Friday, December 29, 2017

Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas
by Agatha Christie

It seems odd to say it, but it was very comforting to read this murder mystery. I read quite a lot of Agatha Christie novels when I was in my middle school years. I never forgot the highly dramatic production of The Witness for the Prosecution our high school put on or the production of The Mousetrap that I was in. (Of course, I played the old lady, Mrs. Boyle.)

Christie’s standalone novels The Secret of Chimneys and They Came to Baghdad were a couple of my favorites but I also greatly enjoyed her little old knitting granny detective, Miss Jane Marple, and Hercule Poirot mysteries.

Hercule Poirot is Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective with the big mustache who uses his “little grey cells” to solve mysteries. They are usually murders, as in The Murder on the Orient Express. (I highly enjoyed and recommend the current movie from Kennth Branagh, by the way.)

Hercule Poirot, and behind him, the author Agatha Christie, were students of human nature and what people were likely to do or could not help doing.

In this case, Hercule is visiting his friend in the country, Colonel Johnson, Chief Constable of Middleshire, when Simeon Lee is murdered in his house.

Simeon Lee has called his children home for Christmas. Alfred Lee and wife Lydia live in the house with Simeon Lee already. David Lee and his wife Hilda arrive along with George Lee, M.P. for Westeringham, and his wife Magdalene. The black sheep of the family, Harry Lee, arrives as well. Pilar Estravados has also been invited to take up residence at the house, possibly long term. She is Simeon’s granddaughter, daughter of the deceased Jennifer and her father, who died in prison. Of course there are the usual house staff, Tressilian, and valet, Horbury. We also have an unexpected visitor in Stephen Farr, who is the son of Simeon’s partner in South Africa. He just happened to be passing through and called on Simeon then was asked to stay for Christmas.

Yes, Simeon Lee has called his family home for Christmas, but it isn’t a family reunion. He’s a manipulator who loves to make trouble. He has pushed someone over the line this time, but who?

There are some very nice little twists and turns with this case and I’m not sure it can be figured out until Poirot gives his reveal of the facts we are missing at the end of the book, but I enjoy being along for the ride. It is a different time and place but the character of people is not all that different. Christie, and Poirot, make it fun to examine the motivations.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

12 Days at Bleakly Manor by Michelle Griep (Guest post by Tarren Young)

12 Days at Bleakly Manor
Michelle Griep

This book absolutely stole my heart! I passed it on the end cap in our library for several weeks before and during National Novel Writing Month but never picked it up. Then, at the last minute, I realized I did not have anything at home to read for the holiday theme. Shock of all shocks, my husband suggested reading the same one I read last year for the December theme -  gasp! (Seriously, ten years together, and he doesn’t know me better than that by now? Tsk, tsk!)

Anyway, I decided to download a sample on my Kindle to see if I would like it. For the first two pages, it seemed to hold my attention, but I am not usually one to read and have it keep my interest for long on my Kindle, so I decided to go to the store and see what other options they had before committing to buying the book. The store had one last copy of it on their shelves in paperback with deckled edges, for that added charm. I stood there reading the first chapter again and well into the second, falling in love with the writing style and the characters from the beginning!

There is so much I loved about this story that it’s hard to know where to start. The writing style is easy to read, but the author makes you feel as if you are reading something that truly is in the style of Charles Dickens without having purple prose. There is just the right amount of description without it bogging down the story. The writing style makes the story flow incredibly well with nice pacing!

I loved the characters in this story! In my own stories, I am character driven but my favorite character in this book actually was not the main character, Clara Chapman, but another lady by the name of Ms. Scurry, who has eight pet mice. Clara finds that absolutely appalling, but still manages to choke down her disgust every time she is around Miss Scurry in order to find friendship.

Ah, now we come to the plot. Miss Chapman is summoned on Christmas Eve to leave her dying aunt’s bedside to attend a traditional, yet peculiar, 12 Days of Christmas holiday. If she stays the entire 12 days, she will be awarded a monetary sum of five hundred pounds.  This would enable her to take care of herself after her aunt passes, as she has no husband or potential suitor. She does not have a husband, though she should have, because a year previously, she was left at the altar, turning her heart hard against the man she once loved who betrayed her.

But the mystery deepens and her shock and anger get the best of her when he is one of the guests invited to stay for the 12 days at this mansion known as Bleakly Manor. With all honesty, I don’t blame her for her reaction at all. I probably would have done the same.

There is a lot at stake for the several different characters, of diverse personalities, that come together under one roof for 12 days. They, of course, are allowed outside the manor, but not allowed off the manor grounds. If they leave the grounds, they forfeit the prize.

It was days later, after looking at the bottom of the back cover, that I noticed the book is listed as Fiction/Christian/Historical/Holidays. Fiction, check. Historical, check. Christian? Huh. Now, I usually do not read Christian fiction as I find it often lacks in well-developed characters, a steady, exciting plot, or any real tension or problem that the characters have to overcome. I have only read one truly phenomenal Christian Fiction book, until now. The author also does not bash the reader over the head with the ideology of Christianity. She has constructed a wonderful story with realistic characters in a time frame that I adore. There is mystery, mayhem, tension and characters that I want to strangle! (Don’t worry, I can’t because he’s fictional! I never would strangle anyone anyways.) But isn’t that the mark of a great writer, someone who can get you not only interested in the characters but be invested in them? Feel empathy/sympathy for them?

Will all the characters get what they came for during their stay at Bleakly Manor? Will they all survive against each other? Will they survive at all?

Overall, the last chapter and a half did feel a bit rushed, and the very ending itself was the only thing that did not feel true to character for either of the two characters that are conversing, but the rest of the story more than makes up for an ending that is a bit lacking. I still give this story 4.5 stars. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Siracusa by Delia Ephron

By Delia Ephron

Siracusa follows two couples, Michael and Lizzie, and Finn and Taylor, along with their daughter Snow, on vacation to Siracusa, Italy.

The alternating chapters told from the four adult perspectives is a neat conceit and, at first, it IS interesting to get different perspectives on the same events, but it quickly gets old and slows the book down.

The characters aren’t pleasant. Michael is wishy-washy about getting out of his marriage. He’s having an affair with a woman named Kathy who he claims fervently to be in love with. There’s no kids, so what’s stopping him from ending the marriage? Just himself.

Lizzie is almost intentionally oblivious. “I always thought, and joked to my best friend Rachel, that if he ever walked through a door first, it would mean he was through with me. In Rome, lo and behold, he did it.” You think she gets it, finally. But in the next line she excuses it, “That’s how jet-lagged he was.”

Taylor is a helicopter parent who seems rather vain and pretentious. “Whenever we go on a trip, Finn, Snow, and I stay in the same room. Snow and I sleep in the double bed. Finn takes the cot because he stays out late. That way no one gets disturbed. Because of running a restaurant, Finn is an owl. Sex in this culture, its importance, is overrated, and that is the last I’m going to say on the subject.”

Finn, well, he seems like the most happy-go-lucky but he’s also pulling some puppet strings. ‘On the buildup to this fiasco, Lizzie and I were texting ten times a day. I started hounding her at Christmas. “Italy in June. Remind tay, remind Tay, grazie prego.” Badgered Lizzie’s brains out. Taylor had no idea I was feeding Lizzie, making it happen, getting a bit of control. What’s that called? Passive aggressive. I was having a passive-aggressive field day pulling Lizzie’s strings so she’d pull Taylor’s and getting off on it.’

And it’s true, Taylor blames Lizzie for it all. It isn’t until towards the end, she starts to blame Finn as well. “From the start it was a conspiracy between Lizzie and Finn to be together. Michael and I were in the dark.”

Lizzie and Finn knew each other from a little romance years before and had remained friends.

Snow is annoying – melodramatic and pretentious. She steals some silverware, plays with dressing more provocatively and pretends to faint, putting herself into the drama of the Carravagio painting, but that just doesn’t lead up to what happens. I didn’t feel like the author built the tension sufficiently.

There are some interesting observations but I was paging through the last 30% just to get it over with. A neat idea that just didn’t work for me in the end.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Cleaning Nabokov's House by Leslie Daniels

Cleaning Nabokov’s House
by Leslie Daniels
Guest post by Tarren Young

I bought this book from Leslie Daniels herself at our local writer’s conference in March 2017. Our theme for the month of April was a book that was recommended to you. At first I was going to read one my husband suggested (and currently am reading—my goal for two books this month was a bit far sighted) and I debated if this could be counted as a recommendation. Since the thesaurus lists endorsed, mentioned, advocated as just a few words that encompass the recommended theme, I feel no guilt in having read this one for our book club this month.

Cleaning Nabokov’s House never struck me as one that would be peppered with metaphors pertaining to my life at the moment. Ah, but that’s how the universe works, and I gave myself the proverbial face palm for not picking up on the metaphoric  and symbolic meaning of the title from the get go. This quite sucks to admit because I love symbolic and metaphoric(al)  meaning—even when I don’t go searching for it, it usually finds me.

Leslie Daniels ability to combine both sadness and humor on a human level right from the beginning entranced me. Her writing style feels similar to my own memoir-ic  style (and if that’s not a word, I’m going to make it one—if Shakespeare can, than I can too) where the melancholy and humor crash together like a tsunami in one sentence. If I likened her to real life, it would be like laughing at a funeral—you know it’s inappropriate, yet your brain and emotions are making light of the situation. Someone usually comes along and actually thanks you for being real, being human and brave enough to show it.

Although I did feel the ending (the last three or four chapters) felt rushed and abrupt, there was much more than made up for the slightly disappointing ending.

Right from the first chapter, when her main character clambered toward the lake to retrieve a blue pot and thought that the local newspaper of the small town Onkwendo could use the headline “Mother of Two Drowns, Apparent Suicide,” I was drawn in. Insert admission here that I laughed at this sentence when I probably should have shaken my head or felt sad for this character. Yet this exact sentence was when I knew the book was for me.


The main character, Barb, doesn’t follow directions well, especially her husband’s, as she is more of a free spirit. And this is particularly frowned upon in Onkwendo. This drives her husband bonkers—and he can’t understand why she can’t just comply with the rules. 

Though Onkwendo is a fictional town, I liken it to Ithaca. (Sorry, Ithaca, nothing personal, and I do enjoy your city very much.) Barb, the main character, is a transplant from NYC, who moves to this town with her husband. He lives by a certain set of rules and believes that’s how others must, because that’s just how it is done. Although he is not physically abusive, she can’t conform to his rules of cookie cutter society—loading the dishwasher a certain way, raising children a certain way, keeping house a certain way, having reached certain goals by a certain time and age in life—it all becomes too much for her, and loading the dishwasher wrong was the final straw not only for her, but their marriage.

Without giving too many spoilers away, through several heart wrenching incidents of losing her children and everyone agreeing (insert judge and the rest of the town because her husband has them eating out of his back pocket) that the kids are safer with their father because he is more stable emotionally, Barb even wonders if she can stay in the same town as him.  But a blue pot floats to shore on the and this is her sign.
Barb lives in a hotel room for a bit, also not following the rules (ahem, using hot plates to cook dinner) and for some reason, I appreciate the boldness of her personality for doing what needs to be done—even if others frown upon it. At this time though, she doesn’t realize that breaking this rule is actually putting into action what will save her in the end.

On a whim, after deciding the blue pot needed more than a hot plate to cook on, (my favorite scene in the book, pg. 15) Barb buys a house. A house that the blue pot led her to (from unseen forces) where she stumbles across something magical while cleaning her daughter’s bedroom. She was told when she bought the house that Nabokov once lived there and that brought days and nights of comfort to her throughout the story.  Even though she was told Nabokov once lived there, nothing prepares her the adventure that finding a few single index cards would lead her to.

I underlined several sentences and passages in Cleaning Nabokov’s House. I laughed and even had to put the book away while in a restaurant because I started to cry, and if I continued reading, I would have been a blubbering mess for all the world to see. (Not that that hasn’t happened before.)

Overall, I give Leslie Daniels Cleaning Nabokov’s House a four out of five stars and truly would recommend this book to everyone, really, but if you are a free spirit and have been asked or told one too many times, “why can’t you just follow the rules?” then this book is not only a must, but a hope for those of us who don’t. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian
By Andy Weir

Now, if you were left behind on Mars by your crewmates and knew you had to wait for the next planned Mars expedition, in FOUR years, would you even try to survive? Or would you assume there was no way in hell for that to happen?

 “So, that’s the situation. I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days. If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happens, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death. So yeah, I’m fucked.”

So why doesn’t he just take the easy way out? Well, at the moment, he’s alone but he has everything he needs. He’s in no hurry. The thing is - he’s someone who rises to challenges and likes to figure things out, so he wants to do that. He figures out how much soil he’ll need and how to turn the soil he has, plus his own shit along with Martian soil, into something he can grow crops in.

 “This isn’t a new concept I just came up with. People have speculated on how to make crop soil out of Martian dirt for decades. I’ll just be putting it to the test for the first time. But in the end, if everything goes to plan, I’ll have 92 square meters of crop-able soil. Hell yeah I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!”

Mark Watney is pretty smart but he’s also totally an extrovert, the class clown, the one who provides the lubricant between all the really smart introverts. He’s also an extrovert who only has his journal to talk to.

I think that’s part of why he comes across as more of a real person to me, not a type. We all have geeky sides, and sporty sides and act like kids at times, and get excited and angry and scared.  

 “I’ve been so busy staying alive I never thought of what this must be like for my parents. Right now, they’re suffering the worst pain anyone can endure. I’d give anything just to let them know I’m still alive. I’ll just have to survive to make up for it.”

He’s stuck with thumb drives of things his shipmates brought for entertainment.  

“Disco. God damn it, Lewis.”

A large part of the book is him reacting to problems, thinking through them and coming up with a solution. He’s so perfectly imperfect. Like any good hero, he causes his own trouble, and he laughs at himself so well.

“Turns out the “L” in “LCD” stands for “Liquid.” I guess it either froze or boiled off. Maybe I’ll post a consumer review. “Brought product to surface of Mars. It stopped working. 0/10.”

Right, who knew? Um, everyone.

My biggest criticism is that I felt like the ending was abrupt. We’re rocking along then . . . boom, it’s done. I feel like the author should have given us a little more warning that THIS was the goal. Oh well.

It’s a FUN book. Try not to take it too seriously. It is action, and science, and humor. I really, really liked it.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Song of Achilles: A Novel by Madeline Miller

Song of Achilles: A Novel
By Madeline Miller

This book was at once lyrical and heart rending. Not so much for how it ended, we knew how that was going to go, but for the intervening story of love and loss. I can well understand why it took her ten years to write the book. The historical accuracy, the beautiful phrasing and exquisite detail must have demanded it.

Patroclus says he was nothing special when he was born. “Quickly, I became a disappointment: small, slight. I was not fast I was not strong. I could not sing. The best that could be said of me was that I was not sickly.”

His father attempts to marry him off to Helen of Troy but ends up getting him pledged to “uphold Helen’s choice, and defend her husband against all who would take her from him.”

Then Patroclus accidentally kills an older boy, who is bullying him, simply by pushing him away. The boy trips, falls and hits his head.

“I would be exiled, and fostered in another man’s kingdom. In exchange for my weight in gold, they would rear me to manhood. I would have no parents, no family name, no inheritance. In our day, death was preferable. But my father was a practical man. My weight in gold was less than the expense of the lavish funeral my death would have demanded. This was how I came to be ten, and an orphan. This is how I came to Phthia.”

The passages of even simple events are exquisitely descriptive. “That night I dreamed of the dead boy, his skull cracked like an egg against the ground. He has followed me. The blood spreads, dark as spilled wine. His eyes open, and his mouth begins to move. I clap my hands over my ears. The voices of the dead were said to have the power to make the living mad.  I must not hear him speak.”

Patroclus does not have an easy adjustment to his new home but he is fascinated by Achilles.

“Juggling was a trick of low mummers and beggars, but he made it something else, a living pattern painted on the air, so beautiful even I could not pretend disinterest.”

The juggling of figs - such an important scene, mesmerizing, exactly how it feels to be caught in the grasp of fascination with another. A connection is made.

 “His gaze, which had been following the circling fruit, flickered to mine. I did not have time to look away before he said, softly but distinctly, “Catch.” A fig leapt from the pattern in a graceful arc towards me. It fell into the cup of my palms, soft and slightly warm. I was aware of the boys cheering.”

Achilles claims Patroclus for his constant companion and their friendship grows, deepening.

“I saw then how I had changed. I did not mind anymore that I lost when we raced and I lost when we swam out to the rocks and I lost when we tossed spears or skipped stones. For who can be ashamed to lose to such beauty? It was enough to watch him win, to see the soles of his feet flashing as they kicked up sand, or the rise and fall of his shoulders as he pulled through the salt. It was enough.”

The boys are separated by Achilles mother, a sea-nymph who wants Achilles to be a god though she doesn’t yet know how but she will make that happen. She sends Achilles off to be taught by the centaur, Chiron. Patroclus follows and Chiron agrees to shelter and teach them both.

“Dinner was more stew, and a thin type of bread that Chiron cooked on bronze sheets over the fire. For dessert, berries with mountain-gathered honey. As the fire dwindled, my eyes closed in half-dreaming. I was warm, and the ground beneath me was soft with moss and fallen leaves. I could not believe that only this morning I had woken in Peleus’ palace. This small clearing, the gleaming walls of the cave within, were more vivid than the white palace had ever been.”

It is an idyllic time, as the boys learn everything Chiron has to teach them. Achilles is most interested in music and Patroclus eventually asks to learn what Chiron can teach him of medicine.

As they grow into adulthood, Patroclus and Achilles’ friendship turns into a passionate romance, though it is very delicately handled by the author. The question of the nature of their relationship has been hotly debated since ancient times and this version of the story is beautifully told.

There is a lifetime packed into this one book and it feels like it at times, certain events are glossed over. The war goes on for years, but the author draws you on. The break between Achilles and Patroclus over Achilles pride is difficult to read but a sign of how well the author draws the reader into the story.

I highly recommend this book, it is one of the best I have read in years.

Friday, February 17, 2017

75 Habits for a Happy Marriage by Ashley Davis Bush

75 Habits for a Happy Marriage
by Ashley Davis Bush, LCSW and Daniel Arthur Bush, PhD

The authors both offered excellent insight into why certain things might be working, or not working, within a long term relationship then gave 75 fairly simple, and concrete, habits that can be instituted to increase harmony and a sense of connection in the relationship. Some require the cooperation of both partners but most can be done by just one half of the couple and may have a positive impact on the relationship, regardless of whether the second half of the couple actively participates or simply passively receives.

The book is separated into Fundamentals, Communication Building Habits, Connection Building Habits, and Intimacy Building Habits.

Though the explanations of why each habit works, how to do the item and sometimes an illustrative anecdote are given, the habits themselves are incredibly simple. Each one is prompted by something that is likely to happen during the course of the day so that you will be prompted to initiate the habit.

The authors claim that small moments of daily intimacy really can make a dramatic difference in your relationship. They pull in a wealth of research and information in choosing the habits in this book. Not every habit will resonate with each person. Some may not seem feasible, or desirable, at the moment. Depending on what is lacking in your relationship – Communication, Connection or Intimacy – some may be more immediately useful than others.

Connection Building Habits

When most couples say they have trouble communicating, the author asserts they actually may be having trouble feeling connected. These habits can help. Three of my favorite -

Touch Tone – When you’re having dinner together, make it a point to make contact with your spouse during your meal.

Thanks for the Memories – When you’re going to bed, take a moment to thank your spouse for some action, word or experience during the day.

Coast to Coast – when you see your lover sitting in front of a computer, walk behind them and gently sweep your hand across their back from one shoulder to the other.

Communication Building Habits

“When a couple tells me that they cannot communicate, usually what they mean is that they argue frequently, can’t be honest with each other.”

The Dating Game – Just before you go on a date, take a few minutes to close your eyes and remember your first meeting or early courtship with your beloved.

Better to Give – As you begin your date, give your beloved a compliment.

Through the Years – As you’re waiting for food, take turns sharing happy memories from your time together.

Intimacy Building Habits

Spoonful of Sugar – When you’re having dessert or a treat together, feed your spouse a bite of the food.

Angel Wings – When your spouse seems sad, tired or anxious, sit with them and sync up your breathing.

Penny – When you or your spouse is sitting in silence and you’d like to start a conversation, say penny, as in “for your thoughts” and the other has to answer with what they are thinking right that moment.

There are also habits for couples who are truly in conflict and suffering with criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling.

It can be hard to look at this type of information or focus on it because it points out what is going wrong but hopefully there are things going right too, which can be built upon. I personally think the small habits that can be done daily have more a trajectory changing power than the ones that are only triggered occasionally by something like a date. (Of course, some people may go out on dates more often than once every three months.) We have this book in digital format at our library and it was easy to bookmark pages then go back and make notes of the habits I liked. Over all, a very useful little book, I’d give it 4.5 stars.