Friday, November 29, 2013

"The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society" by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
“ I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some sort of secret homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.” January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb….

As Juliet and her new correspondent exchange letters, Juliet is drawn into the world of this man and his friends—and what a wonderfully eccentric world it is. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society—born as a spur-of-the-moment alibi when its members were discovered breaking curfew by the Germans occupying their island—boasts a charming, funny, deeply human cast of characters, from pig farmers to phrenologists, literature lovers all.

Juliet begins a remarkable correspondence with the society’s members, learning about their island, their taste in books, and the impact the recent German occupation has had on their lives. Captivated by their stories, she sets sail for Guernsey, and what she finds will change her forever.

Written with warmth and humor as a series of letters, this novel is a celebration of the written word in all its guises, and of finding connection in the most surprising ways.

For some time near the beginning, I'd considered abandoning this book, and later on, found myself wondering whether or not to give it five stars. That was how drastically my opinion changed while I was reading it.

The story is entirely made up of letters between the characters. The time period is 1946, just after the second World War, and the setting is Guernsey, an island in the English Channel. It's almost impossible to give a quick plot summary, but I'll try. Juliet Ashton, a London based writer, is urged by her publisher to begin a new project but she's having trouble coming up with anything. She begins corresponding with members of a literary society in Guernsey. It turns out not many of them were really interested in reading books at the start, but they were caught by the Germans after a clandestine pork roast dinner, which could have had them in big trouble, and made up a lie that they'd been having a literary society meeting. Then, they decided they'd better form an actual book club, just to be on the safe side, to give substance to their ruse. From then on, they were each amazed by the pleasure they derived from books, and wrote to Juliet all about it.

My initial impression was that it plodded on too slowly at first, and a whole lot of characters were introduced too thick and fast to keep track of and keep up the interest level at the same time. It really grew on me as I decided the anecdotes about living during the time of German occupation make a fantastic legacy for present day readers. I'm a member of Gen X, and felt as if I was right there, sharing the experiences which were sometimes hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking.

There are two heroines. Apart from the witty, feisty Juliet, there's Elizabeth McKenna. She's an unusual character in that she only appears in reminiscences and never in person, yet in many ways the book is all about her. We can learn a lot from her attitude of kindness and the impression her simple gestures made on others. I liked how their stories came together, and Juliet's decision that they had a lot in common, because they were both 'noticers' of simple, beautiful things that others might have just passed by.

Good characters soon begin to stand out from the rest of the huge cast. There's Dawsey Adams, the shy, stuttering pig farmer with highbrow literary tastes (he was gorgeous), Mrs Amelia Maugery, who probably looked more beautiful at 60 than she did at 20, Isola Priddy, the eccentric herbalist who developed a taste for the Brontes and Jane Austen, Sidney Stark, Juliet's generous editor, and John Booker, the servant who got away with impersonating his employer, who'd flown the coop. This is just scratching the surface. It's easy to see why this book became something of an obsessive life work for Mary Ann Shaffer, before her death.

It left me with a lot to think about. These days, we expend such a lot of angst wondering how to make an impact and achieve something notable. Back then, people were too busy simply trying to get by from day to day, keeping food on their tables and clothes on their backs, an achievement in itself. It's clear that love, loyalty and friendship really are the most important things. This is just as true now, but we can easily overlook that in the easier times we live in.

The book is full of quotable wisdom, and I'll finish this review with a good one. "That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you on to another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It's geometrically progressive-all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment."

4 stars

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society available from Amazon

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"Heaven's Prey" by Janet Sketchley

Heaven's Prey (Redemption's Edge, #1)
Despite her husband's objections, 40-something Ruth Warner finds healing through prayer for Harry Silver, the racing star turned serial killer who brutally raped and murdered her niece. When a kidnapping-gone-wrong pegs her as his next victim, Harry claims that by destroying the one person who d pray for him, he proves God can't--or won't--look after His own. Can Ruth's faith sustain her to the end--whatever the cost? HEAVEN'S PREY received third place in Risen Books 2011 publishing contest and was short-listed for the 2008 Best New Canadian Christian Author Award.


Ruth Warner accepts a challenge to pray for Harry Silver, the man who viciously raped and murdered her beloved niece, Susan. While this helps ease her torturous fury and grief, Ruth's husband, Tony, cannot understand why she would pray for such a monster. One evening, circumstances force Ruth face to face with Harry, as his next intended victim.
Whoa, as a fellow contemporary fiction author, I like to think I write books that deal with challenging subjects, but Janet Sketchley has raised the bar further than I thought it could possibly move! I would never have dreamed of trying to get into the head of a character like Harry Silver, a serial rapist and murderer. Many people would nod their assent that God would willingly forgive the most depraved criminal, yet this book shows it in a very powerful way.
Any readers who feel that forgiveness will always elude them must surely come to the end of this book knowing that they may accept it as much as this main character, for you certainly can't call him a hero. Even when you consider the heartache in Harry's past which is revealed by flashbacks, it's clear that many other young men with similar losses never choose his path. Yet he is a man pursued by a loving God who doesn't want to lose him. It's radical, in-your-face forgiveness.
Another thing we can take away from this book is the power of prayer.
Not only is God shown to move through our prayers, but we need to be careful before we commit ourselves. As Ruth's harrowing experience shows, we have no idea how they may be answered!

Thanks to the author and ChooseNOW Publishing for giving me a copy in return for an honest review.

4 stars

Heaven's Prey (Redemption's Edge) available from Amazon

Saturday, November 16, 2013

"The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
Harold Fry is convinced that he must deliver a letter to an old love in order to save her, meeting various characters along the way and reminiscing about the events of his past and people he has known, as he tries to find peace and acceptance.

Recently retired, sweet, emotionally numb Harold Fry is jolted out of his passivity by a letter from Queenie Hennessy, an old friend, who he hasn't heard from in twenty years. She has written to say she is in hospice and wanted to say goodbye. Leaving his tense, bitter wife Maureen to her chores, Harold intends a quick walk to the corner mailbox to post his reply but instead, inspired by a chance encounter, he becomes convinced he must deliver his message in person to Queenie--who is 600 miles away--because as long as he keeps walking, Harold believes that Queenie will not die.

So without hiking boots, rain gear, map or cell phone, one of the most endearing characters in current fiction begins his unlikely pilgrimage across the English countryside. Along the way, strangers stir up memories--flashbacks, often painful, from when his marriage was filled with promise and then not, of his inadequacy as a father, and of his shortcomings as a husband.

Ironically, his wife Maureen, shocked by her husband's sudden absence, begins to long for his presence. Is it possible for Harold and Maureen to bridge the distance between them? And will Queenie be alive to see Harold arrive at her door?


Wow, how can a book be so happy and so sad at the same time?

Harold and Maureen are senior citizens whose marriage cooled off several years ago, and they are really only housemates. One morning, a goodbye letter arrives from Queenie Hennessy, a former work friend Harold hasn't seen for twenty years. She tells him that she's dying and all sorts of memories are stirred up for Harold.

He sets off to post a condolence letter but it doesn't seem adequate. He intends to walk to the next letter box, and then to the next town, but finishes hiking all the way up the centre of Britain to deliver it in person. His quest is all tied in with a challenge from a shop girl to never give up but cling to faith that things might change.

As he walks, he processes all sorts of buried memories about his earlier life with Maureen and their son, David. Harold feels as if he's failed everybody. We know that he let Queenie take the blame for something he did, although it isn't clear what. We also know that he feels he let David down, although we aren't sure why. This makes his journey all the more interesting, as we expect all will be revealed at the end.

When it came, I wasn't prepared for the shock and emotion of it all. Whoa, it definitely explains such a lot about all four main characters, Harold, Maureen, David and Queenie. How heart-wrenching. Until I got near the end, I was wondering what other reviewers meant, as it seemed like a whimsical, happy book.

There was a lot to like about it. There should be more heroes like Harold. His story shows that we should never underestimate the quiet, self-effacing type who never seem to have much to contribute.

I like Maureen, and the fact that Harold's walk helped her work through many issues, to realise all that he really meant to her. I hope people who are considering making David's decision may stop to ponder the repercussions in the lives of their loved-ones, which may go on and on for years.

I think it's a book that reveals significance in the most seemingly bland memories, and that so often, the apparently small things turn out to be the big things.

4 stars

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry: A Novel available from Amazon

Friday, November 8, 2013

"Eat, Move, Sleep" by Tom Rath

Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes
The latest  New York Times bestseller from the author of StrengthsFinder 2.0, How Full Is Your Bucket?, Strengths Based Leadership, and Wellbeing. Tom Rath delivers a "well written and scrupulously researched...approach to improving one's lifestyle" (Kirkus) accompanied by an online application for readers to create a personalized 30 day plan. While Tom's books have inspired more than 5 million people in the last decade, Eat Move Sleep reveals his greatest passion and expertise.

Quietly managing a serious illness for more than 20 years, Tom has assembled a wide range of information on the impact of eating, moving, and sleeping. Written in his classic conversational style, Eat Move Sleep features the most proven and practical ideas from his research. This remarkably quick read offers advice that is comprehensive yet simple and often counterintuitive but always credible.

Eat Move Sleep will help you make good decisions automatic -- in all three of these interconnected areas. With every bite you take, you will make better choices. You will move a lot more than you do today. And you will sleep better than you have in years. More than a book, Eat Move Sleep is a new way to live.


I read one of Tom Rath's earlier books, "How full is your bucket?", so I was aware of some of his background. He has a genetic disorder which makes him several times more prone to the growth of malignant tumours than most people. He dealt with this with such a great, optimistic attitude in that book, I thought it made him a man well worth listening to when it comes to dealing out health advice.

While that other title was mostly about mental and spiritual attitudes, this one turns out to be far more practical. In each chapter, there is a wealth of advice on how we can dramatically improve our wellbeing by looking at things as elementary as our diet, exercise and sleep patterns.

I was surprised by how easily we may fall into bad habits without even knowing it. I kept nodding, "Hey, I do that." As a person who thought I had a reasonably healthy approach to life, I was flabbergasted to find out how much room for improvement there really is. I knew about the ones I've let slip. It's the other habits, which I never considered, that blew me away.

It has the scope for you to move at your own pace, making one small change at a time. In fact, this is probably the most sensible way of approaching it, as there are hundreds of different suggestions. I'll think I'll work on one until it becomes second nature, and then tackle another.

I might start by getting a few extra hours of sleep each night and moving more at regular intervals throughout the day. I might even forego that crusty bread roll at restaurants, while I'm waiting for the main course to arrive.

I received a copy of this book from Net Galley and Missionday in return for an honest review.

3.5 stars
Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes available from Amazon

Sunday, November 3, 2013

"Nutmeg" by Maria Goodin

Beautiful novel, exploring the boundaries between fantasy and reality ultimately asking the reader, which is better. Heart-warming and endearing, the author handles ugly truths in a delicate and thought-provoking way.
Meg is growing up in a world of food filled fantasy; where her first tooth was so sharp her mother used her as a can opener, and eating too many apples once left her spitting pips. Then, age five, she is humiliated in front of the other children at school and turns her back on the world of fiction, deciding to let logic rule her everyday thoughts and deeds.
Years later, Meg’s mother falls ill, and as she struggles to deal with the situation in an orderly fashion, her mother remains cocooned in her obsession with cookery, refusing to face up to her illness.
Slowly, Meg uncovers the truth about her childhood and is now faced with a humbling decision: to live in a cold harsh reality, or envelop herself in a wonderful world of make-believe.
Maybe life isn’t defined as fact or fiction – perhaps it can include truth, lies, and everything in between.


This is quirky fiction which could easily be made into a movie. It's a bit like an adult version of something like Roald Dahl's "Matilda". All the tall stories in this book would be wonderful incorporated into a film version.

Meg May is a science graduate who can't remember the first six years of her life, but her mother, Valerie, has filled her head with all sorts of weird and wonderful tales concerning her birth, all centered around food. Meg believed them as fact until other school kids teased her. Now for years, she has rejected anything remotely fanciful or fictional.

Valerie is an eccentric character, full of colour. She is very sick, and as her final days approach, she insists on doing her favourite thing, cooking in her kitchen for as long as she can. When Meg follows a tenuous lead to try to find out about their mysterious past, she discovers why Valerie felt the need to cloak their past in a lot of made-up stories, and also why she latched onto such a frenzied life of cooking in the first place.

There are four main characters. The two men are overstated, hilarious opposites of each other. Meg's boyfriend, Mark, is a pompous Uni professor who value facts and provable things even more than she does. Her mother's gardener, Ewan, is a scruffy free-spirit full of myths and stories. I was impressed that someone as young as him could be comfortable enough in his own skin not to let the attitudes of Mark and Meg make him feel remotely awkward.

I enjoyed the cameo appearances of others, especially the tipsy, washed-up members of the band, "Chlorine".

This book left me with a lot to think about. I've long believed that rather than being a pack of lies, fiction is a medium of presenting deeper truths, and this book supports that. Valerie May clearly used fiction to the point where it blended with actual truth for her, and it's left for readers to decide whether we think this is a good or a bad thing.

One of my favourite parts was toward the end, when Meg was surprised by how many people attended her elusive mother's funeral, and finding out the reasons why. It's a great lesson about how little it takes to live a worthwhile life.

Overall, I think this story itself is a prime example of how helpful stories can be to help us re-think our own habits and attitudes.

I received a copy of this book from Net Galley and Legend Press in return for an honest review.

4.5 stars