A Novel Lover’s Cup of Tea

From time to time, I receive offers for free downloads of soon-to-be-published books. The only price is an expectation of a review, one which I am happy to satisfy. Following are my thoughts on a freebie that is worth reading.


As the story opens, 18-year-old Clarissa Belhaven has a difficult task: to once again deal with her inebriated father’s outburst. She understands the pain behind Jock Belhaven’s anger. Mourning for his wife, killed in an earthquake, and long-standing resentment against the Robson family whom he believes (with some justification) are out to ruin his tea-growing business have turned the senior Belhaven into a bitter shell of the strong, kind man he once was. Clarrie, devoted to her father, her musical and artistic little sister Olive, their tea garden Belgooree, and the beautiful country of India where she grew up, is wise beyond her years. Feeling the weight of the world pressing down upon her—the failing tea garden, 13-year-old Olive’s bouts of asthma, her father’s seeking escape in drink or opium—the young woman finds solace in sunrise rides through the Assam hills on her beloved pony, Prince.

As Clarrie makes a predawn trek to a favorite hilltop, home to a holy man, she pauses to take in the serene beauty of the landscape. However, a hunter’s gunshot shatters her equilibrium and frightens Prince who, in his panic, slips on wet leaves and throws his rider. Clarrie loses consciousness and awakens in a tent belonging to none other than Wesley Robson, the handsome, headstrong descendent of those who have earned her father’s enmity. Fiercely loyal to Jock Belhaven, Clarrie rejects the young man’s attention and solutions to their monetary woes—including an offer to marry her and take on Belgooree and pay its debts. However, things go from bad to worse, and Jock Belhaven succumbs to illness and despair.

The funeral is barely over when creditors begin approaching Clarrie with their claims. Facing insurmountable debts, the young woman reconsiders Wesley Robson’s offer of assistance in return for assuming control of Belgooree—but she learns that he is no longer in India. With a heavy heart, she locates the address of her father’s cousin Jared Belhaven in England and writes him. When a response arrives with the offer of taking in Clarrie and Olive until they come of age, the sisters sell their possessions and prepare for the long journey from their beloved homeland. After a painful parting from devoted and wise khansama (butler) Kamal, to whom Clarrie gives her pony Prince, the girls (with few belongings and Olive’s violin) leave India behind.

Upon their arrival in Newcastle in northern England, Clarrie and Olive are met at the train station by Cousin Jared. A ride through successively poorer neighborhoods takes them to the Cherry Tree Hotel, a tavern run by Jared and his wife Lily. The sisters are in for a rude surprise: they are given the tasks of preparing food and serving at the bar. Lily makes no secret of her resentment of the newcomers. Long hours, backbreaking work, and no free time off even for holidays take their toll. There are a few bright spots, however: Clarrie’s friendship with working women who seek respite at Jared’s establishment, association with the wealthy Stock family who are regular customers for the pies Lily bakes, and an affable tea delivery man our heroine meets by chance. When the elderly lawyer Herbert Stock discovers Clarrie’s affectionate relationship with Will, his younger son, and her domestic skills, he offers her a position as housekeeper—and agrees to provide a home for Olive, as well. The only drawback to their new situation is Herbert Stock’s older son Bertie, who finds the family’s new staff member a target of constant ridicule. However, resilient Clarrie keeps the household running smoothly and cares for the ailing Louisa Stock—until tragedy strikes and the lady of the house passes away.  A despondent Herbert Stock withdraws into himself. As time passes, the housekeeper finds herself in the position of encouraging her employer to rejoin the world—until one day, Herbert Stock approaches her with a proposal that has nothing to do with Clarrie’s employment. To her shock, the elderly gentleman asks her to marry him. Once over her surprise, she realizes accepting will provide Olive with the security she has long promised her. So, to the consternation of acquaintances and the disapproval of many, Clarrie agrees to become Mrs. Herbert Stock. As the couple settles into their comfortable marriage, a devoted Herbert is even agreeable to his wife’s long-standing dream: open a tea house to provide working-class folks an alternative to escaping their reality in taverns. As Clarrie hopes for a better future for herself and Olive, she and Herbert face obstacles from within and without as society is changing and Europe moves toward a world war. Can the Stocks, their family, and friends weather the storm that is brewing on the horizon?

Janet Macloud Trotter takes readers on a wondrous journey. Her descriptions of the hills of India are so vivid we can almost feel the breeze and hear the calls of the country’s colorful birds. In stark contrast, working-class Newcastle and its depressed neighborhoods come to life. Clarrie and Olive’s descent from tea-planter’s daughters to overworked barmaids is realistically painted, and all the people who are part of their lives are true-to-life and believable. Readers will feel and cheer for our heroine. This novel, the first in the India Tea series, is a must-read for historical fiction aficionados and anyone who enjoys a rich, multi-layered story.

After I completed this wonderful story, I did the only sensible thing: downloaded the now-available second volume in the series. As soon as I turn the last virtual page, my review will be forthcoming.

A Delight for Any Season

It’s true that spring has (finally) arrived. So why is a book that resonates more with autumn appearing on my blog? The reason is simple: this newly-published treasure of a story is worthy of a place on any child’s bookshelf and a joy to read and hear any time of year. Check it out.

Little Bird loves everything about his home. There is his favorite branch, where he sits and sings a happy song. There are cherries galore (Little Bird’s favorite food) to eat, music from a wind chime hanging from his branch, and a view he can look at every day.

However, one day, things begin to change. A chilly wind starts to blow and leaves fall from the trees. Little Bird’s big brother wraps his wing around his young sibling and says, “Did you know a home can be here or there? It may be near or far, big or small, and even hot or cold. And sometimes you can have two homes—just like us! It’s time to fly south to our winter home, where the food is plenty and the wind’s breath is warm.”

But Little Bird is not reassured. The youngster feels despondent at the prospect of leaving all his favorite things behind until the he has a wonderful idea: to take what he loves along. So Little Bird fills his nest with cherries, flowers, his favorite branch, and everything else that reminds him of home. When it is time to leave, the sky is full of green-and-yellow birds flying south—and Little Bird following with his favorite things held in his feet.

However, Little Bird, because of the weight of his treasures, cannot keep up with his fellow travelers. “So with a splish and a splash…his favorite branch found a new home. Much to a dog’s delight!” This scene repeats itself as a strong wind blows and then a thunderstorm sweeps in—causing another of Little Bird’s favorite things to find a new home to the joy of its recipient.

When the voyagers finally arrive at their winter residence, Little Bird has only his nest. However, he does not have a chance to miss his favorite things: there is so much to discover in his new home– and new friends to share his nest.

Jo Empson’s warm story will resonate with kids, especially those who are facing a move or living in a new home. Repeated refrains (“And further south the birds flew”) add to the dramatic effect of the tale. Vibrant illustrations by the author provide a charming complement to the text and effectively depict Little Bird’s emotions and all the characters’ body language. The reader can almost feel the cold wind and the warm sun as the birds make their journey south. The delightful conclusion and a map of the avian route add a touch of realism to the story and provide a springboard for discussion. A delightful tale of friendship, family, and how the choices we make can have effects of which we are not always aware. Pair this book with Gotta Go! Gotta Go! by Sam Swope for another story about animal migration.

A Colorful Book

I recently received a treasure by UPS. No, it’s not lovely jewelry, a beautiful special-occasion dress, or a set of pretty mugs. The box contained newly- and soon-to-be-published picture books. I picked one out of the box, read it, and wrote a review. Since the book is not yet available, Amazon would not allow me to post my thoughts about the story! So here is my review of a lovely picture book.

On a dismal, cloudy day, snow-white Cat pauses in her normal activities to look for some colors. Even in the gloom, they are everywhere. Cat finds shelter from the rain under a green-leafed tree, smells red roses, stops by a blue pond, spots a purple butterfly, and makes more colorful discoveries. As she makes each find, a like-colored spot appears on the feline’s body. After night falls, a multi-hued Cat disappears inside a bush—and when we find her again, she presents us with a delightful surprise.

Airlie Anderson, the author of the award-winning treasure Momo and Snap Are Not Friends, again demonstrates her talent for telling a meaningful story using few words. With brief sentences and many wordless pages, the book’s delightful illustrations tell the tale. Toddlers and preschoolers will enjoy pointing out Cat’s spots, making her story an entertaining way to learn colors. This book is also a wonderful tool for developing kids’ skills in making associations and story sequencing. The unexpected ending is a perfect cap to a tale that is sure to become a favorite with youngsters and their parents.

I Did It Again

Some weeks ago, I scanned the shelves of the nearest public library branch (a practice that has become more or less routine since my “enforced retirement” this past summer). One of the titles that caught my attention, upon perusal of the blurb and cover picture, looked promising enough that I decided to check it out. As the most recently-published volume in a series was also among my borrowed books, this new addition waited patiently for me to finish it before receiving my full attention.

It was worth the wait. The Orphan Queen by Jodi Meadows grabs readers on the first page and doesn’t let go. We meet Wilhemina, a princess whose kingdom, Aecor, was conquered by The Indigo Kingdom ten years before. Her parents were killed in the invasion, so Wilhemina and other orphans are living in an abandoned castle and plotting the return of Aecor’s rightful monarch to the throne. Toward this end, the princess-in-hiding infiltrates the Indigo Kingdom’s palace to gain information that will help in their quest. Wilhemina’s sojourn under the nose of the very king who ordered her parents’ deaths tests her powers of self-control. What’s more, her ability to perform magic, an activity forbidden for a hundred years because of wraith, a poisonous substance produced by its practice, is a secret she keeps from even her best friend–and only uses when her life is on the line. When things come to a head, and a surprise disclosure reveals the identity of Black Knife (a vigilante who spends his nights defending the helpless), Wilhemina must deal with her conflicting emotions concerning him and those with whom she has lived and struggled for a decade.

When I completed this blockbuster, I was devastated. Not because the conclusion was a disappointment, but because the cliffhanger ending left me wondering about the possibilities. (An aside: I was even intrigued by the author’s list of acknowledgements; she includes the Creator among those to whom she is indebted. As are we all.) Then I discovered that Jodi Meadows’ novel is the first of a two-volume set. Now I have another test of patience: waiting three months until the April 5 publication of The Mirror King. Add to that the concluding volume, alluded to above, of the Unwanted series, scheduled to be available April 12, and the interval seems interminably long.

There is one remedy: head back to the library in search of another literary gem while I wait.



After I penned my recent post about the blockbuster Unwanted series by Lisa McMann, I began thinking. Not about the books’ quality–they are high on my list of must-reads–but about one aspect of the story.

Those who have delved into the series know of Mr. Today’s ability to bring inanimate statues and other objects to life and imbue them with wisdom and courage (among other virtuous characteristics) and personality. Since I don’t wish to add a spoiler alert to this post, I won’t  go into details.

What started me thinking was the capacity to create living creatures. These creations are not robots with personality (a la Star Wars) or modified humans (like in Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series). The products of Mr. Today’s magical ability are living, thinking, feeling people and animals. While it is far from me to find anything wrong with any author using imagination the way Lisa McMann and so many others do to create fantastic yet believable worlds and those who inhabit them, the creations in our real world are no less amazing.

Take the giraffe, for instance. The tallest land animal’s neck has the same number of vertebrae as a human’s; and, thanks to a powerful heart, this critter does not faint from a lack of oxygen-rich blood reaching the brain. Speaking of big animals, blue whales (Earth’s largest creature) lives on a much smaller one: the tiny, two-inch-long krill. The list of amazing-but-real residents of our planet goes on and on.

At the next opportunity, take a walk outside–or visit a zoo, aquarium, or botanic garden–and marvel in the animals and plants the Creator has placed on our planet. You can’t help but be amazed.





The Unwanteds


In the dreary land of Quill, intelligence is prized and creativity is frowned upon. More than that, those “caught” in any artistic activity–drawing, singing, and the like–are labelled “Unwanted” and scheduled for elimination the year they turn thirteen.  No one questions or protests the practice; in fact, no one questions anything in Quill.

So it is that Aaron and Alex Stowe, identical twin brothers, know what is in store. Smart, conforming Aaron discovers that, as a Wanted, a university education and a bright future are his. On the same day, Alex (who has known his fate for three years) boards a bus to meet his doom. As his family turns away, already forgetting about the “embarrassing” son, the Unwanteds travel one last time through the walled-in, barbed-wire-ceilinged land. When the bus arrives at its sinister, frightening destination, the young people are ushered through a gate. Alex and his companions, resigned to their fate, are in for a number of surprises. The Lake of Boiling Oil (where their lives will supposedly end) transforms into a peaceful sea; the cracked concrete gives way to grass, flowers, and trees; an ugly shack becomes a magnificent mansion; and a brightly-robed gentleman emerges and greets the shocked teens. “I am Marcus Today. Welcome to Artimé. Tell me, children, how does it feel to be eliminated?”

As the truth dawns on the Unwanteds, the young people discover that what began as a nightmare has become a marvelous reality beyond their (heretofore forbidden) wildest imaginations. They join an untold number of predecessors and meet older siblings and friends. The new arrivals’ fondest wishes are theirs for the asking. Nothing is off limits, with one exception: they must not return to Quill or contact anyone there; to do so is to risk exposing everyone and causing the wonderful world of  Artimé to be destroyed.

So begins a magical tale. Alex and his fellow Unwanteds learn, for the first time, to laugh, feel, and love. However, the undercurrent of danger lurks below the surface. Will Mr. Today, the mage who created Artimé and all its fantastic creatures–the wise winged stone cheetah Simber, talking blackboards with personality in every room that are sources of vital information, the flying tortoise Jim, and more–succeed in keeping the residents of the land (and the land itself) safe?

Share this treasure with older kids and young teens. And don’t be surprised if, like me, you find yourself enamored of the world of Artimé. Readers cannot help but share in the dreams and feelings of her residents. Those who dwell on both sides of the magical land’s gate are fully-drawn personalities, and many things and people are not what they seem.

Join Alex, Aaron, and everyone in their worlds on a journey of adventure and discovery. Enjoy the ride: and be ready for the magnificent conclusion to Lisa McMann’s seven-volume masterpiece due to reach book and library shelves in April, 2016.

Marigolds Aplenty!

Readers may recall past posts about the tenacious and often surprising marigolds that add a touch of beauty to our front yard. Every spring (or summer, if I’m getting a late start) I arm myself with seeds from a previous year’s blooms and my trusty spade and go to work. Even though our neighborhood birds must be watching and, as soon as I am out of sight, invite their friends and relatives for a feast, they always leave at least a few uneaten. (And, when it comes to this project, I always have more seeds and a lot of patience–or is it determination that the avian diners won’t leave me marigoldless?)

This year was no exception. On Marigold Day, I planted more seeds that I cared to count, lovingly covered them with soil, and provided the new plantings with a generous helping of water. As usual, the feathered feasters enjoyed their repast–and fewer than a dozen baby marigolds made an appearance. Wondering why our local birds seem to target our yard more in recent years, I rejoiced when the hardy survivors presented us with blossoms. But the joy was short-lived. A gardener who has worked for us on a number of occasions came to practice his craft–and PULLED UP MY MARIGOLDS! His reasons made no sense, but the deed was done. As summer was on the wane, it appeared that we would have no marigolds to grace our yard this autumn. We would not have the pleasure of seeing flowers bloom into December and provide us with seeds to be planted as soon as four months down the road.

However, the marigolds had other ideas. Autumn was in full swing when my husband and I noticed tiny seedlings that looked tantalizingly familiar growing in a neat row.  First two, then three, then four, then five. Did we dare hope for flowers? We dared. And were rewarded.

marigolds1As November is on the wane, it looks like we’ll have December marigolds after all–and a generous supply of seeds with which to plant the next generation of these marvelous plants.

Speaking of November, I would indeed be remiss if I neglected to mention a special commemoration that occurs this month. This has nothing to do with harvest celebrations or turkeys (unless we are thinking about books on these topics). Picture Book Month celebrates this vital literary form and those who create these treasures.

Crunch is a food-loving guinea pig. When the roly-poly rodent meets a friendly–and hungry–mouse named Cheddar and refuses to share his food with the newcomer, the little fellow sadly leaves. Crunch finishes his meal and, plagued by fears of what might befall the mouse, begins a fruitless search for Cheddar. The sorrowful guinea pig returns home where, to his surprise, a full-tummied Cheddar is enjoying a carrot. The very satisfying ending to a delectable story makes Crunch! a picture book that deserves to be shared again and again.

To quote myself: “If a picture is worth a thousand words, a picture book is priceless.”






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