29 October 2011

Get Your Spook On! Book review: The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

I picked this book up because our store's holiday newsletter needed some more YA reviews and I had read and very much enjoyed Maureen Johnson's Thirteen Little Blue Envelopes a couple of years ago.  Its focus on travel and family and independence and finding your inner strength seemed so refreshing in the peak of the Twilight craze (is it finally fading?  or is that just the calm before the storm of the next release in the movie franchise?), so I was game to try another of her books.  Little did I know that The Name of the Star would not be the same breezy read that her other novels were.

I suppose the cover image should have warned me, and if I had actually read the blurbs on the back, they certainly would have warned me.  But no, all I knew about the book when I started reading late one night was that a teen girl from the American South (yay) moves to London (yay) and attends boarding school there for a year (double-yay)--and something about Jack the Ripper (not-so-yay).  Well, it pretty much scared the pants off of me.  I quit reading scary books years ago, and had I known just how spooky this one would be, I would not have started reading it in bed one night.  It was immediately engaging, which quickly became riveting, and two hours in, I realized I couldn't just fall asleep.  I had to stay awake until the bitter scary end. Because we all know what happens when your unconscious dreaming mind starts drawing on the shadowy underworld you've just put down on your nightstand--nightmares and hallucinations!  Or perhaps that just me, then?

Now I should have prefaced this by saying that it doesn't take much to scare me.  I will NOT read Stephen King or anything that I know to be of the horror genre, and I eschew mysteries of the non-cozy variety.  So take this review with several grains of salt (and a shot of tequila if you like). On a Spooky Scale from 1-10, with Edgar Allan Poe being a 1 and King/Matheson/Harris/Connolly being on the 10 side of things, this book leans more Poe-ward. 

Rory hails from Louisiana, but she's attending Wexford boarding school in London for a year while her parents are on sabbatical, teaching at the University of Bristol.  She's eager to experience all cultural things English but is slightly dismayed to arrive at school in the immediate wake of a murder, done very much in the style of Jack the Ripper.  Before long, it becomes clear that there's a copycat serial killer on the loose, someone who is intimately knowledgeable of the original Ripper killings.  The mysterious thing is that despite London's notoriously invasive camera surveillance system, only the murder victims show up on the films, not the murderer.  But does that mean that the serial killer is some kind of special-ops guy with stealth training and cloaking devices, or is it something that can only be explained with the paranormal? 

Meanwhile, one night Rory and her roommate sneak out of their girls' dormitory to sneak up to the roof of the boys' dorm to watch the media circus in anticipation of the Ripper's next move. As they try to sneak back in, Rory catches a glimpse of a man that nobody else notices--a man who now has set his diabolical sights on Rory. 

This novel is very well-paced, with lots of thrills, but I also loved the quieter moments of the book, too: Rory and her roommate sharing gossip over Cheez-Whiz in their dorms (warmed to a perfect gooey consistency courtesy of their radiator), her awkwardness of learning to play field hockey under the tutelage of an insane coach, the sinking feeling she gets as she realizes that she's one of the very few students at Wexford who haven't been ruthlessly groomed for success from the cradle onward. You've got the obligatory British humor and quirky characters and the "keep calm and carry on" attitude in the face of rising terror.

The intriguing life-and-death climax ties up the essential plot points of this first book in a way that satisfies the reader while laying the groundwork for book two, something that many published trilogies (complete or partial) have been unable to pull off and which I find cheat the reader, intentionally or not. It's going to feel like a long wait until the next book in the series is released, but that just means I will have plenty of time to plan a nice, cheery location in which to read it--preferable a cozy nook that gets lots of morning light!

If you like Cassandra Clare, Holly Black, or Sarah Rees Brennan's work, take The Name of the Star out for a spin.  Just make sure you bring it back before dark or else be prepared to keep watch over your shoulder when twilight falls.

28 October 2011

Halloween in New England

I've lived in various small towns and one city in four regions of the US (the midwest, the deep South, the mid-Atlantic, and New England), but it wasn't until I moved to Massachusetts that I saw just how deeply beloved the Halloween holiday can be.  With Mississippi's high concentration of Southern Baptists, there was always a sense of an uneasy detente on October 31--there weren't lots of lawn decorations but there was a proliferation of Haunted Houses.  Wisconsin saw lots of haunted hayrides and pumpkins, of course. I lived in North Carolina during grad school, and I confess those years are sometimes a blur in my memory, but here in Massachusetts the lawn decor reaches new highs each year.  Maybe it's because of the tradition of witchcraft and witch persecution in Salem that makes New Englanders embrace this holiday like no other--that's the only guess I can think of.  So while the rest of the country (at least those parts where I have lived) goes all out for the winter holidays (and let's face it--it's primarily Christmas), here in the kingdom of the yankee, it's Halloween that folks put their efforts into. 

image NOT mine. found at happyhints.com
And I'm not talking about those large, glowing, and expensive blow-up structures that hit the scene within the last 8-10 years or so and which have become increasingly popular with each round of holidays--no, those are for the amateur (and for those with far more money than sense).  I'm talking DIY graveyard scenes and mechanical zombies and grim reapers that actually take some creativity and effort.  There's a house I pass each day on my way to and from work.  They don't decorate for any other holiday except Halloween (a 12-ft diameter peace sign limned in fairy lights all year round not withstanding), but every fall they handcraft a dozen or so ghosts to hang from a tree in their yard, lit up an night with an otherworldly glow, dancing on the breeze.

But just down the street from me there is a house that deserves a little extra recognition.  They've got lots of store-bought items, 'tis true, but they're arranged lovingly in little tableaux in their front yard, and I shot a few photos to share with y'all, taken by day and again at night.  These folks deserve a little recognition, don't you think?

See how they've got the central circle of ghosts dancing around the cauldron?  Two discrete graveyards, a grim reaper, giant spiders, what is quite possibly a banshee lurking in the tree, and even an upside-down spiderweb-wrapped victim hanging from the middle of the doorway?  These folks clearly mean bidness!

As above, but at nightfall

Close-up of Grim reaper, the spiders, and the spiders' victim
Ahhh, yes. That's what I'm talking about.  New Englanders might toss out a few strings of lights at Christmas and consider their work done, but for Halloween they go all out.  I love that. 

25 October 2011

Book Review: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

From the little I knew about Lolita before I picked it up, it was not really a book I ever wanted to read.  But while I'm not above judging a book by its cover, I decided that I shouldn't judge Lolita without at least dipping into it first.  Many people I know love this book.  Writer friends and acquaintances frequently include it on their Top Ten lists.  Plus I've been saying to myself that I need to start reading a little Russian literature.  How can one be well-read without reading any of the Russians?  One day while changing the sheets in our guest bedroom I noticed the Vintage paperback edition of Lolita on the shelf and said to myself, What the hell? It helped that this one was only 300 pages long--compared to looking down the barrel of War & Peace, that's pretty short. I started the book that night and had to force myself several times throughout to finish it. My husband kept teasing me about it: "you must really love that book, the way you're tearing through it."  But he couldn't be more wrong.  I was appalled, almost from start to finish.  What I found inside these pages was actually far worse than what I had imagined.

If, as many people claim, the intention of literature is to disturb, then by golly, this book is literature. But that's a load of codswallop, in my opinion.  I think great literature can be disturbing, but for me, the point of reading is to create empathy. And it's not that I turn away from disturbing fiction.  I have long admired works by Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye and Beloved), Cormac McCarthy (all of 'em) and D. M Thomas (The White Hotel), and they're nothing if not disturbing.  But they're also full of humanity, depth, spirit, and redemption. 

Lolita started off well enough for me, dubious confession from the narrator aside. Humbert Humbert falls in love with a girl at the seaside and has his first sexual encounter with her.  Fine.  Annabel is "a few months my junior," as Humbert recounts.  Annabel's premature death results in what can only be called arrested development, because thereafter Humbert is only sexually attracted to young girls.  So far, it's about what I expected.

But then Humbert receives a peculiar inheritance that stipulates he must live in America to benefit, and shortly thereafter the bile rose in my throat on a regular basis.  He only boards with a certain Mrs. Haze after seeing her daughter sunbathing in the backyard.  From there he keeps a diary of his lustful thoughts about Dolores, whom he calls Lolita.   She, in turn, has a crush on handsome Humbert. One day when they're alone he pulls her onto his lap and masturbates against her.  But it's when he fantasizes about a sleeping pill strong enough that he could rape Lolita without waking either her or her mother that I grew most disgusted.  He goes so far as to experiment with different strengths of pills and is disappointed that they don't seem to work.

Ugh--fast forward through Humbert's marriage to Mrs. Haze and her subsequent death. He is now Lolita's sole guardian, and after that point he molests the girl on a daily basis and threatens her with dark tales of deprivation and group foster care to hold her silence.  And yet Humbert persistently sees himself as the victim in their scenario: "There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child." Yeah, poor guy.

Long story short: they take a year-long road trip, staying in a different motel each night so that nobody will suspect Humbert of raping his step daughter. And so that Lolita will not know anybody well enough to confide what is happening to her.  Eventually they settle down and she goes to an all-girls boarding school.  When she wants to go out with her girlfriends, Humbert requires extra sexual favors from her and he gets upset when she performs desultorily. Huh. Go figure. Then she's in a play at school and then he abducts her and they go on another long road trip.  One night Lolita gets so sick she must be hospitalized and Humbert, in his usual martyred voice says, "giving up all hope of intercourse, I wrapped her in a laprobe." Helluva guy, that Humbert.

When Lolita is abducted/rescued from the hospital by a man claiming to be her uncle, Humbert  spends the rest of his inheritance criss-crossing the US trying to find them. He doesn't.  But one day he gets a note from Lolita asking for money--she's pregnant and she needs money to move to Alaska.  Humbert shows up, with murderous thoughts, and only gives up the money in exchange for the name of the person who liberated her, whom he tracks down and kills. The end.

So, what I want to know is how this book has become such a milestone of American letters, so canonized, so revered? The cover of the book proclaims that Lolita is "the only convincing love story of our century (Vanity Fair)." Um, did they read the same book I did? This is a novel dedicated to the abomination of love.  I wonder if the same reviewer would call Mein Kampf "the only convincing political tract of our century."

Nabokov is frequently regarded as "one of the twentieth century's master prose stylists" (from the back cover), and there were times when I thought the writing was quite good.  And of course the fact that he is so facile with a language beyond his native tongue is a remarkable feat and praiseworthy all on its own. But there are also long passages where the text meanders so much that it's hard to tell up from down.  Here's one such example, where Humbert is describing nymphets, the word he coins to describe those girls on the cusp of reaching sexual maturity, to whom he exclusively attracted:
"Neither are good looks a criterion; and vulgarity, or at least what a given community terms so, does not necessarily impair certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the nymphet from such coevals of hers as are incomparably more dependent on the spatial world of synchronous phenomena than on that intangible island of entranced time where Lolita plays with her likes."

For this reader, at least, the prose does not elevate the subject to the point of literature, and I confess it bothers me still, three weeks after completing this novel, that the sexual abuse and coercion of children is somehow legitimized by this book's canon status.  It's exactly not that I'm upset that books like this are published--I believe in the free market and publishing works uncensored.  It's the fact that important writers, even feminist writers, elevate the pedestal this book stands on that bothers me.  If it were instead a cult classic, maybe something along the lines of Bret Easton Elli's American Psycho, another book that I know would disturb me and thus will never read, I could rest more easily. 

I know that many of my blog's followers must have read this book.  I'd love you to engage me a dialogue about Lolita with your thoughts on the subject, as I feel fairly sure I hold a minority view on this novel.

24 October 2011

Book (P)Review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Gorgeous cover, no? And it's shiny and gold!
Wow.  Amazing. Stupendous.  Beautiful.  Heartbreaking.  

Okay, is that enough of a review for debut novel The Song of Achilles, by classics scholar Madeline Miller?  Because I feel that anything else I say about it won't do it justice.  It's astonishing.  The writing is marvelous. The characters, like Athena from her father's head, leap fully-formed from their pages.  

All right, I'll at least try to tell you what this book is all about.  In Miller's words, from the back of the advance reading copy I read: "I had always been especially moved by Achilles, and his desperate grief over the loss of his companion Patroclus. But who was Patroclus? I searched the ancient texts for every mention of his name and discovered an amazing man: exile and outcast, loyal and self-sacrificing, compassionate in a world where compassion was in short supply.  I had not thought The Iliad had a love story; I was wrong."

Song of Achilles, then, is the story of Achilles and Patroclus, narrated by the latter.  It's a love story and a war story, and these twin narratives weave in and around each other to the point that they're impossible to separate. This is like no book I've read before! I never would have thought that there was any book that could both keep me up all hours to finish it AND send me straight to the bookstore to purchase a copy of The Iliad to read back-to-back with it. This book is beautifully imagined and written. Clearly the Greek classics are NOT dead, not with Madeline Miller at the helm. Brava! 

On a completely random sidenote: the character of Odysseus is *exactly* like what Remus Lupin would have been like, had he been sorted into Slytherin.  So yes, Odysseus is the amalgamation of my favorite two DADA teachers!

I raved about this book to my husband, which piqued his interest.  Then I forced suggested that he read it on vacation last week.  He did and he was a bloody mess about it.  The story engaged him to the point that he was distant over dinner conversation.  And forget about talking to him in the wake of the conclusion--he was a weeping shell of a man* over breakfast that morning!  I trust I don't really give anything away when I remind readers that Greek stories are usually tragic or comic, and that this one ain't comic, and we know what happens in tragedies. 

Now I'm off to go read Homer and his many epithets.... 

*not that there's anything wrong with being a weeping shell of a man, or the fact that it was pretty much hard to differentiate that morning from any other day, given that weeping is actually a distinguishing feature of my gentle-souled DH. Hey--that's not a bad epithet, come to think of it!

22 October 2011

Book Review: The Possessed by Elif Batuman

In an effort to bring more non-fiction reading to my life, I bought a copy of Elif Batuman's book of essays to read on my vacation.  The cover and the subtitle, Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Love Them, convinced me that these would be just the thing.  Perhaps I would have enjoyed this book more if I had actually read any of the Russian books contained therein; perhaps I'm really just a lowbrow reader masquerading as a book snob.  Which is not to say I didn't enjoy this book at all.  I did.  I just happened to enjoy the introduction and the back cover more than the actual essays.

When a book has these words on the back cover, one has to think that much humor and hijinks among international literature will ensue: "If you're going to read just one book about conference planning, Isaac Babel, Leo Tolstoy, boys' leg contests, giant apes, Uzbek poetry, the life of the mind and the resignation of the sould--seek no farther: THIS IS THE BOOK FOR YOU!!!"

Promising, no? But for me, at least, this book fell short of my expectations.  I was expecting something much more consistently (and frequently) funny.  Not long essays about planning a Russian lit conference  with Isaac Babel's last living relatives , or living in Samarkand, or the Uzbek language and its maddening similarities to Turkish.  All worthy subjects, I have no doubt.  But apparently I would have preferred to read them if they'd been penned by Bill Bryson, David Sedaris, or J. Maarten Troost, three very funny non-fiction writers.

People who have actually read Babel, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy (and perhaps those not reading the book on a beach in the Virgin Islands) will enjoy this book, I have no doubt.  And perhaps I will even give it another spin one day.  But not today.

21 October 2011

Book (P)Review: The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston

Caroline Preston's  book is a little unusual amidst the world of adult novels--the only reasonable comp I can think of would be the Griffin & Sabine books by Nick Bantock.  It's not quite like the graphic novels we're already familiar with, but it's not entirely dissimilar, either.

It's a gentle book, an old-fashioned book, both in the best senses of the words.  Frankie leaves home in Cornish, NH, in the 1920s and makes her way first to Vassar College, then to NYC and Paris, before she returns home to Cornish.  The text is minimal; instead we get copious amounts of vintage memorabilia and ephemera to illustrate Frankie's journey.

Along the way sheltered Frankie encounters romantic love (doomed and otherwise), privilege, antisemitism, and modernism for the first time in her life, and she's also witness to many important events of the 1920s, such as the publication of Ulysses & The Sun Also Rises, Charles Lindbergh's trans-atlantic flight, and the bohemian expat life of Paris's Left Bank.  (Frankie lives in an apartment above the iconic bookstore, Shakespeare & Co, and I was interested to read that its propietor, Sylvia Beach was the real-life godmother of the author's mother.)

This is an utterly charming adult novel that will have a wide crossover appeal for teen girls. I read an ARC, which is reproduced only in black & white, but I know the finished copy will be very pleasing to the eye with its full color spreads.  Adriana Trigiani called this book "a literary bottle rocket--loaded with whimsy, pizzazz, and heart" and I concur.  This book will be published in November by Ecco, and I received a galley of this book from my sales rep, Anne DeCourcey.  I look forward to meeting the author when she's at the Odyssey Bookshop next month!

20 October 2011

Book (P)Review: The Midwife of Venice

Lordy, it's been so long since I wrote a book review that I'm a little ashamed.  My most recent posts have all been travel related; on the other hand, they also earned me more hits on my blog than all of my book posts combined.  Not sure what to make of that.

But I digress. Last night I finished a book that I had started reading before vacation but didn't take along with me 'cause it was already half-read and who wants to waste good reading time on vacation finishing a book that they'd already started?  Or maybe that's just me, then.  I'm speaking of Roberta Rich's The Midwife of Venice, a somewhat commercial work of historical fiction that is slightly outside the realm of my usual reading.  It's a quick and easy read--in fact, I'd be tempted to call it light, but for the darkness the author occasionally frequently dips into. 

It's the story of Hannah, a Jewish midwife living in...wait for it...Venice in the last quarter of the 16th century.  By decree, Jews are not allowed to assist at the births of Christians, but when a certain noblewoman is on the verge of dying in childbirth, the Comte himself visits Hannah and begs her to help his wife. (For somehow Hannah's reputation as a miracle-birther has made its way out of the ghetto and to the ears of the royalty of Venezia.  Yup. That's right.)  Hannah's Rabbi forbids her to go, but help she must. 

Meanwhile, Hannah's husband Isaac is telling his side of the story in alternating chapters.  He's sailed for Levant to seek their fortune but instead has been taken prisoner in Malta and sold as a slave.  Nobody thinks it will end well for Isaac--not the wickedly cruel slave trade who buys him nor the slightly-suspect nun who tried to buy him back, not the silkworms incubating in his pocket nor the hot-cha-cha educated lady of Malta who lusts after him. 

Meanwhile, back in Venice, Hannah does attend the Comtessa's birth, saving the lives of both mother and babe.  Happy ending, right?  Wrong!  Because the birth of the babe now cheats the Comte's villainous and conniving brothers out of the inheritance they consider rightfully theirs.  Bad things ensue for both Hannah in Venice and Isaac in Malta.

Basically this book is chock full of the good stuff (or possibly the bad stuff, depending on how un-cliched you like your fiction).  It's got slavery, villainy, plotting, scheming, anti-semitism, misogyny, courtesans, accusations of witchcraft, the plague, murder, daring rescues, Ottoman wetnurses, and even the Inquisition--which I actually was half-expecting because, you know, it's Venezian and not Spanish. 

As I said above, this book is eminently readable if not exactly literary.  I fully expect to hear soon that the film rights have been sold and that lots of beautiful people have been cast and that it will win awards for best costume, etc. I received an advance reading copy of this book from my lovely sales rep John Muse and it will be published in the US by Gallery Books in spring 2012.  It has already been published in Canada by Random House.

18 October 2011

St John: Last day and parting thoughts (and photos!)

Trunk Bay on our last day
Since we had packed things up the night before, we had enough time to go to one beach on our day of departure.  We chose Trunk Bay for its ease and beauty, so after stopping again at the Deli Grotto for breakfast and beach snacks, we found a spot under some sea grapes on the far end of the beach.  This time the water was a little choppy and there were red flags flying.  The snorkel trail was closed and the lifeguards didn't really want people swimming very far out, either.  In my opinion the chop wasn't that bad and if it were any other beach without facilities or life guards, people would have been enjoying the water more and not worrying.  We got there around 8:00 am and we seemed to be only the second group of people to arrive.  By the time we left around 11:00, more folks were coming in. There was one couple who set up not too far from us down the beach.  They were on a Carnival cruise on St. Thomas and I overheard them say that they wished they had stayed behind and not come all the way to St. John. 
Self Portrait--not sure which beach
Grounds at Gallows Point
Gallows Point was gracious enough to extend us a late check-out, so we returned to our room, showered and put our traveling clothes on again.  I dropped off Casey and DH at the ferry dock with our bags and returned our Suzuki to Cool Breeze rentals.  When I explained to the man that I had looked all over Cruz Bay to no avail for a gas station to fill the tank back up, he asked me how much was left in the car.  When I replied that there was a little more than half a tank of gasoline left, he waved me on and said no problem and that they wouldn't charge extra for it.  Thanking him, I walked back to the ferry dock where we sipped a daiquiri while waiting to book our ferry tickets. We were a little quiet, a little glum on the short 15-minute crossing, and that continued for the rest of the day.  On St. Thomas our driver took us on a different route from Red Hook to the airport than what we took on the way there, so we saw a little more of the island, including that huge Carnival ship in port.  It seemed to dwarf everything around it.  St Thomas is also very pretty, but we definitely saw more crowded areas on that ride than on our first one--it wouldn't be my first choice of vacation spots, or even the top ten to be frank, but it's no longer on my anti-vacation list. 

A resident at Gallows Point

Just cruisin' the pool area
We had expected a madhouse at the airport so we were pleasantly surprised to find it relatively empty--exactly what I would expect when traveling to the Caribbean in early October, and exactly what we never experienced on St. which was surprisingly busy.  Flights home were uneventful and by the time we tumbled into our beds at home around 1:30 am, we were happy to be back home with our dog and cats, with St. John receding like a pleasant dream into our memories. 

Sunset seen from Gallows Point

The snorkel deck at Gallows Point
A few thoughts in parting: St. John is overall perhaps the most beautiful island I've every stayed on, with the minor exception of the Piton region on St. Lucia, which is so stunning in its topography that it's rather jaw-dropping.  Up until this vacation, I would have given that honor to Grenada but it's the infrastructure on St. John that edges it ahead in my mind.  I loved that the roads were both well-marked with signage and in excellent repair--and always wide enough for two cars to pass with ease.  The driving wasn't at all intimidating like it is on Grenada, when you have to worry about crazy vehicular audacity from oncoming traffic on those hilly switchbacks.  I loved the long stretches of light sand, backed by palm groves and then the mountains of St. John itself--the lushness and the topography combined are really, really gorgeous.  My husband still prefers Anguilla's beaches overall, but with the exception of Shoal Bay East on Anguilla, I think St. John's beaches are prettier. 

Here and below: more shots from Maho

This might sound a bit like a broken record, but I was constantly surprised how crowded St. John felt in this lowest of all low season periods.  We generally travel in low season for a number of reasons: work schedules, finances, and not least because there are usually fewer tourists.  This place was more crowded than traveling to Jamaica in January was for us.  I'm not sure I'd be at all interested in going to St. John in high season.  I suppose part of the reason it feels crowded is tied into why so many people love the island: when 2/3 of the island is devoted to the National Park system, the remaining 1/3 is necessarily going to feel a little lacking in elbow room.  I also realize that we only visited the north shore beaches and that we were traveling over a weekend, which are the more heavily traveled areas and times.  I really would love to return again with my husband so that we can explore at our own pace and so that I can do some *real* snorkeling, not just the little bit I did last weekend. 

Possibly Gibney beach? Seen from the main beach at Hawksnest

Annaberg ruins

Epiphyte on a wall at Annaberg

Close-up of a wall at Annaberg. Love these textures!
The weather was perfect for our trip.  Lots of blue skies and white, fluffy clouds during the day, steady breeze off the water, and heavy rain overnight.  We did get caught out in it one night over dinner, and while we didn't especially like dining in the rain with our food getting wet, we rather enjoyed walking home in the rain.  The mosquitos, sand fleas, and no-see-ums were pernicious despite the breeze, so we had to be assiduous about applying repellent.  In fact, we went through one entire bottle of Off in the 5 nights/4 days we were there, and we still each came home with a couple of dozen bites on our bodies.  While we did run the a/c for three out of the four nights on our trip, it wouldn't have been strictly necessary in order to sleep comfortably because the breezes off the harbor, combined with architecture built to take advantage of the winds, kept things comfortable.  We mostly used the a/c because the music in Cruz Bay was so loud that to have all of the windows open would have been to invite the techno melodies into the room in addition to the bass thumps that we heard and felt no matter what. 

Leinster Bay
I cannot say enough good things about Gallows Point.  The location is outstanding, and even my husband, who doesn't like walking, didn't mind the short walk into town each night for dinner.  We loved that it meant we could drink as much as we wanted and be responsible about it because we could just walk home in the evenings.  The views over the harbor were pretty, and while it would have been nice to have a sunset view, in our case I'm really happy we saved the money and stayed in the less expensive accommodations.  Our "classic" room  of 13C had yet to be remodeled, though I suspect that they got a start with the downstairs bathroom, which looked and felt newer than anything else in the apartment.  The appliances, while not the sleek and shiny new ones in the newly remodeled units, were all in good repair and worked really well.  Casey said that the sofa bed she slept on was pretty comfortable for a sofa bed; our mattress in the loft bedroom was the only thing that I felt really reflected its age.  The towels, both bath and beach, were soft and fluffy, and they also provide soaps, lotions, shampoo, and conditioner.  They also started us out with two bottles of Ting and a gallon of bottled water, which was a nice touch, and they set you up with a few days' worth of coffee making accoutrements.  The little shop on site, Every Ting, had the essentials for light provisioning, including wine, beer, booze, sodas, and a few breakfast items.

Another Gallows sunset
Window shopping  one evening in Cruz Bay
We also really liked the pool, hot tub, and deck areas of Gallows.  There were always places in either shade or sun, and the pool was a great way of transitioning between the day at the beach and going out on the town for dinner.  There are picnic tables, a couple of hammocks, and two gazebos with hammock swings scattered throughout the property so that you can make the most of the gorgeous weather, and I loved the way the buildings were designed so that you could throw wide open the windows and doors and thus bring the outdoors in to your room.  The snorkeling off the property is quite decent, and they have built a metal ramp out over the water for easy entry and exit for snorkeling. 

DH and Casey at Cooper Island, BVI

Casey at the far end of the main Hawksnest beach
The staff were all kind, but some in particular stopped a moment to chat with us about this, that, & the other and we enjoyed making those connections.  The property itself is very well-kept and attractive, with lush foliage and trees that were tamed but without seeming too manicured or fussy, with paths meandering here and there among the buildings, and birds darting from one tree to the next.  There's even a resident cat named Mask who came to visit us a few times, and one morning he even woke me up crying at the back door to come in. He's a sweet and affectionate tuxedo cat who seems to know no strangers. There are even Mask calendars for sale at Every Ting that one of the condo owners puts together each year. 
Taxis lined up at the ferry dock in Cruz Bay
Flying the colors

Waiting to depart St. John

Arriving in Red Hook
I liked St. John very much but at this point I cannot tell whether it will turn out to be a deep-seated loved affair or not.  Clearly only a return trip will help me decide!  I have no regrets about it as our destination for this trip, despite the fact that I would do things differently in the future. Even with the ferry crossing it doesn't take all day to get there, like Grenada, and airfare deals into St. Thomas are easier to find than to other islands, so I suspect we'll return again with the next two years or so.  I'd prefer to go in the summer when the full complement of restaurants will be open, and I think it would be a great place for spending a week or so, plus some time in the British Virgin Islands (which at this point I still prefer over the USVI).  My husband generally prefers contemplating a clean and clear horizon, but like me, he is mesmerized by the views of this archipelago tapering off into the distance on all sides. Until we mark our return, however, I will have to make do with these photos and our memories and island daydreams.
Just another gorgeous view

17 October 2011

St John: Day 4

Early morning light at Gallows
We had promised ourselves that Sunday would be our day of rest and that we'd sleep as late as we wanted with no rush to get to the beach.  I still got up at 6:30 to make coffee, but this time I took my book and a mug out onto the grounds to take advantage of the hammock swings and the quiet.  I made my way back to 13C after circumnavigating the property, where I mentally made notes about which buildings I'd request for future stays.  It's a toss-up for me: the harbor side had much better breezes, at least during our visit, but the noise from Cruz Bay was pretty loud each night, to the point where we put earplugs in to sleep.  One night the noise ended around 11:00 but another night it was closer to midnight. 

Rocky headland at Gallows
Anyway, I got back to the room where we breakfasted on bagels & cream cheese.  NB: Gallows Point website says that each unit comes equipped with, among other things, a toaster, but ours didn't have one.  A quick call to the front desk remedied that for us within about 5 minutes.  They also brought us some coffee filters when I mentioned that the room seemed equipped with everything else needed for a morning cuppa joe: coffee maker, coffee, sugar, Splenda, and even Coffee Mate creamers in three flavors. Some travelers rate properties by how perfect they are in, but to me a better measure of any hotel or accommodation is how well they take care of issues when things are not perfect, and Gallows did very well on that point. 

Gorgeous Caneel Bay, seen from an overlook

After breakfast we stopped again at the Deli Grotto to pick up some sandwiches and snacks  to eat on the beach (turkey fresca this time, which was a very good sandwich) and we made our way to Hawksnest.  There was a surf advisory up that day, but we decided to give it a go anyway.  It was already fairly crowded but we managed to find a spot of shade under some sea grapes near the western end of the beach.  Tried snorkeling, but there was too much silt in the water churned up by the surf.  Visibility was poor and so I just gave up.  We stayed there for a couple of hours before the crowds really showed up (I was told later that there was a memorial service that day on the beach) moving onward to Maho Bay, where we were lucky enough to get the same spot under the sea grapes as before.  The water there was also pretty murky, but the school of fry that had been farther up the beach on our previous visit were now right in front of us on the beach, so we enjoyed watching the large tarpon (turns out that they weren't barracuda after all) cutting swathes through the fry.  We got in the water and tried to snorkel amongst them but we could barely see anything.  Too bad!  If nothing else, I will have to return to St. John so that I can snorkel to my heart's content.

Casey at Hawknest
DH under de seagrapes

Gorgeous Hawksnest
We alternated between reading and being in the water for a few hours and we even had the entertainment of a local donkey for a while who wandered up the beach and stopped immediately behind our grove of sea grapes to hang out for a while.  After that, we packed up and headed to the Annaberg ruins to make some photos.  NB: It is illegal to park on the beach-side of the road on Rte 10.  We had done just that, falling in line with the cars in front of us, but by the time we left, there were two police cars with flashing lights trying to sort it all out.  Apparently it *is* okay to park on the woodsy side of Rte 10, which doesn't make sense to me since there's a much smaller shoulder on that side of the road, but they didn't ask my opinion.  I find that is frequently what is wrong with the world today. 

The Annaberg ruins were a short drive away and we were smitten both with the views and the remains of the ruins.  It was the first place on St. John that we had reached that we had entirely to ourselves.  After about 30 minutes or a little longer, a group of about 15 people walked up, so we made our way down the wooden stair walkway--it's very pretty descending through the woods like that, but beware of insects--we were all itching by the time we got back down!

Sugarmill ruins

I think this is Leinster Bay below the ruins

Be sure to wear your bug spray here!
From Annaberg we drove "home" where Casey and I had a quick dip in the pool to cool off before dressing and heading into town to do the obligatory shopping for family.  We had fun poking around the shops but even I, after my many travels in the region, was a little shell-shocked over some of the prices.  At home we're lucky enough to live near Northampton, a town that vies for "Best Small Arts Town" every year and seems to win over Santa Fe, NM, about half the time.  Northampton, MA, is full of art galleries, jewelry boutiques, and other shops showcasing local artisans, and the necklace that I saw in St. John for about $200 (small cultured pearls and some Swarovski crystal in a very simple design) would have been less than half that at home.  What's more, I have friends who make jewelry so I have a pretty good idea of the costs of materials and the time it would take to make a necklace like the one I saw--the prices in St. John are necessarily high because of the huge overhead, but I sure don't want to pay them!  My only purchases were some spices from St. John Spice and a lava-lava (known to the western world as a sarong) for my DH that he had admired one day. 

One of many colorful doors on the island

You can also see the island via scooter
Dinner that night was our special dress-up meal to celebrate all of our birthdays.  We had wanted very much to try Asolare but they are closed on Sundays, so we looked at menus online and called around to discover that Waterfront Bistro was open for bidness.  We truly hit culinary gold, as this was by far the best meal of our trip and the only one that was from start to finish up to Anguilla standards--our new bar against which we measure Caribbean restaurants.  We started off with a round of drinks, then moved on to our first course: Caesar salad for Casey, an arugula salad with pistachios, shaved fennel, and a mint vinaigrette for me, and a marvelous brown sugar-encrusted pan seared pork belly for DH.  All were fabulous and a prelude of good things to come.  We proceeded to French onion soup, some rock lobster crepes for me, and five spice duck confit with port soaked cherries and wilted arugula for DH (all of us had small plates as our entrees, FYI).  Another round of drinks, and then a dark chocolate mousse dessert for Casey and a Painkiller cheesecake for me.  Considering how dark and rich the chocolate mousse was, it was huge.  Even with DH and me sticking our forks in from time to time, we still left half of it on the plate.  In contrast, my cheesecake was fairly light and the graham cracker crust was simply redolent with nutmeg.  Missy, a formally trained sommelier and former employee of Ina Gardner, was our server for the evening and she was terrific--and also the spittin' image of Julianne Moore in profile.  For food quality, invention, service, ambience, and overall value, Waterfront Bistro earns top marks from us: A.  I just wish more restaurants we had visited were similarly praise-worthy.

Waterfront Bistro by daylight

A denser, more chocolatey mousse cannot  be found
Painkiller cheesecake

Good to the last sip!