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Ringing in the New Year with The Wellingtons

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This song is in heavy rotation at our house these days. I first found this band on the music website The Sixty One. The site kind of makes me crazy, but I’m glad I found The Wellingtons. I love listening to my son singing along. It’s one of the few adult bands that he likes. Note that the drummer is wearing a Star Wars shirt. That helps, too.


The Winter Sea – Susanna Kearsley

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There are some books that just make the rounds at my library. Everyone has been talking about The Winter Sea. Leading up to Christmas, whatever I read put me to sleep instantly, so I didn’t want to start something that I wasn’t going to be able to finish. I took Kearsley’s book home a few days before my vacation started and it was an instant cure for my reading dry spell.

In The Winter Sea, historical fiction author, Carrie McClelland visits her friend and agent in Scotland. On her way, she drives by Slains Castle and feels an instant connection to it. In hopes of curing her writer’s block, she rents a cottage in the nearby village of Cruden Bay and her novel practically writes itself. Carrie writes the story and then does her research only to find what she has written was true.

In Carrie’s story, Sophia Paterson travels to Slains Castle to stay with her aunt the Countess of Errol. Slains Castle is the headquarters of the Jacobite movement. Plans are being made to return James to Scotland and soon Sophia becomes sympathetic to the cause. She is drawn to John Moray one of the major players in paving the way for the would-be king. Since Moray is a wanted man, he is forced to stay at the castle instead of rallying his fellow Scots to his cause. While at the castle Sophia and Moray form a bond, but they both know that their time is short and Moray will soon return to France to serve his king.

At first, I thought the plot device of having an author as a main character was going to be a bit gimmicky, but I was drawn into the story right away. Carrie is likable and her friend’s in Cruden Bay made it hard for me to put this book down. Jimmy Keith and his sons, Stuart and Graham, are never far away. I’m definitely a sucker for a Scottish accent and some of Jimmy’s speech had me searching for a Scottish glossary. And Graham, what can I say? How is it possible to fall in love with a character when he is only on the page for a moment giving another character directions? I’m not sure, but did I mention he has a dog named Angus?

With most books that move from the past to the present, I usually find myself preferring one time period over another. With The Winter Sea, I was pretty much satisfied in either time. I must confess to knowing very little about Scottish history, so I enjoyed learning about the Jacobites. Being of Scottish descent, though woefully ignorant of most things Scottish, I always enjoy learning a little more about my heritage. I changed my banner in tribute. My husband is desperate to visit the above castle that bears the name of my family’s clan. Of course, no Scots inhabited the castle after the 14th century, but my husband must tell everyone who will listen about the castle and that it is on Loch Ness. Kidnapped is one of his favorite books, so I think he’s jealous.  It is odd that the head of my clan lives in New Orleans, but I digress.

The Winter Sea is one of my top picks for 2010. It’s the kind of historical novel that I love. There are lots of historical details but the story doesn’t focus on the major historical events, rather the everyday people involved. Kearsley’s characters are unique and the secondary characters often shine as much as the main ones.  The scenery is spectacular. I found myself trying to invent an excuse to rent a cottage near a Scottish castle myself!

A Pair of Graphic Novels

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I haven’t read a graphic novel in a while, but I came across reviews for the following two books that made me want to get some graphic novels on my nightstand ASAP.

The Dapper Men ~ Jim McCann & Janet Lee

“Enter a world in between time, where children have played so long it’s almost become work, machines have worked so long they have begun to play, and all the clocks have stopped at the same time. This is how this land has remained, until 314 dapper-looking gentlemen rain down from the sky and set off in different directions to start the world anew. Now Ayden, the only boy to still ask questions; Zoe, the robot girl all other machines hold dear; and the Dapper Man known only as “41” must discover what happened that made time stop, understand what their true places are in this world, and learn what “tomorrow” really means. The sun is setting for the first time in memory, and once that happens, everything changes! The Return of the Dapper Men is a visually stunning fairy tale that combines steampunk with fantasy and science fiction with Renaissance style, brought to life from the minds of award-winning playwright and comic book writer Jim McCann (New Avengers: The Reunion) and critically acclaimed visual artist Janet Lee. Together they have created a world where J.M. Barrie, Lewis Carrol, and Maurice Sendak meet Jim Henson and Tim Burton. All sharply dressed in a pin-stripe suit and a dapper bowler hat.”

If only one or two of the things in the above product description were true I’d be interested, but the combination is irresistible. I think I’m actually going to buy this one. Everything about it is so unique from the artwork to the storyline. I think it’s a must have.

Empire State ~ Jason Shiga

“Jimmy is a stereotypical geek who works at the library in Oakland, California, and is trapped in his own torpidity. Sara is his best friend, but she wants to get a life (translation: an apartment in Brooklyn and a publishing internship). When Sara moves to New York City, Jimmy is rattled. Then lonely. Then desperate. He screws up his courage, writes Sara a letter about his true feelings, and asks her to meet him at the top of the Empire State Building (a nod to their ongoing debate about Sleepless in Seattle).”

Just from the above description, I already like Jimmy. He seems like the kind of guy you want to root for – a lovable slacker who decides to take a chance at love.

Anna and the French Kiss ~ Stephanie Perkins

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Chelle gave this book to me not long after she read it, with a casual – whenever you get the chance – no pressure.” So, I should have taken note. But, I was busy applying for a new job and then preparing for an interview. After I got said job, I was too busy with that and then reading some required Westerns. Several stomach bugs and colds later I decided a nice romance in Paris might be nice.  This was so much more than that. What on earth was I waiting for!

Anna Oliphant has been sent away to boarding school in Paris. She misses her mother, younger brother, best friend and potential love interest all back in Atlanta. Her writer father who sent her to Paris – not so much. Anna is a budding film critic with a website where she posts her reviews. Her life takes a turn when she walks straight in to Etienne St. Clair an American with a French father and a British accent. Swoon worthy, too. It sounds like a recipe for one inflated ego, but St. Clair is nice. He’s annoyed by the fawning girls and friendly to the unpopular. St. Clair helps Anna overcome some of her insecurities about Paris and enables her to be more independent. But, Mr. Perfect does have a few faults like a girlfriend named Ellie.

I was smitten with Anna from the first paragraph. She’s a strong character, smart and funny but with enough flaws to make her easy to identify with. Plus, it’s Paris! If I had read this book as a teenager, my brain would have exploded! I would have been begging my parents to send me to SOAP. It’s hard to write much more without spoiling and gushing, so I’m just going to give you a list instead of reasons why I felt such a connection to the book. I’m sorry it’s so “all about me,” but I’m hoping it will be a little teaser without ruining the experience of reading Anna.

8 Connections to Anna and the French Kiss

1) I was obsessed with all things French as a teenager. Every report in my European History class was about France.

2) I had a poster of Napoleon on the front of my bedroom door (see #1). I’m not kidding. I actually think that I took down a door-sized poster of James Dean to put it up much to my mother’s chagrin.

3) Instead of insuring my parent’s Jeep so that I would have a car to get around, I spent my savings on a second school trip to Paris. I went almost 20 years without driving as a result.

4) I love the books that Anna reads in her English class. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto is one of my favorite books and one of the few I’ve read more than once.

5) I love books where they talk about food a lot. Kitchen is the book that really opened my eyes to that.

6) What librarian wouldn’t get excited about a book with a girl who loves the OED. I have always dreamed of finding one at a yard sale for cheap. Hasn’t happened.

7) Neruda is one of my favorite poets (and a lot of other people’s, too!). My husband and I each read one of his love sonnets at our wedding, including the one quoted in this book! It’s a good one.

Finally,  Etienne was my favorite boy name in French class.

Serendipty: HD

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This is taken out of context, but while flipping through the poems in HD’s book Hermetic Definition, I came across these lines that sum up how I was feeling today:

“Rain falls or snow, I don’t know,
only I must stumble along, grope a long,
find my way; but believe me,

I have much to sustain me…”

The Lady’s Slipper ~ Deborah Swift

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The Hook: I saw this on one of the NextReads Historical Fiction newsletters. That’s pretty much a dangerous place for me to be. I loved the beautiful blue dress on the cover and the idea that the book was centered around a lady’s slipper orchid was something I couldn’t resist. When I was little, my grandparents had a little camp on a lake. Behind the lake was a woodsy patch we would visit every so often and it was a magical place. You would go in and the pines would block out all the noise from the main road. There was an old burnt out house in the middle. The lilacs there had gone wild and the floor of the woods was carpeted with lilies of the valley. The heady scent was almost too much and to this day those to flowers are among my favorites. Often times when we went in, we would find a little patch of lady’s slippers. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, unless I was in a botanical garden. We knew they were rare even before “endangered species” was a common phrase, so I have some idea how the flower effected the people in this book.

To say Alice Ibbetson is a lover of plants is an understatement. Her father was a connoisseur and she paints botanical specimens with incredible accuracy. Since her younger sister died, Alice has locked herself in her summer house to garden and paint. When Richard Wheeler, her newest neighbor, hears of her love of plants, he shows her the rare lady’s slipper that is blooming on his property. Alice becomes obsessed. She urges him to transplant it, so that no one will steal it and to propagate it. Wheeler refuses. For him, the orchid is there by the will of God and he will not remove it. Contrary to her nature, Alice steals the orchid from under Wheeler’s nose. That act sets in motion a whirlwind that will change both of their lives.

Restoration England is a time period that I have not read much about and it sent me looking to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of history. The author does a great job of creating the atmosphere of tension during that time. As an American, I tend to think of Quakers as being American. So, it was interesting to see them before they came to this country and the trouble the faced both in terms of their religion and their politics.

Alice was a character that I was drawn to right away. She loves plants. I love them, too! I was totally jealous of her summer house and I love botanical prints, so it was just wonderful to think of her painting there. To see Alice, who I was sure was the kind of person who is normally honest and caring do such a rash thing and suffer such terrible consequences was heartbreaking. There are some pretty nasty, selfish characters just lying in wait to tangle her in her own web of deceit. While some books make me dream that I had a housekeeper to take care of me, this book scared me right off that ridiculous notion! Overall, it had all of the things that I would hope for in a historical novel, great characters and a well-developed world, plus a good storyline, too. It made one turbulent plane ride much more enjoyable.

I was excited to see that Deborah Swift has another novel in the works that is a companion to The Lady’s Slipper called The Gilded Lily. While this next book centers around a character I would have hoped to never see again, I have to admit after I read the description, I changed my mind and I look forward to reading it.

Title: The Lady’s Slipper
Author: Deborah Swift
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
I Got My Copy From: The Library
Rating: Very Good


The Four Stages of Cruelty ~ Keith Hollihan

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I’m not sure what I was thinking when I set out to read this, but something about one of the reviews caught my attention enough for me to promptly place a hold on it at the library. As a rule, I’ve stopped using my hold list as my TBR list, because you know it just doesn’t work out that way. I also don’t read 7 day books as a rule, but all bets were off on this one. The subject matter didn’t appeal to me, neither did the violence, but somehow I found myself picking up the book and not wanting to stop until I was done. My husband left a Christmas gift at my feet  while I was reading and then went to drop our son off at daycare and I didn’t notice it until he pointed it out to me when he got back. Seriously, the bag was touching my leg and I just didn’t notice. It’s that kind of book. Hollihan manages to write a story with such compelling characters and driving plot, all those reasons I might have thought to dismiss this book, didn’t matter. I felt deeply for characters I wouldn’t expect to even like and drawn into a world, I’d rather not know about. Below is a review I did for work that doesn’t begin to do the book justice…

True to it’s title, The Four Stages of Cruelty is not a book for the faint of heart. Kali Williams is a Corrections Officer at the Ditmarsh Penitentiary, a maximum security prison in Minnesota. Even though Kali works in the prison, as a female CO, she provides the perspective of an outsider looking in. When Kali is given the mission of bringing inmate, Josh Riff, to his father’s funeral, she is furious. She feels that she is being setup or somehow punished. Josh, who was convicted of manslaughter for killing his girlfriend, is only nineteen and while Kali abhors him for what he has done, she can’t help but feel sympathetic towards him after his father’s funeral.

Before they head back into the prison, Josh shows Kali a comic that his friend Crowley asked him to smuggle out of the prison for safekeeping. Confused and not one to do favors for inmates, Kali gives it back to him. After seeing the comic, Kali begins to sees things in the prison that she never noticed before.

A few days after Josh’s trip, Crowley is involved in a big brawl on the prison grounds and is sent to a disciplinary unit, from which he disappears. Using clues from the comic, Kali finds Crowley’s body in an abandoned part of the prison three days later. Kali expects to be rewarded for her investigative work, but instead finds herself in the middle of a hornet’s nest.

Hollihan’s novel is the best cross of literary and adrenaline fiction. While at it’s heart, the novel is about the relationships between inmates and COs, it often feels like reading a thriller. Hollihan’s writing is of the sort that will make you want to send your loved ones into exile until you reach the 304th page. He has a way of ending a chapter with a single sentence that makes it impossible not to read on.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the main characters, despite one’s better judgment and the secondary characters are a sea of the best cons and thugs mixed with a handful of potential good guys. Part of what makes this novel so good, is that you can never tell who to trust, what character is on what side or what character is trading favors with another. Kali’s labyrinthine journey through the hidden dark places in Ditmarsh is riveting. But, you have to wait until that last page for a final resolution.