth, life, and eventual death. He does this by dividing the book into seven chapters, each corresponding to one of Shakespeare's seven ages of man (the infant, the schoolchild, the lover, etc.) Humankind has only recently - since the age of Columbus - discovered that the Atlantic was in fact a separate ocean, rather than a dark, treacherous, unthinkably huge body of water. Here are just some of the subject covered by this book, each one made fascinating: Pangaea, the Lusitania. pirates, the Middle Passage, the age of exploration, the evolution of shipbuilding, the collapse of the Newfoundland cod fisheries, early aviation, the Falkland Islands invasion, the Vikings, Hurricane Katrina.

Through the book one thing is clear, and that is Winchester's reverence for and love of this ocean. The sad end to this tale is that we have come to disrespect the Atlantic. We cross it in our airplanes, not realizing its immense size, its awesome power or its incredible history. It has always been a dream of mine to cross the Atlantic by boat; reading this book makes me want to do it even more, if only to see it as it really is. This is a wonderful book, one that will surely resonate with me for years to come.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Enchanted, Inc.

The title: Enchanted, Inc.
The author: Shanna Swendson
Publication: Ballantine, 2005
Got it from: Amazon, 2009

I enjoyed this book so much that I immediately went out and downloaded the sequel onto my Kobo and read the two books back-to-back. There's actually two more in the series but I'll probably hold off on them for now. I know that I usually profess not to like chick lit, but this was a little bit different. For one, the main character, Katie Chandler, only rates about a 6/10 on the Mary Sue scale. For another, there's magic!

These books are pure escapist, cracktastic goodness. I found myself unable to put them down. Katie is an average New York career girl from small-town Texas with a boss from hell and a dead-end job. One day, out of the blue, she receives an email from a company that wants to recruit her. The hitch is that the company is actually called Magic, Spells and Illusion, and it produces spells for the magical community. Katie is special because she is an immune, meaning magic doesn't affect her. She is perfect as a company verifier, because she can see the hidden truth behind any magical manipulations. Like Harry Potter, she is soon whisked from a tortuous situation to a magical world. It's every working girl's fantasy.

Because this is chick lit and not romance, the romantic elements in the story have to share time with Katie's career and her friendships. That's not to say the romance is unimportant. Katie has a big-time crush on her co-worker Owen, who heads the Research and Development department and also happens to be an extremely powerful wizard who's incredibly shy and nervous. There's a lot of fun characters and scenes in the book, like her CEO being THE Merlin and riding magic carpets through the city. One particularly funny scene involves a girl's night out with her co-workers (some of whom are fairies) where they go to Central Park and kiss some frogs to disenchant them back to princes. There's also a big threat to the company in the form of a rogue ex-employee who's trying to sell some rather nasty spells, and naturally Katie is on the case.

If you enjoy immersing yourself in a fun world a la Harry Potter, with a cast of amusing characters, then Enchanted, Inc. may be just what the wizard ordered.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Hippopotamus Pool

The title: The Hippopotamus Pool
The author: Elizabeth Peters
Publication: Warner, 1996
Got it from: Vancouver, 2001

"Another year, another dead body" is a favorite expression of the Emersons, but for me it's another year, another Amelia Peabody mystery. After last year's thrilling plotline, Amelia's husband Emerson has regained his memory and their archnemesis Sethos is dead - or is he? (Emerson: "I wouldn't put it past him to survive solely in order to annoy ME.") It's a new digging season, and a mysterious messenger seeks out the Emersons to tell them of the discovered tomb of Queen Tetisheri. This time, their children Ramses and Nefret are along for the ride and bickering only the way two non-related siblings who are destined to love each other can. Also along is their laughably inept new governess, Miss Marmaduke, and David, the grandson of their foreman Abdullah, who has a talent for forgeries. As the Emersons work on uncovering Tetisheri's tomb, it becomes clear that there are at least two sets of robbers also out for the tomb's treasures.

After The Snake, the Crocodile and the Dog, which focused so much more on the adventure and the relationships, I felt that The Hippopotamus Pool fared poorly in comparison. This is not to say it wasn't enjoyable, but I felt like it was an ordinary Amelia Peabody episode that followed similar plotlines to previous works in the series. A mysterious man shows up and is soon murdered - check. Unknown adversaries threatening their digs - check. Somebody in the family is kidnapped - check. Emerson tries to protect Amelia, she wants to go, they fight and then have sex a lot, she goes into danger anyway - check. It's predictable, but it's good, and I learned some more about archaeology in this one than I have in the other ones. A visit with old friends is still pleasant, even if the cake isn't as delicious this time around.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Woman Who Can't Forget

The title: The Woman Who Can't Forget
The author: Jill Price
Publication: Free Press, 2008
Got it from: The library

I was first introduced to the story of Jill Price in the November 2007 edition of National Geographic, when she was an anonymous scientific study called AJ, and at the time I was fascinated. Price has the incredible ability to remember every single day of her life. Give her a date and she can tell you exactly what she did that day, what the weather was like, who she saw and even what day of the week it was. In her memoir, she talks about being constantly bombarded with memories all day long and even at night when she's trying to sleep. It isn't so much that she is trying to remember (although her brain scans reveal obsessive-compulsive tendencies), it's that her brain is unable to forget.

Price's memory was so unusual that scientists had to invent a term,
hyperthymestic syndrome, to describe it. Since then, only a few people have been been diagnosed with it, including actress Marilu Henner. Price describes it as a burden, and I can see why. Imagine if you could remember every hurtful thing anybody has ever said to you, every mistake you've ever made - and then imagine having to relive the emotions that went with it every time. We've all had experiences where a certain smell or a song has triggered a memory, but for Price those triggers occur all day long. Although she says she would never give up her gift, I can only imagine what a nightmare it must be to live with. Understandably, she suffers from long bouts of depression and low self-esteem.

What made this book particularly riveting to me is that I also have an extraordinarily strong autobiographical recall. I think everybody is particularly good at memorizing something, and I don't think I'm unique, but I certainly feel unusual. What really took me aback was when Price drew diagrams of the ways and shapes she sees time. My jaw almost dropped to the floor and I started getting goosebumps, because my personal diagrams were almost identical! (I'm sorry I can't reproduce the diagrams here). Scientists say the way she views time is unusual - for instance, her decades read from right to left, and her year is laid out in a circle, both the same for me - and that it may be one of the keys in how she remembers. I wouldn't be surprised.

Of course, I don't remember anywhere near as specifically as Price does, and thank goodness because I remember too much as it is. You know how most people say things like, "I don't remember how old I was when..." or, "I can't remember what year it was when..."? That doesn't happen for me. I always remember the year, usually the month and sometimes the day. Give me the name of a movie I've seen in theatres, and I can tell you exactly what year it was. Conversely, give me a year and I'll tell you the movies I've seen in them. I even remember the years for a ton of movies I haven't seen. I'm always biting my tongue at work when a patron comes to me and asks, "I want this movie, but I don't know what year it was made." It's from 1996! This works for books too. I have read thousands of books over the years, and I can pretty much remember every single one of them. Major plot details, usually the titles and often the authors. It drives me nuts when patrons can't remember if they've read a book, only to discover they read it six months ago. I can remember books I read sixteen years ago!

Does this make me some sort of memory genius? Heck, no. And it may all have something to do with what scientists call the memory bump, in which more memories are stored of the years between ten and thirty than any other time in one's life. Unlike Price, I don't think my memories are going to get any stronger or more vivid as they age. And that's fine with me. After all, being selective about memories is how you form your sense of identity, and I'm more than happy to not think about the sheer hell that was being an adolescent. Still, I couldn't help but feel some kinship with the author when she talks about the first time of being self-aware, or how she empathizes with children because she remembers all to well what a difficult thing it is to be a child. Amen, sister.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Wild Sight

The title: The Wild Sight
The author: Loucinda McGary
Publication: Sourcebooks, 2008
Got it from: Amazon, 2009

I love books set in Ireland, especially Irish romances, so I was eager to read this one. It's about an Irish man who has spent most of his life in America escaping his past, only to return to Ireland and find the past catching up to him. Donovan has "the sight" which allows him to travel back in time and also to witness events of the past just by being near certain objects. When visiting his father, who's had a stroke, he meets a woman named Riley who claims to be his half-sister. Of course we, the readers, know that can't be true because Riley is his love interest.

I enjoyed this book for the most part. I liked that it was set in Northern Ireland, where most Irish books I read tend to be set in the south. In particular I liked the descriptions of the countryside, their visits to Belfast and the Giant's Causeway. It was also fast-paced with lots of twists and turns thrown in.

However, there were a few things that really annoyed me. I couldn't stand the main character, Riley. She is basically described as a blonde California princess, and every male character instantly falls in love with her. Barf. This would have been more acceptable if she wasn't such a wimp, but she's constantly "squeaking" and "wimpering," which really grated on me. And she was described as a "wee golden thing" so many times I wanted to plant her in the garden like a carrot, upside-down. Also, I found it really annoying that in the middle of something exciting or some dire situation, the main characters would always be dropping or fumbling for something. It really broke up the action in a frustrating way. (I can't stand when they do this in movies, either).

Overall, though, this wasn't bad. I'd probably read another book by this author and hope it had a better heroine.

The Rose Labyrinth

The title: The Rose Labyrinth
The author: Titania Hardie
Publication: Atria, 2008
Got it from: Amazon, 2009

Explaining the plot of this book is almost impossible, but I'll give it a shot. It's been described as a sort of feminist Da Vinci Code, involving papers belonging to Queen Elizabeth's I's astrologer, John Dee. It involves a family called the Staffords, who are directly descended from Dee, and a woman named Lucy King who is awaiting a heart transplant and becomes involved in the Staffords' lives. It took me awhile to figure out just what the heck is going on. At first there's a long section with Will, the younger Stafford son and his visit to France and it was some time before I realized that Lucy's doctor was Alex, Will's brother. Anyway, I don't think I'm giving too much away when I say that Will makes a sudden and swift exit early on in the plot but re-emerges (sort of) later on, when Lucy gets her heart transplant. (Cough). Then there's a developing romance between Lucy and Alex, who undertake to finish Will's quest.

I think the many, many bad reviews on the Amazon UK sight are correct. This book is dreadful. The romance part of this book was okay. I'm not generally against doctor-patient romances, so I could live with this one. But none of the characters were very likable. As somebody pointed out, all the women are beautiful and fragile and courageous and all the men are tall, handsome and brooding. Without actually developing any personality.

And the mystery/suspense part? Ghastly. First of all, everything is written in purple prose, long flowery sentences empty of meaning. The characters all spout long, convoluted sentences about esoteric wisdom and other gobbly gook that's impossible to follow. Pages and pages of it, on and on, without there ever being anything exciting like car chases or mortal peril. And they kept throwing out new ideas that never went anywhere. I would read something and think, "Okay, this is what the book is about." Then I'd read something else and think, "No, okay, this is what the book's about." I kept waiting for that a-ha moment when suddenly it would all come together and I'd see the big picture, but that never happened. Instead, I just heard endless things about Chartes cathedral, the wisdom of hearts, the number 34, the Rapture, mythical and Biblical allusions, Shakespeare, the Wizard of Oz (seriously) and on and on.

And yet, weirdly, I didn't hate this book. I kept feeling there was a good book in there somewhere, with a re-write and 150 pages or so chopped out and, you know, an actual point. I'm the first to admit I love when authors assume you're smart and don't spell things out to you, but these opaque "riddles" the author kept handing out would probably remain opaque if you sat there for ten years thinking about them, because they make about as much sense as the Muppet's Swedish chef. I've spent three months reading this book on and off and all I can say is - don't.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Shades of Milk and Honey

The title: Shades of Milk and Honey
The author: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publication: Tor, 2010
Got it from: DC, Xmas 2010

Jane Ellsworth is a quiet Regency woman who, at 28, has little prospects of marrying. Her plainness has left her "on the shelf," even though she is skilled at a highly valuable accomplishment: manipulating glamour. In Jane's world, glamour is used in everyday life to create illusions of beauty and works of art. The trouble is that it takes a physical toll on the person manipulating it if used for too long. Even though some women of Jane's acquaintance use glamour to enhance their appearance, Jane herself does not, despite being overlooked for her younger, more beautiful sister Melody. Melody is herself jealous of Jane's talents because they win the affections of a neighbour whom both sisters admire.

This book is a gentle romance, more along the lines of a traditional Regency of manners. The magical elements of the book don't overwhelm the story and are easy to picture: for instance, a commissioned "glamural" brings to mind the moving pictures of Harry Potter, but with a more sensory component. Jane and Melody sometimes appear to have been lifted straight out of Sense and Sensibility. Plain, rational Jane is clearly Eleanor; while flighty, beautiful and romantic Melody is a perfect Marianne Dashwood. But as in Jane Austen's stories, here characters are not always what they seem. The brooding and seemingly hostile Mr. Vincent reveals a softer side through his magnificent glamour-based creations, while the charming Captain Livingston will be recognizable to readers familiar with the Wickham and Willoughby type. The questions of who ends up with whom, and who is really in love, do not become fully realized until the end.

This is altogether an engaging story, filled with countless literary allusions, including the stories of Daphne and Apollo and Beauty and the Beast, as well as more subtle homages to other 19th century works. A sequel due out this year will hopefully continue the story of secondary characters left dangling at the end of the first.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

At Home

The title: At Home: A Short History of Private Life 
The author: Bill Bryson
Publication: Random House, 2010 

Got it from: The libarary

I was so lucky last fall when my two favourite non-fiction writers published great big books on fascinating subjects.* Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life is similar to his amazing A Short History of Nearly Everything, except that it deals with minutiae instead of larger things. It's timely too, as my husband and I have recently purchased our own Victorian-era home. And because it's Bryson, it's fascinating.

Homes, he explains, are not where people go as refuge from history, it's where history ends up. Everything large and small that we take for granted about our homes once had to be thought of by somebody and refined many times. Taking as an example his own house, an 1851 English rectory, he guides us through each room and its history and evolution, including the objects within. The journey sometimes takes us around the world (for example, when describing how the spice trade ends in our spice drawer) but more often than not what we are familiar with in Britain and North America originated in Victorian England.

Don't expect this book to be linear in any way - following Bryson's stories is a bit like running around a maze, but who cares when the hedges are so fascinating? Being obsessed with 19th century history, I already knew a lot of this stuff, but I was particularly fascinated with his description of the evolution of houses from simple buildings with just one room to the complex stately homes of the modern era. One particularly interesting fact is that second stories were only made possible with the invention of fireplaces (as opposed to open hearths) in the middle ages.

A few recurring themes seem to run throughout this book. The first is that we can't imagine how comfortable houses were before the turn of the 20th century, but then again life in general was pretty uncomfortable. The other is that nothing about houses as we know them is by chance. He cites several examples of architecturally-mad individuals who designed houses that would be considered crazy by any standards. A prime example of this is Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's DIY project for something like fifty years, which contained countless oddities, including a dumbwaiter in a fireplace and a set of doors where one opened when the other did. And don't even get me started on Biltmore. It had its own village. Its own village.

This is one of those books that is both enjoyable to read and a reference to return to for years. I can't think of any book I've read in the past few years that more deserves to be elevated to non-fiction classic than At Home.

*More on Simon Winchester's Atlantic later this year.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Mr. Impossible

The title: Mr. Impossible
The author: Loretta Chase
Publication: Penguin, 2005
Got it from: The Book Depository, 2010

Never let it be said that I will pass up a book involving a) Victorian Egypt; b) adventure; c) romance. Inevitable comparisons must be made to Amelia Peabody - can anything be as good as that series? Alas, no. Can fun times be had, a la The Mummy? Heck, yes.

Daphne Pembroke is a scholar and a widow whose late husband was, unfortunately, a lot older and a big jerkass. He tried to curb Daphne's passion for sex and learning and was pretty successful at making her feel like she was a deviant. Since she was only nineteen when she got married, she spent a long time building walls to save her hidden self. Now it's ten years later, she's a filthy rich widow and her brother Miles has gotten himself kidnapped, because everybody assumes he's the brains behind the brother-sister duo. Being more of a cerebral person, she ends up hiring notorious bad boy Rupert Carsington (who has, like, a million sexy brothers who all get their own romance novels) to help her rescue him.

Of course the whole thing goes awry because the two of them end up in lust as well as fighting all the time. Rupert pretends to be dumber than he is, but he's in awe of Daphne's smarts even as he's scheming to devise ways to get into her skirts. And what's a chase across the Egyptian desert without lots of brawls, bad guys, sandstorms and getting lost in pyramids? It's the perfect place to escape to on a cold January night. I never get tired of reading about Egypt, especially this time of year, and I hope I never do.

I didn't love this quite as much as The Devil's Delilah but you can expect to see more Loretta Chase reviews here in the future. Also, a friend of mine gave me a whole slew of Egyptian-themed romances for my birthday last year so expect more of those too.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Pies & Prejudice

The title: Pies & Prejudice
The author: Heather Vogel Frederick
Publication: Simon and Shuster, 2010
Got it from: The library

Yep, I called it in the last one. In this fourth Mother-Daughter Book Club outing, the girls are definitely growing up and becoming more mature. Emma and her family head to England for a year (lucky ducks) and decide to videoconference their book club so they can all read Pride and Prejudice. True Janeites will recognize a ton of Austen names slipped in, such as Emma's school being named Knightley-Martin. And of course, many Austen-like characters abound. Emma's got her own Mr. Collins, a local boy named Rupert, and a snooty Caroline Bingley named Annabelle. Back in Concord, the family Emma is swapping with have two boys of their own, a Mr. Bingley named Simon, who Megan falls for, and a Mr. Darcy named Tristan who clashes with tomboyish Cassidy.

It always amazes me just how busy these girls are, and I suspect the author had extensive flowcharts just to keep track of everyone's schedule. Jess continues at boarding school, disappointed that Emma's brother is away for the year - but longtime readers need not fear, as there is a satisfying resolution to that saga. Cassidy starts a little girl's hockey team and is forced to pair with moody Tristan to help him practice for an ice dancing competition, a la The Cutting Edge. Megan starts a snarky fashion blog called Fashionista Jane
that lands her in hot water when she discovers the object of her affection, Simon, is not such a fan.

There's a lot of characters and plotlines to keep track of, so it's definitely not recommended you start with this one if you haven't read any of the others. It doesn't offer a lot of surprises but it's extremely fun all the same and is an improvement over the last one, which I felt was the weakest of the series. I've really enjoyed watching the girls grow up and I am keeping my fingers and toes crossed that there will really be a fifth one like the author has hinted. Having thought I'd reached the end of the series, it was a pleasant surprise.