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Archive for the ‘Good Reads’ Category

How many times have you finished a book, and it was so good that you wanted to go back to the beginning and read it again? I’ve felt that way; I think we all have. But how many times have you actually done it? I’m guessing you haven’t, and until now, neither have I. Until I read The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee.

This is an amazing historical novel, written in first person by a young woman, who, at the opening of the book, is making her entrance at the Sénat Bal in Paris, autumn of 1882. She is “La Genérale”,  Lilliet Berne, famed opera singer and a falcon soprano. She is approached by a novelist who dares to get her attention, and asks her to listen to his proposition – a story he has in his possession, to which a score will be written by a promising composer, an original role created just for her. Such a thing is the apex of an opera’s singer career. And then Lilliet hears how much of the story is her own past life, which, if it came to light, would destroy her career. So few know her past; who would want to see her fall? And so begins our story.

We return to Lilliet’s beginnings in the then free-state of Minnesota in 1866, sixteen years old, when she loses her entire family to scarlet fever. Alone and practically penniless, she decides to cross the country, and then the ocean, to find her mother’s only sister in Switzerland. The ensuing story unfolds in endless twists and turns of Lilliet’s trying to survive, becoming a circus equestrienne, a courtesan, later purchased by the tenor, the keeper of the empresses’s furs, and an opera singer. This all takes place largely in Paris during and after the reign of Emperor Louis Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie.

The Queen of the Night is a very complex novel. There is subterfuge, characters using each other and being used, and many unexpected betrayals. Set against the backdrop of an opulent Paris as well as the utter desolation after the Prussian attack, there is also opera, loyalty, friendship, devotion, and most importantly, love. One might say that this is a love story, but truly, it is so much more. When I decided to reread this book, I was initially aware it was because there was so much going on, that I knew I had missed certain things, and I needed to feel that I really understood everything.

But as I approach the final chapters this second time, I know that a major attraction for me is Lilliet Berne herself. I found Lilliet to be an amazing heroine, who fights to stay alive, to try to be whatever it is she is born to be, despite not knowing at all what that might be for so long. She starts our story as an orphaned girl of sixteen, and ends … well, I can’t really tell you that. I can say that this is a demanding book, not one to be read when you’re tired or distracted, because I guarantee, you will miss something critical. But it is also one you cannot put down. Alexander Chee is highly successful in writing a story with fine attention to rich historical detail, and also for creating characters who will live in your imagination between each reading and after.

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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 very compelling features in a good novel can be place, where an author writes with such depth and attention to the environment inhabited by his characters that the location becomes a character all its own. I just finished The Ice Bridge by D.R.Macdonald, and was amazed at how quickly he had me immersed in the landscape of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia. This is an outstanding book in so many ways, not least of which was my having moved to the harsh, wintry landscape of Cape Seal Road right along with one of the main characters, Anna.

The intensely rich descriptions of the land and the nearby sea in every mood and facet imaginable captured my imagination. Anna is an artist, moved here from California, leaving her soon-to-be ex to rediscover her artistic self. Her drawings of the landscape, animals, and the many found objects she retrieves from both water and shore, further expand the reader’s feel for Cape Breton.

The story of her settling into the “weather-wracked” house once belonging to next door neighbor Red Murdock’s grandmother is a story in and of itself. While the jacket flap is right in saying it’s a story about love after love, it is also a story about a fading Scottish culture which once thrived in the area, and the changes that modern life has exacted on its residents. Each character in this small, somewhat forgotten community adds to the sense of place in Macdonald’s novel. He is, in my opinion, a brilliant writer who has seemingly effortlessly made me care about his characters in this slowly unfolding tale.

When Anna does something extremely foolish, it is hard to criticize her because the author has already portrayed her so completely and compassionately that we can only wonder what would make her do such a thing. The characters are real, and the conflict builds slowly through the friendships, past loves, danger, pain, and wonder of them all. And always the sea and sky, forest and field, so beautifully, beautifully rendered, from the challenges of winter through the final warming of spring in July.

What a masterful writer! What I also loved about this novel was Macdonald builds the suspense to the very end, and even with the ending given us, one can still wonder what might happen next. This is one where I was sorry to close the book and leave what I’d come to love in Cape Breton.

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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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Serene is sure a feeling that can escape us when we’ve got a lot on our plate. And lately, this photo is what’s been bringing me back to some semblance of serene.

Beautiful orcas in a sea of calm. I feel like perhaps they are dreaming. Diving, resting and just breathing in the night air. The last few weeks have been far too busy with one thing or another and although I know – we all do – that from time to time, it’s just how life is, I found myself longing for a touch of the serenity I see in this photo. I found myself wishing I could weave among them as kin where they would welcome me, not be afraid, and just share with me whatever they know and feel in the moment captured above.

“They were watching, out there past men’s knowing, where stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.”
~ Cormac McCarthy

But this period of so much going on has had its up-side, too.  I have been on a real reading tear, loving diving into one book after another, middle grade, adult, picture books, no matter. Perhaps these books have all given me the respite I needed, new places to go, people to know, situations that grabbed my attention and heightened sensation. What a rich world books bring us.

OK, change of plans. I’ll sit on an outcropping of rocks next to the orcas, they with their dreams, me with my book, one in spirit under a full moon. Join me?

 

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FoggyMorning

Nature XXVII, Autumn

The morns are meeker than they were,
The nuts are getting brown;
The berry’s cheek is plumper,
The rose is out of town.
The maple wears a gayer scarf,
The field a scarlet gown.
Lest I should be old-fashioned,
I’ll put a trinket on.

~ By Emily Dickinson

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applebars-squaresdone-small2It’s no revelation to say that routine can be a real buzzkill. And that can be true in any area of our lives. And yet, many of us are confined by the strictures of work, family, chores, etc. A fair amount of our scheduled days is necessarily and simply unavoidably routinized.

But what about some of that other time? I have been noticing lately how much of certain nights is all packaged up ever-so-neatly around the TV. Very American, yes? Truly I am not all that into TV the way I realize a lot of people are, but still … I have my favorites that I like to catch. However, I will find myself parked there, watching something relatively inane that has been sandwiched in between some things I really like. Why am I watching it?

I decided to take a harder look at what I’m watching and … decided to skip a bunch of it. Dumping the telly for a good book. Yeah, I remember that. Sunday afternoon I came home from a picnic with the plan of baking something – had all the ingredients already on the counter and everything. (Ergo the photos you see.) But I wasn’t feeling it, so did some other things, yet was still aware of he clock ticking. Who starts baking after 7 p.m. with work looming on Monday? Well, I guess that was me.

applebars-prep2

The dry and other basic ingredients are gathered; the butter and egg at room temperature. Ready to start.

And that’s what made me think of/remember the importance of mixing it up. Even on the small stuff. Was there really anything so pressing on TV? Did I feel like watching the Netflix movie that was waiting? No and no. Why not go ahead and bake even if it’s getting late? Who cares how long it takes? (It was cooled off by 10:00 p.m. – Double Apple Bars. Yum.)

applebars-donecuttingapples2

The apples are pared and cubed. There are 2 cups of apples to about 1-1/2 cups of batter. Very apple-y.
I gave my favorite Macouns a try in this recipe.

We all get so comfortable doing what we’re used to. I’m at the point where I really need to mix it up more – need to feel inspired, have fun, try some new things, go back to some old ones I haven’t done in a while. I don’t know that I’ve actually been bored, but I do know that I have, in too many ways, succumbed to routines. How about you?

I just got a funny image of Bugs Bunny. “What’s up, doc?” he always said. What’s up? Well, I don’t know – what say we go find out.

applebars-squaresdone2

They taste like apple pie in a bar – moist, spicy and full of apple flavor. The pecans are yummy as an addition.

 

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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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While I have been rather remiss in blogging, at least I have been reading. Life can pull us in many directions, and some take our blogging time. So be it.

ByTheLight-FathersSmile-AWalker2As I am beginning a new book – chosen from among the many that sit on my shelves waiting to be read – I remember exactly why I picked it up at the big book sale awhile back. I’d read a short story titled am i blue? by Alice Walker over 20 years ago in a magazine. It was about a horse in a meadow alone, bored, betrayed. The meadow was outside a home where Walker was living, and her experience of Blue told me volumes about her appreciation of the hearts and souls of animals. This story was later banned, I found, by the California School Board in 1994, as was, of course, The Color Purple, by all those who feel they know best what you and I should read and think. (You can read am i blue? and some commentary on the The Westcoast Post blog.)

At some point later in time, I came across this (now very famous) quote by Alice Walker, “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for whites or women for men.” And though it was not a period in my life when I had the time to read novels, I simply liked her even more.

Fast forward to a few years ago, and I came upon her novel, By the Light of My Father’s Smile. How could I not pick up a book with a title like that?  Knowing that, if nothing else, she and I shared something so important in common – a respect for, and appreciation of, animals.

LayItOnMyHeart-APneuman2I’m looking forward to starting this novel by Alice Walker, but admittedly, my heart is still half living with Charmaine Peake in Kentucky. I just finished Lay it on my Heart by Angela Pneuman, a novel about a 13 year-old girl whose father is, or believes himself to be, a prophet. Living in a small town crammed with churches of every faith possible, where one third of all the men are preachers or studying to be one, Charmaine and her mother Phoebe have been barely getting by in the year while her father has gone to the Holy Land, instructing them to live by their faith alone. This is a coming of age story where Charmaine must come to grips with all that is implied in having the father described, a mother who has felt compelled to honor his wishes, and a growing awareness that perhaps she isn’t and cannot be the holy and God-fearing person that has always been expected of her.

Charmaine’s relationship with her mother is best-described as that beginning struggle for independence, yet she feels constrained by her father’s beliefs of how she should behave as defined by the Old Testament and her desire to please him. Charmaine makes her own way in this story slowly, finding hypocrisies and truths all along the way. She grows to find friendship where she would have least expected it and a willingness to look at life in a way she would have never thought possible. The characters and relationships in this novel are very well-defined, so much so, that you are almost unaware at times of the truly impoverished state she and her mother are forced to live in because of her father’s choices. My one criticism of this book, even though I understand why they’re there, is the seemingly never-ending quotations from the Bible in the first third to half. I have no doubt that this is indeed the reality for the population written about (especially since the author is from Kentucky), but it often felt excessive, and made me wonder should I continue on. I’m glad I did, and I’m still digesting it all. Alice may have to wait just a wee bit.

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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 one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.”

― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Statue-ChildReading

With the annual New Jersey Society of Children’s Books Writers and illustrators (NJ SCBWI) June Conference on the horizon one has to think – there is something so amazing about so many individuals all streaming into one location from all over the country for a single purpose – to share, to learn and to grow in the one thing that unites us all – children’s books. We meet old friends and make some new, share and see amazing illustration, and have the opportunity to sit in workshops and at lunch tables, not just with our peers, but with editors and agents from some of the finest publishing companies and agencies in the U.S. Cheers to us all!

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