Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Review round-up

I'm putting my affairs in order/salving my conscience by catching up with with shout-outs and reviews I've been promising for months. Yes, I have critiqued, beta-read or edited these, or have other connections with the authors, but I'm also standing by their talented writing. I'd like to say I'm amazed by the rubbish put out by the big publishing houses versus the quality I so often see from smaller publishers or in self-published work - but no more, alas. So, in historical order, here are:

V.L. Smith - The White Spider of Savignac

The official blurb: When Sir John FitzAlan, lord of an elite mercenary company, is rewarded with the Aquitainian barony of Savignac by Richard Lionheart, his future seems straightforward enough: restore a neglected estate to readiness for war and make the best he can of an arranged marriage to its baroness, Mellisande, a woman he has never met. 
Twice-widowed Mellisande, however, is in no mood for a third marriage. Far from the demure chatelaine John expects, she is an expert vintner and herbalist – skills her people, and the local bishop, suspect she used to murder her two previous husbands.
As John’s disciplined soldiers clash with the unruly local people, and relations with his wife grow colder, John begins to wonder if the tales told of her are true. Will he be Mellisande’s next victim?
My two penny's worth: For those of us who are no longer twenty, Ms. Smith creates a mature hero and heroine you can connect with from the first pages of the novel. The setting is richly and believably detailed and the secondary characters fully fleshed and engaging. Having read other works-in-progress of Vicki's, I can attest to her particular talent in creating sexy vikings :) I especially appreciated the pace of the story - she avoids the current pressure for break-neck speed and develops a plot you can actually savor. I managed to read and enjoy it while still in the throes of morning sickness - what higher accolade could there be?

Diane Scott Parkinson - Ring of Stone

The official blurb: Rose Gwynn is determined to study as a physician in 1796 in England, a time when women were barred from medical school. When she prevails in assisting the local doctor, Rose uncovers a shocking secret that will threaten Dr. Nelson’s livelihood. Servant Catern Tresidder returns to the Cornish village to confront the man who raped her and committed murder. After Rose’s sister is betrothed to this brutal earl, Catern struggles with her demons to warn Rose of the truth. Rose’s attraction to a man far beneath her further complicates her situation. Three people fight society’s dictates to either face ruin or forge a happy ending. Through it all, the ancient stone circle near Rose’s house holds the key to her family’s past, and is positioned through the myths of Cornwall to save her sister’s life.

My two penny's worth: Ring of Stone is a romance by the strict literary definition: a story of love and adventure in a setting where the natural and supernatural coexist - here, the juxtaposition of emerging modern medical practice and the lingering magic of ancient Cornwall. Diane's prose is several cuts above the average romance novel, and the subplots make for a satisfyingly complex read. If you like Ring of Stone, check out Diane's latest Cornish novel, The Apothecary's Widow. Like White Spider, it features a mature hero and heroine the rest of us can relate to.

Amy Dupire - god-thing and other weird and worrisome tales

The official blurb: A Northern transplant teenager chafes under the culture of her Southern U.S. high school and creates her own deity. A reanimated corpse joins a zombie crawl, and stuffed animals spill the beans on their darkest secrets. These award-winning, YA short stories offer curious insights into human nature with humor as well as an unsettling view toward its darker truths. In this collection of tales, you’ll find fortune-telling pancakes, second-tier superheroes, and the occasional possum. 
And it may make you think twice before opening the kitchen cabinets.

My two penny's worth: I've read a lot of Amy's work, published and unpublished, and I love her oddball, dark, humorous take on life. As the blurb says, several of these stories have, deservedly, won or placed in writing competitions. It's hard for me to pick a favourite, but "Key Lime Pie at the Nightmare Diner" and "The Pancake Reader" would definitely be contenders. For young adults or preteens, depending on your child's maturity level/ threshold for the slightly scary.

Friday, May 8, 2015

7 Quick Takes v.8: Reasons to be Cheerful, 1, 2...7

1. I submitted my final grades for classes at the weekend. No complaints/pleading/wheedling for grade changes from my students - in fact, I had two thank yous. I'm done until August!

2. Just thinking of the topic title reminded me of the Ian Dury and the Blockheads song.

3. A new princess. The girls and I approve of the name Charlotte Elizabeth Diana. I did remark that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were in trouble if they had another girl, as they've used up so many royal names, but my younger daughter came straight out with Victoria Caroline Alexandrina. You saw it here first, folks.

4. I managed to make it past my last big 'task' before my own imminent baby - the two hour trip to Jackson to the Mississippi Star student/teacher awards for academic excellence. Quick parental boast - our daughter was an All-Star.

5. It also meant I could visit a real lingerie shop for the first time ever, to get fitted for some decent bras. The lady was lovely, professional, listened, taught, and found the perfect choices.  I walked out feeling amazing. Who knew the right underwear could improve your posture so much?

6. No hung Parliament in the UK - good news whatever one's political leanings.

7. My daughter's pet rat doesn't have terminal cancer - just a plain old mammary tumour that can be removed for a mere $300!  Oh, wait...

For more Quick Takes, hop over to visit Kelly at This Ain't the Lyceum. And check out her post on Mother's Day crafts that mothers will actually want!

Friday, April 24, 2015

7 Quick Takes 7: A life-changing saga of tidying up.

A  seven-part mini saga of our life with The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo.

1. I come across this title via This Ain't the Lyceum. As someone who enjoys putting off organizing by reading about it, I investigate further. People are enthusiastic, scathing or downright sarcastic. "I'm number 250 on the library waiting list," others bemoan. What can be so polarizing about a book on tidying? Now I have to read it. Fortunately, the arm of a university inter-library loan system reaches far. I have a copy in my hands after two weeks.

2. To summarize: Marie Kondo (of the KonMari method) recommends you sort by category rather than room (all tops, all books, all mementos etc.), and all at once rather than bit by bit. You handle each item individually and only keep what "sparks joy". Some people seem upset or nonplussed by her attitude that items like socks have feelings, but this doesn't bother me because I have been caught talking to the dishwasher am culturally sensitive.

3. I let my eleven-year-old daughter see the book. I know this is dangerous because she has inherited a trait from my husband’s side of the family that may charitably be called "great force of will". Over the course of two days she gets rid of about two thirds of her possessions. I have to bite my tongue, because I’ve read the parts of the book that tell her A) mothers are likely to scupper her plans and B) younger sisters are tragic victims of having stuff forced on them by elder sisters. It takes me another three days to sort through her piles and nearly sends me into labour.

4. My elder daughter picks up the book casually on a weekend visit home. After a short while, she sets it aside. “I can’t read this book,” she announces. “It will compel me to reorganize my entire life, and I don’t have time.”

5. “You should read it,” I suggest to my husband. “After all, you like Naruto and that's Japanese.” I know the connection between anime and a tidying book is tenuous, but it’s worth a try. And Naruto apparently simultaneously owns no possessions yet has an apartment full of rubbish.

Not quite feng shui

I look around the house. “We have too much stuff,’ I sigh. “No we don’t,” my husband snaps back. “You got rid of it all.” He is afraid that I’ll run out of stuff to discard and turn a critical eye on him.

6. I stare mournfully at my closet, longing to free myself of half my clothes, but I'm about to be the size that Simcha Fisher so perfectly described as "shut up, I just had a baby". I throw out some token items that I'm convinced won't "spark joy" even if they're the only things that fit me one particular week. Our bookshelves got purged when we rearranged furniture at Christmas, so only a few items there. I wander round the house desperate to find piles off stuff to throw out. Maybe my husband is right after all.

7. The inter-library loan period runs out. I type up notes from the book (but keep them on the computer so I don’t add clutter to the house) and return it reluctantly. I spend a couple of weeks trying to detox, haunting websites and bookstores in hopes I'll find a copy so cheap I can justify buying one. But will it spark joy?

For more Seven Quick Takes, join Kelly at This Ain't the Lyceum.

Friday, April 10, 2015

7QT 6: Lessons from 1962

I was at an estate sale the other weekend and I picked up a copy of Seventeen magazine from 1962, thinking it would be a fun Easter gift for my elder daughter.  Here are seven things I learned, but first, a quiz: do you recognize this guy?

1. The right amount of raccoon or nutria fur makes an outfit. Or you can go all-out for Australian opossum and South American cat.

2. Thought abbreviations were a curse of the internet age?  TWYI - talk your way in - was the code for getting into college classes without having to test in. Does not knowing that make me a twink (out of date) or a boink (stupid person)?

3. Your bowling game not up to scratch?  Perhaps it's your underwear. Try perma-lift panties.

4. On that subject, girls should be spending the summer before college sewing name tags into their underwear. I hope it's because someone else was doing their laundry and not because they were losing their underclothes around campus.

5. Talking of campus, Princeton University reported $200,000 worth of petty theft from their college store over the past two years. It was a cooperative, so those top-notch Ivy League students were stealing from themselves.

6. The victim mentality wasn't heard of. Having trouble with your stepmother?-What have you done to make her feel welcome? Your boyfriend looks to others for advice?-Maybe you're too focused on yourself.

7. Finally, my husband looked at the cover girl and began humming a rift on a Beatles' song: She was just seventy, you know what I mean...

Answer: Bob Dylan. Really.

For more Seven Quick Takes, link up with Kelly at This Ain't the Lyceum.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Seven Quick Takes 5: Round and About

Since I changed my blog description to "my eclectic  life", here's a quick tour.

1. I'm an Englishwoman married to a Texan mathematician, living in Mississippi. We have one daughter who's at the local residential Math(s) and Science School and about to leave for college, a sixth grader, and a (surprise) baby on the way. Normal? Where's the fun in normal?

2. I teach English part time at Mississippi State University, homeschool my younger daughter, and try to cultivate a writing life that is continually interrupted. Somehow a new baby is going to fit into all that.

3. People keep asking us how we're going to cope. We think we're pretty organized: we have a family cradle - and we've even removed the mattress to dissuade the cat from sleeping in it. Add a nightgown, socks and a packet of nappies (daipers), and we're ready.

Now the cat is forced to sleep on a king-sized bed

4. Rain, rain, rain - here in Mississippi, we seem to get about two pretty spring days, then it rains until the weather is hot. Five members of our household are very happy about that - however, they also happen to have webbed feet and waterproof feathers.

OK, not my photo - but we do have Kahki Campbells

5. They are joined by chickens, two cats, three rats (good combination) and the various fauna that takes up temporary residence on our breakfast bar - currently one tank of bullfrog tadpoles and another that's a  mini wetlands ecosystem.

6. I really enjoy editing. Maybe one day I'll get paid for it. In the meantime, I get to make my tiny contribution to authors such as Amy DupireAnita DavisonMaggi Anderson and Katherine Pym.


7. Online: Blogs I currently keep up with are Zero Waste Home, Liturgical Time, and This Ain't the Lyceum. I keep up with British news by perusing the Daily Telegraph (I've given up the Daily Mail for Lent), but am still wasting too much time on Facebook.

For more Seven Quick Takes, hop over to This Ain't the Lyceum.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Seven Quick Takes 4 A Pregnant Lent

I decided to take up Kelly's invitation to share Lent in my own way and offer seven quick takes on why 2015 may just be my Best Lent Ever.

1. I'm unexpectedly pregnant in my mid-forties. My other children are 11 and 18. Surely that alone gives the blessed Zelie Martin a run for her money.

The big three:
2. Prayer. Lots of opportunity for spontaneous prayer. Oh God, how long am I going to be pregnant? Please let me get to the loo in time. Why is everyone around me suddenly so irritating?

3. Fasting. Being pregnant, I already can't eat anything I actually like. Spinach-yogurt-flax seed smoothie, anyone?

Maybe not today

4. Almsgiving. We got rid of most of our baby stuff years ago, so we're pretty much a charity case in that department. Plus, I have to give away a least a tithe's worth of our belongings so we have somewhere to put the baby.

5. Lots of opportunities to resist temptation, such as: speeding on campus because they're not real police, plus I can just tell them I have to get to the bathroom RIGHT NOW (see #2). Or, not snapping at the woman who thought it was OK to get into the elevator in front of me, even though she has all four limbs intact.

6. Following the "action" part of my Lenten study book is super easy.  Take time to contemplate the mysteries of creation. Glance down at belly. Check.  Put up with someone to the point of complaining today.  Ok, so about two minutes, then.

7. Need some sufferings to offer up? Pregnancy has it all. Nausea, vomiting, random excruciating pains. Worst of all, I have to grade essays without the aid of any alcohol whatsoever.

For more Seven Quick Takes, join Kelly over at This Ain't the Lyceum.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Seven Quick Takes, Vol. 3

1. Recently, I've been feeling stuck for reading choices. I'm too tired at night to tackle anything really highbrow, so a second effort to get through St. Augustine's City of God is off the table. But I also don't want my brain to turn to mush, so no catching up with Fifty Shades of Grey (besides, it's Lent). Pulling out an Edwardian mystery I began to work on a year or two ago prompted me to think of Edwardian literature to catch up on (mysteries in particular).

2. What's positive about Edwardian fiction: the era is more than the image we have of the cigar-smoking playboy Edward VII (it's those King Edward cigar boxes - remember how we all used to have an empty one in the house, regardless of whether anyone actually smoked cigars?!). If we take "Edwardian" to mean the period up until World War I, it's a period when many had visions of social change: socialism, women's suffrage, workers' rights and sexual freedom, to name but a few.  Detective fiction, which of course hangs on the details, and often deals with the 'hot topics' of its day, is a great source of historical information on the period.

What's negative? The style can be stilted, often Victorian (though sometimes surprisingly modern). Detective stories don't let us into the detective's head in the way we're used to, so we often don't have the chance to make the connections or even 'see' the vital piece of evidence. That aside, here's a brief pick of authors I've tried:

3. G.K. Chesterton
Chesterton stands between the Victorians and Edwardians in terms of style, but his critique of contemporary society is fascinating because the benefit of hindsight shows us just how accurate he was - and how relevant he still is - when describing the malaises of modern life. Yet, despite that, he still has a real joy in the fact of living. I've enjoyed his Father Brown detective stories, and his novels, such as The Man Who was Thursday, are on my to-read list.

4. Victor L. Whitechurch
I've just begun Whitechurch's railway mysteries, featuring a vegetarian exercise fanatic and "gentleman of independent means". The writing is a little stilted, but I'm enjoying its quirkiness. Plus, I found out what a "plasmon biscuit" was! Kindle has some cheap editions of his work.

5. Baroness Orczy
Orczy created one of the first female detectives in Lady Molly of Scotland Yard. Lady Molly's talent is her intuition, the ability to see the connections and motives that mere facts don't always make clear. Her appeal is that she had turned detective to gather the experience and information to free her unjustly imprisoned love.

6. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Really, how many people actually read the original Sherlock Holmes stories instead of watching or reading the spinoffs? Doyle's Sherlock is a fascinating anti-hero: smart, bored, with a general antipathy towards women and an addiction to cocaine.

7. For more, almost forgotten mysteries, and an analysis of the genre, read The Edwardian Detective, 1901-1915, by Joseph Kestner.  For more Seven Quick Takes, hop on over to This Ain't the Lyceum.