Holiday Reading, Take Two

I have some fiction recommendations for you this week. If you’re looking for a last-minute gift, there’s still time to choose a book, and many local bookstores are happy to arrange curbside pick-up. On this list, you’ll find a picture book, an intermediate novel and a young adult pick, as well as some adult titles to appeal to a variety of tastes.

I Am Scary by Elise Gravel. Picture book, ages 1 – 5. A monster tries to scare a child who refuses to be frightened. The monster wonders, “What will happen to me if I’m not scary?” The child offers him a hug and the monster melts . . . softening into an adorable creature. A sweet and humorous tale from Montrealer Elise Gravel.

Bloom by Kenneth Oppel. Intermediate Fiction, ages 8 – 14. It was just rain. But after the downpour, odd black plants begin to shoot up. They take over fields and twine around houses. They bloom and throw off toxic pollen – and feed. Strangely, three Saltspring Island teens – Anaya, Petra and Seth – seem immune. Are they the key to fighting back the invasion? They’d better figure it out fast, because it’s starting to rain again.

Kid Sterling by Christine Welldon. Young adult fiction, ages 12 – 18. Set in New Orleans in 1906. Sterling shines shoes, helping support his laundress mother. Sterling also plays the trumpet, and what he really wants is to learn from his idol, Buddy Bolden, who is playing music that’s turning New Orleans upside down. A richly textured story of a culture and character surviving against all odds.

What You Wish For by Katherine Center. Women’s fiction, contemporary. Voted a library reads pick for July 2020, Center’s characters come alive in this charming story that also touches on serious issues. School librarian Samantha Casey loves her life and job. But when a man from her past, Duncan Carpenter, shows up at the school to become the new principal, things quickly go downhill. Center writes about resilience and struggle and ultimately finding joy and savoring life’s moments of grace.  

The Lost Girls of Devon by Barbara O’Neal. Women’s fiction, contemporary. A story of four generations of women grappling with family betrayals, long-buried secrets and a mysterious tragedy that brings them together. Set in Devon, and rich in imagery, characterization and language, this story addresses some difficult issues from multiple points of view. A strong family drama with a touch of romance and mystery woven in.

The Paris Hours by Alex George. Literary, historical. Paris between the wars teems with artists, writers and musicians. But amidst the dazzling creativity of the city’s most famous citizens, four regular people are each searching for something they’ve lost. Told over the course of a single day in 1927, The Paris Hours tells the story of Camille, the maid of Marcel Proust; Souren, an Armenian refugee; artist Guillaume; and journalist Jean-Paul. When the quartet’s paths finally cross, each will learn if they’ll find what they were looking for.

And finally, here are two uplifting and light holiday-themed novels:

In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren. Sweet and laugh-out-loud funny in spots, this holiday romance features terrific characters, one of whom must relive her day multiple times, a la Groundhog Day. When Maelyn Jones asks the universe what happiness looks like for her, the answer she gets is more than she ever dreamed. A quick, easy read that will make you smile.

Christmas at the Island Hotel by Jenny Colgan. Set on a remote island off the coast of Scotland, a family in turmoil prepares to open a hotel in time for Christmas. Though the novel primarily focusses on the love story between a shy island girl and a fellow kitchen worker (a disgraced Norwegian prince exiled by his father) it also delves into other relationships and capers on the island. Quirky characters, tender and moving.

My November Reads

I think of late fall as my pause point before I start baking and preparing for the holidays. Even though the days are shorter and the nights are longer, I seem to have more time to devote to quieter pursuits, like reading. And these days, with the Covid numbers climbing and creating a sense of unease everywhere, books are my favorite way to escape. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult

Dance Away with Me by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Silver Bay by JoJo Moyes

Books read to date in 2020: 58

Beginner’s Mind

Like a lot of people these days, I’ve been teaching myself to make sourdough bread. A friend gave me a starter and I’ve had fun feeding it and trying out recipes.  The results have been mixed. Subtext: the results haven’t been what I expected or wanted.

I cook a lot and I enjoy it. I’m no professional but I know my way around a saucepan, I can turn out a decent meal, and I can bake. At thirteen I made my first batch of cream puffs; the choux pastry was so utterly perfect even I was surprised. I’ve made quick breads, flat breads, yeasted breads. Lots of bread, and almost always with delicious results. How hard could sourdough be?

Turns out, it’s harder than I thought.

The cinnamon buns disappeared quite quickly, and after a couple of tries, I eventually ended up with a passable loaf of bread. But it didn’t have the texture or lift I’ve come to expect from the sourdough breads I’ve devoured in the past.

Because of my previous experience with all things flour I figured I’d be able to do it well right out of the gate (those successful cream puffs spoiled me). But in reality, professional bakers can and often do spend years perfecting the perfect tangy, chewy sourdough loaf or crispy croissant. Working with just a few basic ingredients, they combine their scientific knowledge of the chemistry of baking with their life experience and personal philosophies to create an edible piece of art. Those same ingredients, in different hands, produce very different results.

It’s a bit like writing. Working with only 26 letters, authors combine their understanding of the craft of storytelling with their life experiences and personal philosophies to create readable works of art. Those same letters, in different hands, produce very different results.

My disappointing experience with sourdough reminded me of the people I’ve met who believe they can write a bestseller the first time they sit down at the keyboard. I believe they could write a book if they put in the effort. But they aren’t thinking of the learning curve or the effort involved. They believe that because they write articles for their club newsletter or a professional journal – because they are imminently capable of relaying information in written form – the first book they write will be a rousing success. And that’s unrealistic. It happens, just like perfect choux pastry can happen the first time you whip those eggs into the flour, but it’s not a given.  

Zen Buddhists have a concept known as shoshin. It means beginner’s mind. It’s about letting go of preconceptions, being willing to learn, and being open to whatever happens. It’s about focusing on possibilities and not judging outcomes.

Sourdough is a unique beast in the breadmaking world. There’s no question I’m a beginner at it. One Zen master calls beginner’s mind “a mind that is empty and ready for new things.”

I’m definitely ready for new sourdough baking adventures. I’m not sure about an empty mind, but I definitely have an empty stomach.

My October Reads

I’m in the mood to escape reality for a little while, but given the current circumstances we find ourselves living in, I’m not going very far. Instead of hopping on a plane (not wise with the rising Covid numbers) or planning a future vacation (delayed gratification only satisfies me for so long), I’m escaping via books. I’m looking for fiction with appealing settings or nonfiction books by people who have moved to new countries. And if their book provides details about local culture, flora and fauna, and food, so much the better. Here’s what I’m reading right now.

The Peach Keeper by Sara Addison Allen

Plum, Courgette and Green Bean Tart by Lisa Rose Wright

The Beekeeper’s Promise by Fiona Valpy

Books read to date in 2020: 52

The Joy Factor

Last month I was lucky enough to take an all-day online workshop from Laurie Schnebly Campbell. Campbell, an Arizona writer and workshop facilitator, spent a few hours talking about how to put the joy back in writing. Her take is that writers sometimes lose that joy in the pursuit of publication. Being creative for the sake of creating is fun, but being tied to results can undermine joy.

It’s hard not to be tied to results. When I go into the kitchen to bake a loaf of bread, I expect I’ll end up with something close to edible. After I finish writing today, I’m going out to the garden to plant garlic. Come next summer I expect to be harvesting. I know intellectually that something might go sideways. There could be a power outage just when I get the bread into the oven or weather (or wildlife!) that negatively impacts my garlic harvest, but for the most part I anticipate positive results.

For a writer, positive results equate getting published. But they don’t have to.

A few days after the Campbell workshop, I had a phone catch up with a good friend, a fellow writer who recently lost her mother. Very soon after her mother passed away, a story idea took hold and she began to write. The idea excited her, the distraction from ‘real life’ was a bonus and she found herself being carried away by the story itself, and nothing more. The joy in the writing was propelling her forward in a way it hadn’t for a very long time. She wasn’t giving any thought to outcomes. In her words, she had no idea if the story would ever see publication and that didn’t matter. For her, the joy was in the doing. In the same way a violinist or any kind of musician takes joy in creating lovely music.

That was precisely Laurie Schnebly Campbell’s point. So, how do we get to the place where we aren’t caught up in the results, where joy is our fuel?

Here are some take away suggestions from the workshop.

Write something new. Write poetry instead of prose or a mystery instead of mainstream fiction.

Fill the well away from the keyboard/take some time away from writing.

Write to music that moves you.

Keep a selection of starter phrases on hand to kickstart your writing (examples: I wish I knew at the time . . . or If I’d left an hour earlier)

Go and sit somewhere with great sensory input.

Write about something you love that has nothing to do with writing.

Keep a journal.

And my personal favorite from a fellow workshop participant: “I go to the keyboard and say to myself ‘let’s just sit down and see what happens.’” In other words, she gives herself permission to play.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to completely give up my expectations around results. I still like knowing flowers will bloom when I plant seeds, cookies will be ready after I bake them, and books will be read after I write them. But I’ve decided to focus more on playing than striving, and to hold onto hope rather than expectations. Hope is a good thing to have these days. And for more on that, you might like to check out this blog by another writer friend of mine, Alice Valdal. https://www.alicevaldal.com/thanksgiving-2020/

My September Reads

Yesterday marked the autumn equinox, the first day of fall, and today the rains are forecast, reinforcing the fact that the colder season is just around the corner. Thanks to a neighbor who dropped off a generous box of purple grapes, I’m about to make a batch of jelly. When that’s done, I’ll tackle the Asian pears and turn them into chutney. Hopefully, the rain will ease long enough for me to pull the last of the tomatoes from the garden and clean up the basil bed too. In the meantime, I’m curling up with a good book. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

With Malice by Eileen Cook

One More Croissant for the Road by Felicity Cloake

The Sundown Motel by Simone St. James

Books read to date in 2020: 46

And So It Goes

Last week brought to mind the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Be still, sad heart! And cease repining;

Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;

Thy fate is the common fate of all,

Into each life some rain must fall . . .

Here on the west coast, the ‘rain’ we experienced was the ash fallout from the horrendous wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington. We’re still living with smoky skies and poor air quality as I write these words, but we’re far luckier than those who are living in the line of fire.  Fires on the west coast, hurricanes out east and a worldwide pandemic. No wonder the world seems on edge.

I was on edge this week too. I lost a full day of writing because of a massive Windows update. Yes, I’d saved, or at least I thought my computer had, but it turns out the computer save function goes to a temporary file. In the past, I’d always been able to recover temporary files but not anymore. Not with Windows 10.  A little rain must fall . . .

As Longfellow said, however, behind the clouds the sun is still shining. And in my case that sun came in the form of an interview by the editor of Second Opinion QB. It was lovely to chat with Lois Sampson. If you’re interested in our conversation, you’ll find it here: https://secondopinionqb.ca/qb-author-taps-into-young-adult-scene/

Since I opened with a somewhat bleak Longfellow quote, here’s something to remember when life seems especially dark:

Crwth Cares

Here’s a spot of happiness in these difficult times. From now until October 15th Crwth Press is donating over 40% of all website sales to non-profits. That’s twelve authors and twelve different titles to choose from. Personally, that means when you order No Right Thing from Crwth, they will donate $6 to my charity of choice. I’ve chosen the Manna Homeless Society, a group dedicated to helping the needy and homeless in the Oceanside area and where No Right Thing is set.

I’m proud to be associated with a publisher that gives back. For more information on Crwth’s initiative, follow this link and check out all twelve titles: https://www.crwth.ca/crwth-cares/?fbclid=IwAR09yIwSgE4iZJ6bjO2xlrUfiKfBOBqtMQ-y47Pq7R_ZACEsqGPUqp2t3BE

You can find information on the Manna homeless society here: https://www.mannahomelesssociety.com/

The Dog Days of Summer

I think of the dog days of summer as covering all of August – that time when life seems to slow down. In years past, people often left town in August, though that’s not so much the case these days with Covid. But August remains a month when life seems more leisurely . . . work recedes . . . meals are simpler (popsicles for lunch, anyone?) and even clothing is lighter.  

Well, depending on who you want to believe, the dog days of summer may end next week (I’m not impressed; that reminds me of fall and I’m not ready for sweaters and slippers).

In ancient times, the Romans associated the dog days with the Dog Star, Sirius, which happens to be the brightest star in the night sky.  It’s so bright the Romans thought the earth received heat from it. In the summer, Sirius rises and sets with the sun and at one point in July, it actually conjuncts the sun.  Considered a particularly potent time, the Roman’s deemed the 20 days before this conjunction and the 20 days after as ‘the dog days of summer.’  That meant the dog days could run anywhere from late July to late August, and that’s still the belief in many European cultures today.

However, nothing stays the same, including the constellations in our sky. Given the precession of the equinoxes (basically the drift of our nighttime constellations) the conjunction of Sirius to our sun takes place earlier.  So, these days the Farmer’s Almanac lists the dog days as beginning July 3rd and ending August 11th.

Personally, I’m backing the Romans. Mind you, they also thought the dog days of August was an evil period of time when “the sea boiled, the wine turned sour, dogs grew mad and men were plagued with hysteria.”  They were so fearful they generally sacrificed a dog to appease the Gods. 

There’s no need for that around here. In my little world, the sea is calm, the wine is crisp and the dogs are happy. Yes, we’re still dealing with Covid and all that the pandemic entails, but somehow during the dog days of August even that doesn’t feel quite as bad as it did a few months ago. Happy August everybody.