Queries and Conundrums: The Advent Book Calendar

wrapped-books

Sorry about the static lately but ‘tis the season!  And in honor of this frantic, wonderful holiday season, I want to share with you a very creative idea.  I was on Facebook; ah, that great time waster, and I saw a post from a former student of mine.  She wrapped up 24 holiday children’s books and each evening in December, she and her son will open one and read it together.  What an absolutely fantastic idea!  I love children’s books, especially Christmas children’s books. I research a bit and went on Pinterest, another fantastic time-waster, and discovered that one can get REALLY creative with the Advent Book Calendar idea!!

To me, the holiday season should be viewed through the innocent and excited eyes of children.  Every year, my husband seeks out a unique and unknown Christmas book for me, while I find treasured classics for my children.  When I was little, my mom always had a basket of Christmas children’s books under the tree.  I remember sitting on the floor in the glow of the fire, twinkling Christmas lights, and flashy tinsel, enjoying holiday favorites year after year.

I continued this tradition with my own family. When the kids were younger, we would read a book a night before bed.  As they got older and became proficient readers, everyone would pick a favorite and we would all take turns reading.  Five books a night, every night until Christmas . . . yes, I have that many Christmas children’s books.  Even now, I get so tickled . . . don’t tell them, they would be embarrassed . . . when my teenagers, much past the age of picture books, lie on the floor under the tree re-reading their favorites.  After the holiday is over, the books are packed up in a bin and stored away until next Christmas.  I think I get more excited unpacking the holiday books each year than I do unpacking ornaments!

The Advent Book Calendar takes that thought one step further.  Added to the excitement and anticipation of reading a holiday book is unwrapping one and not knowing which one will be found!  What a lovely tradition!!

As I thought about this, I pondered how I might use this with myself and my teenagers.  Giggling a bit manically, I thought about wrapping up books on my to-be-read pile.  I would have to read one a day to keep up with the calendar.  Nothing else would get done in my house but my to-be-read pile might shrink a bit!  Sigh . . . I guess I will stick with the children’s books.

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The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris

the-loveliest-chocolate-shop-in-paris

Title:  The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris
Author:  Jenny Colgan
Publisher:  William Morrow
Publication Date:  2014
ISBN:  978-0-4022-8440-3

Book Summary:
After a ridiculous, yet horrifying, accident at the chocolate factory she works at as a supervisor, Anna Trent is surprised to find her hospital roommate is her old school French teacher, Claire Shawcourt.  As Anna struggles through her recovery, Claire is battling chemotherapy for cancer.  Because neither can really go anywhere in the hospital, they slowly build a friendship.  When Anna is released, she finds her life in a state of limbo; she can’t go back to her old job but is unsure where to go next.  Claire has the perfect solution.

Years earlier as a young woman, Claire escapes from her over-bearing, controlling Reverend father for a summer when she travels to Paris and works as a nanny to her mother’s pen-pal’s children.  While there, she meets and falls in love with a robust, handsome chocolatier.  At the end of the summer, Claire must return home to England and Thierry was sent to Algeria to serve in the military service.  They both went on with their lives but never forgot one another.

It is Claire who writes to Thierry and secures Anna a job in his famous Parisian shop, Le Chapeau Chocolat, and Anna heads across the channel for a grand new adventure.  Working in Thierry’s chocolate shop is nothing like the factory in England, and Anna must decide if she is truly committed to the artistic creation and temperament of a Parisian chocolatier.  With the help of Anna’s flamboyant costume designing flat mate, Thierry’s estranged and aloof son, and the other chocolatiers in the shop, Anna improves her chocolate making skills, her palette, and her view of life.

Book Commentary:
The Jenny Colgan books are so much fun!!  This is the fifth book I have read by this author and I admit that they do follow a similar formula — girl is in a stagnant place in life, something catastrophic (divorce, job loss, accident) occurs, girl embarks on a new adventure, meets new friends, and discovers a new path in life – but hey, it works!  Colgan creates relatable characters that the reader truly roots for and wants to find success.  There is a little romance, an interesting and unique setting, and quirky secondary characters that create an enduring and delightful read.

This particular book deviates a bit from the formula as it tells both Anna’s story and Claire’s past as they are woven together.  I enjoy how the author shows that as different as times and situations are, most people really just want a sense of purpose and to find happiness and love.

Who might like this book:
The books are perfect for the carpool line, a long flight, or the beach and provide a fun escape from reality.  I enjoy reading these because I know there will be a satisfying and happy ending.  Some days, you just need that.  Oh, and there are recipes . . . chocolate recipes . . . and that is always a good thing.

I have written review for two of her other books.  You can check them out here:
The Little Beach Street Bakery
The Bookshop on the Corner

The Inheritance

the-inheritance

Title:  The Inheritance (Charles Lenox Mystery 10)
Author:  Charles Finch
Publisher:  Minotaur
Publication Date:  2016
ISBN:  978-1-250-07042-5

Book Summary:
After a quiet holiday in the country with his family, Charles Lenox returns home early when he receives a cryptic note from an old friend.  Gerald Leigh and Charles were unlikely friends at Harrow; Charles was a fairly “by-the-book” student while Gerald scoffed at the rules and eventually left school early.  Charles was from a well-to-do family; Gerald’s attendance at Harrow was paid for by a mysterious benefactor.  Although different, the two boys found common interests and deep, respective friendship, and the search for the identity of Gerald’s mysterious benefactor was Charles’ first, albeit unsuccessful, foray into detecting.

Gerald’s note is choppy and distracted, but Charles feels compelled to help.  His intent for assistance turns into alarm when Gerald fails to appear to meet as promised.  Charles deduces some potential places that he may be hiding out and when he finds Gerald, he is discovers two shocking things.  One, Gerald has been bequeathed another, more substantial bequest, and someone is trying to kill him.

Committed to helping keep his friend safe and finally solving his first case, Charles plunges into the scientific world of the Royal Society.  In the years since he left Harrow, Gerald has established a name for himself through his scientific discoveries; is it someone from his present, or from his past, that is trying to kill him?  Further demanding of his time, Charles’ detective agency is on retainer for smaller cases in Parliament.  A recent rash of thefts has proven elusive and dangerous.  With his quintessential English stoicism, Charles strives to help both his friend and his country.

Book Commentary:
With the tenth book in the Charles Lenox series, author Charles Finch has something that few authors of long-running series can claim: he maintains consistent quality stories.  I find that with some authors who have a dozen or more books in a series, there are a few that just don’t maintain my interest or have a consistent quality.  All the Charles Lenox stories are excellent, and I think the main reason is the character of Charles Lenox.  He is an intelligent, charismatic protagonist with a refined, calm demeanor.  That is not to say he is perfect; at times, he is arrogant, aristocratic, and flawed.  He is human, from his flaws to his attributes; he is also very likable, someone I would like to have tea and an intelligent conversation with.

The series relies on diverse plot-lines with some adventure, but bottom line is that the protagonist solves the cases through good, old-fashioned detecting. I don’t want to insult them by calling them “quiet” stories because author’s witty and elegant writing style keep the reader fully engaged, but he doesn’t feel the need to always include some grandiose, cliff-hanging escapade in order to solve the case.

I also enjoy the subtle history lessons that author weaves into the story.  He discusses how advent of the telegraph brought both progress and problems to Parliament and how the English custom of driving on  the left came about.

The secondary characters of Edmund, Jane, Dallington, and McConnell reappear in each book to help maintain the consistency of the plots and help to ground Charles into the life of a gentleman.  I look forward to their appearance in each story; their own personal growth and development as characters further influences and defines Charles’ own personality.

Who might like this book:
This series would appeal to anyone who likes a classic English mystery.  The author’s grasp on history is similar to how Tasha Alexander weaves together events, customs, and principles of England in the late 1800’s.

DO NOT even think about not reading this series in order.  It is a great one to get hooked on because there are so many!!  Here is the series in order:
A Beautiful Blue Death
The September Society
The Fleet Street Murders
A Stranger in Mayfair
A Burial at Sea
A Death in the Small Hours
An Old Betrayal
The Laws of Murder
Home By Nightfall

Four NECESSITIES FOR A GOOD MYSTERY SERIES on Friday

mysteries

I think by now it is pretty clear that I love a good mystery series.  It probably started back in my Trixie Belden days, although I did read a fair amount of Nancy Drew as well.  When I was in college, I worked at a small bookstore in Geneva, Illinois.  There I got hooked on the Anne Perry mysteries.  I read a lot of different things in college for fun, but Anne Perry’s books truly solidified my love of series mysteries.  I branched out and read other authors, and the rest, as they say is history.

I currently have about fifty mystery series that I follow regularly; over the years, there have been some I have let go for a variety of reasons and I am always on the lookout for a new series.  For me, there are certain details that keep me engaged in a mystery series.  So for my completely biased opinion, these are my necessities of a good mystery series.

Four NECESSITIES OF A GOOD MYSTERY SERIES on Friday

Interesting, plausible protagonist
Although I have read a lot of true crime novels, a good mystery for me is rooted in the characters.  I think that any good series must maintain strong, consistent characters to stabilize the continuity of the series.  It is what ties each book to the previous one and it is what the reader follows from book to book.  When a new release of a favorite author comes out, it feels like catching up with an old friend and visiting about what has happened since the last time we met.

I am not picky about the gender of my protagonist.  I love the female Lady Darby in Anna Lee Huber’s books and Amory Ames in Ashley Weaver’s series, but I find Mark Pryor’s Hugo Marston and C. S. Harris’ Sebastian St. Cyr just as engaging.  The key, and I know I have said it before, is that context in which the protagonist encounters a crime must be believable, it must be consistent, and it must be evolving.  I love a good cozy mystery but after a while, multiple deaths in a small town or at a certain ski resort; well, I don’t think I would put that on a place to visit!

Inquiry agents like Charles Lenox in Charles’ Finch’s series or Derek Stone in Kate Carlisle’s Bibliophile mysteries, police detectives like Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James in Deborah Crombie Scotland Yard series, or even judges and attorneys like Verlaque and Bonnet in M. L. Longworth’s Provencal mysteries all have realistic reasons to encounter, and more importantly, be involved in, solving crimes.

Cozy mysteries are very entertaining and enjoyable, but they don’t have the same sustainability as something that is more grounded.  A good cozy writer should know when to quit and move on to a new series.

Historical setting
Not everything I read has a historical setting but it is definitely a huge plus in what makes a series my favorite.  Yes, I love the simpler time, the fascinating couture, the social customs and limitations, but honestly, the very best part is the lack of technology, specifically the internet.  Historical crime solvers must rely on their ingenuity and inquiry skills.  Now I am not discrediting modern detectives, but I truly love watching characters fit different pieces together.  I know that much of the detecting work could be completed a lot faster with modern tools, but what’s the point of a 50-page mystery!  I often think “why don’t they just look it up online” when I am reading a historical mystery before I remember that isn’t an option.

With characters spending days traveling by horseback or coach or waiting for letters to arrive, the tension of the story builds.  The reader often is sidetracked by the minutia of daily life and seemingly unimportant details; this adds depth and personality to the story and enables the reader to have a stronger grasp on the setting and characters and how they are woven together.

There is also something exotic and mystical about a historical setting; the grittiness seems darker and more threatening while the society and lifestyle creates a more glamorous and opulent feel.  I’ve always felt I that I was born in the wrong decade; reading historical mysteries helps me to channel my inner dreams.

Fun, quirky secondary characters
Remember, it is all about the characters for me.  Mystery books provide great opportunities for secondary characters to pop up over the course of a series.  These characters provide rich ambiance for the time period or foils for the different personalities of a protagonist.  They have the feel of that “crazy Aunt Edna” or “cousin Steve” that we all have in our families; the topic of holiday table conversations with details of their grand adventures, disasters, or both.  I think these characters add a dimension to the story to remind the readers that crime doesn’t occur in a bubble; life still goes on all around which is often what both helps and interferes with the solving of a crime.

Some of my favorite secondary characters are Bonnie Brock in the Lady Darby series, Sid and Gus in Rhys Bowen’s Molly Murphy mysteries, and Oscar in the Witchcraft mysteries by Juliet Blackwell.  Sometimes these characters are integral to the development of the plot, sometimes they create obstacles that interfere with the progression of the inquiry, and sometimes they just add a diversion of spice and humor to a darker theme.

Just a hint of romance
Okay, call me a hopeless romantic but I like a bit of a love story in my mysteries.  I like the tension between two characters when they aren’t sure who they can trust, and then how it builds to when they discover that must trust one another.  Relationships often cloud judgement and perception and this added depth creates more conflict in a story and therefore makes it more suspenseful for the reader.  I don’t ever want a relationship in a mystery book to take away from the mystery itself, but a good author with meld the two with thought and purpose.

I like how some relationships grow over the course of the series, like C.S. Harris’ Sebastian and Hero, Tasha Alexander’s Emily and Colin, or Julie Spencer-Fleming’s Russ and Clare.  In contrast, I enjoy how Ashley Weaver’s Amory and Milo stories jump right into an established marriage.  Then of course there is Brad Parks’ Carter Ross and Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum; who knows if they will ever settle down!  What does Keanu Reeves’ character say in the movie Speed:  I have to warn you; I’ve heard relationships based on intense experiences never work.  Ah, love . . .

Any other mystery buffs out there?  What are the “must-haves” for your favorite series?

Death in the English Countryside

death-in-the-english-countryside

Title:  Death in the English Countryside (Murder on Location 1)
Author:  Sara Rosett
Publication Date:  2014
ISBN:  978-1-500687304

Book Summary:
A degree in English literature and a fascination with Jane Austen is a fun college major but doesn’t provide many options in the career field so Kate Sharp is fortunate to have found a job as a location scout for Hollywood movies.  As a new film adaptation for Pride and Prejudice is ready to go into production, Kate’s boss Kevin travels to Nether Woodsmoor, a quaint village in England, that will hopefully provide locations perfect for the new film.  The cut-throat business of scouting requires them to be thorough, efficient, and fast.

But when Kevin fails to return after his scouting trip, Kate and office manager, Marci, become concerned that Kevin might have slipped back into his old addiction.  Knowing how lucrative the job is and with the production company calling regularly for updates, Kate travels to England in hopes of finding her wayward boss and keeping the profitable account.

Kate arrives to find Kevin’s luggage and laptop but no camera, and no Kevin.  Kate begins to travel through local pubs and stately country manors trying to retrace Kevin’s steps and find her elusive boss before the film’s pre-production crew bails on their company and Premier Locations goes out of business.

Book Commentary:
I’m always a bit skeptical of the Amazon “if you like this, then you might also like this,” but this particular series has popped up numerous times so I thought I would give it a try.  Of course, set in the idyllic English countryside and featuring a Jane Austen aficionado, the book wasn’t too much of a stretch!

I liked it!  It was a quick read that definitely falls into the cozy mystery category but it was fun with engaging characters, beautiful setting, and well-plotted story-line.  Kate is a very likable character and her quest to find her boss is logical and driven by an altruistic purpose.

Who might like this book:
If you like cozy mysteries, check this book out.  It looks like there are three more in the series plus a holiday novella.  I will be checking out more of these in the future!

Better Late Than Never

better-late-than-never

Title:  Better Late than Never (Library Lovers Mysteries 7 )
Author:  Jenn McKinlay
Publisher:  Penguin
Publication Date:  2016
ISBN:  978-0-399-58373-5

Book Summary:
Librarian Lindsay Norris feels that books back in the library for recirculation are worth the loss of any fines collected, and she organizes Briar Creek Public Library’s first overdue book amnesty day.  The flood of books is so overwhelming that Lindsay not only recruits her entire staff, but also the group of crafternoon ladies who come to the library weekly to craft, discuss books, and enjoy a lunch together.

A copy of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye wins the prize of the most overdue book at almost 10 years, but what is more shocking is that the person who checked it out was Candice Whitley, a local high school English teacher who was murdered.  The plot thickens when Lindsay and the staff realize that the book was checked out on the very day her body was discovered and that the killer was never found.

Always curious and possessed with a natural inclination to want to find the answers, Lindsay uses her research skills to look into this cold case.  The case may be cold, but it seems that the memories of the horror of Candice’s murder and the secrets contained are warming up and Lindsay finds her researching skills put her in the hot seat.

Book Commentary:
This is the seventh book in this delightful cozy series.  Jenn McKinlay writes three cozy series – the Library Lovers, the Hat Shop, and the Cupcake Bakery – and they all embody what makes a cozy mystery so enjoyable:  a fun protagonist, likeable characters, a fun setting, and plot that is interesting without being too complex.  Of the three series, I enjoy the Library Lovers the most; a combination of the library setting and book references interests me, and the book is also set on the Connecticut coast with several adventures on the open water.

Lindsay is a very likeable character and her rationale for research and curiosity are very believable.  The author weaves in a bit of romance with two gentlemen vying for Lindsay’s attention.

Who might like this book:
These books are perfect for the carpool lane or waiting in the doctor’s office.  Each time a new one comes out, I feel like I am visiting with an old friend.

Make sure that you read them in order!

Books Can Be Deceiving
Due or Die
Book, Line, and Sinker
Read It and Weep
On Borrowed Time
A Likely Story
Better Late Than Never

Four ALTERNATIVES TO A TRADITIONAL BOOK CLUB on Friday

keep-calm-and-join-book-club

Book Clubs are denizens of our current society.  They are places for wine-drinking, socializing, and sometimes even talking about books.  I have been fortunate to be part of a number of book clubs, but I have found that participation can be very tricky.  The key to a successful book club is that all members need to have the same purpose in mind; clubs can be very disjointed when some people want to use the time for socializing and others want an in-depth dissection of a book.  Don’t get me wrong; both are fine purposes but conflict and dissatisfaction can arise when everyone is not . . . so to speak . . . on the same page.

As an alternative to the traditional book club, I have put together four different perspectives on what a gathering of book readers, book lovers, and people who just need to get their nose out of a book and socialize more . . . eh, me . . . might look like.

Four ALTERNATIVES TO A TRADITIONAL BOOK CLUB on Friday

Bring two, get two
The premise of this is very simple.  Each guest brings two copies of a book that they enjoyed, made them think, or touched their heart.  One by one, each guest shares a little about herself: the kind of books she likes to read, her favorite authors, her reading inspirations.  Then, she describes the book she has brought to share.  After everyone has shared, each guest picks two different books and now has two brand new stories to read.

I had a party like this a few years ago and it was a great success.  With a group of guests who had varied reading styles and interests, the variety of books that were presented was diverse.  I liked having two books to choose.  The first book I chose was one that I thought I would like; it was a genre that I enjoy and something similar to my normal reading routine.  The second book was a reach for me; I picked something I wouldn’t normally have even looked at.  I chose it as a challenge and based on my friend’s description of her own reading interests, I took a chance and enjoyed it.  This presented an opportunity to read something new without the pressure of having to analyze it in a group setting.  We had a great evening.

“Mystery” book
I must admit that I stole this basic idea from Pinterest . . . that evil, time-sucking website.  It is described as a “blind date with a book.”  I adapted the idea for a Halloween “mystery” theme.  Each guest brought a book wrapped in craft paper.  On the outside, the guests wrote clues about the book plot, characters, genre, and/or themes.  Once again we all shared our reading interests and then read our clues.  After everyone made a grab for a new book, we re-read the clues and then opened the paper and read the back-cover summary.

Once again I was astounded at how creative people were.  Some clues were lists, some were riddles, one had a symbolic bookmark attached, and one creative friend made a three-dimensional piece of artwork on the cover as her clue.  We had such a variety of genres!  Everyone was taking notes about books that sounded interesting to them so we really went away with even more future reading ideas.

Holiday two for one
I haven’t had this book party yet . . . but invitations will be going out soon!  Friends!  Put on your thinking caps!  I think that books and food go together well . . . okay, just about everything and food goes well together.  For this gathering, guests will bring a favorite holiday book – a novel, a cookbook, a children’s book; just something special that represents the season.   AND, they will bring a food item that represents that book.  I had originally thought that a cookie exchange – book party combination would be a great idea, but really it could be anything.  Mulled wine, homemade fudge, fruitcake!  Anything that might either represent or compliment the book.

We will celebrate the season, I will clean my house and have the motivation to get it decorated, and everyone will go home with a new book and a treat to share!  It’s a win-win situation!

Spring Cleaning purge
I think I might need to start another blog.  I absolutely love spring cleaning . . . yes, I am weird.  I love the purge of getting rid of things that clutter my space and my life.  I love the fresh, clean, simplicity of spring cleaning.  My family always gets a little nervous this time of year; they aren’t sure what . . . or who . . . might get put out on the curb!!

For this book party, my thought is that everyone brings a few books that they have on the shelf that they enjoyed but don’t need to keep.  We will swap out our old books and recycle them by having others enjoy them.  And, we won’t spend any money purchasing new books!  Granted, the book collection at home won’t be any smaller, but at least the books there will provide fresh, new reading options when the spring cleaning is done!

Anyone out there have any other alternative book party suggestions?