Cathy Austin

Book Bites      February 2023

Welcome to the new year, book lovers! January found me pages deep into a handful of very good books!

First up, a big one: Fairy Tale by Stephen King. If you’ve never read him, start here. All the trademark things that mark his top level skills: colourfully big and scary evil characters, strong heroes (17-year-old Charlie Reade), the magical setting of Empris (a land very far below ours), beloved secondary characters, and a solid plot. Man vs evil, friendship and love, loyalty, dads and dogs, doing the right thing, all infused with King’s keen wit and humour polished with his descriptive powers none of us can every hope to have. Fairy Tale is a mash up of old and now, classic tales and some so new but very familiar, a remarkable tale that will have you on the edge of your seat. A must read!

Picked up on a whim: Slow Horses by Mick Herron. Failed spies grouped as outcasts in an old building in London, tasked with jobs they can’t mess up. Until there is an abduction of a young man, a terrorist thing that gets their attention. They decide they can solve it. Seriously? Great snappy dialogue and style. If you love Brit wit and dry humour, read this book. You’ll reach for another in the series like Dead Lions, next up on my shelf to read.

I love Taylor Jenkins Reid, author of Daisy Jones and the Six, Malibu Rising and others but I must say, her latest, Carrie Soto is Back delighted me in a very unique way.  This is a story about an aging tennis player making a comeback, determined to win all the tourneys by sheer force of her will, skills, and ‘take no prisoners’ attitude. Carrie Soto’s matches are like a mystery story, a thriller, back and forth action across the net, never would I have imagined that one more whack of the racket would have your own heart pumping, can she do it, will she do it?!  Carrie is not very well-liked, but she is respected. The backstory sets the scene. This is a big story, multilayered and magical. The world of tennis is a fascinating place, the emotions are totally high, the pain is real, the losses hurt, the wins are full of joy and relief. Jenkins Reid hones her skills each time out and this one is a true measure of her writing prowess.

Before She Disappeared by Lisa Gardner is the first in a new series. I liked it so much I just bought the second book. Frankie Elkin, a woman with no ties but a tragic backstory, voluntarily searches for missing people. She reads up on message boards, online sites that list missing persons and where others like her, dedicate time to bringing that person home, hopefully alive, and if not, then giving closure to the family. This time, Frankie hopes to find a young woman alive and bring her home. The setting is a gritty neighbourhood in Boston, peopled with odds and sods of residents and characters, gritty police, and gritty places to work and live. And this story with its unusual plot is a blockbuster read, a page turner, an impossible-to-put-down thriller.

A Message From Ukraine by Volodymyr Zelensky is a slim book of selected speeches from 2019 to last fall. It is a powerful read, humbling, and something we should all take the time to read and absorb. Zelensky truly is a man of the people and the best in leadership our world currently has.

Happy winter reading!

Best Ten Dollars I Ever Spent     November 2022 Edition

By Cathy Austin

Runner beans seed packet. Best ever entertainment this summer. Who knew?

I picked up a handful of assorted wildflower seed packets plus beans back in June, surely a bit late to pop into pots, but being the intrepid gardener I am, got it done, watered, provided sun and heat and waited.

The beans were quite the project. Popped the big seeds into two very big pots, added a trellis we had sitting in the shed, added string and tall poles as needed, and watched in amazement as those vines crawled up and up and up. Like Jack in the Beanstalk, there’s me, out every day running string and looping vines tendrils around and around.

Blooms appeared, scarlet, of course. Then the bees came, lots and lots of bees. Then butterflies, monarchs! Then a couple of hummingbirds! It was sheer heaven watching the activity at the bean project.

Then came the beans sprouted from the spent blooms. We did eat some, but I am no bean cook. Next year—and we will repeat this project—will be different. Taller poles, and a recipe for the end result!

Our takeaway from this: pollination took place daily, we attracted more helpful needed flying creatures to our yard and other hanging flower pots (red Dipladenia for one), and we were entertained and in tune with Mother Nature more than ever.

Note beans on your calendar for next spring. You will be rewarded in so many ways!

Hot this summer, eh? We rigged up a bucket system where drainage from rainfalls would go into 4 big roughneck garbage cans via a pipe in each. We left the lid off one when ever it rained this summer, saved a bundle doing this, and had water ready for pots and beans! Another way to beat climate change in your summer garden is by continuing to plant densely in the beds, especially perennials. We have done this for years. There are fewer weeds with plants up close to each other, and more moisture is retained.

Herbs attract bees and things, good things. They love thyme, comfrey, oregano, lemon balm and lavender to name a few. Small bees go to the small blooms, natch, and the big bees love everything! I left a weedy bunch of white aster overgrow in my front bed, and oh, boy, it was a bee colony by the end of September. There was a bee for every tiny white bloom and bees of every shape and size! Pollinator heaven!

Now that we have moved inside, consider a couple of healthy helpful air purifying plants: ferns, spider plants, snake plants. English ivy, peace lilies, and rubber plants are good too.

Ease into winter with a spot of green on your sill and dream about spring and summer with beans on your mind!


Book Bites ~      September 2022 Edition

By Cathy Austin

I’ve been in space, and out of this time lately. Check out these fabulous reads:

A Twist in Time is the second in a series by Julie McElwain. Her first book saw main character Kendra Donovan, an FBI agent in the current day finding herself back in time in 1815, in a lovely castle where she was hoping to nab a criminal. Her days now consist of getting into a servant’s garb and lingo, much to her chagrin, plus being unequal to men. That really annoys her considering her position back home. She manages to get ahold of her skills, keeping her time travelling bloop hidden until the Duke of Aldridge suspects she’s more than a servant girl. Her forensic skills and detection are stellar and he gets the secret out of her. It all works out even though she is stuck out of her time. In this second book, the Duke and family have moved to their London townhouse where he and Kendra (plus recurring characters Alec and Rebecca) join forces to solve a shocking society murder. A handful of suspects are interviewed and the killer is a surprise. Good pacing, suspense, likeable characters, and a time travel aspect well done. We could have done with less of Kendra’s moaning about women’s rights, after all, in the 21st century she has many. 1815 is, after all, 1815. At times her coldness and all-about-business side grates, but, hopefully, by book three she’ll have softened considerably making us like her more.

Canadian author, Emily St. John Mandel has written her third stellar novel in Sea of Tranquility. There are connections to her previous novels, Station Eleven and Glass Hotel but this is a standalone novel and you’ll catch it up. The chapters vary from present day to 1912, 2023, and 2303 or thereabouts. It is an awesome read. There’s the Time Institute that monitors timelines and people that should not be going back and ensures timelines cannot be changed. There are consequences, there are pandemics—SARS 12 in the year 2303—there is introspection, love, sorrow, and friendship. All of this when mostly those things are kind of outlawed or have fallen out of fashion in the Sea of Tranquility, where the dome-styled pods house shabby homes and residents. The final scenes are tense as a character needs to get back to her pod and quarantine, she’s been advised to do so to save her life by a time traveler (he’ll be punished). Will she do it? This is a must read. It speaks to our last two years of COVID living, how we feel about getting back into the swing of things, how people we know have changed, how we have. A brilliant and timely book.

Stephen King and writing partner Richard Chizmar have written the last book in a series, Gwendy’s Final Task is a quick and engaging read, at times creepy—that button box is a killer—fraught with tension and menace. The authors take us to 2026, up to space, to ‘Many Flags’, the space station about 43 countries now use for space research. Gwendy, a 64 year old outspoken U.S. Senator (whose days are numbered because of a health issue) must get rid of that evil button box once and for all, and where best to leave it? In space, for all time. You know what to expect, in a King novel there are myriad refs to previous books so in this one there’s talk of clowns, sewers, dark towers (that seems to be the source of the evil box) and more like the pandemic and you know who—Trumpers. Gwendy is full of wit, humour, pathos, and empathy. She’s a real and fabulous character. The supporting cast is keen. The setting is way cool. The evil is rich and the ending will tug at your heart but it is fitting and works. Full marks to both King and Chizmar for a very entertaining and satisfying read.

Kelley Armstrong is an author new to me, a Canadian who’s written a pile of books and series. This one, A Rip in Time, is the first in a new series. The main character, a detective from Vancouver, while visiting her dying gran in Edinburgh ends up near dead in another time—1865 in a household where the master is an undertaker and more. He assists the police in finding cause of death (forensics is unknown in Victorian England). Mallory, our Canadian gal, has great wit and humour and easily manages the time warp, adapting to her new situation and helping the master solve a murder or two, related to the promise of more by a crazed killer. There are twists, great solidly likeable characters, a superb setting in gritty Edinburgh, and the forensics banter is spot on. The ending has Mallory reveal who she really is. Can’t wait for the second book.

Settle in, buckle up and grab one of these fine novels for a good read out of time!



Book Bites ~ Been into Crime Lately?     June 2022 Edition

By Cathy Austin

No, not me, but the thriller books I’ve been reading, oh, my!

J.D. Robb packs a punch into her series featuring Eve Dallas. Forgotten in Death is a solid thrilling read, ideal for the dock or deck or, hey, a cosy balcony. Two deaths, one recent, one ages old at a construction site in 2051 or so in New York. Eve and partner Peabody are well known infamous cops who kick it in the solving crime department. Are these two deaths related? If so, how? And, why? Two women, one with a fetus beside her, that’s the historical discovery. The ending is a shocker, the whodunit you never saw coming. Fast paced, colourful characters, tight writing style. A win!

Her Last Goodbye by Rick Mofina, he of Vancouver area roots, has evolved into a keen thriller writer. Read him ages ago and rediscovered him in this his latest book. A woman goes unexpectedly missing, I mean, the last person you’d figure who’d leave her husband and son. Tight family gathers round the husband who, natch, becomes a suspect the longer she is gone. Mofina gives us the missing woman’s story as it turns out she’s been abducted, but why? Groups, cops, the community rallies to find her, to no avail. A woman with wife’s DNA turns up dead. Everyone mourns. And here I’ll stop, no spoilers. You will be astounded at what happens next. Do read this, it’s fast, solid writing with characters you’ll love.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn is a delight. Quirky feisty women characters, some very good men, some very bad men. Era is first and second world wars, the ‘network’ is gals spying on Nazis on the northern border of France. You will not be able to put this down; the author shifts from past to present between characters with connections and their goal to find the evil man who ruined Eve’s life, took the life of several women, all key characters, and bring him to justice, all these years’ later. So well written, engaging; friendship is highlighted, happiness and joy through hardship, love blossoms, morals tested. The horrors of wartime ever present and must be dealt with. Another fine novel by a master at historical fiction.

Still on the theme of wartime, Jenny LeCoat’s The Girl From the Channel Islands is a different perspective about a moving story set in 1940 on the island of Jersey. Belonging to England but much closer to France it is taken by the Germans and the villages and residents lives change forever. Hedy Bercu’s life is now fraught; from Vienna, Jewish, and now having fled to this safe place she is no longer so.  Because she speaks German she is enlisted as a translator in one of the huts. She hates it but needs the money for her family who may or may not be alive back home. Stealing gas coupons is her way of supporting her fellow villagers until a keen eyed German officer finds her out but does not report her; he also hates the war and what he’s part of and goes rogue in helping where he can with Hedy and her friends. Their friendship, hidden, develops into much more. The year passes, events unfold and the Germans on the island get nervous as the war’s end is in sight. Hedy with the help of an unlikely friend, Dorothea, hides, survives and waits for the all clear, says farewell to Kurt who, like the Germans rounded up on the island, is taken by the English for farm work until his release in a few years time. Hedy gets a nanny job miles from where he is. They will have a future. They are brave, resilient, in love and determined to make the most of their new post war life. The author has a family connection to the Islands, do read the end notes.

Summer beckons, hours of reading ahead, do enjoy!!


Book Bites     May 2022

By Cathy Austin

What will you be reading this spring? Me, I’ll be reading more of the fabulous faves on the 2021 best seller list:

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig and Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone by Diana Gabaldon, both of which I have on my shelf. Haig’s book got a lot of buzz last year so I am anxious to get into it. Gabaldon’s is a long awaited big novel in the ongoing and much beloved Outlander series. This is one I will be reading in the spring because, you know, bees!

Lucky by Marissa Stapley sounds quirky and is a book that I truly must get. Back on the list is Station Eleven by Emily St. John; published years ago but again immensely popular because there’s a series and it involves a virus, so it’s of interest. I have read it and would read it again, it rocks. Both of these authors are Canadians.

St. John has a new book, The Sea of Tranquility that I must read and it’s available now. It connects with Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel, so a trio of gems.

The Apollo Murders by Chris Hadfield is a book I began this year with and one that topped many lists last year. It is truly amazing, a great thriller set in space, and if an author would know the place it would be our own astronaut, Hadfield! More great Canadian reads: Five Little Indians by Michelle Good and The Madness of Crowds by Louise Penny as well as All the Devils Are Here. I have read and reviewed these but would read both again, especially Good’s book.

Two more Canadian authors round out this group, Our Darkest Night by Jennifer Robson and Letters Across the Sea by Genevieve Graham, both excellent novels about bravery in World War II. I have read both and enjoyed them very much. Another book that hit number one on the original fiction list set in wartime is The Rose Code by Kate Quinn, a book I’ve read and highly recommend.

One book I am eager to read is a mystery, The Mirror Man by Lars Keppler, an author I’ve just read for the first time, and The Sandman, which is exceptionally creepy Scandi noir. 

Read this winter, The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage, published in 1967. It was recently made into a film starring Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor I love for his fluidity and intensity. I think the trailers sold me on reading the book, which is dark, intense, and very, very good. 

What about kids, let’s not forget them! You cannot go wrong with a Dav Pilkey book. He’s a hoot! Check out Dog Man: Mothering Heights or Cat Kid Comic Club.

A book I’ll treat myself to reading on rainy days is Debbie Travis new book, Joy, that chronicles her new life with husband and family on an estate in Tuscany. The title sold me because if there’s something we all need a little bit more of during these pandemic times is joy!

Happy reading everybody!


Plant Parents Take Note     May 2022

By Cathy Austin

Plants have never been more popular. In March 2020, the pandemic had us taking cover inside our homes. Sweats and books became our dearest friends. Zoom connected us. Groceries became one of the many companies that now offers contact-free delivery. Pets were adopted. Then there were the hobbies: knitting, crocheting, painting, gardening and more.

But plants, houseplants, regular old greenery, took the world by storm. People needed something to nurture in their confined space between working remotely and moving from one room to another. Plants filled that void. In lieu of family we couldn’t see in person, friends we texted or facetimed, plants became that thing we could watch grow, shine, and make us feel good. They were immediately satisfying, and so a big new trend became mainstream: plant parenting!

Plant retailers selling pots and green plants, sustainable products, workshops, accessories and so much more have found new niche customers all across Canada. I happened upon a number of interesting shops online like Conifer Shop in Truro, Plant Plant in Calgary, and Alpenglow Projects in Vancouver. Owned and operated by young designers and entrepeneurs, their products are fresh, creative, and breathe new life into bringing plants and the like into your life.

One of my favourite retailers for all things green and gadget-y is Lee Valley. I’ve used several of their products, but the one I use the most is the Tabletop Tarp. It snaps to form a box shape at the four corners so you can pot up your rooted cuttings, transplant, and make a mess with easy cleanup. It’s great for small places like kitchen countertops, just wipe and fold after using!

Lee Valley also carries the newest in plant accessories, and one that caught my eye in a recent email is the Elho windowsill Herb Pot. It comes with a small pair of scissors on the side. Brilliant! No need to search for snips when you need a sprig of basil or rosemary. Of course, a plethora of gardening books awaits you online. Whatever your plant needs, they’ve got it.

It’s been a while since my husband and I were florists, but I still get asked about plants and their care by friends new to being plant parents and old friends who need a refresher. I love that greenery is being embraced by so many people and is enjoying a resurgence.

Visit your local grocer when you can and check out the little pots on sale. You’re certain to bring home a new ‘baby’ to brighten up your home!