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Archive for the ‘Authors’ Category

There were many things that got stalled or pushed to the back in the last year. For many of us, reading was not one of them. In fact, a good book was often a saving grace.

I thought to share with you some of the best fiction I read, often historical, starting back from the end of 2019. These books came from several sources – the library; some I purchased online; books purchased at past annual county library book sales; and my own collection.

Here is the best of what I read from late 2019 to present:

Whistling Past the Graveyard – Susan Crandall. This is certainly one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Told in first person by a sassy, red-headed nine year old, Starla Claudelle, it takes place in 1963 Mississippi at the height of segregation. Being raised by her overly strict grandmother while her father works out on the oil rigs, Starla wants nothing more than to find her mother in Nashville, whom she believes left to become famous and then reunite her family. Upset by a turn of events, Starla decides to run away to Nashville on her own. She is offered a ride by an older black woman, traveling with a white infant, unaware of the dangerous implications of this situation. Whistling Past the Graveyard is a story with deeply felt characters set against the backdrop of the Deep South at a time in history that Starla only begins to understand for what it is, as well as what family can really mean.

One page in, and I was totally hooked.

Shutter Island and Mystic River – Dennis Lehane. If you want two stories you can’t put down … Shutter Island was a book sale pick, and in it I discovered a writer with an excellent capacity for writing tense, fast moving prose with twists and turns at every corner. This story takes place in 1954 when a detective and his partner come to Shutter Island, home for the criminally insane, to investigate a patient’s disappearance, and where we soon discover nothing is as it seems. Later in the year, I read Mystic River, a psychological thriller about three boys growing up as friends, approached one day by a man in a car. One boy gets in; the others do not. And something – never fully articulated – terrible happens. Fast forward to adulthood, and this plays out in a harrowing series of events. (p.s. the movie is also excellent.)

Lehane is a terrific writer who keeps you on the edge of your seat, no matter the subject of the book. There is no doubt that I will pick up another of his novels in the future.

The Alice Network – Kate Quinn. Historical fiction taking place in the times of both World War I and World War II, The Alice Network is based on the true story of a group of women spies of the same name who, at tremendous risk, infiltrated the Germans to save lives in the most daring and heroic of ways. This is Goodreads’ initial description of the book, and as apt as I could write, “In an enthralling new historical novel from national bestselling author Kate Quinn, two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an unconventional American socialite searching for her cousin in 1947—are brought together in a mesmerizing story of courage and redemption.” Please read the full review and you’ll know why this was a book I could not put down. It’s truly exceptional.

Had I not borrowed it from the library, it would be sitting in my bookcase of books that I would read again some day.

Forever – Pete Hamill. This is a masterful book — on the one hand, a magnificent love letter to New York City and all it’s history; on the other, the story of a young man in 1700’s Ireland, Cormac O’Connor, whose parents were killed by a wealthy lord. Added to the mix, we have some magic of the old religion, which allowed Cormac to live forever if he never left the island of Manhattan and successfully avenged his parents’ deaths. This is not a casual, lightly read book, but one that spans centuries as we follow Cormac’s life from childhood to an America at the moment of its birth. From the slaves in the ship’s hold that he saves and befriends through the politics, greed, and buried secrets of New York right through to 9/11, this is a story of great knowledge and depth. Pete Hamill has written Forever with such compassion. It was a long read, but I was sorry when it ended.

The Giver of Stars – Jojo Moyes. More engrossing historical fiction set in the Depression era in Kentucky. A small group of women who, for different reasons, join together, following the exhortation of Eleanor Roosevelt and her traveling library campaign to bring books to people who had no access to them, but who wanted to read or learn to read. Alice Wright, disillusioned in her new marriage to a distant husband and dealing with a controlling father-in-law, joins with Margery, founder of the group. Margery is strong, outspoken, and independent, and is soon joined by three other women, forming The Pack Horse Library of Kentucky (the real name of the library). The women repeatedly faced danger traversing the rugged landscape by mule and horseback, sometimes from the people who lived there, as well as from men in their lives who would control them. Their loyalty and friendship, finding true love, and always following their mission of bringing books to people in remote areas makes for a rich and rewarding read. An unforgettable story.

Nemesis and the Swan – Lindsay Bandy. This is mature and sophisticated YA, taking place in the French Revolution. Helene d’Aubign, an aristocrat of 19 years old, writes from her cell in a Paris prison. Her diary alternates with her story of being influenced as a young girl by her governess to become a revolutionary and to seek true love at a time when girls were only allowed arranged marriages. Forced to flee Paris as violence breaks out, Helene searches to find the answers to an intricate family mystery involving love and murder, somehow tied together by two unique, painted pins of eyes surrounded by gilt and pearls. She longs to return to her home and the jeweler’s apprentice she’s fallen in love with. When, in disguise, she finally does return to Paris, she finds everything she knows is changed or destroyed. But to make matters far worse, she is being sought – and is soon arrested – by those who suspect her true identity, which will sentence her to the guillotine.

With a richly articulated backdrop of the French Revolution, and the characters enmeshed in a family mystery, you couldn’t help but hope for Helene’s survival and an ending that seemed impossible.

The Mermaid Chair – Sue Monk Kidd. If you have read The Secret Life of Bees, you know Kidd writes with a truly exquisite use of the English language. The Mermaid Chair brings to life the setting of Egret Island off South Carolina where Jessie Sullivan has gone to tend to her mother, now suspected of severe mental instability after severing her finger. But the story is Jessie’s – she is returning to her childhood home of marshes and sea salt, egrets and a monastery where resides the Mermaid Chair. It is a story of love and disillusionment in her marriage, love and awakening with a monk questioning his own commitment, but most importantly, the search for her own self, lost over the years. Interlaced with the loyalty of longtime friends, a mystery surrounding her beloved father’s death, and the idyllic quality of Egret Island, Jessie’s story is stirring and engrossing. This is my own book which I’ve read in the past, and couldn’t wait to return to each evening.

Other notable books – I can’t review them all, but I can mention some other books that stand out from the many I’ve read in the past year+.

The Long Way, A Great Reckoning, Glass Houses, – all by Louise Penny. This is the first series of novels I have ever read as an adult, and I love them. I began at the beginning, and am working my way through the series, always drawn in by Penny’s style, wonderful characters and mysteries, all set in her beloved Canada.

Twigs in My HairCynthia Reyes, friend and fellow blogger here on WordPress

Good Hope Road – Lisa Wingate

The Last Letter from Your Lover – Jojo Moyes

Flower Net and The Interior – Lisa See

With the hope that I’ve inspired a future selection or two, I wish you Happy Reading!

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As much as I like the moon photo I took below, it just isn’t clicking with how I’m feeling now … that there actually may be a Spring around the corner. So until I have the time to be out and about taking photos, I thought I would share two thoughts with you. They are timely in the respect that both were from March from past day-to-day calendars by Wayne Dyer.

They are timely always as reminders that we are more special than we often think, and that we often lose much valuable time in our lives worrying about things that won’t happen.

I took photos of these two pages because they were – and are – important reminders to me on my own personal path. But I know so many who struggle with these same issues, that perhaps they would be a touch of enlightenment or comfort to some of you, too.

We are all unique and wonderful beings on this planet. We do well in trusting that things are going exactly the way they are supposed to be going, even if it doesn’t always feel like it or we’d like it otherwise. Happy soon-to-be-Spring.

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This morning I got a reply from my niece to my “heads-up” e-mail to her, letting her know a package was soon to arrive with gift books for my great-nephew. He’s a big reader, and also very resourceful around Christmastime in looking for presents, I’m told.

Knowing I have aspirations to be published in children’s books as an author and hopefully, illustrator, she included a photo of the “pre-book” cover of an illustrator she met at a recent art show. The illustration was charming. And before I knew it, tears were streaming down my face as I felt so very far from my hopes and dreams. So far from even finding the time to write and draw with all that’s on my plate right now. And, well, that’s exactly what I had to do today – get on with what’s on my plate, my work.

First I turned on a few hours of music from Spirit Tribe Awakening – music that contains ancient healing frequencies, aligning with our heart chakra and helping release negativity with specific sound vibrations. This always helps. As I listened and watched the beautiful images of nature, I felt more peaceful, and then a desire to find more beautiful images.

Feeling so far from my path can sometimes leave me feeling utterly helpless, but I thought that I might be helped with the beauty of imagery. The result is what you see here. Paths of every kind.

And though I am still feeling a bit sad, between the music and images I am feeling more hopeful. It was the image of the cobblestoned street that first drew me in, and so  I began to walk …

Sometimes our paths are crooked …

Sometimes inspiring …

Sometimes our path seems to totally disappear.

Sometimes we travel our path with others …

But in the end, it is our path, and ours alone. And while it may be a lonely or hard path at times, it shines like the freshest of rains and mirrors the beauty that yearns from within.
I’ll get there.
We’ll get there.

 

Thank you to all the photographers whose wonderful photos I have used above and to freeimages.com for offering the works of these talented individuals to others.

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Christmas is coming, and for those who still love the tradition of sending real, 3-dimensional cards, I have something special for you – my newest Frenchie Christmas card. This is one of the holiday cards now available with complete details in my Etsy shop – JBalsamFrenchieArt – plus sets of blank notecards which would make great gifts. All the artwork and design are my own, the illustrations drawn in colored pencil, occasionally with watercolor, and printed right here in the U.S.A.

If you have a Frenchie, a friend with one, or just want something cute featuring the breed as a gift, stop by and visit my shop. And please, spread the word!

Thanks so much!

 

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This will not be a long post – just a share of the fabulous finds I collected at the county library’s huge annual book sale.

For a half hour’s drive and $24.00, I picked up the amazing selections you see here, hardbound and paperback. I do go with a list, and am happy to find anything on it, but don’t expect my top picks, especially from 2018. But I did bring home some selections from favorite authors – Lisa See, Alice Hoffman, Jodi Picoult, Barbara Kingsolver, E. Annie Proulx, and more. I also picked up a number of middle grade/YA novels including Jacqueline Woodson, Jerry Spinelli – and amazingly, the exact book by Linda Sue Park, A Long Walk to Water, that will help me in a drawing project for a client!

There are also authors I am not yet familiar with but had been hoping to find, and some I don’t know at all. There are a couple psychological thrillers, some historical fiction, science fiction, and mysteries – enough to keep me happily reading for quite some time.

In addition, I found something special for one of my doctors who is a huge reader; a hardbound replacement for a paperback version of a wonderful novel whose type is so small, it hurts my eyes —   a book I will read again; and a small volume in brand new condition that might be a little surprise for someone.

As I drove down the lovely backroads to the book sale, I couldn’t help but think that a good book and a warm and fuzzy friend to curl up with can get us through a lot of stuff in life – both good times and bad. And $24.00 isn’t much to pay to have one of those pleasures at my fingertips.

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Though I cannot take credit for them. We all experience times in our lives when people are acting badly, situations hover and sway as if on the edge of a precipice, and everything is moving too slow … or fast … or in the wrong direction. It’s just life, but from time to time it can leave us spinning.

On one such recent occasion, I removed the previous day’s page from my wonderful Wayne Dyer desk calendar, and found these wise words.

Sometimes you just have to laugh. They couldn’t have been more perfect.

It doesn’t mean that things will always be that way, or that we can’t change them, or that we can’t intend to change them. It just means that right now, it is the way they are. Point taken. And just in case it may be one of those times in your life, I figured I’d share them with you.

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Are you familiar with Little Free Library? I learned about them about 5 years or so ago, and thought it was just the most amazing idea. The concept is to have a little “house” or box of some sort which provides for the free exchange of books of any kind – sometimes these are located in areas where it’s hard for readers to get to a library; sometimes it’s a convenience for neighbors. It always promotes social exchange wherever they appear. (Pictured here, a LFL in Traverse City, Michigan.)

LFL (Little Free Library) is a non-profit organization founded in 2009 byTodd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin whose aim was to inspire a love of reading, build community, and spark creativity by fostering neighborhood book exchanges around the world. And that he did! Since it’s beginnings, the LFL has grown to 80,000 little libraries around the world in a total of 90 countries, (as of 2019), all providing access to our most treasured possessions, books. (Second photo in Mount Martha, Victoria, Australia.)

Bol started out with a simple idea – and built a model of a one room schoolhouse, filled it with books, and put it on a post in his front yard. The idea really caught on, so he built some more and gave them away to neighbors and friends for free. While discussing potential social enterprises with UW-Madison’s Rick Brooks, who had seen Bol’s DIY project, the pair saw potential to expand and advance the common good. They were inspired by a number of things, among them the homegrown “take a book, leave a book” concept found in coffee shops and other public places. They were also inspired by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who had set a goal around the turn of the century to fund the creation of 2,508 free public libraries across the English-speaking world.

With Carnegie in mind, Brooks and Bol set their own goal of surpassing 2,508 Little Free Libraries by the end of 2013, and exceeded it a year and a half before their target date.

The above LFL is located in Sandy Springs, Georgia.

What’s even more exciting is that this concept inspired people everywhere to apply to be stewards of a LFL where they lived, and who then designed and built this vastly creative array of structures to house the neighborhood book exchanges. (There’s a whole gallery of LFLs on their website to check out.) Perhaps one of the most truly amazing is a jaw-dropping LFL that was built by a librarian inside a dead cottonwood tree in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho – you must take a look at this!

Please visit the Little Free Library website – it’s exhaustive and illuminating and inspiring, and hey … maybe you’ll start thinking about creating and hosting a LFL in your neighborhood! One of the best concepts ever … free access to books.

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On to the books … Atonement by Ian McEwan. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from this, but knew it was a story whose initial chapters take place in London at the beginning of World War II and carries through the war, and then to the end of the century. It’s of a romance between the older sister in a very wealthy family, Cecilia, and the son of their housemaid, Robbie, their gardener. He’s a very bright young man, for whose education Cecelia’s father has been paying, with plans for Robbie going to medical school. But the story begins with the youngest sibling and third major character, Briony, a thirteen year old, who spends a great deal of her time writing. She is a very intellectual child, sheltered, and rather controlling. Early on in the story, she sees a flirtation between Cecilia and Robbie which she does not understand. When she witnesses another interaction in the library, she makes an assumption that will change the lives of these three characters forever. Her misinterpretation of what she saw and an incorrect confirmation of Robbie’s involvement in a separate incident results in his being sent to prison, and later, war. The story follows how the lives of these three were affected by Briony’s decision. It is a story about war, of love, and innocence. I did like the book – Robbie’s time in the war in northern France was remarkably and painfully well told – but the beginning was a bit difficult to get through, especially as Briony is not your most likable character. The writing was not in a style I usually read; the author was likened on the book jacket to Jane Austen. I did still enjoy it, and there is a wonderful twist at the very end.

After finishing the book, I watched the movie, which won a Golden Globe and was Oscar nominated for best picture, among others. My feeling about the movie is that I would not have really understood a lot of what was going on had I not read the book. And as is so often the case with books made to movies, there were so, so many critical, meaningful, and heart-wrenching details missing. I’d stick with the book.

Going from soup to nuts, I then turned to something completely different – a fast-paced psychological thriller, The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn. I read this in three days – it was hard to put down, as in you look at the clock and it’s 2 in the morning. It has been compared to two other books, Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. The comparison is made in that the main characters are all unreliable narrators, but this book soon differentiates itself in many ways. Anna Fox, our MC, lives a secluded life; you soon find she’s an agoraphobic as a result of an unknown, horrible tragedy that occurred in her life. She’s on multiple medications, and against doctor’s orders, also drinks. She also spends a great deal of time watching her neighbors. Early on in the story, she witnesses a murder, she’s sure of it. But did she? Let me say this – The Woman in the Window reads like a house on fire, and Finn is an outstanding writer in more than one way. He (yes, it’s a `he’) spoon feeds you pieces of information, layering the suspense and all but turns the pages for you. Just when you think you know what’s going on, he throws in a major twist. Moreover, he has an exquisite use of language, not something you might expect in a thriller. I highly recommend this book. You’ll be at the (very satisfying) end in no time. Promise.

 

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Ahhhh …. two of my favorite subjects. Something delicious to eat and something delicious to read. First, the cookies. As mentioned in an earlier post, my friend Laurie had her book launch at our little local Indie bookstore, The Book Garden. What I had not mentioned, was that Laurie and I had a cookie baking marathon the weekend before, whipping up sugar cookies for both this launch and her launch in NYC a few days earlier.

The sugar cookie recipe is a very basic and really good one – simple ingredients with predictably delicious results. As Hedy was an inventor, we made what are now Laurie’s signature gear cookies, but as Hedy was also a star, we made star-shaped cookies. To catch the glamour that was Hedy, I’d suggested using edible glitter, so Laurie and I made a trip out to a specialty baking shop where they must have had 100 possible color choices. We picked the gold and a light aqua. You can see the results – they came out really pretty. I’ve never worked with edible glitter in baking before, so this was quite fun.

Because I generally have a pretty full schedule, I tend not to bake much these days. When I do, I bake only from scratch, and I’ve gotten this idea in my head that it will take forever. I believe that’s called a distortion. After having those yummy from-scratch sugar cookies, I really wanted more homemade, so I searched my many saved recipes and found one for chocolate chip cookies with about 10 variations. Perfect!

I went shopping and bought the ingredients to make an oatmeal chocolate chip cookie with dark chocolate and dried cranberries. Yum, right? I got all my ingredients together and prepped my baking sheets. (Whatever did we do before parchment paper?) I was in such a good mood, and much to my surprise, it didn’t take that long at all! Another idea I can banish from my head!

And did they taste good? Absolutely fabulous (if I say so myself.) In fact I had to freeze half to insure that I would not eat them too fast! Stay tuned for Part II of Cookies and Books, the book reviews – Atonement and The Woman in the Window.

 

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We are surrounded by a lot of noise – endless advertising and marketing, “news” that is really a recount of the violence and misfortunes suffered by our neighbors, and so on.

It’s why it’s so very important that we provide the positivity of books and reading to our children to help them find their way and to tune out the noise. There is so much beauty and love in the world, and what better way to “grow” a child than with the wonder that is found in books, and starting early, in picture books?

One book that is sure to bring love and a message of hope and self-confidence to kids is Myrtle the Purple Turtle by Cynthia Reyes and illustrated by Jo Robinson. Myrtle wasn’t always a book, but it was a story. It was written quite some time ago to help a child – Cynthia’s own child, Lauren – overcome the heartbreak of being rejected as she began school. When Lauren brought her Cabbage Patch doll to school, she was shunned because her doll wasn’t “the right color”. To help her daughter understand how being different is not only OK, but a good thing, Cynthia wrote this story and read it to Lauren at bedtime.

Myrtle is a purple turtle and comes from a family of purple turtles. When made fun of and told she couldn’t possibly even be a turtle in that color, Myrtle first stands up for herself, but then becomes crushed by the ridicule. Her Mom tries to bolster her up, but Myrtle can see that no other turtles at the pond are purple. She tries making herself green to fit in, but encounters yet another problem. With the help of her friends, Myrtle comes to realize that being different is the way things are in the world. And that is something to be happy about.

What a great message for kids. You cannot help but love Myrtle and her sweet personality, and admire the confidence that she really does have inside as she feels safe enough in the world to fall asleep when she gets stuck upside down.

But Cynthia wasn’t done yet, and neither was Myrtle. In late 2018 Cynthia brought Myrtle’s sequel into the world, again accompanied by Jo Robinson, but this time, also joined by her daughter, Lauren Reyes-Grange. In Myrtle’s Game, Myrtle and her friends, skilled at playing a game that looks just like soccer in the water, ask the woodland animals if they can play soccer with them. Told that turtles can’t play soccer (everyone knows that!), squirrel tells them to come back when they can move faster. Daunted at first, the turtles hatch a plan where Myrtle finds a way to use her talent to succeed on land. How does she do it? You’ll have to read the book!

Read more about Myrtle the Purple Turtle and Myrtle’s Game, including where you can order, at Cynthia’s blog. You just might know a child (or two) who could be inspired and heartened by Myrtle’s growing belief in herself, and her knowledge that being different is something special indeed.

 

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The saying is true … so many books, so little time, but in this case, I’m referring to books published by friends and which all deserve a shout-out. However, one dilemma is who do I write about in what order, so no one feels slighted. The other dilemma is simply finding time when I’m struggling to find time to keep up with blogging at all. Now I know that each of these people will assure me that whenever – and IF ever – I get to writing about their book, they are fine with it. But I really do want to bring some good books to your attention.

That said, I’m introducing you to a wonderful picture book for older children, written by a very dear friend of mine who just happens to be having her book launch in a couple weeks. Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life is written by Laurie Wallmark, and the third she’s published about her passion, and I quote, “dead women in STEM.” What I like so much about this book is that it brings to light a side of a famous figure, Hedy Lamarr, who was known as an actress, but almost completely unknown as an inventor.

Long before some inventions were even a twinkling in anyone’s mind, Hedy had come up with ideas for the 3-color traffic light, a reflective dog collar, a way for people to safely get in and out of the tub, and more. But those were not developed, for Hedy’s real dedication was to inventing the technology known as frequency hopping, a major scientific breakthrough at the time. The modern day application of this technology is what keeps our devices, computers or cell phones, safe from hacking, but Hedy originally designed it as a way to preserve the security of communications during World War II.

So well-written by Laurie and charmingly illustrated by Katy Wu, Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life is enlightening to us all, but also a great inspiration for girls. Hedy’s a great role model who, while she had a full life in one field as an actress, had a strong passion in another and  made wonderful achievements in science. Read more at Laurie’s website, or just come to her book launch Sunday afternoon, Feb. 10th, 2-4 p.m., at The Book Garden in Frenchtown.

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