A Christmas Hope Book Review and Discussion Questions

It’s Christmas Time in Victorian England

Why would an upper-class socialite in Victorian England be the least bit interested in the death of a prostitute, one of society’s lowliest creatures?

Because the heroine of ‘A Christmas Hope’ finds happiness and a sense of usefulness while volunteering at a clinic for women who have nowhere else to go, especially those who make their living on the street.

Claudine Burroughs,  a secondary character in Anne Perry’s William and Hester Monk series, steps center stage in the author’s 11th Christmas novel.


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Too Much Blood!!

Can 522 reviewers be wrong in rating Philipp Meyer’s The Son at 5 stars on the amazon web site?  My answer to that questions is yes.  However, to be fair, other book club members thoroughly enjoyed this ponderous volume featuring a Texas ranching/oil family.

Topping out at 592 pages, The Son consists of three interlinking accounts, written in somewhat different formats and styles,  relating the family’s history from the 19th to the early 21st century.

Throughout Meyer’s historical novel, the McCullough family is represented by three key characters:    Colonel Eli McCullough, who was kidnapped at an early age by the Comanche tribe; his son, Peter, who was deeply affected by the massacre of Mexican neighbors for their land, and Peter’s granddaughter, Jeanne, a savvy oil heiress.

Meyer, a Baltimore Yankee who recently studied at UT Austin on a James Michener scholarship, focuses on several themes during the course of The Son, his second novel. (American Rust, 2009)

  • The first is the progression from an agrarian/cattle-based economy to an oil-based one.
  • Another is man’s inhumanity to man as seen in  the brutal land grab and the degradation of those “not belonging” such as the Comanches, Mexicans  and lower-class whites.
  • Lastly, the blood that runs through human history with Texas as a microcosm.  (There certainly was plenty of blood!!)

Even though many reviewers considered the novel a great read, just as many found fault with Meyer’s frequent and casual use of modern dirty words found in depressing and sadistic passages.

Unlikable cardboard characters with no redeeming values was another complaint. Most often criticized was Meyer’s constant flipping between time periods and narrators.

Starting with both the beginning and end and  finishing with both the beginning and end left one reviewer totally confused and greatly annoyed with the lengthy Texan saga.  (See Discussion Question # 6.)

Should your book club choose to read, The Son, discussion questions have been provided below:

1.  Characterize the three generations of the McCullough family that form the basis of Meyer’s epic novel: their strengths, their weaknesses, their idiosyncrasies.

2.  How would the old cliché, ‘Money can’t buy happiness’ serve as a fitting moral to this novel of early Texas?

3.  Does Meyer’s liberal use of gratuitous sex, smutty language, and barbaric behavior gear this novel toward a male audience? What alterations would help the novel appeal to a wider readership?

4. Unhappy at the Greenfield Boarding School, Jeannie McCullough sells her pearls to buy a train ticket for home. (She had seen the world and retreated.) How does this action shape the rest of her life?

5.  The novel skips from the 1830s to the 1940s to 1917, then 1840 to 1985 and back again.  What was the author’s purpose in this unusual organization?  How would the story have been affected if Meyer had used chronological order instead?

6.  One reviewer claimed that The Son’s actions starts with the beginning and the end and finishes with the beginning and the end.  How did the novel actually begin? How did it end?

7.  Who is The Son?

8.  The reader is introduced in depth to Eli McCullough (The Colonel), the Colonel’s middle son, Peter, and Jeanne Anne (Jeannie) his great granddaughter.  Which character did you find the most interesting?  Most likable?  Least appealing?  Why?

9. Why did the Colonel and Phineas insist that Maria Garcia leave the house and the area?

10.  Who or what was the dark figure Peter sees leaning on the banister? ‘First he had a face like my fathers, then it was my own, then it was something else.’ When did the dark figure disappear?

11.  How can you explain the following:  ‘White children take so quickly to Indian ways while Indian children never do.’

12. How are the following themes reflected in The Son:  Change-both in generations and the economy and man’s inhumanity to man?

13. One reviewer described Meyer as a, ‘Baltimore Yankee who doesn’t like Texas very much’.  Can you cite examples that support or refute this person’s opinion?

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Not Your Typical Christmas Book

Eleven Pipers Piping is not your typical Christmas book.  In place of yuletide cheer, there’s a puzzling death by poison. Christmas goodies are plentiful, but are they safe to eat. An abundance of snow hampers travel while providing excellent sledding opportunities for the village children.

Eleven Pipers Piping is the second book in a series of English murder mysteries by C. C. Benison, the nom de plume for Arthur Ellis Award-winning author, Doug Whiteway.

The protagonist, Father Tom Christmas, holds the Church of England living in a small village. There he resides with his  daughter in a large Georgian vicarage staffed  by a live-in cook, Madrun Prowse.

Periodically, the housekeeper pounds out  an elaborate, newsy and often hilarious letter  to her mum on a very old manual typewriter. This unusual literary device provides vital information that is mostly outside of the ken of Father Christmas. Without these letters, the reader would be hopelessly mired in the various subplots peppered throughout the 496-page novel.

Cricket coach for a team of teens, Will Moir publically explodes at Harrison Kaif during practice.  Almost immediately following the outburst, the humiliated 14-year-old youth commits suicide. At the annual dinner celebration of the birth of poet Robert Burns, someone poisons Moir,  a member of the Thistle but Mostly Rose pipe band. (Hence, the title of the book.)  The police suspect that a member of  Harrison’s family killed their son’s tormentor.

At the dinner and afterwards as the plot slowly develops, amid a rare snowstorm, readers will meet nearly all of the 40-some characters in the book.

Even though reading the lengthy Eleven Pipers Piping might delay your Christmas shopping a bit, most book clubbers were glad that they had spent the time with Father Tom Christmas and the villagers of Thornford Regis.

Discussion Questions can be found below:

1. How do Madrun’s letters to her mother affect the plot of the novel? How do her letters point up the differences in men and women’s communications?

2. How does the author use the setting, especially the snow storm, to manipulate the circumstances surrounding the murder?

3. How does C. C. Benison use red herrings (literary device that leads readers or characters towards a false conclusion) throughout the novel? Which were the most effective in leading the reader astray?

4. “The past seems to do nothing but intrude on the present.” How do the events of the past intrude on the present in Eleven Pipers Piping?

5. How does the author use humor to lighten the mood of the novel? Give examples.

6. Discuss Eleven Pipers Piping as an example of a locked room mystery. (a sub-genre of detective fiction in which a crime, almost always murder, is committed under apparently impossible circumstances)

7. How would you rate Father Tom Christmas as a detective?

8. In your opinion, did Caroline know or suspect that Will took his own life? If so, why did she keep quiet during the investigation ?

9. What was Judith Ingleys’ true purpose in visiting Thornford? How would the plot of the novel have differed if her character had been eliminated?

10. “Marriages have private and public identities and like communities were marked by constant renegotiations and recommitment.” How does this quote apply to the marriages of Will and Caroline, Victor and Molly, Father Tom and Lisbeth, the village of Thornford?




















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A Second-Chance Christmas

‘The Bridge’, a second-chance novel of 228 pages, is a quick Christmas read.  Bestselling author, Karen Kingsbury, has penned another example of what reviewers call life-changing fiction.

The Bridge, an independent bookstore in Franklin, Tennessee, has been a home away from home for generations of book lovers for over 30 years.  But a 100-year flood, an insufficient insurance policy and the denial of a needed bank loan, has left proprietor, Charlie Barton, disheartened and talking back to the hissing voices in his head.

Driving the back roads in a blinding snowstorm, Charlie contemplates suicide when his van hits black ice and smashes into a tree.  While Charlie lies comatose in the hospital, bookstore patrons, past and present, rally together to fill The Bridge with much needed books.

At the center of the rescue effort, are two former college sweethearts who lost touch seven years ago.  Will Charlie wake up and reopen the book store?  Will Ryan and Molly rekindle their college romance?  It’s a second-chance novel!! What do you think?

Discussion Questions:

1.  How does ‘The Bridge’ by Karen Kingsbury illustrate the timeless principle of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”?

2.  Why did Charlie Barton name his new and used book store, The Bridge?

3.  ‘The Bridge’ is actually three love stories all rolled into one.  Can you name all three?

4.  Explain why some reviewers describe ‘The Bridge’ as a second-chance novel.

5. Who is really to blame for Ryan and Molly’s break up?  Molly’s father, Molly herself or Ryan?

6. How do you explain the hissing voices that Charlie heard in his head?

7. How did  the author use the cold and dampness inside the book store, the falling snow and the chills running down Charlie’s arms to help the reader understand his state of mind?

8. Donna considers Charlie waking from his coma as a Christmas miracle.  Do you believe in Christmas miracles?  Why or why not?

9.  Do you agree/disagree with reviewers who characterize Karen Kingsbury’s novel as life-changing fiction?

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Christmas Reading 2013



imagesS8V2AI31Today is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and frantic shoppers crowd the malls and specialty stores searching for that special gift.  Here’s a selection of Christmas books that might be just what you’re looking for.

No Place Like Home

Fern Michaels

Furious with their widowed father for putting their adored, cataract-afflicted grandmother in a nursing home and seeking a second opinion, the Cisco triplets take matters into their own hands and whisk her off to a highly regarded hospital near her rustic mountain home in the Allegheny foothills. The hospital, however, holds some romantic surprises for two of the triplets, and by the time everyone gathers for an old-fashioned Christmas at Granny Cisco’s, the romantic future of all the family members is clearly defined. The overriding theme of this fast-paced, sassy, but warmly sentimental contemporary romance is the importance of family. It will appeal to readers who like their Christmas stories sweet, home-centered, and filled with happy endings. Michaels (Kentucky Sunrise) is a veteran author of various fiction genres. This is her first holiday novel.

Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce

 Stanley Weintraub

History is peppered with oddments and ironies, and one of the strangest is this. A few days before the first Christmas of that long bloodletting then called the Great War, hundreds of thousands of cold, trench-bound combatants put aside their arms and, in defiance of their orders, tacitly agreed to stop the killing in honor of the holiday.

That informal truce began with small acts: here opposing Scottish and German troops would toss newspapers, ration tins, and friendly remarks across the lines; there ambulance parties, clearing the dead from the barbwire hell of no man’s land, would stop to share cigarettes and handshakes. Soon it spread, so that by Christmas Eve the armies of France, England, and Germany were serenading each other with Christmas carols and sentimental ballads and denouncing the conflict with cries of “Á bas la guerre!” and “Nie wieder Krieg!” The truce was, writes Stanley Weintraub, a remarkable episode, and, though “dismissed in official histories as an aberration of no consequence,” it was so compelling that many who observed it wrote in near-disbelief to their families and hometown newspapers to report the extraordinary event.

In the end, writes Weintraub, the truce ended with a few stray bullets that escalated into total war, and that would fill the air for just shy of four more Christmases to come; further, isolated attempts at informal peacemaking would fail. But what, Weintraub wonders at the close of this inspired study, would have happened if the soldiers on both sides had refused to take up arms again? His counterfactual scenarios are intriguing, and well worth pondering.



Michael Dutton

Have you ever seen one of those miniature villages, with a miniature train track, set up under a Christmas tree? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in a “Christmas” village like that? Well, “Christmasville” takes us on a magical journey through such a village. The characters “come to life” in the story. But, one character, Mary Jane Higgins, realizes things just aren’t “right” in Christmasville.

It’s a great story concept – – a figurine in a miniature Christmas town finds her way into the “real” world.  The author is self-published and the text is riddled with typos and incorrect punctuation. Some reviewers found the grammar too distracting to finish reading the story while others were able to push the inadequacies aside and enjoy the story.

The Burglar and the Blizzard

Alice Duer Miller

This is a story not so much about Christmas as about three characters who find themselves in a country house during a blizzard. The characters are formal and proper as befits the time period of the story, but they’re in an absurd situation as one is a burglar, one is the owner of the house, and the third is a young woman who is completely unaware of the hidden meanings in the conversations between the burglar and the burgled as they negotiate the situation without alarming the young lady by telling her of the burglary. The burglar is a likeable rogue and the home owner is equally likeable for his reactions to the many absurd things that happen as they wait out the blizzard. A great ending that will make you smile.

The Christmas Kite

Paid by her in-laws to disappear, a young widowed mother, Meara Hayden, moves to Mackinaw Island to start over.  Walking on the beach one day, Meara and her son sees a man flying his kite. So excited to watch the kite as it dips and swirls on the breeze, the boy runs out  to greet the kite’s master. The man Jordan, a local recluse,  insists that the mother and her son  get off his private property. It isn’t until later in the day when the trio cross paths again that they stop and talk for a few minutes.

The story chronicles a growing  friendship amongst these characters as they aid and strengthen each other during a  personal crisis. The love of God shines through and leads the two adults back  to church.  Partially a love story, the characters are portrayed in a very loving and calm manner.

Christmas From Heaven

Tom Brokaw

Christmas From Heaven conveys the historical significance of Lt. Gail Halvorsen, a young pilot in the US Army Air Corps who was assigned as a cargo pilot to the Berlin Airlift, in which US forces flew much-needed supplies into a Soviet blockaded Berlin. As he performed his duties, Lt. Halvorsen began to notice the German children gathered by the fences of the Tempelhof Air Base. Knowing that they had very little, he one day offered them some chewing gum. From that small act, an idea sprang: He would “bomb” Berlin with candy. Fashioning small parachutes, he and his crew sent them floating down as they approached the Berlin airport, wiggling the wings of their C-54 as a signal to the children that their anticipated cargo would soon arrive.

Lt. Halvorsen became known by hundreds, if not thousands, of children in Berlin as “Uncle Wiggly Wings” or “The Candy Bomber.” Word soon spread, and donations of candy and other supplies poured in from sympathetic Americans. Lt. Halvorsen’s small idea became a great symbol of hope not only to the German children in a bombed-out city but to all those who yearned for freedom. It showed everyone in the midst of a war what the true spirit of Christmas looks like.


While We Wait

Mary Lou Redding

Sometimes we struggle to believe we’ll experience anything new as Advent comes around. What could we possibly learn that we haven’t seen or heard before? If you’re looking for an Advent study of a different slant, While We Wait: Living the Questions of Advent offers new ways of connecting the story with your own questions of faith and approaches an all-too-familiar narrative from perspectives we may have missed. You’ll read about biblical figures mentioned in passing in the “”original”” Advent. Somewhat surprisingly, Tamar, Ruth, Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth, and the Magi ask questions that resonate with contemporary Christians. “”I hope While We Wait will help people who don’t want to gloss over their questions about the Christmas story,”” writes Redding. “”This book examines Advent as a journey in which God seeks us at many levels of our understanding and spiritual willingness. It allows for real-life struggles and questions as a part of Advent’s spiritual exploration.”


The First Christmas Tree and the Story of the Other Wise Man

Henry van Dyke

This elegant little hardcover gift book features two unabridged holiday tales: “The First Christmas Tree” and “The Story of the Other Wise Man.” Written by a 19th-century American clergyman, these classic seasonal fables abound in the Yuletide traditions of generosity and friendship — perfect sentiments for a gift book!
Link to last year’s suggested Christmas books:
And more suggestions:
The Pinehurst Book Club will be reading ‘The Bridge’ by Karen Kingsbury.  A short review and discussion questions will follow in the next post.
Happy Reading!

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Christmas in Harmony

Fans of Jan Karon’s Mitford series, chronicling the day-to-day activities of Episcopal minister Father Tim Cavanaugh, will love Philip Gulley’s Harmony series.

In each, a dedicated clergy person strives to do the Lord’s work hindered by some of God’s most cantankerous creatures.  Whether it’s Dale Hinshaw with his plan to save the world’s heathens with scripture eggs, or  Bob Miles Jr.’s Harmony Herald’s controversial “Bobservation Post,” the reader will find much to enjoy.

Here’s two of Gulley’s Christmas books to whet your appetite.

Christmas in Harmony

Philip Gulley takes us to Harmony, Indiana, at Christmastime as inspiration strikes the inimitable Dale Hinshaw. Always looking for a way to increase the church’s profit margins, Hinshaw brainstorms a progressive nativity scene that will involve the whole town, complete with a map like those for the Hollywood stars. Neither Pastor Sam Gardner nor the other members of the Harmony Friends meeting express any enthusiasm for this idea, but Dale is unstoppable. Meanwhile, Pastor Sam has his own concerns: he’s having his annual argument with his wife, and he’s worried that the four-slotted toaster he bought for her may be too lavish a gift. Amidst the bustle of the season, the citizens of Harmony experience the simple joys and sometime loneliness that often go unseen. Sam comes to the realization that Dale, in his own misguided way, is only trying to draw meaning from the eternal story of Christmas. “In this unsettled world, it is good to have this steadiness — the Christmas Eve service, the peal of the bell. . . .There is a holiness to memory, a sense of God’s presence in these mangers of the mind. Which might explain why it is that the occasions that change the least are often the very occasions that change us the most.”

The Christmas Scrapbook

It’s autumn in Harmony, and Pastor Sam Gardner has vowed to be ready for Christmas. Determined to redeem a dreadful history of gift giving, Sam enrolls in a scrapbooking class to make a Christmas gift his wife will never forget. However, Sam’s absence from their home every Wednesday night, coupled with his fishy alibi of attending a men’s group, raises her suspicions. Meanwhile, Sam struggles in the class and must attempt to complete his project with only the help of his faithful secretary, Frank. As Christmas fast approaches and rumors of Sam’s Wednesday night absences swirl along with the snow, a series of mishaps leads to a Christmas no one will soon forget.

Look for more Christmas selections in the next post.  Happy Reading!

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I’m Hooked!

A book can be an excellent companion when lunching alone.

Last month I ducked into a local flea market looking for a novel to get me through a solitary meal. For $2, I picked up Circle of Quilters by Jennifer Chiaverini. I’m not a quilter nor ever intend to be, but I come from a long line of quilters; including my grandmother, my aunt and my mother. So I had a vague idea of what goes into producing a quilt and for $2 you can’t go wrong.  And now, I’m hooked!

On further research I learned that Jennifer Chiaverini has penned twenty volumes of the Elm Creek Quilts series, is the author of four volumes of quilt patterns inspired by her novels, as well as the designer of the Elm Creek Quilts fabric lines from Red Rooster Fabrics.

Circle of Quilters is actually book #9 in the Elm Creek Quilt series.  By this time the rural Pennsylvania quilting retreat has been well established and two of their charmed teachers are leaving to pursue other interests; Summer, graduate school and Judy a job out of the area.

Several quilters answer the newspaper ad, but this book details the lives and experiences of five plus what it would mean to become a part of Elm Creek Quilts.

Maggie, a worker at a retirement home, had never really been greatly enthusiastic about quilting until she found an antique quilt at a garage sale.

Karen, a stay at home mother to two wily boys, wants more out of life than ‘just being a mother’.

Anna, a chef, loves  anything to do with food.  Because of an obnoxious boyfriend and his female roommate who belittle Anna’s talents at every opportunity, she has to hide her quilting.

Russell, whose  late wife was a quilter, follows an  impulse to finish one of her quilts.  Through trial and error, he is transformed into a distinctive, artistic quilter invited to lecture in venues across the country.

Gretchen, whose family has always worked for a family of upper class standing, finds herself in an unequal partnership with her boss, Heidi, in the local quilt shop.  Searching for some talent recognition and financial stability for herself and her husband, Gretchen  journeys to Waterford, Pennsylvania, to interview for one of the two available positions.

An up to date listing of the elm creek novels can be found here.

Discussion Questions:

1.  If you were part of the Elm Creek hiring process, which of the five applicants would have caught your eye?  Why?

2.   Was Gretchen using her teaching job and her family history of working for the Albrecht family as an excuse for not succeeding in her own right?  Would you agree/disagree that Heidi stole Gretchen’s idea, business plan and research when she opened Quilt ‘n’ Things?

3. How did the cancer quilt reshape Russell McIntyre’s life after the death of his wife, Elaine?

4.  Diane finds some deficiency with each of the applicants.   Are her arguments valid?  Is it just her negative outlook on life showing or does she have an ulterior motive?

5.  Weigh in on the following quote from The Circle of Quilters:  “Quilts had become old-fashioned, the craft of the poor and the unsophisticated, an unwelcome reminder of the limitations of their mothers’ and grandmothers’ lives.  Quilting, with its inherent association with the domestic sphere and traditional “woman’s work” of housekeeping and family tending, was something for women to avoid tripping over as they strode into the male world of work that mattered.”

6. What is the purpose of the white-haired quilter wearing pink-tinted glasses in the interview process?  She interacts with each candidate except for Russell who storms out of the manor after his interview.

7.  What does it mean to be an Elm Creek quilter?

8.  Would you classify a quilter as an artist or a crafter? Explain.

9. Would you like to participate in the Elm Creek Quilt Camp? Why or why not?

10.  Will you read another book in the Elm Creek quilt series?  Why?

If you have enjoyed reading Circle of Quilters, you will want to start at the beginning to find out how Elm Creek Manor owned by Sylvia Compson, once the ancestral home of the Bergstrom family, became the center for the quilting camp.  Happy reading!


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A Bad Day For. . . .

To date, author Sophie Littlefield has created five novels in the Bad Day For series.

All five feature heroine, Stella Hardesty, a 50-year-old widow, who owns a sewing notions shop in the small Missouri town of Prosper. After thirty years as a battered wife, Stella dispatched her husband, Ollie, with a wrench and came away with a plea of self defense.

Not much to base a five-novel series on except for Stella’s side business which involves helping women safely leave abusive relationships.

While battling a drinking problem, the spunky, sassy, laugh-out-loud heroine has redefined her once pudgy self into a weight-lifting dynamo that can run 10 miles at a time. To round out the new Stella, she has also trained herself to handle a weapon and owns a suitcase full of torture toys that she’s not afraid to use when provoked.

Even though the subject matter is dark, women and children in a vulnerable situation; Stella is hilarious, her observations on individuals and their life choices are funny and she has amassed an interesting group of sidekicks along the way.

In her downtime, Stella contemplates her on again/off again relationship with Sheriff Goat Jones, Prosper’s law man, who might not take kindly to her vigilante type of justice.

A Bad Day for Sorry (2009)

Ducking under Stella’s radar,  abusive ex-husband, Roy Dean Shaw, flees with his child.  The frantic mother,  Chrissy,  teams up with Stella to rescue her son not realizing that Shaw is involved with local mobsters in a stolen auto parts ring. As the unlikely crime-fighting duo trick their way into the home of Dean’s mob boss, who they suspect has Chrissy’s son,  Stella discovers that no amount of preparation and righteous anger can prevail over pure evil, at least not without loads of trouble.

A Bad Day for Pretty  (2010)

When a tornado uncovers a mummified woman buried at the Prosper, MO, fairgrounds, the police suspect Neb Donovan.  Reluctantly, Stella  accepts Donna Donovan’s pleas to clear her husband’s name. Complicating Stella’s investigation—and her long-simmering feelings for Sheriff Goat Jones—is the arrival of Goat’s former wife, Brandy Truax, who has designs on her ex and a possible link to the murdered woman. With her plucky assistant, Chrissy Shaw, Stella must exonerate Neb while eluding the real killer. 

A Bad Day for Scandal (2011)

When Stella refuses to help, Priscilla Porter get rid of a corpse hidden in the trunk of her car, ‘Priss’ threatens to go public with some very damning photos that could not only damage Stella’s budding relationship with Sheriff Goat Jones but maybe even land her in jail. After Priss; her brother, Liman; and the photos vanish, Stella becomes the prime suspect. Stella and her assistant, Chrissy Shaw, decide to get the photos back themselves, but that’s easier said than done when they run up against an oversexed female judge with ties to Priss and her new business venture.

A Bad Day for Mercy (2012)

 Stella’s step-nephew, Chip, has been threatened with serious bodily harm if he doesn’t settle his unpaid gambling debts.  Arriving in Wisconsin, Stella finds Chip,  his Russian girlfriend, Natalya, and a dead man  on their porch. Suspicious but compelled to help family, Stella tracks down more suspects, including the deceased’s business partner, a purveyor of black-market Botox, and a jilted violist. Matters are complicated by the unexpected arrival of B J Broderson, who has picked the worst possible time to pursue his amorous intentions toward Stella. Meanwhile, thoughts of Sheriff “Goat” Jones make Stella blush and wonder where, and with whom, she will spend her fifty-first birthday.

A Bad Day for Romance (2013)

Coming in September

Discussion Questions for A Bad Day for Scandal:

1.  What chance do Stella and Goat have of forging a lasting relationship? Consider Stella’s belief in the ‘spirit of the law’ and Goat’s ‘letter of the law’.

2.  Stella is a vigilante, a renegade.  How can her wild west style of justice exist in the 21st century?

3.  Discuss the importance of tradition in today’s fast-paced world.  How was Stella’s life impacted by the loss of her mother’s Easter traditions?

4.  When Stella and Chrissy took money from Lawrence and Jake, they rationalized their actions with the following: “The two of them had principles. They had standards. Their business was committed to helping those in need. . .” In your opinion, does their reasoning hold water?

5.  Do you consider yourself happy in light of Stella’s comment:  “Happy’s more rare than folks like to think.”

6.  Is Stella an admirable character, a heroine for all women,  female chauvinist pig?

7.  Do men have an evolutionary advantage over the female sex?

8.Would you agree/disagree that a mother’s best strategy is silence? How well did Stella stick to that philosophy when Noelle announced that she and Joy were a couple?

9. Discuss Littlefield’s use of humor to lighten the mood of her novels.  Can you find examples of slapstick (physical humor), double entendre (words or expressions with two meanings) and irony (sarcastic use of words to imply the opposite of what is normally meant)?

10. How would you classify A Bad Day for Scandal-comedy, mystery, romance?

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Like Mother, Like Son

‘Not the novelist that his mother is,’ commented one reviewer after reading Starting Over by Robin Pilcher.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Rosamunde Pilcher, the British author of more than 28  romance novels and mainstream women’s fiction.  Spanning 50 years, her writing career began in 1949 as an author of Mills and Boon romances, under the name Jane Fraser. She published ten such novels, the last (“The Keeper’s House”) in 1963.

Her first novel as Rosamunde Pilcher, “A Secret To Tell”, was published in the same year, and there are two other Pilcher novels (“April” and “On My Own”) up to 1965, when she began exclusively using her own name.

Pilcher’s international reputation was secured by “The Shell Seekers” (1987), of which she has said (in the New York Times Book Review) that if she’d died the day after writing it, everyone would know exactly what happened in her own life. She has also said (in Publisher’s Weekly), “I don’t ever write about a place or a person or an experience that I don’t know a lot about.” Cornwall, where she was born, and Scotland, where she has lived for many years (in Invergowrie, Dundee), therefore figure largely in Pilcher’s work.

It could also be said that Robin Pilcher relied heavily on rural Scotland for the setting of Starting Over.  In fact, his descriptions of the countryside overshadowed the plot of the story.

The plot:  An American-based developer  proposes to create a golf course on side-by-side farms belonging to the Dewhurst and Craig families. Sounds like a good proposition since both family farms have been losing money for some time, doesn’t it?  Not exactly, when Elizabeth, 37, is opposed to giving up her family farm and wants to thwart her ex-husband Gregor, owner of the adjacent property, who favors the enterprise.

The couple’s split  6 months prior after 18 years of marriage and the death of her mother, has left Liz reeling but determined to uphold the tradition of the family farm rather than give in to the progress that the golf course would bring to the rural area.

At the same time, Liz’s son, Alex, 20, a student at nearby St. Andrews University, suggests renting a room  to  his odd ball German tutor, Arthur Kempler. Not too pleased by this arrangement at first, Liz and her father, Mr. Craig,  soon grow fond of their new boarder.

Since Arthur is estranged from his son due to past indiscretions and needs a travel companion, a reluctant Liz is persuaded to accompany him to Spain.

But Liz’s dad also finds a diversion when Roberta, an Australian 60-ish spinster, arrives in the vicinity after the death of her beloved father.  Mr. Craig finds himself acting as her erstwhile caddy, because he senses a similar sorrow in her demeanor, and thinks he can help.

Does the tradition of the family farm win out over the progress of a new 18-hole golf course?  What happens in Spain with Arthur and Liz?  How does Roberta save the day? I’m not going to tell!!

Discussion Questions:

1.  How realistic is Liz’s plan to get the farm back on its feet?

2.  Compare, contrast the two women in Gregor’s life, Liz and Mary.  In your opinion which is better suited for a relationship with him?  Why?

3.  What effects, good and bad, did the German professor, Arthur Kempler, have on the Craig/Dewhurst household?

4.  How does the strained relationship between Arthur and his son, Will, mirror that of Gregor and his son, Alex?

5.  Why did Liz finally agree to accompany Arthur to Seville?

6.  Did your book club find the novel’s ending realistic?  Why or why not?

7.  A novel is made up of many parts: setting, characters, plot.  In Starting Over, which elements do you find the strongest? The weakest?  What could have made this a stronger novel?

8.  Can a male author write a convincing romance?  How well did Robin Pilcher handle the romance angle of the story?  Female characters?


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Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Maria Semple‘s tightly constructed WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE is written in many formats: e-mails, letters, F.B.I. documents, correspondence with a psychiatrist and even an emergency-room bill for a run-in between Bernadette and Audrey.

When thinking of Bernadette, easily the novel’s main character, the word quirky comes to mind: an individual peculiarity of character, mannerism or foible. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.

After several miscarriages, Bernadette and husband, Elgin, produce Balakrishna aka Bee Branch, a blue baby born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome.  Tired of the constant  emphasis on her health,  Bee repeatedly insists that her last surgery was at age 5 and she’s totally fine now and has been for nine and a half years.

Because Bee’s parents indulge her in most things, her request to visit Antarctica becomes a family trip scheduled for winter break.  Agoraphobic Bernadette enlists an virtual Indian assistant, Manjula Kapoor, at $.75/hour, to handle the paper work, procure the necessary supplies, secure visas and plane tickets.

Meanwhile, Bernadette’s husband, Elgin, a big shot at Microsoft, is being led astray by his assistant, Soo-Lin Lee. The author uses Ms. Lee’s friendship with one of the Galer Street School ‘gnats,’ Audrey Griffin, also Bernadette’s neighbor, to further the action and  flesh out these two  main characters.

When Elgin’s clumsy attempts to have Bernadette committed to Madrona Hill, a private mental hospital, fail she disappears and Bee uses the paper trail to  piece together her mother’s back story and convince her father to make the trip to Antarctica to locate her beloved parent.

While some of the reviewers characterized, Where’d You Go, Bernadette as:   immature, silly and childish with a stupid plot line and a distracting style, Yvonne Zipp,  of the Christian Science Monitor wrote, “Semple used to write for the revered cult hit Arrested Development, and she brings plenty of squirming comedy to the novel. Her send-up of Seattle is hilarious, with its Victims Against Victimhood support groups, moms offering organic gardeners Swiss chard in lieu of payment, and teachers who are so PC that fourth graders are expected to seriously debate the pros and cons of the Chinese occupation.”

While Semple’s second novel might not be right for every book club, sample questions are provided below in case your group decides to give it a try.

Discussion Questions

1. While there seems to be two versions of the incident in which Audrey’s foot is run over by Bernadette’s car, which do you think is the most accurate? What was Semple’s purpose in placing this event at the beginning of the novel?

2. Throughout most of the novel, Audrey has little good to say about Bernadette’s parenting skills, how would you rate Kyle’s upbringing?  Would Audrey consider herself a Subaru, a Lexus  or a Mercedes Parent? How would she classify Bernadette?

3.  Some reviewers found the organization of the book off-putting. Did you lose track of what was happening/who was involved?  How did Part 6, The White Continent, affect your over-all judgement of the novel?

4. Discuss Bernadette’s and Elgin’s marriage.  What recent factors have driven a wedge into their once harmonious relationship?

5. Since Audrey and Bernadette are at odds for most of the novel, were you surprised when you found out how Bernadette escaped from the bathroom?  In your opinion, what prompted Audrey’s actions?

6.  Is Bernadette crazy?  How did the miscarriages, the loss of the 20-mile house and Bee’s medical condition affect her?  Do you agree that the destruction of 20-mile house was nobody’s fault but Bernadette’s? Would you have backed Elgin’s plan to have her committed to Madrona Hill?

7.  Do you see any similarities/differences between  Bernadette Fox and the noted Oak Park architect Frank Lloyd Wright? (Loving Frank by Nancy Horan)

8. Was Bee justified in hating her father?

9.  Some reviewers found Where’d  You Go, Bernadette immature, silly and childish while others called the novel a laugh-out-loud comedy.  Which side do you agree with and why?

10.  One reader felt that Where’d You Go, Bernadette is really Bee’s story.  Do you agree/disagree?  If you agree, what would have been a more appropriate title?


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