Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Mill River Recluse / Darcie Chan. 2011

Back in December, I read this post on The Passive Voice blog about how this self-published ebook became a best-seller. Author Darcie Chan had attempted to get this book published for years, but no one wanted it. And so one day, after reading about the success authors were having with self-publishing, she decided to do it herself. I believe it's been available since last spring. The full story of how she did it is worth reading. By the time the end of the year rolled around she'd sold over 400,000 copies, most of them at $0.99 each. I was impressed with Chan's rise to the best-seller ranks. I was also intrigued by the synopsis of her book: a wealthy, reclusive widow leaves her fortune to the people of the small town where she lived. I figured that for 99 cents I wouldn't be taking much of a risk and I bought it.

So let me just say flat out that I ended up loving this book. It's not a romance, although there is a small romantic subplot. But I think this book would appeal to romance fans in general. I also think it would translate very well into a movie. I hope that happens some day.

Mary Hayes is a beautiful, but very shy young woman living with her father on their small horse farm in rural Vermont. It's the eve of WWII and she catches the eye of Patrick McAllister, heir to a nearby marbleworks and thus part of a wealthy family. He charms her and persuades her to marry him. Only Patrick turns out to be abusive and controlling; their marriage ends tragically as Mary is left widowed and traumatized to the extent that she retreats to her home overlooking the small town of Mill River and rarely emerges over the next 60 years.

The book actually opens in the modern day and Mary is on her deathbed. She is attended by her only and life-long friend, Father Michael, the Catholic priest who has helped care for her since the death of her husband. But Chan, through a series of flashbacks that alternate with the present day, takes us back over Mary's life and the circumstances that caused her to have severe social anxiety disorder. As the timelines converge, though, we begin to see that even though Mary hid from the world, she was very aware of what was going on around her. Ultimately, the book is a celebration of her love for the people of Mill River. During the parts of the book that deal with the present, we get to know some of the town's residents, who have no idea that Mary has been watching over them, and loving them, all of these years. I found it very emotional when all was revealed at the end of the book (i.e. I cried).

I enjoyed most of the characters from the present day. But I especially loved Father Michael who sacrifices a more prestigious career in the Church to stay in Mill River specifically to be Mary's friend and link to the outside world. Father Michael has an interesting little habit that makes him very human. Mary is the only one who knows about it. I enjoyed their friendship and the patience and compassion Father Michael had for Mary's condition.

Even though Mary's life might be viewed as tragic, I saw her living her life as best she could, with a positive, generous spirit. I loved the uplifting nature of the book and the happy, triumphant ending of Mary's life. Yeah, I definitely got my money's worth from this one!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Latest QBFF Challenge

My QBFFs & I have done some fun projects together over the last few years. One thing that's become a tradition for us is to create some sort of challenge each year. For example, one year we each had to make something that included 3 specific fat quarters of fabric. I made this star quilt. There was also the Paint Chip Challenge. Last summer QBFF T came up with an interesting idea that will result in 4 very, very different quilts. Her rules were that each of us had to put together a fabric packet that totals 2.5 yds. and can have up to 10 different fabrics. Our fabric packet was passed to another QBFF and that person has to add one, and only one fabric of at least 1 yard to make a lap quilt. The completed quilt will be returned to the QBFF who purchased the original fabric packet.

Since QBFF C & I are sisters, we decided to fix it so that C & I are NOT working on quilts for one another. In the end, QBFF T & I are making quilts for one another and QBFF A & C will make quilts for one another. 

So, here are my fabrics:
Here are my sister C's:
Here are QBFF A's:
And here are QBFF T's--the fabrics I'm working on. This is a collection of Amy Butler fabrics.
Except there's that solid purple in there. That threw me for a loop at first. But then I decided to just run with it. I'm going to try for something reflective of the modern quilt movement. The blocks will have an improvisational style. Keeping my fingers crossed it turns out well.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Phyl's 5 Phaves for December

5. Someone to Cherish / Kate Rothwell. Here's an entertaining historical set in 19th c. New York City. Callie Scott is an incredibly naive young woman who had been very restricted by her now-dead grandmother. Left on her own, Callie takes a job with her late father's friend only to find herself caught up in a scandal surrounding a murder, and the scandal in turn leaves her homeless. The detective on the case, Cutter, ends up hiring Callie to take care of his dying landlady. Cutter himself grew up on the streets and he feels entirely unworthy of a true lady like Callie. Callie's a funny, engaging character who is a great foil for the stubborn, taciturn Cutter. In enjoyed them both. Plus, it's always great to read a historical set outside of Europe.

4. A Place Called Home / Jo Goodman. This is a contemporary romance by one of my favorite authors. Goodman normally writes historicals and it was very enjoyable to read something so different from what I'm used to from her. Mitch and Thea are acquaintances--their respective best friends are married to one another. When the best friends are suddenly killed in a car accident Mitch and Thea become co-guardians of the friends' children. Mitch has been interested in Thea for a long time, but she's always kept her distance. Thea would prefer to keep her distance from the children as well. There are good reasons for this, and Goodman slowly reveals why as Mitch and Thea develop a relationship with one another and with the children. This is not the most romantic of novels, but I loved the unusual nature of the story and the way that Goodman developed her characters, especially Thea's. I remember thinking about it for days afterwards and I would like to read it again soon.

3. A Lady Awakened / Cecelia Grant. This debut book by Grant has been the subject of a lot of discussion around the web. I'm simply going to say that I liked this book very much. Some reviewers didn't like the heroine; they found her too cold. Yes, she was cold, but I think her impersonal upbringing explained that. I'd like to call this a "lovers to friends" story, but that's not accurate. Martha Russell, newly widowed, wants to get pregnant quickly enough to pass the child off as her late husband's heir. Theo Mirkwood, her neighbor, is dissolute enough to agree. So what ensues is perhaps best described as a "from sexual partners to friends to lovers" story. I like the way Grant twists the genre a little, I like the way she raises numerous moral issues, and I like the way she wrote these characters. They change and grow and if the ending is a little too neat, well, I enjoyed the ride way too much to mind.

2. Unclaimed / Courtney Milan. Another winner from someone who has quickly become an auto-buy author for me. Unclaimed continues Milan's trilogy about the Turner siblings. Sir Mark Turner has become a celebrity because of his book on male chastity. He can't go anywhere without being accosted and Milan's descriptions of Sir Mark's life reminded me of the way our culture makes assumptions about the celebrities of our time. Sir Mark has an enemy who wants him discredited. He hires Jessica, a courtesan, to seduce Mark and so Jessica travels to the small town where Mark has gone to escape the crowds. What follows is a lovely romantic story that's emotional and humorous. Mark and Jessica are complex individuals and Milan does a masterful job of revealing them to us. There are some interesting secondary characters as well. I simply loved this book.

1. Coming Home for Christmas / Carla Kelly. I had a hard time deciding whether this or Unclaimed should be my #1 book for the month. But it was December and the theme was Christmas. The full review I wrote earlier is here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

TBR Day. His Secret Past / Ellen Hartman. 2008

     I'm pleased to say that this year's TBR Challenge began for me with a wonderful read. I'm really regretting that I let this one languish in the closet for so long and I'm eager to read more by this author. I've been trying to remember how I ended up even owning this book and I'm pretty sure I won it in a contest. I should write these things down. Anyway, based on the blurb, it's not something I'd ordinarily buy. My copy is autographed by Hartman, which is why I think I won it.
     His Secret Past is the story of Mason Star, former lead singer for a once-popular rock band. Mason joined the band when he was only 16. After reaching the top of the rock star world Mason was so messed up that the band kicked him out. Now, years later, he's built a new life for himself as the owner/caretaker of a small community called Mulligans that provides housing and life skills training to people trying to get on their feet. Mason has buried himself in his work and evades the public eye and any ties to his past life. Mulligans is in the small town of Lakeland, NJ. As the book opens, Mason is in conflict with the residents of Lakeland over the future of Mulligans, as well as in conflict with his 17-year old son.
     Anna Walsh is a documentary filmmaker with a personal agenda. She wants to dig into Mason's past and tell the story behind his leaving the band. He wants no part of it, but when she offers to make a film about Mulligans that just might save it, he decides to let her in. And a powerful attraction is sparked between them.
     For a relatively short category romance, an awful lot happens in this book. I actually thought it got off to a slow start, but Hartman was introducing the various threads that quickly are drawn together.  Hartman includes some well-drawn secondary characters, including Mason's son. But the real sparkle in the book is the interaction between Anna and Mason. Anna is a wonderful heroine. She's made a real name for herself through her filmmaking and she is very sure of herself. She knows what she wants and she goes after it, including Mason himself. There's some very funny dialogue about music, which I think would appeal to anyone who remembers the '80s. I also liked how Hartman used Anna's love of color to reveal facets of Anna's character.
     And bonus! There are two pages involving quilts. Quilts, I tell you! Like this right here:

She moved past him to escape any more smart remarks but then stopped short. The room was full of quilts. Colors and patterns lined the walls. There were quilts stacked on shelves and chairs and others hanging from dowels on the walls.
That was when she saw it. Hanging over a wooden dowel, high enough on the wall that she hadn't noticed it right away, was a patchwork quilt. Not a Laura Ingalls patchwork, this was a grid of off-center squares and tilted rectangles in lush, glowing shades of yellow and orange with spikes of red. It was like the embers of a campfire, warm and cozy all at once.

     Well, didn't that just make my little heart go pitter patter. But seriously, I thought Hartman skillfully used things like color, Mason's golf game, old pop music, filmmaking, and much more to show us her characters and why they would be attracted to one another. By the time I was halfway into the book I couldn't put it down.
     As I said, it was a great way to start this year's challenge and I'm going to keep my eye out for other books by this author.