Friday, December 30, 2011

Phyl's 5 Phaves for November

November was a great reading month. I read quite a bit, helped in part by Thanksgiving travel that saw me trapped in the car for hours on end (I'm a good in-car reader as I let my DH do all the driving). I really liked almost everything I read and it was not easy to pick my top 5 for the month. The "winners" include not one, but TWO "chicks in pants" historicals. Loved them both.

5. SEAL of My Dreams by various authors. This anthology was released on Veterans Day and I was happy to purchase it as the proceeds go to a worthy cause. The stories in the book are quite short and some are better than others. Overall, I really enjoyed this. They are a wonderful tribute to the sacrifices that military service members make on behalf of our country.

4. Sea Change by Darlene Marshall. Besides being a very nicely done romance, this book was a fascinating look at life at sea during the early 19th century. This was the first of the two books I mentioned above featuring a heroine who disguised herself as a man. Charlotte Alcott learned a lot of medicine when she helped her late father in his medical practice. After he dies, she disguises herself as a young doctor to earn passage aboard a ship bound for the West Indies to go live with her godfather, also a doctor. But her voyage is interrupted when privateer David Fletcher kidnaps her off her ship so she can save the life of his seriously injured younger brother. "Charley" and David get to know each other, and of course, David eventually discovers the truth about Charlotte. Both characters are interesting, but I especially enjoyed Charlotte and her determination to pursue her dream of being a doctor in an era when women were routinely denied that opportunity.

3. The Lady's Secret by Joanna Chambers. Georgiana Knight is the cross-dressing heroine in this book. She is posing as a valet to Lord Nathaniel Harland because it will give her access to a home during a house party where she hopes to find evidence that her parents were married, thus making she and her brother heirs to their father's estate. In this book Nathan discovers Georgy's masquerade early on and he decides to keep her secret. This is a lovely character-driven romance. Georgy and Nathan have time to get to know each other in ways that would have been impossible under normal circumstances. I also liked the way differences between the servant class and the aristocracy are explored. Nathan's frustration with Georgy's need to act the proper servant was fun. I was really entertained by this book and I'm sure I'll read it again.

2. If You Hear Her by Shiloh Walker. This first book in a new romantic suspense trilogy hooked me from page 1. Lena Riddle hears a scream in the woods behind her home and when she tries to get the local authorities in her small town of Ash, KY to listen to her, she runs into a brick wall. Lena is blind and one officer in particular is extremely dismissive of her. Fortunately, Ezra King, a state police officer on leave and temporarily living in Ash, does believe her. Ezra has issues of his own--he's recovering from a gunshot wound from a case that turned his world upside down. Both Lena and Ezra are fascinating characters and I do wish there had been a little more focus on their relationship. But the book is full of very interesting secondary characters and when a body is found to confirm that the screams were real, the suspense really kept me immersed in the book. It's a good thing that the next book in the trilogy is out soon, because the mystery isn't solved here in this book. I'm looking forward to both books to come.

1. The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne. Do you know that Bourne's 3 previous books in her "Spymaster" series have been #1 picks in the months I read them? I hardly know how to describe my love for this book, Bourne's gifted writing, and the fascinating look at the French Revolution. Justine and Adrian appeared in previous books; their story is finally told here. The two met as young teenagers and have occasional contact with one another over the course of a very long war. If I recall correctly, some 24 years pass before they achieve their HEA. They are on opposing sides of the war and their conflicting loyalties keep them apart until the war's end. Their story is mostly told in flashbacks and it is so effectively done. There is humor and heartbreak. I felt as if I'd been put through an emotional wringer when I was done--and I love when that happens! Nothing is easy for these two, and what I especially appreciate is that you cannot look at one side in this war and declare it wholly evil. I'm reminded that revolutionary America held the same ideals as revolutionary France; we Americans were fortunate that a dictator like Napoleon did not usurp those ideals. I cannot recommend this, and the other books in the series, enough.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

T-shirt quilt for 2011 Brenda Novak auction

My 2011 contribution to the Brenda Novak Online Auction for Diabetes Research was to make a t-shirt quilt for the winning bidder. The winner gave me a pile of old t-shirts and I turned them into a twin-sized quilt. This turned out to be an especially fun thing to do, because this pile of old t-shirts represent special memories for their owner. It was interesting to get a small glimpse into the life of the winner.

My first task was to turn the shirts into blocks. Because the motifs were of various sizes, I had to do some planning. Fortunately the winner was willing to let me design this however I liked. Being a tad anal, I decided I wanted a symmetrical look to the quilt. I also did my best to balance the colors, although that orange t-shirt did throw things off! I created 10 12-inch square blocks and then 4 blocks, all 15 inches wide, but of varying heights. Here is the layout I decided on:

I had a discussion with the winner. We decided green would make a nice background for the shirts. I did some shopping and showed her some small samples of green fabrics. She selected the dark green used for the outer border. She also liked the lighter green; I ended up needing to use it for the vertical sashing and then I used it for the backing. I like the extra spark two shades of green give the quilt. Here it is after I finished quilting it, but before I added the binding.

Here's a look at the finished quilt:

I'm pleased to say that the winner was very happy with her quilt. I was glad to hear that, because this quilt presented some special challenges. I stabilized all of the t-shirts, but some stretching still occurred. I had some rippling in two of the borders. Also, I didn't want to quilt through any of the silk screened or embroidered motifs. That meant some areas puff up a little. The "Miami" and "Browns" shirts are actually sweatshirts; the thickness of the fleece was a little hard to work with, but presented fewer problems than I expected.

So, our winner is a graduate of Maryland Law School, with ties to Ohio, who loves dogs, and has vacationed in some interesting spots.

What do your t-shirts say about you? And would you like to preserve those shirts in a quilt made by me? Email me for my rates and scheduling.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

TBR Day. Christmas at Candlebark Farm / Michelle Douglas. 2010

I found this on my Kindle when looking for a holiday-themed book for this month's TBR Challenge. I have no idea what prompted the purchase. But when I saw it was Australian-set I thought it might be fun to read a Christmas story set down under where it is hot and sunny right now (as opposed to cold and rainy like it is here).

Keira Keely is a young woman, 10 weeks pregnant thanks to an IVF procedure. She has no man in her life and is looking to have a baby now because a medical issue could prevent her from getting pregnant later in life. She has taken temporary lodging at Candelbark Farm while she arranges the sale of a house she'd inherited from a great aunt.

Luke Hillier is a widower with a 15-year old son. Luke has to work long and hard to keep his farm running; he's renting out a room to earn a little extra cash.

This book is full of some fairly common themes or stereotypes:

  • Kiera is sunny and optimistic about almost everything.
  • Luke is gruff and anti-social.
  • Luke can't seem to communicate with his son Jason.
  • Kiera manages to say all the right things to patch up the relationship between Luke and Jason.
  • Kiera teaches Luke and Jason how to celebrate Christmas again
Douglas' writing and pacing is really very good. The story moved along nicely. But ultimately it just didn't work for me the way I hoped. Everything was too formulaic. The only thing unusual was Kiera's decision to have a baby on her own and while it was interesting to read about her decision to do so, too many other aspects of the book had that "been there/done that" feel. It's unfortunate because Kiera's take-charge personality was nice to read, even if she was a tad too perfect.

It was hard to sympathize with Luke's gruff character when the reasons behind his social withdrawal were not convincing to me. Luke had separated from his wife, and shortly thereafter she's diagnosed with a brain tumor and dies. Luke blames himself for his wife's death (Hello? Cancer?) and supposedly everyone in town does too. It just was too unrealistic.

In the long run this was a quick read that started well enough but turned too predictable too soon. It was not the holiday read I'd hoped for.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Coming Home for Christmas / Carla Kelly. 2011

Christmas-themed books are a popular staple this time of year. The frequently-used themes of home and family are popular images we like to associate with the holidays. Often, though, circumstances force people to be away from loved ones at this time of year, and the three novellas in this collection explore that idea. Although the title includes the words "coming home," only the 3rd story involves a journey home; the first two stories take place far from the leads' homes.

Carla Kelly has put together a wonderful collection of stories here that involve three members of the same family, each from a different generation. Thomas Wilkie is a British Naval surgeon stranded in San Diego in 1812. The second story is about his widowed daughter, Lilian, who is one of Florence Nightengale's nurses in the Crimea in 1855. And the final story is of Lillian's son, Wilkie Wharton, an American army doctor assigned to Fort Laramie in 1877. In each story, Christmas is approaching. In the cases of Thomas and Lilian, they know they will be forced to spend the holiday away from home and both are very homesick. Wilkie is on his way home, but finds himself dealing with unexpected circumstances.

There was, for me, a lot to appreciate about this book. In particular, how effectively Kelly is able to give glimpses at how different and/or difficult life was during each era. These stories are not sugary sweet or overly warm. Between them there is disaster, death, callous behavior, the aftermath of war, and ignorant prejudice. Just as real life is often messy or hard for us today, so it is for the protagonists of her stories. Yet there is a wonderful message of hope in them--love makes it so much easier to bear life's burdens. That's a beautiful message any time of the year.

I have to say how much I loved the structure of the book. The focus is on the 3 members of the Wilkie family. So there is only one POV in each story. I usually enjoy the head hopping that happens in romance novels, and oddly enough I didn't even notice there was none here until I was reading the 3rd story. I made a point of browsing back to make sure I hadn't missed anything and I don't think I did. The family thread that runs through the stories is both engaging and clever as a literary device. Kelly uses a letter from father to child as the prologue to each story, and another letter from Wilkie to his parents as an epilogue at the end of the book. The middle two letters are both epilogue (to the stories that came before) and prologue to the next. At the risk of repeating myself, I was really impressed with the unusual structure and how neatly Kelly tied it all together.

So if you're still looking for some Christmas reading with the big day only a week away, I highly recommend this one.