Pianos and Flowers: Brief Encounter of the Romantic Kind by Alexander McCall Smith

Dear Fellow Reader,

Do you read any of the series by Alexander McCall Smith? He has a very popular mystery series, The #1 Ladies Detective Agency. I have never been a fan of those for some reason. I have enjoyed the Isabel Dalhousie books and for a while, I liked the 44 Scotland Street books. And those series barely scratch the surface of the books he has published. Phew!

I happened to notice recently that he had a book come out in January. I went on to my library site and reserved a copy right away. While I have found his books a bit uneven, I still always have hope that I will love the next one I pick up. When I read the introduction, I had great hope for this new book.

Pianos and Flowers is the name of the new book. It seems that Alexander McCall Smith was asked by The Sunday Times to write some short stories for the paper. To accomplish this, he requested that the newspaper send him some old photographs. He then took the photographs and made-up stories to go with the photos. The book is comprised of 14 stories based on the photos. (Yes, the photos are included.)

I was excited when I read about the book. I thought it sounded like it would be fun. I really like the idea. It sounds challenging and entertaining. The book is fairly short;the fourteen stories are covered in 179 pages. The first few stories are the longest. And I enjoyed those first few.

But overall, I was disappointed. I do wonder if part of the problem is cultural. That maybe his British stories just didn’t have the appeal here. I truly wanted to like it but found myself just racing to finish and not in a good way.

This is a book that you might feel differently about than I did. I think it holds such creative promise. I also like that so many of Alexander McCall Smith’s books are serialized in the paper before they become books. I think it makes me think of Charles Dickens and I wish that we had that in our newspapers here. As much as I want to tell you to hurry out and get this book, I think you can read the rest of your TBR (to be read) pile first.

Thanks for reading.

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The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Dear Fellow Reader,

It is February, bitterly cold and there is more snow out the window than I can believe. We have had snow since January and there is no sign of it melting any time soon. It is high enough that the deer are having a hard time getting into the yard. The rim of the yard is high with plowed snow. While the season started off mild, it is going strong now.

It is the perfect weather to sit and read in front of the fireplace. What else can you do? Just get cozy and relax. Don’t forget the blankets!

And this week we have an older book that I found for you to think about reading. For those of you who are keeping track (exactly none of you, I assume) I have still not started reading the stack of books in the living room that I swear I am going to read this year. I have taken one book off the stack and will get to it in the next week. I’m sure I will. There are just so many books to read!

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first book in a series. The main character is Flavia de Luce. She is the youngest daughter in the family and has a passion for Chemistry. Due to an ancestor’s passion for chemistry, there is a fully equipped laboratory in the family home. As the book opens, Flavia is bound and tied up and placed in a locked closet. It seems that she irritates her older sisters to no end, and this is how they though they would settle the score. Flavia escapes soon enough and goes down to dinner with her father. Flavia’s mother, an explorer, was killed when Flavia was a year old and Flavia’s father is still in mourning. He allows his daughters to explore options that they find interesting. Thus, Flavia’s experiments and her vast knowledge of poisons.

One afternoon, Flavia was about to get in trouble with her father when a dead bird is found at the back door with a stamp stuck through its beak. The sight affects Flavia’s father more than she would expect and she wonders why. Then that evening, she wakes and thinks she hears voices. She goes downstairs to find that her father is arguing in his office with a stranger. Even more intriguing to Flavia is that she finds that stranger about to die in the cucumber garden early the next morning. The man says the word “Vale” and then dies. Flavia takes it on herself to solve this mystery. While the local detective is nice enough, she feels she can take care of this herself. She’ll let him know when the time comes for someone to be arrested.

There are 10 books in this series. While it is a bit outlandish to think that an 11-year-old could think and do everything involved in the story, it is a fine tale. You need to accept that this is a dysfunctional family in England. There are lots of quirks.

Overall, it was entertaining. While I do not try and guess “who done it” when I read mysteries, I did know who the murderer was, but the tale unfolded with more than I expected. And I do love finding a new series!

Thanks for reading!

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It Had to Be You by Georgia Clark

Dear Fellow Reader,

I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction works and as usual when that happens, I have to skip back over to a “popcorn” fiction book. Just a light snack of a book. The kind of book that keeps your mind occupied but moves quickly. A lovely little break to let your mind re-set.

Luckily, I had just the thing waiting for me. I had a book to review – you know the books that I am given in exchange for my fair and unbiased review. So I picked it up and read it.

Before I get to that, I have a question for you. I have gotten to the point that I have a negative reaction when I look at the summary of a book or a piece of promo for a book and they tell me that it is like this or that author or is reminiscent of a movie. I never seem to agree with whoever makes these comparisons. I find it a bit of a turn off. I am not sure that I would want my book compared to someone else’s book. How do you feel about that? Do you pay any attention to it?

Part of what brings this to mind, is that in the promo for this week’s book, the book was compared to the movie Love Actually. I thought that was a bit odd. How often is a book compared to a movie? The exact quote was “in a joyous Love Actually – style braided narrative. Hmmm.

It Had to Be You starts off by introducing us to Liv Goldenhorn. Liv is a wedding planner. She and her husband have a wedding planning company. Liv is at a wedding where everything is going wrong. Horribly wrong. And her husband is no where to be found. He was supposed to fly back to New York from Kentucky, and he isn’t back yet. With things going from bad to worse (think bride insisted on lavender for the winter wedding and the scent of the lavender, which was intensified due to the heaters had woken up a bee’s nest. And then the bride gets stung on the lip.) Liv gets a phone call. Her husband has died in Kentucky. Liv is shell shocked. But that is not the end of unpleasant surprises for her.

Through the story, we meet the woman who Liv’s husband left his half of the business to, two bandmates who frequently work for Liv, florists who are Liv’s friends and they work her weddings, and a world-traveling server who will work for Liv’s caterers. The stories about each of these people spin around the story of Liv and her wedding planning company.

So, I guess if you really wanted to compare it, you could compare it to a Love Actually web of characters. The thing that I fear with books with multiple character lines is that you won’t know who you are reading about when the next chapter starts. I did not have that problem with this book at all. It was very clear who was who. Okay, sometimes I read to fast and I wasn’t clear about the ethnicity of two of the characters but it doesn’t truly matter.

I did enjoy the book. Here is the rub if you wanted to rush out and get it – it will be published on May 4, 2021. Yes, I know. But I am in the position of needing to review it while I remember it or waiting 3 months and trying to remember it. I have opted for telling you about it in advance. Write it down in your calendar for May 4. I will try and remind you about the book when it is being published. (I’ll mark my calendar.) 

I hope you are doing well and finding lots of great books to read.

Thanks for reading!

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Habit Books – Badass and Atomic

Dear Fellow Reader,

Like many, I start the new year off with thoughts of changes. It is a fresh start and I think of things I can do to make my new year better. Yes, resolutions can be part of this but every year they talk on the news shows about how fast people give up on their resolutions. According to Inc Magazine, * approximately 80 percent of people have dropped their resolution by the second week of February but there is also some research that indicates the most drop out by January 19th .

Those do not seem like good odds. Also, I don’t know about you, but I am not good with goals. I can set them just fine, but I don’t keep them. I want to but there is something in my brain that just stops me every time.

I decided that instead of making goals or resolutions that I would try and make some new habits. Better habits seemed far more within my range. Also, I decided that I would find out a bit more about habits so that I could improve my chances of being successful. How much do I know about starting a new habit? I would just say that you determine your habit and then set aside a time to do it every day. Something like that…

BUT, being a reader, I decided that I could find out more. Which is where we are this week. If you are interested in starting or improving some habits, I have two book suggestions for you. One of the books that originally brought habits to my mind is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I read this book many years ago and thought it was great. I probably should have gone back and re-read that book, but it seemed to me that while I loved the examples and stories in the book, I didn’t come away knowing how to get myself to make new habits. Fresh eyes might have changed that feeling but quite frankly, I didn’t think of it.

I did read about a new book titled, Atomic Habits by James Clear. The review was positive and I was interested to see what he had to say. There was a long line for the book at the library, so it took a while to get it. In the meantime, I found that one of my favorite self-help authors has a new book entitled Badass Habits. While I waited for Atomic Habits, I picked up Badass Habits.

Badass Habits by Jen Sincero is a follow up to her book You Are a Badass? What I would tell you about Ms Sincero’s books is that they are casual. As you might’ve understood from the title. But I have found them to be very interesting and they make sense to me.

“Most habits score woefully low in the immediate gratification department… most habits take a while to produce the desired results, which makes them more difficult to stick with because we humans love us some payoff.” 

What I really like about the book is that Ms Sincero takes you through the process of setting a new habit and then takes you through – one day at a time – for the first 21 days of habit keeping. Yes, she gives you something to do every day for 21 days to enforce and perhaps refine your new habit. I like that re-enforcement. She also wants you to have a notebook with you when you read so that you can do some exercises to help re-enforce points as they apply to your habit.

Ms. Sincero is a big believer in using mantras or affirmations to help you achieve your goals. If you think this is silly, this book won’t work for you. But if you have never tried it, I suggest you might open up and try. You might find them helpful.

The second habit book I read was Atomic Habits by James Clear. I don’t think I had any idea what an atomic habit was when I started the book. It sounds like a big thing doesn’t it? No, it is the opposite.

“Habits are the atoms of our lives. Each one is a fundamental unit that contributes to your overall improvement. At first, these tiny routines seem insignificant but soon they build on each other and fuel bigger wins that multiply to a degree that far outweighs the cost of their initial investment. They are both small and mighty. This is the meaning of the phrase atomic habits – a regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do, but also the source of incredible power a component of the system of compound growth.”

Mr. Clear talks about the compounding effect of positive and negative habits. He states that if you can get 1 percent better every day, then you will improve by 37 percent after one year. And that if you keep a bad habit that it will get worse over time. To explain this, he gives interesting real-life examples of small changes that were made and how much improvement was gained. He explains the 4 Laws of Behavior Change which are cue, craving, response, and reward. He has a section to explain each of the laws and has a summary at the end of each section. The book is clear and gives very interesting examples from the real world.

Are you wondering if I would pick one book over the other? No, I wouldn’t. They each have excellent points. And they do agree with one another on the theories, although they say things in very different ways. I found myself reading Atomic Habits nodding and thinking the Ms. Sincero said that same thing. I liked the more detailed explanations and chapter summaries in Atomic Habits but I think there is great benefit to the 21 days of re-enforcement in Badass Habits.

Only time will tell but I am working on some new habits. You might want to consider these books if your resolutions are gone with the wind but you have some life changes you wish to make.

Thanks for reading!

*(https://www.inc.com/jeff-haden/a-study-of-800-million-activities-predicts-most-new-years-resolutions-will-be-abandoned-on-january-19-how-you-cancreate-new-habits-that-actually-stick.html#:~:text=You’re%20probably%20painfully%20familiar,Year’s%20resolutions%20have%20dropped%20them)

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Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey by Kathleen Rooney

Major Charles Whittlesey

Dear Fellow Reader,

I have talked before about how impressed I am with the imagination that some writers have. To create stories out of thin air is quite an accomplishment. Especially if the story is very strange. (See my review on Things in Jars by Jess Kidd.) The last two books I have read have been in the interesting  story line category.

I had read Kathleen Rooney’s previous book, Lillian Boxfish takes a Walk, a few years ago. I was also able to see her in person at my local library. I enjoyed the book and was interested in how Ms. Rooney came up with the plot. (The story was based on a real person, Margaret Fishback. Ms. Rooney, through a friend had access to Ms. Fishback’s files.)

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is the second book by Kathleen Rooney. I knew nothing about the book when I picked it up. Okay, this book, while interesting has very different main characters. As you may guess from the title, the main characters are Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey. Cher Ami is, at the time of the story, a stuffed homing pigeon that is on display at the Smithsonian. Yes, you read that right. A stuffed pigeon. But she is a famous pigeon. (I bet you didn’t know that there were famous pigeons.) Cher Ami was a homing pigeon during WWI and was used by the American Troops to relay messages between the front and the headquarters. In her role, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre Medal by the French and an Oak Leaf Cluster.

Major Whittlesey was a real Major during WWI. The battalion that he led was the “Lost Battalion” in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. He was awarded the Unites States Army Medal of Honor.

The book tells the story of Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey’s lives and (apparently) Cher Ami’s post life as a stuffed pigeon in the Smithsonian.

This is Cher Ami – the stuffed version

Okay, the stuffed pigeon part is odd. But an interesting take on the story. Yes, WWI is a main component of the story, but it isn’t your typical historical fiction story. Until I just looked, I didn’t even think of it as being historical fiction. I just thought it was fiction. So, if you are sick of historical fiction, I think that you will find this book to be refreshing. Being partially written by a pigeon is certainly different.

And if you don’t like stories with more than one narrator because it is hard to keep them straight, you won’t need to worry about that with this book.

Overall, I liked the book. I thought it moved a little slowly sometimes and there are a lot of characters in the war scenes. I learned new things about pigeons that I never knew before. The primary thing being that Cher Ami was misnamed. She was mistaken to be a male pigeon when she was a female pigeon. (This will be brought up more that you can imagine in the book.)  There is humor in the book also – it is far from just a book about WWI.

Thanks for reading.

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