Review: THE WHISKEY REBELS by David Liss

Set during the 1700’s, not long after the signing of United States Constitution, The Whiskey Rebels follows Ethan Saunders and Joan Maycott as they navigate the brutal atmosphere of their struggling new country. Ethan and Joan are treated separately in the book until about the midpoint when their individual causes collide head on.

Joan is a surprisingly strong female character given the situation of women in 18th century North America. She follows a path that takes her from rough western Pennsylvania farmland to the drawing rooms of the upper crust of Philadelphia and New York, looking for a way to deal with unjust taxes levied on poor Americans. Captain Ethan Saunders, (who reminds me of George MacDonald Fraser’s uncouth but lovable character Flashman), meets Joan while investigating the financial dealings of an unscrupulous financier. Both engage in a dangerous game of spying and manipulation, relying on a network of friends and acquaintances to help them towards their respective goals. Both apply the adage of ‘follow the money’ to fulfil their missions.

As a side note, the description of how stocks were first traded, bought and sold is quite enlightening. From all accounts it seems only the location of trading has changed (from taverns to stock exchanges) - certainly not the influence of confidence.

Full of intrigue, suspense and humor, The Whiskey Rebels will not disappoint anyone who loves historical adventures set in the old west.

Review: SKIPPING CHRISTMAS by John Grisham

After stepping into one too many slush puddles, Mr. Krank sits down one evening and figures out that he and his wife spend approximately $6000 every year on Christmas. Consequently Mr. and Mrs. Krank decide to ‘skip Christmas’ one year and spend the money on a cruise instead. The neighbours, who expect everyone on their street to erect giant Frosty the Snowmans on their roofs every year, are aghast when the Kranks forgo this particular holiday ritual. But why bother when they’re not going to be there? The local stationary store owner calls asking for their order of Christmas cards. Another tradition down the drain. Also gone by the wayside is the annual holiday party the Kranks host. A friend of Mrs. Krank, disturbed by this turn of events, suggests they have the party on Christmas Eve instead since they’re only leaving for the cruise on Christmas Day. People who would normally celebrate/and or profit during the season - from their colleagues to friends to the merchants who count on their business, find it difficult to understand how the couple could give up Christmas. This is a novella with a single topic which gets a bit tired after awhile.


A whimsical story, written in the form of letters just after WWII between a writer and members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, unfolds through bits and pieces in the letters, teasing the reader here and there with hints of events to come which will be told in future correspondence.

I find books written in the form of letters or via other epistolary techniques such as diary entries very easy to read but often lacking in substance. This book thankfully avoids this deficiency but suffers from other problems, the most prominent being its similarity to Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road. In one letter the protaganist is asked to enquire about a particular book at bookshop, and her reply is: "I told Mr. Hastings you would like a good, clean copy (and not a rare edition) of More essays of Elia." Anyone who has read 84 Charing Cross Road (even though it is non-fiction as opposed to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society) may recognize that style of writing. Add to that that Charing Cross also took place during and after WW11, and there are too many similarities for me.

Another problem is the title - The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It’s sweet, whimsical, charming - all those things - but difficult to say and even harder to remember.

Despite these reservations, I enjoyed the book. The characters are brought vividly to life and the letters were sometimes quite humorous.

Review: THE HISTORIAN by Elizabeth Kostova

Some other reviews of this book include references to The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, and there are in fact similarities – both are historical mysteries with a young couple dashing here and there being chased by mysterious, and possibly evil, ‘pursuers’. The difference is that The Historian is well written.

The setting is Europe and the time spans the present day back to the 15th century and earlier. A young woman, Elena, comes across a series of letters and a very old book in her father, Paul’s, library. She asks him about the odd woodcut of a dragon in the center pages of the book, and he reluctantly begins the tale of how he acquired the mysterious book and his subsequent research into its meaning. The father’s story begins with his mentor and advisor, Rossi, who also owned a book like it. The story takes Paul and Elena through the centuries and back up to the father’s time at school when he was writing his dissertation as a young scholar. It circles around the various people the father came into contact with and the mysterious disappearance of his mentor and advisor, Rossi, and the search for him. In Paul’s quest he meets Helena, a woman who has her own enigmatic reasons for researching the book. It does not take long before they discover the strange book has very sinister connections to a historical figure who has never quite been forgotten due to the evil nature of his deeds in the 15th century. Helena and Paul travel across Europe, visit monasteries and meet secretively with revered scholars in their attempt to explain the unfathomable events that slowly unfold around them.

Review: THE GRIFT by Debra Ginsberg

This is not the kind of novel I’m used to reading but its description and title intrigued me enough to request it through a Shelf Awareness ad. The story revolves around a psychic who tries to escape an unsavory past in Florida to start anew. In doing so, she also leaves her loyal customers, some of whom depend on her for their daily dose of hope and in some cases, enjoyment of dreaded events to come. Marina moves to California where she hangs out her shingle and soon draws a new crop of clients. It isn’t long before her past catches up with her, but it isn’t clear at first who (or what) among her clientele is trying to do her harm.

I found the writing a bit awkward in the beginning but it got better towards the middle of the book. The first half suffered from an over-descriptive narrative and not enough dialogue. Much of the story was filled with what the characters were thinking and feeling and what exactly led them to behave the way they did. It would have served the reader better if there was a lot less ‘thinking’ and a bit more ‘doing’. The characters, except for for the main protagonist, lacked substance. They were either very good or very bad, or switched between the two extremes without displaying an emotional middle ground.

I enjoyed this book for its story – the hint of mystery, Marina’s visions and what they conveyed, the ‘six degrees of separation’ relationships between the characters. The Grift did hold my attention and despite the lack of character depth and some writing flaws, I enjoyed it more than some other novels I could name - but won’t, since they’re not worth the mention.

THE BOOK HUNTER - A poem by Frank Dempster Sherman (1860-1916)

CUP of coffee, eggs, and rolls
Sustain him on his morning strolls:
Unconscious of the passers-by,
He trudges on with downcast eye;
He wears a queer old hat and coat,
Suggestive of a style remote;
His manner is preoccupied,--
A shambling gait, from side to side.
For him the sleek, bright-windowed shop
Is all in vain, -- he does not stop.
His thoughts are fixed on dusty shelves
Where musty volumes hide themselves,--
Rare prints of poetry and prose,
And quaintly lettered folios,--
Perchance a parchment manuscript,
In some forgotten corner slipped,
Or monk-illumined missal bound
In vellum with brass clasps around;
These are the pictured things that throng
His mind the while he walks along.

A dingy street, a cellar dim,
With book-lined walls, suffices him.
The dust is white upon his sleeves;
He turns the yellow, dog-eared leaves
With just the same religious look
That priests give to the Holy Book.
He does not heed the stifling air
If so he find a treasure there.
He knows rare books, like precious wines,
Are hidden where the sun ne’er shines;
For him delicious flavors dwell
In books as in old Muscatel;
He finds in features of the type
A clew to prove the grape was ripe.
And when he leaves this dismal place,
Behold, a smile lights up his face!
Upon his cheeks a genial glow,--
Within his hand Boccaccio,
A first edition worn with age,
“Firenze” on the title-page."

Review: DOWNTOWN OWL by Chuck Klosterman

This is a wry look at what it’s like to live in a small community that exists in a cultural vacuum in 1983. The only thing going for it is the high school football team and even they rest on their laurels from years gone by. Into this moribund environment the reader is introduced to Mitch, the not-so-great quarterback, Horace, a retiree who spends his days in a coffee shop and harbors dark secrets, Julie, a young school teacher who stretches the limits of the town’s only entertainment (local bars) and several other characters that contribute to the story.

I enjoyed the writing style which was particularly adept at letting the reader stand to the side and watch events unfold. The narrative is told through the eyes of the three main characters as they go about living their lives. One gets the impression that they are not particularly happy and are waiting for something better to come along.

This is a successful satire of small town life, the quirky characters, societal insecurities of an isolated community and plenty of small town eccentricities. I liked the newspaper excerpts at the beginning and end of the book – it lent a nuance of seeing the characters from a distance.

I could see this book assigned as reading to high school students. It might be a lesson in self-awareness, in how they may appear to outsiders, and they might enjoy the small irony of one of the characters being an English teacher who assigns novels to his class.

All in all I would recommend this novel as a fascinating look at small town life as represented through different generations.

Review: WE BOUGHT A ZOO by Benjamin Mee

If one doesn’t get what this book is about from the title, the sub-title won’t leave much doubt. “The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals That Change Their Lives Forever” packs quite a lot into a subtitle. Unfortunately the “Amazing True Story” part is said without irony. Within the first dozen pages, the first ‘elephant in the room’ one encounters is a deeply personal loss experienced by the author and his family and because of that I had trouble dealing with this book AND its subtitle. The loss was treated as a big problem to solve, somewhat as an obstacle to deal with while trying to buy and re-establish a zoo. Now, I’m familiar with the British propensity for showing a stiff upper lip and all, but this is too much. The author’s priorities, to be generous, appear confused. I also took exception to his description of deeply personal bodily functions, and here my generosity ends, as he reveals this activity about a person that has no say about his disclosure of it. I know that real life has a habit of getting in the way of dreams and plans but somehow this baring of intimate details is tasteless and annoying. If the point of the book had been about the loved one in question, I might feel differently, but it wasn’t. The parts of the book that dealt with finding out about the zoo, trying to buy it, finding the funding and then working to get it ready for the public was very interesting but the tragic and graphic details were difficult to ignore and the suspicion that the author callously used these events to pump up his story was too great a distraction for me.

The author had a film crew following him around during this whole zoo process and the end result was a documentary that aired on BBC. I wonder if the day-in, day-out filming caused Benjamin Mee to lose some portion of human perspective. I hope not.

Review: A GIVEN DAY by Dennis Lehane

It’s 1917 and Babe Ruth is 24 years old when his train, on its way to his next game, is delayed by mechanical problems. He disembarks and finds a pick-up game of baseball and this begins the story of Luther Laurence and Danny Coughlin, as well as their respective families and friends - not to mention enemies.

The story weaves back and forth between Luther and Danny until their stories mesh seamlessly. The author’s detailed description of the times and the atmosphere conveyed
rings true, and a cursory search of the internet will reveal to the reader that minor characters really did exist and major events depicted actually did take place. Throughout the novel, Babe Ruth makes several seemingly gratuitous appearances - he doesn’t have much to do with the plot – but it’s interesting to see the sometimes chaotic history though the eyes of a character not personally involved.

Dennis Lehane’s A Given Day is an excellent story – one of those contradictory novels that both compels you and makes you almost afraid to turn the page to find out what happens next. I was delighted to receive this as an ARC.

Review: RECIPES OF A DUMB HOUSEWIFE by Lorina Stephens

A very nice glossy trade paperback, Recipes of a Dumb Housewife by Lorina Stephens is filled with cost-efficient, nutritious recipes accompanied by short descriptions of the origins or other comments pertaining to ingredients. The classics are covered in various categories such as supper and brunch dishes (beef stroganoff, chicken pie), pasta (mac and cheese, tomato sauce), soups (potato and chicken), salads, breads, sweets and condiments. Happily, most of the ingredients can be found in the average kitchen cupboard. But there are a few recipes thrown in that have a more exotic flair (spicy spinach and golden beet soup, barm bread) that may lead to a fair amount of ingredient substitution – which is fine as it’s well within the spirit of this cookbook. There are other recipes that were obviously born in the author’s kitchen, and she encourages the use of whatever you happen to have on hand too. I would question though whether it’s the wisest thing to name a dish ‘Green Goo Pasta’. That kind of whimsy might work within the family but may fall flat with the buying public. The photo of this dish on the author’s website thankfully shows a dish much more appetizing than the name implies. So far I’ve made three of the recipes (starving student salad, chick pea salad as well as the guacamole), adding my own variations and they all turned out nicely. I’m looking forward to trying the mushroom tarts.

There is a page devoted to use of herbs, barm (apparently something leftover after brewing homemade beer) and equipping ones’ kitchen. Here the author suggests that a bread machine is a kitchen must-have. Hmmm, I’m not sure I agree. It’s convenient, certainly, but a necessity? Cutlery is necessary, plates yes, but a bread machine?

An introduction of the author’s background starts the book off, with an explanation of the title. When taken in context, the title doesn’t seem so offensive, quite the opposite actually. She also covers the measurements used in the recipes, saying some are imperial and some metric, rather oddly likening it to bilingual labeling on Canadian food products as being in “French and Canadian”.

All in all this is a very nice cookbook with a mix of classic and new recipes.

Review: GUERNICA by Dave Boling

This novel centers on events in the Basque town of Guernica in the years leading up to WWII. The historical perspective is genuine and the characters absolutely wonderful – they resonate with authenticity. The author portrays the villagers in Guernica as people that I would liked to have known; people full of life, daring, innocence and brave.

I did not know much about the history of the Spanish civil war and reading this book motivated me to find out a lot more. It was thought-provoking and fascinating to learn about events that happened so long ago yet are very important not to forget. The tragic events that engulfed Guernica as described by the author are heartbreakingly vivid. The imagery and description of Picasso’s process of creating the painting Guernica is an interesting addition to the novel and someone I know who has seen the painting told me it is enormous and impressive. (She happily has borrowed the book).

I am pleased I had the chance to read and review this book - I might not have found it otherwise. It is an uplifting, wonderful novel by a gifted writer.

Review: RÉSISTANCE by Agnès Humbert

Résistance, Agnès Humbert’s journal and memoir, is a haunting and heart-wrenching account of her experiences during the occupation of France throughout the Second World War.

The first two chapters are presented in journal form, recorded by the author almost on a daily basis. The larger section of the book is comprised of her memoir written just after the war ended. Both segments recount the many men and women that Agnès Humbert knew and met and who joined her in the underground movement that helped define France during the war years. The courage shown by her and others is remarkable. They seemed to share an unshaken faith that it was only a matter of time before they were once more able to live without fear of persecution.

There is plenty of anger and bitterness: “The Germans are a spineless lot on the whole, lacking any ability to reason things through or view them with a critical spirit; and they suffer from a total and absolute lack of initiative, inculcated by their educational system down the centuries.” This comment, made at the end of the war, is in response to Agnès stepping in to help when the native Germans did nothing to support other Germans with among other things, medical help. It’s not politically correct, but for the mores of 1945, coming at the end of a brutal war, it was probably considered mild. However in other instances within the book, the author gives credit to Germans for unexpected kindnesses. When a Nazi judge sentenced some of her fellow resistance fighters at trial, he went to considerable trouble to later plead for leniency for them, saying they behaved honorably and more. Agnès was at the time encouraged by his honest and respectful behaviour towards the prisoners and afterwards, during his own war criminal hearing, she wrote a moving testimonial supporting him. In another notable statement that would not be looked favourably on in present-day societal norms Agnès criticizes polish prisoners of war for their behaviour once they were granted freedom in 1945. Throughout the book, her feelings for the enemy seemed to be scorn for the many but genuine affection for the few.

I’ve only read one other book that touched on the French resistance – The Tiger Claw by Shauna Singh Baldwin. While that book does have some parallels to Résistance – obviously the topic, but also both are based on actual events with the main characters being real (as opposed to fictitious) women - Resistance is the more true to life work, simply because it’s written by the person who lived the events.

Occasionally the narrative jumps around and individuals are introduced but then not mentioned for some time making it difficult to keep track of the connections between Agnes and her friends. However, this is a minor criticism given the circumstances under which this book was written and especially so since several tools are provided to alleviate this issue at the back of the book: an afterword explains some of the methods and motivations of the author; an appendix which includes documents and transcripts from the war and which are pertinent to the book; a bibliography and an index, both of which are extremely helpful in identifying notables within the book.

I can recommend this book not just as an enjoyable read – it’s much more than that. It’s a history lesson that teaches the fortunate what could still happen given the right circumstances.

Review: DOCTOR OLAF VON SCHULER'S BRAIN by Kirsten Menger-Anderson

Doctor Olaf Van Schuler’s Brain is written as a series of short stories connected to one another through twelve generations of one family,. Each generation of the Steenwycks produces a doctor who in some fashion studies the intricacies of the brain. The writing is excellent and the stories are fascinating – some barbaric, some sad and some metaphorically significant, namely one titled, “A Spoonful Makes You Fertile”. I have to confess, however, that some of the metaphors eluded me.

Although short stories are not my favorite format, I had high hopes for this one because of the anticipated connection between the stories – I expected them to tie up very cleverly in the end. I was disappointed. I understood some of the motivations of the characters but not enough to make a correlation down the years. If there was a common theme between the generations aside from a very eccentric ancestral history and the practice of medicine, I missed it. That dissatisfaction aside I give this novel 3 ½ stars because of the superb writing.

Review: CHRISTMAS SUCKS by Joanne Kimes

Subtitled ‘What to Do When Fruitcake, Family and Finding the Perfect Gift Make You Miserable’, Christmas Sucks is not what I expected. And though I’m not quite sure what I did expect, the result is better mostly because there’s a lot more wit couched in between the practical information than I’d anticipated. I was a bit shocked by some of the language used at first but then thought ‘alright! This is going to be entertaining!’ Shocking though they may be (well, just mildly so) the author’s statements do carry the weight of truth behind them. Featuring a blend of tips and tricks on how to behave at various Christmas parties one might be invited to (including behavior that one might engage in which would result in no invitations for the following year), what gifts to buy and not to buy, decorating, traveling and how to do the aforementioned without incurring debt rivaling a small nation’s. Also included is a section on waste management, i.e., how to minimize the impact of the holiday on the environment. The book is packed full of resources and ideas for places to get assorted items for the holidays but also practical alternatives that replace 'must-haves' in a pinch. All done with touches of humorous, snappy cynicism to keep the book from becoming as dry as it would otherwise be. The author also throws in a few websites at the end of the book as useful resources for gifts, cooking and the like, but omits to repeat the websites she referenced in the body of the text which would have been helpful. This is a fun, light-hearted look at how to make Christmas more enjoyable.

You can see other books in the 'Sucks' series on the author's website at Thanks to for the opportunity to review this book.

Review: GARDEN SPELLS by Sarah Addison Allen

Claire Waverley leads a structured and serene lifestyle catering dinner parties, business lunches and local events in her small college town of Bascom, North Carolina and living in the house she inherited from her late grandmother. Claire minds her own business, preferring the company of cousin, Evanelle, an elderly woman with tendencies of unusual “generosity” in that she sometimes has an overwhelming urge to give something, say a paperclip, and neither she or the bemused recipient will know why until later when the item’s use will suddenly become obviously apparent. Evanelle, like Claire, is a Waverley, and the Waverley’s have always been strange. They seem possess a 6th sense that gives them the ability to affect other’s lives and because of this, they’ve been avoided, laughed at, or in some cases simply tolerated by some of the less than tolerant townspeople. At 34, however, Claire Waverley is comfortable with herself and is running a lucrative business, until that is her neighbour Tyler discovers her and her long-long sister, Sydney, reappears after 10 years, toting her 5 year old daughter with her. Claire’s life is turned upside down and she deals with changes in her life in the best way she knows how – by trying to stave them off as best she can.

This is a very sweet novel of a woman’s challenges in dealing with change in her life when all she thought she wanted was no change at all.

Review: THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy

A father and son travel a desperate journey through a nuclear-ravaged and thinly populated America. They are cold, hungry and scared, but the father’s survival skills are honed to a razor’s edge. The small family relies on each other for their very existence – the boy for physical and emotional survival and the father for a reason to exist at all. Each day they face challenges that seem insurmountable – scavenging for edible food, keeping warm in a bitterly cold and grey environment and avoiding the ravenous eyes of human predators – the last of which the boy is afraid his father will eventually become. The boy’s innocence as well as his empathy for living creatures contrasts sharply with the stark, harsh environment and their constant struggle. The horrors the child encounters do not diminish his heart-wrenching need to care for the humans and animals they come across, even if it means putting his own survival in jeopardy. And so, armed with a pistol, two bullets and a shopping carriage filled with scavenged items and rigged with a rearview mirror for protection against stealthy enemies, they painstakingly make their way to the ocean.

One needs to be in right frame of mind to read this book. It is a frightening look at the brutal simplicity of a terrible yet possible future.


Rhys Morgan Aurelio Lucas, otherwise known as just plain Lucas, is drifting through life in Barcelona, working as a translator and barhopping with friends, most of whom are also living a laidback lifestyle somewhat off the beaten path. One day Lucas receives a mysterious postcard with just a date and time written on it. There is no indication who sent the card and no message but the picture is a Joan Miro painting which could be found at the Miro Foundation – a short distance from Lucas’s home. Out of curiosity he goes to the museum at the specified day and time and makes his way to the room the painting can be found in. This is the beginning of a series of events that eventually are seen to have their roots springing from a sect that is mostly hidden from the outside world but involve an ancient people called the Cathars. From the time Lucas goes to the museum until he meets up with some members of this sect, he encounters a fire eater, a mysterious group of people called roof-dwellers and a man wearing a green suit. Lucas becomes suspicious that these people are somehow connected to the mysterious postcard. I won't say more so as not to give anything away.

I liked this book because it's different from the usual genre fiction - it has a mysterious oddness to it that I can't put my finger on, but works.

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