North Wind Manor by T. L. Chasse

My mother in law hailed from Maine and years ago we read and exchanged a series of books by Elizabeth Ogilive  — romantic mysteries set in the small villages and islands of Maine.  Ever since then, and because she was one of my favorite people, I have a soft spot towards anything set in Maine.

So when North Wind Manor came across my radar — just look at that cover — I broke my own rule and asked the author for a copy of this self-published debut to review here on Book Barmy.  Happily, Ms. Chasse agreed and I closed the last chapter just the other night with a sigh of contentment.

Turns out this was a lovely first read for my holiday reading season.

Katie escapes her abusive step-father, to live with her long-lost grandparents in New Hampshire.  On her way, she gets off the bus at a rest stop and mistakenly gets back on a different bus headed to Maine.  Confused, without any belongings, and sick with flu, she arrives in the village of Vintage, Maine and is rescued by Bobby, who himself was rescued by an elderly man named Harry.

Harry has recently died and left his home, North Wind Manor to Bobby who befriended him.  Bobby now has a large home and opens up a private room and bath to Katie as she recovers her health.

Bobby and Katie form a sweet friendship and Bobby’s funny and gentle manner slowly wins Katie’s cautious affection. With Katie, we are taken into the comforting arms of small town Vintage, Maine and Bobby’s friends and relatives. Once recovered, Katie finds a job at the local diner where she slowly starts to feel part of the village.

Beneath all this happiness, Katie knows she can’t stay forever, so she contacts her grandparents in New Hampshire.  Arrangements are made for her to go and stay with them for a bit.  Here the story takes an unexpected turn. I will tell you no more — other than there’s a heroic rescue, interesting characters, and some exiting events.

North Wind Manor is a delightful, non-violent story, populated with real characters.  It is a credit to Ms. Chasse’s pacing that I found myself turning the pages, just as with a thriller, to be sure everything turned out alright – and you can trust me, everything does.

Some of my favorite bits were the descriptions of the Maine weather and the lovely coziness of being snowed-in (as if snowed in myself, I cuddled up with a cup of cocoa).  I liked the characters and enjoyed their dialogue which is sprinkled with gentle humor and insight. There’s a wonderful homage to Beauty and the Beast when Bobby shows Katie his library. But the best thing about North Wind Manor is the storyline — love found, then lost, the value of friends and community — and finding one’s real family in an unexpected place.

If there are any editors or publishers reading this, you’ll want to keep an eye on Ms. Chasse.  While still a bit raw around the edges, she has excellent pacing and is a natural storyteller.  In my humble opinion, Ms. Chasse and her Vintage, Maine books have the potential of becoming a best-selling series.

 

Thank you to the author for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest and non-compensated review.

Packages are mailed, cards sent, and now I’m able to get to my holiday reading, so stay tuned…

 

The man who shared his books and multiplied them

I’m not sure I could do this…but here’s someone who can, did and still does…

Hernando Guanlao is a sprightly man in his early 60s, with one abiding passion – books.

They’re his pride and joy, which is just as well because, whether he likes it or not, they seem to be taking over his house.

Guanlao, known by his nickname Nanie, has set up an informal library outside his home in central Manila, to encourage his local community to share his joy of reading.
The idea is simple. Readers can take as many books as they want, for as long as they want – even permanently. As Guanlao says: “The only rule is that there are no rules.”

It’s a policy you might assume would end very quickly – with Guanlao having no books at all.

But in fact, in the 12 years he’s been running his library – or, in his words, his book club – he’s found that his collection has grown rather than diminished, as more and more people donate to the cause.

“It seems to me that the books are speaking to me. That’s why it multiplies like that,” he says with a smile. “The books are telling me they want to be read… they want to be passed around.”

Guanlao started his library in 2000, shortly after the death of his parents. He was looking for something to honour their memory, and that was when he hit upon the idea of promoting the reading habit he’d inherited.

“I saw my old textbooks upstairs and decided to come up with the concept of having the public use them,” he says.

So he put the books – a collection of fewer than 100 – outside the door of his house to see if anyone wanted to borrow them. They did, and they brought the books back with others to add to the collection – and the library was born.

Such is the current turnover that Guanlao confesses he has no idea how many books are in his possession, but there are easily 2,000 or 3,000 on the shelves and in the boxes stacked outside his front door.

And that’s before you move inside, where books are rapidly encroaching into every available space. You can hardly get into the front room, the car has long since been moved out of the garage, and books are even stacked all the way up the stairs.

The library is not advertised, but somehow, every day, a steady stream of people find their way there.

On the day we visited, some shop assistants came to browse during their lunch break, a local man borrowed a weighty tome about the history of St John’s Gospel, and some schoolchildren picked up some textbooks – although I noticed they were taking some fashion magazines as well.

But it’s people like Celine who sustain the library. She lives down the road from Guanlao, and she arrived with two bulging bags of books – some of which she was returning, others of which she was planning to donate.

She says she loves the concept of the library, because Filipinos – certainly those who are not particularly wealthy – have limited access to books.

“I haven’t been to any public libraries except the national library in Manila,” she says, explaining that it is quite far away – and it is not possible to borrow any books.

If she wants to buy a book, the average price is about 300 pesos (£4.50, $7), she says. Imported books – especially children’s books – could easily be twice that amount.
“Considering the income here, I think parents have other priorities,” she adds.

To help the poorest communities in Manila, Nanie Guanlao does not wait for them to find him – he goes to them, on his “book bike”, which has a large basket piled high with books.

He’s also started to set his sights outside Manila. He’s already given several boxes of books to a man trying to set up a similar venture in Bicol province, a 10-hour drive from Manila, and his latest plan is to help a friend who wants to start up a library in the far south of the country.

She wants to set up a “book boat”, travelling around the islands of Sulu and Basilan – an area better known as a hideout for separatist rebels than for any great access to literature.

As we sat outside Nanie Guanlao’s house in the midday sun, watching people browse through his collection, he tells me why he thought it was worth spending all his time – even to the point of giving up his job and surviving purely on his savings – to maintain the library.

“You don’t do justice to these books if you put them in a cabinet or a box,” he says.
“A book should be used and reused. It has life, it has a message.
“As a book caretaker, you become a full man.”

Nanie Guanlao’s story was featured on the BBC World Service programme. You can also read it at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19547365

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The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

I write this through bleary eyes.  I stayed up way too late the last two nights, watching the entire first season of a wonderful new series on Amazon TV.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

I knew nothing about it other than it was set in 1950’s New York City.

Count me in — love the 50’s, adore NYC.

Well, turns out I stumbled onto a real treat – some of the best television around.

Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan from House of Cards), is a cheery 1958 New York City woman who has everything she’s ever wanted–the perfect husband, two kids, and an elegant Upper West Side apartment perfect for hosting Yom Kippur dinner — until her life implodes.  Her husband leaves her for his secretary, but what hurts Midge more than the affair, is that his chosen secretary is extraordinarily dim-witted – the ultimate betrayal.

While trying to put her life back together, Midge cultivates her natural gift for making people laugh (the series opens with her giving her own funny speech at her wedding).

Ms.Brosnahan sparkles in the pilot’s early scenes, as the very image of a perfect housewife; tirelessly making brisket, doing calisthenics to keep her bridal figure, and in a wonderful scene — getting up before the alarm to fix her hair and makeup, then crawling back to bed so her husband sees her all pretty – when he wakes up.

Until her husband leaves — then the real Midge begins to emerge, no longer hiding behind the happy homemaker, or the pre-dawn lipstick — she is snarky, funny and whip-smart.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is about her struggle to break into the world of standup comedy (obviously all-male) , while now living with her parents and holding down a job in a department store.

She makes friends with the legendary Lenny Bruce and finds an acidic, but endearing, manager. Throughout it all, Midge remains exuberant – and that’s the best thing about this series — Midge’s delightful combination of Upper East Side privilege stirred up with a bit of street smart and a raunchily funny sense of humor.

Her first stand-up act is accidental and performed while drunk on kosher wine — and is one of the best monologues I ever watched — both brutally honest and ferociously funny.

Midge’s confessional comedy style is a homage to the early women comics, such as Joan Rivers, who first broke into the male dominated stand-up comedy circuit.

There’s a great cast of wonderful characters.  Her father is played by Tony Shalob, there’s her prickly manager (again some wonderful dialogue there), and even Jane Lynch has a wonderful cameo role.

I’ll stop now, you’ll just have to watch for yourself.

The show was written and created by Amy Sherman-Palladino who also created the Gilmore Girls series — which I never watched, but now may have to do so, if the writing and dialogue are as stellar as Mrs. Maisel.

So, if you have Amazon TV – I highly recommend this show, but no need to binge watch as I did– you can watch it one episode at a time -but only if you’re made of stronger stuff and, unlike me, able to turn it off.

NPR did a quick segment on the series  Here

Fair warning:  There is profanity and some very dirty (but very funny) jokes – oh get over yourselves  – Just watch it.

 

Us by David Nicholls

You can rest assured Book Barmy followers, we’re done with dark thrillers for awhile.

Time for something completely different.

I read another book by Mr. Nicholls (One Day) a long time ago and was not enthralled. I found it one-dimensional and it often trespassed into a sticky-sweet romance.

So, when one of my favorite booktubers, Wilde Reads raved about Us by Mr. Nicholls I was skeptical, but in dire need of a break from dark thrillers – I borrowed it from the library for our recent trip down south.

Douglas and Connie, a British couple have planned a vacation through Europe, but it’s nearly called off when Connie wakes up and says “I think I want to leave you.” 

Douglas forges ahead and cajoles his wife to enjoy one last hurrah with their teenage son, who is soon off to college.   And thus begins a bittersweet and awkward journey through Europe. 

The past and present are told in many short chapters.  The family is on a forced march through Europe following Douglas’s precise itinerary, carefully laid out in numerous spread sheets.  

Douglas and Connie’s past relationship is slowly revealed  — how they met and fell in love, despite being complete opposites. Connie is an uninhibited artist, while Douglas is an introverted biochemist – they marry, inhabit a bohemian London apartment, have a child.  We see Douglas struggle with Connie’s artistic and unconventional upbringing of their son, and watch as Connie gives up her art and they move out of London to a larger house with a garden.  All seems to be going well – or is it? 

These are real people — Douglas, well-meaning but suffering from a lack of spontaneity; Connie, beautiful, charming, and artistic — and their son, Albie, a typical teenager filled with scorn for adult conservatism.

The dynamic between Douglas and Connie is funny and genuinely touching.

’I was looking forward to us growing old together. Me and you, growing old and dying together.’ 

‘Douglas, who in their right mind would look forward to that?’”

So they’re off to Europe. There are painful scenes when Douglas is trying desperately to ensure everyone is having a good time, but these are contrasted with laugh out loud funny incidents, such as when it turns out Douglas has mistakenly booked the three of them into a questionable hotel in Amsterdam…

“Dad”, asked Albie “have you booked us into a sex hotel?” and they began to laugh.  It’s not a sex hotel, it’s boutique, I insisted.  “Douglas”, said Connie, “tapping the print of the bound Japanese lady, is that a half hitch or a bowline?”              I did not answer, through it was a bowline.

What I most enjoyed about Us was the subtle, bittersweet, and unflinchingly honest writing. 

I think our marriage has run its course.  I think I want to leave you.  It was like trying to go about my business with an axe embedded in my skull.

I could especially relate to this, about Douglas’s ability to appreciate modern art

It’s not about what you liked and didn’t like, Connie would reply, it’s about what it made you feel.  More often than not, it made me feel foolish and conventional.

And I had to nod in agreement with this about parties;

Because parties, dinner parties in particular, had always seemed to be a pitiless form of gladiatorial combat, with laurel garlands bestowed to the most witty, successful and attractive, and the corpses of the defeated lying bleeding on the painted floorboards.

This is a cynical, bittersweet, yet loving portrait of a love — of a relationship. A reminder that not every couple can be happy, no matter how much they love each other.  These are real and familiar characters; especially the befuddled Douglas, certain he can fix something unfixable if only he applied enough logic, pragmatism, and unfailing optimism.

Mr. Nicholls does not give us a happily ever after ending, no perfect tying up of loose ends.  This is a civilized yet loving portrait of the slipping away of a marriage.  Like Nora Ephron’s, “Heartburn”, this a funny and touching novel about a situation which, I’m certain, living through would not be at all funny.   

The Blackhouse by Peter May

I sat up and paid attention when The New York Times Book Review (Marilyn Stasio) raved: “Peter May is a writer I’d follow to the ends of the earth.”  So, of course I added this author to my TBR list.

The Blackhouse was the final in a string of thrillers I read in a row –and, it turns out, I saved the best for last.

The Blackhouse is the first in a trilogy based in the Scottish Hebrides and featuring Edinburgh cop, Fin Macleod.   Finn is sent to his childhood home on Lewis where a grisly murder on the isolated island seems to be a copy of a murder he has been investigating in Edinburgh.

Our detective is somewhat relieved to leave Edinburgh, as he grieves over the death of his young son, while half-heartily trying to prevent his marriage from crumbling.

But first a few warnings:

If you’re at all squeamish, you’ll have to tiptoe through; 1) a full and grisly autopsy, and 2) an honored, traditional, but gruesome, gannet hunt on a small island. 

If you’re expecting a standard police procedural set in the unconventional Outer Hebrides, you’re happily in for more than you bargained for ~~ this thriller has depth and power.

Now that you have read the Book Barmy safety warnings, fasten your seatbelts, because you are in for a great mystery read.

Mr. May is an extraordinary writer, able to take us seamlessly between two narratives.  Masterfully moving from first person to develop Fin’s story growing up on Lewis, and then the third person to tell the current day story– Fin’s broken and disillusioned adult childhood friends, the crime, and its resolution. 

Mr. May has a gift for developing his characters, all of which are remarkable, but Fin is an especially likeable hero.  Having the grand experience of staying in the Outer Hebrides many years ago, I can attest that he also gives the reader unbelievably lovely descriptions of the harsh life in the Outer Hebrides — bleak, windy, and yet starkly beautiful.

 

 

 

 

The plot is a compelling mix of retribution, revelations, and intrigue.  The Blackhouse uses the traditional guga bird (gannet) harvest not only as a pivotal plot point, but also showcases its cultural role in the lives of the island community. Gory certainly, but informative.

High accolades for what turns out to be not only a tightly plotted thriller, but an insightful treatise on growing up, moving away, then coming home — one you thought you’d moved beyond.

From the introduction:

Three things that come without asking:  fear, love and jealousy. A Gaelic proverb

And thank you Mr. May for an absolute stunner of an ending.

There are two more in the Lewis series, guess who found both at the recent library book sale – score!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An advanced readers copy was provided by Quercus via Netgalley

 

A Diverse Trip – Part Two

Second Stop:  Tehachapi, California

“Uhh, hey look we’re not in Palm Springs anymore…”

Yes, we were greeted by a herd of elk, this guy, obviously in charge.  We watched as Bubba here and his harem of at least seven females passed through.

Where is Tehachapi?  Well, the nearest big city is Bakersfield, California. It’s up in the hills and home to many fascinating things ~ at least for one of us.

The largest wind farm facility in California, which we toured on the first day…

Strangely beautiful, these windmills are everywhere on the hills and those are black tailed deer in the last photo.

Day Two:  we waited for a train — then another train — and then another train.  Why?  Well, who knew? But Tehachapi is the home of the world famous Tehachapi Railroad Loop.

Let me try and explain…

without nodding off…

Apparently an engineering marvel, and built back in the 1800’s this loop allows freight trains to travel a circuitous route, in which the track passes over itself, a design which lessens the angle of the grade.  (OK I stole that from Wikipedia – did you think I could even try to remember such interesting facts?)

We climb up a hill to watch for a train to go through this loop, but once up there Husband finally reveals that the trains come every 15 minutes (more or less).  So I pulled out my trusty book, found some warm sun and a picnic table and we waited for the train (but no that was trains) — to loop through a series of tunnels and hard turns so you see the train wind back on itself.   Husband took a massive amount of photos, these are the best.

But wait, there’s more, he exclaimed as he returned (I had retreated back to the warm car after the third train passing) — there’s a railroad museum in town.  I tried to hide my excitement as we drove down the hill.  Luckily there was a quilt shop just across the street, so someone missed the fascinating museum.

Day Three:  we had a lovely hike up into the hills where we saw more deer and lots of blue sky.  Then relaxed in our cabin with books and adult beverages.

Day Four:  Husband Bucket List check off

Because of the winds (remember the wind farm? -how could you forget?) there’s an airport offering glider plane rides and lessons.  Husband was very excited, he has always wanted to do this.  So, with my subdued agreement, he booked himself a beginners lesson.

A glider is a flimsy lightweight plane which has no engine and is pulled up into the stratosphere by a pilot plane (with engine) and then released to careen wildly soar gently back to earth.

I took photos from terra firma while chewing off my chapstick.

Yes the glider is so light they can easily push it onto the runway.  (Here’s me applying more chapstick.)

Husband drifted back to earth eventually, the winds were so good they stayed up longer than usual, enjoying the gliding. I was offered a trip up there, but declined.

Now, lest you think I was cheated on these two weeks – that these were Husband focused adventures – well my time is coming up next year with a trip to Europe.   And it involves concerts, royal palaces, and even horses…so stay tuned.

Plus how could I not melt at this happy Husband – priceless

A Diverse Trip ~~ Week One

Husband and I have been away ~~ down in Southern California.  Two very diverse areas — and two very different weeks.

First stop, Palm Springs.

We try to go to the wonderful Palm Springs Tennis Club every couple of years.  Here, Husband has the time of his life playing tennis, taking tennis clinics and finding doubles matches — he played every day.

 

So what did I do while Husband perfected his serve? Of course, I got to read in the warm and dry desert air.  This was the view from our little patio.

 

But I also explored the neighborhoods both on foot and using the resort bicycles.  Palm Springs folks have a different take on home design.

I even found the estate where Elvis and Priscilla spent their honeymoon.

 

Desert gardens are quite tempting – plant a few cactus, maybe a palm tree or two, rake the gravel and phew you’re done…

 

 

 

We did do some other things while there. We have always wanted to tour Sunnylands, often called the West Coast Camp David, but the tours are small and sell out quickly.  So we planned ahead and bought tickets the first day they went on sale and had a marvelous tour of the Annenberg’s retreat where they hosted presidents and digniaries for many years.  Click on the link above for more information. Here are some photos.  Are you bored yet?

Well never mind, just a few more photos and we’ll move on.

We took a couple of long bike rides up into the hills to see even more impressive desert homes and villas.  (By the way, the bikes were land cruiser type and sort of like steering wheelbarrows.)

 

Then we drove over to Desert Hot Springs where we got to soak in naturally warm and sulfur free hot spring pools.  They ranged from warm, to nicely medium, to yikes this is hot.  We tried them all.  Even got the senior discount to use the pools. From the look on Husband’s face,  I think this is the hot pool.

 

Thus ends our first week.

Next stop – well, that will be the next post.