Friday, December 30, 2016

The Best of the Blog - 2016

Thanks you if you enjoy this blog enough to keep sticking around and coming back for more. I don't intend to stop any time soon.

It's the best thing I've done just for the fun of it since childhood. There have been several different motivations for other things I've done in the past. Societal obligations, peer pressure, an attempt to make a name for myself, a desire to earn a bit of money, and being 'meaningful' (whatever we take that to mean). This book blog is the one thing that doesn't tick any of those boxes. The fact that it doesn't really matter in the grand scheme of things is what does make it meaningful for me, in a paradoxical sort of way. There are so many thousands of other blogs that removing this one would make no great difference in anyone's life. It's just a drop in the ocean of blogdom. But as I age another year each December, I come to appreciate simple things which are over in a flash. Things like acknowledging fleeting moments of beauty, having fun, and making passing observations. Perhaps their apparent pointlessness is the point.

It's the first blog I've ever really looked forward to working on. I used to have a homeschooling blog and later an author's blog, and I'd sometimes struggle for things to write about. Maybe I approached them more like work. That's not the case with this one at all. New ideas for blog posts pop into my head all the time. Topics for discussions, lists, and things to mention about specific books are tumbling around in my head at all times. I realise now that this blog is my favourite because it comes closest to my childhood ideal of having a great time. All I used to want to do when I was little was read and talk about books. And that's exactly what I get to do here! This blog has proven to me that reviving our childhood passions is a good idea, because they hold the key to our deepest selves.

Now I'll just give a sample of the sort of thing you can expect if you do want to stick around. I've taken four of my most popular posts from each of my blog pages for this past year. I didn't ask for votes or anything like that. These have had the most views, shares and comments.

Following the White Rabbit
You could also call this my discussion page. Here I talk about all things bookish, from star rankings to plot spoilers. Here are the fave four for 2016.

The Sneaky Plot Spoiler. Handy to be aware at the outset, before you begin your review.
Melancholia - the Happy side of Sadness In case you've never thought about it this way.
The Vince family and the Search for the Elusive Harry Potter Book It was a very strange day.
Why don't we leave comments on blogs? This post received the most comments by far.

My List of Lists
This is one of my favourite features of this blog. I bring diverse books together, showing common ground in ways you wouldn't necessarily expect. Lots of bloggers create lists, and I can see why. It's a lot of fun. The favourites of 2016 are these.

Several Noteworthy Literary Trees These are such characters.
Stories featuring Trains and Railways A great theme for stories.
Bad Boys with Depth Or bad boys with heart. The interesting villains we love to love.
Literature's most Awkward Marriage Proposals That says it all.

Classics and Best Sellers
I've challenged myself to read or re-read more of these. They include both old and new selections. Here are the four reviews which got most interaction this year.

Jane Eyre
Little Women
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Digging Deeper in Books

This is the new page I've just started, so the most popular posts are yet to come. I decided I really want a place where I can ramble on about books beyond the scope of a review. I want to be able to analyse plot, character, theme, setting and mood, and invite others to join in, without taking pains to withhold plot spoilers. Look out for more in 2017.

* My book shelf is no longer as messy as you see above. I've tidied it up, which means there's room for more books.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

'Empire's Children' by Patricia Weerakoon


As the daughter of the Tea-maker, Shiro’s life is bound by the expectations of others. But Shiro has no interest in convention. Her holidays are spent with best friend Lakshmi, a coolie labourer, and she dreams of becoming a doctor, unhampered by her gender, her race or her social standing. Privilege is something Anthony and William Ashley Cooper take for granted. On the Sri Lankan tea fields in particular, the English are masters. When Anthony takes over management of the plantation, he discovers the truth about his family’s dealings with the locals. He desperately wants to make a difference – to be a different kind of man – but William’s reckless lust and their father’s never-ending greed stand in his way. Tragedy, grief and separation threaten Shiro and shackle Lakshmi in the bondage of class distinction. Can Anthony’s love of justice set right the wrongs of the past?

This is an epic family saga set in Sri Lanka in the 1960s. The Ashley-Cooper family from Britain founded Oriental Produce, the tea company which earned them a fortune. Over the years, many of their male members treated the native staff with contempt, which extended to raping the women. But although this behaviour is second nature to them, the passing years prove that you can't treat fellow humans appallingly without repercussions. As the younger son Anthony says, 'Once the cupboard was open, the skeletons were jostling each other to leap out.'

There's a lot to love about this book. The setting is described with great passion. The word pictures are like photos with added details that appeal to all five senses. The tropical, misty hills with their intense palette of colours and fragrant aromas really come to life. So do the people who live and work there.

Shiro is the type of heroine who makes us want to shout, 'You go, girl!' Even on page 1 as an eight-year-old, she's imagining herself as a ballerina or star. She's the one character who never swallows the stories she's fed. She thinks for herself and judges others on their own merits. She's never passive, but takes decisive action. And she's described by other characters as intense, charming, witty and brilliant. She proves them right by defying expectations, not just when it comes to her choice of vocation but in how she treats her enemies.

Then there's Lakshmi, the coolie girl, who was pushed around so much by circumstances caused by people in positions of power who should have behaved differently. Her mother's heart, and what she's willing to put herself through for her baby son, is hard to forget. Especially since her own parents were such poor examples of love. And it's clear that none of her most menial tasks were ever easy. The tea pickers had to work fast, but pick the best quality leaves at the same time.

My main gripe was occasional sudden time jumps. We get used to things being a particular way, and then suddenly weeks, months or years have passed, and the characters' situations and attitudes may be completely different. The reader has to make mind leaps to catch up. It feels like we're getting selected slices from their lives, and makes the flow a bit jerky. There were more of these toward the beginning than the end, which was good. I can think of several examples, but one of the main ones concerned Anthony's maturity from teenager to man, so I'll focus on that one.

We first see him as an entitled sixteen year old on his way to visit the tea empire he'll inherit some day. He's blonde haired, fair skinned, and told to get used to being treated like a god. His father James has brought him up with the racist mind-set, and Anthony looks down his nose at everyone, taking fawning behaviour from locals as his right for being 'better' than them. Even a captive elephant is forced to salute him. His manner is bored and condescending. Yet he shows vague signs of awkwardness with all the fuss, knowing in his deepest heart that being white doesn't deify a person.

At this stage, he seems ripe for some awesome character development, and I was rubbing my hands together, waiting for it. To put him in a context we may all recognise, if you're a Harry Potter fan, imagine Draco Malfoy as a Muggle in Sri Lanka. That's a perfect picture of Anthony Ashley-Cooper at this stage. But then we have one of those sudden time jumps. Next time we see him, he's grown-up, finished Uni and turned good and humane without us. I was a bit sad when it happened off stage :(

Sometimes the language and sentiments expressed even by 'good' characters get a bit rough. People toss terms like 'mongrel', 'bastard' and 'idiot' around at each other in normal conversation, making me think, 'Whoa, isn't this sort of personal attack usually reserved for the baddies?' But I'm sure it must be very accurate for their time and place, so might turn out to be a strength of this story. It's good when readers are given an authentic picture of what we're reading about, rather than a watered down version to suit people's sensibilities. (I have to say, even though the native Sri Lankan heroines had such a lot pitted against them, the person I felt sorriest for at the end was a supposedly privileged white woman, Janet. That poor lady! See if you agree.)

Overall I was pleased by the way the story eventually came together, and when I get out my Sri Lankan tea leaves, which some friends brought us back from a mission trip, I'll remember these characters and all they went through. That's the ultimate sign of a good story.

Thanks to NetGalley and Rhiza Press for my review copy.

4 stars

Monday, December 26, 2016

Stories that feature beautiful portraits

I'm thinking specifically about portraits of story heroines. It's a lovely motif to re-occur in books, especially since it rarely happens to any of us readers. Who among us has actually posed for a professional portrait? The closest I've come is one of those 10 minute sketches from a caricaturist at the Royal Adelaide Show.

What makes beautiful portraits so appealing that they keep popping up in books and history? Maybe the time taken by the artist gives the message that you're worth it. And the discomfort of sitting in one spot for so long may become the subject's own personal sacrifice, adding to the value of the finished work. I've known people who fidget and complain even when they're being asked to pose for a quick photo, let alone a formal portrait.

Perhaps the biggest factor is that the artist puts his own interpretation on a lady's appearance. Even the best photographers have to work with the raw material before them (unless they use photo shop afterwards), but when you end up with a ravishing work of art from a real painter, I imagine you can't help being overcome to think that's the way he sees you. He's taken special care to bring out the features that appeal to him, which you may not have even realised are attractive. By the end, even if you don't think the likeness looks exactly like you, you're willing to go along with the flattery if you believe that's how he sees you.

Here are some of my most interesting picks from both fiction and true life.

I'll start with some novels.
The Hired Girl
1) The Hired Girl
14-year-old Joan Skraggs was housemaid to the Rosenberg family. Their younger son, David, was so taken with her noble aspect that he wheedled her into sitting for him on her days off, so he could paint her in the guise of Joan of Arc. As a result, she fell heavily for him, which the young art student didn't expect. It made for some amusing reading. My review is here.

Miss Billy
2) The Miss Billy Trilogy
We've surely all heard of Pollyanna, but here's a more obscure series by the same author, Eleanor H. Porter. The young artist, Bertram Henshaw, is well known for his 'Head of a Girl' portraiture. He manages to paint a poignant likeness of his wife, Billy, cradling their infant son. It becomes a prizewinner, even though he's hurt his dominant arm badly and must train himself to paint left-handed. It's one of the most touching threads in this story, since he'd been a bit of a drifter in his youth, and had trouble sticking to anything.

3) The Butterfly and the Violin.
The Butterfly and the Violin (Hidden Masterpiece, #1) Art gallery owner Sera James has been intent on tracking down the portrait of a beautiful young Auschwitz prisoner that impacted her in her youth. William Hanover, a wealthy heir, is intent on finding it too, since his grandfather has willed his estate to the painting's unknown owner. Their search eventually enables them to tap into the life of Adele von Bron, the subject of the painting, and discover the circumstances of its execution. My review is here.

4) The Painter's Daughter
The Painter's Daughter Captain Stephen Overtree is captivated by the portrait of a fetching young woman painted by his artist brother Wesley. When he discovers that Wesley has bounded off to Rome, leaving the girl in a serious predicament, he must introduce himself to her and try to sort out his brother's mess. My review is here.

5) Da Vinci's Tiger
This is a fictionalised account of the circumstances which led to Leonardo da Vinci's commission to paint the portrait of young noble woman, Ginevra de' Benci. It's set in the decadent Renaissance Italy, when woman tended to have both husbands and lovers as a matter of course. (The portrait is above, at the top of the page.)

6) Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray He's a male addition, but a very noteworthy one. When Dorian saw how wonderful his portrait looked, he vowed to sell his soul if only he could keep his good looks exactly as they were depicted, while the portrait grew old instead.

Now here's a few we all know from popular culture.

6) Ariana Dumbledore
Professor Albus Dumbledore and his brother Aberforth lost their troubled little sister Ariana when they were all only young. Aberforth, her favourite brother, keeps her likeness on his wall, and it's surely more to the crusty old publican than just another mobile, magical photo. His affection for his sister's memory is touching and intriguing.

7) Titanic
Many of us flocked to see this blockbuster in late 1997, because it's what all our friends were doing. The romance between Jack and Rose was on everyone's lips, not only because it was clearly doomed. (They were on the Titanic, after all.) The cheerful, working class boy Jack also happened to be a gifted artist, and his portrait of the girl he fell for was one of the treasures excavated from the bottom of the sea. If you want to see the film again, you surely won't have to wait long. Titanic seems to have taken over from The Sound of Music as most televised movie, from my recent observations.

And a couple of examples straight from history.

8) Anne of Cleves
This true life example is as strange as any story. Henry VIII saw a painted miniature of a gorgeous young foreign princess and demanded her for his next wife. When she arrived, the monarch decided that the artist, Hans Holbein, had flattered her too much, and the marriage was never consummated. I consider Anne of Cleves the hero for girls considered plain. What a narrow escape she had.

9) The Bronte Sisters
The girls had their portrait painted by their enthusiastic brother Branwell. This gem became so well known not because of his talent, but their eventual fame. In fact, I know many people think Branwell's skill probably left quite a bit to be desired, unless the girls really walked around looking like his depictions. A later portrait of his sister Emily has a similar look about it. Charlotte eventually had her portrait done by a different artist, George Richmond. Perhaps she thought it was nice to have someone other than Branwell have a go. The poor chap had a rough time trying to make it as an artist, and you can sort of see why.

And this last one is just to turn everything I've already said on its head. 

10) Good Wives
What a fun inverse of all the above. There's always an exception that proves the rule, so to speak. Louisa May Alcott didn't set out deliberately to debunk my spiel about gender and motivation, but she might as well have. The artist is a girl, the subject is a guy, and her reasons are not what you'd expect. Amy sketches a portrait of Laurie, but not with the intention to flatter him. She wants to give him a visual representation of how lazy and aimless he appears. I love it!

I've come up with ten, but feel as if I've only scratched the surface here. Can you think of any examples to add to my list? Or have you ever been lucky enough to sit for a portrait of your own? Here's to the concept of immortalising one's image, at a certain time of our life, forevermore.

(I'm not trying to diminish a great photo by focusing on portraits. For some great books featuring photographers, see  here.)

Friday, December 23, 2016

'Library of Souls' by Ransom Riggs


A boy with extraordinary powers. An army of deadly monsters. An epic battle for the future of peculiardom.

The adventure that began with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and continued in Hollow City comes to a thrilling conclusion with Library of Souls. As the story opens, sixteen-year-old Jacob discovers a powerful new ability, and soon he’s diving through history to rescue his peculiar companions from a heavily guarded fortress. Accompanying Jacob on his journey are Emma Bloom, a girl with fire at her fingertips, and Addison MacHenry, a dog with a nose for sniffing out lost children.

They’ll travel from modern-day London to the labyrinthine alleys of Devil’s Acre, the most wretched slum in all of Victorian England. It’s a place where the fate of peculiar children everywhere will be decided once and for all. Like its predecessors, Library of Souls blends thrilling fantasy with never-before-published vintage photography to create a one-of-a-kind reading experience.

This was a hugely satisfying end to my favourite trilogy of the year.

In their quest to find and rescue their friends, Jacob and Emma end up in Devil's Acre, a notorious peculiar loop full of undesirables. There are crooks, desperadoes, down-and-out peculiars willing to prostitute their special abilities, and hopeless addicts looking for their next fix of ambrosia. This substance enhances their already peculiar powers, but not only is it short lived, but weakens you with each dose so eventually you need it just to function.

Their main goal is to storm the tower fortress which they know is the wights' headquarters. Jacob has to tap into his burgeoning peculiar skills to even stand a chance, although his old ways of thinking keep trying to drag him down. While Emma calls her brain a 'hope making engine', Jacob considers his a 'worst case scenario generator.'

Their quest is fueled by rumours about the existence of a certain library, which was formerly dismissed as legend. And of course, they have to stop Miss Peregrine's unscrupulous brother Caul in his attempt to take over the world as they know it.

At first I was disappointed that most of the peculiar children weren't in the story for a sizable chunk. Tracking them all down certainly added vital motivation for Jacob and Emma, but at the expense of missing Millard's droll wisdom, Horace and Enoch's cynical banter and Bronwyn's kind heart. But the unpredictable twists and turns of the plot won me over, and it turned out to be another five star read. (And of course, we trust that they'll discover them eventually.)

I really enjoy Ransom Riggs' style of humour. It's dark and quirky, but with hope and goodness always present. He never gives readers a chance to say, 'This is getting too weird now,' since the story was already so strange to start with. Even the far-fetched moments become a real strength in the hands of a good writer. For example, if somebody says, 'The setting comes across like stage props,' I'd reply, 'Well, that was clearly his intention.' Riggs delves into cornier depths than other authors may dare to tread, but it works fantastic for him.

Caul is a wonderful villain. He ticks all the boxes of what makes a baddie tick. Unbridled ambition, an unquenchable thirst for veneration, and a craving to be remembered forevermore. He's suitably menacing, but with moments of black humour I appreciate. He has a taste for high ceremony. He'll interrupt the tension to thrust himself into the spotlight with speeches he hopes will be immortalised. Of course we all hope he'll get what's coming to him, yet at the same time, I can't help saying, 'What a legend,' from a literary point of view.

Riggs' way with words is excellent and to the point, including how the essence of each character can be summed up in a quote from them. I'll finish with a few of those.

Emma: Doubt is the pinprick in the lifeboat.

Miss Peregrine: Everything you need is inside you already.

Jacob: Right now, I'm practically quaking, my stomach a leaking faucet dripping acid all over my insides.

Caul: Why am I wasting my breath? You Philistines will never appreciate the gravity of my achievement. Like donkeys contemplating the Sistine Chapel.

It ends on a high note, but I want more peculiar children!

5 stars

My review of #1, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, is here.
My review of #2, Hollow City, is here.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

'For the Record' by Regina Jennings


Jennings Offers Another Delightful Blend of History and Romance. 

Betsy Huckabee might be a small-town girl, but she has big-city dreams. Writing for her uncle's newspaper will never lead to independence, and the bigger newspapers don't seem interested in the Hart County news. Trying a new approach, Betsy pens a romanticized serial for the ladies' pages, and the new deputy provides the perfect inspiration for her submissions. She'd be horrified if he read her breathless descriptions of him, but these articles are for a newspaper far away. No one in Pine Gap will ever know. 
Deputy Joel Puckett didn't want to leave Texas, but this job in tiny Pine Gap is his only shot at keeping his badge. With masked marauders riding every night, his skills and patience are tested, but even more challenging is the sassy journalist lady chasing him.

Genre: Historical Romance, Comedy Romance.

It's the third in a series, and the main female character, Betsy Huckabee, has been stealing scenes in other people's stories since she was a small girl. She was such a lovable little bombshell in A Most Inconvenient Marriage, I thought Regina Jennings set herself a hard task to make the grown up Betsy as appealing as her younger version. She is still original and independent, but while it came across so gutsy and cute for a little girl, it's a different manner for a woman in her twenties. I think Jennings managed okay, but maybe only just. The continuation of her wild child attributes keeps Betsy in character, but it's not quite the same. 'I come and go at will, where I will, and when I will.'

Betsy is a self-taught writer, with the ambition to write for a big enough paper to make her independent. She decides to offer a serial for ladies about a dashing, heroic deputy sheriff, and decides to use newcomer Joel for her inspiration, not that she ever intends to tell him. She thinks he's as 'handsome as Adam on the first day of creation' but works hard to convince everyone that she thinks him 'plain as rye bread'. That's just part of the ruse. When she tags after him for story fodder, she has to contend with his grouchy attitude and tendency to keep saying unquotable things.

Joel's own part of the story offers some interesting insights. He's a patriotic Texan who expects his job to be straightforward in Pine Gap, Missouri. But the townspeople, with all their complicated and ancient family connections, teach him to understand that there are unique layers of black and white in their pasts, and nothing is ever clear cut. At the outset, he's surprised when they don't give him the respect due to a lawman, but treat him more like a pesky extra who must be skirted around, so their lives can continue as they always have.

Joel eventually realises that trying to uphold the law in the traditional way has limitations, when there are subtleties and undercurrents which have been in place for generations. I thought it was quite amusing when Betsy, much as she admires him, decides it's probably wiser to go with the traditional, self-selected chieftains rather than the new deputy, since they'll probably be more effective. I've got to say, these hillbilly types of cultures are quite interesting to read about.

There's a mystery to solve, as serious crimes are being committed and everyone disagrees about who the baddie is most likely to be. (I found it not that hard to figure out.) There's also quite a bit of awkward romantic comedy, especially since Joel has vowed to steer clear of women, because one in particular hurt his career and reputation. He grows to believe Betsy is way different, but how will he react when he discovers his easily recognisable magazine counterpart? All in all, it's the lighthearted continuation with a few deeper themes you'd expect for this series. I think the first novel in this series is still the best.

Thanks to Bethany House and Net Galley for my review copy.

3 stars

Monday, December 19, 2016

Why Fantasy Novels remind me of Social Media

I've been totally confused by my own feelings about fantasy novels. I want to figure out why they waver all over the place, because other people seem far more clear cut in their opinions. I've met several readers who claim, 'I never read fantasy.' Yet I've come across just as many who turn up their noses at any other genre, because fantasy realms are their own special sweet spot. I can't even claim to fall in the middle. I'm definitely not halfhearted about them. If I was asked to list my favourite books and stories, they would surely be fantasies. But some of the most boring, torturous things I've ever gritted my teeth and attempted to plow through have been fantasies too.

That's why I hesitate to accept requests to review them on this blog. If they fall into the latter category, I know I might be brought to the point of tears, but there's simply no way of telling until I begin reading. (One thing that seems to hold true for many fantasy authors, both good and bad, is that they like writing super long stories) I've thought of the element that might make the difference between the best and worst. This might come across as a sweeping generalisation, because there are several sub-genres in the all-encompassing term 'fantasy', but it tends to be a general rule of thumb for me.

The type I love.
Some fantasies begin in the real world and draw the hero into the alternate reality, plunging him into a staggering realm he'd never expected. Those tend to be my favourites, because we readers are taking all the brand new experiences on board at the same time as the main characters. We're living through their eyes. We remain on top of the plot to the extent that they do. And often the fantasy world is just another intriguing side to earth of which most people are unaware. This makes it that bit more magical and fun.

Think of Harry Potter, living in the poky closet beneath the stairs, when magical invitations to Hogwarts start arriving.
Or the Pevensie children, trying to come to terms with their new abode when Lucy finds her way to a strange place through the back of a wardrobe.
Or Jacob Portman, interrupted from his boring existence by the death and cryptic message from his grandfather.

The type I don't love so much.
Without denouncing every single one of these, I've found they often tend to begin and remain in their own parallel universe. This alternate reality may have nothing in common with ours, so earth may as well not exist. Think of the hobbits in Lord of the Rings, or the characters in the galaxy far, far away of Star Wars, to name a few popular ones (not that I hate these in particular). There are many, many, many examples. I find it harder to immerse myself in these, especially at the start, because I simply don't have a clue what's going on.

For prime examples of what I'm talking about, there's this one, and this one. The girl in the picture at the top of the page seems to be wondering, 'Where are you taking me?' That's the same question I've asked many fantasy authors.

It's as if we readers have been snatched from our own normal, daily lives and thrust into some strange realm where we are absolute novices. The characters who live there are simply going about their business, and the first five chapters or so might as well be written in Gobbledygook. They're using 'in-house' type of lingo from their own realms. They refer to bitter enemies which are simply weird names to us, and they're using technology or skills which we don't understand. As I said in one of the reviews, it's jolly frustrating when we have no idea what's happening, yet find ourselves forced into the head spaces of characters who do.

I'm the type of person who doesn't like the feeling of floundering, and I also like my reading times to be fun and relaxing. Being out of my depth for an extended length of time leaves me cold, so reading twenty of thirty pages of a novel and deciding, 'Well, that was as clear as mud,' isn't my favourite way to spend half an hour. I'm sure other readers must approach them more as quests to master or mysteries to fathom, because this type of fantasy has lots of fans. It's just not the way my cogs spin.

Here's the honest truth about my brain.
Normal, daily life plunges me out of my depth often enough, without willingly going through the same confusion in my reading times. My brain sometimes seems to need a bit more chugging time than those of others before I grasp things. I've read that this is one sign of an introvert's brain. Our pathways to understanding are loopier, so information has a longer and more complicated transit time. They also say that once we do grasp it, the introvert's insights may become even greater than those of the extrovert over time. It's just the processing that becomes a hassle.

So here's why fantasy novels are like social media.
It's the closest match I can think of, for the sort of love hate relationship I have with fantasies. Sometimes I adore using social media, and other times it has frustrated me no end. I'm pretty sure it comes back to the same thing, challenging my overtaxed brain to grasp it all.

New platforms tend to take me longer than others seem to spend. Friends and family flash around their hash tags, discuss programming details as if they're a cinch, and seem to intuitively understand all the etiquette and behaviour I'm always nervous about violating. They latch onto several forms of social media at once, linking them together and using them like pros. I'm not designed this way. Mastering the basic features of platforms such as Blogger, Facebook, Goodreads and Twitter, takes a lot of deliberate concentration and is still an ongoing journey. I'm sure it's put me at a disadvantage many times.

Such experiences rush my memory straight back to my past, when I was the youngest in my family. I used to listen to my family's conversations, not liking to admit that they were over my head, because it had only earned me laughs in the past. I'd try to grasp all the unfamiliar words and tricky concepts, promising myself, I'll get them eventually. But now I seem to find myself often in a middle-aged version of the same thing. I've come to recognise a certain expression of amused disbelief on my kids' faces, before they rush off to tell the others, 'Guess what Mum said?'

I think all this is my main reason for eschewing puzzling fantasies and choosing books I can grasp from the start, Since cluelessness has long been a theme of my life, I prefer to keep it out of my favourite hobby, reading. Sometimes I've persevered until I've broken through, and found other-world fantasies great. (Some recent ones I've rated high on this blog include A Cast of Stones by Patrick W Carr, even though it did begin confusingly, and Heart of the Mountain, by my friend Jeanette O'Hagan, which shows how simple and succinct world building can be.) But on the whole, it's often all I can manage to keep abreast of the world I'm already in. In fact, my children would probably tell you that frequently, I don't even manage that :)

So here's my message for fantasy authors. If you want to begin in the real world or some semblance of it and woo me in with a carrot, I'm willing to be that donkey.
BUT if you want to rudely drop me in like a foreign spy with a parachute (and I assume foreign spies actually have more low-down about the world they're entering than I do about these fantasies), then sometimes I might prefer to pass.

I'll be musing plenty more about fantasies over the weeks ahead. A few nights ago I attended the launch of Stone Table Books, a new publishing house based in Adelaide, which sounds very exciting. The first two titles on their list are now on my reading pile. The Narnia Middle Earth one is an overview of fantasies in the Christian tradition, and Phantastes is a re-telling of George MacDonald's earliest example by Dr Mark Worthing. They say the original is too obscure and difficult for most modern readers to wrap their heads around. If they say that, I'm the last person who'd choose to put it to the test :)
To this I've added a re-reading of one of my favourite little booklets, In Defence of Fantasy, by Andrew Lansdown.
Looks like a nice little pile to help see me over the summer, end of year break into the new year.  

Friday, December 16, 2016

'Liturgy of the Ordinary' by Tish Harrison Warren


Many of us go through the day feeling like we don't have time for God. But God can become present to us in surprising ways through our everyday routines. Framed around one ordinary day, this book explores daily life through the lens of liturgy, small practices and habits that form us. Each chapter looks at something making the bed, brushing her teeth, losing her keys that the author does in the day. Drawing from the diversity of her life as a campus minister, Anglican priest, friend, wife, and mother, Tish Harrison Warren opens up a practical theology of the everyday. Each activity is related to a spiritual practice as well as an aspect of our Sunday worship. Come and discover the holiness of your every day.

Genre: Christian devotional, self help, personal development

This book was just what I needed.

I love its emphasis on rhythms, routines, cycles, rituals, or whatever else we like to call those things we repeat over and over again. Our lives are full of daily, monthly, seasonal and annual repetition. Tish Harrison Warren sets out to explain how there's holiness and dignity in what we easily dismiss as mundane and tedious.

It's structured in the form of a random, typical day from her calendar, beginning with waking up and ending with going to sleep again. She presents fresh ways of thinking of all these moments, and I'll mention just a couple.

In the chapter on bed making, she describes how she used to begin each day checking emails and social media. (That looks very familiar, before my feet hit the floor.) Then she realised that she'd set herself up to expect stimulation and entertainment from the get-go. If you're like me, we're gently encouraged to welcome a bit of quiet sameness, and not to bolt away from mild boredom the moment we get a whiff of it.

There's a chapter on cleaning teeth and all those other mindless rituals which remind us that we're temples of the Holy Spirit. She delivers some good, straight talk here. Using our bodies for false worship is akin to using consecrated bread and wine in a Wiccan goddess ceremony. And denigrating our bodies by our mirrors is like running down a geographical sacred site. Yeah, sometimes we need of dose of this.

The 'Eating Leftovers' chapter leads to an interesting reflection that apart from occasional delicious feasts that wow our socks off, most of our home cooked meals are pretty basic, unremarkable fare, just like the grace of God appears to be. We've been conditioned in our modern era to want the spiritual intensity of meals cooked by celebrity chefs. People who attend church services and conferences are often longing for new truths, emotional experiences, signs and miracles. But life is just made up of good, nourishing food. If we are tempted to equate our scriptures with boring, dry old bread, well she advises us to just keep getting stuck into them anyway, because we'll develop a palate for the truth.

A chapter entitled 'Checking Emails' is about the attitude in which we approach our work. It's easy to be a Martha in our technology driven world, when work is always at hand. Or we can go to the opposite extreme and totally idolise the notion of complete escapism. Warren recommends something in the middle. We do our daily work from a relaxed, peaceful attitude of already being blessed, rather than a mad scramble to prove ourselves worthy. This will help combine the activity of Martha with the reflectiveness of Mary.

The other chapters are equally thought provoking. Losing the car keys, the pleasure of a cup of tea, getting stuck in traffic jams. It all brought home to me how much repetition we have to cope with, so we might as well make peace with it and consider all these routines to be sacred privileges, instead of grumbling about them and considering them to be annoyances. It's a book I'll be wanting to dip into more often just to remind myself.

Thanks to Net Galley and InterVarsity Press for my review copy.

5 stars

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

'Scarlet Moon' by S.D. Grimm


The hunted Feravolk are counting on Jayden, a seventeen-year-old, dagger-wielding, storm-detecting orphan, to save their race. Maybe they should have thought of that before they killed her family.

The land of Soleden is dying because the sorceress queen hunts and kills the people who cared for all nature, the Feravolk. Through their special bond with animals, the Feravolk have become more than men. Faster, stronger, masters of camouflage and stealth. Only a Deliverer born the night of the Blood Moon can save them from extinction.

According to prophecy, Jayden is a Deliverer, but it’s not a destiny she wants. She has no sympathy for either side. The Feravolk killed her family, so they can die for all she cares. And fighting the queen with nothing but daggers and her special abilities—storm predicting—is a suicide mission. Destiny can pick someone else.

Except hiding from destiny proves difficult; Deliverers attract powerful Protectors. Jayden’s is one of the Feravolk, so he can’t be trusted. But he makes her feel safe. Makes her want to save his race. If she chooses to keep hiding, he’ll remain one of the hunted, but he’ll protect her even if it means his death if she faces the queen. Making the right choice has never been so excruciating, especially since the prophecy says nothing about the Deliverer’s success, or survival.

Genre: Fantasy adventure, Christian and secular, YA

Strong fantasy isn't usually my first choice of genre, but I was requested to read this and it's quite a fascinating story once we grasp it.

It's not the easiest plot to latch onto at the beginning. The story is told in third person with five alternating points of view, so initially we are shuttled from one perspective to another without knowing what's going on. Since the characters themselves aren't even clear about the happenings elsewhere in their realm, it stands to reason that the reader won't be either, until enough time has passed that we begin picking up the threads of the fast moving story, with its deception, violence, loyalty and adventure.

There are several main characters but foremost is Jayden. The story starts when her beloved parents and brothers are slaughtered trying to protect her from aggressive soldiers who attempt to abduct her. Jayden was a child born on the night of the Blood Moon. These young people have distinct, identifying birthmarks and unique skills that set them apart from others. Evidence seems to indicate that the Feravolk people are behind the attacks, giving her good reason to hate them.

Jayden's fiance, Ryan, is seriously injured with a poisonous arrow as he helps her escape, setting her off on a quest to save his life. It's vital to get hold of a specific rare herb which only grows in the Valley of Hidden Ones, where she and her friends must contend with dangerous animals, including unicorns. They are also forced into the proximity of the corrupt queen's royal army, who really are responsible for the attacks on Blood Moon children.

Jayden's companions include her protector, Logan, who happens to belong to the Feravolk, and his wolf companion Westwind. For those who enjoy lovers' triangles, there are emotional moments when Ryan's brother Ethan joins them, especially since he is a dashing and heroic main character himself. Jayden has always known she's never felt passionately in love with his brother, so the stage is set for tension.

The monarch, Idla, deserves to take her place in the ranks of literary evil queens. She has her own selfish reasons for wanting to get hold of all the Blood Moon children, and sneaky ways of setting about it. Other members of her court include Franco, her despicable son, Oswell, her chief advisor, and assassins Thea and Kara, the 'Destruction Sisters'. Logan's wife Rebekah is also forced into the queen's service, along with their son Connor, for reasons the reader has to discover.

There is a dark fairy tale feeling about Soleden, the setting, and the characters are endearing with lively dialogue and heroic perseverance. This book is almost 400 pages long and there are sequels coming, so readers who enjoy long, epic fantasy adventures should be well satisfied. However, others may find it a challenge, trying to make sense of a world we don't understand, and being forced into the head spaces of people who do.

Thanks to Net Galley and Enclave Publishing for my review copy.

3 stars

Monday, December 12, 2016

Giant Cats in Literature

Some time ago, I wrote this list about cats through literature, but they were more the cuddly, domestic types. I promised to write a follow-up post with more majestic, giant cats, and this is it. They are certainly imposing, gorgeous and fierce enough to deserve a list of their own. Here are the examples I could think of. At the end, we noticed something quite interesting about all of them.

Richard Parker
He was the Bengal Tiger who became the accidental lifeboat companion of Piscine Patel, the teenage shipwreck survivor in 'The Life of Pi'. This big cat acquired his unusual name as the result of a clerical error at the zoo, when he was mixed up with a human. It's a fascinating read to see how the boy works carefully to establish himself as the alpha animal during their 227 days on the sea together.

This black panther is a Rudyard Kipling character who was born in captivity in an Indian menagerie. He managed to break his lock and chains and escape to the jungle, and later in life assisted the wolf pack who raised Mowgli the 'man cub'.

Shere Khan
While watching 'The Jungle Book' as a kid, I remember the skin-chilling impression I got whenever this name was mentioned. His name probably translates to 'tiger sovereign' and his arrogance is boundless. Shere Khan kept his menacing eye on Mowgli for years, providing the dark element to the story. From a plot perspective, he kept 'The Jungle Book' from becoming too lighthearted at any time. His dark presence was always a threat (and I remember hating him as a sensitive little kid).

This bouncing, good-humoured resident of the Hundred Acre Wood represents the sanguine personalities among us. He may also be the poster boy for people with conditions such as ADHD. Think of his tireless exuberance, and how he sometimes fails to realise that his actual skills fall far short of his bubbly confidence. This makes perfect sense, if you buy into the fascinating theory that each of the characters in the Pooh Bear stories have their own forms of personality disorder.

The Pink Panther
Can you read this name without having his theme song play through your head? I remember the cartoons on TV when I was little, and took him on face value as a cool, pink dude with loads of swagger. It came as a big surprise to discover that the pink panther in the movies with Detective Jacques Closeau was not actually a big cat at all, but a rare gem. I was a bit miffed about that.

The Cowardly Lion
He was a member of the foursome who traversed the Yellow Brick Road on their way to consult the mighty wizard at the Emerald City. The poor guy shouldered a shame complex almost as heavy as himself. All he wanted was a dose of courage to help him through life. The perils of their travels demanded confidence and bravery from him many times, but he wouldn't believe he had it all along until he received his little trinket from the wizard.

Remember when we all fell in love with this cute lion cub in the mid 90s? The whole story was a bit of a family affair, so I'll sum up his relatives too. There were his parents, Mufasa and Sarabi, and his uncle Scar, who was a traitorous Richard the 3rd type of character who wanted the throne for himself. A lot of the plot dealt with Simba escaping death traps from his uncle, along with his playmate Nala, who later became his wife.

Elsa the Lioness
She was the real life friend and companion of author Joy Adamson and her game warden husband George. They brought up the orphaned female cub by hand, treating her like a domestic pet but also trying to instill in her the skills to live in the wild like her peer group. When she was old enough, the couple finally released her.

He was one of the escapee protagonists from the movie 'Madagascar'. Alex initially had second thoughts about joining the others, since he was self-proclaimed king of the zoo, and a celebrity with lots of attention to boot. Captivity was treating him kindly. It was hard to imagine that returning to the wild could top such a pampered, leisurely lifestyle. His story included coming to terms with his roots, including the heartache of his African father Zuba, when he was first captured.

And my very favourite literary giant cat ...

He's the wise and strong king of Narnia, who always has the welfare of his dear subjects firm in his regal paw. C.S. Lewis' wonderful allegorical writing makes it clear who he represents, or if it doesn't instantly, it may dawn on readers down the track. Even before we're introduced to the King himself, he begins to make an impact. Remember when Mr Beaver breathed the name 'Aslan' with such awe, which evoked contrasting feelings in Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. And who could ever forget that culminating scene on the stone table, when he sacrifices himself in the place of Edmund, the traitor?

Do you notice anything interesting about this list? Sure, they're an eclectic bunch pulled from far and wide, but that's not it. My 12-year-old mentioned it straight away when he looked down this list. 'Some of those cats really aren't very cool.' How true! A fair share of these characters, rather than being rulers of the jungle, are very issue-laden. At first I wondered if it's some type of tall poppy syndrome, with story-tellers unconsciously wanting to take these fierce beasts down a peg or two. 

But perhaps what these stories are getting at is something better. If noble, majestic beasts have their struggles and insecurities, then why should we expect any less? We could take them as encouragement to draw upon the dignity, beauty and strength in each of us, no matter what is going on in our lives.

What are your thoughts? Are there any giant cats I've missed, and who are your favourites? 

Friday, December 9, 2016

'Of Stillness and Storm' by Michele Phoenix


“I felt torn between two worlds. Each with its own mystery. One more captivating than the other, but the other more real and breathing.” 

It took Lauren and her husband ten years to achieve their dream—reaching primitive tribes in remote regions of Nepal. But while Sam treks into the Himalayas for weeks at a time, finding passion and purpose in his work among the needy, Lauren and Ryan stay behind, their daily reality more taxing than inspiring. For them, what started as a calling begins to feel like the family’s undoing. 

At the peak of her isolation and disillusion, a friend from Lauren’s past enters her life again. But as her communication with Aidan intensifies, so does the tension of coping with the present while reengaging with the past. It’s thirteen-year-old Ryan who most keenly bears the brunt of her distraction.

Intimate and bold, Of Stillness and Storm weaves profound dilemmas into a tale of troubled love and honorable intentions gone awry.

Genre: Family drama, Christian and secular

The heroine of this story is Lauren, who unwillingly lives a spartan lifestyle in Kathmandu, Nepal, teaching English as a second language. Her 13-year-old son Ryan also hates the lifestyle to the point of sinking into such deep depression she can't reach him. They are there because of Sam, their husband and dad, whose missionary zeal is the driving force.

It's all about warning us to take care before getting attached to zealots whose passion far exceeds our own. Sam is like a modern St John Rivers from Jane Eyre. Deprivation is a badge of honour to him, but a pain in the neck to his family. He keeps his conscience clear because he doesn't expect anything from his wife and son that he's not prepared to give himself, but never stops to consider that few people are designed with his tireless ardour. He even worded his marriage proposal like an exam, telling her he didn't want to be the sort of guy who'd lose track of his goals because of his family. Sadly, Lauren didn't recognise the warning and duck out like Jane Eyre, but got attached to him anyway.

Her attitudes and motivations are easy to understand. She grapples with guilt because she knows that compared to him, she's just going through the motions. She finds herself eagerly catching up with her old friend Aidan on Facebook. He offers something she's not getting from Sam, being a free-spirited artist who even disregards the conventions of the English language.

The person I felt for most was Ryan, since kids don't get to choose their parents, then get dragged from pillar to post. The story raises so many questions. Should those with such strong standards for the way they approach mission work even have families, since it's clear they'll be pushed into second place and forced into molds which don't fit them? Maybe people like Sam should follow the example of St Paul, who probably didn't for that very reason. Can we ever force ourselves to take on the burdens of someone else's heart, no matter how much we love them, and should we even be expected to? Can decisions which we make with the shortsighted, rose coloured glasses of youth cast shadows over us for the rest of our lives? In my past, I've come across a few deep and meaningful Sams who I greatly admired, but as I read this novel, I felt grateful that I married my husband instead :)

It wasn't the style of book I usually go for. I'm not a fan of gut-wrenching heartache (of which this book has its share), but sometimes when you're making requests for ARCs based on brief blurbs, you have to accept the risk. I'm a highly sensitive person and also a bit on an empath, which makes it easy to take others' grief on myself. When an author's writing makes me fond of characters, it sticks with me for ages when horrible things happen to them. That's why I'm not giving it full marks, but I know this is a personal thing. Michele Phoenix's writing certainly deserves five stars, and she does warn us herself in the notes at the back of the book that this is a cautionary tale.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson and NetGalley for my review copy

3 stars

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

'Little Women' by Louisa May Alcott

Following the lives of four sisters on a journey out of adolescence, Louisa May Alcott's Little Women explores the difficulties associated with gender roles in a Post-Civil War America.

Genre: Young adult, classics, family stories.

This review is of the first installment of Little Women. It was eventually pulled into one volume with its follow-on sequel, which was initially called 'Good Wives' but I'll review that one separately, since I own distinct old volumes. And I think you'll agree this review is long enough. 

This is a beautiful, ever-lasting memorial to the lifestyle the author lived with her sisters well over a century ago, while many men were off serving in the Civil War. I think it's a great book to pull us out of a bad mood. The March sisters all had their cranky moments, but used the attitude tools their parents showed them to move through.

Marmee comes across as the wise, loving mentor they all considered her to be. 'The girls thought the grey cloak and unfashionable bonnet covered the most splendid mother in the world.' What an awesome introduction and tribute. I noticed something interesting this time round, when she spoke to Jo about overcoming her bad temper. I'd always remembered it wrongly, thinking Mrs March had managed to pull off a total personality transformation. But what she actually said was, 'I've been trying to cure it for 40 years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it.' Wow, that's different from what I'd thought. Maybe we're being unrealistic whenever we set about trying to change ourselves into someone else. Perhaps our weaknesses are just part of our fabric, and we need to focus on managing them rather than eliminating them altogether.

'Little Women' does get me thinking about the nature or nurture debate. At first sight it seems nature has its way, since the four sisters are so different from one another. Yet it can't be denied that birth order may have a bit of bearing on their family. Beth and Amy were treated a little more leniently and indulgently than Meg and Jo. Those two were referred to often as 'the children' even though there was only four years between all of them. Would Amy have still tried to impress people with her ridiculous, mixed-up words if she'd been born first? Or would Meg have felt the need to deliver quite so many lectures to the others, if she'd been youngest? Interesting to ponder.

I'll be glad to move on to the next book, when Amy's vocabulary blunders have finished. It reached the point where she was coming out with one every time she opened her little mouth, and then like a Pavlovian dog reaction, Jo would always make some snarky, superior correction. I felt like saying, 'Come on dudes, can't you both stop?' When quirkiness moves into predictability, it's not so cute anymore. However, I do remember that on my first reading of Little Women, when I was very young, the comedy was all completely lost on me, since I didn't know the meanings of the real words or Amy's wild guesses either.

It's handy to be familiar with some of the older books the girls refer to all the way through, since they impacted their lives in such a good way. For example, Pilgrim's Progress and Pickwick Papers become the basis for all sorts of games and leisure. It's good to see how the girls used other people's writing to shape their own characters. They didn't even realise they were doing this, since it was all in the name of having fun. So Bunyan and Dickens did for them just what Louisa May Alcott herself does for us. I love this pay-it-forward aspect of a good story.

This time around, I felt my heart leaning more toward Meg than ever before. I remembered her as the know-it-all big sister who seemed to have it all together, but she drops some of the most touching quotes which could come from someone straight out of the twenty-first century. 'I shall have to toil and moil all my days, with only little bits of fun now and then, and get old and ugly and sour because I can't enjoy my life as other girls do.' She also says, 'We go grubbing along, day after day, without a bit of change and very little fun. We might as well be in a treadmill.' My own teenage daughter has said similar things, in different words, and I totally get them.

For a girl who appreciates luxury and leisure as Meg does, her choice of fiance seems sort of counter-intuitive. She knows that agreeing to marry a modest, hard-worker like John Brooke will keep her doing the same things she's always done. If she really wanted the riches and pretty things she admired so much, she might have done better to have chosen the stylish Ned Moffat after all. But common sense and true love win out, and we've got to love her and her choice.

That brings me to Jo's situation, which is my biggest gripe. The first part of the story ends with Meg's engagement and Mr March's return. If I was a fresh reader, I'd be anticipating the budding romance of Jo and Laurie in the follow-up. I'd be assuming Alcott was clearly heading in that direction. That pair had common interests crying out to be noticed. They were both fun-loving with a penchant for generous gestures, a tendency to be impulsive and a love of simple mischief and cheek. They shared a mutual disregard for some of society's more nitpicky maxims and always managed to calm each other down when necessary. Jo was adamant that she'd never be swept off her feet by anyone, yet yearned for 'Teddy' whenever she felt lonely. If I didn't know what was coming, I'd be expecting her to fall heavily for the boy next door. I know many people have felt ripped off over the years, thinking Alcott pulled a mean trick on us all. There's a place for platonic friendships, but these two could have been so great.

The first installment ends this way. 'So grouped, the curtain falls upon Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. Whether it ever rises again depends upon the reception given to the first act of the domestic drama called Little Women.' Wow, what an outright pitch within the text itself! It definitely worked for Louisa May Alcott, but it would be interesting to see writers try a line like that now.

Even though the writing style may be a bit dated by modern standards, I still want to give it full marks for what it is, because Alcott wrote a fantastic girls' book for a Civil War chick, when there probably weren't all that many others around. I'll get on with 'Good Wives' which takes place three years later.

5 stars

Update: I've now reviewed the second installment of the story, Good Wives.
And here is my review of March, the Pulitzer winning novel written by Geraldine Brooks about their father, and how he fared in the war.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Why don't we leave comments on blogs?

I thought I'd jump headlong into a subject which tends to be the elephant in the room. Bloggers often choose not to mention the number of comments our posts elicit, and I can think of a few reasons why. (When I use pronouns such as 'we' and 'you' in this blog post, I'm speaking generally, and not singling out individuals.)

1) We don't want to come across as needy or whiny by mentioning how few comments we receive. We don't want to be that annoying blogger who does guilt trips on all our friends.
2) We genuinely wish to convince ourselves that it makes no difference. We repeat the mantra that we love our hobby so much that lack of feedback is irrelevant. 
3) We don't want to bring our gripe to the attention of others and be known as the loser with no followers (in case they haven't already deduced this by our lack of comments). 

I wonder if I'm speaking for many of us when I explain what I've come to believe is the truth. Indeed numbers shouldn't be as important as we tend to make them, yet telling ourselves lack of feedback means nothing is just self-delusion. We should definitely strive to reach a point where our need for pats on the back isn't overwhelming, but at the same time, it's pointless to deny we are social creatures. A pastor who preaches week after week to an empty auditorium might eventually reconsider his calling and decide to stay in bed one Sunday. Just because we're talking about cyber-space here, the same thing applies to passionate bloggers. Encouragement, even from a small circle of friends, may one day make the difference between persevering or giving up.

That begs the question, well, why don't we comment more often? Whenever I look at my blog stats, the number of views is always far higher than the number of comments, sometimes like triple figures to zero. So what is it about human nature that holds us back from dropping a quick line or two, which might take a couple of seconds? I believe I've come up with three main reasons. See if any of these resonate with you.

1) We've passed saturation point.
Throughout history, information overload has never been as acute as it is for our generation. I've seen studies which cite that even our most scholarly ancestors never contended with as much information as every one of us do, often before our feet even hit the floor in the morning. Posts and articles zap around the globe and onto our screens non-stop. Annoying pop-ups vie for attention with clever, slick click-bait titles, all screaming, 'Look at me!'

Our attention is a limited resource, like precious oil, and it's easy to reach a point where there's no longer enough to spread around. I once read about a jam factory, which offered consumers so many delicious flavours to sample at a market stall, that most people couldn't make up their minds and walked away instead. In a similar manner, bloggers are lucky if we even skim their posts, let alone take time to comment!

2) We're Commitment-Phobes.
We aren't born this way, but modern western society has this effect on the best of us. There are enough things we have to do without bothering to stick out our necks and do something that's merely optional. Juggling every day bureaucratic red tape and form filling is compulsory for every one of us. How easy then, to ignore something that isn't absolutely necessary. Even if you enjoy your friend's blog enough to keep returning for more, being a lurker is far more convenient than commenting and probably frees up a couple of minutes of our day.

3) We feel shy and inadequate.
This one is possibly my biggest issue, and harks back to my Primary School days, when I used to try to make friendly gestures, which were sneered at or rejected. When you retreat back into your shell and vow never to emerge again, that instinct may still be driving you decades down the track.

We fear that our comments may appear dumb or obvious. Typing something like, 'I love your thoughts,' may come across so lame to us, we choose to say nothing at all. It's easier to wonder forever whether this witty or entertaining blogger has the potential to be a friend than risk putting out feelers and being ignored or cut down.

So here's an idea.
I'm going out on a limb a bit here. Who would be willing to be part of a small accountability group who looks after each other's blogs? I'm not talking about a blog alliance, which is something different and more formal. I consider what I'm thinking of to be more like blog caretakers. We keep a number of blogs on our radars, and without committing to comment on every single post, if we notice them looking a bit neglected over time, we leave an encouraging word or two in the comments. It may sound contrived, but since there's friendship and honesty behind it, it isn't really. If you think it sounds like a good idea, let me know in the comments, email or PM. (By the way, I'm grateful to those who do take the time to engage in my blog comments already. I know and appreciate you all.)

On a personal note, one of my main resolutions for 2017 will be to leave more comments than I already do, whether anyone joins me or not. The thought of commenting on new blogs always makes me nervous, but I can't help thinking it may be a risk worth taking. It may sound like a funny kind of New Year's Resolution, but here's why I think it's a good one.

1) It's a small action that can really make someone's day. Fellow bloggers, have you ever opened your inbox and had your heart leap with anticipation when you've seen a comment or two waiting? Since I've never had a talent for making big gestures, I'll go for this small one, which may well have the same effect.
2) I've convinced myself by this blog post that leaving comments is a sign of uncommon generosity. It seems from what I've said that not leaving comments is the common human reaction. If you want to be an uncommon person, this simple habit sounds like a way to raise ourselves higher than average. What's not to like?

As usual, I'd love to read your comments. That sounds like a bit of an awkward invitation considering the nature of this post, but I'll wait to see what happens, haha.  

Friday, December 2, 2016

'The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill' by Julie Klassen


First Series from Bestselling Author Julie Klassen!

On a rise overlooking the Wiltshire countryside stands the village of Ivy Hill. Its coaching inn, The Bell, is its lifeblood--along with the coach lines that stop there daily, bringing news, mail, travelers, and much-needed trade.

Jane Bell lives on the edge of the inn property. She had been a genteel lady until she married the charming innkeeper who promised she would never have to work in his family's inn. But when he dies under mysterious circumstances, Jane finds herself The Bell's owner, and worse, she has three months to pay a large loan or lose the place.

Feeling reluctant and ill-equipped, Jane is tempted to abandon her husband's legacy and return to her former life of ease. However, she soon realizes there is more at stake than her comfort. But who can she trust to help her? Her resentful mother-in-law? Her husband's brother, who wanted the inn for himself? Or the handsome newcomer with secret plans of his own . . . ?

With pressure mounting from the bank, Jane struggles to win over naysayers and turn the place around. Can Jane bring new life to the inn, and to her heart as well?

Genre: Historical fiction, Christian and secular, with romance and mystery.

Julie Klassen is known as a Regency romance author, but it's a stretch to call this one. It's more like a village chronicle. These can be really engaging if written well, but tend to get a bit slow and rambling if the author isn't careful. This one is terrific. Julie Klassen nailed it. I could imagine every moment playing out as one of those TV series we all look forward to relaxing in front of.

There's so much going on, but the main framework is the friction between two key characters, Jane Bell and her mother-in-law, Thora. Jane has reluctantly inherited the village Inn from her husband John, who died in a tragic accident. Thora can't help feeling resentful, since Jane was brought up as a gentlewoman, and has no business experience. She hates relinquishing the reins of her family pride to somebody who may well let everything fall apart. And Jane finds that Thora makes her edgy and nervous.

It's discovered that John had recently taken out a huge loan, but nobody can see where he poured the money, or find whatever he might have left over. (That's the mystery!) They have to pull together if they want to save the Inn, let alone live in harmony. This includes Thora's unscrupulous younger son, Patrick. And meanwhile, entrepreneur James Drake is snooping around with plans to set up a flash rival hotel nearby.

At first I thought a lot of the novel focuses on business rather than relationships, until I saw that they're so tightly woven together, the relationships wouldn't be what they were without business pressure molding them. Since there's such a large cast of characters, there are a couple of admirers for both women. They all seem like pretty worthy contenders, and I was happy just to wait for it to unfold, since romance isn't a major feature of the novel.

I love how the story shines a sort of feminist message in a really gentle and powerful way, just because of how things were back then. All the unfairness is shown and not told. Rachel Ashford is turfed out of her family home after her father's death, because properties were always entailed to distant male relatives. Thora has formed pessimistic views about marriage, some from experience, since all a woman's property would instantly become her husband's. Most revealing of all is the collective experience of Ivy Hill's business woman and knitting group. People refused to believe these skilled women were capable of producing good, marketable work, and chose the illusion that it must have been done by a man. Even Jane realised she'd unconsciously regarded members of her own gender this way, to her shock and shame.

My main disappointment with the novel is having to wait for the next one to find out what will happen now. There are so many great characters whose threads may be picked up. I hope Jane will still feature strongly in the sequel. She turned out to be one of those characters whose positive impact sticks in my mind. After all the losses she'd suffered (of which her husband's death is just one), her final, reflective attitude sits well with me. Even though nothing ended up matching the ideal plans for her life she concocted when she was a girl, she decides there's still a lot of good in her world on which to focus.

Thanks to Bethany House and NetGalley for my review copy.

5 stars

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

'Beyond the Orchard' by Anna Romer


A haunting story of yearning, love and betrayal from the bestselling author of Thornwood House

Lucy Briar has arrived home in turmoil after years overseas. She’s met her fiancĂ© in London and has her life mapped out, but something is holding her back.

Hoping to ground herself and find answers, Lucy settles into once familiar routines. But old tortured feelings flood Lucy’s existence when her beloved father, Ron, is hospitalised and Morgan – the man who drove her away all those years ago – seeks her out.

Worse, Ron implores Lucy to visit Bitterwood Estate, the crumbling historic family guesthouse now left to him. He needs Lucy to find something– an old photograph album, the very thing that drove Ron and his father apart.

Lucy has her own painful memories of Bitterwood, darkness that has plagued her dreams since she was young. But as Lucy searches for the album, the house begins to give up its ghosts and she is driven to put them to rest.

And there, held tightly between the house, the orchard and the soaring cliffs, Lucy uncovers a long-hidden secret that shattered a family’s bond and kept a frightened young girl in its thrall ... and Lucy discovers just how fierce the lonely heart can be.

Genre: Australian contemporary/historical thread fiction, mystery, Gothic. 

I've already come to expect dark family mysteries with dual timelines from Anna Romer.

In this one, Lucy Briar is summoned from her new home in London by her grandfather, Edwin. He promises to spill a family secret which has been concealed for many years if she'll return home to Australia. Alas, he dies before she gets there, but is her chance of learning it completely gone? The story peels back layers of the past as Lucy begins to search through Edwin's old artifacts with the help of Morgan, the man she's always been secretly in love with. Readers know it'll have something to do with the body hidden in the ice house at the beginning.

The characters through the generations take shape. Just as mystified as Lucy is her father Ron, a lovable author of twisted fairy tales who argues that bad guys never get a fair go. And appearing all through the past is the elusive Orah, a young shipwreck survivor who turns out to be a huge mystery, as nobody has a clue where she fitted in with the Briar family. Stories like this always seem to contain hope for the current generation, at the expense of heartache for their ancestors. (This one has its fair share of ladies who met horrible, watery ends. I suppose that's the treacherous southern coast of Australia for you.)

The passive, tragic figure of Edwin stayed in my mind. He was so peace-loving and affectionate, yet life seemed to have a way of trying to knock the stuffing out of him. I think part of his problem was not being forthcoming. He found it difficult to express the depths of his heart, so always opted for saying nothing. His keeping the peace policy had the opposite effect with his volatile family members. His son even cited his aloofness as the main reason for their not getting along.

Without the author needing to mention it, it's easy for readers to trace inherited traits in generations of the Briar family who have never met each other. There's Clarice and Ron's tendency to sink into depression, and Lucy sharing a habit with her grandmother of bolting at the first sign of trouble or discomfort.

I loved the beautiful little snippets of early twentieth century Australian life. They worked hard at Bitterwood, but it was meaningful, rewarding work. They kept a guesthouse, did lots of cooking and bred silkworms, all good, repetitive, worthwhile things. I might be a bit biased here because the setting holds good memories for me. I love driving along the Great South Ocean Road on summer holidays, and also seeing Australian settings brought to life so evocatively. It's been good to see the beautiful cover of this book in shops around my area recently.

Altogether, country Australia is a great setting for wistful, Gothic stories like this one.They remind me of similar novels by Kate Morton. And if anyone has read or seen the Aussie best seller The Light Between Oceans, look out for parallels. I'd be interested to discuss them with you.

Thanks to Simon and Schuster (Australia) and Net Galley for my review copy.

4 stars

Monday, November 28, 2016

Book Boyfriends through the Generations

Today's post is in honour of my two guests. This month they both celebrate significant milestone birthdays which include the numeral 8. My daughter turned 18 on Remembrance Day, and my mother turns 80 tomorrow. I thought I'd return to the theme of our favourite men from books, examining whether or not readers' tastes and preferences may shift with the passing years.

This is the name of the generation that was born before about 1942, and she was born in 1936. They're probably our most elderly living generation, and deserve to be listened to. Hard work was a fact of life for them, and they gave a lot without expecting an easy ride in return. Getting lost in a book was likely one of their only forms of leisure, and here are some of her favourites.

1) Mr Darcy
My Mum doesn't remember names easily, but his identity was clear from her description. 'That lovely chap who realised how snobby he was being and changed his ways, because he loved his lady so much. And he was also very handsome in that TV show.' I think Colin Firth had as much weight on her choice as Jane Austen, but it's easy to imagine the author had just such a face as his in mind for her main man when she wrote the story in the Regency Era.

2) Edward Rochester
I remember reading her this story in my teens, when I went through my Bronte phase. Every couple of lines she'd stopped to rhapsodise about how wonderful the leading man was. He'd been knocked around by life, turned cynical, but still had the warm heart to fall for the modest charms of a no-frills little heroine like Jane. Even when he made grouchy remarks, Mum loved him, so when he gave his famous declarations of undying love, she responded just how we're supposed to.

3) Gilbert Blythe
This was clear way back in my childhood, because my mother was the person who strongly recommended the Anne series to start with, and this boy was one of the reasons why. 'There was a lovely lad called Gilbert who teased her once, and she hated that, but she ended up marrying him.' Mum wasn't ever careful about hiding plot spoilers. That was something I had to learn on my own down the track.

Incidentally, I feature two from her list in the battle of the book boyfriends.  
It just goes to show that some charm is timeless.

I'm one of those people who can remember being tiny in the 1970s. Scarier still, I attended High School in the 80s! I felt like a goldfish in a pool of sharks, and doubt I managed to make it out unscathed. Those felt like cutthroat times. As I often say, at least I had my books. Here are my favourite book boyfriends growing up.

1) Almanzo Wilder
The Little House on the Prairie TV series with Melissa Gilbert and Michael Landon was popular all through my growing years, but I loved the books most of all, devouring them time after time. Almanzo stole my heart when I was about 12. What's not to like about a cute, hard-working farmer boy who knew how to be romantic, although it wouldn't have been among the survival tips his father taught him. He set the bar high for future book boyfriends because you can't beat strong, thoughtful and sweet.

I remember a certain blistering heatwave when I visited the Flinders Ranges with my parents. I sat in the back of the car reading that episode from 'The Long Winter' when Almanzo and his best friend Cap dodged between dangerous blizzards, risking their lives to fetch the wheat that stopped the town from starving. I appreciated their heroics but also wished they could send a bit of ice and snow our way.

2) Hareton Earnshaw
I latched onto 'Wuthering Heights' when I was 15, but the person who intrigued me most was not Heathcliff but his rough-around-the-edges sort-of-adopted son. Although Heathcliff vowed that he'd bring the boy up the same harsh way he'd been treated to spite his old enemy, it really ticked all my boxes to see Hareton retain some generosity and compassion. It was as if Heathcliff was proving himself wrong with every demeaning trick he tried. As well as loving Hareton himself, I appreciated the irony of that.

3) Mart Belden
Don't laugh, but yes, I had a crush on Trixie Belden's teasing, goofy brother. I thought he was so smart, with his long words and provoking sense of humour. I probably started rubbed my hands together with anticipation whenever he walked into a scene. In later years when I revisited the Trixie Belden mysteries, Mart came off as an annoying, attention seeking show-off. But hey, he worked for me in my tweens.

There's a sort of overlap with Gen Y, but being born in 1998, she fits both. This generation comes across a bit intimidating to mine at times, as they seem to be born both tech-savvy and decisive. They make quick judgments about matters of taste, and back them up with complete confidence in their own discernment. Here are some of her favourites.  

1) Jon Snow
This 'Game of Thrones' hero is her clear winner, which says a lot for him since her walls and shelves are covered with fandom from far and wide. When I ask why she'd place him so high, she rattles off a list of instant praise. He's brave, caring, strong, considers underdogs, and is ruggedly handsome to boot. He also had an unfortunate start as a baby, so is himself an underdog in many ways. All of this refutes argument. This man is the total package for her.

2) Peeta Mellark
The modest, unassuming young hero from 'The Hunger Games' also makes it on my daughter's list. There's something about quiet devotion and a sacrificial nature which appeals to the young women the series was aimed for. I once commented that perhaps Peeta's rival in the romance stakes, Gale Hawthorne, is arguably the nicer looking of the pair (being a Hemsworth). Was I cut down to size! 'I'm glad I'm not as shallow as you are, Mum,' Okay, it's good to see that character is still a major priority for this generation.

3) Spiderman
She makes it clear that she's talking specifically about the version played by Andrew Garfield. It seems this young actor added a certain flair to the role, in her opinion. He wasn't just the standard, perfect super hero. He was funny, and also the type of person who makes nerdiness cool. And the romance in the movie was just the right amount.

So what are we to make of all this? Do fashions in book boyfriends change or not? On the strength of this, I really don't think they do. Their faces change, but the attributes which make our heroes lovable remain constant. People from earlier generations didn't have characters like Jon and Peeta, but when you compare them to those who were around, like Gilbert or Almanzo, they were similar types of fellows.

I know you'd have to ask more than three people for a complete study, but here are some findings which stand out to me. To qualify as a book boyfriend, a fictional character ought to be thoughtful toward others, and possess a certain amount of altruism. Being in the powerful position to be able to act on his good-hearted urges ranks high. Other traits which help include funniness, smartness, fairness and quick wits. They often display a redemptive arc during the story. And although good looks do earn ticks, a quick glance down this list shows that they aren't absolutely necessary. I'm sure those still to come in future generations will fit into the mold.

Have you any favourites of your own who may deserve to be added to this list of nine?
If you'd like more, see my earlier list of true heroes.
Or if you're a fan of enigmatic villains and redemptive arcs, you might like bad boys with depth.