July 22, 2019

Book Review: Follow You Home by Mark Edwards

 
It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime, a final adventure before settling down. But after a perfect start, an encounter with a young couple on a night train forces Daniel and Laura to cut their dream trip short and flee home.

Back in London, Daniel and Laura vow never to talk about what happened that night. But as they try to fit into their old lives again, they realise they are in terrible danger—and that their nightmare is just beginning…

What intrigued me at first with Follow You Home was that the initial chapters were set on a train en route to Sighisoara, Romania.  A few years ago, I was in such a train and envisioned all sorts of scary things that could happen in the thick forests outside the window. Being the home of Vlad the Impaler, Romania's countryside is beautiful but can be sinister and the setting is just perfect for this novel.

But what intrigued me even more was finding out that this book was inspired by true events.  The author fell asleep in a European train and woke up with passports and other belongings missing. From that terrible experience the author created this novel.

"I knew, with every instinct, every scrap of learned and inherited knowledge, that this was a bad place. That we needed to turn around, right now, and get away.  That we shouldn't take another step towards this building, should not pass through that door, must not go inside.

"But then we heard another cry, a strangled sob from inside those stone walls, and as the silence descended again, Laura and I walked towards the house, towards the door, as if our legs had a will of their own."

Follow You at first circles around what actually happened to Daniel and Laura once their Grand European trip goes off the rails.  The narrative skips to the aftermath of Romania, only now they are broken up and horribly traumatized but whatever happened.  I of course only got curiouser and curiouser, with the suspense and scare factor building up to unbearable levels.  What the heck happened in Romania?

I did eventually find out - but I can only say that it wasn't what I thought it was.  For much of the book I thought one thing and then the last few chapters gave me twist after twist and even after it seemingly resolved, yet another twist.  I will say that the plot seems to be very loosely based on Hansel and Gretel, albeit a twisted one.  

July 15, 2019

Book Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean

 
Susan Orlean re-opens the unsolved mystery of the most catastrophic library fire in American history, and delivers a dazzling homage to a beloved institution – our libraries. On the morning of April 29, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in the Los Angeles Public Library. Raging through the stacks, the fire reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. It was the largest library fire in the history of the United States: it destroyed four hundred thousand books and damaged seven hundred thousand more, and shut the library down for seven years. The mystery remains: did someone purposefully set fire to the library—and if so, who?

Weaving her life-long love of books and reading with the fascinating history of libraries and the sometimes-eccentric characters who run them, award-winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author Orlean presents a mesmerizing and uniquely compelling story. With her signature wit, insight, compassion and talent for deep research, she investigates the legendary Los Angeles Public Library fire to showcase the larger, crucial role that libraries play in our lives, and reveals how these buildings provide much more than just books and are needed now more than ever.

If you are undecided about reading this book, please note that the title is The Library Book not The Los Angeles Library Fire. In skimming through customer reviews, there appear to be many readers incensed that there wasn't a more lengthy exploration of the Los Angeles Public Library fire of 1986.  

Here is what the book is about in one sentence: Susan Orleans celebrates the invaluable treasure of the public library through the lens of the devastating 1986 Los Angeles Public Library Fire.  

It is not a conventional true crime book; although she does delve as deep as she can into the person charged with burning down the library, out-of-work actor (of course) Harry Peak. He is, by all accounts, a fascinating but ultimately pitiful figure. But this book is more about the Los Angeles Public Library itself, its colorful history and lively librarians.  Oh, yes, if you think librarians are dull, Orlean will prove you wrong. The Library's past is as fiery as the fire that almost burned it down to the ground. 

These stories are riveting but what I loved best and touched me more are all the ways the Library (and thus all libraries) have always been a beacon of knowledge and inclusivity - how it is truly a place that reflect of our humanity.  Not is just symbolic, poetic ways.  But in real, tangible actions.  If you've stepped foot in a public library lately, you might have noticed all the social services that intersect within its walls.  Not just a place that houses books, but a thriving community hub.  I knew all this from my own public library but the Los Angeles Public Library is on another level, quite frankly. 

If you're interested in this book it's probably because you love libraries.  The Library Book will only enforce and increase that love.  

“A book feels like a thing alive in this moment, and also alive on a continuum, from the moment the thoughts about it first percolated in the writer’s mind to the moment it sprang off the printing press – a lifeline that continues as someone sits with it and marvels over it, and continues on, time after time after time.  Once words and thoughts are poured into them, books are no longer just paper and ink and glue: They take on a kind of human vitality.  The poet Milton called this quality in books “the potency of life.”

July 8, 2019

Book Review: What You Did by Claire McGowan

It was supposed to be the perfect reunion: six university friends together again after twenty years. Host Ali finally has the life she always wanted, a career she can be proud of and a wonderful family with her college boyfriend, now husband. But that night her best friend makes an accusation so shocking that nothing will ever be the same again.

When Karen staggers in from the garden, bleeding and traumatised, she claims that she has been assaulted—by Ali’s husband, Mike. Ali must make a split-second decision: who should she believe? Her horrified husband, or her best friend? With Mike offering a very different version of events, Ali knows one of them is lying—but which? And why?

When the ensuing chaos forces her to re-examine the golden era the group shared at university, Ali realises there are darker memories too. Memories that have lain dormant for decades. Memories someone would kill to protect.

At several points in this novel, I would inwardly exclaim, "Can things get any worse for Karen?" only to get a "yes" by next chapter's end.  Events spin in a shocking downward spiral and Karen's bucolic, seeming perfect life ends up shattered.  But as things got worse with each twist and revelation, my curiosity only increased. How will all of this turn out?  

I was hooked, plain and simple. I quickly became attached to poor Karen, who got sideswiped time and time again by every cruel twist of fate. Not to say that she was a saint herself as some of her questionable and significant choices show.  

Not to give too much away, but husbands and boyfriends come out looking very badly in this novel, as do women whose lives have revolved around men.  Three female types are somewhat explored: the promiscuous, the virginal and the ambitious. All three suffer relationship-related misfortunes in different ways.  Yet in the end, female friendship is the saving grace.  There is a positive male character but interestingly, he is drawn to be rather weak and not having much agency, as though a figuratively emasculated male is the only kind of safe man to trust.  

July 1, 2019

Book Review: Confessions of an Unlikely Runner by Dana Ayers


Witty, observant, and full of cringe-worthy confessions and heartwarming encouragement, Confessions celebrates both running and life. Part Bridget Jones, part Forrest Gump, Dana Ayers chronicles her awkward mishaps and adventures in transitioning from childhood bookworm to accidental accomplished athlete. Over the last ten years, Ayers has completed a vast array of races. She runs them all while admittedly not getting much faster, much thinner, or much more disciplined—though she has managed to be on national television, split open her pants, and get electrocuted. Ayers intersperses her hilarious yet relatable struggles with insights about how and why she keeps running. A self-proclaimed ambassador of slow runners, Ayers has completed dozens of endurance challenges, including Tough Mudder, the Ragnar Relay, Muddy Buddy, Warrior Dash, Run Amuck, the Army Ten-Miler, the Country Music Marathon, and many more mud runs, obstacles courses, and races. Her race descriptions will entertain seasoned runners and non-runners alike. Woven into the chaos of her running adventures is compassionate reassurance for anyone who feels like they aren’t fast enough, athletic enough, or strong enough to finish a tough race. 

Though told with humor, Confessions’ stories share an underlying theme of Ayers’ serious reverence for the sport of running and the running community. Ayers describes experiences such as participating in a 1,000-mile relay for Boston Marathon bombing victims, and being overcome by emotion while observing wounded veterans struggling to finish a race. Her stories prove how life-enriching it can be to physically fight for something and to cheer on others who are doing the same. For anyone who has considered trying a marathon, an obstacle race, or simply taking up running for the first time, Ayers is your ambassador. If she can do it, you can too.

"Unlikely Runner" is exactly who I am and this book speaks to my experiences in running. Maybe not the vomiting, electrocution or torn pants parts (not yet anyway).  But the impostor syndrome I feel most times.  Despite her rather impressive accomplishments, Dana describes to a "t" how I feel as well: apologetic and reluctant to call herself "a runner." In her first chapter she called herself an unathletic book nerd growing up and immediately I felt a kinship with her - That's me! I exclaimed in my head.  I suspect that a lot of us who consider ourselves unlikely runners will love this book, as we have found our patron saint.  She pokes fun of herself and her many misadventures so that not only did I laugh throughout the book, but also became even more enthusiastic about this passion of mine.  Interspersed between anecdotes are her "pro tips" such as:

"Running offers the opportunity to prove ourselves.  We aren't just going to an event to observe, we're making our bodies obey us and accomplish something."

"Another motivator I have for running comes from answering a classic question that I'm sure everyone asks when they're considering doing anything important in life, like choosing to become a surgeon or deciding to run for President - "What kind of outfits can I wear?"

As well as encouraging observations:

"An I will run. Because, even with all the doubts and struggles, I am a runner.  And that is what we runners do.  We run. Occasionally we wear tutus and get electrocuted, but mostly we run."

Confessions is a fabulous, feel-good book, one that I suspect I will reread every time I feel a little motivation to at least complete, if not conquer, another race.  


June 24, 2019

Book Review: The Lost History of Dreams by Kris Waldherr


When famed Byronesque poet Hugh de Bonne is discovered dead in his bath one morning, his cousin Robert Highstead, a post-mortem photographer, is charged with a simple task: transport Hugh’s remains for burial in a chapel. This chapel, a stained-glass folly set on the moors, was built by de Bonne sixteen years earlier to house the remains of his beloved wife and muse, Ada. Since then, the chapel has been locked and abandoned, a pilgrimage site for the rabid fans of de Bonne’s last book, The Lost History of Dreams.

However, Ada’s grief-stricken niece refuses to open the glass chapel for Robert unless he agrees to her bargain: before he can lay Hugh to rest, Robert must record Isabelle’s story of Ada and Hugh’s ill-fated marriage over the course of five nights.

As the mystery of Ada and Hugh’s relationship unfolds, so too does the secret behind Robert’s own marriage—including that of his fragile wife, Sida, who has not been the same since a tragic accident three years earlier and the origins of his morbid profession that has him seeing things he shouldn’t...things from beyond the grave.

“All ghost stories are love stories in disguise.”

Soon after the start of this novel is a scene that made me do a double take in shock.  I had to read it again to confirm – oh, yes, that is indeed what I had just read, which colored everything that came before and colors everything that comes after.  

Death is all over this book.  Robert photographs dead bodies for remembrances by their loved ones.  And he is commissioned by his brother to transport his cousin’s corpse to his resting place.  Love and death seem inextricable here, as though mourning is the fullest expression of love – not what we do in life.  There are haunting expressions of grief – such as the glass cathedral-like crypt in the middle of the woods – beautiful, untouched and, as it turns out, hiding a tale of thwarted love.  

The Lost History of Dreams mostly follows the gothic tradition faithfully with some modern touches here and there.  The prolonged tale telling over five nights is a familiar framework that had me wondering about the the detailed backstory, especially with a corpse decomposing in the stables. 

June 17, 2019

Book Review: False Step by Victoria Helen Stone



For days, all of Denver, Colorado, has worried over the fate of a missing child, little Tanner Holcomb. Then, a miracle: handsome, athletic Johnny Bradley finds him, frightened but unharmed, on a hiking trail miles from his wealthy family’s mountain home.

In a heartbeat, his rescuer goes from financially strapped fitness trainer to celebrated hero. The heat of the spotlight may prove too much for Johnny’s picture-perfect family, however. His wife, Veronica, despises the pressure of the sudden fame, afraid that secrets and bitter resentments of her marriage may come to light. And she’s willing to do anything to keep them hidden.

But when a shocking revelation exposes an even darker side to Tanner’s disappearance, Veronica realizes that nothing in her life can be trusted. And everything should be feared.

So I did not like Veronica much.  If a book is well-written enough, I can overlook a character's unlikeability. What False Step had going for are a strong, immediately gripping start and a compelling enough plot that propelled me to the finish. Not to say that I couldn't guess the big twists - I did and yet I had to keep going, mostly because I just was hoping that Veronica would smarten up.  She is a bit on the TSTL spectrum for much of the book - I dearly wanted to shake her.  She should have been someone I would have aligned myself with immediately - a very maternal book nerd.  But her terrible choices and whiny personality turned me off.  However, I want to state that she does redeem herself in the end.  The last 3 chapters turned everything around for this reader with a satisfying denouement.

June 10, 2019

Book Review: Snow White Learns Witchcraft by Theodora Goss


A young woman hunts for her wayward shadow at the school where she  first learned magic—while another faces a test she never studied for as ice envelopes the world. The tasks assigned a bookish boy lead him to  fateful encounters with lizards, owls, trolls and a feisty, sarcastic cat. A bear wedding is cause for celebration, the spinning wheel and the tower in the briar hedge get to tell their own stories, and a kitchenmaid finds out that a lost princess is more than she seems. The sea witch reveals what she hoped to gain when  she took the mermaid’s voice. A wiser Snow White sets out to craft  herself a new tale.

In these eight stories and twenty-three poems, World Fantasy Award  winner Theodora Goss retells and recasts fairy tales by Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Oscar Wilde.  Sometimes harrowing, sometimes hilarious, always lyrical, the works  gathered in Snow White Learns Witchcraft re-center and empower  the women at the heart of these timeless narratives. Science Fiction  and Fantasy Writers of America Grand Master Jane Yolen, in her  introduction, proclaims that Goss “transposes, transforms, and  transcends times, eras, and old tales with ease. But also there is a  core of tough magic that runs through all her pieces like a river  through Faerie . . . I am ready to reread some of my new favorites.”

1. Prepare to read a lot about bears.  

2. Don't buy "Red as Blood and White as Bone" separately as it is included in this collection.

3. Theodora Goss's fairy tales are dark and precious and no one else writes like her. 

"I'll learn the words to spells out of old books, grow poisonous herbs and practice curdling milk, cast evil eyes.  I'll summon a familiar: black cat or toad.  I'll tell my grandchildren fairy tales in which princesses slay dragons or wicked fairies live happily ever after. I'll talk to birds, and they'll talk back to me."

"What else should women do when they grow old and useless?  Become witches. It's the only role you get to write yourself."

June 3, 2019

Book Review: The Friend by Teresa Driscoll

 
On a train with her husband, miles from home and their four-year-old son, Ben, Sophie receives a chilling phone call. Two boys are in hospital after a tragic accident. One of them is Ben.

She thought she could trust Emma, her new friend, to look after her little boy. After all, Emma’s a kindred spirit—someone Sophie was sure she could bare her soul to, despite the village rumours. But Sophie can’t shake the feeling that she’s made an unforgivable mistake and now her whole family is in danger.

Because how well does she know Emma, really? Should she have trusted her at all?

Time is running out. Powerless to help her child, still hours from home, Sophie is about to discover the truth. And her life will never be the same.

I will admit that my biggest issue with this book are the time jumps.  It goes from past to present.  Past as in a few months before or weeks before. Present as in right now or earlier in the day.  But even then they are not arranged chronologically.  To further complicate matters, the POV alternates between a handful of characters. Most of the chapters are from Sophie's POV, but the rest are split among her husband, a private investigator, one of her friends, and a detective.  The chapters are helpfully marked with "BEFORE" and "TODAY" (with time stamps).  I understand what the author was trying to do - heightening the suspense by contrasting the chaos of the present with the incremental revelations of the past. However, my overall experience was one of disorientation.  

My second biggest issue was with Sophie herself.  For most of the chapters, I found her to be a bit obtuse and annoying.  But that did change by the end and I was very much rooting for her.

All my issues went by the wayside by the time I got to the last third of the book.  The author's assured writing style promised that I would be rewarded and I certainly was by the last chapters.  Twist after twist took me by surprise and I could not turn the pages faster. Ultimately, a satisfying read.

May 27, 2019

Book Review: The Ex-Wife by Jess Ryde

Newly married Natasha has the perfect house, a loving husband and a beautiful little girl called Emily. She’d have it all if it wasn’t for Jen, her husband’s ex-wife who just won’t leave them alone …

Then Natasha returns home one day to find her husband and Emily gone without trace. Desperate to get her daughter back, Natasha will do anything even if it means accepting an offer of help from Jen. But can she trust her? And do either of them really know the man they married?

There are a couple of big twists in The Ex-Wife- which I did see coming.  This doesn't make me a genius since I was surprised by a plot development stated in the synopsis.  Forgetful, what can I say.  

Natasha starts out as a doormat, basically, which irritated me.  Kinda dumb and kinda helpless, plus she got her current man while he was still married.  So I did not have a lot of sympathy for her.  She seemed to get blind-sided a little too easily and then later on when things got squirelly, she did a lot of mental gymnastics - which only helped the plot, not her.  

However, The Ex-Wifewas compelling enough that I did not throw it aside in disgust.  On the contrary, I kept turning the pages with excited dread, thinking, "How bad can this get?" Natasha and the novel redeem themselves and the ending, especially the last chapter, gave me a long-awaited sense of satisfaction.  

May 21, 2019

Day Trip to Culebra


Playa Flamenco in the island of Culebra is consistently rated as one of the top beaches in the world. So of course I had to make a special day trip there from San Juan during my recent Puerto Rican vacation.  This post details my flight to and from Culebra, practical tips once you get there, and what it’s like.  

There are two ways to get to the island of Culebra from San Juan: by boat and by air.  

If by boat, you can: 
·     Rent a private boat, which is lots of $$$
·     Join a group tour, which runs from $75-$100 and will include about an hour at Playa Flamenco
·     Take the ferry from Ceiba or Fajardo for $4.

At first glance, taking the ferry seems like a no-brainer. But after having read the difficulties of trying to actually catch the passenger ferry itself, which includes at least an hour of standing in line just to purchase a ticket (each way) and not being guaranteed passage because there might not be room, I decided to explore other options. Note that there is currently no system in place to buy tickets online.  If you do a search, what comes up are third party vendors who purchase a ticket for you for a markup, but having a ticket does not guarantee you passage.  

If by air, there are several airlines that fly out to Culebra from San Juan and they all run around a $100 each way, for a total of $200 round trip.  When I added the cost of renting a car to drive to Ceiba (where the ferry terminal is) or taking an Uber both ways, including the ferry tickets, the round trip airplane fare doesn’t seem prohibitive, especially since it guarantees peace of mind.  One option to consider is taking the ferry one way and a plane flight the other way to cut costs. 

My flight through Cape Air departed at 6:30 a.m. and lasted approximately 25 minutes.  Even though it is a very short domestic flight, you still have to be through security at least 45 minutes before your flight. I got to the San Juan airport too late and had to sprint through the airport to get to my gate, which felt like a mile from security.  Please note that you have to check in in person. Personnel weigh all your bags, even if they’re carry-on only and ask you how much you weigh – all because it is a very small plane that you will be flying.  Every pound counts.  

I was escorted onto the tarmac by an air traffic controller and all my bags were stowed away in the back, where they were inaccessible.  I was lucky enough to be the only passenger during my flight to Culebra so I felt like a VIP. The plane itself was a BN-2B Islander and had 8 seats, plus two for the pilot and co-pilot.  Like larger airplanes, there was an in-flight magazine, safety card and a vomit bag.  Since I had never flown in such a small plane before, I was very concerned about the flight itself.  I had no need to worry. The skies were clear and the ride was very smooth. It was so thrilling to be high up among the clouds with unparalleled views of the wide blue sea.  

One thing to note is that it is very noisy inside the cabin so bring earplugs for a more enjoyable trip.

When it comes time to land, you will hear the engine quiet down and then the pilot will turn towards the space between two mountain peaks then make a left turn where all of a sudden a runway appears, like a miracle.

The Culebra airport is very small; it doesn’t even have a security checkpoint. There is a café inside and restrooms.

By the door is a list of publicos or taxis to call if you want a ride to the beach. This part was the only frustrating thing of my day trip. I called most of the numbers on that list and most people didn’t answer, one person flat out said no, and another said he was out of town.  If you find yourself in the same predicament, note that you can walk from the airport to Playa Flamenco – it will take about 20 minutes.  As you’re exiting the airport, turn right and go down that main road, which ends at the beach.

But the morning I was there, I didn’t know that. You can rent Jeeps or golf carts across from the airport.  A golf cart costs $58 for the day, a Jeep $54.  

But I ended up not having to walk or rent a vehicle because a kind couple took pity on me upon hearing my troubles and let me ride with them on their rented golf cart, which took about 5 minutes.  

Once you get to the beach, it costs $6 to park your vehicle and $2 per person.

There are restrooms, changing stalls, and outdoor showers.

There are also food and drink kiosks but I would recommend that you bring your own food.  The food from the kiosks are merely okay and rather expensive. If buying food to bring to the beach, there is a cluster of eateries and a small general store near the airport.  As you exit the airport, turn right, then turn right again at the main intersection.  

Playa Flamenco is spectacular.  White sands, clear turquoise waters, coconut trees swaying gently in the breeze – it’s all out of a postcard.  


And then there’s the famous World War II tank beached on the western end, left there by the U.S. Navy and now painted like an urban work of art incongruously sunning itself on a Puerto Rican beach.  There’s actually another tank closer to the main entryway which has also been decorated and left on top of a little hill more inland.

Another thing to note is that there is a warning at the airport to be on the lookout for leftover munitions at the beach and in the water. So beware.

The flight back to San Juan was as smooth as the morning flight.  It was well worth the money spent to fly to Culebra.  I only wish I had more time there to explore other beaches on the island.

May 20, 2019

Book Review: The Cold is in Her Bones by Peternelle van Arsdale


Milla knows two things to be true: Demons are real, and fear will keep her safe.

Milla’s whole world is her family’s farm. She is never allowed to travel to the village and her only friend is her beloved older brother, Niklas. When a bright-eyed girl named Iris comes to stay, Milla hopes her loneliness might finally be coming to an end. But Iris has a secret she’s forbidden to share: The village is cursed by a demon who possesses girls at random, and the townspeople live in terror of who it will come for next.

Now, it seems, the demon has come for Iris. When Iris is captured and imprisoned with other possessed girls, Milla leaves home to rescue her and break the curse forever. Her only company on the journey is a terrible new secret of her own: Milla is changing, too, and may soon be a demon herself.

I was introduced to Peternelle van Arsdale's style with The Beast is an Animal.  I loved her dark, atmospheric writing that thoroughly immersed me in a strange world with frightening things at its edges.  That is true for The Cold is in Her Bones as well.  This is a story of friendship and loyalty, framed in an inventive Medusa retelling.  Milla and Iris's friendship takes center stage, which I found refreshing.  Milla is not especially special, not a "chosen one" character, but does the brave and scary thing when her best friend is taken by a demon.  Her journey into a dangerous magical world outside of her small circle of experience is a compelling one.  

The first time a snake slithered over her, she held her breath.  It wasn't fright that made her still.  It was delight.  The feel of snake scale on skin was so delicious it sent a tremor up her spine. The snake was slender and green and its tiny black eyes regarded her with a calm as well.

May 14, 2019

My Walking Tour of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico


I recently had the pleasure of visiting San Juan, Puerto Rico, a charming city full of vibrant colors and flavors. This video is just a little taste of my wonderful stay, including a walking tour that will lead you to some of my favorite spots.  

You will probably fly into Luis Munoz Airport and from there take a taxi to your hotel.  Uber, the only ridesharing option in San Juan, is not allowed to pick up from the airport so a taxi or a rental are your top choices. There are flat rates posted on the wall so there are no surprises. The 10-12 minute ride to Old San Juan costs $24, plus a dollar for every piece of luggage and a dollar for every extra person. The Uber ride to the airport from Old San Juan costs about $10.  

I decided to stay in Old San Juan for a few nights then transfer to a hotel in the Isla Verde neighborhood for a different experience.  Old San Juan is a quaint neighborhood with cobblestoned streets and colonial era buildings painted in rainbow sherbet colors.  Staying here is a must.  And since it is a compact area, everything is within walking distance. You don’t need a car at all.  Uber or a taxi is sufficient for going to and from the airport or to and from other neighborhoods such as Isla Verde, Santurce or Condado.

To start my walking tour, make your way to Plaza Darsenas, which is near the piers where cruise ships dock.  This is a lively area in the weekends with food trucks, live music, and vendors selling souvenirs.  There’s also a social-media ready photo spot, hashtag Puerto Rico.  


To the right is the Paseo de La Princesa – a tree-shaded promenade by the sea, made for slow strolls.  Lots of trees and benches for resting.

The Paseo runs into the beautiful La Princesa Fountain.  

Past the fountain, follow the promenade, which leads you to Puerta de San Juan or San Juan Gate. For centuries, San Juan gate was the formal entrance to San Juan.  Nowadays, street musicians usually perform within its passageway.  There is a large shady tree nearby where you can sit underneath and enjoy the music.  

If you go through the gate and up the stairs to your left, you will be rewarded by this view of the sea and the promenade below.


From the gate, turn right and keep going until you hit Calle de San Francisco.  Go up a block then turn right and walk to Fortelaza Street, where you will find one of San Juan’s newest attractions – Paseo de Las Sombrillas.

From Fortelaza Street turn left on Calle del Cristo and walk up.  At the corner of Calle del Cristo and Caleta de las Monjas is a little shady square where you can rest and gaze at the beautiful Hotel El Convento, which used to be a convent turned into a hotel.  

Continuing your walk up Calle del Cristo, continue a few more minutes then turn right at Calle San Sebastian, which dead-ends to my favorite place for cool, quiet solitude, Museo de Casa Blanca, the former home of Ponce de Leon, turned museum.  The museum itself is not the draw for me but its beautiful garden, which seems to be free. Both times I went there, I wandered the grounds to my heart’s content without paying an entrance fee.  


The courtyard’s shady trees, water fountains and benches beckon as if to say, stay awhile, rest your feet, traveler, refresh your spirits.  

On the other side of the museum are more grounds for wandering, with views of the sea beyond.

At this point, you could choose not go inside the museum, but if you didn’t, then you would miss a spectacular view from the second floor, well worth the $3-to-$5 entrance fee.

Once you’ve had your fill of Casa Blanca’s rejuvenating gardens, exit the gate and turn left, which will take you through Plaza de Benficencia and past the plaza towards the expansive lawn fronting El Morro, one of San Juan’s two forts.  Both times I visited here, it was pretty windy, refreshingly so during a hot day.  In the weekends, you can find picnics and people flying their kites here.  

  
Continuing on your walk, stay on the boulevard that runs parallel with the old fort walls, Norzagaray Street.  Turn right at Calle Imperial, which dead ends to this giant, painted Puerto Rican flag

Turn right again for an entrance to the courtyard of the Museum of Art and History.  On Saturdays, from 8-1 pm, there are artisans selling crafts, food stands and live music.  This is also a perfect place to sit on a shaded bench and rest.

At this point, you can end the walk or explore San Juan’s colorful streets without any particular destination in mind.  

If you have some time in the morning free, perhaps after a hearty breakfast, I suggest taking another walk.  This one starts at San Juan Gate and ends in El Morro.  It is less than a mile and because most of it is exposed to the west, better experienced in the cooler morning hours.  Not many tourists here, but lots of lovely views of the sea.


If you were wondering whether San Juan has fully recovered from Hurricane Maria, I can only say that everything seemed to be in normal working order from my perspective. As a tourist, I had only a most pleasant experience.  

May 13, 2019

Book Review: One Day in December by Josie Silver

 
Laurie is pretty sure love at first sight doesn’t exist anywhere but the movies. But then, through a misted-up bus window one snowy December day, she sees a man who she knows instantly is the one. Their eyes meet, there’s a moment of pure magic…and then her bus drives away.

Certain they’re fated to find each other again, Laurie spends a year scanning every bus stop and cafe in London for him. But she doesn’t find him, not when it matters anyway. Instead they “reunite” at a Christmas party, when her best friend Sarah giddily introduces her new boyfriend to Laurie. It’s Jack, the man from the bus. It would be.

What follows for Laurie, Sarah and Jack is ten years of friendship, heartbreak, missed opportunities, roads not taken, and destinies reconsidered. One Day in December is a joyous, heartwarming and immensely moving love story to escape into and a reminder that fate takes inexplicable turns along the route to happiness.

I picked up One Day in December during the last moments of my tropical vacation. Not because I didn’t have anything to read but because I couldn’t resist spending my last Thai bhat on a book. I read it on the long plane ride home; it didn’t last the whole way, but it was a diverting few hours nevertheless.  There’s something about vacation books – every time I look at it or see its cover somewhere, fond, warm feelings bubble up as I am temporarily transported to a wonderful memory.

Although its significant moments take place in snowy winter, One Day in December is a summer beach book through and through. It’s the kind of book I can easily see as a winning rom-com. Is there such a thing as love at first sight? This novel nudges the reader in that direction, certainly. But it still makes Sarah and Jack earn each other’s love – through years of getting to know each other, setbacks and obstacles to that ultimate Love Actually rising crescendo of a happily every after.  When they finally do get together, it doesn’t feel rushed or out of nowhere, it feels like we’ve known these characters and seen their tribulations so of course we want them to be happy and end up together.

What was a pleasant surprise for me was how much I loved Sarah and Laurie’s close friendship. No one is the enemy here. I loved how the author depicted their strong bond and enjoyed their funny moments together.

May 6, 2019

Book Review: The Chain by Adrian McKinty


Source: Vine

Publication Date: July 9, 2019
  
YOUR PHONE RINGS.

A STRANGER HAS KIDNAPPED YOUR CHILD.

TO FREE THEM YOU MUST ABDUCT SOMEONE ELSE'S CHILD.

YOUR CHILD WILL BE RELEASED WHEN YOUR VICTIM'S PARENTS KIDNAP ANOTHER CHILD.

IF ANY OF THESE THINGS DON'T HAPPEN:
YOUR CHILD WILL BE KILLED.

YOU ARE NOW PART OF THE CHAIN.

Before I get into my review, I want to state up front a tip for parents: Buy shoes with GPS trackers for your kids or buy trackers you can put in shoes.  I didn't know these existed but The Chain mentions these and I think they are an excellent idea.

Another tip for parents, and perhaps this is even more important: Dial down your social media sharing.  Checking into places, having your location tags on while posting, sharing your weekly or daily routine and having public profiles - this leaves you and your children vulnerable to those who want to use this information to do you or your kids some harm.

Now- onto my review.  As you can tell from the foregoing, this book kinda scared me.  While some of its elements are on the fantastic side,  they are still on this side of possible.  The Chain (while perversely invoking the Fleetwood Mac song) immediately hooked me from the first page and did not let up. It's a roller coaster of a book that begins with a kidnapping and ends with ... I won't tell you, only to say that you will have to take deep breaths while reading. It does not let up.  

The best kinds of books for me are ones in which I slide myself into the main character and start thinking - how would I react? How would I solve this problem?  Sliding into Rachel's mindset was effortless.  Driven by the ferocious need to get her daughter back, she does everything I would or any mother would.  The Chain is an inescapable noose tightening around her neck. Will she and her daughter be able to survive it, let alone rid themselves of it? 

April 29, 2019

Book Review: The Favorite Daughter by Kaira Rouda


Source: Vine

Publication Date: May 21, 2019

The perfect home. The perfect family. The perfect lie.

Jane Harris lives in a sparkling home in an oceanfront gated community in Orange County. It’s a place that seems too beautiful to be touched by sadness. But exactly one year ago, Jane’s oldest daughter, Mary, died in a tragic accident and Jane has been grief-stricken ever since. Lost in a haze of anti-depressants, she’s barely even left the house. Now that’s all about to change.

It’s time for Jane to reclaim her life and her family. Jane’s husband, David, has planned a memorial service for Mary and three days later, their youngest daughter, Betsy, graduates high school. Yet as Jane reemerges into the world, it’s clear her family has changed without her. Her husband has been working long days—and nights—at the office. Her daughter seems distant, even secretive. And her beloved Mary was always such a good girl—dutiful and loving. But does someone know more about Mary, and about her last day, than they’ve revealed?

The bonds between mothers and daughters, and husbands and wives should never be broken. But you never know how far someone will go to keep a family together…

Not everything is at seems in The Favorite Daughter.  In fact soon after starting, I quickly realized that very little of what the narrator, Jane Harris, perceives or declares can be taken as accurate. Unreliable narrator?  Oh, heck yes.  At first you might feel some sort of pity for her, perhaps excusing her strange behavior because of her daughter’s death, but it is very clear that something is very, very wrong with her entire life and that she herself is just unlikeable.  

You might feel, as I did, a thorough distaste for being in Jane’s head.  She is a narcissist through and through.  Everything revolves around her.  Every man is in love with her.  She is the most attractive woman wherever she goes.  And she is the smartest person in the room - always.  This is literally what goes through her head.  Are you nuts? I would ask in my own head as I read along.  

As much as I disliked Jane, I still felt compelled to continue reading.  Partly because I know people like her, as I suspect most do.  Although Jane is a rather extreme narcissist, I regularly work with someone who has a lot of her traits and it always boggles me how this person can act the way they do.  How do they think???  Well, if you’re curious to see what goes through a narcissist’s head, this is your chance.

Another reason why I kept reading was, as the full extent of Jane’s deviant personality becomes revealed, I just simply wanted to know – is she going to get away with it?  

April 22, 2019

Book Review: Watching You by Lisa Jewell


 Melville Heights is one of the nicest neighborhoods in Bristol, England; home to doctors and lawyers and old-money academics. It’s not the sort of place where people are brutally murdered in their own kitchens. But it is the sort of place where everyone has a secret. And everyone is watching you.

As the headmaster credited with turning around the local school, Tom Fitzwilliam is beloved by one and all—including Joey Mullen, his new neighbor, who quickly develops an intense infatuation with this thoroughly charming yet unavailable man. Joey thinks her crush is a secret, but Tom’s teenaged son Freddie—a prodigy with aspirations of becoming a spy for MI5—excels in observing people and has witnessed Joey behaving strangely around his father.

One of Tom’s students, Jenna Tripp, also lives on the same street, and she’s not convinced her teacher is as squeaky clean as he seems. For one thing, he has taken a particular liking to her best friend and fellow classmate, and Jenna’s mother—whose mental health has admittedly been deteriorating in recent years—is convinced that Mr. Fitzwilliam is stalking her.

Meanwhile, twenty years earlier, a schoolgirl writes in her diary, charting her doomed obsession with a handsome young English teacher named Mr. Fitzwilliam…

From the pre-prologue diary entry, the scene is set. You’re absolutely sure you know what is going to happen and what happened in the past. You’re pretty sure you know what the dark secret of one of the characters is.  What you won’t know is who is the victim and who the murderer. Chapters are divided from different points of view, so well into the novel, you will have several different theories as to who, what, and why. Is the handsome Mr. Fitzwilliam really as perfect as he seems?  What is he hiding?  Is Jenna’s mom going crazy or does she know something about what happened years ago? By novel’s end, the whole tragic story emerges.  There are some hints as the novel develops but I won’t lie – I was shocked and saddened by the denouement. 

April 16, 2019

Koh Phi Phi Day Trip


When I was planning my trip to Thailand, I didn’t want to stay at Ko Phi Phi because I wanted to seek out lesser known and quieter spots.  But once I saw this breathtaking, panoramic view, I kept open the possibility of a short visit to this infamous party island.  


I took a speedboat from Koh Lanta, booked the day before with Satun Pakbara.  It took about an hour and docked at busy Tonsai Bay.  As you exit the pier, you will enter Tonsai Village – full of shops, eateries, and hotels.  Go to your right and keep going until you see a sign for the viewpoint. Keep following the signs, which will twist and turn throughout the village and eventually take you to a flight of stairs.  

The climb up to the viewpoint will take about 15-20 minutes.  It can be exerting, even if you’re moderately fit.  The heat will make it even more challenging.  But believe me when I say that the view is completely worth it.  

At some point, you will have to pay a fee to keep going.  The viewpoint, it turns out, is on private land.  However, it is a small fee, about the equivalent of a little over one U.S. dollar.  The pay point is also where you can buy drinks and go to the restroom, for about 10 baht.  


Immediately after paying is where Viewpoint #1 is located.  Although it is quite a lovely overlook, do not stop here, keep going!  

After a more leisurely climb to the top, you will reach Viewpoint #3.  Do not ask me where Viewpoint #2 is because I don’t remember passing it.  

Viewpoint #3 is photo-ready, with a wooden platform and several large, flat rocks where you can pose and take pictures to your heart’s content.  

There is also a café, should you want to linger and do more than catch your breath before heading back down.  

I suggest coming to the viewpoint as early as you can or as soon as you dock – The earlier in the day, the cooler and the less crowded.  Also, make sure to bring some water – you’re going to need it during and after that hot climb.  I saw some people bringing bags of food as well for a picturesque picnic at the top. 


After the viewpoint, I decided to find a nice beach and do nothing for the rest of my time at Ko Phi Phi. If you walk straight from Tonsai Bay to the other end of the island, you will come upon Loh Dalum Beach, which is much quieter and less crowded.  There are some longtail boats docked on either side but a huge swathe of the waters by the beach are cordoned off for swimmers.  I spent a happy couple of hours here just lying under the sun, swimming, and generally relaxing.

To go back to Koh Lanta, I pre-booked a ferry from Tigerline.  I went back to the pier at Tonsai Bay and checked in with personnel by a table near the boats and ferries.  I was given a sticker and then shown which boat to board.  A word about ferries – they usually leave later than the stated time. I ended up waiting almost an hour before it left.  I guess I was on “Thai time.”  

Although, I knew Koh Phi Phi had more beautiful spots to offer, but I loved spending the day here as a quick little getaway within a getaway.