Friday, December 21, 2007

Happy holidays!!

Twin and I are scrambling to get on the road -- we're headed to VA to spend Christmas with the family. YAY! But first I must post some pictures of the gingerbread village we made this year (it's becoming a tradition with us).

Town hall.

Shops. Grocer in the middle, barber shop on the end.

This is obviously some kind of posh shop. Dressmakers, maybe.

Townhouses opposite the shops.

Church in the corner of the square. Ice cream cone steeple was a bit tricky.

Beyond the square, there is a lake and my estate--hee hee. It looks sort of like a little farm house.

Minty little house.

Yes, we are a little crazy. But it was all good fun. :)

May you all have a very joyful holiday!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sock and Glove by Miyako Kanamori

Title: Sock and Glove
Author: Miyako Kanamori
Published: 2007, Penguin
Category: Crafting

Twin is a member of a crafting circle that meets once a month or so to work on various kinds of projects. We hosted one at our apartment last weekend and decided to have everyone make softies following the directions in this really adorable book. It's all about taking old socks and gloves and turning them into simple stuffed toys. The directions are really very easy and there are lots of ideas about what to do with different sorts of socks and gloves. It's a brilliant idea, because everyone has sad old gloves and socks that they're never going to wear again.

You can look at this review at simplesparrow to see some pictures of the inside of the book. Almost all of us made the simplest glove animal (like the guy on the cover), but there are some other projects in the book that I want to try, especially the elephant and zebra.

Here are our creations:

They come out in varying degrees of wonkiness, but somehow this just adds to their appeal. I did the little red pig with the striped belly. I realized after I was finished that he looks sort of like Piglet on a really, really angry day. ;)

And here's a close-up of the two Julie made--a striped kitty and a little white dog with a matching sweater.

These projects are great because they're quick and don't require any special sewing skills. And you can dress your animal up in all different ways and give him lots of personality. If anyone is scrambling to find a Christmas gift for someone who likes hand crafts, this book would be a good one.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Carla Kelly Christmas stories

Title: Four Christmas short stories
Author: Carla Kelly
Published: See bottom of post
Category: Regency Romance
Rating: 7.5/10

I went mad ordering all the Christmas anthologies I could find that had Carla Kelly stories in them -- and then I only read the Kelly stories. I am usually very wary of romance short stories, because I can rarely find a good love story that can be told well in such a limited format. But these are just fabulous. They're remarkable because not only was I completely sold on the romance (no mean feat), but they also have lovely, meaningful plots and lots of character development. It's amazing how much Kelly was able to squeeze into these little tales.

"The Christmas Ornament" begins with two old friends visiting. One has a bluestocking of a daughter (Olivia) just coming of age and the other has an Oxford scholar of a son (James) who is nearing the age when he should be settling down and getting married. They plan to throw them together over Christmas and see what comes of it. For a while it seems like nothing will, as James is "mortally shy" and is constantly putting his foot in his mouth, and Olivia has another suitor in the dashing Lord D'Urst, a fact that robs James of all his self-confidence.

This is probably the lightest, most playful story of the lot. Lord D'Urst calls Olivia his "Christmas ornament," and we can only hope that James will get his act together enough to make her a better offer: a partnership of equals.

"No Room at the Inn" sees Mary McIntyre traveling with acquaintances just before Christmas. They are caught in a storm and are forced to stop and stay with Joseph Shepard, a tradesman who is also the son of Mary's aristocratic family's steward. We soon find out, however, that Mary has just been told that she was adopted at birth by her high-born parents, who have now decided to tell the world that she's actually the illegitimate daughter of a servant (or actress or something, I can't quite remember). Joe welcomes them all into his home with cheerful warmth, and he and Mary work together to make the holiday fun and cozy.

Besides the love story here, we get some very interesting class conflict – Mary's just gone way down the ladder, Joe's a tradesman who's made his own fortune.

"Let Nothing You Dismay" is about Lord Trevor Chase, a London solicitor called "the patron saint of lost causes." He's made it his life's work to represent children and keep the poor things from being transported to Australia. Lord Trevor's niece is accompanied home for the Christmas holiday by one of her schoolteachers, Cecilia Ambrose. As Cecilia and Trevor get to know each other, Cecilia discovers that something in Trevor's past is haunting him; he's carrying around feelings of guilt over something he did years ago and is losing hope of ever atoning for it. Cecilia must try to snap him out of it, and help him move forward with his life.

Lots of interesting stuff here – poor Trevor is so admirable, but the crushing guilt was maybe a little gloomy for me. Not the easiest story to read.

And I saved the best for last – "An Object of Charity" was my favorite story. Captain Michael Lynch's ship has been damaged in a fight with the French, so he's come home to England. There he meets Sally Partlow and her brother, who have come from Scotland to live with their uncle. Michael is forced to tell them that their uncle, his first mate, has just been killed in action. Not realizing that they have no money and no where else to go, he sends them on their way. Once he discovers his mistake he feels that it's his duty to help them, but doesn't know what to do with them except to take them home for the holiday. The trouble is that he's been estranged from his family for twenty years.

Captain Lynch reminded me a lot of Horatio Hornblower, which can only be a good thing. Very responsible and a bit too serious, he's sort of forgotten how to live a life on land and at peace. And I thought his reunion with his family was so well done and realistic.

And I must quote the final paragraph of this one, because it's so nice (and it's not like I'm giving away the ending – it is a romance).
"Happy Christmas, Sally," he whispered in her ear, as goodwill settled around him like a benediction, and peace became his second dearest companion.
And I just found one more anthology on PaperBackSwap with a Kelly story in it. I really hope it comes before Christmas.

Publication info:
"No Room at the Inn" in A Regency Christmas, Signet, 2002
"The Christmas Ornament" in A Regency Christmas, Signet, 1998
"An Object of Charity" in A Regency Christmas Present, Signet, 1999
"Let Nothing You Dismay" in Regency Christmas Wishes, Signet 2003

Monday, December 10, 2007

Have His Carcase, Dorothy L. Sayers

Title: Have His Carcase
Author: Dorothy L. Sayers
Published: 1932 originally, 1995 HarperPaperbacks
Category: Mystery
Rating: 7/10

Has anyone noticed that this book's been hanging out on my sidebar under "Up Next" for a few weeks? Yeah, I've been working on this book since October. I love Lord Peter, but this one was a bit of a trial for me. (For those unfamiliar with Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey is an English gentleman detective who appears in an entire series of books, sometimes joined by Harriet Vane.)

Mystery writer Harriet Vane is on holiday in the south of England. One day as she's hiking along the coast, she notices what appears to be a very freshly murdered man resting atop a boulder on the shore. Harriet fearlessly goes up to investigate; she examines and photographs the body, much in the way of the fictitious detective-hero she writes. It turns out that the evidence she's collected comes in very handy because while Harriet is fetching the police, the tide comes in and sweeps the body away. Lord Peter soon arrives on the scene and starts investigating. But with each new piece of evidence the case just gets more and more confusing. They have lots of suspects, some of whom have strong motives but perfect alibis, while others are obviously lying about the evidence but appear to have had nothing to do with the victim.

This is one of those books where I want to give two grades, one for technical merit and the other for how much I enjoyed it. Because who am I to find fault with the great Dorothy Sayers? She was a master of the mystery novel, and I love some of her books to death. But, dear God, this thing was loooong, and so involved with so many, many details that I lost interest about halfway in. I was siding with the provincial policemen when they wanted to proclaim it a suicide and forget the whole thing. I think this is mostly to do with my personal preferences; I can read and enjoy a whodunit, but figuring out who done it is hardly ever what keeps me reading. I read for the characters, and Lord Peter is the reason I managed to get through this at all. He comes across as such a charismatic man, which is something I would imagine would be very hard for an author to accomplish. He is just charming and intelligent and very funny.

We do see a little development in Harriet and Wimsey's relationship (of course, not as much as I might have liked). He keeps proposing and Harriet keeps saying no. My favorite proposal Wimsey sends in a telegram:
But Harriet is re-establishing herself as an independent woman, and Wimsey is trying not to step on her toes as she does this, no matter how much he may want to take care of her. I have to quote the very first paragraph, because it sums up their relationship, and is such an incredible beginning and so brilliantly written:
The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth. After being acquitted of murdering her lover, and indeed, in consequence of that acquittal, Harriet Vane found all three specifics abundantly at her disposal; and although Lord Peter Wimsey, with a touching faith in tradition, persisted day in and day out in presenting the bosom for her approval, she showed no inclination to recline upon it.
So it gets a 7 overall (averaging a 9 for technical merit and a 5 for personal entertainment value). But for those who like a really meaty, complex mystery, this one's for you.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Book Binge contest

The ladies at Book Binge are being super generous with their holiday contest -- they're giving away an eBookwise e-Reader. Holy crap! And though they will have to tear my old-fashioned paper books from my cold, dead hands, I am starting to see the allure of e-books.

1. What is your favorite Christmas romance to re-read each year?
I haven't actually read much Christmas romance. But I recently read Marian's Christmas Wish by Carla Kelly, and it just might become a traditional re-read. I also read Dickens's A Christmas Carol every year.

2. What is your favorite Christmas movie/show?
Mickey's Christmas Carol. Really old half-hour Disney version that my brother and sister and I loved as kids. I still love it.

3. What is your favorite Christmas cookie?
Viennese Snowballs. They're walnut cookies rolled in powder sugar. I posted the recipe last year. YUMMY!

4. When do you start Christmas shopping?
Oh. I guess I should get on that soon, huh?

5. Do you re-gift?
Not really. I don't exchange gifts with that wide a group of people, so I usually don't end up getting much crap.

6. What is your favorite Christmas song?
"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"

7. When do you get your Christmas tree?
Usually the first weekend in December.

8. Wrapping presents: Love it or hate it?
Love it! Pretty paper and ribbon=lotsa fun.

9. Who is the hardest person to buy for?
My uber-non-consumerist father.

10. Christmas tree: Real or artificial?
Both. Twin and I get a little real tree for our apartment. But then we go to our parents' house for the actual holiday, and there we have a gorgeous artificial tree.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Marian's Christmas Wish, Carla Kelly

Title: Marian's Christmas Wish
Author: Carla Kelly
Published: 1989, Signet
Category: Regency Romance
Rating: 8.5/10

I ordered this book because it was on JMC's AAR top romances list – and she's quite the Carla Kelly expert, so I figured it had to be good. And it's a full-length Christmas story, which is pretty hard to find. Yay!

Marian Wynswich is the youngest daughter of a family in trouble. Their father has died recently, leaving them with major financial problems due to his propensity for gambling (badly). Marian's brother Philip thinks that he may be able to save the family by marrying off the eldest Wynswich daughter, Ariadne (who is luckily beautiful and quite biddable), to someone wealthy. So Philip brings Sir William Clinghorn home for Christmas. Sir William turns out to be a silly, vulgar man, but he's rich and looking for a pretty, "proper" little wife. Ariadne is in love with the village's vicar, but she's apparently too weak to put up any protest. Marian, on the other hand, is not at all weak. She's used to saying what she thinks (and she thinks a lot), and what starts out as a passive-aggressive dislike of the toady little man soon turns into a scheme to get rid of him and save Ariadne. She's aided in her plans by her brother Alistair and Lord Gilbert, another friend of Philip's who came home with him for the holiday.

Marian and Gilbert quickly become very good friends. He's a serious man who's highly involved in very secret, very important, apparently dangerous diplomatic work. He was burned badly when a ship he was on caught fire, leaving him with an impressive scar on his cheek. He hasn't wanted to scare his family, which is why he didn't go to his own home for Christmas. Marian sets about trying to change his mind, even making it her wish on the Christmas pudding (an English tradition, apparently).

So that's not even all the plot; it is a lot more action-filled than I have found most of Carla Kelly's books to be. I do think the book has a slightly odd structure; it really felt like two novellas (starring the same characters) jammed together. The first half is your normal, nice Christmas story. The second half of the book is centered on a rather thrilling plot involving Gilbert's diplomatic work. I didn't mind the change, because both parts were really well done, but I still found it a little odd.

Anyway, besides that this book is completely brilliant. It is filled with the pragmatic, intelligent, kind characters that usually populate Kelly's books. Marian is very young (only 16!), so beware if that puts you off. But she is very wise for her age, and she is filled with a youthful enthusiasm that serves to startle Gilbert out of the gloomy oppression of his overactive sense of duty. The story is light and funny at times (Alistair especially is a riot), but it also has a certain gravity that keeps it from being fluffy.

The Christmas elements were lovely. I really have no idea whether they are historically accurate, but I'd bet they are. More importantly, the book has such a nice spirit to it -- the idea of Christmas as a time to appreciate your family, no matter how much they might drive you crazy through most of the year. It left me with fabulous warm fuzzies.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

I Google. iGoogle.

Have people heard of iGoogle? They're customizable Google home pages. You pick a banner and what widgets you want to have displayed. I just discovered it, and it is cool.

Here's the banner I picked. The little fox is so cute! And the picture changes according to what time of the day it is for me. Like in the morning, the sun's way over to the left and he's picking oranges. Then at lunchtime he has a little picnic. And then, oh, look! He's fishing in his little boat. And then it gets dark and he sits on his deck. I don't know if he goes to bed or not. If he does, he stays up later than me. Okay, yes, it doesn't take much to amuse me.

But see, look at all my little tools. It has my weather, email, and unread posts on my google reader. A to-do list, a list of top-selling books, news stories, etc., etc. And a John Stewart quote of the day. Hee! And you can drag the tools around to put them exactly like you want.

It's good fun. :)