December 31, 2010

4th Annual Chrisbookarama Awards

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Previously known as the book-a-rama Awards, Chrisbookarama Awards ©2010  are a collection of the best (and worst) books I've read in the last year. This is the fourth year I've done this. Time does fly.

This was an exciting blogging year for me. I hosted my first reading challenge: The Daphne du Maurier Challenge (still ongoing) and The Princess Bride Readalong.  In September, I went to my first book festival, Word On the Street and met some book blogging buddies. I've reviewed 95 books this year. I wanted to reach 100 books but didn't quite get there. There's always next year. It's always best to start the new year with optimism.

For now, let's look at the books of 2010, the good and the bad.

The Best

Best Frightening Glimpse of the Future: Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde was really weird but extremely entertaining. I can't wait to read more of this series.

Best Protagonist: That is hands down Valancy Stirling from The Blue Castle. Once this lady let loose, there was no stopping her.

Best Series (Or I Can't Believe I Read the Whole Thing): The Hunger Games. Yep, I jumped on that bandwagon and read all three books in 2010.

Best Graphic Novel: I have a tie between Mercury and The Exile. Mercury had an engaging dual storyline and is set in Nova Scotia. The Exile has Jamie Fraser's butt, 'nuff said.

Best Leave the Lights On Book: While the vampires on crack in The Passage were freaky, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters gave me the heebie-jeebies.

Best Heroine Who Got the Shaft: Marian from The Woman in White. Marian is way too smart to end up as a babysitter for her sister's kids.

Best Nasty Heroine: Undine Spragg from The Custom of the Country was a woman I loved to hate. She was just awful.

Best Quirky Book: I don't think they get any quirkier than The Brontes Went to Woolworths.

Best Book No One Has Ever Heard Of: The Wolf Leader by Alexandre Dumas. If you said Huh? you've proved my point. Dumas was writing about werewolves way before Stephenie Meyer.



The Best of 2010

The Little Stranger
Such an atmospheric book with a many layered story. The ending is left up to the interpretation of the reader, I love that!

The Worst

Dude Needed an Editor: Charles Dickens, I'm looking at you. Little Dorrit was too damn long.

Dude Needed to Stop the Blame Game: Piers Dudgeon blamed J.M. Barrie for just about everything in Captivated. World hunger? J.M. Barrie's fault. Got an ugly baby? J.M. Barrie's fault.

Dude Didn't Need a Biography: Though you got to give Daphne du Maurier props for trying, Branwell Bronte didn't need a biography (The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte).

Not a Very Helpful Do-It-Yourself Book: Amy Sedaris's I Like You is a great book if you throw parties for people on drugs or you are on drugs or you want to pretend to be on drugs. 

Well, that was my year. I look forward to what 2011 brings in reading and blogging. Hope it's good! How was your reading year?

December 30, 2010

Vixen by Jillian Larkin: Review

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Speakeasies, jazz, and booze. Cool cats, Vixen is like 90210 (the original) if it were set in the 1920s: kids with too much money, loose morals, and a penchant for getting into trouble.

Gloria has aspirations to be a jazz singer in an illegal nightclub but she's engaged to a pro-Prohibition member of the Chicago elite. Lorraine is Gloria's best friend with a jealous streak a mile wide and a lust for Marcus, a guy that won't give her the time of day. Entering the mix is Clara, Gloria's cousin. She's been sent to keep Gloria in line as penance for some sordid business in New York. She has shhhh! secrets! that she wants to keep quiet.

Vixen is an entertaining read as long as you enjoy it for what it is and don't ask too many questions. It has the literary nutritional value of a cupcake. You can't go wrong when you have three somewhat nasty heroines sneaking around in illegal nightclubs. The plot is exciting and keeps a good pace. The story alternates between the three girls, all knee deep in high jinx. I did have to suspend my disbelief at times and wondered at the behaviour of the characters; they all act selfishly and idiotically. There were a few things about the writing (passive voice, telling not showing) that bothered me too but back in the day I thought Melrose Place was the best thing since sliced bread so I can see teen girls with a flare for drama eating this up. The book skims issues like feminism and racism. For those who want to know, there is boozin', smokin', some sexin' and a some swears (the B word). 

Recommended for older teens.

**This was an ARC and there were some glaring mistakes (girl takes bus but tells someone she took the subway, girl takes off shoes then has them on? What?!). I hope these were corrected.

Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

December 28, 2010

Post Christmas/ Pre New Year Thoughts

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So I was going to write a couple of reviews but I'm suffering from Christmas brain. I would rather just ramble about my New Years Blog/Reading resolutions.

First off, if you've noticed, I changed my blog template a bit. I still have Ye Olde Bookmark at the top because it's unique to my blog (I hope). But the red was starting to bother me especially when people commented on how Christmasy it looks! So I'm going with green. Green is my favorite color anyway. And let me tell you how much I like Picnik by Picasa. You can do a lot of funky stuff to your photos with it.

Like this!

It's that time of year when everyone makes their resolutions and why should I be any different.

Reading:
  • I will read from my shelves. I looked at them today and realized that there were still review books from the beginning of the year. I also have books I won, were given or borrowed that I haven't read. 
  • Use my ebook reader more. I think I only read half a dozen books on my ebook reader. Sometimes I see the newest in readers and think, "ooooooh, me wanty!" but then I remember how I hardly ever use the one I have.
  • Don't feel bad about saying no. I've limited my accepting of pitched books lately but I feel bad about it, especially if it's from someone I know. I wonder if they'll ever offer me anything again. But if I'm not interested, I shouldn't feel bad.
  • Read more classics. I love to read books from ages ago but wish I could read them more often. I want to read Vindication of the Rights of Women for A Year of Feminist Classics and now I believe I will.
Blogging:
  • Relax about stuff. This encompasses a lot of things. I'm not going to stress about not posting, or what to post or all that jazz. Relax about what other people are doing, like BEA. It's not practical for me to spend thousands to travel to a city I've never seen in another country so I'm not going to think about it. I hope those who go have fun and I'd like to meet them but it's not going to happen right now.
  • At the same time, try new things. I'm going to try new things with blogging, if they don't work I can change them back.
  • Have more fun with my reviews. I'm not getting paid here. I don't have to be all serious. I enjoy blogging more when I can be creative.
  • Blogging is not the only thing. I like to do other things. I have a family. This is my hobby. I've tried to make it into something else but let's face it: I'm not a super big deal and I'm not going to make millions with a book deal and TV show.
 So if 2011 has a theme it's RELAX.

      December 24, 2010

      Happy Holidays!

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      “I awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new.”
      Ralph Waldo Emerson

      Happy Holidays, Readers! 

      Thank you for hanging out with me at Chrisbookarama this year. I appreciate your comments, and even if you don't comment, thanks for reading! I hope I'll see you all again in 2011 for more great discussions.

      December 22, 2010

      Hercule Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie: Review

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      At Christmas loving families gather around the tree opening presents and sipping eggnog. All is calm, all is bright. Except for the Lee family in Hercule Poirot's Christmas. The patriarch Simeon Lee has gathered his sons around him, not for the loving comfort of their presence, no, but to berate and mentally torture them. Merry Christmas!

      Alfred, the devoted son, lives on the estate with his wife Lydia; Harry is the prodigal son returning after a long absence; David, the sensitive artist is back with his wife, no nonsense Hilda; and George is a politician with a young bride. Joining them is the only grandchild, a half-Spanish girl whose mother Jennifer (Simeon's run away daughter) died the year before. Simeon pushes the buttons of his kin until one of them can take it no longer. When he's found dead in a locked room, Hercule Poirot must figure out which of these characters is a murderer.

      There's not much about Hercule Poirot's Christmas that's particularly Christmasy except for the setting. Christmastime is the perfect time to gather your (homicidal) relatives together in one room. The stress of the season, the clash of personalities, alcohol. It's a powder keg waiting to ignite. Most of us don't resort to murder but Simeon Lee is a guy who needed killing. I don't how he stayed alive as long as he did. He's nasty. He hates his kids, though he likes Pilar, his granddaughter. He does enjoy making them squirm. Any one of them could have finished off the old meany...

      Which is exactly what Christie intends. They all had motive but who had the means? I had no idea. I was surprised by the ending, though the clues are laid out for the reader throughout. I did find the set up to the murder long and Simeon is almost silly in his evilness. And something that bothered me was how everyone was "opening" their eyes here, there and everywhere whenever they were surprised. Were they walking around with their eyes closed?  However, once Poirot showed up, I was hooked.

      Anyway, this was a fun one and a different book for the holiday season.

      Recommended.

      December 20, 2010

      What Dickens and Oprah Have In Common

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      Oprah Bashing is so hot right now.
      Le sigh. The peasants are revolting. Let them read Danielle Steele* but heaven forbid they read Dickens! How dare they do so while not taking a literature course! The nerve!

      Go read that linked article, then come back here.... (Looks at watch) Oh you're back! Okay, let's begin.

      Kelly's problem is Oprah admitting that she hasn't read Dickens and by not reading Dickens she has lead her lambs to slaughter. Or possibly lemmings off a cliff; I'm not sure how she imagines Oprah's followers. I think she's missed the whole point of a book club. In a book club, members read a book together, bringing their own opinions and ideas to the table. In a book club, there is not an expert at the head of the class telling everyone what to think and how they're opinions are wrong. Yes, it is democratic, why do the words democratic and literature together make certain people clutch their pearls?

      So what if Oprah hasn't read Dickens?! She'll get to meet crazy-ass Miss Havisham for the first time? That's fantastic! I wish I could do that again. What will she make of Estella? Pip? If she has problems with the text, she has the luxury of being able to call any expert she pleases for help. Oprah offers this help to her book club if you visit her website.**

      Put simply, a TV host whose maxim is to “live your best life” is not an adequate guide through the complicated syntax of Dickens, not because she lacks the intelligence—she is quite clearly a woman of savvy—but because her readings of the texts are so one-dimensional.

      There is such a thing as self-learning and if I had to attend a university class every time I picked up Dickens, Bronte, Austen or Eliot, I would never read them. That's a shame because these books were written by people like you and me (okay, smarter people maybe) and were meant to be read by people like you and me, not hid away in university libraries. So what if I'm not picking apart every metaphor? What's the big deal if my 'readings of the text are so one-dimensional'? I'm enjoying the words as I read them, I'm thinking of them while I make supper or fold laundry. I'm better for experiencing them even if it's not the correct way, whatever that is.

      The irony of all this is that Dickens and Oprah have a number of things in common.

      Dickens:

      *Born of humble beginnings, often poor and neglected.
      *Became a journalist.
      *Edited a magazine before starting his own.
      *Wrote monthly or weekly installments of his novels which ordinary readers could afford to buy.
      *Introduced his audience to the real life horrors of poverty and crime while still entertaining them.
      *His work brought him fame and success.


      Oprah:

      *Born of humble beginnings, often poor and neglected.
      *First worked in radio doing the news.
      *Hosted her own show before founding a production company and starting her own TV channel.
      *Has a syndicated talk show accessible to people of all backgrounds.
      *Introduced her audience to the real life horrors of poverty and crime while still entertaining them.
      *Her work brought her fame and success.

      I imagine Oprah and Dickens would have a lot to say to each other. Too bad he isn't alive to be on her show. Will everyone love Dickens? No. Will she inspire some people to read more Dickens? Probably. She'll certainly inspire people who never would have read his work before to give him a try and if she makes even one person a Dickens fan then what the hell is wrong with that?


      *Not that there's anything's wrong with that.

      ** I don't think Oprah's Book Club is perfect, by the way. I am unhappy about how little time she spends actually discussing the books on her show. If her audience invests their time in these books, she should do more than spend a couple of minutes discussing them.

      December 19, 2010

      Lazy Sunday Thoughts: Nothing But Nonsense

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      This time next week it will be Boxing Day. Ready or not Christmas will come and go. I hope Santa will be good to you. (I hope he will be good to me!)

      Right now I'm reading Hercule Poirot's Christmas. So far no one has been murdered though I think "Mr Burns" (not really his name but this guy could be Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons) is going to get it in the parlor with the candlestick. He isn't very squirriferous. Poirot still hasn't arrived either and I'm 50 pages in. I hope something happens soon.

      This week I reviewed Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly. After telling about a million people I loved it, I wrote my review. Then I re-read what I wrote and it didn't sound like I liked it at all! But I did! I guess that is the nature of my reviews. It's a lot easier to discuss the things I didn't like about a book than find the right words to describe what I liked. I'll have to work on that.

      Also on the blog this week, I posted about my Book Blogger Santa and my Virtual Advent Tour. Jane Austen had her birthday (did you buy her a present?) and Sourcebooks had some difficulties giving away some books. They were quick to find solutions and listened to criticism.

      At home, I made Slow-Cooker Pear and Apple Butter. It was delicious with pancakes! The girl is home from school now and I'm thinking we'll be doing some baking and crafts together. Got any ideas for us?

      And if you just can't get enough of my rambling, I signed up for Tunblr. I'm just getting used to it and mostly just post whatever nonsense I find on the internets or pops into my head. Want to join me?

      December 18, 2010

      Virtual Advent: Evolution of a Christmas Tree

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      Welcome to my stop on the Virtual Advent Tour! Thanks Kelly and Marg for once again hosting the tour. Other stops today are:
      Check out the tour blog for the full schedule.

      There was a time when we were limited in our Christmas tree selection. To find a tree, one had to take a saw out into the wilderness and search for one that wasn't too wonky looking. Now we have tree salesmen on every corner, Christmas tree farms, and good ole Canadian Tire with their plastic fantastic varieties.

      When I was a kid, we always had an artificial tree. My Mom didn't like real trees. I never understood why. We would drag the old cardboard box out, pull out the pieces (some still covered by tinsel of the year before) and stick it all together. It was a reasonable facsimile of a tree. One year my brothers and I begged for a real tree. ALL our friends had real trees. Why can't we? Mom conceded but she wasn't spending money on a tree that we'd have to toss out when there was a perfectly good one in the crawlspace under the stairs. If we wanted one, we had to go and find one in the woods. So, off we went, through knee deep snow, into the wild woods. Finding a tree that's just the right size is harder than it seems. It took some time- with our toesies freezing in our boots, but we found something. Then we hacked at the frozen truck until it was free of the ground. Needless to say, we were back to the artificial next year.


      Then I bought my own home and vowed I would always have a real tree.

      At first, I stuck to that vow. My husband and I made it a tradition to take a trip to our local Christmas tree farm. (Now for anyone who feels guilty about buying a real tree should find out where their tree comes from. Some tree farms were once traditional farms that because of economics chose Christmas tree farming. While the trees grow, they are preventing soil erosion, and helping clean the air. Plus, you are supporting family owned farms.)

      Most of the time, it was fun picking out our tree unless it was really cold... or raining. We also couldn't get a tree that was too tall or too wide. Our living room was pretty small. Then after a white knuckle drive home with a tree tied to our roof (or in the trunk- needles everywhere!) we had to wrestle it into the stand and into the house. Christmas just isn't Christmas without swearing. The reality of a real tree indoors finally hit me:
      • Needles- I was still vacuuming up this stuff in July. Every time the dog would walk by the tree, needles went flying.
      • Sap- Yes, it gets on your hands but that's not the only place. We had sap on the wall behind our tree until we repainted the room.
      • Spiders- Do you know where spiders live in the winter? In the trees. And when it gets warm? They wake up and start moving around.
      • Water- You have to remember to water the tree twice a day or you get kindling. And one year our stand leaked. By the time we found out, water had stained our hardwood floor.
      So I began to see where my mother was coming from. Still we kept getting real trees. There is nothing like the smell of a real tree!

      A couple of years ago, we built a new house. We lovingly picked out every item that went into it. We moved in and Christmastime came around again. I remembered the sap. I remembered the floor and the water. I remembered the spiders. I went artificial tree shopping.


      They really aren't as ugly as they used to be. You do have to spend a bit on a good one. And they have pre-lit ones now too! After you toss all the ornaments on, they look pretty good. Really. You never have to worry about watering it and you can put it up as early as you want.

      Maybe someday I'll have a real tree again. I do miss that smell. For now, I have my Canadian Tire tree.

      Here's Vince Guaraldi's version of O Tannenbaum for you to enjoy. Merry Christmas!

      December 17, 2010

      Merry Christmas to Me! Book Blogger Holiday Swap

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      Remember the Book Blogger Holiday Swap? My Santa's gift arrived this week. I was shouting out with glee (okay, not shouting but pretty darn excited) when I opened it. Pep (Pep didn't leave an email or blog address, so I can't thank her properly) sent me The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Bronte which I've been dying to read and a gorgeous bookmark from a local artisan. The bookmark has a dogwood design. Dogwoods are the first thing that flower here in the spring so it will be a nice reminder that winter will end during that long season.

      Thank you so much Pep! I love it! (And thanks for the lovely letter too.)

      December 16, 2010

      Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly: Review

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      Andi's got troubles. Trouble, trouble, troubles. She's a musical genius and her parents are rich. She's in her last year of school at the prestigious St Anselm's where kids split atoms in chemistry class. But her mom is having a breakdown, her dad moved away with his girlfriend and Andi is doped up all the time. After the death of her brother Truman, she checked out of life. When she commits a bunch of self destructive acts, her father hauls her off to Paris (like you do).

      Her dad is the geneticist asked to test the supposed heart of Louis-Charles, the son of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, kept in a jar for the last two centuries. Andi and her dad stay with an old friend, a historian with a warehouse full of French Revolutionary artifacts. She stumbles upon the diary of Alexandrine, a young aspiring actress, who ends up in the household of the Royal Family during the Revolution. Andi becomes obsessed with her story and spends most of the time she should be working on her thesis pouring over the words of a girl who died two hundred years ago.

      It was hard going for awhile when I started Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly. I wanted to kick these kids in the rear end. "Oh, I'm so privileged and over educated! Oh woe is me!" Their cynicism got on my nerves. Andi has reasons to be jaded but her self-destructive behaviour was tedious. Please, put a cork in it.

      Then she ends up in France and meets people who don't get everything handed to them on a silver platter. She fits in amazingly well. She still wallows in a pit of despair but it's a little easier to take now that she's away from the Pampered Pupils. Like Andi, I was obsessed with Alex's story. How would it end? Could Alex save the prince? I guess you'll have to find out for yourselves but the ending isn't all tied up neatly in a bow. Andi's problems can't be solved at the end like a sitcom storyline but she does learn how to put her losses into perspective.

      Music is a big part of the story. Andi's thesis revolves around a fictional 18th century musician whose work threads through the melodies of modern artists, much like Alex's story threads through hers. It beautifully illustrates how we're all connected.

      Revolution is not a straight up historical fiction. It's got a clever twist I won't give away. There are some supernatural elements that are up to the reader to decide whether or not they were real or imagined. And some striking coincidences as well. Those weren't as hard to take as the antics of her classmates (Keith Richard's guitar? Mickey Rourke? The President?) When Andi's classmates occasionally appear, I was plucked out of the story. It tries too hard to make us believe these are 'special' kids. I get it; they're a big deal.

      However, I ended up really enjoying Revolution. The writing is good and it has a smart plot with interesting characters.

      Highly recommended for the older teen crowd and up.

      Thank you to Random House Children's Books for the review copy.

      December 15, 2010

      All About Jane

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      Tomorrow is Jane Austen's birthday and there were a couple of Jane related items popping into my inbox today. I thought I'd give you guys a heads up.

      First, from Sourcebooks:
      Thursday, December 16th is Jane Austen’s 235th birthday!

      Sourcebooks, the world’s leading publisher of Jane Austen fiction, is offering a unique deal to readers who want to celebrate Jane by reading special editions of all six of Austen’s beloved novels in a 21st century format.

      Special e-book editions of Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Mansfield Park will be available for free for one day only. These celebratory editions include the full novels, plus the legendary color illustrations of the Brock brothers, originally created to accompany the books in 1898.

      In addition to the Jane Austen classics, readers can also enjoy these bestselling Austen-inspired novels. The following bestselling e-books will be free on December 16th in honor of her birthday:

      Eliza’s Daughter by Joan Aiken
      The Darcys & the Bingleys by Marsha Altman
      Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife by Linda Berdoll
      What Would Jane Austen Do? by Laurie Brown
      The Pemberley Chronicles by Rebecca Ann Collins
      The Other Mr. Darcy by Monica Fairview
      Mr. Darcy’s Diary by Amanda Grange
      Mr. & Mrs. Fitzwilliam Darcy: Two Shall Become One by Sharon Lathan
      Lydia Bennet’s Story by Jane Odiwe
      Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy by Abigail Reynolds

      Available wherever eBooks are sold.

      Who doesn't love free books!

      ***Edit: Sourcebooks had a snafu. If you had problems downloading any of their books, you can read about what happened on their blog.

      Then Laurel at Austenprose sent me this:


      In conjunction with the publication of the new anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It, Ballantine Books, Austenprose.com, and The Republic of Pemberley are pleased to announce an online short story contest.  Enter for a chance to win the Grand Prize: publication of your entry in the anthology – a collection of original short stories inspired by the life and works of popular English novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817).  Hosted by the Jane Austen web site The Republic of Pemberley, the contest begins on January 1, 2011. Publication of Jane Austen Made Me Do It is tentatively scheduled for publication by Ballantine in Fall 2011.

      Contest Highlights

      • Eligibility: Previously unpublished U.S. residents over the age of 18
      • Entries must be approximately 5,000 words in length
      • Manuscript submission January 1 – February 13, 2011
      • Voting for the Top Ten finalists February 14 - 28, 2011
      • Top Ten finalists announced on March 1, 2011
      • One Grand Prize winner receives $500.00 and a contract for publication in the anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It
      • Grand Prize winner announced Fall 2011 in conjunction with the official release by Ballantine Books (Random House, Inc.) of Jane Austen Made Me Do It

      Jane Austen Made Me Do It contains more than twenty best-selling and popular authors who have contributed short stories inspired by Jane Austen, her novels and her philosophies of life and love. From historical continuations of her plots and characters to contemporary spinoffs and comedies, the stories encapsulate what we love about our favorite author: romance, social satire and witty humor. Contributing to the line-up are best-selling authors Karen Joy Fowler (The Jane Austen Book Club), Adriana Trigiani (Brava, Valentine), Lauren Willig (The Pink Carnation series), Laurie Viera Rigler (The Jane Austen Addict series), Syrie James (The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen), Stephanie Barron (Being A Jane Austen Mystery series), and the husband and wife writing team of Frank Delaney (Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show) and Diane Meier (The Season of Second Chances). Many Austenesque authors and others from related genres have also contributed stories to the project. One spot in the anthology remains open for the lucky Grand Prize winner.

      The anthology’s editor, Laurel Ann Nattress of Austenprose.com, is very excited at the prospect of discovering the next star in the burgeoning sub-genre of Jane Austen sequels and inspired books. “Jane Austen has been inspiring writers for close to two hundred years. It seems quite fitting that she should be the witty muse of our anthology and short story contest. Encouraging writing and discovering new talent is in spirit with her true legacy. I am ‘all anticipation’ of what will develop, and am honored to be part of the selection team.”

      Visit the official Jane Austen Made Me Do It Short Story Contest web page for official contest rules and eligibility requirements.  Best of luck to all entrants.

      How are your fiction writing skills? Here's a chance to be published along side some amazing writers. The anthology sounds like great fun too.

      Good luck!

      December 14, 2010

      An Orange from Portugal (Anthology) Anne Simpson: Review

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      I don't know how many times I've seen An Orange from Portugal: Christmas Stories from the Maritimes and Newfoundland at the bookstore and thought, "I'd really like to read that." But usually it was July or something and screaming hot outside. Sticky tanktops are not Christmas spirit making (unless you're in Australia but that's a whole other kettle of fish). So, I didn't pick it up until last month and just read it last week.

      Anne Simpson collected a variety of selections from a wide range of Atlantic Canadian authors, like Wayne Johnson, Beatrice Morgan, L.M. Montgomery, Alistair MacLeod and others. This anthology includes short stories, poems and in some cases excerpts of books. The tone of the stories are as varied as the authors themselves. Some are funny, some are thoughtful, but most carry the spirit of the season.

      The thing about anthologies for me is, I like some of the stories and I'm not keen on others. I felt the same way about An Orange from Portugal. I had my favorites.

      The Tale of a Tree by David Adams Richards tells of teenaged brothers who inadvertently take an visiting Irish boy on Christmas tree excursion. They don't seem bothered by the fact they've essentially kidnapped a boy they've never seen before or that he says odd things or odd things happen on this trip. They take it all matter of factly. Very funny. The Mysterious Mummer by Bert Batstone involves another boy but this one is saved by a masked stranger. The stranger visits every year and offers wisdom but never tells them his name. It doesn't take much to make the neighbours suspicious and afraid. They make a plan to find the identity of the mummer one Christmas Eve.

      Christmas Aboard the Belmont comes from Grace Ladd's diary of her travels with her husband the sea captain and how they managed Christmas. A Tale of Three Stockings without Holes by Rhoda Graser tells of Jewish sisters who beg their mother to put up stockings on Christmas Eve. I loved The Homeward Trail by Charles G.D. Roberts for the feeling of adventure as a father and son rush home through the woods while being watched and stalked by animals.

      But my favorite was the story from which the book takes its name, An Orange from Portugal by Hugh MacLennan. Hugh says Halifax is a city Dickens would love, then goes on to tell a Dickensian tale. During the First World War, a father accidentally blows up his house and the family moves into a boarding house. The son meets a tough little boy who still believes in 'Santy Claus' and all he wants is a real orange from Portugal. This puts the son in an uncomfortable position because he knows Santa isn't real and doesn't want this kid's heart broken. The ending is one Dickens could have written.

      Since these are Maritime stories, it's not all kittens and rainbows. There are stories of hard times and death during the season but such is life, I suppose. I was not reading Winter Dog because it was by Alistair MacLeod and I knew things wouldn't end well for the poor dog. No dead dog stories, please. However, most of these stories could be read by the fire with a mug of hot chocolate and some shortbread cookies.

      Two stories from the book can be found here if you'd like a taste.

      Recommended.

      December 12, 2010

      Lazy Sunday Thoughts: Spinster Act

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      What a long week this last one has been. It seems like forever ago it was last Sunday. Not an easy week either. We've been pretty mopey around here after putting our dog down. She was quite sick and I could not watch her suffer any longer. Still, it's tough and we've had some rough moments. I keep thinking I need to feed her or hear her outside. Sorry to bum you all out.

      On that note though, I want to thank you all who have left messages for me here and on Twitter about Maggie. Your comments made me smile. I was amazed at the outpouring. People who never commented before left messages. I guess so many people can relate to having an animal pass. Thank you.

      In other news, I did a lot of baking this week. Not just from Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens but also shortbreads and cabbage rolls. 'Tis the season. I'm gonna need a bigger freezer. Something about Christmas makes me want to bake.

      I'm making time for reading. I started Jennifer Donnelly's Revolution and I'm hooked! It's so good and a departure from the Victorian Spinster Lady story lines I've been reading lately: Villette, Remarkable Creatures and The Blue Castle stories revolved around unmarried 'older' women. Now it's hard to imagine that a woman of 25 being considered too old to marry, but in those days if you weren't by then it was time to make plans to retire to the seaside for the rest of your life and live off your relatives. If you didn't have the looks or the money, you weren't wanted. Charlotte Bronte had some rather strong opinions on looking for a husband if you had neither of these:
      "Not that it is a crime to marry, or a crime to wish to be married; but it is an imbecility, which I reject with contempt, for women, who have neither fortune nor beauty, to make marriage the principal object of their wishes and hopes, and the aim of all their actions; not to be able to convince themselves that they are unattractive, and that they had better be quiet, and think of other things than wedlock."

      "It's a Wonderful Life"
      Geez Charlotte, that's a little harsh. But good advice. Having a 'nice personality' didn't cut it when looking for a husband. How unfair it was that men held all the cards. Marian Halcombe, the unmarried sister in The Woman in White, knows she is too plain and too clever to marry. Having brains was an impediment to marriage. I guess she was a woman who "think(s) of other things than wedlock." Marian should have started her own detective agency (there's a spin-off series for you). Yet, fictional Marian was offered marriage proposals after The Woman in White came out. Maybe there were men who appreciated a smart woman even in that misogynistic time.

      And tell me why is George Bailey's wife in It's a Wonderful Life beautiful and happy but when he sees how things would be without him she's a dowdy, sad (gulp!) librarian ("Oh dear God, not a librarian!")? That scene always makes me laugh. Like that was the worst thing Frank Capra could think of. Not dead or anything but unmarried and working at the library. Good grief!


      Who are your favorite unmarried ladies in literature?

      December 11, 2010

      Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens by Marie Nightingale: Review

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      Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens by Marie Nightingale was first published in 1970 but the recipes are much, much older. It's more than a cookbook. It's a history book as well, full of the stories and folklore behind the recipes. It can be quite entertaining. I read bits to my husband, who also likes to cook, and we had a good laugh at some of the wisdom imparted in this book. For example, if you need to skin an eel, you can find instructions here! No thanks, I'll pass. If you happen to be a hunter, you'll find recipes for game as well. Oh and is there anything the Scots won't put oats in?!

      But for the most part, Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens contains the recipes our grandmothers used to make, from the ubiquitous oatcake to Divinity fudge. This week I tried two recipes. First, Gingerbread. I love Gingerbread and this recipe is so simple. I took one look at the batter though and knew it was going to be longer than the 35 minutes quoted to bake. It actually took about an hour but the results were lovely: a nice moist cake (see above).


      The next thing I wanted to make was Cape Breton Pork Pies. These do not contain pork, no one knows why they are called that though. They're made with dates and brown sugar. I hate dates, but my husband loves pork pies so I made them for him for Christmas. I bought frozen tart shells instead of making them from scratch. I guess they were acceptable, 'cause he ate a couple already.


      Some of the recipes are a bit vague. For example, the pork pie recipe has lemon juice as an ingredient. Okay how much? Don't know. Sometimes you just have to use common sense.

      If you're looking for fancy recipes with the latest fad in food, you won't find it here. If you want simple old fashioned cooking, then Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens is your cookbook. I'm definitely going to be using this often.

      December 10, 2010

      The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery: Review

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      Ignore the cheesy cover. It's good!
      What would you do if you had one year to live?

      In The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery, Valancy Stirling hates her life. It's her 29th birthday; she's lived her whole life in an old house with her mother and cousin. Her life shows no signs of changing. The Stirling family bullies and bosses her around but she's afraid to say anything because as an unmarried woman she depends on their generosity. She doesn't want to end up a poor, old lady.

      On the sly (because she can't do anything without a Family Committee deciding for her), she visits a local doctor about pain in her heart. The diagnosis isn't good, she has less than a year to live. It's a shock but it also frees her. What is there to fear when you're looking death in the face? Now Valancy decides that she will live the way she wants to live, starting with telling her family what she really thinks of them. They are shocked! They think she's crazy! What will we do about Valancy? they say. She doesn't give a fig.

      Instead, she moves in with a dying woman and her father, a pair of social misfits, to keep house for them. A Stirling does not keep house for a drunk and a 'bad girl'! The Stirlings are an old family built on appearances but those appearances are skin deep. Underneath, they are shabby, miserable people. When Valancy commits this act of charity for a woman the whole town has shunned, they only think of themselves and how it affects their reputations. Her family try to lure her home. But no, Valancy stays and starts pleasing herself. That means striking up a friendship with notorious loner, Barney Snaith. Barney of the soulful, violet eyes and tawny hair. sigh Where was I? Oh yes, Barney. He drives an unreliable car and was seen drunk one time. Scandal!

      When circumstances change and Valancy has nowhere to go, she makes a gutsy decision that takes her new outlook to a whole 'nother level.

      I LOVED this book. Let's just get that out there now. I loved Valancy. For years she's been thinking all sorts of clever things and her family have no idea. They think she's a pushover without an opinion of her own. But she's not. Even before her diagnosis, Valancy showed signs of rebellion. You can only push a woman down so far before she stands herself up. Once she allows herself the freedom to do and say whatever she pleases, she really let's loose. It's like a dam bursting. She tells it like it is and her folks have to pick their jaws off the floor.

      The Blue Castle sheds a light on what it was like for an unmarried woman at the turn of the last century in the small towns of Canada. Valancy can't have a career, she doesn't have her own home and relies on her family for her survival. They make her feel every bit of that burden. Valancy believes she has no other options so she lives in fear. I imagine there were plenty of women in her situation. Throughout the story, Valancy grows into a new kind of woman, one who does things for herself. She's fearless. I loved watching her transformation.

      Valancy gets some romance too. Woo-ee! I love that Barney Snaith. He's my new favorite literary hero. He doesn't cramp her style. They are true kindred spirits. They lead a freewheeling lifestyle without a care what others think. They spend a lot of time in the wilderness together. Nature plays a big part in the story. Valancy's favorite author is John Forster, a nature writer, his words helped Valancy in her darkest hours.  Now that she is free to do whatever she wishes, she spends as much time as she can in the forest. The effect of this life on Valancy's soul is apparent on the outside. She becomes more 'elfin' and tanned. People hardly recognize her. Inside and out, she's changed.

      I could read The Blue Castle again and again. Where Anne of Green Gables is purply in its descriptions of the landscape, The Blue Castle is simpler. It's a maturer work. Valancy was a strong heroine for a newer audience; women taking control of their destinies in the 1920s. She's a woman they could relate to. And still relate to. Her fearlessness is inspiring. Too bad she didn't find it in herself sooner.

      Highly, highly recommended!

      December 8, 2010

      Maggie 1998-2010

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      Goodbye to the best dog ever. We love and miss you.

      December 7, 2010

      Guest Post: Robin Spano, Dead Politician Society & E-Book Pricing

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      Something a little different for today. Robin Spano, author of Dead Politician Society, is offering her e-book at an incredibly low price ($1.99) for a limited time, December 7-13 (see links below). While promoting this deal, she will be guest posting on various blogs. I invited her to Chrisbookarama because it sounds like a great bargain and I like to promote new Canadian authors. I haven't read Dead Politician Society yet but I plan to. Robin has an interesting perspective on e-book pricing. Lots of food for thought. I'd love to hear what you think!


      Robin Spano grew up in Toronto, studied physics in New Brunswick, and dropped out to explore North America on her motorcycle. She met her husband while working as a waitress and helped him run his Toronto pool room until they moved to Vancouver. She writes full time, plotting murder and living vicariously through her undercover protagonist.


      Welcome Robin!

      How much should an e-book cost? This question has been baffling the industry since e-books first came on the market, and it's coming to a head.

      E-books are pushing hard, and their market share is climbing faster than ever. According to Bowker, the book industry's leading statistics source, e-books accounted for 5% of book sales in the first quarter of 2010 – up from 1.5% in 2009.

      As a new writer, this excites me, because e-books go a long way toward leveling the playing field. It will be several years – if ever – before my mystery series hits airport stores beside Dan Brown and Patricia Cornwell. But Dead Politician Society is available in an airport waiting lounge to someone with an e-reader browsing online booksellers.

      37% of e-book buyers bought their first digital book within the last six months (according to the same first quarter 2010 study). This is also exciting, because when everything's new, it's a time for experimenting – it makes marketing a book feel like an explorer's adventure.

      The biggest undecided question is pricing. The industry seems to loosely favor the $10-$12 range for new releases. I don't have an e-reader, but that default makes no sense to me. Because an e-book is intangible, cheaper to produce, and can't be loaned as easily, I would value it at $4.99.

      My publisher, ECW Press, thinks the current price range is ideal, and they've priced my e-book at $10.99. It's less than a print book, but not so low that it devalues the reading experience. Their concern is that to charge too little is to say that the book isn't worth much. They also feel that people don't make book purchasing decisions based on price – if the book looks cool, they'll buy it because they want to read it; not because it's cheap.

      It's nice that they think my book isn't worthless, but I still think a lower price would be better.

      ECW makes the final pricing call, but they're listening to my objections (not telling me to shut up and go away like most publishers would). I think we both recognize that in an industry that's changing so rapidly, an open mind is the way to ride the cutting edge most successfully.

      So they've arranged this experiment: For one week, Tues. Dec. 7-Mon. Dec. 13, Dead Politician Society will be $1.99 in the Kindle, Kobo, and iBooks stores. It's a dramatically lower price point than where either of us would price it permanently, but we're looking for dramatic results.

      What this week will show us:


      If sales don't jump, I'll concede that ECW is right – price is not what sells e-books.

      If sales skyrocket, ECW will concede that maybe price IS a factor in e-book sales. They may or may not lower the electronic price of Dead Politician Society permanently (which I'm gunning for), but they'll start to see the industry differently.

      Help me show that price matters by either buying a Dead Politician Society e-book for $1.99 this week, OR letting your friends know about this experiment.

      Together, we can help push this changing industry in the direction we'd like to see it go.

      Dead Politician Society: This book is fun. It's lighthearted crime fiction - maybe Charlie's Angels meets Janet Evanovich - where a young female cop has to pose as a university student to penetrate a secret society who's been claiming credit for the deaths of local politicians. There's some sex and swearing - so maybe don't buy it for your grandma unless she likes that kind of thing. But most readers so far seem to find the book a good, fun read. See what bloggers are saying about Dead Politician Society.

      Thanks for visiting Chrisbookarama today, Robin. Good luck with your experiment!

      December 6, 2010

      Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier: Review

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      When Elizabeth Philpot, a middle class spinster, met Mary Anning, a poor girl who sells fossils to tourists, she had no idea the influence Mary would have upon her life. Elizabeth encourages Mary to learn to read and educate herself, while Mary shows her how to find the best fossils on the shores of Lyme Regis. The townspeople are suspicious of their relationship. A woman of Elizabeth's station should not be spending time digging in the mud with a girl like Mary, an odd girl to start with.

      Then something incredible happens. Mary finds the fossil of a creature, a big creature, an animal no one has ever seen in Lyme Regis. Mary calls it a 'croc' but from the books she's seen, it doesn't really resemble a croc. Looking at it gives her a funny feeling, like the world is much more mysterious than she's imagined. Men of science become interested in Mary's find. They're quick to take what she finds and claim it for their own.

      Elizabeth doesn't like how these men view Mary. She fears they will take advantage of her. She's also a little jealous. How did this uneducated girl discover something so important? Not that it matters to the scientists. Mary is only the hunter, an unimportant cog in the machine. And a woman to boot. Mary doesn't get to see where her discoveries end up or hear the discussions involving them, discussions that will change how people think of how the world began. She just keeps on collecting her 'curies' and selling them by the seashore.

      Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier is a fictional account of two real women in the early 19th century: Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. They were very different women, separated by class and age but drawn together by a common interest. They collected for different reasons as well. Mary had to collect fossils and sell them to feed her family; Elizabeth collected as a hobby. Their differences weren't easy to overcome and jealousies flared up between them. Still, Elizabeth was Mary's champion. She could speak for her to people Mary couldn't.

      The story alternates between the two women, told in first person. Each have a distinctive voice. Elizabeth is forthright and practical. Mary is more of a dreamer and romantic despite her rough life. The secondary characters as seen through Elizabeth and Mary's eyes are mostly strong women, like Molly Anning, and a romantic interest to shake things up a bit. It's a slowly told story but a fascinating slice of little known history.

      Highly recommended.

      Thank you to Penguin Canada for sending me this review copy.

      December 2, 2010

      The NaNoWriMo Experiment

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      I've finished my novel! It's being published right now!

      Er, no it's not. In my dreams maybe.

      So last month I participated in NaNoWriMo- that's National Novel Writing Month, a month to write a 50000 word novel. I got to 30000 by December.

      I recently read that to write a book one must write 2000 words a day. That's more than NaNoWriMo requires so I don't think they are far off by asking people to write 1600 a day. However, it's a pace I can't keep up. This isn't the first time I tried novel writing. I abandoned that one a while back when I realized I hated it and had no idea where I was going with it anyway. At 30000 words I can at least say I don't totally hate my latest story. There were some parts I really loved writing. I think my idea is interesting and want to see it through the end.

      The thing is writing a book is not like writing here on the blog. It's all free wheeling and fancy free here on Chrisbookarma. Getting from point A to point B in a coherent fashion is a challenge in a book. What did character A do on page one that is relevant to what's going on now? Wait, didn't I already say that? What's that guy's name again? Oh my God, this is so boring! Trying to be understood and engage an imaginary audience is daunting.

      Somehow people manage this. People edit and rewrite until it all makes sense, get it published and send it out into the world. Out there people buy it, read it and form opinions. Good on them! Will this experience make me any less critical of the books I read? I don't think so.

      Over the last month, opinions on websites and newspapers have come out for and against NaNoWriMo. There are nailbiters and pearlgraspers who think this is the cultural apocalypse but really who cares if a bunch of wannabes write their little hearts out for a month? How can that be any worse than another season of The Kardashians? Maybe the best thing to come out of NaNoWriMo is that a few thousands people improve their grammar, so what?

      For myself, I plan on finishing 'my novel.' I can see the end of it and want to get there. I've grown to like my characters even if they are only people who exist in my imagination. I want to see what happens to them next (craaaaaaaaazy). But I miss reading. A lot. And I even miss writing here on my blog. I miss talking about the books I love. If some people are worried that NaNoWriMo will make more writers and less readers, I can attest that that won't happen. Readers will be readers; we're stubborn like that.
       
      (I don't think I am quite as delusional as this guy here:)



      Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

      December 1, 2010

      Challenge Roundup for November

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      Not much was read this month let alone challenge books. I was NaNoWriMo'ing. When I looked back on November, I realized I only read a couple of books. That made me a little sad. : ( So my challenges still stand for October.

      But my Daphne duMaurier Challenge peeps are putting me to shame. Lots of reviews have been added to the review site if you haven't had a look. Buried in Print read Flight of the Falcon, 'a good, old-fashioned creepy tale.' Coffee and a Book Chat read the short stories of Daphne du Maurier from a beautifully illustrated copy of Classics of the Macabre. She was very impressed with The Apple Tree. I loved that one too. Mel at The Reading Life found Jamaica Inn to be an exciting read. Giraffe Days enjoyed the short stories of du Maurier as well.

      Thanks for leaving your links guys!

      Next month I hope to add a few titles to my challenge roundup.

      Since I have nothing to share, how about a video? Here is Daphne du Maurier discussing a Jamaica Inn with a bit of the film.