The Road to Atlantis – a review

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The Road to Atlantis
by Leo Brent Robillard

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A Heartfelt Read

The Road to Atlantis intrigued me when I read about it on Susan Toy’s Reading Recommendations blog, and it didn’t disappoint. The Road to Atlantis tells the story of an ordinary family dealing with an extraordinary loss. In the aftermath, each character takes a different path in search of a new equilibrium.

Characters are the heart of this story, and the author has done a masterful job creating seemingly simple characters who are anything but. Robillard effectively drags the reader on a painful trek through the prickly brambles of grief. Robillard manages to draw out emotions using language so subtle, I found myself searching for how he did it.

The Road to Atlantis would appeal to readers interested in exploring the human condition.

J.P. McLean
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Both Leo Brent Robillard and J.P. McLean have been previously featured on Reading Recommendation.

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Red Clay and Roses – a review

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Red Clay and Roses
by S.K. Nicholls

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A Different Kind of Book Review

Melissa set the tray of coffee mugs, sugar bowl and creamer on the table, and quickly began to pour the coffee. Her hands shook a bit and she missed Maggie’s cup by a hair. Maggie cocked an eyebrow in wonder. Mary was fixing plates of mini-scones and cookies for them to nibble on, oblivious to her cousin’s anxiety. This was their first book club meeting, although Melissa wondered if a book club could have as few as three people and still be a club. She told herself it didn’t matter. Now that she and Maggie were living in town, it would be a way for the three cousins to see each other regularly.

“Well, I can’t wait to talk about the book we read for tonight.” Mary put the plates of goodies on the table and sat down. Both Melissa and Maggie paused in mid-sip of their coffee. They didn’t think Mary was that much of a reader. She hadn’t even seemed that interested in reading the book Maggie had suggested: Red Clay and Roses by S.K. Nicholls.

“I loved this book,” Mary went on, while adding two teaspoons of sugar and some cream to her coffee. “I mean the story of Moses and Althea, Sybil and Nathan. It was all so sad, so tragic, and it all happened.”

Maggie had planned to start the meeting with a brief overview of the book, and she had even prepared questions in case her cousins failed for words. But Mary was charging ahead.

“And the detail in the book. I felt like I could go back to that time and know exactly how to find the old house, the beauty salon, the juke joint, the swamp.”

“Ah … ” Maggie wanted to interject. Mary had a tendency to rule over discussions, but the book club was her idea. “I agree. I was impressed by the detail of her journey in the Introduction, almost like she was recording the trip as she traveled.”

“I didn’t read the Introduction.” Mary took a bite out of a vanilla creme scone. “I didn’t read the Conclusion either.”

Maggie’s mouth fell open and then shut it when Melissa gave her a sideways glance.

“Well, I read the whole book,” Melissa said, placing emphasis on the word “whole” and narrowing her eyes at Mary. “The point of a book club is to read the book.”

Mary shrugged. “I started to read those parts, but they were kind of slow-going. I wanted to get to the meat of the book. I had read some reviews online so I knew there was a diamond in the rough there.”

Melissa sighed. “Well, how can we discuss the book if you haven’t read it all?”

Maggie squirmed. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Five minutes into it and they’re already starting to argue. She cleared her throat and braced herself.

“Melissa’s right. I mean, the flow of the Introduction and the Conclusion bothered me too; there was so much detail and I got lost a couple of times.”

Melissa nodded. “It was the same way for me. I don’t even know if those parts of the book are necessary.”

“Oh, they are necessary to the book as a whole.” Maggie grabbed the vanilla creme scone from her plate. Mary had already stolen Melissa’s. “Even though she has a disclaimer at the beginning, making it clear that the book is based on facts, it’s still important to know how she comes upon these facts and then to bring it all into present day. After all that happened to Althea, Moses, Sybil, and Nathan, some resolution was necessary. She couldn’t just end it with … .”

“Sure,” Melissa interrupted. She picked up a shortbread cookie, seemingly unaware that the vanilla creme scones were all gone. “I understand what you are saying. It would have been different if I hadn’t read the Conclusion and found out what happened later.”

Mary’s head jerked up. “What happened later? You mean, it didn’t end with …”

Melissa swerved back to face Mary. “No, if you had read the whole book, Mary, you would know.”

Maggie jumped up and began refilling their coffee mugs. Tensions are rising, she thought to herself. Please God, don’t make me regret this.

“You don’t need to get testy, Melissa. I started to read the Conclusion, but it seemed to me that the author had finished telling the story of Sybil and Nathan, so I just put it down.” Mary’s voice was soft but earnest. She didn’t want to argue. She had actually loved much of Red Clay and Roses. “Does it really matter? I mean, I loved the core of the book. Once Moses started talking, relating the tragedy of his daughter Althea, and then the forbidden love between Sybil and Nathan. It’s an incredibly powerful story in and of itself. And that it was a true story made it so compelling.”

“Did it have to be a true story for you to like it?” Maggie felt intrigued by Mary’s view of the book.

“No, actually, the author’s writing would have swept me into that world of the pre-Civil Rights South if it had been fiction. It was really the level of detail, the sense of place, and the dialogue that made it all come together. Have either of you read An American Tragedy by Dresier?”

Maggie and Melissa put down their coffee and stared at Mary. Maggie wanted to call Randy and ask him if there was a pod with Mary’s body in it somewhere in her house.

“Well, Red Clay and Roses is similar in that both books are based on true events, but both are also fictionalized for the sake of the story. And both have this level of detail that makes the story play out in your mind as if you were really there, with the characters, traveling with them, eavesdropping on them. It doesn’t matter whether it’s fiction, fact, or some hybrid like faction.”

Melissa tried to stop herself but couldn’t help but snort coffee through her nose when Mary said “faction.” She realized that despite all the years they’ve known each other, she actually didn’t know Mary very well. At least, not this side of Mary.

“Ok, well, how would you rate the book?” Maggie pulled over a napkin and took a pen from the counter behind her.

“Five,” said Mary.

“How can you give her a five when you didn’t read the whole book?” Melissa sat back in her chair, arms crossed. “I give it a three because I think the author could have done better with the Introduction and Conclusion.”

“Christ.” Mary scowled and took a sip of coffee. She felt her cousins’ eyes on her. She liked surprising them from time to time. Everyone thought they knew her because she was outspoken and gregarious. But all those nights when Christopher was away. What the hell did they think she was doing? Playing with herself? Well, there was some of that, but for the most part she read. “What’s your rating, Maggie?”

Maggie paused. She was torn. There was much she liked, even loved, about the book. Sure, it had its flaws but so did some bestsellers she had read. “Four.”

Mary nodded. “Then four for me, too. That book is a diamond in the rough.”

Maggie looked over at Melissa and waited. Her cousin picked up another cookie and quietly said, “Four.” Maggie smiled. Maybe this book club would work after all.

Marie Bailey
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

S.K. Nicholls has been previously featured on Reading Recommendations. Marie Bailey writes “a different kind of book review” on her blog, 1WriteWay.

Occasional Soulmates – a review

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Occasional Soulmates
by Kevin Brennan

Purchase copies here

The Description

When the thirty-eight-year-old San Francisco doctor meets her new patient, a handsome British expat with the unlikely name of Dylan Cakebread (and an uncanny resemblance to Jude Law), she’s convinced it’s the start of her own relationship novel. He’s an architect, no less — always a key piece of her most indulgent fantasies — and the heroine of a relationship novel always gets her fantasy man, right? Though their shaky start raises red flags that her oldest girlfriend, Jules, is quick to point out, Sarah can’t help it. She falls hard for Dylan and it appears to be a two-way street.

But maybe meeting your perfect mate in the exam room isn’t the best opening act. Sarah thinks she’s the cure for what ails him, but soon she learns the secret Dylan has been keeping from her. Now she has to choose between happiness and the illusion of it — if Dylan doesn’t take the choice out of her hands first.

It’s starting to look like this isn’t her relationship novel at all: it’s his.

The Review

Kevin Brennan wrote one of my favourite books I read last year, Yesterday Road, a warm-hearted tale of memory and discovery. With Occasional Soulmates, Brennan has put his own twist on the chick-lit genre, gently subverting the standard tropes while respecting the genre and its audience.

The book is written from the point of view of Sarah Phelan, a doctor who has almost given up on finding the perfect man when he arrives in her waiting room. Smart, handsome – a Jude Law look-a-like – and an architect to boot, Dylan Cakebread appears to be the man of her dreams, yet as their relationship develops Sarah learns that Dylan Cakebread isn’t the person she thought he was, in fact she realises she doesn’t really know him at all.

Written in the first person, Brennan effortlessly draws us into the mind of Dr Phelan. She’s smart, funny, engaging, but not without the odd neurosis or two, in fact the perfect protagonist for this type of tale. As she stumbled through the early awkwardness of a new relationship, I couldn’t help but warm to her. There were no false notes, no plot-led decisions – instead Brennan has built a credible and compelling story on character alone. And the support cast are equally as compelling, especially Phelan’s relationship with her mother and her sister.

In the portrayal of Dylan Cakebread, Brennan has managed to capture a particular type of English reserve very well indeed. There were a few missteps regarding slang, and his brother was probably the least rounded of all the book’s cast, but the mystery of who Dylan Cakebread really is played out very well and held my interest throughout.

Throughout the book, Brennan – through the narration of Sarah – often refers back to a the different stages of a relationship novel, and while I enjoyed the conceit it occasionally came across as a little too knowing. That said, it is a beautifully written book and I enjoyed it very much indeed.

If you are looking for an intelligent romance with a lot of heart, then this is the book for you. Recommended.

Dylan S Hearn
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Both Kevin Brennan and Dylan S Hearn have been previously featured on Reading Recommendations.

School of the Assassins – a review

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Review of School of the Assassins
by W.K. Blais

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Engaging Characters and Fast-paced Action

In School of the Assassins, W.K. Blaise paints a frightening portrait of gang violence in Los Angeles and its sanctioned counterpart in South Africa. Blaise has done an admirable job of creating engaging characters and fast-paced action scenes. I’ll be looking for more stories featuring Pieter Durant and more writing from W.K. Blaise.

This is a fast-paced, well-written book, telling an original story with a main character I cared about and wanted to see win in the end. I downloaded this eBook free and was skeptical about its quality, given the experience I’ve had lately of trying to read other free books. But School of Assassins did not disappoint at all. Blais gripped me right from the beginning and I literally could not stop until I’d finished reading the entire book. Very, very good!

J.P. McLean
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Both W.K. Blais and J.P. McLean have been previously featured on Reading Recommendations.

Forbidden Alliance – a review

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Forbidden Alliance
by Katrina Mountfort

Purchase copies here

Disclaimer: I’ve got to know Katrina Mountfort through social media and she has written some very lovely reviews of my books. This has had no influence on my review but as a reader you I feel this is something of which you need to be aware.

The Description:
The Blueprint Trilogy takes us to a future in which men and women are almost identical, and personal relationships are forbidden. In Forbidden Alliance, the second book of the trilogy, more than sixteen years have passed since Caia and Mac, now renamed Cathy and Michael, fled their oppressive lives, although the plight of those who remain in the Citidomes is never far from their minds.

Cathy and Michael now have three children and Citidome life is a distant memory. But for Cathy, village life is no longer idyllic. While Michael is famed as the leader of the Alliance of Outside Communities, she is left holding the baby. When a chance arises for her to fulfil her potential, will she make the right choices? Michael, however, is too preoccupied to notice Cathy’s personal struggles.

Heightened security in the Citidomes has resulted in fewer escapees, a shortage of young farmers and a depleted gene pool in the village. While Michael unveils his most audacious plan yet to liberate rebels from the Citidomes, will his devotion to the cause cost him the love of his wife and daughter? And will his plan endanger his life, as well as those of his allies?

Forbidden Alliance is also the story of Cathy and Michael’s sixteen year-old daughter Joy. Fiercely intelligent but with limited career options, she fights against the future her father has planned for her: marriage to village boy Matt. Forbidden from seeing Harry, the nomadic canal-dwelling boy she has loved since childhood, she finds friendship from an unexpected source: BodyPerfect ex-citizen Ryan, whose perfect Citidome looks are less than perfect in the outside world. And her illusions about life in the Citidomes are about to be shattered.

In addition to the issues explored in Future Perfect, the first book of the trilogy, Forbidden Alliance poses additional questions, including those of leadership, family loyalties and whether it is possible to justify the sacrifice of human lives for the greater good.

The Review:
Forbidden Alliance is the second book of the blueprint trilogy and takes place sixteen years after the events of Future Perfect (you can read my review of Future Perfect here). In it we find out what has happened to Cathy and Michael since they escaped the dystopian paradise of the Citidome into what has turned out to be a far tougher life outside.

While the storyline from Future Perfect is continued, this is very much a coming-of-age tale, predominantly from the perspective of Joy. Through her eyes we see the strain her parents have lived under, trying to balance the survival of the outside communities when faced with an ageing population and low birth rates, alongside the desire to rescue more people from the Citidomes. At the same time, Joy is encountering the turbulent world of love and relationships for the first time, and when that love is at odds with the needs of her family and community, it sets off a chain of events that will change them all forever.

Forbidden Alliance is a really interesting step change from the more straight-forward escape story of Future Perfect. Setting the book sixteen years in the future has allowed Mountfort to introduce more depth to what was already an excellent story. Her handling of the impact external pressure have had on Cathy and Michael’s relationship, and the claustrophobic pressure of living in quite an insular community, is excellently done.

I found myself personally less involved in the love triangle at the heart of Joy’s story but this is more to do with what interests me rather than any fault with the writing, which captures all the earnestness and heartache of young love to the full. I’m sure the target demographic of this YA novel will lap this storyline up.

Overall this is an excellent middle book to the trilogy, bringing in new storylines, adding depth and setting things up nicely for the third and final part. If you are a fan of YA dystopian novels, you really should give this series a try. Recommended.

Dylan S. Hearn
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Both Katrina Mountfort and Dylan S. Hearn have been previously featured on Reading Recommendations. Dylan also reviews books on his blog, Suffolk Scribblings.

A Pair of Docks – a review

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A Pair of Docks
by Jennifer Ellis

Purchase copies here

I received a free eBook edition of this novel in exchange for a review. This does not in any way influence my opinion of this book. As a bookseller, it is important to me that my reviews are completely honest, as many of my customers have access to my reviews.

A Pair of Docks is an excellent sci-fi/fantasy read for ages 9 to 99! It is completely appropriate for children, containing no material or language that parents would object to, yet compelling to read as an adult. The story is well-written, with a great plot and cast of characters. I like that the narrator, 14-year-old Abbey Sinclair, is a strong young female.

Indeed, all the children in the book, including Abbey’s autistic neighbor Mark, are described in sufficient detail that I could identify somewhat with each of them. (It is their personality traits rather than their physical attributes that are so well-portrayed. For me, this is the most important aspect of a character.)

The adults in the novel are a bit of a mystery to the children, and hence to the reader. As the novel progresses, the reader discovers more about them, but even at the end, it is difficult to know who among them can be trusted! That none understands the rules of traveling into potential futures demonstrates adults don’t always have all the answers.

The plot is extremely imaginative and quick paced. Combining physics and magic, it explores the possibility of alternate universes and theories of how time works. It brought me back to my days as a child reading Madeleine L’Engle’s series beginning with A Wrinkle in Time.

That I compare Jennifer Ellis with this well-known recipient of the John Newbery Award Medal is no coincidence. I believe that A Pair of Docks is equally worthy of such an honour.

Connie Flanagan
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Jennifer Ellis has been previously featured on Reading Recommendations. Connie Flanagan is a bookseller who publishes the review blog, Everything Indie.

A Crack in the Wall – a review

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A Crack in the Wall
by Betty Jane Hegerat

Purchase copies here

A Crack in the Wall takes the reader on a voyeuristic walk down suburban streets, a glimpse into open windows at people yearning for what was, and making their reluctant peace with what is, and what will be.

I’ve always enjoyed stories about ‘regular people, doing regular things’. They hold a certain fascination for me, simply because I can relate to those kinds of characters more than others, my life being pretty uneventful in general. I definitely like a good cozy mystery or thriller every once in a while, but family dramas, introspective plot lines and emotionally-driven narratives are my reading comfort zone. For many, this sounds boring, but I’ve always been honest about the fact that I don’t enjoy fantasy novels-in fact, I’m probably one of the few bookworms who can say they’ve never finished the Lord of the Rings trilogy; I tried reading it, but had to put it down after a few pages, I found it boring.

This is all to say that I’ve found yet another book of short stories that I enjoy, mainly because it deals with the mundane occurrences that most people experience from day-to-day. A Crack in the Wall by Betty Jane Hegerat is a great example of how masterful a simple story can be. Nothing earth shattering happens in these stories, mainly the protagonists come to particular realizations about themselves or someone close to them. Still, after I finished each story, I found myself looking up from the book and pausing for a few seconds, letting everything sink in. In my mind, this is a sign of a brilliant writer.

The fact that Hegerat is from Alberta is just another reason for me to read and love this book. Some of the stories take place in Calgary, others in distant parts of Canada, but there is always a sense of familiarity with the writing: probably because the characters are so relatable.

On another note, I took this book out from the library, and I was shocked to see it had been signed by the author herself. I’m curious how this happened-not because Hegerat is difficult to find in Calgary (quite the opposite in fact, she’s a fixture of our literary scene here), but because I’ve never come across a library book with an autograph before. I’m curious if other readers get a small thrill in discovering the book they’re reading has been signed by the author; I no longer do because I’ve worked with authors for so long, but I’m hoping that this is still a (somewhat rare) phenomenon that appeals to other readers.

Anne Logan
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Betty Jane Hegerat has been previously featured on Reading Recommendations and also in a post about her receiving the 2015 WGA Golden Pen Award. Anne Logan worked in Canadian publishing for 7 years and reviews books on her blog, i’ve read this.

Uncertain Soldier – a review

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Uncertain Soldier
by Karen Bass

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Seventeen-year-old Erich is a prisoner of war working at a northern Alberta logging camp. Twelve-year-old Max goes to school—reluctantly—in the nearby town. The two would be unlikely friends, except that neither has anyone else to turn to. At the height of World War II, nobody wants to befriend a German.

This book is set mostly in the Peace River region of Alberta during World War II. The main character is Erich Hofmeyer, a young German soldier, who was captured when his ship was destroyed. He suffered burns, was treated, and then ended up in a POW camp near Lethbridge.

Erich speaks English fluently as his mother’s parents live in England. He was visiting them just before war broke out and reflects sometimes on this timing. Erich’s father forced him to enlist after he graduated from high school at sixteen, and he is now seventeen.

Erich is bullied by other POWs who have Nazi sympathies and, when they are aware of his English skills, want him to spy for them. When an incident occurs, Erich is giving a chance to join a work gang as a lumberjack in the Peace region, and jumps at it. Being a city boy, he finds the lack of amenities difficult to get used to, but the environment is pleasant, and the man who owns the land is fair. Erich gets to know the other men he works with, both Canadians and prisoners, and finds good and bad in both. He also finds Henry, the man he works for a fatherly figure. Their hired girl Cora is not disposed to look on Germans kindly, but their similarity in age begins to bridge their differences.

Erich also befriends Max, a younger boy who lives in the area. Max is being bullied because of his father being German, and feels increasingly isolated. His contact with Erich gives him not only camaraderie, but also a confidant for some of his issues.

Another young man, Christmas, is also isolated, as a native who doesn’t talk much, but works hard. Christmas is fond of Max, and the boy becomes a bridge between the two young men who care about him.

This is a story of prejudice, of bullying behaviour, of people being able to change their views based on experience and knowledge rather than generalizations. This is a story of friendship and coming of age for Erich. Good characters with depth and insight.

Shonna Froebel
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Karen Bass has been previously featured on Reading Recommendations. Shonna Froebel is a librarian who publishes the book review blog, Canadian Bookworm.

Town Father – a review

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Town Father, Or, Where Graceful Girls Abound
by Kevin Brennan

Purchase copies here

I loved this book. The voice reminded me of a male Jane Austen, due to the slow and careful attention to detail plus the complex yet subtle interactions between the characters (and lord knows I love me some Jane Austen). What I loved best, though, were the small flickers of humor carefully placed throughout the story, many of which made me laugh out loud.

The premise of the book: Meek-mannered Henry O’Farrell, a 30-something virgin living in Philadelphia in the late 19th century, answers a job ad for a town father in a small California town.

When he arrives, he finds that the town of Hestia is nothing as he expected, for it’s populated with only women, about 300 of them. And guess what they’re looking for?
Yep, you’re right: A man. A man to help them reproduce and repopulate the town with a new generation of women.

Poor Henry! And yet, lucky Henry.

The complexities, and the humor, of the situation rarely escape Brennan’s eye, and readers can’t help falling in love with fumbling Henry plus an array of Hestia’s women, including the lovely Avis, the mannish Tilly (one of my favorite characters) and Lucien and Maisie.

The story moves slowly at times, lingering in the world of Hestia, this world of women, almost as if Brennan doesn’t want to leave this place he’s created and, neither does the reader, either. Luckily, Brennan smartly peppers the story with enough conflicts to keep the pace rolling forward (an unexpected death, a visit from circus performers who refuse to leave and cause much disruption, and lusty thoughts, among the town’s women).

The story poses many questions: Is it possible to devise and maintain a Utopian society? Can women live without men? Do men cause most of the conflicts in a society?

Cinthia Ritchie
5 out of 5 stars and listed by Cinthia one of the best books she read during 2015.
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Kevin Brennan has been previously featured on Reading Recommendations. Cinthia Ritchie reads and reviews books on her website.

Light Years – a review

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Light Years: Memoir of a Modern Lighthouse Keeper
by Caroline Woodward

Purchase copies here

The very true story of a writer who always chose adventure over security, love over logic, and who (naturally) quit her best job ever to go off with her equally peripatetic husband to live at a lighthouse and write all the stories she always wanted to write, including this one.

Something about lighthousekeeping draws me, and thus I picked up this memoir at the library. Woodward’s memoir gives us the background of how she and her husband Jeff came to be lighthousekeepers, and also delves further back into her past including her childhood growing up in the North Peace River region of B.C.

I have ties to the Peace River area, on both the Alberta and B.C. side, living in Hudson Hope and Dawson Creek as a young child, and with both my parents born and growing up on the Alberta side. I also have ties to B.C. with my parents and one brother now living on Vancouver Island, and my sister in Prince Rupert. Her husband is even with the Coast Guard. Add to that Caroline’s history as a publisher’s representative as well as her status as a writer, and mine as a librarian, and this book just felt really connected for me. As she says in this book, in Canada sometimes the six degrees of separation seems more like 1.5 degrees.

Lighthousekeeping is a seven day a week job, with lots of tasks and physical work as part of it. As she shows, the environment can vary a fair bit depending on which lighthouse you are stationed at, and she and her husband have done a few as outlined here. Some are more remote, and some see a lot of visitors, particularly in the summer months. There are issues with weather and wildlife that you have to adjust to, and the need to be handy is apparent.

Part of the job is to keep the station in good upkeep, which means repairing, painting, and improving the infrastructure. Being good at problem-solving seems a plus, especially when it comes to connectivity. The logistics of getting on and off a lighthouse station, and getting supplies on and off is something that needs planning. As she says though, the most important ingredient is the personality mix between the residents at a lighthouse station.

Her chapter on food had me drooling, and I would heartily recommend a follow-up cookbook to this memoir based just on that chapter.

Shonna Froebel
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)

Caroline Woodward has been previously featured on Reading Recommendations. Shonna Froebel is a librarian and publishes the review blog, Canadian Bookworm.