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Just finished Leaving Blythe River: A Novel by Catherine Ryan Hyde. Almost a page turner. When one uses the phrase “coming of age,” it usually means (I think) love and loss/boyfriend/girlfriend, and in this case it’s somewhat that way. When Ethan, a 17-year old boy and his mother come home unexpectedly to find dad and his young secretary in a compromising position, all hell breaks loose. Separation happens instantly and just as his father moves out, his mother has to go take care of her aging mother. Ethan’s too young to be left in the NYC apartment alone, so Mom sends son to the father who is escaping from the world in Wyoming, living in a primitive A-frame house, and continuing his daily 20+ mile running journeys. Ethan and his father are barely speaking. They live in the middle of nowhere. Ethan feels betrayed by his father in every possible way, and somewhat by his mother for forcing him to live with his father for a temporary period. Then his father doesn’t return one day from his run. The authorities do a cursory search, but they are under the impression the dad wants to “get lost” on purpose. Ethan, although he thinks he doesn’t care, really does. What happens next is best left to you reading this book. Very interesting people (kind of loners) enter the picture and off they go to search. So worth reading.

The Girl With No Name by Diney Costelhoe. What a good book. Perhaps you’ve read before about the huge numbers of German refugee children who were sent to England before Hitler closed down any exits. This is a novel about one particular young girl, who is devastated when her mother puts her on one of the boats. She ends up in London, in an orphanage kind of place, and is eventually placed with a childless couple. She speaks no English. They speak no German, but they manage soon enough. Lisa (who eventually becomes Charlotte) is so homesick. She’s bullied at school, because most people and children don’t want any Germans there. A boy steps up to protect her, and as she grows up, she’s attracted to him. She shouldn’t be – he’s also German and from her own home town. He’s not a good match for her. You live with her through the blitz during all those war years and during one attack, she’s badly injured and loses her memory (and no ID on her). Through a series of mishaps she ends up in a village far from London, with a spinster woman who does eventually come to love her very much – they name her Charlotte and Charlotte she becomes. She goes to school there, still longing, though, for her mother and brother and her London foster family too. Then when she’s 16 she returns to London to help at the orphanage where she was originally placed and tries to find her foster parents. The story goes on from there, with the boy/man who “wants” her, the bad boy, and a good boy/man she befriends in the village in the country. Eventually she regains her memory. SUCH a good read.

The Girl with Seven Names by Hyanseo Lee. If you, like me, know little about North Korea and how it came to be what it is today, you’ve got to read this book. It’s a memoir written by a young woman who escaped from North Korea about 9 years ago. Her journey – and I mean JOURNEY – is harrowing, frightening, amazing, heart-rendering all at the same time. She chronicles the lives of the Kims (Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il to current Kim Jong Un), shares the strict propaganda that surrounds every North Korean citizen, the poverty and hunger, as well as the underground black market for food and goods. It took her awhile to get from North Korea, to China and eventually to South Korea, where she currently lives. She’s well educated and speaks English quite well. She was invited to be a speaker at a TED talk – you know about those, right? TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a media organization which posts talks online for free distribution, under the slogan “ideas worth spreading.” I listen to them as  podcasts now and then. Always very educational, if sometimes over my head when it gets very technical. She works diligently for human rights now, doing her best to help other North Koreans escape. You owe it to yourself to read this book.

Also just finished reading The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian. Another WOW book. I’ve always liked the author – many years ago I read his book, Midwives and really liked it. Don’t confuse this book with the one I recently read, The Last Midwife: A Novel by Sandra Dallas that I reviewed recently. I think we read it in one of my book groups. He’s a brilliant writer, and this one has a lot of characters and twists. It’s a novel, but based on a lot of truth regarding the Armenian genocide. Most of the book takes place in Aleppo, Syria with some good Samaritan folk trying to help rescue people (mostly children) following the forced long marches the Turks made prodding the Turkish Armenians to exit their country. But it also jumps to near present day as a family member is trying to piece together obscure parts of her grandparents’ former lives there. She uncovers some hidden truths (many survivors of the genocide never-ever-ever wanted to talk about it) and a bit more about her Armenian heritage. A riveting book – I could hardly put it down. Lots to discuss for a book club read. I simply must read more of Bohjalian’s books (he’s written many).

The Good Widow: A Novel by Lisa Steinke. All I can say is “wow.” In a general sense, this book is based on the premise of The Pilot’s Wife. But this one has some totally different twists and turns. A young wife is met at the door by police, informing her that her husband has died in an auto accident. Then she finds out he died in Hawaii – not Kansas, where she thought he was, on business. Then she finds out there was a woman in the car. Then she meets the fiance of the woman passenger and the two of them embark on a fact-finding mission in Hawaii to discover the truth. Well, I’m just sayin’ . . . the plot thickens. And thickens. And thickens clear up to the last few pages. Hang onto your seat. A really, really good, suspenseful read.

The Girl Who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes. What a WONDERFUL book. It opens up a shameful part of America’s past, but one you might not have heard about before this. In the late 1800s thousands of Chinese workers were brought to the West Coast to help with a variety of construction projects and a myriad of other things where laborers were needed. Many settled, married and made a new life for themselves. But suddenly the white population didn’t want them here anymore and they summarily ordered them ALL out of our country. This book chronicles a young Chinese girl, who was on a ship that was supposed to take her family to China, but the ship’s captain decided en route to dump them all overboard, to drown. The girl’s father knew it was going to happen and in order to save her, he threw his daughter off the ship as they were passing Orcas Island (in the San Juan Islands west of Seattle). She was saved. The book switches from that time to current time as a woman is rebuilding her family’s home on Orcas and finds a beautifully embroidered silk Chinese robe sleeve hidden under a stair step. The book is about that sordid past and the young girl’s descendents, and about the woman who is rebuilding. Stunner of a novel. Good for a book club read, I think. It has a reader’s guide at the back with good questions for book groups.

How It All Began: A Novel by Penelope Lively. I find it hard to describe this book – it’s wonderful. I loved it. But describing it is perplexing. The title relates to one of the characters, a woman of a certain age, who is mugged, and has to go live with her daughter and son in law for awhile since she’s stuck with crutches and has mobility problems. That starts the cavalcade of events that spread around her, with the characters. And she knows nothing whatsoever about them, hardly. They’re all somewhat inter-related (not much family, but mostly by circumstance) and they all get into some rather logical and some peculiar relationships. You engage  with each and every one of them; at least I sure did; and was trying to tell some of them to back away from what they were about to do. Or “be careful;” or “don’t go there.” That kind of thing. There is nothing insidious, no mystery involved – it’s all about these people and what happens to them. I was sad when the book was finished. The author, Lively, does add a chapter at the end – I wonder if it wasn’t part of the master plan – that kind of tidies up everything, and you get to see all of the characters move on with their lives, happy or not, but mostly happy. Really enjoyed the book. Am not sure it would be a good book club read, as the only thing to discuss are the characters themselves. Lively paints these characters well; you can just picture them as they get themselves in and out of relationship mischief.


Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small, old and some very dented engraved silver plated tea spoons that belonged to my mother-in-law, and I use them to taste my food as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Travel, on April 2nd, 2016.

biltmore_estateIf you haven’t ever been to The Biltmore Estate, you have truly missed out on out one of America’s treasures. It’s open to the public, and also has 2 hotels located right on the grounds of the estate itself.

My friend Darlene has been telling me for years about The Biltmore Estate, and it had been on the travel plan for my DH and me in the spring, but then my hubby died suddenly. We were planning a driving trip of the Blue Ridge Mountains and had known we’d stay there. Obviously, that trip didn’t happen, as I wasn’t going to do the trip by myself. So, when Sara invited me to go with her and granddaughter Sabrina to visit colleges in the south, I prevailed on them to add 2 nights (my treat) to visit and stay there.

After visiting 2 of the colleges on our plan, we arrived at the Biltmore late in the afternoon. Darlene had recommended we stay at the Inn on the Biltmore, and to get a room facing the back, the big meadow toward the winery, which we did. We had a lovely room with a gorgeous view.

inn_at_biltmore_estatesThis estate was built by George Vanderbilt at around the turn of the last century (1890-95 approx). The Vanderbilts made their money from the beginnings of railroads here in the U.S., and they were multi-millionaires. This Vanderbilt, married a society inn_biltmore_view1woman and they lived mostly at the Biltmore, although the family also had a huge family home in NYC. George vacationed in the Blue Ridge mountains when he was young, and always wanted to return and build a home there. Originally he bought up about biltmore_doorway125,000 acres and he and his friends hunted on the grounds in season. George and his wife had one daughter who eventually married into the Cecil family (connected to British royalty), and the estate is still owned by their progeny. Because of inheritance taxes (I’m supposing this as I’ve not read it) that the family decided to open the estate to the public – only that way could they keep the beautiful grounds (now only 8,000 acres). Over the years the land has yielded lots of crops and they raise livestock on it now. There is a winery too.

biltmore_doorThe Biltmore itself contains 40+ bedrooms and about 25 bathrooms – this back in the day when a complete bathroom housed within a home was almost a rarity. To say that the house is exquisite almost doesn’t do it justice. It’s sumptuous. It’s brilliant, glittery in places, tasteful throughout, housing thousands of art pieces that George collected and are worth millions all by themselves.

Visiting the Biltmore is not for the meek of pocketbook. We stayed on the grounds, at the hotel pictured above and I bought a package that included parking (yes, that’s extra even if you’re staying at the hotel) and the breakfast buffet. The grounds also contain numerous gardens which were nothing but brown twigs when we visited. The hilly landscape was beautiful, nonetheless, as we wove on the interior curvy roads. It’s 3 miles from the front gate to the Biltmore, and back in the day you went by carriage. There was a train aft_tea_sara_sabrinaterminus in the nearby town – Asheville. George died quite young of a burst appendix (the infection caused by the rupture). This was before penicillin. His widow continued to live at the Biltmore and she maintained the many educational programs she and her husband had started for the villagers (because the depression caused such hardship). About 30-35 servants worked in the home full time, year ‘round. We did the Upstairs/Downstairs tour, which was just fascinating. The architect and designers included many innovative things into the building of the French Renaissance “castle.” It isn’t a castle, but by my parlance it certainly qualifies.

Our second day there we did the tour in the morning and then had afternoon tea, which is served at the Inn on the Biltmore, in their beautiful library.

Our waiter (in tux attire) was very attentive and made us feel very content. The tea offered are their own varieties, 3 or 4 black tea combinations, and 4 herbal and floral combos. Because it was late afternoon I think we all had herbal teas, which were very, very nice and tasty. The tea was one of the bargains of the visit – I think it was $21.95/pp and included savories, sandwiches, pastries and tea.


In nice weather the Biltmore offers carriage rides (yes, sign me up) and also an open jeep backcountry ride as well (ditto). In


season, with the flowers and foliage, the estate must be absolutely gorgeous. Sara, Sabrina and I have promised ourselves we will go back to the Biltmore, stay at the Inn again, and be there when the flowers are in bloom – but in the spring before it’s too warm for bugs and humidity. It was bitterly cold while we were there – it got down into the low 20s both nights, but we were toasty inside and there was no snow or rain, really. A must see if you’re ever in the Asheville, NC area. My advice: you really cannot see the estate in a day; not even in 2 days. I highly recommend a 3-days visit, or do 2 nights, but arrive in the morning, many hours before you can check in and do a tour or two. There are several restaurants on site; all the food we had was exceptional.

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on April 2nd, 2016:

    I have been to Asheville but was completely unaware that the Biltmore Estate was there! You’d think my brother-in-law (a local man) would have known and told me about it, wouldn’t you?

    It might not have been open to the public when you lived there, Toni. I think it was in the late 1990s that they decided to put it into a family foundation and opened it for public tours. Since then they’ve built the 2 hotels on the property. . . carolyn t

  2. Toffeeapple

    said on April 10th, 2016:

    That might explain it! Thank you Carolyn.

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