Sunday, July 31, 2016

There's a Porcupine in My Outhouse - Michael J. Tougias

"In 1978, when I was twenty-two, I spent $ 8,500 on a tiny A-frame cabin and six acres of land overlooking a pond in northern Vermont."  Michael Tougias wanted to get away from his office job. He was going to be a mountain man, one of those men he idolized.  But over the next twenty-three years, he learned a lot about the woods and wildlife.  He became someone who didn't want to interfere in nature, but to preserve and protect it.

At first, he was terrified of the noises and creatures he shared his land and cabin with.  The mice drove him crazy, although he wasn't afraid of them.  But all the glowing eyes in the dark, and the rustlings in the bushes, and the screams in the night (he says porcupines mating, but I believe I've heard raccoons screaming while similarly occupied, or fighting).

Along the way, he and his friends Cogs and Boomer had many adventures.  Or should I say, misadventures.  A few times Tougias almost became a statistic.  Even though he knew better in many cases, he did stupid things that could have been tragic.  Wisely not taking a chainsaw up in a pine to cut off the top, but then realizing that he was forty feet up with no safe way down.  You know how it is, you never think it'll happen to you.

I liked his encounters with animals best.  He met a few bears, deer, the porcupine of the title,  a huge raccoon that moved into his loft (I think he could have handled this guest more humanely), coyotes, owls, bats, fishing spiders, foxes, a moose.  He comes to respect them.  It's a learning curve, if you're lucky.

This book was recommended by my friend Kay in Massachusetts.  She gave a copy to our mutual friend Jenny, who just bought a house with a porcupine in the barn.  Very appropriate!

July Books

I've had an extraordinary reading month.  Maybe because it's been too hot and humid to go outside.  This weather makes me physically sick.  I feel faint if I'm out very long.  It's so frustrating.  I'm going cabin crazy!

But I've read a lot of books this month and they span several genres, not just my usual list of mysteries.  I'm happy I've read so many books, but I'd gladly read fewer if only I could have some cooler weather!

V is for Vengeance  -  Sue Grafton
Temples of Delight  -  Barbara Trapido
Extra Virgin  -  Annie Hawes
The Blue Castle  -  L. M. Montgomery
Dreamthorpe  -  Chet Williamson
A Cathedral Courtship  -  Kate Douglas Wiggin
Cimarron  -  Edna Ferber
The Suspect  -  L. R. Wright
Walking Home  -  Simon Armitage
Death of an Old Goat  -  Robert Barnard
The Drowning  -  Camilla Lackberg
There's a Porcupine in My Outhouse  -  Michael J. Tougias

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Suspect - L. R. Wright

Yet another book I read after my friend Katrina posted about it.  Thank you, Katrina!

This book won't keep you in suspense wondering who the killer is, but I think it will keep you reading.  On the first page, George Wilcox, 80, kills his neighbor Carlyle Burke, 85.  No mystery there.  But why?  The characters involved drew me in and I wanted to know more about them.

George is a reader and gardener and ex-teacher.  He's friends with Cassandra, the town librarian, and often takes her flowers from his garden.  Cassandra and Karl Alberg, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police inspector in the British Columbia community where the murder took place, met through an on-line dating site.  But when Karl suspects George of the crime, Cassandra is not happy.

No one seems to have liked Carlyle, not even his sister.  Why?  To all appearances, he seemed a genial man, playing piano at old age homes.

Where is the man who sold Carlyle the salmon?  And what about the parrot?  And the will?

I liked this book.  It was different from most of the mysteries I read.  I hope to read more of the nine Karl Alberg mysteries in this series.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Cimarron - Edna Ferber

This is the story of Oklahoma.  It's told through the lives of Yancey Cravat, a dashing, charismatic lawyer, and his wife Sabra, a Wichita socialite.  They have a little boy they name Cimarron, Cim for short.  Yancey wants to go west.  He wants to go in the land run of 1889 and claim 160 acres for himself and his family.  Sabra's not so sure, but they pack up and go.  Yancey is outsmarted by a young woman during the land run and doesn't get the land he had his eye on.

So he and Sabra, Cim, and their little black servant boy, Isaiah, keep going.  They end up in Osage, a dirty, muddy, gun-slinging tent town.  There are Indians!  Sabra is horrified and wants to go home.  But Yancey is determined to stay and open a newspaper.  So they stay.

Sabra does her best and after a while, she becomes more comfortable with their life there.  But she still hates Indians.  She works at the newspaper, she organizes social clubs.  Yancey defends the underdog with fiery oration.  He wants to go another land run, but Sabra refuses.  He leaves her and their two children, Cim and Donna, and doesn't return for five years.

When he comes back, dramatically, as expected of him, he finds that Sabra is running the newspaper and doing pretty well with it.  But then he's off again to fight with the Rough Riders.  Then back in a few years, older and less charismatic each time.  As he fades, Sabra grows stronger.  Oil is discovered, there's a new oil run on the land, and lots of dirt farmers become millionaires overnight, but not Sabra.  She ends up as a politically savvy Congresswoman from Oklahoma, owner of a newspaper empire.

There are so many stories within this story that I won't begin to tell you about all of them.  On the way west, Cim was briefly lost.  When he marries the daughter of an Osage chief, Sabra wishes he hadn't been found that time.  The book is full of the racial hatred of the time, social snobbery, and ethnic stereotypes.  It's also the story of how strong some women are.  Ferber makes the point that the west couldn't have been settled  by sombreros alone, that bonnets were necessary, too.

The copy of the book I read, not the one in the photo, was a multi-novel volume.  I also read Show Boat and So Big.  All three told of women who realized they had to be strong to survive in a time when women were not expected to be strong like men.  The men in the three books leave their women, either by abandonment or death, and the women must take charge of their lives for their sake and the sake of their children. 

'... those four-footed kings without which life in this remote place could not have been sustained  -  horses of every size and type and color and degree.'

'Here a horse was more valuable than a human life.  A horse thief, caught, was summarily hanged to the nearest tree;  the killer of a man often went free.'

We are an ungrateful country with a short memory.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A Cathedral Courtship - Kate Douglas Wiggin

What a charming little book this is.  My friend Katrina had mentioned it a while ago and it was available from Project Gutenberg, so I downloaded it and forgot about it.  But I recently felt the need to read something old, something not new, I guess you could say I borrowed this from Gutenberg, and definitely not something blue.  I was already feeling that.  Then I remembered this.

A young woman and her aunt are on a tour of English cathedrals.  They meet a young architect from Boston who is also touring cathedrals and making drawings of them.  The two young people are attracted to each other, but are hesitant to admit that to each other.  And they are cautious not to let the aunt know how they feel until she gets to know the young man.

There are sweet scenes, like the one where Kitty is frightened by a bull in a field and flees to the young man's arms.  It is only a cow, but neither will admit that.  Kitty is instructed to enter impressions and facts about the cathedrals into the notebook her aunt gave her, but she seldom has much to say about them.  All her attention in on the young man.

This book is quite short, a novella really.  But it was a lovely intermission in my reading and life.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Dreamthorp - Chet Williamson

This book is a bit out of my usual genres in that it's considered a horror novel.  There's violence and sex and sexual violence, so I hesitated, but I figured I'd skim when I came to those parts.  I already have occasional screaming nightmares, so I was concerned about how scary the book would be.  If I found life that scary, what would I do after reading a horror novel?  But it's not as graphic as some others I've read.

I read the book because the author and I went to the same high school, although he was four years ahead of me.  I also remember that he used to occasionally perform at the church my family attended, playing his guitar and singing.  I read his first book, Soulstorm, when it came out in 1986, but I don't remember much about it.

I also read it because it takes place in a fictionalized version of a place I know pretty well:  Mt. Gretna, Pennsylvania.  My sister and her husband own a summer cottage there.  It's a lovely 'back-in-time' place, where people sit on their porches and read or go to Socrates Cafe on Saturdays or a play or for walks around the lake.  The cottages are gingerbread, some small, some larger, there are tall trees, few cars in the village, and it's quiet.  There are two parts of Mt. Gretna:  the Chautauqua side and the Camp Meeting side, both mingling and both interesting.  I recognized traits or occupations of some real people in the fictional characters.  But, my, oh, my, I hope Mt. Gretna never turns into the fictional Dreamthorp!

There are two story streams.  Two women take a camping trip out west.  One is brutally murdered by a violent sexual predator and the other shoots the murderer, well, between the legs and permanently damages him.  He wakes up from a coma months later, escapes from the hospital, and sets off on a killing spree to find the woman who shot him.  She now lives in Dreamthorp, trying to regain peace in her life after the horror she's seen.

Meanwhile, in Dreamthorp, two metal detector enthusiasts find a quartz figurine buried in the woods. A museum in Harrisburg buys it and stashes it in their storeroom.  It's a Native American piece that was placed over the graves of some Native American warriors killed in a long-forgotten battle in Dreamthorp.  Removing the stone releases the savage spirits that had been trapped for ages.

The Dreamthorp Playhouse collapses suddenly and without cause, killing several people and injuring others.  Then an old man is killed when he falls down the steps.  One of the metal detectorists is killed in a horrifying manner in the woods.  A young boy is almost beheaded when he falls through the floor of the Ice Cream Shoppe (which I recognize as the real Jigger Shop).  And there are other deaths.

It all comes together when the woman who survived the attack gets together with a man she meets in Dreamthorp.  A friend and neighbor convinces him he knows what might be happening in Dreamthorp.  They try to end the killings there, but the serial killer looking for the woman shows up in Dreamthorp to finish the job.

The last pages are real page-turners.  I couldn't read fast enough.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Blue Castle - L. M. Montgomery

I read this on my Kindle, so I had to search for an image.  I can tell that many of the cover illustrators never read the book!

The Blue Castle is a sweet, old-fashioned story.  Valancy Stirling is 29 and unmarried.  Her family kids her about being an old maid.  She's not amused.  But her widowed mother has her so tied down to chores and routine and respectability that she doesn't have a thought to herself.  They barely allow her the library books by nature writer John Foster because they're frivolous.  Her haven is her imaginary Blue Castle, the place she goes in her mind and imagination when real life is too grim.

Valancy has 'heart attacks', pains in her chest, from time to time, so she's considered delicate.  She goes to a heart specialist who has to rush off when he's told his son has been seriously injured.  He sends Valancy a letter telling her that she has a serious heart condition and will probably die fairly soon.

Valancy decides that she wants to live before she dies.  She defies her family and goes 'up back' to the woods and 'those people' to nurse a young woman who's dying.  The woman is shunned by the town because she had a child out of wedlock, a child who died.  But the 'good people' of the town show no compassion.  The woman's father is a loud drunk who plays the fiddle at dances.  Valancy sees more to both of them.

Valancy's had her eye on one of the most disreputable men in town, Barney Snaith.  He lives alone on an island in the river.  No one knows what he does all by himself.  He rips around town in a beat up old car.  He is allegedly a drunk, but who has seen him drunk?  Valancy thinks he has the nicest smile.

Boldly, she goes to him, reads him the letter from the doctor, and asks him to marry her.  After all, it will only be for a short while.  He agrees because, although she's not pretty (as everyone seems to like to tell her), there's something about her.

They live on his island, loving the wilderness, the animals, and their two cats, Good Luck and Banjo.  They swim and skate and hike and boat.  The fireplace warms them.  And they grow close.  Barney has a room that he disappears into for hours at a time.  He asks her not to go in and she complies.

Then, one day, they're crossing the railroad tracks and Valancy's shoe gets stuck as a train comes.  Thirty seconds change everything.

I had already figured out one part of the puzzle, but I was still in suspense when the train roared past and I was surprised by other parts.

I've been reading this in bed before I go to sleep.  It was perfect for that, a gentle, lovely story about two people who need and love each other, although the last few chapters were page turners.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Extra Virgin - Annie Hawes

Another blogger, I think it was Danielle, mentioned this book.  I'm a sucker for 'outsider moves to a  place populated with colorful and opinionated locals' books, especially now that I've decided travel is too stressful.  There's an interesting interview with Annie Hawes here.  She's certainly one for  adventure.

I'm not quite sure when she bought the property in San Pietro, Liguria, Italy.  The book was copyrighted in 2001 and she says or implies that she's been there about 15 years.  She and her sister  work in London for months at a time to earn money to come back and live in Italy for the rest of the year.  They gradually make improvements to the property, in Italy called 'Adjustments'.  The locals feel sorry for them because they don't have their own men to do things for them.  So the locals pitch in.

As they get to know the dialect and the people, they form friendships, hear the gossip, find out about rivalries between people and villages, and learn local traditions and superstitions.  Only do certain work on olive trees at certain times of the moon.  Many things are done because that's the way they've always been done.  When new ideas are introduced, they're often rejected as silly.  They have readily accepted motorized vehicles to travel up and down the steep hills, though.

Food plays a big part, whether it's the way the people insist on eating it (no sliced tomatoes, only chunked tomatoes!) or drinking wine, only their own wine, of course.  There's rumor that wine bought in stores isn't made with grapes!  Never drink that stuff!  If you don't eat the right food, at the right times, in the right way, your digestion will be compromised.  Annie and her sister shake their heads.

There is a drought, the well runs dry, then the well is pumped dry by someone who thinks he's bought the rights to it.  There's a forest fire.  There are dances and walks to cool pools in the summer.  The locals teach them how to forage for greens and mushrooms, although there are disagreements about which mushrooms are safe to eat.

I feel like I've been to the Italian hill villages without moving from my comfy chair.  Yes, that's the way to travel.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Celeste the Orchard Orbweaver (Leucauge venusta)

Last year, it was Regina the Garden Spider.  This year our patio spider is Celeste the Orchard Orbweaver.  At least that's what I think she is based on some photos (in the one above, you're looking at her underside) and descriptions of their habits.

She spins a very fine cobweb type of web, she flits about like she's flying, and she hangs upside down from her web.  Check, check, and check.  She has metallic bits on her that shine richly.  And a bit or orange or red.  She has very long front legs.  She's an elegant creature.

I know this will end in sadness, as all relationships with short-lived creatures do, but we'll enjoy her until then.  Even though she's spun her web across the two chair where we like to sit before dinner enjoying our Lemon Drop Martinis.

Oh, well, we'll cram together on the uncomfortable wrought iron bench on the other side of our tiny patio and admire her from a distance.

Temples of Delight - Barbara Trapido

Last summer I read Barbara Trapido's novel Brother of the More Famous Jack.  I liked that one, so when the same blogger (here) recently wrote about another of her novels, Temples of Delight, I immediately put it on hold at my library.  The copy they sent is a signed First Edition, but well read and rather ratty.

Temples of Delight reminded me of a combination of I Capture the Castle and The Sterile Cuckoo.  Why?  I'm not sure.  I haven't read The Sterile Cuckoo since I plucked it from the under-the-desk reserved-for-adults shelf at the public library I volunteered at when I was a young teen.

Jem McCrail appears in the doorway of the girls school Alice Pillings attends, dragging a canvas tool bag, wearing scuffed shoes.  She's tall and she's different.  She's a bookish girl who loves music and writes stories.  Her name is Veronica Bernadette, but she says she's called 'Jem' from 'jem-sengwiches' in P. G. Wodehouse.  You have to love that.

Alice is from a well-to-do family and stutters.  Jem tells Alice about her family, but Alice never gets to meet them.  Her father, Jem says, is a 'man of letters'.  Then, one day, Jem leaves school.  She doesn't write to Alice, even though she's promised, and when Alice tries to find her, she discovers that the address Jem gave is a derelict, abandoned house.

Alice continues to try to find Jem, but her efforts fail.  Alice goes on to Oxford, she rents a room from a wacky but endearing family, she almost gets engaged, she's in an auto accident, and another man enters her life.  When she discovers that someone has stolen one of Jem's novels and it's about to get published, she sets out to avenge the theft and to make sure Jem gets the credit.  Yet another man enters her life.  She finally receives a letter from Jem and goes to find out what has become of her.

I loved this book even more than the previous one.  It's strange, quirky, rich with characters and odd events.  

Friday, July 1, 2016

Furiously Happy / Jenny Lawson and Huntingtower / John Buchan

This book is not for those who are easily offended by off color language or topics.  Lawson doesn't seem to have the filters most of us have.  But I thought the book was very funny.  Jenny Lawson has rheumatoid arthritis, some other illnesses, and several mental illnesses (she calls them that).  Furiously Happy chronicles her attempts to live life fully on those days when she isn't in so much pain and can leave her depression and anxiety behind for a while, get out of bed, and do things.  Sometimes crazy things.

Her father was a taxidermist and she's a bit obsessed with stuffed animals.  She has two stuffed raccoons, one of which looks much like the raccoon on the cover, a manically happy creature.  I have to admit being put off a bit by the taxidermy.  I respect all creatures and although I feel our bodies are not ourselves after we dies, I still think they should be treated respectfully, even road killed raccoons. When she can't sleep, she sometimes has raccoon races using her cats as horses and the raccoons as jockeys.  Her long-suffering husband, Victor, never know what he'll find her doing.

Toward the end, she gets serious about depression and anxiety.  It helps to know you're not alone.  She treasures a letter she received after she posted about not killing herself.  Twenty-four people did not kill themselves because of what she wrote.  You can sample her blog here.

Oh, I wish this had been the copy I read!  Isn't the cover art great?  Unfortunately, I read Huntingtower on my Kindle.

Yvette recently recommended a later book in this trilogy, The House of Four Winds.  That's the third one, the second one is Castle Gay.  Huntingtower is what is sometimes called a Ripping Good Yarn.

Mr. Dickson McCunn has recently retired after a long successful career as a grocer.  He's comfortably wealthy, his wife is off at a spa, so he decides to go on a walking tour, searching for adventure.  He's read books by Scott and Dickens, Defoe, Hakluyt all his life, Romantic Adventure books.  He wants to find some of that.

On the train, he meets a young poet, John Heritage.  He doesn't like him very much, but Heritage involves him in a quest to rescue a foreign princess from a country estate where she's being held by Bolsheviks.  McCunn tries not to get involved.  He doesn't want that much adventure, some laws might be broken, and he's very class conscious.  He has great faith in businessmen, though, and thinks his experience will be helpful.

A band of ragtag boys from Glasgow, too poor to join the Boy Scouts, and calling themselves The Gorbals Diehards, are camping nearby.  Their captain is Dougal, a strategist of the first caliber, who engineers the rescue of the princess.  They're the ones who discover that something dodgy is going on at the house.

Mrs. Morran, the owner of the house where McCunn and Heritage take lodgings, is an old village woman.  She and the Diehards are key players in the rescue that takes place.  She helps keep their bodies and souls together, as well as offering them information about the village and surrounding area.

A princess imprisoned, fire, a tower, bombs, guns, traps, impostors, wind, storms.  They're all here.  Yes, it's a Ripping Good Yarn.