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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Knitting Diaries

A new friend passed along The Knitting Diaries (#128) after we had lunch recently and chatted about some of our favorite authors.  This book was a natural when she learned that I was a knitter, too.  This is actually a collection of three novellas by Debbie Macomber, Susan Mallery and Christina Skye, all of whom are avid knitters as well.

Debbie Macomber's story The Twenty-First Wish features Ann Marie and her adopted daughter Ellen from the Blossom Street cast of characters.  A move to a new home is big emotional transition for Ellen, but Ann Marie is having to deal with her own emotions when it comes to choosing which relationship to pursue.

Susan Mallery's story Coming Unraveled is set in Texas where Robyn Mulligan has returned home from New York City to help her grandmother through her hip surgery.  Her grandmother's yarn shop is thriving, which is more than Robyn can say about her dreams of a career on Broadway.  She's glad to be back home, but T.J., the scruffy cowboy she finds ensconced in the cozy knitting group at Only Ewe, accuses her of taking advantage of her grandmother.  Why has he taken such an instant dislike to her, and how can Robyn convince him she's in it for the love, not the money?  And why should it matter so much to her?

In Return to Summer Island, Christina Skye's heroine Caro McNeal has suffered a devastating accident in Chicago that has left her right hand and arm severely damaged.  Her grandmother takes her home to Summer Island to recuperate and work with a physical therapist in Portland, Oregon.  Caro is afraid that she will never be able to knit again, but that desire is a key to her recovery as she battles through the pain.  What she never expects is to open the door one day to a Marine who is about to be re-deployed to Afghanistan.  He's come by to pick up a painting by her grandmother, an internationally known artist.  Circumstances force Gage to leave his beloved animal companions behind at the Summer Island shelter, but the cat and dog provide a connection between Gage in Afghanistan and Caro in Oregon in a most satisfying way.  I do have to say, I've never read any of Christina Skye's work before, but the parting between Gage and his cat and dog brought a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye.  Way to go for personalizing the sacrifices each member of the armed services makes for our benefit, and making it real, Ms. Skye!

I enjoyed all three stories, and there are also three knitting patterns included, one with each novella if you're so inclined.  They did spur me on to work on my own knitting projects.  It's hard sometimes to choose whether to read or to knit.  I know some people are proponents of audio books so that they can combine both, but for me, nothing beats the act of reading and imagining the sound of the characters myself.  If you enjoyknitting and are a sucker for romances, you can't help but get tangled up in The Knitting Diaries!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

Alan Bradley's unlikely girl detective Flavia de Luce is back in this Christmas entry I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (#127).  It's a week before Christmas and all through the house a film crew is busy setting up to shoot a movie complete with famous stars at Flavia's home in rural England, Buckshaw.  Colonel de Luce has already sold about everything of value there is in Buckshaw, and post WWII he's struggling to hold on to the huge old country house that belonged to his deceased wife.  Renting out Buckshaw as a film set should help.  Except that just as the cast and crew arrive, so does a monster snow storm.  Flavia, however, isn't going to allow the bustle in the house or the storm outside to deter her from her chemical experiments to prove or disprove the existence of Father Christmas!

After Phyllis Wyvern graciously agrees to put on performance with her co-star Desmond Duncan for the benefit of St. Tancred's Roofing Fund, the Rector arranges to transport most of the villagers to Buckshaw for the evening behind a tractor-drawn sleigh.  The evening doesn't go off quite as planned and the audience is now marooned at Buckshaw because of the storm.  Late that night after everyone is bedded down all over the house, Flavia is able to hear the soundtrack of a Phyllis Wyvern movie playing in her room and decides this would be an ideal opportunity to chat with the famous star and score points on her two older sisters.  The problem is that Phyllis won't be doing much chatting since she's been murdered.  Flavia's curiousity leads her to put her nose in where's it's obviously not wanted, and now she's oblivious to the fact that she's a target, too.

This latest entry into the Flavia de Luce collection does not disappoint.  Family secrets are slowly being revealed, relationships developed and Flavia continues to plot hideous imaginary revenge on her enemies - all involving chemistry, of course!  Flavia in my opinion grows up quite a bit in this book, and becomes a much more fully developed character.  She's always been fun in a bratty kind of way, but now we're getting some real glimpses of what drives her to do what she does.  Besides, who wouldn't love a heroine who can wax poetic about the chemical miracle that is snow, fill her thoughts with arcane chemical facts and simultaneously believe in Father Christmas?    If you haven't met Flavia yet, I would highly recommend that you start with her first adventure The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.  If you're already acquainted, this mystery will be a welcome Christmas treat.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Janet Evanovich's re-issued romance Thanksgiving (#126) is just the ticket for an easy afternoon read if you can snatch the time away from your own Thanksgiving preparations.

Megan Murphy is enjoying her lunch outdoors on a break from her job in Colonial Williamsburg when she realizes an enormous lop-eared rabbit is busily eating his way through her skirt.  The rabbit's owner happens to be a cute new pediatrician who has just moved to town.  When Megan has to return Pat Hunter's rabbit a second time, she's there when a distraught young mother deposits her infant son with Dr. Hunter (and Mrs. Hunter, as she thinks!) and takes off.  One thing leads to another and next thing she knows, Megan is baby-sitting Tim during the week while she works at her potter's wheel and sharing feeding and sleepovers with Pat.  Domesticity is nice, but Megan is gun-shy of marriage.  No matter how wonderful Pat is, she's determined to draw the line at marrying him.  But when her parents show up unexpectedly for Thanksgiving, and Pat's entire family joins him for a home cooked meal, their joint families assume that a wedding is in the very near future, especially if they intend to adopt baby Tim.  What's a girl with emotional baggage to do?

I like Ms. Evanovich's romances because they're light and funny.  The sex is romantic, not too explicit, which is just how I think a romance should be.  The tie-in to the holiday made it a really fun escape this week.  Check it out for yourself this year, or maybe put it away as a treat during next year's Thanksgiving rush.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sisters of Fortune: America's Caton Sisters at Home and Abroad

I was browsing in the new non-fiction section of my library the other day, hoping that a copy of In the Garden of the Beast might be available when the title Sisters of Fortune (#125) caught my eye.  When I pulled the book off the shelf, Sir Thomas Lawrence's portrait of the beautiful Marianne Caton Patterson hooked me.  Jehanne Wake's group biography of the four Caton sisters - Marianne, Elizabeth (or Bess as she was known), Louisa and Emily - is straight out of a novel, and just as compelling a read.

Born into the wealthy and prominent Catholic Carroll family of Baltimore, the girls were raised in the extended family household of their grandfather, John Carroll of Carrollton, signer of the Declaration of Independence.  To protect their inheritances from their charming but feckless British father, John Carroll tied up fortunes for each of his granddaughters so that they would always be financially independent.  In return, he expected them to be able to manage their own money by keeping scrupulous accounts, a life-long habit for the sisters. 

Moving in the highest social circles, the Caton sisters met just about everyone who was anyone.  With an uncle in the US Congress, they also spent considerable time in Washington, DC mingling with and debating politics in the highest political arenas as well and becoming staunch supporters of the Republic in the process.

In light of the Caton sisters' backgrounds, it is surprising that only one of the sisters married an American.  Marianne, considered to be the true beauty of the family with a personality to match, married Robert Patterson.  She suffered terribly from asthma and physicians recommended that Marianne go abroad for her health.  Bess and Louisa accompanied her to Europe taking London by storm in the finest tradition of Regency romances.  Marianne caught the eye of the Duke of Wellington who commissioned the portrait of her on the cover of the book.  The sisters moved on to be met with an equally warm reception in France, the first experience they had of being able to openly practice their religion in public.  Although Marianne Caton Patterson returned to the United States with her husband, she was widowed shortly thereafter and was beset by Patterson family claims against the validity of her husband's will.  It was with great relief that she returned to Europe where she eventually married the Duke of Wellington's elder brother becoming Lady Wellsley.  Louisa had married the English Lord Hervey but was also widowed young.  Her courtship by the younger Lord Carmarthen caused a rift with his father, the Duke of Leeds, who objected to Louisa principally because of her religion, but also on the grounds that she was an American nobody.  The breach was never healed with Carmarthen's father, but Louisa and Car's marriage was otherwise a happy one.  Bess, the remaining sister, was most involved in financial speculation and held shares in various companies for her married sisters and friends.  She never planned to marry, but succumbed to the sixty-four year old Lord Stafford's proposal, much to the surprise of the rest of her family.  By all reports Bess's marriage was a successful one.  Even Emily who had remained at home in America married a Canadian of Scottish descent, John McTavish.  After beginning their marriage in Montreal, the McTavishes moved to Baltimore and there Emily remained, taking care of her grandfather, her parents and her growing brood of children. 

Life was never dull with the Catons.  They lived through tumultuous times in both Europe and America and the sisters were in a position to observe and even influence events.

What I found most surprising in reading this book is that I had never come across any references to the Caton sisters in any of the other books I've read.  They were all so well known that they were the subject of many contemporary diarists and correspondents.  The author does make the point that just as Louisa, the last surviving sister died, Jennie Jerome married Lord Randolph Churchill, and a few years later Consuela Yanga de Valle married the heir to the Duke of Manchester.  The era of the Dollar Princesses had begun and the brilliant swath that the Caton sisters had cut during the Regency period and beyond was extinguished. 

Once again, the cover art of this book was an important factor in my choosing this book, so kudos to the editors who selected the cover portraits of the four sisters.  If you read Sisters of Fortune you won't be disappointed in the Catons' story.  In this case, you can judge the book by the cover!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Hiss of Death

I usually enjoy Rita Mae Brown's mysteries co-written with her cat Sneaky Pie Brown.  However, if you have even an ounce of flab on you, you might want to give Hiss of Death (#124) a miss or you risk being offended.  In this outing Harry Haristeen is diagnosed with breast cancer, and though people are murdered, the whodunit aspect takes a distant second place to Ms. Brown's soapbox.

Okay, I get that Ms. Brown hates obese people, that only the really serious "gym rats" are worthy of consideration (Harry even criticizes her eighty-five year old grandmother for having a little bit of flab on her upper arms that revolted her!) and that the government is evil, as are the pharmaceutical companies, and basically pretty much anyone who isn't furry and four-legged don't deserve the air they breathe.  I wondered as I read her extended rants whether or not Ms. Brown was ever going to get back to the story.  When she did, it was in a very premptory manner - "Oh, yes, I must name the murderer, and hey, I'd better work the animal characters Mrs. Murphy, Pewter and Tee Tucker into the plot a bit more."

Her pencil illustrations of the animals are as charming as ever, but as far as I was concerned, they aren't enough to save this book.  The only reason I kept going was that I was too sick to get out of bed to find something else to read.

Unless you absolutely must read it because it's the next book in a series, I'd skip Hiss of Death, and hope for better in the future.  Or maybe not.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Dick Van Dyke: My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business

Growing up, Dick Van Dyke was always one of my favorite actors.  In my generation, who didn't dream of having Rob and Laura Petrie as parents?  Not too long ago, Dick Van Dyke appeared as a guest on NPR's Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me news quiz show to play Not My Job.  He was just as entertaining and charming on the show as Peter Sagal fired off-the-wall questions at him as I remember him being on his classic Dick Van Dyke Show.  Reading his memoir Dick Van Dyke: My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business (#123) pretty much confirms this with a few surprising twists.

The surprises here have nothing to do with Hollywood shockers.  He states that right at the beginning of the book.  If you're looking for dirt, this isn't the place to find it.  What you do find instead are some amusing anecdotes about his life in show business and the many talented people he's had a chance to work with, and musings on just how lucky he was that the things he most enjoyed doing seemed to fall right into his lap, especially after he made the conscious decision to not appear in anything he would be ashamed to take his whole family to see.  How I wish there were more people like him in the entertainment business today!   He literally puts his money where his mouth is because he's a long way from being done with his mission of entertaining people.

What was surprising to me was that while he was in the midst of his successful TV career that he was active in his church and involved in various social justice causes.  While he has a number of photos in his memoir of his stage, screen and TV roles, he also chose to include photos of himself on stage with Martin Luther King, Jr., and in Lyndon B. Johnson's Oval Office with a group receiving a proclamation for the Brotherhood of Christians and Jews. 

Not that his life has been entirely sunny.  He has survived and overcome personal problems and tragedies but he doesn't make himself the hero of his own story.  Instead, he's put his energy into trying to understand the meaning and life lessons that can be learned from these episodes.  I've got to admire someone who will turn to the likes of Dieder Bonhofer for inspiration in times of trouble.

And I was also impressed with his loyalty to those who helped Dick Van Dyke along his way from a childhood friend who used to do magic tricks with him and showed him how much fun it was to have an audience, and writers like Carl Reiner who knew just what to do with the raw talent that launched Dick into the public's eye on his hit TV show, to the young fellow Dick met in a Starbucks a few years ago whose group of musical friends continue to entertain with him at charity events and hospitals now and into the foreseeable future.

How nice to find someone that someone whom I've always admired has given me even more reasons to be a fan.  You go, Dick!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Altar of Bones

Be warned!  You may wind up with bags under your eyes once you start reading Philip Carter's Altar of Bones (#122).  If you're  like me, you won't be able to put this thriller down.  A bag lady killed by a mugger in Golden Gate Park, a Russian gulag just before World War II, a parish priest murdered in Galveston cathedral, an attorney for battered women in San Francisco and a ruthless corporate billionaire in Boston with his own personal lover and assasin on the payroll.  What ties them all together?  The altar of bones with its promise of immortality, of course.

The action never stops in this adventure as the connections between these people and events are pulled together.  What's not to like about a book that features Russian magic people with a secret in Siberia, Rasputin, and a DEA agent's father's secret past and his role in the "big kill" with a concealed film to prove his puppet masters' culpability?  It's not very plausible, but oh, such a lot of fun to read.

Philip Carter is credited as a pseudonym for an internationally acclaimed author.  If he's writing more serious minded books as his mainstay, he ought to step forward and add this entertaining thriller to his credits.  I'll be looking for more from him in the future.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Home Improvement Undead Edition

Home Improvement Undead Edition (#121) is a collection of short stories brought to you by Charlaine Harris and Toni L. P. Kelner.  Like the previous anthologies put together by these editors, the authors of these stories were given a theme to write about - home improvement projects.  Since the other requirement is that the paranormal world must also feature into the stories, the home projects might not be quite what you're likely to see on reality TV.

Take the wizard who's having problems with his security system after a break-in, or the house that is a link between the mortal and supernatural worlds that human and elf inspectors both want to alter to meet building codes - simultaneously; or the bori who just want the Homeowners's Association in their development to approve a fence to protect their young ones.  The frustrations that the homeowners feel as they're refused permits, made to jump through bureaucratic hoops, overcharged, and forced to live with delay after delay on their projects is something any homerowner can relate to, even if they're not the usual problems.

Fairies, elves, wizards, raisers of the dead, ghosts, malignant houses, and vampires all play a part in these stories.  I must admit I liked some of the stories a lot more than others, and I learned that I don't know anything at all about the fantasy world of fairies and elves, nor am I likely to in the future.  There is a new Sookie Stackhouse story for all the Charlaine Harris fans, but I think my favorite story was The Path by S. J. Rozan.  It features the ghost of a Buddhist monk whose Chinese monastery was discovered by nineteenth century explorers who removed the head from a statue of Buddha in the monk's meditation cave.  The ghost can't move on to his next life until the head is recovered from a museum in New York City.  Unlike many of the other stories, it's not a violent tale, but it certainly is an imaginative home improvement project with a satisfying ending.

I'm not normally a short story fan, but my husband found this book and recommended it based on the collections Death's Excellent Vacation and Wolfsbane and Mistletoe (See my posts of 12/3/10 & 12/27/10) also edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner.  If you like the supernatural, you'll undoubtedly enjoy Home Improvement Undead Edition.