Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Shadowed by Grace: A Story of Monuments Men by Cara C. Putman

The destructive toll left behind by war is immense, often incomprehensible.  The path of humankind has been changed by war, sometimes for the better (think American Revolution), but even those times the personal stories of sacrifice loss are overwhelming.  Over 70 years after WWII, we are still interested in those real life stories of personal sacrifice, and that interest spills over into the creative minds of fiction writers like Cara C. Putnam.

Recent discoveries of collections of art which may have once belonged to European Jewish families brought about renewed interest in Hitler's plan to obtain the world's greatest art (and to destroy the works of those he felt immoral or decadent).  For the first time, many of us learned about that small group of noncombat soldiers known as the Monuments Men.  The recent movie by that name made us think what our world would look like without the great masterpieces.  Would we be the same people today without the Mona Lisa, the statue of David, and the best of religious art?  Cara Putnam's fictional title Shadowed by Grace has readers follow two Americans into Italy as the Germans are retreating.  Rachel Justice is among the first UP photographers allowed near the front lines.  Her female status presents a unique set of barriers, but her keen eye for the emotional photos needed by the papers back home makes her a welcome asset. For her own protection she is paired with  Lt. Scott Lindstrom whose main task is to help priests and local officials record the devastation to Italy's art -- its monuments, church altars, treasured paintings and such.  Cataloging the damage and pin pointing where other pieces are being hidden is the first step to protecting the treasures from any further loss.
From the beginning Rachel feels a connection to Scott, but still she hesitates to share that she has a second motive for being in Italy --  to locate her father, someone she knows nothing about except that he is probably an artists that her mother met in the 1920s.  When she shows Scott a small sketch book she's gotten from her ill mother, the book disappears and Rachel begins to wonder if Scott is among the American soldiers who are helping themselves to "art mementos."

I became very interested in the Monuments Men story after seeing documentary pieces and then the
recent movie.  I've read several fiction books dealing with the men and the protection/recovery of Europe's art, but no stories stand up to the amazing real story.  As I began reading Shadowed by Grace, I found myself drawn into the story with high expectations.  The writing kept my attention and soon I was over 100 pages into the book.  Then, for some reason I can't quite pinpoint, the story stalled and I had a hard time making it to the end.  I knew quite certainly how everything would play out  (there are a few mysteries to the book) but I hoped the historical background would carry my interest through.  It did, but not by much.  Shadowed by Grace is one of those books that I liked, but I really hoped I would like it even more!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Seagrass Pier by Colleen Coble: A Hope Beach Novel

Seagrass Pier 195x300Seagrass Pier is the third Hope Beach novel, the others include Tidewater Inn and Rosemary Cottage. Unlike many titles in a series, Seagrass Pier can easily be read as a stand-alone novel without confusion over characters and plots from the previous books.  Erin Summerall, a medical donor specialist, has herself received a new heart, needed after a virus destroyed her own.  Her recovery goes well, but Erin begins having nightmares about a murder.  Erin and the police all know that her new heart came from a young woman strangled on a cruise ship, so everyone takes her dreams seriously.  As they become more frequent and vivid, her "cell memories" hit the news.  Soon Erin begins to receive threatening messages.  Could it be the killer?  In an attempt to keep herself, her young daughter, and her frail mother safe, the young widow Erin settles in at a cottage at remote Seagrass Pier.  That move puts her face-to-face with FBI agent Marc who, despite orders from his superiors not to get involved, believes helping Erin will help him solve his own partner's death.  Like most romantic suspense stories, Coble's newest book is packed with plenty of action and angst with the recurring "cell memories" adding an eerie element. Whoever is stalking Erin is relentless and who it might be is not an easy pick.  As for the romance, sparks have always flown between Erin and Marc, especially years before Erin's marriage.  Marc's first introduction to young Josie with the dark hair and the little dimple so much like his, and he knows Erin has been hiding a secret. But Seagrass Pier goes beyond the formula suspense and romance especially in the story about Erin's mother who is beginning to exhibit early-onset dementia.  Her mixture of confusion and clarity add to the suspenseful plot, but on a more realistic level, Coble gives us a glimpse of the anguish caregivers and family members live each day.  I've read Tidewater Inn and started to listen to the audio version of Rosemary Cottage, and I would recommend the whole series, but most definitely Seagrass Pier if you are a fan of Christian contemporary suspense novels.  Being a "beach" novel, it would make a great book to take to the beach this August!  I received a copy of this title from BookLooks for my review.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Stay In Port Wing, WI

Back in the 1990's we camped on the shores of Lake Superior several times, both in the UP and in Wisconsin.  My favorite place was a small campground right next to the marina in Port Wing, WI.  Port Wing, Herbster, and Cornucopia are sort of the forgotten area between Bayfield and Superior.  Our times there were always so refreshing that I've wanted to go back, even after we gave up camping for the cabin. We spent last week at the cabin with our daughter and three year old granddaughter but decided to add a side trip to the big water.  Motels are quite confining with toddlers, so I looked into B and B's.  Garden-House in Port Wing, although not directly on the water sounded pleasant.  Their website gave me a preview of what our two-bedroom suite would look like, and children were welcomed, so I made a one-night reservation.

We had a detour for road construction and had an even more difficult time maneuvering winding dirt roads so we could make it to Meyers Beach, a wonderful sandy beach outside Cornucopia that kayakers and beah sitters frequent.  After the long drive, the detour and the afternoon beach excursion, we were ready for the comfort of a homey (but luxurious) B and B.  We were NOT disappointed. Karleen Tjepkarma and her husband are wonderful hosts.  A fragrant bouquet of pink peonies graced the desk in our suite, books and art were everywhere.  Granddaughter Lizzie loved the freedom to run across the backyard, seeking out the koi in the little pond, while I was able to just soak in the beauty of the perennial beds and flowering shrubs.

Photos of GardenHouse

Both R. and I looked through a couple nature photography coffee table books before we called it a night -- wise choices for a B & B near the big lake.  The best still awaited, though.  I've been to several B & B's in England and one in Hazel Green, WI, and all those places served great breakfasts, but everything about the morning repast at Garden-House was 5-star.  The table setting rivaled a photo shoot layout.  Even Lizzie had special dishes.  My cranberry-raspberry green tea was one of the best I've had (and I've become a little bit of a tea snob lately).  Fresh fruit medley served in crystal goblets was followed by aebleskivers (spherical Norwegian pancakes) stuffed with apricot jam, nutella, or lemon curd (my favorite) and sausage. While we ate, we were able to learn more about Karleen's art, the couple's music, and the Port Wing news.   Karleen's special homemade toasted coconut ice cream was the final course to this special breakfast, a total surprise.  Ice cream for breakfast certainly was a hit with Lizzie.

It was quite the disappointment to learn that the campground I held so special in my memory has been gone for several years, replaced by several homes.  The Port Wing art studio, formerly a small church, is now for sale.  Port Wing, Herbster, and  Cornucopia are definitely not for the tourists who want the Bayfield shops and crowds, but if you like to soak up the sight and breezes of Lake Superior with a little taste of the hard life of those early Wisconsin immigrants who settled on the shores, fished and tried to farm, then you might like to explore highway 13.  If you do, and if you want to meet some interesting hosts who will make you feel completely at home, check out  Do check their website, as their photos are much better than mine.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Apart at the Seams by Marie Bostwick

APART AT THE SEAMSApart at the Seams is the sixth book in Marie Bostwick's  Cobbled Court Quilt series. I've loved  the previous books which all take place in the charming town New Bern, Connecticut and its little quilt shop tucked away in a courtyard off the main streets.  All the books are loosely connected, centering on women who find that Evelyn's shop is not just a spot to buy quality fabric; it is a shelter from life's hurts and a spot where friendships grow.  In this most recent addition to the Cobbled Court saga, Gayla Oliver, a college placement counselor, finds a document her husband has left on his computer.  It appears to be a note informing her that the marriage was over.  When he swears that the note had been written months earlier and that he has realized that ending their marriage would be a mistake, Gayla can't forgive him.
She seeks solace at the little cottage they'd bought in New Bern, the place they'd expected to bring them closer together.  Instead, Gayla finds herself alone and uncertain about her future.

Despite never having sewn anything, Gayla has always been drawn to the beauty of fabric, and soon she's invited to be part of the Cobbled Court quilting group.  Each of the women have recently challenged each other to try something new -- something totally unexpected.  Readers will be surprised as each friend shares what they've undertaken- especially Evelyn's elderly mother.  One of the group is  Ivy Peterman, a struggling single mother who juggles motherhood, her job at the quilt shop, and her college classes.  Ivy's past story of escaping domestic abuse is the main story in an earlier book.  In Apart at the Seams, Ivy learns that her ex-husband will be paroled from prison and the courts have approved his request to having visiting rights with the children.  Despite all she has achieved, Ivy still must push ahead if she wants a safe, secure, and happy future for herself and her children.

Jennifer Chiaverini, Debbie Macomber, Jan Karon and other successful authors have captivated readers with their fictional towns peopled with ordinary people facing both life's highs and lows. Fans of these authors can't wait for the next volume.  I believe Marie Bostwick and the busy ladies (and their families) of New Bern deserve the same loyal following and accolades as the others.  Can't wait for Marie's next work, whether it's a Cobbled Court story or a stand alone book.  I obtained my copy of Apart at the Seams through the Winnefox Library System.  If you are interested in her work, all her books are available at BN, Amazon, and many other bookstores.  I was lucky enough to meet Marie at the Quilt Expo in Madison two years ago, and since then I've started following her on Facebook.  Meeting her and following her frequent postings about everyday life have convinced me she's as full of heart as her writing!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Chestnut Street by Maeve Binchy

Book cover Maeve Binchy's books are filled with stories of Ireland so real that readers often sought out the towns described in them, only to find that they were fictional.  I haven't not read all her books, but always found her works to be exceptional at catching both life's poignant and quiet moments.  Most of her stories have quirky twists, those details that make a person  "a character" and a place "an unforgettable."  I am sure her writing spurred countless visits to Ireland. Sadly Maeve Binchy died in 2012 and there will be no more full length novels, but a collection of short stories has been published posthumously.  Each story introduces the reader to a resident of Chestnut Street, a fictional street in Dublin.  Binchy was such a talented writer that in just four or five pages she captured the essence of each character's unique story, leaving you thinking that you had just completed a novel, not a short story.  When a select few characters make a simple mention in a second or third story later in the book, layers of authenticity begin to build, and Chestnut Street emerges as a real place in Ireland's last years of the twentieth century.  The seemingly ordinary people who inhabit Chestnut Street across the decades at first appear to be too caught up in the struggles of everyday lower middle class life to have any significant personal story to share.  They are the nameless people who work in the shops and ride the buses.  But as the doors of their tiny flats are closed, the shades drawn on the windows, and the kettle is set on the stove, Binchy lets us see into their true stories --  the lost loves, failed careers, abandonment, even second chances and heroic choices.   If you've never read one of Maeve Binchy's books, I highly recommend CHESTNUT STREET as your first read.  I especially liked the its format for vacation reading.  It was easy to pick up the book and read a story or two, then put it down without thinking I was abandoning the book mid-story.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Cabin time and a little reading

There have been no posts this week because simply put, I had better things to do!  We were at the cabin with our daughter and granddaughter and that makes technology out of range.  Even the cell phone is unreliable.  L. is the youngest of our grandchildren, and at 3 1/2 years is at the perfect age for fun times.
One day she was down at the hammock by our little lake with her mom and I could hear her giggles all the way up to the cabin.  This went on for nearly an hour.  We took a side trip for part of two days and she was so good despite the long car ride.  That night we went out for supper and she had Grandpa, Grandma, and Mom all playing finger puppets with her.  What a shock the waitress got when Grandpa ordered his supper and beverage with his puppet voice!  Such sweet times and great memories in the making.

Although there were meals to prepare, a few simple picnics to pack, and many miles on the road during the week, I did have time to finish three books (Seagrass Pier by Colleen Coble, Apart at the Seams by Marie Bostwick, and Chestnut Street by Maeve Binchy) and will be posting reviews asap.  I may even post a little more about the trip.  I definitely have to share about the charming B&B that we stayed at when we made our little side trip to the South Shore of Lake Superior.  Of course, I will have to work my writing around doing laundry, weeding garden, and getting caught up on the mail. I have several notifications from the library that I have requested materials to pick up and I also have three electronic holds ready to download.  Looks like I will need to set aside time for reading, too.  Can't believe the middle of July is quickly approaching.   Can we possibly add a few extra hours to each day so I can do all I want to do?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

So Shines the Night by Tracy L. Higley

Daria is an educated single woman, a rarity in the ancient world.  When her services as a tutor are no longer needed she seeks employment at a local academy, but there she sees evidence of the dark magic and secrets that haunted her earlier marriage.  When she attempts to rescue a young girl whose mind and body are threatened by sorcery, Daria is aided by a merchant who then offers safe passage to Ephesus and eventually a job as his tutor.  Although the plan is that she will teach Lucas the many foreign languages that he needs to be more successful, Daria soon learns that his priorities lie elsewhere.  Driven by her natural curiosity, Daria tries to learn what haunts the merchant, and her efforts led her to a group of sorcerers who threaten the old ways of Ephesus and its worship of the God Artemis.  She also discovers that Lucas has a connection with the mysterious group led by a tent maker Paul and his young friend Timothy. When Lucas is falsely accused of murder, Daria begins to see the truth that Paul has been preaching on the streets and in area homes.

Higley, in a commentary after the book, explains that her story tries to flesh out the daily conflicts that Paul faced in Ephesus, especially the dark clouds of superstition, magic, and false religion that entangled so many.  She also mentions drawing on the classic romance Rebecca for the relationship between Lucas and Daria, and after reading that comment, I could see the parallel.  I listened to the audio version of this title and loved the narrative details of Lucas's estate and the city itself.  Like all audio books, the narrator has to alter his/her voice for all the characters and this is not always successful, especially for characters of the opposite sex.  This audio was well done, except that I found Paul's accent European and overdone.  In no way should that discourage anyone from listening to SO SHINES THE NIGHT or from reading the book.  I downloaded SO SHINES THE NIGHT at WPLC, our Wisconsin libraries' source for ebooks and audio books.