Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

This book tells two stories.  First, Carrie McClelland is a successful historical fiction writer working on the story of Slain's castle in 1707 and the attempt of the Jacobites to restore Young King James to his rightful throne in Scotland.  The second story is the novel she is writing.  I really liked the format of the book.  Sometimes books that go back and forth can seem gimmicky, but this worked flawlessly.  Carrie's chapters are told in the first person, while the chapters that focus on Slain's and Sophia's story are told by a third person narrator.  So you kind of hear Carrie's voice as a writer.  They are also marked differently, one with numbers while the others are with Roman numerals.

The Winter Sea provides a lot of history as the story unfolds.  I still can't keep all the nobles straight, but I do feel like I learned something about British history.  Only a couple of times did I feel like the author was giving us too much historical background.  This is a long book, 527 full pages,  but it wasn't overwhelming to me.  I read it quick, but it helped that we are on Christmas vacation.  I really cared about both stories and found them interesting and intriguing.  I think I liked the 1707 story a bit better.

Both stories have romance, but only a couple times did they seem cheesy.  Kearsley treats her characters with respect (and her readers) by writing about grown-up relationships with out having to give us the graphic details.  Both romances are written tastefully, with an understanding that we can fill in what has happened.  I appreciate that.  I was a little nervous about how she would write the scenes that seemed inevitable, and I was pleasantly surprised.

One of the fun magical aspects of the book is that as Carrie is researching to write her story, she hears her characters.  "Watching, I could feel again the stirrings of my characters--the faint, as yet in audible, suggestions of their voices, and their movements close around that strange writer's trance that stole upon me when my characters began to speak."  She always hears and feels her characters as she writes her books.  But, this time the character she writes about is her ancestor and she hears the details of her life through her character's voice.  Carrie is shocked as time after time her research turns up facts that she has already written about.  I think she over analyzes this phenomena a bit, I think it would have been cool to just have it be a little supernatural.  I know it sounds a little weird, but I thought it was a clever way to tell the story.

The story that Carrie is writing is at first focused on an a group of nobles and colonels who secretly meet and plot to return the Scottish king to his throne.  I guess this is one of the lesser known attempts.  She begins to focus on a young girl who has recently come to live in Slain's castle, Sophia.  Again I appreciated the authors restraint to not overwhelm the writer with tragic, graphic details of Sophia's past.  Sophia alludes to a troubled upbringing after both her parents die, but even when the full story is revealed, you are spared the sordid details.  Sophia is a great character, and I grew very attached to her.  When tragedy strikes again toward the end, she makes a decision that is hard to sympathize with.  For me, I took it in stride with the context of her age and station in the early 1700's.  I don't want to reveal too much, but I read in some other reviews that it was shocking to some readers.  I think it is sad, and not the best choice, but  it didn't ruin the story.

I loved the Countess of Earl.  She is a smart woman who keeps her cool and is not fooled by anyone.  She provides a great home for Sophia, and makes lots of wise decisions.  "Her voice, as always, calmed the waters."  She was very influential in the planning and preparations for the '08.  In one of her early conversations with Sophia she says, "Do you not believe that the opinion of a woman is of value?  For I tell you, I would rather have a woman's thoughts on character than those of any man."  Later she remarks to Sophia, "Were it up to God alone, I do not doubt but that the king would have been here already. But God passes His affairs into the hands of men, and there the trouble lies."  See what I mean?  Wise.

In the modern day story, I loved the Keith family.  The sweet charming dad that speaks in a strong dialect, and the two handsome sons.  Carrie says about them, "Stuart might be nice to look at.  Graham was the kind of man I couldn't look way from." (Yes, her love interest is named Graham.  Loved it.)

I love the description when Sophia wades in the ocean for the first time, "though she had come to it reluctantly, it proved to be the greatest pleasure that she could remember since her childhood."  Later she has to have some difficult conversations with men who are playing both sides of the attempt too return King James.  She does great staying calm.  Another great description, "Their conversation was a sort of dance, she thought, with complicated steps, but as the time wore on she grew to know the way of it, and when to step, and when to twirl, and when to simply stand and wait."

This is a good book.  I thought both stories were captivating, and I couldn't wait to get back to reading each time I had to stop.  Susanna Kearsley knows how to write a good story.  If you're up for something a little longer, I would definetly suggest this for a fulfilling read.  And be sure to let me know what you think.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Return Journey by Maeve Binchy

I got a Kindle for Christmas!  Hooray.  I've avoided any type of e-book reader for a long time because I do love books.  But I'm excited for the portability, easy access to library books and the ability to highlight and add notes.  We'll see if it is as helpful as I hope writing this review.

The Return Journey is a collection of short stories that seem to have a thread or two of similar themes running through them.  Years ago, after seeing the movie, I read Binchy's Circle of Friends and really liked it.  I liked these stories too.  I sometimes forget how much I like the short story genre, and these were good examples of what makes a good short story.

There are 14 stories, and I think most are dealing with moments of catharsis or possible turning points in the character's lives.  I've decided to list them and add a little commentary or quote for each.

"The Return Journey" is a collection of letters between a mother and daughter.  It ends on a hopeful note.

"The Wrong Suitcase" is clever and about two people who take the wrong suitcase, then form opinions of each other based on the contents.  I loved the line, "always better to say what you want at the start and say it pleasantly. Alan's motto."  There are several characters in her stories who have strict rules and codes of conduct for themselves.  I liked them and thought they made for quick character development.  You have so little time in a short story.

"Miss Vogel's Vacation" was one of my favorites and has a great story line.  I loved Miss Vogel's attitude and was pleased with her happy ending.

"The Homesitter" wasn't a happy story, but I think poignant.  A couple in a strained boring marriage leaves for a guest professorship for three months.  The woman who comes to sit at their house is kind of the opposite of the wife, Maura.  I could relate to Maura's feelings about Allie because I do see women who aren't that different than me, but seem to be doing it better than me.  Do you know what I mean?  I just thought it was sad that Maura couldn't be encouraged by this, and make positive changes in her life.  "She felt a physical shock, like the feeling you get if you think you've swallowed a piece of glass."  Perfect description.  Even without the happy ending, I liked this story too.

"Package Tour" is another perfect example of the short story form that I love.  A relationship hinges on a piece of luggage.  Really.  It's so well done.  Here's a quote I loved, "suddenly everything looked bright and full of glitter instead of commercial and tawdry as it had looked some minutes before."  I love people or conversations that are great enough to change your opinion of your surroundings in a single moment.  It doesn't happen often, but it is awesome.  Sadly, I think the opposite can happen too.  Someone can totally ruin the mood or event in an instant.

"The Apprenticeship" is a story about two friends who have gone to great lengths to rise above their humble upbringings.  It reminded me of a good friend of mine when I was 12 and all the magazines we read and the people we studied in an effort to unlock what it took to be popular.  Fashion rules, make-up tips and relationship advice.  As Camilla marries into the upper class, Florrie ultimately opts out.  And thankfully, so did I!

"The Business Trip" also compares two women who have chosen different ways of living their lives.  Thankfully the younger one, the niece, takes advice from her aunt and saves herself from a mislead life of heartache.  I really liked this one too.

"The Crossing" is mainly a conversation between two women who are strangers on a ship from England to Ireland.  I loved it.  They pass on advice and words of wisdom and encouragement, but will probably never meet again.

"The Women in Hats" was OK.  It centers on an employee of a cruise ship who wrongly identifies the two thin good looking friends in a trio as the married couple.  When instead, it is the good looking young man and the really fat young lady that are married.  It kind of shakes his reality.  It definitely struck a chord with me, because I can be so judgmental, but the story wasn't that interesting.

"Excitement" was clever because it read to me kind of like a sitcom.  Murphy's law, really, about a woman who is so bored with her life, but her attempt at excitement backfires.  It made me want to say "ha" to her.

"Holiday Weather" also ends on a hopeful note.  It has an affair and traveling in Europe as themes like a few other stories, but the descriptions of the weather in Ireland spoke to me.  "Then one morning the sun came out, and everything was different." That is exactly what it is like here, so many gray days in a row, but when the sun comes out you can't help but feel lucky.  Here's a conversation that Frankie has with the hotel owner about the change in the weather:
     "'It's like heaven.' She sighed....
     'Thank G-- we don't get weather like this all the time,' said Shane
      'Why do you say that?...' Frankie had been about to say the very opposite; she had been on the point of wishing that  every day could be so sunny.
     'Because we would be parched and dry, it would not be a green island, and we'd be so used to it we woldn't be calling out our thanksgiving to the very heaven.'"

I can totally relate to what he is saying and lots of times feel the same about Seattle.

"Victor and St. Valentine" is sweet, and again, I like a happy hopeful ending.

"Cross Lines" is another story about making snap judgements about someone based on their appearance.  It feels brief, and leaves you with just a clue of what might be in the future for the two characters.

"A Holiday With Your Father" seemed like a bad choice to end with.  It felt sad to me, and I like happier endings.  While so many of the other stories leave you hopeful that the characters are going to make a change in their lives for the better, this one ends with the daughter realizing that things aren't going to change.  I wish she had chosen one of the more uplifting stories to go out on.

If you like short stories, or if you don't have a lot of time to read right now, try this collection out!  I think a lot of these stories would be great to discuss.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Bookshop Talk

My review of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is posted over at Bookshop Talk today.

Check out their cool site with tons of book reviews!

Merry Christmas and Happy Reading!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Winner and a Bonus

I visited Mabel last night and she donated a copy for me to giveway too.  Hooray!

So I have two winners. 

I was too lazy to do my own drawing, so I used, and here's the breakdown. 
(Not to make the lower ranking comments feel bad, but I wanted to show them all.)

Random Sequence Generator

Here is your sequence:
Timestamp: 2011-12-19 08:40:28 UTC

Lori and Jill are the winners!

I'm going to have Mabel sign them, so comment below and let me know if you want them personalized.  Otherwise I'll have her keep it generic.

Thanks for playing friends!

Friday, December 16, 2011


I am so excited to announce my second ever giveaway!

You can enter to win your very own copy of Mabel D.F. Cowie's first book, Awakenings.
(See my full review below)

This is a fun young adult fantasy novel that I would recommend for readers 10 and up.  I think it would be enjoyed by even younger kids if you read it aloud.

You can have two entries:

1) Leave a comment, telling me why you'd like to read this book.

2) Link up to this giveaway on your blog, and then tell me you did in the comments.

Deadline to enter is Sunday, December 18 at midnight.  I will draw a number randomly and announce it Monday morning.

Good Luck!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Awakenings by Mabel D.F. Cowie

This is the first book in a trilogy, 'Neath Ancient Ruins Lie, written by my good friend Mabel!  I read an earlier draft 3 years ago, and really enjoyed reading her polished, published version this week.  Her imagination is admirable and she has created an intriguing, fun story.

Young Adult Fantasy is not my favorite genre, but a lot of people close to me love it, so I end up reading a few here and there.  Mabel's book takes place in Scotland, 1932, but the story begins (and ends?) in a parallel world that is integral to the story.  Awakenings has castles, mermaids, fairies, ghosts, selkies and kelpies.  Not sure what a couple of those are?  Well, you'll find out!

The first chapter takes place in Ormiscaig, the parallel world, and the second at the castle in Scotland.  Both of these chapters introduce and describe characters and setting.  For me this can be a little slow, and it really took me until the fourth chapter to get into "don't want to put it down" mode.  So read on if the first couple of chapters seem a bit detailed.  The good news that in true YA style, the chapters aren't very long.

Arran is a young servant girl about to turn 14.  She is at first sweet and kind, but as the story progresses you discover (as she discovers) that she is also smart and brave.  The excitement in the story picks up as a stranger appears in the castle's dungeon, and begins to prove true the legends and folklore that have surrounded the castle.  I liked how the staff and the laird (lord) come together to solve the mysteries and help this stranded stranger.

One of Mabel's talents is in description.  She creates vivid pictures of her characters and their surroundings.  For example,

"The room was plush and beautiful; rich red tapestry curtains hung from the windows, and several tartan rugs covering the floor added warmth to the room.  On the table, lay 24 large pewter plates, each with a pewter goblet by its side, with perfect spacing between."

"The gentle gliding of the gull's wings and the sound of the water on the shore lulled her into a soft, gentle slumber."

"Above the glen, an eagle was stretching its long elegant wings out into the blue sky above soaring high above the tree tops."

The writing is also humorous at times.  A  young relative of the Laird comes to live in the castle (don't castles always need a sweet young ward living in one of the towers?) He is concerned that he might not have anything to talk to her about.  When they sit down to their first meal together, Isla begins talking and doesn't stop.  Her rambling, excited sentences remind me of several children I know.

"One fairy in particular even knew my name.  Her name is Tona, by the way, and she thinks I am a princess.  She has beautiful long wavy hair the color of the wheat fields and..."

The fairies are another part of the story I really liked.  When they talk or sing, those who believe in them are instantly comforted.  They are soothed and filled with peace.  I think this is symbolic of the pureness and goodness that the characters are searching for, but also reminded me of the power of mothers.  Kind of how newborns can be comforted by the sound of their mother's voice.  And how your mother's care and concern can wipe away your worries.  It makes me hope my children feel that way about me!

Toward the end of the book, Arran must make a difficult decision.  As she is pondering her choices, Elgol says to her,

"You have great potential, Arran.  There is much about yourself that you have not discovered yet, but it is nothing that you need to fear."

I think this is going to be important in the next two volumes.  It reminded me a bit of what her former teacher tells Penelope in book two of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place.  I always like books in which young protagonists rise to their potential, and become the amazing people that the adults around them know they can be.

I also enjoyed Mabel's use of Scottish landmarks in her story.  When they venture to Loch Ness, it reminds me a bit of Peter and the Starcatchers series which includes an important use of Stonehenge.   I like when fantasy novels tie into mythology and locations that really exist.

Don't you love the cover artwork?  I think it sets the stage perfectly for the novel.
I think this is a fun story that you and your children will enjoy.  And probably your parents and aunts and neighbors.

You can purchase it on Amazon , only 99cents for the Kindle Edition or for your Nook.  You can also read the first chapter online, but I'm not sure that it alone will hook you. 

OR....Enter my giveaway that will be posted shortly, and win your own copy hot off the presses.  (You might even get it in time for Christmas)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, The Hidden Gallery (Book 2) By Mayrose Wood

I don't usually review two books in a series back to back, but I am desperately trying to meet my goal of reading 50 books this year.   It's going to be close!!

I think I might have even enjoyed this second book more than the first.  Because I knew what I was getting into in regards to the pace and length of the book, I was better prepared.

Penelope is just as charming and clever as she was before, and this book picks up right where The Mysterious Howling left off.  However book two doesn't really answer any of the questions that you have after finishing book one.  So you have to keep reading, BUT number three isn't out yet!!!  I was not aware of this fact, or I might not have rushed out to read number two.

All of that aside, I am dying for someone else to read this and let me know if you think they are as great as I do.

Here are some quotes to entice you:

"Oh, my head! Bring me a cold compress, please, I am quite at my wit's end--and some tea--and a chocolate, quick!  Make it a whole box!" (This is Lady Constance, who is hilarious in her ridiculousness.)

"Therefore, she now proceeded to do something quite rare and brave--something you yourself may find it necessary to do someday, if you have not already had case to try it out.  In short she stood up to a person of authority..."

"The London General Post Office as so impressive that Penelope could hardly imagine how Buckingham Palace might surpass it."

"But many forces shape a person's destiny, Penelope," she added.  "And a prophesy made before you were born cannot take into account the greatest influence of all."
"Which is what?"
"You.  Your own character.  The kind of person you choose to be--and that you inspire others to be."
I can't explain why this touched me.  The idea that we are more powerful that we know and that we can have that kind of powerful influence is so inspiring.

"Instead, just as one might use a ribbon to hold one's place in a fascinating book that one is temporarily forced to put down, Penelope simply made a note of her confused and disappointed feelings and then put them gently to the side, for there was nothing to be done about them at present."

The characters are good, the story is good and the writing is good.  Trifecta.