Saturday, December 31, 2016

16 Best Reads of 2016

Click on any title for a link to my review of these favorite books in 2016:

Favorite Fiction:

Favorite Non-Fiction:

Favorite Faith Reads:

Favorite Writing Reads:

Favorite Middle Grade:

Favorite Young Adult:

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Book Review: The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall

The tween audio book section of the library is always good for a short, clean listen. This book, The Ghost of Crutchfield Hall, met my need for a brief read that could be completed in three days of treadmill walking prior to our departure for the holidays. With hints of the flavor of The Secret Garden and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, this book tells a simple ghost story.

Twelve-year-old Florence arrives at her uncle's manor house glad to think that her life in the London orphanage is over. But, what awaits her there is a cold-hearted aunt, devoted to the memory of Florence's recently deceased cousin, Sophia. In the aunt's eyes, Florence doesn't hold a candle to Sophia. But, as Sophia manifests to her brother, James, and cousin, Florence, it is clear that Sophia wasn't the gem her aunt believed her to be. Intent to recreate the scene of her death, with the hopes of killing her brother, the ghost interferes with their lives at Crutchfield Hall.

While the story was interesting and the writing good, the ending just sort of fizzled out. I kept thinking something more would occur, but the last few chapters whimpered to a close without any further revelations. While the back cover proclaims that Hahn pays homage to Poe and Dickens, her story is not on the level of these greats. It is a simple story with fairly interesting story development. I suppose it would appeal to the tween set, but didn't really satisfy my grown-up tastes. I would give it three stars.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Sister Secret Santa Sock Exchange

I have joined a women's group from my church that meets once a month for a themed dinner and time of discussion. This month, to celebrate Christmas, we decided to hold a Sister Secret Santa Sock Exchange. It was a white elephant sort of affair. We each brought a pair of Christmas socks stuffed with goodies. I, of course, brought a Reader's Delight gift - I tucked a Half Price Book gift card into a pair of penguin socks, along with a metal book mark, and two different chocolate bars.

Here is what I came home with:

(Lindt chocolate truffles and a raspberry scented Krispy Kreme candle) Funnily enough, Trevor loved the fox socks when he saw them and said he would have taken them for himself if they had been a bit bigger to fit his feet - ha! I did see something in one of the other socks that made me think of him, although I'm resisting the urge to go purchase it for his stocking. It was a roll of toilet paper with a paper label that read: "In case you get CRAP for Christmas." This made me think of him, and chuckle, because he insisted that I not begin my Christmas shopping until he produced a list, because he said, "you always buy things I didn't necessarily want." Hee-hee!

Here's a photo of our legs revealing the socks received:

Merry Christmas, and may your own feet be toasty warm and your heart filled with friendship and fun!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Book Review: Sweet Tomorrows

This is the final episode in Debbie Macomber's Rose Harbor series. I was grateful to have the time to listen to it before Christmas, since I have left off writing for a spell (and it is certainly too cold to be walking the high school track). Sweet Tomorrows was a fun book to listen to and filled my treadmill time nicely.

Mark Taylor left Cedar Cove almost a year ago to complete a reconnaissance mission for the military. Once again, inn owner Jo Marie Rose finds herself waiting in limbo. At his insistence that she move on, Jo Marie begins dating again. She also takes in a more permanent guest, when she welcomes Emily Gaffney as a temporary boarder (Emily is taking on a teaching position and needs a place to stay while she searches for the right house). Despite two broken engagements, brought on in part by her infertility, Emily is determined to find a house and fill it with foster children. The owner of the house she has her eye on comes across as very gruff (because of his own grief and brokenness) and her hopes seem thin. But once again, as in previous books, the inn works its healing magic and hearts are filled with new hope and love.

Debbie Macomber has the ability to make her characters feel real, like friends you simply haven't met yet. She creates an enticing environment in Cedar Cove and peoples it with conflicting relationships and life problems. But, there is always redemption and healing waiting in the wings. I'd love to take a lesson from her on how to make that work out to such reader satisfaction. I'm sad to see the series end and will miss the characters. Perhaps she will reprise them again in the distant future.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Christmas Wish

The Christmas Wish may be my only token Christmas read of the year. I have to confess, I picked it up on a quick trip into the library for a video for my youngest and selected it because it was on display and looked like a quick and easy read. The book did not disappoint in that sense. I polished it off in a few days. While I don't rank it up there with Karen Kingsbury's Red Glove series, it did put me in a Christmasy mood.

Will Martin has returned to his childhood home (where he grew up with his grandparents after his parents died in a car accident when he was four) to put in order his grandfather's business. His grandmother has only one wish for Christmas. Ever since the grandfather's death, Will's grandmother has been reading her husband's journals. With little to go on, Will must search for the clues behind his grandfather's yearly secret visits (every Christmas Eve) with a woman named Lillian. In the process, Will learns far more about his grandfather than he ever knew while the man was still alive.

I found Will's original girlfriend choice to be quite abrasive and irritating. Then, when he finally sees the light and exits that scene, he immediately latches onto another woman and by the end of the book (just days later) is unbelievably proposing to her. That was a bit far-fetched. Plus, I'd have to say that I guessed the ending quite soon in the story. Still, I didn't put it down and the author capably kept me reading. Not my favorite Christmas novel, but passing fair (perhaps 3 stars). Apparently, there's a movie version starring Neil Patrick Harris. I won't seek it out.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Book Review: Neighbor as Yourself

It was like Christmas came early! I opened the front door to find a much welcomed package waiting for me:

Bedecked with my friend Kyle's classic artwork even:

I always buy myself at least one gift for Christmas (here's my gift from two Christmases ago). This year it was a no-brainer. As soon as I learned that my old writer's group friend, Kyle White, had published another book, I wanted to buy the book as my Christmas present to myself - ha! Kyle was kind enough to send an autographed copy.

Like its predecessor Wisconsin River of Grace, this little book entitled Neighbor as Yourself is a collection of Midwest personal essays and poems. Kyle's writing always gets the reader thinking and contemplating life's deeper questions - questions of faith and purpose and God's grace. The first book focused more on his love of Wisconsin, his original home. In this book, he has made peace with his transplantation to Sycamore, Illinois, and recognizes God's blessing can fall no matter where you are located (even Indiana, Kyle, even Indiana).

I loved the pages of introduction with these two telling quotes:

"The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world ... The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us." - G.K.Chesterton

And - "Our unity is constituted by our inability to tell our stories without one another's stories." - Stanley Hauerwas.

I don't know who Stanley is, but he certainly shares my love of storytelling and attributes accurately the interdependence of story in our lives.

Kyle's humor shines through, like in his little piece called "Quotidian Meeting of Insomnia Committee." Who among us cannot relate to the middle of the night important (or less-than-important) business cogitation? In "The Scandalous Truth about You and Cold Weather," Kyle once again makes me laugh about our relationship to the seasons (reminiscent of his letter of recommendation, titled "To Whom it May Concern," on behalf of autumn for the position left vacant by summer, found in the last book). There are a few essays about facial hair and disastrous haircuts, and one about mothers waving at the bus stop like people do when they're drowning ... like people do when they're about to be rescued from drowning - ha!

But, there are serious things to contemplate, as well. One of the first essays in the book tells of an experience when Kyle happened upon the aftermath of a horrific accident on the day after Christmas. In reading about it, I felt as if it happened to me. That essay, along with others, caused me to reflect on death. This dose of deep reflection, flavored with bits of laughter, sums up Kyle's books nicely. As he declares in a heartfelt prayer on the back cover - "For our thinking that everything lasts forever: grant us mercy. And, one more day of 45% relative humidity. Amen."

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Giving Up - Well, Sort of

So ... I started the second half of the novel over again, this time with the main character encountering a young runaway girl who billed herself as living with an elderly ill grandmother. She breaks into their shed to steal a horse blanket and begs off a couple bananas another day with the story that they were making banana bread and when they opened their perfectly yellow bananas found that they were too bruised up to use (and they didn't want to throw out the already mixed ingredients). At this point the girl is doing some light labor in the garden for the woman and the woman gives her a few bucks here and there for her trouble. She has gone on two garden field trips with the family (she said she is home schooled). She is burrowing into their hearts.

And then, I get to the part where the rubber hits the road and I feel stuck all over again. It is like I'm trying to write outside of my element (which is true, since I'm a YA writer attempting a women's novel). I need to research what would truly happen if a family provided shelter for a runaway (even if they did not understand her true dilemma) and I cannot seem to find knowledgeable individuals ready to share their information with me. I had written to a CPS worker when the character was a younger abused child and was curtly told that "As a practitioner, such a request cannot be honored."

In other research, I've found the most common response is "policy dictates that we are not able to respond to something along these lines." It is frustrating. I am trying to write about something I have no experience with and am having trouble envisioning it all on my own, yet research is like attempting some kind of covert mission for the CIA. I guess what I really need is friends in high places and I don't have such friends.

So, as we approach the days where the boys will be home full time and the holidays will disrupt writing mojo, I've decided to set the whole thing aside. It breaks my heart because my old pattern (prior to the Nanowrimo experience) was always to start and then set aside. In the last eight years, I've never failed to complete a manuscript and I don't really want to do that. However, it is quite possible that the story line simply needs some time to simmer in my brain. I need to come up with a solution that still provides intense redemptive possibilities without veering into the "off-limits" territory of child abuse policy. What is clear is that the secondary character in Part Two needs some form of help from the primary character and the help that she provides will bring healing both to her own soul and to the heart and soul of the secondary character. Those are big shoes to fill. God does it all the time. Sadly, I'm not him.

For now, my plan is to ruminate on the obstacles and possibilities for a few weeks and then pick the writing back up in January with the same fervor of a Nanowrimo month. When I spoke with my parents this weekend, they expressed concern that I had given up on my most recent YA novel (the one I believe is my best effort yet). I haven't. Even despite setbacks and discouragement and the rejection of a pursued agent, I will get back to marketing that book. But here again, I need some time off. So, I'm giving up to spend time focused on the holidays.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Book Review: Paperboy

I had noticed this book a few times before, but when my middle school son came home saying he had to read it, I decided to read it with him (to help him when it came time for him to write up his book report). Paperboy tells the story of a young boy in the 1950s who lives in the South and deals with a stuttering problem. Amazon lists this Newbery Honor book as "perfect for fans of To Kill a Mockingbird, The King's Speech, and The Help."

After hitting his best friend Rat in the mouth with a baseball, Victor feels obligated to take over Rat's paper route when Rat has to go visit his grandparents for the month of July. Because of his love of baseball, the throwing part thrills him. Because of his stutter, the collections part terrifies him. The book is full of interesting characters. My favorites were Mam, the boy's African American caretaker (similar to Aibileen in The Help) and Mr. Spiro, an educated man who gives the boy clues to help him discover his true identity (my son loved the image of the offered corners of the dollar bill with S-words on them so much that he used it for his book report's visual aid - sadly the teacher scorned his offering and said it showed "little creativity").

While the book is about identity and resilience, it is primarily about individual story. Once again, we all have a story to tell. As this book puts it, "it matters more what you say than how you say it." Toward the end of the book, Victor declares "my soul doesn't s-s-s-stutter." An excellent selection for any young reader who doubts their worth or struggles with their identity because of a disability (heads up - it does portray some intense social ills like alcoholism, domestic violence, and racial tension, and hints at the inappropriate affections of an adult neighbor).

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Book Review: Finding God in the Ruins

There couldn't have been a better book for me to read while working on a novel about redemption than this book by Matt Bays, Finding God in the Ruins. Subtitled "How God Redeems Pain," this book is a brief contemplation on the quest to understand how and why God uses pain and suffering in our lives. The author chooses to look the most devastating moments of life squarely in the eye and not shy away from the story or the pain. I devoured this book in one sitting. Apart from an uncomfortable passage where Bays talks of giving God the middle finger, I'd count this a five star book for its honesty and encouragement.

Before he even begins to share his transparent story of a life filled with sexual abuse and familial dysfunction, Bays caught me with these three paragraphs:

"For many years in my own search for redemption, I needed others to be the hands of God to me - to let me know that if things didn't work out, they would stand with me, even if I stopped believing.

"Most of my spiritual mentors never said the words I was desperate to hear: 'I'm sorry for all you are going through. You are going to make it, and I'm going to be there for you if you need me. You don't need to be anything other than what you are in this moment.' Instead, I heard only this substandard spiritual remedy: 'God has a plan, and one day he will use this for his glory, so get on with it.'

"My brokenness for God's glory. It felt like a slap in the face. I could not bear the responsibility for making sure my pain would eventually be turned into something that would make God look good. What I really needed to know was that in spite of my pain, I would be okay, even if things never got turned around."

And that is the blessed takeaway from this book. You can, indeed, find God in the ruins of your life. He is working on making something useful of your pain. Moreover, you don't have to sanitize your life and make it acceptable. You can tell God exactly how you feel about your circumstances. As two chapter subtitles put it, "God Wants You to Tell the Truth - The Uncensored Version of Your Story." Bays recognizes the importance of the stories our lives tell, especially the messy ones that many Christians want to silence. Toward the end of the book, he writes, "Each of us has a calling that comes from the core ache within us - a calling to write with our lives the beautiful stories of God's redemption. To remind others that all of our pain has been regulated. So when hopelessness seems to have had the last word, the love of God instead, which has been written on our hearts, will set God's redemption loose in the enemy's pawnshop."

As I read, I discovered that the author lives in Indianapolis, not far from me. How I want to contact him and say, "I'm working on a novel about this very topic. I'd love to meet you and talk about the writing process and the story I'm trying to tell." But then, fear holds me back and I tell myself, "Just get on with it. Maybe if you finish the manuscript, you can one day ask him to write an endorsement, if he's willing to take the time to read your writing." I have to argue with myself from Bays' own words and say "Your story is what God will use most of all." May that be true and may Bays' encouraging words spur me to keep on writing.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Back Up, Start Over

When I last wrote about my novel writing venture in November, things were going splendidly. I had completed Part One of the current novel and had entered into the waters of Part Two. I had met the Nanowrimo goal of 50,000 words for the one month time period. Everything was swimming along.

Then came Thanksgiving. I'm sure there are a myriad of reasons why a holiday can throw your writing mojo into the gutter. I wasn't even responsible for the meal, thanks to my hubby's willingness to do the cooking. I feel like I have no excuse, yet the writing started to creep along at a horrifying pace. First, I stopped meeting my 2000 word-a-day goal. Then, during the height of the holiday, I had four different zero word days (groan). Over the last two weeks, I've only squeaked out 14,576 words.

Even more concerning, it just felt like the second portion of the novel wasn't clear in my mind. The characters felt wrong. The agent for resolution was too complicated (led into territory where I couldn't really research the answers to questions on-line but would need more specialized knowledge). It makes sense that the first half was the easier section to write. It is far more challenging to write healing than it is to bleed pain onto the page. Still, I was growing quite disillusioned. I spent inordinate amounts of time researching location and setting details and while those are important, they were getting in the way of real writing.

Then, yesterday morning, as I was mulling over the difficulties again, I had a revelation of sorts. I had always envisioned the key secondary character in Part Two as a young girl named Dakota. When she appeared at all (and I wasn't seeing her very clearly), she had a widowed father in her life and the parent was getting in the way. As I thought about it more, I realized that perhaps she is not a young girl, but is rather a teenage runaway, named Savannah, that the main character believes to be a neighbor. This scenario provides its own challenges and again, I may be in over my head. But, even though I'm still a bit hazy on the details, I'm pretty sure that I need to back up and start over. I plan to scrap almost all of the work done in the past two weeks and begin again on Monday (when I can focus clearly on the writing without boys underfoot), rewriting Part Two.

If there is any consolation in all of this, it is that I am very pleased with the first half of the novel. It has set the stage for the second half quite well and established character, dilemma, conflict, and an even story arc. Sadly, the days are growing colder and my morning walks have become more difficult to accomplish. I work best when I have that time to ponder the characters and their individual needs. Plus, I use that time to pray and offer up my minimal talents to be used as the Lord sees fit (praying that He would multiply my loaves and fishes). So, as I plow into December and a new start to the second half of my novel, I'm hoping for two solid weeks of intense focus and productivity while the boys finish up their last full weeks of school before the winter break arrives. Goodbye Dakota. Hello Savannah.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Book Review: The Woman in Cabin 10

Even though I wasn't a huge fan of Ruth Ware's thriller, In a Dark, Dark Wood, I decided to give the author another shot when I read the premise behind this novel, The Woman in Cabin 10. The book is about a travel magazine journalist who is invited aboard a press junket voyage of an exclusive cruise ship. While on board, she believes she witnesses a woman being thrown overboard. She is frustrated when the security officer fails to believe her report and even more flummoxed when all the passengers are accounted for.

The book begins with the journalist, Laura Blacklock, experiencing a break-in in her London flat. Has that break-in caused her to be overly anxious or to feel undue fear while she is on board the ship? Did she really hear the splash and see the mark of blood on the neighboring veranda window or was it merely her imagination and nerves at play? Can she be trusted as a reliable narrator when she is on antidepressant medication for anxiety or when she drinks more than she should?

All of these questions stir within the reader as the story unfolds. I was gripped and entertained by the process of listening to the audio version of this book. I did enjoy this book, with its multiple twists and turns, far more than Ware's last offering. However, my chief complaint was with a formatting issue from the audio version. The tracks were unbearably long. One track went on for over 32 minutes. This would be all fine and dandy if I were listening on a device that would stop and restart wherever I had last been in the story. Sadly, the player I use by my treadmill only allows me to stop the track and restart from the beginning of each track. Thus, I would finish my workout and be six minutes into a track, never knowing whether I would require another two minutes or another thirty minutes to finish the track. Groan! Why, oh why, couldn't they have provided three to five minute tracking?

My only other complaint was that you end up absolutely hating Blacklock. She is a whiny, drunken, neurotic narrator and you know from the start to be suspicious of her version of things. Still, if you can get past the annoyance with her character, she does live through a riveting story.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Book Review: Found Faithful

Found Faithful was another book I selected after searching for books on the redemption of pain and suffering. Elizabeth Skoglund has gathered together stories for miniature biographies of eighteen famous Christian figures. Ten are treated with small vignettes and eight of the more prominent Christians are highlighted in whole chapters (people like Charles Spurgeon, Amy Carmichael, C.S. Lewis and Ruth Bell Graham).

If ever there was evidence that faith can flicker on despite trials and discouragement, the lives of these individuals provide some of the best. Again and again, despite great difficulties, these Christian giants chose to cling to God in spite of circumstances that could break anyone. I jotted down a few noteworthy quotes to chew on while writing my current novel.

Amy Carmichael wrote, "Trials are not 'chastisement.' No earthly father goes on chastising a loving child. That is a common thought about suffering, but I am quite sure that it is a wrong thought.... They are battle wounds. They are signs of high confidence - honors."

In the chapter on Spurgeon, the author quoted him as saying, "It is not the trouble, but the hiding of our Father's face, which cuts us to the quick.... It is only felt affliction which can become blest affliction. If we are carried in the arms of God over every stream, where would be the trial and where the experience which trouble is meant to teach us?"

C.S. Lewis himself doubted that he would recover from the pain of losing his wife, Joy. He wrote:

"Getting over it so soon? But the words are ambiguous. To say the patient is getting over it after an operation for appendicitis is one thing; after he's had his leg off it is quite another.... If it heals, the fierce, continuous pain will stop. Presently he'll get back his strength and be able to stump about on his wooden leg. He has 'got over it.' But he will probably have recurrent pains in the stump all his life, and ... he will always be a one-legged man. There will be hardly any moment when he forgets it. Bathing, dressing, sitting down and getting up again, even lying in bed, will all be different. His whole way of life will be changed.... At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again."

The author reminds the reader of Christ's following God's will, saying "It cost him blood." Thus, the cloud of witnesses revealed in Skoglund's book remind a Christian of a very important fact - we are evidence to on-lookers when we react to the trials that life places in our paths. They see our faith tested and watch carefully to see how we respond. It might cost us dearly, but if God is our "reference point" (as He was in the life of Ruth Bell Graham) then we can and will weather whatever storm comes our way. Ours is the opportunity to join this group of faithful saints.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Thanksgiving Puzzle

I'm so thrilled that my younger boys are old enough now to get into doing puzzles with me. We have a tradition of doing a puzzle over the Thanksgiving weekend. This year, we selected a 550 piece puzzle that was fairly easy, so we were able to put it together in the space of a day. I love that this one has so much action and that it focuses on a music theme:

The puzzle was by Tooniverse and called "Rhapsody in Zoo." I enjoyed all the funny details like the baby in the orchestra, sucking a pacifier, a penguin playing a drum, and even a couple of monkeys (my favorite animal). The puzzle can be purchased at the Serious Puzzles website.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Book Review: Our Ultimate Refuge

As I passionately pursue the creation of another manuscript - this one a tale of good intent gone wrong, ending in redemption - I have purposely plunged myself into books about problems of suffering and how God works to redeem the broken pieces of our lives. Thus, I sought out Oswald Chambers' book on Job and the problem of suffering, called Our Ultimate Refuge. Although I was able to glean some vision and insight from its pages, I have to admit it was somewhat difficult to follow and understand what the author was attempting to communicate. It simply lacked accessibility for the reader and that's too bad.

This little book was at least a quick read, at only 138 pages. Oswald Chambers gave a series of talks in 1917 and these words were gleaned from notes taken during the lectures. He addressed a male audience and, of course, minds were clearly focused on suffering caused by a world at war. The focus is on that perplexing question: "Why do the righteous suffer?"

The publisher's forward outlines clearly what the book is attempting to express: "Chambers presents God as not only the ultimate refuge, but our only refuge. With characteristic insight, he discusses our myths of self-sufficiency and eternal optimism, revealing their inadequacy when faced with the destruction of all that human-kind values. Only with a sense of ultimate and utter loss do we come to admit that all we have is God."

Here's some of what I did take away from the treatise. Chambers writes: "The majority of us start out with the belief that God is good and kind, and that He prospers those who trust in Him. Job believed this, but he has a conscious resurgence against that belief now, and it is Job's goodness, not his badness, which makes him reconsider things. There are things in the experience of us all which call for a revision of our credal findings about God."

He argues toward the end of the book, that "Job never knew that Satan and Jehovah had made a battleground of his soul." When faced with undeserved suffering, we must remember that our souls are a constant battleground and we must say with Job that though He slay us, yet we will trust Him. In another section Chambers speaks of the "rehabilitation" of faith in God (from Job 42:1-2) What is needed is a restoration to the former state of trust and belief. He writes, "I have to believe that God is good in spite of all that contradicts it in my experience. It is not easy to say that God is love (1 John 4:8) when everything that happens actually gives the lie to it. Everyone's soul represents some kind of battlefield. The point for each one is whether we will hang on, as Job did, and say 'Though things look black, I will trust in God.'"

The problem is outlined further when he writes: "Many of us have no faith in God at all, but only faith in what He has done for us, and when these things are not apparent we lose our faith.... The danger of experience is that our faith is made to rest in it, instead of seeing that our experience is simply a doorway to God Himself."

There will always be the problem of suffering. Why does a good God allow it in the world? Why do innocents pay the price of someone else's sin? Surely, we think, a loving, benevolent Creator would want to repay trust and belief with the prosperity we crave, and yet we are often plunged into "the dark night of the soul," and cannot see our way clear to Him or his provision. Chambers rightly directs the reader's focus back on God, the right place to hang our hopes and dreams.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Blessed by Another Writing Retreat

This week, I was privileged with the opportunity to get away for my third writing retreat. For the second year in a row, my husband has encouraged me to slip away for several days to an idyllic retreat center in Northern Indiana (my first one had been to a small cabin in Southern Indiana and it was so small and isolated that I had no Internet connection there - sometimes Internet comes in handy to research something that comes up in the writing).

What a blessing those days turned out to be!

The retreat center is basically a stunning house on Lake Bruce. Last year, I spent more time writing in a location where I could physically look out on the serene scene of the water (for photos of the suite and the desk where I wrote looking out on the water, see last year's retreat post):

This year, I holed up in the Francis Schaeffer Suite and wrote furiously without viewing the water. The first day, I managed to get in 4,610 words, even though I didn't arrive until late afternoon. The second day, I woke at 5:30 and was basically a whirling dervish of words for twelve hours, spilling out another 8,488 words. When I woke on the third day there, I hit a blockage, not knowing where to send the story from that point. So, I did what I always do when I'm stuck ... I took a walk, which included a brief visit to a small prayer chapel on the property:

I thought the words above the prayer chapel and inside were perfect for the piece on spiritual redemption that I am working on: The front of the chapel says "Be still and know that I am God," while the inside bears a verse from Psalm 62:8 - "Trust in him at all times, you people, pour out your hearts to Him, for God is our refuge."

On the wall, I found this telling plaque with more words to spur on my writing about brokenness and redemption:

It reads: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners." - Isaiah 61:1

How appropriate, since my character is deeply broken and in need of a healing, restorative touch.

I was shocked when on the last day, a new character pushed her way into the scene ... someone I had not anticipated playing a part in the story. That day, I managed 3689 words, which brought me to over 21 thousand words for my retreat and pushed me into the winner's circle for the Nanowrimo effort by making my word count 50,539. Yippee!

To celebrate my productivity, I watched a movie in the spacious movie room in the basement on the last night. The screen covers almost the whole wall ... it was like having my own private theater.

My youngest, Sean, had quite a tough time in my absence and called me every afternoon/evening, begging me to come home early. I am a short way into Part Two of the novel and am guessing that I still have another 30 or 40 thousand words to write, but am thrilled to have made such good progress while I was gone.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Book Review: Another Place at the Table

I wasn't really sure what kind of research I should do for the novel I am presently working on. My hope is that it becomes a moving story of redemption. Those are my favorite type of novels to read. When I searched for books under the key word redemption, this book, Another Place at the Table, came up on our library's website. The subtitle is accurate: A Story of Shattered Childhoods Redeemed by Love. This truly was a redemptive tale and the truth in this author's writing clearly helped me to hone my characters and plot progression.

Kathy Harrison writes with intense humility about her revolving door policy. As foster parents, she and her husband take in numerous children who need temporary love and acceptance and a safe place to call home. The stories of these fragile young lives were shocking and often heartbreaking. I appreciated the author's willingness to paint herself as an ordinary woman doing her best in very demanding circumstances. I would not have known how to deal with many of the situations she confronted.

The abuse these children endured is horrific. The reader cannot help but weep on their behalf. Yet, through it all, Kathy and her husband extended hands of love and acceptance. They met the challenges and obstacles with grace and understanding. They rooted for their kids whether they were in their home for a week or several years. Love certainly can redeem lives that have been marred by the evil in this world. While not every child ended up with a happy ending, the story provided hope and inspiration.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Book Review: Some Writer!

E.B. White wrote three stellar children's books: Stuart Little, Charlotte's Web, and The Trumpet of the Swan. Each of these books not only sucks a child into the story but also moves that child to feel deeply about the actions in the book. My boys are familiar with all three (although I think we only watched the movie version of Stuart Little). So, this book crossed my hands as an author interested in how another author honed his skills and as a reader interested in the ideas that led to three of my favorite children's books.

Melissa Sweet has done a marvelous job of bringing E.B. White to life in this book. She blends art and words to tell the story of his boyhood, young adult years, and professional life. My son, Sean, read through bits of this book with me and we were astounded at how many dogs E.B. White owned (we counted at least eight in the photos and text). I was most intrigued by the chance to review the many different opening chapters he wrote for Charlotte's Web.

Although most of my opening paragraphs have stuck (all but one book, I think), it is very freeing to know that a master such as E.B. White worked through several different options before landing on the best words. He is quite adamant about the use of words. Every word should count. He also emphasized the importance of writing that expresses your love for life. Sound writing advice. As his obituary recognized, "White had abundantly that most precious and least learnable of writerly gifts - the gift of inspiring affection in the reader."

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Book Review: The Hundred Dresses

When I happened upon the audio book The Hundred Dresses, my heart immediately soared because I remembered loving this book as a young girl. Still, it has been years and years since I was first exposed to it and my memory of the story was vague. I'm so glad I spent an hour relishing the story again.

Wanda Petronski is a poor Polish girl who wears the same old faded dress to school each day. When a classmate comes in a stunning new dress, Wanda timidly squeaks out that she has one hundred dresses all lined up in her closet at home. This becomes fuel for rampant teasing. In the end, the girls discover the true secret to Wanda's hundred dresses and learn a lesson in kindness from her friendly response.

One day, I hope to have a granddaughter and I will happily read her this lovely tale. I will read it to her from my beloved collection of Collier's Junior Classics (which contains Louis Slobodkin's original illustrations for this 1945 Newbery winner - much better than the cover photo for the Recorded Books version). Hopefully, her heart will revel in the story as much as mine did all those years ago.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Book Review: The Girl From the Train

Finally! Finally, after several weeks of less-than-stellar book selections, I found a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. Someone from my on-line book club suggested The Girl From the Train as a comparable title for readers who enjoyed The Book Thief. Not to be confused with the currently popular, The Girl on the Train, this book tells a story from World War II that centers on one young Jewish girl who escapes the dreaded death camps thanks to the intervention of one brave man.

Six-year-old Gretl Schmidt jumps from a train and waits quietly to be reunited with her mother and grandmother, once they reach the next up-hill stretch and an opportunity to jump also. Meanwhile, twenty-one-year-old Jakob Kowalski plants a bomb on the track, intended to take out a train full of German soldiers. When Gretl's unscheduled train, bound for Auschwitz, crosses the bomb, her beloved mother and grandmother do not survive. Jakob feels a sense of obligation to this sole survivor and takes her in to live with his family for a time. But the dangers of discovery force his hand and, risking exposure, he presents her as a German war orphan to an organization hoping to rehome such children with adoptive Protestant families in South Africa. Neither Gretl nor Jakob can reveal the truth of her nationality, her Catholic upbringing, or her ties to communist Poland. They do not know if they will ever meet again, but theirs is a strong connection formed in the midst of trial and tragedy.

I think one of the reasons the book resonated so strongly is because it is a vivid story of redemption. The brokenness of this world is redeemed through the courage and intrepid faith of ordinary individuals. Despite the loss and sorrow revealed in the story, it leaves the reader with a sense of hope and gratitude for the resilience of the human spirit. I'm so glad someone brought this heart-warming book to my attention.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Book Review: Best State Ever

I should know to do more research into my audio book selections, but sometimes I just have a few moments to run into the library and find something (this was the case with this selection and I regret it). There were a few things about Best State Ever that pulled me in. I needed a short book because I intend to resume walking on the track where I can spend my walking time thinking long and hard about my writing tasks for Nanowrimo. This book was only four discs long. Having never really read anything by Dave Barry, I knew he was supposed to be a humorist. Plus, the book is a defense of the state of Florida, where my parents live. Interesting, no? No. Not really interesting or very funny. Too crude in spots. I shall simply say, I endured for the sake of brevity.

While Carl Hiassen may identify Barry as "the funniest damn writer in the whole country," I only chuckled occasionally. Dave Barry highlights the absurdity of Florida, including a Bigfoot-like character known as the "skunk ape," alligator wrestling, elderly villages where line-dancing reigns supreme, and long treks through Key West's drunken party scene. I think the only part I perked up at was his explanation of his visit to Lock and Load in Miami, a place where men can fire machine guns (living in a house full of males, I can bet this would be a highlight for them, should we ever visit Miami ... nowhere near my parent's humble Florida home). It did kill the time and keep my mind off the miles, but it wasn't nearly as enjoyable or humorous as I was anticipating. Alas, my book choices of late have been a wash.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Goodbye October, Hello November

This feels like the calm before the storm. The boys are out trick-or-treating with their dad and I'm sitting here ruminating over what I should write about for my upcoming Nanowrimo effort. This will be my eighth year of writing a book during the month of November. Seven times I've accomplished not only the 50,000 words-in-a-month challenge, but also the completion of each manuscript. My prayer is that I be successful again, but we shall see.

Here are the boys in all their crazy glory:

The amazing thing is that they didn't request gruesome costumes this year. A peeled banana and a homeless man! Can't get much tamer than that!

Let the festivities begin:

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Book Review: So Brave, Young, and Handsome

It has been over a decade since I read Leif Enger's blockbuster novel, Peace Like a River. In my memory, it was an outstanding book, so much so that I purchased a copy for my mother. I had heard reasonably good things about So Brave, Young, and Handsome. However, I cannot say my feelings were as strong for this book. Indeed, I don't think I even liked it at all. Perhaps that is because it was about cowboys and outlaws (just not my thing) or perhaps it didn't resonate with me. At many points in the novel, the narrator (an author) bemoans the weight of attempting to follow-up a bestselling book. This novel suffers in the same manner.

The author, Monte Becket, meets his mysterious neighbor, Glendon Hale, and Glendon begs him come along on a trip to make amends with his former wife, Blue. Frustrated with his own futile efforts to work on another book, Monte jumps at the chance and leaves his wife and son to travel with Glendon out West. Along the way, Monte discovers that Glendon is a wanted man, running from the determined Pinkerton detective, Charles Siringo.

While the chase was somewhat interesting, I never really connected with any of the characters and didn't care what the outcome was. I actually wanted the narrator to simply leave off and return to his loving wife and lively son. In the end, I wish I had chosen something more riveting and exciting to read, perhaps even reading Peace Like a River again.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Distressed and Puzzled

Today I'm feeling extremely distressed about my writing career (something unexpected and depressing developed and although I don't wish to proclaim it, it is really pulling me down). But, I'm still having fun as evidenced by the 750 piece puzzle the boys and I worked on for the past two days. It was great fun (I love puzzles where a lot is going on because it makes it easier to complete and a joy to work on):

(No matter what I try, I cannot seem to get the photos to post in a horizontal position, sorry)

If you wish to purchase this entertaining puzzle, follow this link. Or if you wish to purchase it for even less, used, follow this link. I found mine at the Goodwill for only $3.00 and it even had all the pieces - yippee! The boost of positive vibes from completing this with my kids was priceless.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Fall Break Filler

I needed a filler post today because my reading has been quite unsatisfactory of late. I abandoned two books after reading/listening for far too long. I attempted Maria Semple's newest book, Today Will Be Different. I read over 150 pages before finally deciding it just wasn't worth the time and energy. It seemed to be going nowhere fast and I didn't exactly get the whole appeal of the insertions of the Flood Sisters manuscripts. The main character was unlikeable. The novel was not really funny, either. While I did mostly enjoy Where'd You Go, Bernadette, this one left me cold and eventually, I just gave up ... wasting a whole mess of reading time. Groan.

Then, in my treadmill time, I had been attempting the first novel in Lisa Gardner's Detective D.D. Warren series, Alone. I enjoyed the fifth in the series, Love You More, before realizing it was a series to begin with. Although this book had the same gripping intensity of Love You More, it was full to the brim with coarseness and filth. I understand that detectives probably curse a fair amount and to be realistic, the author felt a need to include the foul language. But, the sexual filth was wholly unnecessary and the gist of the story could have been communicated just as effectively without all the smut and details. Since the book involves a pedophile who abducted one of the main characters as a twelve-year-old child, there were details that just unnerved me and made me finally give up on finding out whether or not Detective Bobby Dodge would be charged with murder after shooting the woman's husband in a Swat team operation. Just not a thriller series I feel I can recommend in good conscience to readers who have any moral fiber.

So, instead of reviewing abandoned books, I will provide details of our semi-boring fall break. We were more aware of how boring it was because Sean's homework was to collect images and items for a collage about his fall break. One of his classmates went to Paris for break. I'm sure his collage was far more impressive than Sean's. Ah well. The boys enjoyed lots of time to sit and play Guitar Hero.

In addition to a quick weekend trip to visit their grandmother (I had to stay home to water several patches of new grass), and an hour at the local trampoline place, we also headed down to Brown County for a few days in the Nashville, Indiana area. We hiked a trail on Ogle Lake:

The next day we walked the streets of Nashville, taking in the sights and visiting our favorite shops (like The Candy Emporium, the Halloween shop, where the boys fell in love with and purchased two soft bamboo pillows, the knife shop, where the boys both bought pocket knives - oh joy - and I purchased a beautiful pair of earrings, and the Man Cave shop - ha). The day wouldn't be complete without lunch at The Ordinary and a mining experience for the boys:

The boys had a blast, even if our break was fairly uneventful:

And on the way home from Brown County, I even thought I saw a black bear perched in a tree (too bad we were speeding by too quickly to snap a photo).

Monday, October 17, 2016

Book Review: Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd

I thought perhaps, after the last installment of the Flavia deLuce mysteries, that I was simply tiring of the series. Instead, I think I'm still in love, but just experienced a lag when Flavia went off to Canada instead of working in her natural environs of Bishops Lacey, a small country town in England. Now that the twelve-year-old sleuth has returned to bonnie England, in Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd, she is back in full form and happy to be home (even if home is much quieter than in the past).

Although she expects a vibrant homecoming, she is greeted by a tight-lipped Dogger (her father's right hand man) who informs her that her father is in the hospital. Rather than glumly sitting at home in Buckshaw with her moody sisters and her annoying cousin, Undine, Flavia decides to pay a visit to her old friend, the vicar's wife. She is sent on an errand and finds a reclusive wood-carver hanging upside down from a door in his house, dead as a doorknob, of course. Instantly, Flavia goes into sleuth-mode remarking, "It's amazing what the discovery of a corpse can do for one's spirits."

Flavia takes in all the clues and sets out to determine who the man was and how he came to be in his precarious and fatal position. Once again, Flavia provides a running inner dialogue (her distinctive voice that sets her apart) and a good dose of chemistry lessons. With her trusty bicycle, Gladys, she roams the countryside securing one clue after the next. Sadly, her final discovery gives her the biggest shock of all. I will be anxiously awaiting the next book in the series, to see where life takes Flavia next and what new mystery she intends to uncover.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Book Review: The Nightingale

This was a book club selection. After trudging through last month's lengthy book (without much enthusiasm), I was feeling a bit nervous about taking on another book of 400+ pages. Plus, it was a book about World War II and I wasn't really feeling up for that topic. However, I'm so glad I stuck with this book. It was a very moving and emotionally-stirring read. I should have expected good things because I have always loved other books by Kristin Hannah.

The Nightingale is the story of two sisters in war-torn France. Isabelle, the younger, is a reckless, headstrong teenager who has already been expelled from (and run away from) countless boarding schools. Vianne, the older, has a husband and young child, and lives in the country. When Isabelle is sent away from yet another school, her father sends her to live with Vianne (whose husband has gone to the front to fight). Nazis invade Vianne's quaint little village and a German captain requisitions her home. Isabelle is restless in the little town and cannot bite her tongue often enough in the presence of the enemy, so she returns to Paris and joins the Resistance. Both sisters must make their way through the devastation of war and fight to defend what is right.

Hannah has not only captured the essence of war, but has highlighted the experiences of women in the war. These two different sisters might struggle to get along, but they are both determined to make a difference in their dark corner of the world. Although it took a little while for me to be fully enticed into the story, once pulled in, I could not look away. As I finished reading the book, my youngest son came in to tell me that dinner was waiting (so thankful that my husband was willing to cook while I read on). He found me weeping and I had to recount why once we were seated together at the table. My husband's constant question is always, "is this a real story or just fiction?" Groan. Fiction for me is as good as real and I know that there were plenty of women who lived lives similar to the ones crafted in this novel. I was thoroughly moved by the bravery and fortitude of these fictional characters. It was definitely worth the effort.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Book Review: Truly, Madly, Guilty

I wavered on whether to bill Truly, Madly, Guilty as a highly recommended title. On the one hand, it was a thoroughly absorbing read, where I could not wait to return to the book and find out a bit more and just a bit more. On the other hand, since I listened to it in audio format (while walking on my treadmill and doing dishes), I had to be very careful not to listen in moments when my children were nearby because there was a great deal of discussion about sexuality in the story. In past novels by this author, I have felt that the sex was somewhat necessary to tell the story adequately (for example, in The Husband's Secret, a great deal depends on the revelation of the secret and how that secret impacts the husband-wife relationship). However, in this case, the sexuality seemed less essential to the telling of the story. It is true that there was a frisson of sexuality hanging in the air in the moments before the big moment that shattered their lives, but still ... the constant referral to sexuality kept me from feeling like this is a book to be highly recommended. Moreover, while I love tension to be drawn out, it seemed as if the crux of the matter took forever to be exposed. Even so, I did enjoy the book immensely and marveled at the author's skill in creating fully fleshed-out characters, with realistic conflicts, exposed moment-by-moment, until a full picture developed and left you with a story you couldn't forget.

At one point in the book, a character is asked to describe himself as a vegetable and he selects onion because "he has so many layers." That is an apt description of this book. It has many layers. There are subplots and side-trips that all come together when, finally, the event is revealed (far too deep into the book). The final taste, while it can be pleasant and complimentary, is also somewhat stringent.

Clementine and Erika have been friends since childhood, but their friendship is a complicated thing. Although each of them have doting husbands, satisfying careers, and much to be grateful for, there is a sense of dissatisfaction both individually and between them. The bonds of their friendship are tested most significantly through the events of one afternoon barbecue at Erika's neighbor's house. The neighbors, Vid and Tiffany, are a colorful couple who live out loud and are thrilled to be entertaining both Erika and her husband Oliver, and Clementine and her husband Sam, along with the children, Dakota (Vid and Tiffany's 10 year-old daughter) and Holly and Ruby (Clementine and Sam's six and two year old daughters). In a moment of conviviality, something goes horribly wrong and everyone is left wishing they could simply strike that day from their memories.

As the back cover of the audio-book proclaims, "In Truly, Madly, Guilty, Liane Moriarty takes on the foundation of our lives, marriage, sex, parenthood, and friendship. She shows us how guilt can expose the fault lines in the most seemingly strong relationships, how what we don't say can be more powerful than what we do, and how too often we don't appreciate how extraordinary our ordinary lives are until it's too late." These topics are held up to a magnifying glass until every aspect is exposed and investigated.

I enjoyed the details that emerged to tell the story. It was as if Moriarty was a painter, with a clear picture in her head, who dabs on a bit of paint here and then a bit of paint there, until the audience finally understands exactly what the portrait displays and how the paint works together to create the full effect. The tension was strong. I felt pulled along by the intense desire to know exactly what really took place at the barbecue and how it could have left such powerful ripples in the lives of the participants. The characters, each with their faults, foibles, and personal tics, were three-dimensional and seemed to come alive and feel like real living beings. The exploration of guilt was thought-provoking. The dissection of friendship rang true. This was a fully relatable tale that was expertly crafted (even if it took a tad bit too long to get to the meat of the matter and you felt like you were being endlessly teased with these exquisitely tasty details). Kudos to Liane Moriarty for yet another entertaining read!

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Book Review: Greenglass House

This book, Greenglass House, is a great read for tweens who love a good mystery, have a healthy imagination, and are in the mood for a dead-of-winter type of read. It is also highly recommended for those who are adopted and have ever wondered about their birth parents or heritage. The story is sure to please any child, adopted or not, because the mystery pulls you along with mounting clues until, with a bit of suspension of disbelief, the story is pieced together and resolved.

Milo Pine is a young Asian boy whose adoptive parents run an inn for smugglers atop a mountain in Nagspeake (near a harbor for easy water access). The young boy is disappointed to find his anticipated quiet winter vacation disrupted by unexpected guests. The bell rings, alerting the presence of a customer wishing to be conveyed on the roller-coaster-like car up the giant mountain (this image immediately brought forth memories of a trip up the Duquesne Incline in Pittsburgh, PA, back when I was a teenager, although this trip sounds more like a two-seater car pulled up on creaky old chains). Unbelievably, more guests arrive. Snow secludes them in the rickety old house and Milo, with the assistance of the cook's daughter, must determine why each guest has come. He suggests that they each tell a story, in a bid to find out more. The stories unfold, items are stolen and retrieved, new characters appear, and Milo takes on a special role to ferret out the facts of the case.

The framework is based loosely on a tale by Dickens called "The Holly Tree Inn" (where guests are trapped by inclement weather and pass the time by sharing stories). The author's note at the end of the book was fascinating. She told of the origin of the tale. She and her husband were in the process of adopting a young child from China (thus the adoption element which addresses many typical emotions young children feel when they are adopted). Plus, a writing prompt about "stained glass" led to her vision of the old house, with its windows and the stories such windows often tell. I always love to hear an author's explanation for the germ of a story.

Several parents in other reviews felt it important to mention that the book includes Dungeons and Dragons type role-playing games and the inclusion of a ghost in the story. For me, this was not a significant issue. I can handle the presence of such things and do not worry, if my sons choose to read it, that they would suddenly take up role-playing games or seek out spirits to communicate with. But, for some parents, this might be a factor in their book selection process.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Book Review: The Forgetting Time

What would you do if your four-year-old son had a pathological fear of water, woke from dreams of suffocation, and begged to go home to his other mom? What if he claimed to be another person who met with a tragic end and came back to life in a new body? This is the dilemma facing the mother in Sharon Guskin's intriguing debut novel, The Forgetting Time. It was excruciating to watch the pain of a mother attempting to figure out how to help her distressed son, yet I could not look away. I devoured this book in two quick sittings.

Janie is at her wits end trying to deal with her young son, Noah. She doesn't know where to turn when the preschool forbids her son from returning until he gets some help. At the same time, Dr. Jerome Anderson is facing his own wall when he receives a diagnosis of primary progressive aphasia (a form of dementia that slowly robs a person of language skills). His life's work is still unfinished and he is longing for something to prove his efforts have been worthwhile. Then, he meets Janie, and takes on the case of her son, Noah. Both individuals need to solve the puzzle of Noah's memories of a previous life.

While I do not believe in reincarnation, I was fully able to put myself into the shoes of this mother, desperate for some resolution for her son while equally fearful of his intense attachment to another mother figure. The author did an outstanding job of capturing the reader and telling an intriguing story. She based this work of fiction on the actual work of two doctors who explore the lives of children who seem to remember previous lives. She nailed so many aspects of a good story: interesting characters, an intriguing concept, seamless writing, a well-executed plot with steady progression, and a satisfying resolution. I won't be forgetting this book.