Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas is a Time read Amelia Peabody ( and others)

I love getting hooked on a new series. I love having two weeks off wherein I can do full justice to said new series.

This Christmas, when I have sped through Elizabeth Peters at the speed of lightning and mentioned to my long-suffering family "I'm going up to the corner to get more crack!": I really mean that I am hopping up to the used bookstore here in small-town Orillia to buy them out of their Amelia Peabodys.

I started with one, The Crocodile on the Sandbank which I bought on a winter walk last week alongside a few Georgette Heyers (Georgette Heyer was supposed to be my Christmas project this year; but, poor Georgette is going to have to wait. I am nearly done Cotillion; but since I brought home Sylvester, Arabella and The Talisman Ring and have not started any of them, I am a little behind). I was immediately and completely hooked by forward thinking archaeologist-detective Amelia Peabody.

She is whip-smart, funny as hell and brandishes her parasol as others would a sword. She is a Victorian woman whose "well-done, sister suffragette" attitude dictates that her impending spinsterhood ( at the ripe age of 32) only means the opportunity to explore the world. She has the means, she has the spirit, the entirety of the globe awaits her perusal.

It's Egypt, though, that she likes the best. Alongside her adorably sweet and pretty companion, Evelyn, Amelia descends upon Cairo like a gust of desert storm. She immediately butts heads with the Emerson brothers: Egyptologists whose intense studies of the pyramids only counter the younger brother, David's, sweet disposition ( and automatic liking to Evelyn) and the older brother, Radcliffe's, Byronic rants. I ADORE RADCLIFFE EMERSON and I adore how quickly Amelia asserts herself as his equal.

Part romance, party mystery and all-parts snappy dialogue and humour, this is my favourite discovery in the mystery genre in an age.

I am completely hooked. I proceeded to gobble up the next three in sequence ( don't you love holidays: where reading late by the Christmas tree doesn't wreak havoc on the next day's delightful plans of nothingness??!) and am already on the fourth.

I have dappled in Heyer, have read a few Christian books ( to keep up with my publisher copies), have started Charles Finch's A Stranger in Mayfair (I DO love his Charles Lenox series), but Amelia and Emerson's adventures in Egypt are sort of prevailing here.

19th and early 20th C "seasons" in Egypt are just as romantic and exciting as the ton's best seasons in a Georgette Heyer Regency.

The wonderful thing about books is you can pick which adventure you want, what world you want to dwell in for awhile, what characters you want for companionship.... and travel space and time and continent in your mind's TARDIS ( so to speak).

CHRISTMAS READING: 2.0 weeks; tons of books ( also tons of social engagements, family stuff, etc., so I think I have done relatively well!)

Emily of Deep Valley by Maud Hart Lovelace ( review to follow)

Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott ( I read this every year!)

Black Jack by Leon Garfield ( review to follow)

This Fine Life by Eva Marie Everson ( review to follow)

The Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters

The Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters

The Curse of the Pharoahs by Elizabeth Peters

Head in the Clouds by Karen Witemeyer ( see previous blog posts)

Love's First Bloom by Delia Parr ( see previous blog posts)

The Lightkeeper's Bride by Coleen Coble

I have home-made fudge and Amelia Peabody awaiting me for the rest of this glorious day
( with an interruption to go to the gym! Need to counter all of this fudge and this sedentary reading!)

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Head in the Clouds by Karen Witemeyer

This is how ridiculous I am: I purchased this because I liked the shoes the girl was wearing in the cover photo.

Well... that and I had heard good things about Karen Witemeyer as an up-and-coming historical novelist.

I have yet to read her first novel, A Tailor-Made Bride; but I am going to assume it is as pleasant as Head in the Clouds, which I easily finished in one sitting.

Adelaide Proctor is desperate to find a romance and subsequent family of her own. She spends her days literally with her head in the clouds, day-dreaming of the heroes in the stories she reads by the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen. When a knight-in-shining-armor turns out to be a rake in disguise, Adelaide throws caution to the wind and applies for a job as a governess to new rancher ( and British ex-pat) Gideon Westcott and his mute daughter.

Back story reveals that in true Valjean-Fantine tradition, Gideon is not Isabella's biological father; rather a stranger who promised to take her into his care upon the untimely death of her mother. Adelaide begins to fall madly for both of them and a happy ending can only be secured when dangers from Isabella's past and a hovering uncle bent on securing his niece's massive fortune is halted.

The story is very formulaic and will be very comfortable for those who enjoy this genre. There aren't any real surprises and it follows in the tradition of the Bethany House Historical Romance line. That aspect of the book, I found, to be a little too safe for me. I would love if Witemeyer had shaken and spiced the genre a bit; but I realize that my viewpoint and marketable interest are two very different things. Thus, for an offering in this often-frustrating genre, I found it to be above-average in execution and style.

I enjoyed the constant references into the actual literary world of Jane Eyre and the comparison of Jane's plight to Adelaide's own.

Readers who hanker after a great Romantic hero will be smitten with Gideon. Not only does he have dimples and a roguish sense of humour, Witemeyer does well to make him equal-parts rugged sheep herder and classic British gentleman. By day, he wears work clothes and rustles in the field; brandishing a gun at times, riding a horse and basically appealing to a girl who loves a cowboy. By night, the golden cufflinks are polished, the manners tamed and a starched white handkerchief dabs at his masculine jawline. Gideon's concern for his ward, Isabella, is a charming addition to the romantic plot between he and his governess.

The governess-master plot has seen a real renaissance in recent Christian Historicals and Witemeyer does well in a genre already well-established with a topic that, unfortunately, is becoming a bit too familiar and bordering on the verge of cliche.

I look forward to checking out more of her writing in the future.

Readers of Deeanne Gist and Cathy Mary Hake will feel right at home!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Harper Collins: Certified Savvy Read Rachel-style

Now, all, I love me some Harper Collins.

First, they have the best YA and Kids catalogue on the MARKET ( bar none ) and they publish some of my favourite authors.

And they have themselves an AMAZING site which I visit daily.

I also follow them on twitter....

...and I attend their events....

...and I read The Literates...

...and they are nice enough to send me books and listen to me ramble.

But, their Certified Savvy Read shortlist just doesn't float my boat. Which is sad because I LOVE SUPPORTING THEM!

Love the idea--- just not as fond of the selections, having read them all. In fact, with the exception of Gilead, I wasn't remarkably fond of any of the novels listed.

Luckily, and as previously mentioned, HC publishes a wide array of awesome stuff that I love!!

So, if I were making a Certified Savvy Read List I would include the following:

-Deafening by Frances Itani

-The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

-Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

-Town House by Tish Cohen

-Ines of My Soul by Isabel Allende

there are about 12 dozen more I could list; but these are a good snapshot.

Visit Harper Collins, buy their stuff for Christmas, pre-order Empire of Ruins , and so on and so forth.....and shop shop shop and read read read

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Georgette Heyer: April Lady

Like A Civil Contract, April Lady revolves around a marriage of convenience. But, while the hero and heroine of A Civil Contract resolve to live in a mutual admiration and respect, the already married hero and heroine of our tale are madly in love with each other.

Viscount Giles Cardross has been in love with Nell ( his now wife) since he first set eyes on her. Made to think that it was a marriage of convenience by her mother, Nell is coached to hide her overflowing affection for her husband lest he find her too clingy.

Somewhat contented to be the tropy-wife, all the while assured that her beloved Giles may, at one point, turn to other female companionship, Nell spends her days with Giles’ half-sister Letty, buys extravagant dresses, rides a marvelous carriage ‘round the fashionable park and wiles her nights away at the most extravagant events of the season.

Giles loves Nell; Nell loves Giles, half-sister Letty loves the poor army- secretary, Jeremy Allandale and Jeremy Allandale loves Letty.

The entire plot is a mixed array of crossed paths, misunderstandings and love very passionate and squelched unknown.

Like the adorable Kitten in Friday’s Child, Nell’s modest circumstances in her youth have made her a poor fit for the excessive ton. Indeed, she is more often than not in scrapes involving over-expenditures she is sure will awake her husband’s wrath.

Desperate to conceal her folly and deeply ashamed at her innocence, Nell and Giles spend most of the book completely unaware of the other’s feelings.

The forbidden, cross-class romance of Letty and Jeremy Allandale complements the frustrating maze of Nell and Giles’ hidden emotions.

You know when you open a Georgette Heyer novel that you can bask in the certainty that all will end well. It’s like a Jane Austen novel, in that respect, it is a guaranteed certainty that all will tie with a neat little bow. But, like the most delicious romances, it is the topsy-turvey paths and cross-purposes leading you to the ultimate gold-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow that propel you onward.

April Lady is chock-full of frustrating “But you love Rhett, not Ashley!” moments and exceptional snapshots of the glorious ton at the height of its gilded Regency brilliance.

Another fabulous read from Georgette Heyer.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Georgette Heyer: Friday's Child

Everyone, I have an announcement:

You are going to be reading a lot about Georgette Heyer here in the coming posts because I have decided to just read-read-read them. I have enjoyed the ones I have read thus far ( especially Black Sheep which I cast a movie version for! ) and after Friday's Child, I decided it was time to just go and read as many as I could get my little fingers on.

A few weeks ago, Courtney and I spent a marvelously Christmas day wandering Toronto, seeing a film, drinking Starbucks festive drinks and basking in the city lights and window displays.

We both decided to buy Friday's Child together as she had heard it was one of the very best.

Well, I was delighted:

Lord Anthony Sheringham, Viscount of something or other, seeks to wed the gloriously “Incomparable” Isabella: the toast of the ton and society’s darling and basically the best thing in sprig muslin. But, alack, she refuses him! And zounds! Is that ever dashed inconvenient. You see, Sherry has raked up his bit of gambling debt from places thither and yon and he will not come into his inheritance until the ripe of old age of 25 if he doesn’t marry and prove he can get his act together. Thus, the inconvenienced Sherry proclaims that he will wed the first lady he sees. The first lady he sees is indeed his old childhood pal, Hero Wontage, whom he affectionately calls Brat. Hero is rather young and inexperienced and will set society asunder; but Sherry is demm’d hot-headed and so he does as he pleases and whisks her off to get a special license. His (adorable) friends Ferdy, Gil and George ( of the kind who would as soon fight a duel as drop a hankie ) help in his cause.

Soon, Sherry and Hero (whom he now calls Kitten because Hero is a dash’d unfortunate and misguided name, don’t y’know ), are set up in a fashionable house and Hero cannot help but get into scrapes here and there and all over; much to the chagrin of her young husband. This book is friggin’ adorable. Sherry grows up; Hero stands on her own two feet; Hero falls more deeply in love with the childhood playmate she has always pined for and Sherry realizes he cannot live without his unintentionally incongruous wife. This is one of the funniest Heyer novels I have read; namely because Sherry’s pack of friends, Gil, George and Ferdy play such a lovely role. They fall over themselves protecting Hero, enjoying Hero’s friendship and even going so far as to reprimand Sherry for not seeing what they see immediately: that he is completely in love with the wife he attained from a convenient marriage.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Advent Tour Blog: the Meaningful Music of Christmas

My favourite time of the year is Christmas and my favourite part of Christmas is the music. I am an evangelical Christian so the music that is of most importance to me is that which best conveys the true meaning of the holiday and resonates the scriptural foretelling and proclamation of the Messiah’s arrival. Whatever faith you do, or do not, take a part of, I am sure that music-lovers far and wide appreciate the haunting beauty and poetical nature of some of the most timeless Christmas carols. I thought I would provide a few interesting tidbits about religious seasonal music which I have gleaned from a long and intensive study on the history of church music and hymnody. Merry Christmas All!!

On Silent Night: When I was in Austria this past summer, I had the rare privilege of viewing the transcript of Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr’s masterpiece, Stille Nacht: one of the most sung carols in the world. In fact, during the British-German Christmas truce in 1914, soldiers from both sides are recorded as having sung Silent Night across the trenches: it being the song that both sides knew with utmost familiarity. Silent Night boasts a miraculous heritage. Strewn from the makings of traditional alpine folk music and bearing resemblance to the famous structure of Austrian yodeling, Silent Night was composed in a small village called Oberndorf on Christmas Eve, 1818. For a small, lullaby-type carol to sift over the alps and into its subsequent publication by John Freeman Young in 1859 is rather miraculously baffling.

Oberndorf is a remote community somewhere outside of Salzburg. Visitors to this rural community would have been sparse ( due to its location and the rather rudimentary modes of transportation available to residents in the early 19th Century) and influence from the outside world would have been sparse as well. Thus, Gruber and Mohr drew on what musical resources were available. Sketching a haunting melody and simplistic words ( with a strangely powerful imagery), Mohr and Gruber crafted a legend: using the resources they had and the meager musical range they had. Sung on that first fateful night with just guitar accompaniment, Silent Night is now one of the most popular religious songs in the world. In fact, in a society so bent on stripping Christmas from the malls and the streets, Silent Night cannot be beaten. Retail stores strict on circulating non-religious music still include Silent Night in their compilations, films and television series use it quite prominently and in a growing tradition of carolers and children unfamiliar with the lyrics to religious carols, Silent night is universally known.

Poetically, Silent Night is divine. Using a simple cadence and painting a soft, still crèche ( not unlike those so famous at the Austrian Christmas markets in the Tyrol and Vienna), Silent Night boasts little glory. And yet, at its most resonant, it encapsulates the true meaning of the season. It offers redemption with “ the dawn of redeeming grace” , assurance “ Christ our Saviour is Born”; and even testaments Jesus as Messiah, “Son of God/ Love’s pure light” This song moves me beyond words

On Handel’s Messiah: Handel was a private person whose resounding masterpiece The Messiah transcends time and place with an almost ethereal energy. For such a commonplace vessel to be used as the champion of God is a miraculous story to behold. Handel’s piece, I argue, is moving because it strings us from the earliest prophesy of Jesus through His never-ending reign. Brimming with majesty and hope, Handel draws greatly from scripture and pieces his contrapuntal, multi—layered masterpiece with fragments of the Word of God. For a large majority of religious believers living in London in 1741 ( when the Messiah was composed), the scripture presented in church through music, sermons and narrative, would have been their only link to the Bible.

The limitations of the printing press ( even since Gutenberg’s publication of the King James Bible in 1611 ) were still pronounced and the greater part of the working class world still suffered from illiteracy. Thus, the scripture performed and presented in musical form would have been greatly admired and appreciated. It does little good to attempt to dissect each and every delicious part of the great opus; but I do want to point out a few areas of note: First, The Messiah is broken into a trinity ( as it were ) of Acts: from the Annunciation through the Passion ( and significantly Christ’s ascension) and finally the Aftermath ( the promise of redemption and the glorification of Christ). The famous Hallelujah chorus ends the second part of the three acts and is not ( as can be believed from its climactic feel), the end of the composition. The centuries old tradition of standing during a performance of the Hallelujah Chorus (No.44) was begun by King George II when he first heard and was moved by the piece. There are several explanations and theories as to why King George II first rose; but I like to think he was so moved by the piece ( Handel is noted as saying that while composing it, he saw the face of God) he was forced to stand erect.

On It Came Upon a Midnight Clear : this is one of the first Christmas carols penned by an American author. Christmas carols date back as early as Roman Times. From the Tudor Courts of England through the 18th Century writings of Charles Wesley (Hark the Herald Angels Sing), Carols experienced burgeoning and wide spread popularity especially in the 19th Century when this famous Carol was written. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear was written in 1849 by Edmund Sears, a pastor at a Unitarian Church in Wayland,Massachusetts . It was first published in the Boston Christian Register on December 29, 1849. Often set to one of 2 melodies, either “Carol” (composed by Richard Storrs Willis, a once student of Felix Mendelssohn, the famous composer) or “Noel” (adapted from a popular English melody).

A cross-denomination hymn, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear can be found in a myriad of hymnals from the Lutheran Book of Worship to the United Methodist Hymnal (which usually set the lyrics to the tune Noel mentioned above). While the “Carol” setting (written by Willis) is used commonly in Episcopal churches. It is the Carol setting that is most popular in pop recordings by famous artists. Edmund Sears was a prolific author of numerous works influencing 19th Century liberal protestants; but it is his haunting carol emphatically positioning the angel’s presence, not only at the birth of Christ, but still as Christ’s “guardians” here on Earth, that has lasted. Sears was educated at Harvard Divinity School and always showed a great propensity to understand and communicate tenets of theology.

When questioned how a Unitarian minister could write so passionately about the events surrounding the nativity (as outlined in his famous carol), Sears declared “I am more Unitarian in name than conviction.” In his book “Sermons and Songs of Christ’s Life”, published a year before his death, Sears wrote “Although I was educated in the Unitarian denomination, I believe and preach the divinity of Christ” There are several theories behind the inspiration behind It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and yet it is the resonance of the lyrics that are truly the most potent reflection of Sears’ intentionality. Some believe that it was penned at the request of a minister-colleague of Sears; others believe Sears originally wrote it as a melancholy reflection of contemporary circumstances (most notably on the Mexican American War, 1846-1848 and particularly the bloody annexation of Texas). Sears opposed the Mexican-American conflict due to his religious beliefs and his great belief in the American public which had, since the Revolutionary War, been thriving and peaceful.

The lyrics of It Came Upon a Midnight clear reflect a time when the United States was torn asunder yet reconciliation and hope, through Christ’s birth and everlasting presence, present a reconciliatory theme that the singer is left with far after the last stanza. Moreover, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear binds humanity with an ethereal presence and with heavenly divinity. “From angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold” provides a sense of solace to our gritty earth-bound souls. Here, as Christ came to touch the very lowest of humanity; so do the angels bridge the gap between earth and heaven intervening as heavenly hosts to a broken world much in the same way that Christ’s birth ransomed humanity, broke the “veil” and connected us with his golden and everlasting life through the Father.

Later, during the American Civil War, this particular song experienced resurgence in popularity. Sung in Civil War camps and throughout the nation, it once again spoke peace to a gravely desperate humanity in the same way it had expressed Sears’ frustration with the Mexican American War. Scripturally-sound and still relevant to Christian’s 160 years after its authorship, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is as prevalent today as it was when Sears first took pen to paper. Still we struggle with hardship war and the evasion of Peace. Yet still, as in Sear’s days of yore, we recognize that Christ intervenes: be it through His glorious presence or the imagery of angels to re-iterate the promise of eternity and the peaceful glory that awaits believers.

On I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day: Renowned American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow experienced great hardships to counter his beautiful and beloved poetry. “ How inexpressibly sad are all of the holidays”, he wrote in his journal on Christmas Day, 1862 after the untimely death of his wife to a tragic fire accident. “’ A merry Christmas!’, say the children,” Longfellow expressed in the same journal entry, “but that is no more for me.” In December 1863, tragedy struck again when Longfellow learned that his eldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of Potomac during the American Civil War had been severely wounded in Battle . Shortly after a visit to his son a year later in December 1864 ( where Charles was still gravely ill), Longfellow penned the words to “ Christmas Day” a poem equally illustrating Longfellow’s despair of circumstances past and hope of assurance in the peace of the future. Later set to music and entitled “ I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, the song remains a Christmas standard.

It is Longfellow’s personal hardship which makes the lyrics to the carol a profound and simple exposition of God’s presence in a faltering world that remains so relevant today. There are two musical settings to this song. Both are widely used in modern recordings. One (as recorded by Elvis) is set to a composition written in the 1870s by English organist, John Baptiste Calkin and the other to a composition by Joseph Mainzer in 1845. It is my belief that the latter better houses the melancholy and reflective tone of Longfellow’s words.

Historically, the words of Longfellow’s poem resonate with the common experiences of many soldiers on both sides of the North and The South. Corporal J.C. Williams, Co. B, 14th Vermont Infantry, wrote this comment on Christmas Day 1862: “This is Christmas, and my mind wanders back to that home made lonesome by my absence, while far away from the peace and quietude of civil life to undergo the hardships of the camp, and may be the battle field, I think of the many lives that are endangered, and hope that the time will soon come when peace, with its innumerable blessings, shall once more restore our country to happiness and prosperity.”

Like the greatest works of literature, the above musical offerings continue to stand the test of time. Next time you are in the mall, on the street, or near your own fireplace harkening to your favourite renditions of traditional carols, spare a thought for their composers, their lyricists and the rich and resounding history that informs the most popular of Christmas carols and hymns.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

TLC Blog Tour: A Secret Gift

In Depression-Era Canton, Ohio, a newspaper ran a remarkable ad offering cash to 75 needy families whose letters proved they were most in need of this strange gift. Incredible strains of hardship, family and dignity resulted in a series of letters collected by author and researcher Ted Gup. Gup traced every one of the distributed cheques to families with a wealth of history and information about the Depression years.

This unique patchwork of giving and humanity sews a compelling narrative and history lesson at once. Rather than another fact-laden exposition on the US depression years, Gup provides insight into the Human Condition through real stories. Equal parts tragedy and hope, A Secret Gift still resonates in today’s uncertain world. America, again, is under fierce economic strain and the stark joy of a small gift thoughtfully bestowed spans miles.

Gup’s meticulous research and overt passion (he traced families throughout the US and undertook numerous interviews ) help inform a triumphant and earth-shatteringly inspiring slice of history that reaches very close to Gup’s heart.

I was moved to tears and know that this is a book I will personally cherish; but also bestow on my loved ones. There is a communal meshing of worlds as every reader will relate to the cries of human despair echoed in the letters of these everyday people. An interesting parallel to the Canton letters is Gup’s presentation of the mysterious benefactor, pseudonym Mr. B. Virodot, whose own childhood as a Romanian Jew immigrated to America to seek his own American dream, is fully realized. From basic human necessity to seeming trifles which could inspire, help and save the soul, the letters and themes in A Secret Gift help fashion it as the ideal Christmas present.

For yourself or for a loved one, make sure that this amazing historical perspective finds itself somewhere near a stocking or Christmas tree.

My thanks to TLC Book Tours for the copy of this extraordinaire book

-Read more on A Secret Gift during tomorrow's tour stop at Knowing the Difference

-purchase A Secret Gift at or your favourite online retailer

-learn more about Ted Gup and A Secret Gift's remarkable story at the book's official website

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Blogging for Books: Two Tickets to the Christmas Ball by Donita K. Paul

Two Tickets to the Christmas Ball by Donita K. Paul is as Christmas as eggnog,cinnamon sticks and holly. A completely fresh addition to the usual CBA offering of seasonal fare, Paul uses her penchant for fantasy to infuse a charmingly cozy romance with wizards and magic.

Can a Christian book have wizards?, one might ask. Of course!, for wizard, in its etymological origin, namely refers to one who is sage or wise. It is this slant and the looming and enigmatic Wizard's Christmas Ball that is the strongest offering of the tale.

Cora and Simon have worked near each other for five years at the same consumer company. Their shoulders never bump, though recently they have been thrown together in the oddest circumstances: Simon's parking spot moved directly next to hers, they run into each other on mystical Sage street at a strangely wonderful bookshop and Cora draws his name in the annual Christmas gift exchange.

Enter Simon's sister, Candy, and her love for kittens and the story begins to melt into a snowglobe of possibility and romance! I really enjoyed this breezy read and when paired with a gingerbread latte it immediately put me in the festive mood. Christians will be challenged by Cora's skepticism of the Christmas commercialism and relate to her questions on how best to embrace the Season. Readers in general will be warmed by Simon's bond with his younger sister and by Cora's steadfast growth and independence, away from her abusive past.

While I found that the story developed-and-developed just to wrap up quickly with a neat little bow and while I question Paul's sensibility about young men and women in their late 20's and 30's ( no one says "good night" as an exclamation ), I found this a wonderfully unique option for those who revel in Christmas-themed tales.

This would make a fabulous tv movie so I hope that the Hallmark people are hovering close at hand.

I received this book from the publisher for review as part of the Blogging for Books program and was bid to give my honest opionion, as I have done above.

Monday, December 06, 2010

In which I ramble about Sherlock... elsewhere

Once Upon a Bookshelf was kind enough to let me shamelessly promote my main literary squeeze, Sherlock Holmes last week in the weekly LISTED feature.

Visit me there and see what I was up to:

Thursday, November 18, 2010

TLC Blog Tour: Everything I Never Wanted to Know by Dina Kucera

First off, let me apologize for the late posting: I have been having issues loading blogger all day.

I must confess that this is out of my usual reading sphere and, thus, I was especially pleased to break out of my "comfort zone" per se, when approached about this tour.

Like the most gripping of stories ( true or not), the surprises, the journey, the twists and turns with no concrete foresight are what string the reader through the tragic ( and yet uplifting) rollercoaster of Kucera's life. Thus, I will not bog you down with plot details, other than to express that this is a blatantly true story of a family's battle with alcoholism and drug addiction. This is a world so beyond my own that at times it seemed almost inconceivable. How could so much negative circumstance be amounted on one circle of our universe? Moreover ( and most hauntingly), how could Kucera muster the courage to so honestly relay her story?

To say that this story is uplifting doesn't seem to grant it justice. Not only were trials met with perseverance, Kucera champions those affected by similar circumstance by confiding in all of us.

This story oozes integrity. You become Kucera's confidante as she sits you down and unravels the secrets of her family. Her honesty, at the core of this important book, is what I respect most.

It is not a proud or shaped honesty crafted to entice readers; rather all-out truth. For a religious person, I was especially interested in the parts of her narrative that invoked God. Not always inwardly wrestling with the Great Theological tenets assuaged through personal circumstance in so many memoirs, yet the little thoughts that plague us all.

"Why heap all the beauty and talent on a few people," Kucera asks of God, " If someone is short, make them really funny. If someone is bald, give them lots of money. On the other hand, if someone is beautiful, give them a constant toothache. Or if a person is a gifted artist, maybe they could have herpes. It seems that God is in the people-making factory, and Jennifer Aniston comes down the belt and he takes a bucket of beauty and talent and dumps a ____ on her. Then Danny Devito rolls by and God walks away to check his Facebook." (178).

It is this kind of stark and realistic narrative that drew me in from the get-go. Kucera found the tenacity to expose her life in hopes of providing empathy, sustenance and a life raft to those who have experienced similar circumstances. This book will help, give hope and heal.

Readers of The Glass Castle and A Million Little Pieces will be riveted by Dina Kucera's achingly honest account of her life and relationships.

Looking for a bittersweet and humorous read for the booklover on your Christmas list? Make sure you visit the author's website and get 30% off simply by entering DINA when it comes time to check out

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bright Young Things by Anna Godbersen

Forgive the lack of posting. I have been doing some extensive work travel and life has caught up in more ways than one and this poor blog has fallen on the wayside. But, Halt! Give not up yet! Here is a review:

Bright Young Things

I read the Luxe series and I enjoyed the Gossip Girl meets Edith Wharton savvy of the glittery gilded age. In Bright Young Things Godbersen has certainly found her niche: the roaring 20s. In the New York of prohibition and bootleggers; of flappers, nightclubs and forbidden and hot jazz, Godbersen stitches a romance of forbidden love, a sort of Capulet-Montague drama for the historical teen set.

Cordelia and Letty escape their small Ohio town in search of glamour, fame and fortune. But, while Letty is certain that her future is determined by her lovely voice and lithe figure and an impending career on the stage; Cordelia has an ulterior motive: finding her long, lost father.

Those enraptured by lavish Gatsby-esque parties of the age will be lost in the cocktail world of too many martinis, excessive wealth, colour, lipstick and hairbobs.

Godbersen’s novel is exceedingly readable, catchy and fun. She has a wonderfully light and buoyant way with words and teens ( and those who still read teen fiction who AREN’T teens) will enjoy this unique romance.

While the storyline certainly plays into some convention, it is Godbersen’s narrative voice and manner that sets it apart. The exposition far outplays any nuances of plot or tension.

My sincere thanks to Harper Collins for the review copy.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Great Expectations: Revisiting a classic through a religious lens.

I wrote this little ode to my favourite Dickens novel quite some time ago. However, I knew that I wanted to post about Great Expectations at some point because one of my very favourite bloggers happens to be dusting off old classics and reading them for her Everything Old is New Again Challenge. I am jumping the gun: the binary reading of GE with Jack Maggs by Peter Carey isn't slated 'til next week. I have read all of the books she is partaking in for her challenge but Great Expectations remains my favourite and while I had shared of it on my other blog, it was as of yet uncharted territory here:

In the 19th century ( my niche and the subject of my degree), books were published with a high sense of morality: sunday school readers and children's verse and adult cautionary tales which drove home the same bleak and brimstone ideas as predecessing days of chap books and loose pamphlets. In fact, as long as there has been print, I think we can safely say that Christians have tried to devise a way to spread the Gospel to the masses--- through the filter of the written word. Some parable, some philosophical, sermon, epistolary, Biblical commentary and history..... we Christians have a long written tradition to meet our thriving oral and musical one.

The wonderful thing about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and living a lifestyle completely driven by Christian thought is your happily tainted eyes seem to find kernels of Christianity everywhere. You wear rose-coloured glasses that tip your mind's eye in a way privvy to any and all: symbolism, threads of grace, morality, Biblical reference, allegory, etc., that lead you back to the One who propels you forward.

Lucky for this Christian, I have the very great fortune of finding said Grace throughout my favourite era of literature.

Wholly conscious or not, the Victorians were steeped with Christian ideals and their literature is veritably drenched in it....

which brings me to the subject of
Great Expectations: a novel where threads of Grace are far more prominent through my rose-coloured glasses than the romance between a blacksmith's apprentice and the cold Estella; the illusory value of riches and the Cinderella-yarn of a young man coming into his own. No, Great Expectations always brings me closer to God because it is, above all, a novel of unconditional love.

Unconditional love is first represented through Joe Gargery: narrator Pip's brother-in-law: a simple and good-natured blacksmith. When Pip is a child, Joe explains to him why he decided to marry Pip's harsh sister and take on a family not quite his own. He explains how he immediately thought of the orphaned Pip left to be raised by his sister and knew that he could find a place for both of them. Constantly reminded of the treacherous way in which his abusive father treated him and his mother, Joe is willing to atone his father's past wrongs by embracing Pip and his sister. Pip mentions looking up to Joe " in his heart" as he deciphers that he was the main reason for Joe's marriage to his cruel and abusive sister.

As Pip grows up and starts to visit Miss Havisham's, his view of Joe changes. The callous Estella: brought up to wreak havoc on the male sex, drives Pip with negative force. First, Pip develops a disdain for his life at the forge and Joe's work and for his home : a place once sanctified by Joe, as Pip recalls, but now a reminder of his shamefully low circumstance.

When Mr. Jagger's informs Pip that he is a young man of great expectations, Pip far too eagerly leaves Joe and new housekeeper Biddy to establish himself in London. On one occasion when Joe visits Pip in London, we see for the first time the ramifications of Pip's wealth and status. Pip treats Joe abysmally and Joe bears it like a saint. At the end of a tragically awkward meeting, Joe tells Pip inasmuch as it is a pleasure to see him anywhere, he knows that their social circumstances are severed. He cannot blame Pip for his treatment of him because he believes it is a relationship now welded by societal norms.

As far as his love for Pip ..... it remains unchanged. It even remains unchanged when Pip returns for his sister's funeral --- choosing the Blue Boar in his hometown as lodging rather than the home of his youth with widower Joe. Pip's airy promise to visit often prompts Joe to show unabashed affection. No matter how ungrateful Pip is, Joe will never scorn him or turn him away.

Perhaps the most Christianized ( if I may pen a word) segment of the novel occurs near the end. Pip has discovered the benefactor of his great expectations and been driven to near-ruin and heavy debt. All of his friends have deserted him and he lays deep in an encumbered illness... lugubrious prospects awaiting him when he awakes.

Joe, of course, becomes Pip's steadfast companion and nurses him through the illness. Further still, hardworking Joe ( for whom money and life are hard come by due to the nature of his occupation) has willingly paid all of Pip's debts; debts accumulated by money squandered on seeming propriety and wealth.

The second testament of unconditional love is not as innocent and pure as Joe's love for Pip. It is instead proven by Pip for the oft unworthy Estella. Pip first meets Estella when he is ordered to attend Miss Havisham at Satis House: an instrument for her masochistic amusement. Rejected by a man on her wedding day, Miss Havisham has brought up Estella as a mechanization of destruction. Estella, beautiful and proud, will break hearts and afflict the same suffering Miss Havisham endured.

Pip falls hard for Estella as a boy...perhaps for no other reason than that she represents a life so beyond the one laid out for him as a blacksmith.

In fact, all of Pip's actions ( good and not so good ) are borne of something relating to Estella. Estella first inspires Pip to rethink the way he was brought up when she scolds him for calling knaves "jacks". From there, Pip knows that his life at the forge will never be good enough for a girl of Estella's pedigree.

When Pip learns of his great expectations he becomes blinded by his (false) assumption that Miss Havisham is prepping him as a life mate for her ward, Estella. Pip's ingratitude toward Joe and his extravagant lifestyle and blatent snobbery burgeon out of Pip's need to make Estella love him.

While Estella is far from perfect: cold, callous, heartless and more stone than woman , Pip loves her unconditionally. Even when Estella becomes engaged to Bentley Drummle ( a suitor as hopelessly detached from emotion as she), Pip waits in the sidelines for a turn of events.

Unconditional love is a theme oft explored in theology, in Christian fiction, in the Bible and in secular fiction. However, its resonance as a Christian principle remains intact in a book published more than a century ago.

I think the conviction at the novel's core stems from Pip's treatment of Joe and Joe's treatment of Pip---good-hearted and true. In turn, Pip's steadfast love for Estella in spite of Estella's inability to feel warmth or care.

When Joe pays Pip's debts and refuses to hear anything about how they were accredited, I am always reminded of intrinsic Christian theology. There is nothing in the world that Pip can do that would make Joe love him less----- a continual reminder of Christ's sacrifice and his unconditional love for us.

Courting Morrow Little by Laura Frantz

This is one spicy Christian novel. I loved Courting Morrow Little It shook up the tradition of historical Christian fiction quite a bit and was an earthy and passionate read. Morrow Little has recently returned to frontier Kentucke life following a stint in "civilized" Philadelphia with her dress-maker aunt. Back with her widowed father, Morrow tries to reconcile her future with the Shawnee Warrior attack that killed her mother and younger sister. Her brother, Jess, as is made apparent in an opening flashback, is never found. Though her minister father reaches out to the Shawnee ( especially Surrounded by the Enemy and his son, Red Shirt), Morrow consistently struggles with comprehension of a merciless act. How could an all-loving God expect her to forgive the warriors that stole such a vital part of her childhood?

Pursued by a dashing redcoat and many of the town's more affluent beaux, Morrow finds herself at a crossroads as she spends more and more time with Red Shirt ( so called as a play on British "red coat" when he acts as a spy for the British Army). As she inches closer and closer to forgiveness she finds the Shawnee way of life and adventuresome grasp of nature unsettlingly attractive. As Red Shirt reveals more of his past ( his mother was a white woman held captive by the Shawnee) and his decision to follow his father and embrace the Shawnee way of life, Morrow becomes beguiled by the people who once so repulsed and frightened her. Embracing forgiveness ultimately leads to a forbidden love. The chemistry between the hero and heroine of this novel was palpable.

Often Christian readers talk about Julie Lessman and how she ignites a passionate, physical spark in a relatively tame genre... I found Frantz's book to contain this amount of spice... and more. It certainly doesn't hinge on indecent, rather threads a passionate and physical attraction between two young people from opposite walks of life. A fun, sensual book, Courting Morrow Little reclaims a healthy normalcy often lost in overtly "preachy" Christian fiction. Morrow is a living, breathing human girl whose religious walk is made more believable due to her wrestling with growing attraction. Not once is God or Faith absent; rather woven seamlessly into the infrastructure of a playful and passionate historical romance. Frantz's attention to historical detail and dialect (especially in her knowledge of Shawnee language) was quite welcome. A sassy, intelligent read, Courting Morrow Little strays from conservative Christian historicals. Frantz has embraced a time and locale unique to Christian fiction and placed an indelible stamp on it.

As mentioned, I am privileged enough to be reading for the historical category of the INSPYs this year and immediately ordered this alongside The Frontiersman's Daughter when I learned of Frantz's appearance on the shortlist.

Has my reading ever sparkled this week!

Check out Laura's website: she likes the BBC North and South and ( as is evident from The Frontiersman's Daughter) has a thing for Neil MacNeill from Christy by Catherine Marshall. A literary kindred spirit, methinks. She also lists The Blue Castle as one of her favourite books and readers of this blog know that is a HUGE thing for me....

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

RIP CHALLENGE: Murder on Astor Place by Victoria Thompson

This is the first in the Gaslight Mystery series set equally in lower and higher society New York City at the turn of the 20th Century.

Historical figures such as Teddy Roosevelt and Jacob Riis populate the book in a subdued way to give flavour to very well-researced murder mystery about the murder of a young socialite fallen-from-grace.

Frank Malloy has his own secret reasons for wanting to climb the chain of command to make Police Captain in an altogether hopeless police force: decrepit, shady and undermining any semblance of justice. Sarah Brandt is an intelligent widow who makes her living as a midwife: most often in the slums where residents of tenements can barely scrape together her fee.

Sarah comes from an upper crust family and immediately relates to the plight of innocent murder victim, Alicia Van Damme. Frank, whose hard demeanor and sardonic manner speak to tragic experiences in his recent history, finds Sarah’s interest in the case unsettling. But, together they bring the right ingredients to see the killer brought to justice in a largely unjust town.

The spark and fire between Frank Malloy and Sarah Brandt alone is what makes this intriguing historical mystery worth reading. Thompson is a very atmospheric writer and the sights and smells of gaslit New York spring perfectly to light… yet, it is the characters that jump off of the page. At first, seemingly having nothing in common, Sarah and Frank are oil and water; but the more they discover about their common interest to bring justice and the more they reconcile with the similarities in their pasts, the more they are able to harbour each other’s strengths and reach a common outcome.

I really enjoyed this murder mystery. The plot of the fallen socialite: found dead and pregnant and the snub of her family trying desperately to bury scandal is, albeit nothing new, very well-plotted. Moreover, Thompson’s obvious love for this period of history helps her etch the perfect setting for her grim tale.

I learned a lot about the police force and criminal justice of the day and Brandt and Malloy do a magnificent job of bringing a voice of reform that echoes their contemporaries Riis and Roosevelt.

Fans of Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy Mysteries will find themselves on common ground.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

While We're Far Apart by Lynn Austin

Over the weekend, I described Lynn Austin’s recent book, While We’re Far Apart, like an intricate symphony. It begins with a rather straightforward melody: Penny watches as the man she pines for leaves for War on the eve of the American involvement in WWII and offers recklessly to take care of his two motherless children in hopes of securing his love upon his return from duty.

Shaking feelings of worthlessness long instilled from her over-bearing parents, Penny steps outside the front door of the house she has always lived in and charges toward a new future.

On the eve of his departure, widowed Eddie Shaeffer tries to ignore the pleas of his two young children begging him to stay. They don’t want Penny to move into their Brooklyn Apartment and usurp their dead mother’s space. They, instead, want their father to stay home from the war.

Eddie leaves to converse with Jacob Mendel, his Jewish landlord and another tune strings in.

Jacob’s wife Miriam and Eddie’s wife Rachel were both killed in the same untimely accident. As ramification, Jacob has lost his faith in Hashem ---- God seems so far away although the rabbi and his wife try desperately to tug the former elder back to the life of the synagogue.

And then, climactically and with discordance, the local synagogue is prey to an act of arson and a seemingly faraway hatred is brandished like a cymbal- jolt into the present.

The tune evokes a haunting change as more instruments are melded into each deft cadence and more bars are added to prolong the unraveling symphony. Dense orchestration including the introduction of new friends; wisps of letters from Jacob’s son and his wife in war-torn, Holocaust Hungary, and deep whispers of secrets from loved ones near and far merge to create a seamless piece.

There are themes of love and pursuit; of anger, of hatred of a clashing war. Of the brisk touch of this world and the world beyond. It is an almost perfect rendering of a tumultuous time.

Austin never writes without an over-arching theme and in While We’re Far Apart, the seeming absence of God is most resonant.

Jacob followed and meditated on the words of the Torah steadfastly only to find the seams of his world tearing and his life falling apart.

Penny isn’t sure how to believe in God: when she repeats over and over again all of her shortcomings.

Young Esther and her wordless brother Peter go through the motions of a Sunday Schooled upbringing attempting to reconcile the death of their mother with the faith she seemed to inspire in them.

All lives collide and cross--- and yet the almighty seems painfully silent.

While We’re Far Apart is a magnificent exposition of God in all of his seeming silences. Is He there when we can’t hear Him? ---There whether in the materialization of Christian or Jewish tradition? Even amidst a Holocaust recalling the treacherous reign of Haman and the unlikely heroism of Queen Esther? Amidst persecution, death and unwarranted vandalism?

How can we pick up the pieces of our faith if we’re not sure where faith leads?

What is God doing behind the scenes and how are His silences even more telling than His revelation?

The end of the song, the end of the book, empowers the reader to think of God in a personal and enraptured way. He can handle our anger and our despair: our lashings out and our pain….. for it is in these moments that we test our faith to breaking point, shirk any complacency and recognize that years later, when the glass is undimmed, that He was there working out the technical aspects, the last strains and chords of melody and sewing together a music so beautiful our human ears could scarce imagine it.
Readers, I LOVE ME SOME LYNN AUSTIN! She is my favourite current Christian writer and those of you who hanker for some intelligence in your faith-based writing will be floored!

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Naomi and Her Daughters by Walter Wangerin Jr.

With an influx of scripture and a nuanced stage of setting and drama, Walter Wangerin Jr’s Naomi and Her Daughters takes us back to Judges: a time and place before most fictional re-tellings of the story of Ruth take place.

Vividly and with a deft grasp of Biblical Knowledge and history, Wangerin weaves the story of Naomi primarily and later of Boaz ( into whose story Ruth becomes a major factor). This book is earthy, erotic, colourful and poetic. Wangerin’s language reflects the best of the psalms: infused with scripture yet with poetic cadences of its own. Its sing-song quality mirrors the story-telling Naomi is so good at.
Those who have a running knowledge of the Biblical story will find it a little easier to understand: especially when it dips into the tribes of Israel, the lineage of King David ( to whom Ruth and Boaz’s son Obed is born and, later, to whom Jesus Christ is born into ) and the customs surrounding Ruth’s appearance on the threshing floor and Boaz’s interposing as Kinsmen Redeemer.

This is a smart, thinking and intelligent take on my favourite Bible story. I often argue that Ruth is the most Romantic book of the Bible: our heroine, a kind-hearted outcasted Moabite follows her mother-in-law beyond the bounds of her own family and history and into the unknown. Leaving behind her religion and tradition she acts in the way she knows is right and the Lord rewards her highly. Any one who has ever acted on conscience and has thought their actions went unnoticed will be inspired by Ruth’s plight, endurance and ultimate happy ending. Her romantic lead, Boaz, is attracted to the light and goodness in Ruth’s heart even while the world scorns and mocks her.
Not every ounce of Christian fiction can find secular appeal; but readers of every faith, religion or no, should lose themselves in Wangerin’s master-craft.

This is poetically and lyrically moving: a wonderful and tense revisit to history.
Readers of Christian and Historical fiction will be mesmerized.
Any one who has tried Orson Scott Card’s Old Testament tales or the Red Tent will enjoy learning more about the customs of Ancient Israel and Old Testament life.
My sincere gratitude to Zondervan for this enlightening experience!

Tuesday, October 05, 2010


Hello all,

A few very exciting things!

First off, I am honoured to be a judge for the INSPYs: the blogger's award for excellence in Christian Fiction.

Read my exciting judge's bio HERE! Me, Rachel, a JUDGE ---excitement. I am judging the historical fiction category and was thrilled with the shortlist! Cannot wait to read those I have not read and re-read those I have!

Secondly, I have decided to keep A Fair Substitute for Heaven my primary blog. There, from now on, I will continue to post all of my non-Christian book reviews---- but will also be posting my Christian book reviews. AMALGAMATION

so, for the time being, I am synching the blogs into one. Please visit me there

And finally, exciting book news: my favourite book of the Bible, RUTH, has been retold in Naomi and Her Daughters and Zondervan was delightful enough to send me a copy. MY SINCERE THANKS!

Also, my favourite, favourite, favourite Christian writer, Lynn Austin, has a new book out this week! I just got my copy: order While We're Far Apart

Monday, September 27, 2010

RIP CHALLENGE: Smith by Leon Garfield

Smith is, with the exception of Catherine Webb’s the Dream Thief, the best YA novel I have read this year.

I have often heard it spoken of by experts in the field of Children’s Literature and I had been desperate to read it for awhile. I did, however, wait until it was just turning into fall, ‘til the chill was creeping in, the leaves changing and the clouds hanging grey and lugubriously low in the sky.

I was well-rewarded for my attention to atmosphere.

Set in a gritty and fascinating maze of Victorian London, the story involves Smith: a beguiling pickpocket who witnesses a murder and retrieves from the victim a document he knows must be of infinite importance.

Smith takes the document and holds it close to his heart--- he is desperate to uncover its worth and why it led to tragedy and determines to solve the case--- only problem is: Smith is illiterate.

So begins this gruff but compassionate boy's quest to Learn to Read. Smith pops in and out of alleys and corners and nooks asking all of the local roundabouts: from magistrates to priests to those holed in the damply decrepit Newgate to Learn Him to Read.

When a fateful encounter with a blind judge changes Smith’s life, Smith learns ever so much about justice, humanity and the mysteries of life beyond the horrors of the street.

Unexpected heroism, betrayal and plot turns--- as well as a dollop of heart and feel-good-ness permeate each spectacularly-written page.

The writing is what most stands out about this book. It is chockfull of consonance, alliteration, symmetry, symbolism, analogies and descriptive paragraphs so delicious they will loll on your tongue for days.

The closest comparison I can think of to the painstaking attention placed to the writing and rhythm ---as well as the dark evocation of London --- is Catherine Webb’s Horatio Lyle series ( which everyone knows as my favourite YA series ever).

Thus, I encourage everyone to pick up a copy. Published in the late 1960s and a Carnegie Medal book, libraries and used bookstores will be a good place to find it.

Enough murder and mayhem and dark alleys to count for RIP!