My reading vacation

I’ve set aside, for a time at least, the digital reader’s copies I so enjoy–but which had become something of a burden. I’d have several books in my queue, schedule my reviews based on publication date, start reading, and–too many times lately–I’d find myself with a clunker. I don’t mind reviewing a book and mentioning  a few reservations about plot or style, but I just can’t in good conscience trash a book outright. I apply my ten percent rule. If by the time I’ve read ten percent of the book it hasn’t made me at least a little curious to continue, I stop, share my thoughts with the publisher, and move on.

girl waits with gun
So for at least November, I took a little reading vacay, ordering up a few things I everyone else had read, but me–I’d been too busy reading advanced copies! And I’ve loved having books in my hand again–ones with real pages I can fold down to mark my spot (yes, I’m that person!) or lie face down opened to the page I left off (I can hear the groans now…). I’ve loved again a TBR stack that’s paper, not digital, and I adore the cover art. Or maybe it’s just all that color–my Kindle is a basic e-reader, black and white, with no frills.

So what have I read this Fall? I did proper reviews of My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry and News of the World. Keepers both. I read Girl Waits With Gun which was a hoot–and deserves its own proper review sometime soon.

For fun I’m reading John Grisham’s Sycamore Row. I do like a good John Grisham once in a while (and I’ve learned it doesn’t pay to file a class action suit, so there’s that)  and this one’s got it all. Race, class, good cops lawyers, bad cops lawyers, a hand-written will, and $23 million on the table. Predictable, but very readable.rosie

I am either proud–or ashamed–to say I’m probably the last person in the U.S. to read The Girl on the Train. And it was just what I needed it to be: a compelling, yet undemanding story I could let unravel. It lived up to its Gone Girl comparison, but with characters I didn’t find repulsive.

And oh my goodness! The Rosie Project was the dearest thing I’ve read in quite some time. A sweet little nugget of a book, like finding that chocolate caramel when you were expecting a raspberry creme. Once Thanksgiving break begins, I’ll bring out Where’d You Go, Bernadette. The New York Times called it “comedy heaven” and I’m holding them to it.

It’s been a fairly relaxing reading vacation so far–but someday soon I’ll return to the work-a-day world of new releases.


Nearly two years ago I was stuck in an epic way. I knew in my head that cultivating a spirit of gratitude was the key to moving out of my funk, but keeping a Gratitude Journal just isn’t me. (Read about my experience here.) So for the past two years, I’ve kept a list–recycling it twice–using Ann Voskamp’s Joy Dare. And I love it, I do. Reading over my monthly lists makes me smile.

But I wanted to keep my focus fresh, so when I found this TedTalk on YouTube earlier this week, I knew it was a perfect fit. There’s nothing extraordinary about Sarah Trimmer’s list–it’s all in the application, I know.  Like getting a new pair of glasses, I hope this list helps me see life crisp and clear.

So I’m off on a new adventure in thankfulness, looking to find moments of grace every day. Join me–and start and end your days happy.

Why I’ll remember My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry

My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry
Fredrik Backman
Simon & Schuster

my grandmother asked me to tell you she's sorryI was enchanted by Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove and Brit Marie Was Here. But with features in the New York Times and thousands of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, there’s probably not much left to say about My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry that hasn’t already been said. (And, yes, I did read them out of order!) So, instead, I’ll tell you why I’ll remember Elsa and Granny and the wurse and the Monster and Halfsie for as long as I have memory.

I’ll remember that there is something elemental (dare I say spiritual?) about the longing of our hearts for story. That we often make sense of the world around us through story, and sometimes the most important Truths we learn are fiction. I’ll remember that some of us understand ourselves more deeply by meeting people who don’t exist and live in places that can’t be found.

I’ll remember that sometimes a Love just doesn’t fit any longer. When worn every day for however many years, its elbows thin, the collar frays. We grow and stretch and one morning we try to slip Love on for yet another day and the buttons don’t close over our belly. The sleeves hitch up above our wrists. And the Love that was once such a delight to wear and fit so very well … just doesn’t.

I’ll remember that grandmothers have been given the precious gift of the Do Over. We can adore our littles unabashedly, but still push them (sometimes hard, even) and not suffer the estrangement that so often divides parent and child. Sometimes grandmas regret choices they made or words they couldn’t take back with their own children. “Mistakes were made!” they cry out. And grannies hope that the hearts of those grownup children start to soften (just a little even) in the presence of the love between grands and little

So there you have it. A grandmother who made amends as only age could allow and a little girl who learned love never really leaves us in a story that was more real than not.

Write now

I’ve amused myself with this little blog for eight years now. For most of that time, blogging was a delightful diversion, a pastime for those long summer days.

And then suddenly, it wasn’t.

Thinking I’d been bitten by the blogging bug, I saw blogging conferences in my future and read everything I could about the business of blogging. I poked around the sidebars of blogs I read for book bloggers who were of my own heart. (Networking, I learned, was key.) I hemmed and hawed about participating in blog hops and challenges. Then I bought a StudioPress template and my domain name and migrated from Blogger  to a self-hosted site. I even hired a web designer to help with the back-end technicalities about which I knew nothing.

@Petr Kratochvil

And then I realized that what I really wanted to do was simply write. Now if I’m a picky reader (which I am), you had better believe I’m an even pickier writer. Writers are Anne Tyler and Paulette Jiles. Fredrik Backman and Alan Bradley. Barbara Kingsolver, for goodness sake! But word by word, paragraph by paragraph my thinking shifted. I found I wasn’t as interested in developing my brand as I was in playing with words. I didn’t want to market myself as much as I wanted to get the characters who have played in my head for so many years on the page. I took one Writing Workshop, then another. I attended Sunday morning Writing Circles. And every now and again I’d think oh-so-tentatively, “I’m a writer.”

Because a writer, after all, is someone who writes.

So write I will. No more and no less. There will be no e-books or POD books in my future any time soon. I won’t be distracted with my Klout score or scramble to get my post on Medium. For now I won’t worry about missing out on yet another NaNoWriMo–I’ve got bills to pay, papers to grade, lessons to plan. Because does the world really need another novel, or do I just need to write?

Those characters who’ve lived in my head? They’re making their way onto the page, peeking out every now and then from a workshop piece. It’s slow going, but there’s no rush. I only need to write.

With special thanks and gratitude to Emily and Pat and Brenda who helped me draft my way.

Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here:

News of the World: review

News of the World
Paulette Jiles
William Morrow

Blond and blue-eyed, little Johanna is a white girl by birth. But in her heart, she’s Cicada, captured at age six by the Kiowa Indians after her parents were killed in a raid. The tribe is the only family she can remember. Now she’s been rescued by a U.S. Agent, torn from her mother Three Spotted. She doesn’t speak English and she’s skittish as a deer in November. Terrified.

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd was a successful printer before the War took his business. With his wife dead and daughters grown, at seventy-one, he’s a man without an anchor. Restless (and penniless) he’s not content to live out his life under his son-in-law’s roof. But words are his news of the worldbusiness. And so he travels the southern U.S. reading newspapers to crowds in small towns. Admission, one dime.

He doesn’t want to transport Johanna to her aunt and uncle in Texas, but the Captain knows little girls. And both have lost family–they’re traveling into a future unknown, the two of them in mourning. So he buys an old wagon with Curative Waters lettered (rather presciently) across its panels, and they start on their way.

The chapters move like cloud-shadows over the Texas plains. Captain Kidd when he was simply Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a seventeen-year-old soldier promoted in the heat of battle. Johanna, Cho-henna, with a fleeting memory of grandfather, mother, a tree near the home that was no more. Jefferson who married the beautiful Maria Luisa from an old Spanish family in San Antonio and raised their daughters in her family home on the plaza. Cho-henna, wooden and stiff, as she’s left with her German Tante and Onkle in Texas. And the Captain, Kep-dun, wearily scanning the news by a lamp he sets on the podium at yet another reading in yet another dusty town. Alone.

Paulette Jiles has written what might be the most beautiful novel I’ve read all year. By turns poetic and raw, it’s a story–and an ending–I won’t soon forget. These might be the most memorable lines in the book: “Maybe life is just carrying news. Surviving to carry the news. Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says, it may have nothing to do wit us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end handed over, sealed.”

Carry your news, my Friend. Carry it well.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d: review

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d
Alan Bradley
Delacorte Press

thrice the brinded cat hath mew'dLittle Flavia is growing up.

In her previous adventure, The Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, as well as her new one, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, Flavia displays more poise and decorum than she ever thought possible. And she’s puzzled by a new-found tendency towards manners and small-talk. Flavia is twelve–and far from the little girl readers met eight books ago.

After only three months at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Canada, Flavia is on her way home again to Buckshaw. Dogger, Father’s Man Friday, meets her at the train station alone, and with sobering news: Colonel De Luce is in hospital. And it’s serious–pneumonia.

Out of sorts that she can’t yet visit her father, Flavia sets out the next morning for St. Tancred, to visit with the vicar and Cynthia. And a simple errand for Cynthia turns up a dead body, a witch, and a famous children’s book author. But of course it does, because Flavia never goes for more than a few pages without turning up some sort of fiendish business. (As if title, a line from the witches’ scene in Macbeth, didn’t already warn us.)

What follows is classic Flavia. She probes. She swabs. She presses the unsuspecting for information. She mixes a few chemicals, and voila! Case solved. Every time I start a Flavia De Luce mystery, I brace myself. Has the charm worn off? After all this time, will the Girl Detective disappoint?

And the answer is always that Flavia is just as charming and delightful as ever. But this novel holds more than one twist of fate. The mystery solved, of course, and one deeply personal to Flavia–a fate that will change her life forever.

Citizen Can

It started with a dispute over taxes. Or, rather, tax ordinance. My husband’s employer didn’t withhold city taxes because the shop was not in NECAA city limits, but we paid the full tax bill every April–never delinquent, paid in full. Bureaucracy being what it is, the city required we file an income estimate every quarter. No taxes collected, just the filing. Hubby let it slide–just paperwork, right?–and we got an official you’d-better-file-or-we’ll-sue-you letter. I kid you not.

We filed. But not before complaining loudly to our then-city commissioner: “This is how you treat your residents? No wonder folks are leaving the city! The taxes aren’t even due and you’ll sue us?! Senseless red tape! We’re outta here!”

His response?

“If you don’t like the status quo, work to change it. We need people like you to stay.”

A year later when a developer threatened apartments in the empty property behind our cul-de-sac, I couldn’t reach our area’s neighborhood association: the website hadn’t been updated in three years and the president’s phone number was disconnected. A neighborhood icon (also known as Mr. Wonderful in Our Fair City) did a little sleuthing. What he turned up? The neighborhood association president had moved to the ‘burbs–and tossed out all the association records from the previous several years.

So we tag-teamed with a few neighbors to fight a proposed development in the field bordering our cul-de-sac. And the commission listened to over 100 neighbors who came out to protest.

Then another neighbor, Liz, and I agreed to meet once a month. Technically, it might have been a coup because we called ourselves the Board right away. But the previous Board members were AWOL and we had dreams, so all’s fair. Any neighbor willing to say “Hey!” while walking the dog was fair game: “Want to serve on the Board?” Anyone willing to distribute newsletters was in: “Our next meeting is Thursday the 15th.” Someone dug up by-laws. We filed for 501c3 status. More folks signed on and after a year we had what the by-laws said was a quorum.

And then the fun started. Liz is a visionary. She saw the possibility in our nine square mile corner of the world and she knocked on just about every city door, it seemed: city planning, city manager, parks department, commissioners, law enforcement, and the board of education. I was the Mutt to her Jeff; the Bert to her Ernie, the Sam to her Frodo. (Actually, I’m a pretty good note-taker and question-asker, if I do say so myself.) When second developer threatened yet another property, she called the a local news. Then she got down to business and bent the ear of nonprofits and private investors.

Board members knocked on doors and asked local businesses to pitch in. We distribute 1500 newsletters twice each year. Put on our big boy pants and bought liability insurance. We throw a heck of a National Night Out with fire trucks and the SWAT team, face-painting and hot-dogs and organized an annual plant exchange. We adopted a fire house. Our annual meeting is well-attended and we even have a professionally designed logo and tag line for marketing. Who knows? There may be tee shirts in our future! And we finally have an active website again.

I finally get it. I understand that there’s no magic wand a government official can wave to make our cities and neighborhoods better–there’s just a lot of knocking on doors, talking to business owners, networking with city officials, and boring meetings. There’s no fairy dust that brings neighbors together like that 70’s Coke commercial–there’s just sweating under a tent and bagging popcorn for National Night Out, talking through a Powerpoint at meetings, handing out lollipops at the Plinko booth at a BBQ. And more boring meetings.

I’m tired of the “What’s-the-point-I-can’t-even-watch-the-news” naysayers. Don’t give me an “I-just-don’t-care-anymore.” The truth? Our elected officials have less impact on our lives than one might imagine. They don’t live next door–they don’t help dig out snow-covered fire hydrants–they can’t find lost dogs–and they certainly don’t care if you’ve got apartments in your backyard. Although I’ve stepped back from the board for a time, I’ll still find a way to contribute to Our Fair City. There will always be envelopes to stuff, doors to knock, and meetings to attend.

So enough with the whining already. Get out there, get busy. Roll up those sleeves. Make the world a better place–street-by-street–one neighborhood at a time. 

The Tea Planter’s Wife: review

The Tea Planter’s Wife (NetGalley)
Dinah Jeffries
Crown Publishing

Sometimes you’re just ready for a book, you know? The past week has been gray and rainy; the temperatures are slowly dropping. In the morning there’s even a bit of fog. So turning to a book set in a place far away and a time long ago felt so right.

tea planter's wifeOnly nineteen, the beautiful Gwen Hooper, travels alone to meet her husband Laurence in Ceylon. Theirs was a whirlwind romance after they met at a party in England, but home will be Laurence’s plantation off the coast of India. He’s the tea planter; she’s the wife. It’s 1925 and their life as colonials is one where races stay separate and each knows their place. The couple’s life is overshadowed by the death of Laurence’s first wife and her young son–and Laurence’s spoiled and meddling sister Verity.

But young love being what it is, Gwen and Laurence manage to find happiness until secrets threaten to destroy the life they’ve built. His secrets and hers. It’s an old story, with whispers of Rebecca and Jane Eyre, if only in mood–and two nights and a Saturday later, I put aside Dinah Jeffries’ The Tea Planter’s Wife with a tear or two.

And here’s what I’ll remember: that suspicions strip away tenderness and jealousy poisons; that secrets destroy love and shame eats away what little is left. I learned that the truth is a restorative and though scars may be very real, time will fade them.

Without a spoiler alert, I’m tongue-tied when it comes to the novel’s plot. Too much unraveling and it’s ruined. But I think it’s a sign of a good story that I was wrong about the Big Secret. Twice! The Tea Planter’s Wife is a satisfying read about a far off world with  people very much like ourselves.

The dirty little secret about school libraries

One day when I was in 2nd grade, the librarian and my teacher Mrs. Zimmerman whispered, heads together, by the counter when it was time for my class to leave. And then–wonder of wonders–I was allowed to stay, gifted a few extra minutes of library time. The rest of the children lined up and it was back down the hall to SRAs and spelling. For a couple weeks I could only choose from the shelves for “our hall” with their picture books and early readers. And then I hit the jackpot. Mrs. Zimmerman worked me quickly through a set of readers (Eight books with captivating plots I like: “Up, up, up. How far is up?” Are ya kiddin’ me?!) and when I had finished them all … I could choose any book from any shelf in that library.

school library
By Jgjournalist (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
I chose Tom Sawyer. Not a great choice for a seven-year-old, but I read it. I didn’t follow much of the plot, mind you, but my bookish little self just knew Tom Sawyer was an Important Book. The next week I put my pretensions aside and was hooked on Rummer Godden’s Doll’s House stories. Then Lois Lensky. And …

All because I had a teacher and a librarian with a roomful of books who fed the book worm that was me.

School librarians in my state are a dying breed–and many of their libraries are going the way of the dodo. Dwindling resources mean tight budgets and school administrators must find savings in every line item. They privatize the cafeteria. Outsource custodians. Subcontract busing. And many districts do away with their media specialists, or make do with only one librarian for the entire district. One.

It may be penny-wise, but it’s pound-foolish.

school library
Chris Hearn@Flickr

Today’s school librarians are no longer the Marion the Librarians of the past who shush-shushed us and carded books. Good media specialists understand curriculum so well they find teachers books that support math, science, and history instruction, making an abstract concept come alive. Good librarians spend hours pouring over catalogs, checking forums, connecting with local bookstores, and attending reading conferences so that their shelves are stocked with quality books by well-respected writers and illustrators.

So who is left to run the library when all the librarians are gone? Part-time parent volunteers. Maybe a paraprofessional if we’re lucky. Or, in the case of my high school … no one. After twenty years as a librarian, administration added an hour of teaching freshman World History to her day. Then two the next year. Oh, and continue to oversee the libraries of five schools in addition to your teaching load, will you? (Is it any wonder the poor woman retired after two years of this?) We have a grand remodeled media center with modular seating, comfy chairs, and carts full of laptops–but the books?

Oh, they are a sad, sad lot.

We’ve had no  systematic ordering in years. There may be some budgeting for library books at the building level, but if there is, no one has ever told me–or asked what books my students are reading or requesting. Fiction is supplemented with donations. The non-fiction is outdated. Biographies end in the Bush administration. If I take my kids down to choose a Reading For Enjoyment book, there’s not a whole lot of reading available for enjoyment. Let’s face it–kids like the latest, the hot titles, the latest buzz. Some take a Harry Potter or Twilight for the umpteenth time just to have something. (I say “take” because that’s what we do. There’s no check out process, no inventory that I know of–I have kids sign out their titles on a form I created, but, still. When kids return the books, I carry a few crates down to the library and put them on a cart where they sit until a student volunteer shelves them.

I try to excite my students about reading. Sing the praises of a good book. Lend them titles I bring from home or have collected over the years for my classroom. But it’s not the same. A classroom is, well, a classroom. It’s where we work and test, day in and day out.

But magic happens in a library. A distinct hush that whispers pleasure. Displays of Newbery winners, holiday books, mysteries. Posters on the walls. The sun warming a special nook, just perfect for reading. Student art in the windows. And “Do you know any good books?”

Then the special someone whose mission in life is to answer that one question springs into action–with a roomful of books to offer and all the time in the world.

Thanks for reading! To return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website, click here:

The Sea Wave: review

The Sea Wave (NetGalley)
Guernica Editions/University of Toronto Press

Although a short 140 pages, Rolli’s The Sea Wave moves in and out, back and forth between two oversized stories: that of a young severely handicapped girl and her kidnapper, an elderly man. The twelve-year-0ld cannot speak and is confined to a wheelchair, yet her understanding of the world around her is keen, her mind, sharp. The elderly man who kidnaps her communicates (if it can be called that) by telling the girl stories the sea waveof his time in a cell by the ocean. Whether it’s real or imagined is anybody’s guess–but since all Story includes some element of Truth, it soon becomes clear that the man’s time in that cell damaged him beyond repair.

So we get the girl’s description of their journey as he pushes her wheelchair through the countryside–a rough ride where she takes a few tumbles, faces the fear of being abandoned, and begins to feels the painful grip of hunger and thirst. But as she endures the ride, she recounts the isolation she felt at home, the shame she sees in her parent’s eyes when they look at her, the disgust on people’s faces when they encounter her. I’m guessing more than a few readers will cringe when the girl uncovers their own discomfort on meeting someone severely handicapped–and the irony is that we come to love this girl’s spunk, even as we understand we’d never get past her handicap to know her should we ever meet.

The Sea Wave is marketed as a flash fiction novel–and perhaps the man’s nightmarish recollections mirror the intense imagery for imagery’s sake of that short short-story form. But the girl’s narrative, while brief, is complete enough to stand as a novella. However you want to categorize it, Rolli’s The Sea Wave is a powerful read.