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Posts Tagged ‘Novels’

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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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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My last few posts have featured different aspects of my businesses because, truly, that is where my energies have been flowing. However, I have been reading books constantly all the same (you just haven’t heard about them yet.) I started this post Thursday in the afternoon and it had been snowing (!) for nearly 3 hours, the white sky starting to turn that dusky cloud grey. It was a great time to divert myself from the work on my desk and dwell on words … beautifully written, elegantly connected, come-hither words.

Where to start? Books and movies, or in this case, books and television. It seems fairly well-established among anyone I speak to that movies/television rarely live up to the quality of the books they’re based on, and are often disappointing. Two programs I have watched recently – one series on DVD and another of three episodes on Masterpiece Theater/PBS – were outstanding, easily the best things I’ve watched on TV all year and I highly recommend them – Big Little Lies and The Miniaturist. Each inspired me to read the books.

I must say, I was not as drawn in by Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty as I’d hoped to be. Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman optioned the series and made it into something riveting, but as to the book? For me, not so much. I decided to try another of Moriarity’s books, The Husband’s Secret, and it was significantly better.

But ah, The Miniaturist … absolutely fantastic. The story by Jessie Burton is written in the present tense from Petronella Oortman’s POV and takes place in Amsterdam in the late 1700’s. She is a young bride from another part of Holland. She has a respected family name but no money, and is married by a wealthy merchant, Johannes Brandt. While often absent, he buys her a cabinet as a wedding gift to help keep her occupied, a large and expensive dollhouse built and designed to look exactly like the house Petronella is now living in. The Miniaturist is a story about relationships, secrets, about the forbidden, prejudice, and very much, mystery. Although Nella orders miniatures to be made for her dollhouse, the miniaturist sends more, unrequested, that start to reveal a life unexpected in which the young bride finds herself inexorably tangled. Seeing the series on TV first was actually a great advantage – the settings, dress, morals, and attitudes of the Dutch at that time in history added much to the reading.  Take a peek at Petronella’s world; it will not give away the story. And then get the book. You won’t be disappointed.

Another book that I could not put down is Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. This novel is also historical fiction; one part of the story takes place in Memphis, TN in 1939, the other in present day South Carolina where a young lawyer begins to research her grandmother’s buried and seemingly disturbing past. We are taken to a shantyboat on the river where the oldest child, Rill, and her four younger siblings are kidnapped and brought to the Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage. They soon discover they will not be reunited with their parents as promised, but will be adopted to wealthy people willing to pay handsomely for children to adopt. The stolen youngsters at the orphanage are often starved, abused, and neglected at the hands of the cruel director and her lecherous brother; a large number of children disappeared entirely. In part what makes this book so riveting is that it is based on the very real adoption operations of Georgia Tann, a notorious felon who kidnapped and sold children for decades. Excellent in every way.

While on the topic of books not to be missed, I read Snow in August by Pete Hamill. Hamill is famously known for being the publisher of major newspapers in NYC, plus a journalist and novelist. The story takes place in Brooklyn  in 1947, a tale about friendship, faith, and trust, about an 11 year-old Irish Catholic boy, Michael Devlin, and a refugee from Prague, Rabbi Hirsch. Struggling through a snowstorm to serve mass a few blocks away, Michael, though fearful, gives in to the Rabbi’s repeated calls for help and enters the synagogue. It is the sabbath, and the rabbi needs the lights turned on. It is the beginning of a remarkable friendship, set against a backdrop of ignorance of and prejudice against the Jewish people in a community of Irish, Italian and Polish Catholics. A violent act is committed against a Jewish candy store owner by the leader of a local group of thugs; Michael was in the shop as a witness, and so the story unfolds. The prose is exquisite and the story moves along quickly. Snow in August is immensely compelling.

In my journey with excellent mystery writer Louise Penny, I read the seventh book in her Chief Inspector Gamache series – A Trick of the Light. While of course there is a murder to be solved, Penny writes each novel with a new frame of reference, this time the highly competitive art scene in Montreal. The cast of characters, always perfectly drawn, and the home of the story’s activities, Three Pines, are the setting for this novel. Louise Penny has made me a fan of her superb writing and for engaging me in reading a mystery series, something I never thought I would do.

I just finished another murder mystery I spotted on the shelf in my local library, The Day of the Dead by Nicci French, actually a collaboration between a husband and wife team. The book seemed interesting and a good read while I waited for another book through inter-library loan. I was surprised to find how really good it was. Fast moving, tight writing, great plot – I could not believe how quickly I devoured this book! It may not be my usual fare, but I enjoyed every moment of this story about a renowned psychologist, Frieda Klein, whose life had been entangled with a serial killer, Dean Reeves, for a decade. She has suddenly dropped off the map and at the same time, seemingly unrelated murders  are appearing at various locations around London. These are later revealed to be at pre-determined intervals and at locations which would have meaning for Freida, clearly to draw her in and be his final victim. In the mix, and another main character, is Lola, a college student to whom it was suggested that she study Frieda Klein for her major college paper. This is apparently the last/latest in a series about Freida Klein, but worked effortlessly as a standalone.

I am now beginning  to read Raven Stole the Moon by Garth Stein. I already read The Art of the Racing in the Rain, now one of my top 5 favorite books of all time, and another excellent novel of his, Sudden Light. I would probably read anything this man writes. Quite simply, he is a brilliant and gifted writer.

Hope I’ve inspired you if you’re looking for a good read. The weather is becoming that kind of chilly that has us curling up with a good book, and if you’re lucky, in front of a warm fire.

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Life sometimes pulls us in one direction … then another … then another. Grabs us by the collar and says, “You need to take care of this, but be sure you do this, oh! and this!” The end result is we writers look quite absent from our blogs from time to time. But be assured, this writer is still here, just pulled in all those directions.

There’s been a boatload of work, which, as a freelancer, I will never complain about; preparation for my being a guest speaker at an Animal Writers Workshop (you can check that out here); preparation for the annual SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) June Conference coming up in 2 weeks; the usual (un)expected running around for all manner of things, some pleasant, some less so; and, of course, reading! No matter what else is happening, I am always reading.

To this end, I’m going to catch you up on the wonderful books I’ve enjoyed.

After reading The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein it was clear that I wanted to read more from this great mind. I perused Goodreads and requested A Sudden Light from my library. What a magnificent book. I will officially now read anything this man writes. A Sudden Light is a story told in the first person by 14-year-old Trevor who travels with his father to the family’s Riddell House in Oregon. His parents’ marriage is in trouble, and this trip to meet his aunt and grandfather is to allegedly settle some financial issues, put the grandfather in a nursing home, and dispose of the house. The home’s exterior is constructed of huge trees, and was built by Elijah, Trevor’s timber baron great grandfather. Trevor soon finds they are not alone in the house; there is a ghost, who has remained to see that Elijah’s last wishes be carried out, that the property be returned to a natural state as amends for the desecration he caused to the land. Somehow Stein has managed to put together an historical novel, a compelling ghost story, a tale of multi-generational conflicts and family secrets against a backdrop of the Pacific Northwest. Read more here and scroll down and visit The North Estate. Be sure not to read any spoilers!

Following this, I read The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, a novel (her first) with a most unusual premise. Four children, brothers and sisters edging into adolescence, hot and bored in the Lower East Side summer of 1969, decide to visit a gypsy fortune teller who is said to be able to give you the exact day you will die. The kids do it on a lark, just for something to do. The eldest brags about how far in the future her date is; she’ll live to a ripe old age. Another sibling shares, but the two others are clearly shaken and will not reveal their dates. It’s all just a joke anyway, right? The following chapters follow the life of each child, as the reader, in suspended animation, follows the sibling’s choices leading up to the possible fulfillment of their individual prophecies. Warm, engrossing, a fascinating premise, and very well-written.

I then read the next in the Inspector Armand Gamache mystery series by Louise Penny. I never thought I’d be interested in reading a series by anyone (at least not after my beloved Nancy Drew mysteries from my childhood) but Louise Penny changed my mind. Inspired by a post by fellow blogger Cynthia Reyes, I picked up a couple of Penny’s books from my local library and was very impressed. So much so, in fact, that I decided to read the entire series from the beginning (not one right after the other, but interspersed among other reading.) What a great decision! Penny is an excellent writer who knows how to hook you from beginning to end. With a cast of characters that one becomes more attached to with each book, mysteries unfold to be solved by Chief Inspector Armand  Gamache of the Surété of Quebec, the premiere investigative arm of homicide in that province. The Brutal Telling is book #5 and calls upon Gamache to solve the murder of an unknown individual whose cabin is buried in the woods surrounding the quaint village of Three Pines. The evidence points to a seemingly unlikely character, which can only leave the reader quite puzzled. Are they  really capable of murder? The book ends with that individual’s arrest, and we are left wondering.

The next book in the series, Bury Your Dead, is considered a companion to this one, so I elected to read it right after, and it does pick up quite literally where The Brutal Telling ended. What is engaging about Penny’s writing is that she is not just writing simple mysteries, but increasingly complex novels which explore Canadian culture and history from Vancouver to Quebec’s founder, Samuel de Champlain, to revered artists. Her characters grow realistically and empathically, and it’s very easy to become involved in their lives and the small town of Three Pines. If you like an absorbing mystery that will also give you a little more to sink your teeth into, look into this series. I suggest you start with the first in the series, A Still Life. There is a growing richness with each subsequent novel, and Penny will always keep you guessing until the end. Oh! And another small perk – whenever characters are eating, Penny always takes a moment to describe the deliciousness of their food. It’s a tantalizing little diversion each time.

I took a turn into another age group after this and read Crenshaw, a middle grade novel by Kathlerine Applegate, the author of a book I love (and own), The One and Only Ivan, an absolutely wonderful read. This story is about Jackson, a young teenage boy, and his family whose financial situation has changed from precarious to dire with them being forced to live in their minivan. Again. The story touches on an important subject, homelessness and the challenges faced by those who may be barely getting by. But there is another important character – Crenshaw himself, a very large cat. Crenshaw is Jackson’s imaginary friend from when he was a little boy, returned to be supportive of Jackson in his time of need … whether Jackson wants him there or not. Needless to say, this lends itself to moments of humor, but at its heart, this story is about resilience, friendship, and how we survive tough times. It was a good read, but for some reason, didn’t grab me the same way Ivan did. I’d still recommend it to the middle grade readers you know because we are all always facing some challenge or other, and this age group will appreciate Jackson and Crenshaw’s approach to a problem more common than most think.

I’m now reading Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, another terrific writer. I have read at least four of her other novels, The Poisonwood Bible being a permanent resident on a particular bookcase reserved for those books that I would definitely read again. Hopefully, I’ll be able to tell you about Flight Behavior somewhere in the vague timeframe of when I finish it.

Whether you are inspired by the stories mentioned above or are on a book path of your own, I will always wish you … Happy Reading!

 

 

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That’s not what we usually see, is it? More often we find articles about engendering the love of reading in kids.

So I was pretty impressed to find in the September 2017 issue of Family Circle an article about the importance of reading for pleasure. I assume that many of you reading this blog, as writers, are already immersed in a regular reading habit, but this short article with “how-to” tips addresses how we, as women, are pulled in so many directions that we often let reading slide. And it’s true; an inordinate involvement with our phones, TV, internet – not to mention the real-life issues of our families and work – can leave us feeling we have no time to read.

But a Yale linguistics professor, Kenneth Pugh, mentions the importance of reading for pleasure as highly important for our emotional health as well as strengthening our creativity. Tips on how to get back into reading include never leaving home without a book; literally penciling in time in our daily schedule for reading; swapping a chunk of our TV addiction for reading time; keeping a book on our nightstand, etc.

For anyone not sure of how to get back into reading, the article suggested as number one – your local librarian. Librarians are a fantastic source of knowledge of the books on their shelves and with a few questions, can have you in a book you love in no time. A good local bookseller can do the same. In addition, they recommended the New York Times Best Seller list, Goodreads.com, or 2017 Popsugar Reading Challenge. What I loved most about seeing this article is that Family Circle is a magazine with a huge circulation of about 17, 560 readers that reaches a very mainstream audience.

Reading – and reading for pleasure – is important. I find myself concerned about all these moms glued to their phones. What kind of inspiration is that for their children? I’m hoping that a family-oriented magazine like this one will inspire more than a few women to reconsider their habits and pick up a book – for themselves, and also to read to their kids.

 

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One of the joys of reading a good book or watching a good movie is that of surrender. When I open to the page where I last left off or the theater lights go dim, I breathe to myself (hopefully not out loud), “take me.”

Take me into some neighborhood I’ve only passed by; let me smell their food, hear their music and experience the love, joy and anger that is so essentially human, but through the heart of another culture. Or take me to another land so I may breathe their icy cold into my lungs or feel the heat upon me that breeds crimes of passion. Take me to the stark loneliness of outer space to be in awe of galaxies; to live inside the utter loyalty and devotion of a scout dog in the Vietnam War and see through her eyes.

Take me where creatures walk among us who look like you and me but harbor lives beyond our imaginings. Tease me with unexpected twists and discovery of villainy or delusion. Speak to me in ways that make me work a little to understand the subtleties of another tongue, or variations of my own from another place and time.

Take me where I may know the deepest and most heartbreaking love, be outraged and demand justice, or laugh because sometimes life is just funny.

But whatever you do, be well-written with characters that ring true to the very end (but can still surprise me) and where I can get lost in your world without hesitation. I am ready to surrender.

Take me.

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There are just periods when one cannot find the time – or brain – to post. Really, I’m kind of still in one of those, but I guess I had to share my love of books – and this amazing haul – with you book lovers out there. Today was day #1 of the annual Hunterdon County Library Book Sale. And below is what I brought home, limited only by the fact that I literally could not carry any more. (Though the library folks said they’d be happy to help me get more to my car. 🙂

This year, I went with a list – some MG/YA (since I continue to write children’s books, I always want to read the good stuff out there): a goodly bunch of fiction titles; and a selection from a list my friend had recently sent me from Buzzfeed entitled 37 Books with Plot Twists that Will Blow Your Mind. Hey, that sounded promising, so I perused the list, eliminated those I’d already read, and added those of interest to my library sale list. Now I was ready to go!

Amazingly, I actually found 6 from my list – The Westing Game – Ellen Raskin and Savvy – Ingrid Law (both MG/YA); The Thirteenth Tale – Diane Setterfield; Fingersmith – Sarah Waters; and The Queen of the Night – Alexander Chee from the “plot twist” list. While I couldn’t find others from the Buzzfeed group, I did find alternative books by a couple of the authors, so picked upThe City of Falling Angels – John Berendt, in place of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and The Infinite Plan – Isabel Allende, in place of The House of the Spirits – a chance to check out new authors.

And then there were these that I just happened upon – The Silent Boy by Lois Lowry because The Giver and Gathering Blue were excellent; Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver because she’s one of my favorite authors; I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak because The Book Thief is one of my favorite all-time books and I promised myself I’d read something else of his and try not to compare; Forever – Pete Hamill because I love the premise and he’s an excellent writer; Morality for Beautiful Girls – Alexander McCall Smith as I love his #1 Ladies Detective Agency series; The Perks of Being A Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky (MG) – just wanted to read it;  same for Evermore – Alyson Noel (YA) and Ape House by Sara Gruen.

And then, The Art of Racing in the Rain –  Garth Stein, recommended highly to me years ago by my dearest friend, since passed over; Pushing the Bear – A Novel of the Trail of Tears – Diane Glancy, because I know this will touch me deeply; and Louise Penny’s Still Life in excellent condition, a wee gift to my own town’s small local library for their shelves (I had to borrow the copy I’d read from the county library). And there you have it.

The two big questions: where will I put them all? and what will I read first after I finish the wonderful book I’m already reading? The first is a minor problem but solvable; the second – just a delicious conundrum. I wish you all happy reading – it is truly one of the riches in our lives.

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We all know that reading has incalculable benefits of every kind. And although it seemed so obvious when I read an article about fiction readers having more empathy, it never had occurred to me that way.

girlreadingtodog2

It makes perfect sense that as we read about the experiences and feelings of others, putting ourselves into their shoes, we consider these things from an entirely different perspective. But now science is bearing out that each time we’ve opened a book of fiction we have been learning to understand and empathize with others in real life from when we first began to read.

Scientists have determined these results through studying the effects of reading on the brain through MRIs, polls, surveys and experiments. And when the book is more challenging, it helps us become smarter as well as more empathetic.

An example comes to mind. Some time ago I read Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. Hannibal Lecter was a monster with no conscience and terrified many a reader of this novel. Later on I picked up the “prequel”, if you will, of this book, Red Dragon. What truly blew my mind about this book is that Harris, in describing the cruel childhood of Hannibal Lecter, actually made me feel understanding and empathy towards him. No small feat, but a comment on the power of the well-written word to do just what science is now proving – reading fiction engenders empathy towards others, even in as extreme a case as this one, and this was a character of fiction. The implications of how this translates to the real world are immense.

So all you readers and writers of fiction – forge on. You are making the world a better place.

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I can hardly believe t’s been a week already since I’ve returned from the 2-day children’s book conference in Princeton. I know I’m not alone when I say I come home exhausted, exhilarated, optimistic, grateful, exhausted, happy, enriched, hopeful, challenged, and oh .. did I mention exhausted?

ExhaustedWoman-AntonioGuillem2

Jumping into my standard 40+ hour work week the very next day does not leave a lot of time for reflecting on all that transpired, reviewing materials, notes from critiques, etc. But numerous thoughts and conclusions were ribboning through my mind on and off all week long, even while I looked forward to this weekend to catch up on some rest and start seriously considering where I was going with children’s books.

And a direction became clear. One of the big attractions of the New Jersey SCBWI Conference is that we offer “one-on-ones” to both writers and illustrators. This is often the focal point of the weekend for those writers who wish a detailed critique from agents and/or editors on their children’s books and illustrators who can have art directors review their portfolios. This year, I went full steam ahead and booked two agent critiques for my middle grade novel and one editor critique for a picture book I’m working on. Of the three critiques, one was so incredibly helpful, I was just thrilled.

In the past I have submitted manuscripts that were as finished and polished as I could get them. They’d been looked at by my critique partners, gone through numerous revisions, and perhaps even been seen at previous conferences. This year was different. The picture book is in the very early stages of development and I sought some insight  and direction. The novel had once been a picture book, and through a number of professional critiques had moved through the chapter book phase to its true calling, middle grade. But I had questions, and I wanted to hear an agent’s opinion.

ADogsPurpose-WBruceCameron2The good news is that one agent confirmed my story is unique and not on the market, and she really liked the concept. The not-surprising news is I have a lot of work ahead of me, as in, now I have to write the rest of the book! This agent really paid attention when looking at my synopsis and the first 15 pages of my manuscript, and offered solid advice. I also came armed with lots of questions, and the ensuing discussion helped to highlight areas I need to focus on, existing concepts I might change to improve it, etc. So for that critique alone, the conference was worth it.

Am I writing today? Not yet. But I am making a plan on how I’m going to get this book written. One aspect of the plan is what I read. You know how you sometimes buy a book but when you get it, you know it’s not the time to read it and temporarily shelve it? The book I need to read right now is pictured here, A Dog’s Purpose.  It was recommended to me at least 4 years ago by the CSR of one of the major printers I work with in my capacity as a graphic designer. As little time as she and I had to chat beyond the work-related, she highly recommended this book for me, and said she knew I’d love it on every level. I know the timing is now perfect and reading it will also enrich the story I’m writing.

More on the conference here …

 

 

 

 

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If you had asked me 5 or 6 years ago if I liked historical fiction, my answer would have been “Meh.”

Sadly, I was effectively turned off to all things history as a child, when my first learning experiences labeled “History” were nothing more than an endless dry and boring series of names, dates, places and events to be absorbed and later regurgitated on tests. In retrospect, our teachers had to cover 7 or 8 different subjects daily, so what were chances that any of them would be a real history buff and would teach us history with great enthusiasm and insight? Apparently, pretty slim.

KiteRunner-KHosseiniIt wasn’t until college when I had an exceptional professor who taught Contemporary Civilization in the context of art, (I was at an art school), and for the first time someone teaching history had neurons in my brain firing rapidly. History suddenly came alive! Unfortunately, at that point, I had very little mental framework in my brain to hang it on. But I started to take an interest in the subject.

What really kicked my interest into high gear has happened in more recent years when I would come across a novel set in a particular place and time period, so rich and textured, that I wanted to learn more. One of those books was The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and it sent me flying to the internet to learn about the Afghani people and what was transpiring in Afghanistan during the time this novel took place. I cannot recall the country of Afghanistan mentioned once in history or geography in my childhood education, but now, here was a piece of fascinating history.

ShanghaiGirle-LSee2The two novels that recently afforded me that desire to delve into history were those by author Lisa See, Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy.The first novel begins when Shanghai was known as the Paris of Asia, and sisters May and Pearl were  “beautiful girls”, models. With their father having lost all their money, the sisters, with their mother, must flee Shanghai as the Japanese invade China. The sisters were forced to emigrate to the United States in arranged marriages. From their interment on Angel’s Island to creating lives for themselves and their families in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, we follow the complex relationship of Pearl and May and Pearl’s daughter, Joy.

In Dreams of Joy, Joy, now in college and angry at her family’s deception and distraught over one family member’s suicide, secretly runs away to China to find her true father. Her studies have convinced her that Communism is the best of all systems, and she is determined to start her own life, although  DreamsOfJoy-LSee2she is soon to be profoundly discouraged and isolated. Pearl leaves the states to search for her daughter, encountering endless roadblocks along the way. The backdrop of much of the novel is the time under Chairman Mao and The Great Leap Forward, a time of alleged progress in which a famine took the lives of millions of Chinese people. (From Wikipedia – “The Great Leap ended in catastrophe, resulting in tens of millions of deaths, estimated from 18 million to 32.5 or 45 million. Historian Frank Dikotter asserts that “coercion, terror, and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward” and it “motivated one of the most deadly mass killings of human history”.)

Lisa See writes about family and relationships and this alone would have held my attention, but told against the backdrop of both China and the United States in times of political change and turmoil of every kind, I searched to know more. My knowledge of history is still spotty, but through the pages of beautifully written historical novels, I continue to learn. It seems history stands at my back door, always with a hand raised, always ready to knock.

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JeannesNewFlipFlops2

Why, you may ask, are you looking at a pair of feet in (… well, a pretty cute set of) flip-flops?

Here’s why. For the same reason you’re about to look at a yummy summer salad sitting on an antique kitchen chair complete with original milk paint, (which by the way, doesn’t hold up all that well to everyday wear and tear.)

Salad2

It’s an offering. A little tide-you-over. I’ve been somewhat absent from my blog, but I do think of you, and I do miss the delight of writing more frequent posts, as well as stopping by your blogs. (Just because I don’t follow you or comment doesn’t mean I don’t stop in for a quick peek.)

The last few weeks have included some exciting things – a visit to the Grounds for Sculpture to see the Seward Johnson retrospective before the borrowed pieces return to their permanent spots all over the world on July 1. So much to see, and such genius! I’ll be posting more on that soon. Meanwhile, here’s a little teaser of what’s to come.

SewardJohnson-HotDogMan2

Johnson is known for his sculptures of people in everyday life and his 3-dimensional interpretations of famous paintings. Throughout the grounds one finds groupings of people as well as individuals, such as this hot dog vendor along one of the walkways.

And then there was the NJ SCBWI June Conference where we all ate, drank and slept children’s books for nearly two days straight. It’s intense, exciting, rewarding, and based on everyone’s collapse on Monday, a major rush! The workshops, meeting and dining with agents and editors, connecting and re-connecting with fellow writers and illustrators is quite the whirlwind of an experience, and has us all coming home with a renewed sense of purpose, our dreams fired up, and ready to further our goals and experiences in children’s books.

Intermezzo: a French Bulldog illustration of mine, for summer.

Frenchie-IceCreamSodaSig

And then of course, there’s work. LOTS of work. Not to complain; paying one’s bills is a good thing, but between it all, well, my blog bore the brunt of it. As have my poor LightBetweenOeans-MLStedman2porches which remain bereft of a single flower this year. (I’ll spare you the empty porch photos.) And then there are the everyday demands of just plain life. Busy!

And of course I’ve been reading. I am always reading, no matter what. Great book – just finished – I highly recommend it.

Soon I will share with you some truly amazing treats from the Seward Johnson exhibit.

So stay tuned … I do believe I’m back!

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CharlottesWeb2This Sunday, September 21, marked the beginning of Banned Books Week which celebrates the freedom to read. An annual event organized by the American Library Association, (the same people that award the Caldecott and Newbery Medals) , Banned Books Week is sponsored by a number of organizations who are against censorship. The website presents a wealth of information on books that are and have been banned, by whom and why, plus activities for teachers to discuss the important issues of censorship, banned books and the books themselves with their students. Additional information on Banned Books Week can be found on the ALA’s own site. On this site you can also find the 10 most frequently challenged books by year. In 2001, the most frequently challenged book was Harry Potter with John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men right behind.

The most common reasons for censorship are drugs, nudity, violence, offensive language, sexually explicit, anti-family, homosexuality, racism, religious viewpoint, suicide and unsuited to age group but there are a few others.

A fascinating article on BuzzFeed is about fifteen children’s classics that have been banned, where and why. This includes James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Granted some of these were banned  quite some time ago, and some by local municipalities, but some were banned as recently as 2010.

I don’t know about you, but I find this all fascinating. Censorship is no small issue, and the facts about who censors which books and why is an insight into the fabric of this country – what we, as a people, are afraid of, offended by and threatened by to such a degree that we can’t allow our children to read about it. As best I can tell, it’s usually the truth.

 

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