Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful RuinsBeautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An overly clever pastiche with an ensemble of mostly unlikeable characters. The main storyline involving the almost-romance between Pasquale and Dee is sweet. Most of the characters border on caricatures. Some of the writing is quite lovely, and it does have its humorous moments. We go back and forth between the 1960’s and the present day, following a variety of people. How they all relate to each other doesn’t come together until the end of the book. Then throw in some chapters like the first chapter of one character’s unfinished war novel, another character’s movie pitch about the Donner Party, or the first chapter of the movie producer’s autobiography. A little pretentious, but it sort of works. Woven throughout is the theme of looking for happiness by following your desires, no matter how ruinous or self-destructive those desires might be. Pasquale and Dee make a different choice – to do the right thing instead of what they think will bring them happiness. I think a second theme might be the hunger that we all have to create something that will outlive ourselves. Hence the Donner Party with its images of cannibalism, one character’s obsession with anorexia, various forms of artistic expression – wartime artwork in a cave, movies, plays and music – keeping dreams alive (extreme plastic surgery?), and sublimating the loss of those dreams through alcohol, drug abuse, and pornography. It’s a book that makes for interesting discussion. Of course, I enjoyed Richard Burton as a character and I now have to watch the movie Cleopatra.

Book Description: The story begins in 1962. On the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies a tall, thin woman approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, an American starlet, and she is dying. And the story begins again today when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio’s back lot, searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.

The Boleyn Deceit

The Boleyn Deceit (The Boleyn Trilogy, #2)The Boleyn Deceit by Laura Andersen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am continuing to enjoy this series very much. As I think I said in my review of The Boleyn King, I wasn’t sure I would like the alternate history angle, but it is very well done. The political background is familiar, but the characters are new, so you don’t know from history what is going to happen. The Boleyn King was almost a coming of age story – William comes into his majority, but is still very much dependent on his circle of childhood friends, Minuette, Dominic, and his sister Elizabeth. The Boleyn Deceit takes on a somewhat darker character as William learns to exercise his power and is subject to the not-unfamiliar-to-us Tudor-style sense of entitlement and arrogance. Minuette has grown up and is no longer torn in her flirtations between William and Dominic. She loves Dominic, but William’s love for her and determination to make her his wife puts her in a very precarious and dangerous position. The court intrigues around Mary and the Protestant/Catholic tension continues. William is negotiating marriage agreements with the French (to appease the Catholics) which he has no intentions of carrying out. Likewise, he is setting up negotiations with the Spanish King Philip for the hand of Elizabeth. Like the first novel, not much is resolved here, so the story is to be continued in The Boleyn Reckoning.

Book Description: The regency period is over and William Tudor, now King Henry IX, sits alone on the throne. But England must still contend with those who doubt his legitimacy, both in faraway lands and within his own family. To diffuse tensions and appease the Catholics, William is betrothed to a young princess from France, but still he has eyes for only his childhood friend Minuette, and court tongues are wagging. Even more scandalous—and dangerous, if discovered—is that Minuette’s heart and soul belong to Dominic, William’s best friend and trusted advisor. Minuette must walk a delicate balance between her two suitors, unable to confide in anyone, not even her friend Elizabeth, William’s sister, who must contend with her own cleaved heart. In this irresistible tale, the secrets that everyone keeps are enough to change the course of an empire.


RoomRoom by Emma Donoghue

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Caution: Review may contain spoilers!

This book was a bit different from what I expected. I had just assumed it would end with their escape from captivity, but that actually happened relatively early on in the book. So this is Jack’s world through his eyes – Room, the only home he has ever known, the escape, and then adjusting to life Outside. The escape plan was very far-fetched for me. Would a desperate and depressed mother really put a 5-year-old in such a dangerous position? We don’t know her thinking since this is Jack’s story. I just found it somewhat unbelievable that such a plan might actually work. But that is a minor quibble. The charm of the story is Jack, and the picture he paints of his world. The innocence of the narrator removes us a bit from the horrific aspects of the mother’s ordeal, so we can focus on his experience and how he adjusts to a much bigger world than he has ever imagined. Unlike his mother, he loves Room, and must come to terms with the loss of what was his entire world. There is much food for thought here, and I am looking forward to a very lively book club discussion.

Book Description: To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it’s where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits. Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it’s not enough…not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son’s bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work. Told entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, ROOM is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.

Happy Pi Day!

The Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book: Uncommon Recipes from the Celebrated Brooklyn Pie ShopThe Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book: Uncommon Recipes from the Celebrated Brooklyn Pie Shop by Emily Elsen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a WOW book for me, and one that I just might have to purchase, since I want to make every pie in the book! So why “only” 4 stars? Mostly just to caution readers that this is probably not a pie book for beginners. Yes, there are detailed instructions given, but I found them just a bit overly fussy. (Seriously? Chilling the pie crust dough at three different steps of construction?) Experienced bakers will know where they can take shortcuts. Also, many of the recipes call for some rather esoteric ingredients. Like Angostura bitters (used in almost every recipe), vanilla paste, rose water, and wild ginger. Again – experienced bakers will know what can be left out, and or substituted for. That said, if you are looking for something beyond the ordinary, this might be the book for you (or me!) The illustrations alone will give you ideas for lattice and other decorative crust treatments. I like the seasonal arrangement of the book, and the emphasis on high-quality, fresh ingredients. They also provide online sources for some of the more hard-to-find ingredients.

I decided to test one of the recipes for Pi Day (March 14.) Had to use what I had on hand without shopping for ingredients. To my mind, that is the mark of a good cookbook – or maybe it says more about the cook – can I use the recipes for ideas without sticking to it exactly… So I foraged in my freezer and came up with a bag still left of last year’s rhubarb crop. Too early here in Minnesota for fresh! I also had a bag of storebought rhubarb to add to that. Then I looked at the several rhubarb pie recipes in the book and settled on the Rhuby Razz Square Pie. Perfect! I had a half a bag of frozen raspberries to use up. Still not enough fruit for the recipe, so I added a bag of frozen blueberries. There was a Bluebarb Slab Pie recipe in the book, but that called for double quantities, so I stuck with the square pie recipe.2014 03 16 001 Cleaning out the freezer I could have made it in a regular pie dish, but I liked the novelty of trying it in a square pan. I liked the addition of cider vinegar to the crust recipe. That might just become my new go-to crust recipe. For the filling, I did not have any arrowroot. Substituted some egg replacer (potato/tapioca starch). Nor did I have any Angostura bitters. I substituted a little lemon juice. It turned out beautifully and tasted delicious! My biggest problem was what to call it. Razzy Bluebarb Pie? Blueby Razz Pie? Rhuby Razzblue Pie?2014 03 16 003 Breakfast

Book Description: Melissa and Emily Elsen, the twenty-something sisters who are proprietors of the wildly popular Brooklyn pie shop and cafe Four & Twenty Blackbirds, have put together a pie-baking book that’s anything but humble. This stunning collection features more than 60 delectable pie recipes organized by season, with unique and mouthwatering creations such as Salted Caramel Apple, Green Chili Chocolate, Black Currant Lemon Chiffon, and Salty Honey. There is also a detailed and informative techniques section. Lavishly designed, FOUR & TWENTY BLACKBIRDS PIE BOOK contains 90 full-color photographs by Gentl & Hyers, two of the most sought-after food photographers working today.

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Guest Post – The Well-Read Dragons, February 2014

Patrick O’Brian’s first novel makes a splash with the Well-Read Dragons
Guest post by Robert Minish
On February 1, [2014,] the Well-Read Dragons held their bi-monthly meeting at Black Bear Crossing at Como Park [in Saint Paul, MN.] Testimonies, originally published under the title Three Bear Witness, gave rise to a stimulating discussion.

Many St. David’s members, no doubt, as well as a few of our book club members, are familiar with the bulk of O’Brian’s works, the Aubrey/Maturin nautical historical novels. Those are vastly different from Testimonies, which is set in North Wales, where O’Brian and his first wife lived from 1946-1949.

The setting of the novel closely resembles Cym Croesor, a remote valley. Jim Perrin, writing in the New Welsh Review, tells of rereading three books, Testimonies, first published in 1952, John Wain’s A Winter in the Hills, and The Welsh Girl. He describes the three as “markedly similar in settings among the agricultural/industrial interface along the northern and western margins of Eryri: sheep country; slate country; Kate Roberts Country.” Croesor

Our group found Testimonies to be a very compelling description of the dark side of life that can be found in some small rural communities. Though the main character, Joseph Aubrey Pugh, and the heroine, Bronwen Vaughan, fall deeply in love, their relationship is never consummated, and, they may have thought, had been kept hidden. The locals, stirred by a malevolent minister, Pritchard Ellis, jump to the conclusion of adultery and ostracize the two lovers, but especially Bronwen. Perrin observes that “O’Brian excels in the use of the unspecified to add imaginative force.” This technique is apparent at the end when Bronwen either is poisoned or poisons herself.

Our discussion brought forth many quotations showing O’Brian’s mastery with words and his observations on Wales and the Welsh.

“Where’s the Welsh Gentry? It is either extinct or anglicized.”

“You know the great importance of the chapels here, and the prestige and influence a deacon has: you can hardly overestimate in the high farming valleys where there is no other authority or public opinion—where public opinion is integral and undiluted, I should say.”

That quotation prompted Austin to tell about a chapel in Wales where the deacons acted as little gods. There was a time when a local garbageman was elected a Deacon. The head Deacon welcomed him and said they would be pleased to accept his contributions, though they doubted that there would be many. The garbageman replied that he was always sent to where there was rubbish to be collected.

“His wife [Bronwen] was a big help to him. She was very pretty when she was young; she came from the same part of the country as he did but I had not known her before she came to our valley.”

“They said she was not very great as a housekeeper; however that may be, she was a great help to him.” Clearly, her failure as a housekeeper was a fault not fully overcome by her being “a great help to him….working before the light and after it.”

“There is Rousseau’s saying that every man is inwardly sure he is the most virtuous being alive. But how far down can that go? All the way to an atheistic parricide who lives by robbing the blind? Or is there a point where it must be abandoned, and if there is, what does it feel like after.”

The Preface by Delmore Schwartz praises the quality of O’Brian’s writing: “At first one thinks the book’s emotional power is remarkable enough for the beauty and exactness of phrasing and rhythm which can only be characterized by quotation:….But the reader soon forgets the style as such—a forgetting that is the greatest accomplishment of prose—in the enchantment and vividness of the story.”

What Schwartz quoted was the opening paragraphs of the “testimony” of John Aubrey Pugh. Jim Perrin in his review also quotes from the opening paragraph. What better way to encourage people to read this novel than to repeat the first few sentences from the beginning of Pugh’s testimony:

It was September when I first came into the valley: the top of it was hidden in fine rain, and the enclosing ridges on either side merged into a grey, formless cloud. There was no hint of the two peaks that were shown on the map, high and steep on each side of the valley’s head. This I saw from the windows of the station cab as it brought me up the mountainous road from the plains, a road so narrow that in places the car could barely run between the stone walls.

With that quality of writing, Perrin is “grateful for the one ‘Welsh’ novel O’Brian did write before the rigging of his imagination became entirely salt-encrusted.” I believe all members of the Well-Read Dragons would agree.

Primrose Day

Primrose Day title pagePrimrose Day by Carolyn Haywood

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was my favorite book in 1st or 2nd grade. I read it over and over. It must have made a big impression. All these years later I have to wonder did my interest in England start with this book or are we drawn to things because of past lives? Did I identify with Merry because we both had flowers for middle names? Or because I had moved from New England to Minnesota when I was 5? I’m sure the language differences weren’t as great, but there were some. I loved that the British word for truck was lorry, pronounced the same as my nickname – Laurie. I’ve always loved learning about other countries and cultures and am still enamored of the British Isles.

I could not find a cover photo of the original edition, and I do not like the modern covers on reprints of this book, so I’ve scanned the title page above. I remember the cover as being orange and it probably had the heavy duty “library binding.” I requested the original 1942 edition from Interlibrary Loan. It came from the Twin Cities Anderson Library Children’s Literature Collection. It is a plain yellow cloth cover and still has the old pocket in the back with the date due card. I have to admit that just thumbing through it and reading a few words here and there and looking at the original drawings (by Carolyn Haywood) brought tears to my eyes.

Primrose Day
Carolyn Haywood wrote stories about real children doing ordinary things. And even though it was first published in 1942, these are things that children still do today – playing with pets, dealing with homesickness, being teased at school, making presents, going on picnics, going fishing, making friends. I remember the chapter on going to an American school and being teased for using different words for things. And I remember the chapter about Merry’s birthday, and learning that primroses don’t grow wild in America. Merry would always go and pick primroses with her mother on her birthday and now she can’t even pick primroses with her aunt. But never fear – her aunt has a wonderful surprise in store.


English primroses (Primula vulgaris)

I love gardening and I have planted primroses in my garden. The English variety are not hardy here. I had some very pretty pink Japanese primroses for a couple years, but even those are really Zone 5 and they didn’t come back last year. I must get some more, because I really do love them! I don’t think I have any pictures of them blooming, but here are some beaded primroses that I made:


I did not remember the Scottie dog in the story, although I have always liked Scottie dogs. There were a couple of typos and things in the book that I wouldn’t have noticed as a child probably – the cook says she is “pealing” onions. And there is a reference to Mr. Ramsey being a “Scotchman” which made me cringe.

I also don’t remember the knitting, but I suppose it was around this age that I expressed an interest in learning. My grandmother tried to teach me. At first she thought she needed to reverse everything because I am left handed. I protested that she really didn’t need to do that. Us lefties are quite used to mentally reversing things for ourselves, having done it all our lives. It wouldn’t have been a problem for me at age 7 or 8, but my grandmother insisted that she had to do it for me and got herself hopelessly confused. I finally convinced her that I would be fine knitting right handed – it didn’t matter to me since knitting uses both hands equally!

Book Description: Merry Primrose Ramsey lives in England with her parents and her imaginary friend, Molly. At the outbreak of World War II, she is sent to live with her relatives in America, in a small town called Rose Valley. On the way over she meets a real best friend named Molly, who eventually moves to Rose Valley, too. Merry and her American cousin Jerry take to each other immediately and find all kinds of adventures, including rescuing a carrier pigeon and going fishing alone. Merry’s new life is not without trials. She misses her parents. She gets teased at school for the way she talks. Her puppy unravels the scarf she has spent weeks knitting for her daddy far away in England. And her birthday just won’t be the same without primroses to pick and make into a primrose chain like she always did in England…

I have been doing a bit of “Googling” and decided that Rose Valley in the story must be Rose Valley, PA, which is near Philadelphia (where Carolyn Haywood lived). It is a very small town, but would be within a couple hours train ride of NYC. It was settled by Quakers and has a very interesting history, which you can read about here:,_Pennsylvania.

My 2014 Reading Goals

Yes, it’s already March, but I set out my 2014 reading goals last November or so. Just thought I should get around to saying what my goals are, and what sort of books I might be reviewing this year. 48 books was my overall goal last year, and I reached 47. So I’m not going to increase it this year. 4 books a month is about all I can manage!

12 of these are determined by my face-to-face book club called the Daytimers. We read a different genre every month although our categories may change slightly from year to year. I joined this group in order to read things that are outside of my comfort zone, but since I select all the books for the group, I can tweak it to suit myself! No “Harlequin” romances for example! I’ll pick a love story with some literary merit…for example, The Shoemaker’s Wife, which we read for February this year. Other categories include a children’s book, mystery, historical fiction, a prize winner, a classic, a Minnesota author, a biography or memoir, etc.

The next 12 I am calling leftovers from last year. That includes more books related to Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice, and the Tudors.

A new challenge is to read 12 or so books that include “Wife” in the title. I just thought that would be fun and different. It seemed like there have been a lot of such books lately: The Paris Wife, The Aviator’s Wife, The Tiger’s Wife, and of course, again, The Shoemaker’s Wife. So you’ll see that as a running theme this year.

I am hoping that 6 or so books will actually have something to do with Wales! For a long time, I have meant to post some guest reviews along those lines, as well. Our local St. David’s Society has a book group that meets bimonthly. I have not been participating, but I do have permission to post their reviews from the Society’s newsletter.

And finally, I want to revisit some of my favorite books from childhood and young adulthood – books that made a deep impression, and that I still remember after all these years. My very first favorite book was a picture book about a baby bunny who decides he is tired of carrots and goes around asking the other animals about what they eat. I remember he is quite dismayed by the dog’s bone. Eventually he decides it’s okay to just be a bunny and goes back home to his very worried mama. I’ve always thought the title was something like The Naughty Bunny or The Runaway Bunny. But it is NOT The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown nor is it The Naughty Bunny by Richard Scarry. I have searched for this book for 40 years, with no luck. So if it rings a bell with someone, PLEASE let me know. The illustrations were realistic, but cute, kind of like Garth Williams. I used to think it was a Golden Book, but I have searched the entire Golden Book catalog without finding it. It had to have been published before 1960, possibly well before then, since a lot of family books were gotten from book sales and yard sales. I haven’t given up hope of finding it, but I have been looking for a very, very long time.


EnthusiasmEnthusiasm by Polly Shulman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was pleasantly surprised by this sweet little book. It’s a quick read about friendship, high school crushes, school activities, embarrassing parents, and other teenaged angst. The love story aspect is a little weak, but this is high school after all, and it’s G-rated, so okay for younger teens. I enjoyed the interplay between the two girls. I was the quiet bookworm among my more outgoing friends. I would have liked a take-charge friend like Ashleigh, but Julie seemed much too passive about everything. I probably was like that in high school, too. It takes time and experience to learn to be assertive and stand up for yourself. Not that Julie is bullied – it’s just that her agreeableness and fear of hurting someone’s feelings are bound to do more harm than good in the long run. The boys were far more charming and thoughtful than I remember any boys being in high school! Heck, I’m still looking for my poetry-writing, fencing and sailing enthusiast Mr. Darcy myself! I enjoyed the side-plot of the high school musical, and Julie’s relationships with her parents, the mother coping with unemployment, and her remarried father and the attempts (unwelcome!) of his new wife to ingratiate herself into Julie’s life. I might have rated this higher if I weren’t so far removed from my teenage years! Still, it was a nice bit of fluff in-between more serious reads, and I enjoyed the Jane Austen angle.

Book Description: Julie is a quiet bookworm. Her best friend Ashleigh, on the other hand, is an “Enthusiast.” As long as they have known each other, Ash has been obsessed with one thing or another. Now it is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which just happens to be Julie’s favorite book. Before Julie knows what hit her, she and Ash are decked-out in 19th-century garb, smelling like mothballs, and crashing the all-boys prep school formal dance. Their mission is to find their personal Misters Darcy. But when they set their sights on the same young gentleman, their journey into the world of proper English courtship looks like it might cause a broken heart or two.