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Michelle CH

Currently reading

Death Comes for the Archbishop
Willa Cather
Progress: 200/297 pages
A.S. Byatt
Progress: 17/555 pages
Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally
Alisa Smith, J.B. MacKinnon
Progress: 45 %

Getting there..

Slowly figuring out BL. If anyone has a cheat sheet  of equivalents: ie. updates on GR is __ on BL, that would be awesome.

Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long - Eliot Coleman, Kathy Bray, Barbara Damrosch

Mr. Coleman is a newbie gardener's dream author - his explanation on how to garden year round is easy to understand and very helpful. I have four raised beds and plan to build hoops on two for  my winter veggies. - all inspired by his idea that there are some plants that actually can and will thrive in cooler weather. His explanations are easy to understand and inspiring. I like that he includes non-traditional vegetables like micro-greens in his list of items to grow.


I also loved the section on creating a root cellar. It makes sense that if you are spending time and energy on growing vegetables that you should also take care with storing your precious organic homegrown veggies the right way.


There was so much good information that this book is now on my to-buy list. I expect that I will keep it as a reference for years to come.



North and South

North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell 4.5
Garden Way's Joy of Gardening - Dick Raymond I wish I knew Mr. Raymond - he seems like the perfect friend/neighbor. I can see myself tagging along behind him asking a lot of questions on gardening. He strikes me as a no-nonsense practical type of guy who wants everyone to grow pesticide free veggies all the while being a kind and gentle teacher. This is the kind of book on gardening he has written and it is a classic.

I don't need super pretty pictures as a beginner, I need facts and real tips. That is what you get in his book, each page has something that is useful. Dick is a big supporter of rich soil as a way to combat plant disease and increase harvests. I like that he was thinking sustainably even when it wasn't cool. He also has a neat way of planting tomatoes in trenches which makes sense. I also like that he is a bit of gambler, he starts some pants really early just to see if it will work. Who needs frost dates!?

It is also nice to see that he is a gardener in partnership with his wife (and she puts up the veggies too!).

Hopefully I will be able to find it at a book sale and keep it as a reference book.
The Moonspinners - Mary Stewart This was my first Mary Stewart novel - and I loved it! For me, the biggest fun was being transported to such a magical time and place. Call me old-fashioned but I love a heroine that is spunky and sweet at the same time. Nicola is just that girl.

She arrives in Crete for a holiday and is unintentionally pulled into a dramatic mystery/murder/kidnapping that is being played out in the island. Prior to her arrival, two brothers have a run-in with local trouble and are being hunted/kidnapped by some really nasty bad guys. During her exploring, Nicola accidentally meets the older brother, Mark Langley, and wants to help. Although Mark encourages her to stay out of the whole mess, Nicola presses on. As a reader, I really liked that the characters were well-developed and drew you in immediately, not to mention all of the excitement and tension.


Nicola's tenacity in helping the brothers showed courage, strength and a stick-to-itiveness that was so appealing. I liked sneaking off with her and finding pieces of the puzzle together. And, there is just the right amount of romance and love floating about.

If you are looking for a page turner, this really fits the bill. The reader gets to follow along on some pretty hairy experiences which makes it fun. If you could read a book and hold your hands over your eyes, I would totally do it.

Thank you Jeanette, Misfit, et. al for a great buddy-read and intro to Ms. Stewart!
The Rook - Daniel O'Malley 2.5 stars

I suppose the lesson here is that you can start out great, want to quit and then can continue onward and upward to finish a so-so book. I know that life is too short to read bad books, but I couldn't help myself. There were tiny bits of greatness in each page that really, really wanted to come out. Myfawny (rhymes with Tiffany - and thank you to the author for telling us this early on) Thomas wakes up in a park surrounded by dead bodies all wearing plastic gloves. Now doesn't that sound promising?

She's lost her memory so buckle up because we are on a ride to find out what has happened. There are supernatural shenanigans going on and lots of potentially interesting characters. There is the Gestalt, four bodies (three male and one female) all controlled by one mind but so clever that whoever interacts with Gestalt doesn't remember that one mind is controlling all. And they are supposedly pretty sassy to boot.

The Grafters are a bit gross but also intriguing, their whole purpose is to mix and meld people parts to create a super race. They are medieval and rather interesting. They want it all: power, fame and, of course Myfawny.

With such a rich selection of interesting folks loitering about you would think pages would be turning quick and fast. Unfortunately no.

The biggest hump is around page 100 - if you get over that, you are pretty home free and can manage through the rest because of course you are now 'invested' in how it turns out.

Issues I had were that it became more and more nonsensical. I can appreciate all kinds of craziness but the ending felt really rushed and some of the earlier set ups no longer seemed plausible ie. her sister (she never knew about) shows up and we continue on with no real understanding of how she fits in. The reader also gets shuttled about mid-point to the end and the original point of finding out why Myfawny is in a field with dead bodies gets lost.

The good: 1. the mystery and the letters
2. urban fantasy is always interesting: the poor public is drifting about in the middle of supernatural conflicts without a clue, mass killings = a coverup
3. the idea that there is a greater secret society (the Chequy) that handily deals with all of the paranormal incidents that might cause a hiccup in society (similar to Ghostbusters) while the general public goes about their business.

Don't think I will be picking up the sequel.

The Container Kitchen Garden

The Container Kitchen Garden - Anthony Atha, Antony Atha Not really helpful or inspirational - this book felt thrown together and hurried. There are so many other books that are excellent and really worth buying. Some of it was really common sense; I can't imagine that you would put a large plant in a small pot. Even a beginner doesn't need that level of detail with container gardening. Really disappointing since the cover is so beautiful and it looks very promising.
The Family Kitchen Garden: How to Plant, Grow & Cook Together - Karen Liebreich, Jutta Wagner, Annette Wendland This is a great beginner gardening book. I definitely fit into that category so I oohed and ahhed over all the pictures and ideas. I love month by month planning which this included. Right now I am just learning so any book that has a list is for me.

There isn't a lot of depth but that is ok for me as a beginner gardener, at this point I like to get the highlights of what I should be doing and not feel overwhelmed. As I learn, I can find more information on my own. There isn't a lot on gardening with children so if you are looking for those sort of ideas, you won't find them here.

The pictures add a lot and that probably had a lot to do with my positive feelings. It seems to me that a book on gardening should be rich in photos.

I have put it on my wish list for a book to own in my growing gardening library collection.
Les Liaisons dangereuses (Oxford World's Classics) - Pierre Choderlos de Laclos Letters. And what letters they are.

The reader gets an inside view to love, revenge and lust all played out like a game of chess. The Marquise de Merteuil is heartless in her manipulations and she has no second thoughts in her pursuit of revenge. Her friend and ex-lover the Vicomte de Valmont is just as ruthless in his desire to seek out pleasure and to win a bet.The Marquise wants revenge on a former love interest a Comte de Gercourt - to accomplish this revenge she suggests that the Vicomete seduce and 'spoil' the Comte's betrothed, Cécile Volange. Complicating things is that Cécile simultaneously falls for her music teacher, Chevalier Danceny.

To be an aristocrat at that time meant that boredom ruled and there was plenty of time during the day to think about your next strategic move.

I enjoyed how Laclos uses the epistolary frame for displaying this game of intrigue. Letter writing is so personal and I would imagine that writing provided a way to speak openly at that period of time - very much like email, it is so easy to write than to say your thoughts in person. It was also interesting to see how everyone understood the time frame for mail delivery and could correspond fairly rapidly. Without the 'modern' mail delivery system, this story could not be told.

Initially I sympathized with Cécile and Danceny, but after a while I felt that they were as shallow as their puppeteers. I feel like they were both narcissistic which provided the opening that the Vicome and Marquise needed in order for the game to work. I also thought it must of been exhausting to be the Marquise or the Vicomete; neither had the luxury of letting down their guard even for a moment. And they certainly couldn't trust even each other. It is also ironic that there is a lot of talk of convent life and praying, much hypocrisy which I am sure wasn't avoidable if you were in the game.

Thank you to Simran and Margaret for the buddy-read! I have started watching this on Amazon Prime and Malkovich is perfectly cast!
The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making - Alana Chernila A nice intro to making things that you would ordinarily buy at the store. The photography is beautiful and I eventually will buy this book. The recipes also seem doable and there aren't lists of difficult-to-find ingredients.
I also appreciated her stories and it's probably one of the first times that I actually read a cookbook cover to cover. As time goes on, I am also much more picky about the food I cook and what is in the food my family and I eat. Chernila really has me thinking about a lot of the processing that happens and what we are buying in the store for the sake of convenience.

As a disclaimer, I haven't **made** any of the recipes yet.


Ruth - Elizabeth Gaskell 3.5**

Ruth drove me crazy; women who are vulnerable and have such terrible obstacles thrown at them should gain
empathy. Gaskell seemed to go to the extreme with Ruth: tragedy, poverty, isolation and no fight. Her character felt one-dimensional.

Ruth starts alone in the world working as a dressmaker, at the beginning she shows empathy towards a fellow dressmaker and some spunk which does make her likable. She meets a Mr. Bellingham, who is completely narcissistic and infatuated with her innocence/beauty/sex appeal, and they end up in a compromising situation which changes her life forever. Eventually alone and abandoned by Bellingham she meets a Mr. Benson who takes her under her wing. He lives with his sister and they both protect and care for Ruth.

Many things happen to eventually bring Ruth into a position of respectableness and she finally finds her way in the world. Unfortunately, her past is rekindled and she is exposed as a corrupt and fallen woman. Some of the wonderful things that I found in Mary Barton were not to be found with Ruth. This novel was a story that was too extreme in its tragedy, Ruth had no fight and by the end I couldn't sympathize with her situation any longer.

On the other hand, I thought Mr. Benson's character was incredibly interesting. He had a physical challenge with his health but I thought he was strong and a plausible potential love interest. Gaskell did a nice job in showing us the depth of his character and his struggles between his religious beliefs and Ruth's past. He is so much more than a black and white character and he sees the shades of gray that make it so difficult to judge others.

If Gaskell wanted to impress upon the reader the double standard and incredible unfairness to women at that time, she could have been a little less heavy-handed. For me, giving Ruth a bit more strength and depth would have drawn me to her more.

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire #1)

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire #1) - George R.R. Martin 4.5**
This was an excellent adventure and I fell in love with many of the characters (Bran!!) and developed a hate relationship with others (Cersei). I am a detailed person but I think that this story is sometimes a little more than my poor brain can take. I loved all the kingdoms and characters but I admit that I felt a little overwhelmed trying to tie the relationships together. The kingdoms have a rich history and it would be good to have more absorbed into my memory. I admire a writer who is clearly this talented and can develop such strong storylines and hopefully as I grow closer to the story, thrugh subsequent books I can remember all the players - and there are many!

I also think it is interesting that a number of people have fallen in love with the TV series and have not read the book. For me, the series is so much more satisfying after having read the book. Even though I know what will happen; it still feels like magic.

I'm also pleased that Martin chose to devote chapter titles to only a few of the major characters and it felt like just the right number. I also like that he is not afraid to destroy a main character. Does it suck, yes. But does it make the writing stronger, absolutely.

In the past I have not been a big fan of fantasy but this series has had me take a second look at this genre.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan The beginning of this book was so promising. I mean for a super book nerd like me, what can be better than a story revolving around a book store and a secret society. I also felt somewhat bonded to the narrator since he had lived in Providence and had been part of the RISD community. Lots of folks from this tiny state end up in San Francisco so it all sounded good.

The patrons of the store are quirky and add to the mystery with the books on the high shelves. There is also a pattern linked to the books which is a really a secret code and so on and so forth. When Clay, our fearless young hero, begins his job at Mr. Penumbra's there is the promise of a lot of mystery and cool things. He is curious, has programming skills and a Mac - what could be better. There is also a bad guy, mysterious cult-like group, and a historical font. Who doesn't like learning about fonts!? As Clay starts to unravel the mystery around Mr. Penumbra we get to meet Clay's friends and his love interest, Kat. We also get a sorta kinda inside look at Google which is fictionally (I think) neat. Kat is the uber modern girl who has several of the same t-shirts, can rule the world with a smart phone but doesn't know how to 'use' the NY Times. This is where I give Sloan a lot of credit, he can write characters.

Unfortunately, towards the middle the story ends up being/feeling corny. The battle is not that great and if you can imagine the sound of a tire losing air, that is what ultimately happens. And poof the reader is left looking at the book wondering what in the world happened.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall - Anne Brontë For the most part I liked this book. There were some parts and themes that I really enjoyed and others that left me scratching my head. I was so impressed with the heroine, Helen Graham. Her ability to leave her terrible husband and seek out and find a better life for herself and her son is something to cheer. And yay for Anne Bronte for developing this woman. Leaving is the one thing that even modern women in bad relationships will find really difficult to undertake. To top it all off, Helen is an artist and can/wants to support herself through these efforts which I find wonderfully endearing.

The format is epistolary which makes for an interesting perspective. As I read more and more of these types of novels, the more I like this way of telling a story. Helen is introduced as a widow with a secret past and some odd behavior (she never lets her son out of her sight and is not too social). Immediately gossip follows the mystery causing all kinds of revelations and situations.

Throughout my reading, I liked Helen *which is important* and gave her credit for showing initiative and leaving a not-so-good-situation. I wondered about her observations around her husband and his behavior (and that of his friends) - her naiveté was equal to that of Gaskell's Ruth. Anyone could see that he was a nut and that he wasn't going off on trips just to relax. He was rather brutal and even downright mean. His behavior towards their son is also very dramatic and almost overly so...Helen did exhibit a few not so bright moments i.e. when she writes down plans that were later easily discovered. FYI: no paper put on a desk or in a drawer is private for goodness sake!!

Gilbert Markham is the gentleman who pursues Helen while she is "independent" and a "widow". I thought that he was a bit immature and did some really stupid things. So I really wasn't a fan. Believing that Helen is seeing someone else, he brutally attacks this individual and causes some pretty serious harm. Later he realizes what a bad call he has made, but by then I have already decided that he is too impulsive and immature for me to fully like. There is some maturation by the end of the book, but I am not sure yet if it is enough for me to decide that I am happy for Helen.

This may be a book that will grow with a second reading in the future.

The Sparrow - Mary Doria Russell 4.5**

I still feel changed by this book; I think about it constantly and the characters who annoyed, bonded with and scared me.

The story is almost secondary to the ideas expressed around faith and how our beliefs can either strengthen or destroy us.

Eight people leave Earth to explore the newly discovered planet of Rakhat. The story is told in flashbacks, this is the way in which the reader finds out about how each person endured the trip and their ultimate fate. This planet is discovered after music is heard at a station on Earth. which all believe are welcoming messages; rather than engage in the United Nations debate that is sparked of who should man a mission to seek out the origin of the messages, the Jesuits set off ahead of everyone else. This all made sense to me, if anyone has the resources and capacity to man a trip to the planet, it would definitely be the Catholic church.

Father Emilio Sandoz is the central character and believes that this newly discovered planet will lead him to the meaning of life and his God. Unfortunately he finds that fate/his God/his faith have not aligned in this way. The novel's ending which describes what the songs actually mean is powerful and will last in your mind for some time to come - that I can promise.

Some readers thought it was preachy but I didn't see that at all, I think that Russell allows each person to decide for themselves what they want to believe. For me it also seemed somewhat critical of the Catholic church especially their system of hierarchy and the blind faith which can color decision making.

Why didn't I give it five stars then?

There were a few 'no you didn't' moments which distracted me greatly. The travelers are the best and the brightest, chosen specifically for this mission, and yet make some ridiculous choices that just were annoying. As the reader, you just knew it wouldn't turn out well, ie. trying plants/animals on another planet, meeting an alien race and not taking reasonable precautions, wasting fuel, and finally some standard and too-often done character profiles: the obligatory tough chick, mama hen and Mr. know-it-all.

It stil has me ready to read the sequel and to find if and when Father Sandoz will return to Rakhat.

Like Water for Chocolate

Like Water for Chocolate - Laura Esquivel, Kate Reading I've decided that I like magical realism when it is done well. It adds that wonderful zip to the story that allows your imagine to take each situation to the next level. Of course it creates improbable and fantastical situations but magical realism can make a good story rise to the level of wonderful.

Esquivel, who is Mexican, depicts the amazing and sometimes irrational traditions that make up our culture. I can completely relate to the idea that in this family the youngest daughter is to be the matriarch's caregiver and is destined to never marry. It's not really rational, but in a Mexican family it can make perfect sense.

She also focuses on traditional foods as a mechanism for telling the story, certainly tempting me as a reader to attempt a session for mole and Christmas rolls making.

Unfortunately there is a serious issue within the De La Garza family in that Tita, the youngest daughter, won't bend to the tradition of being a spinster and is intent on being with her true love. Compounding the problem is that the matriarch (and the one dependent on her in the future), Mama Eleana, forbids Tita from marrying. Tita's true love, Pedro then marries Tita's older sister, Rosaura in order to be close to her. Poor Rosaura, she can never fill her younger sister's shoes. This leads to some pretty wicked cooking and fantastical recipes as Tita takes out her frustration; she also brings on the seduction through her food.

I was wow'd by the narrator's voice and wicked fun that comes from this intense cooking. There is much more to the story and the middle sister is probably the most mysterious and interesting of the three. She is not a primary character but demonstrates the double standard of female/male relationships, especially in a culture of machismo. Her path in life leaves a lot to think about.

If you are a foodie or even a person who loves a good meal, you will relate to the emotions and connections to life that happen through Tita's kitchen. It's also a great story and most beautifully done. I did watch the movie first but it was well worth it to listen to Esquivel's words through a wonderful narrator.