My January Reads

                                                                     

In terms of my reading habits, 2021 was pretty typical (it’s nice that something was typical last year!). I read 95 books, close to my average of reading two books a week. If you follow my blog, you may remember that my reading fell off in 2020. I only read about 70 books that year which surprised me because, with Covid restrictions, I had more quiet time at home. However, back then, libraries were locked down for long stretches at a time, and I couldn’t borrow electronically. At least not easily (my Kindle is not library compatible) or in a way that would have made reading enjoyable. Thankfully, that issue is behind me, and I’m now able to borrow both physical and electronic books from our library system. And thank goodness. While lockdowns seem to be a thing of the past, Covid is still with us, so who knows what the future holds? One thing is certain, though, there will be plenty of good books to read. Here’s what I’m reading this month.

Night of Miracles by Elizabeth Berg

Lovish by Karen Rivers

Jackpot by Michael Mechanic

Books read to date in 2022: 2

Happy New Year!

                                    

Here it is a new year, a clean slate, an opportunity to release the old and embrace the new. Not that we need an invitation for that kind of thing; we can do it anytime we choose. But January, in our culture at least, is traditionally the month for new beginnings. Maybe putting away the holiday decorations for another year leads to letting go of past memories. Certainly, the house feels new and fresh and more open to possibilities when the coziness of the Christmas clutter is gone.

2022 is a six-year. Those who know numerology say this is a year to devote to home and family, creativity, and nurturing yourself and others. Mathematically, six is considered a perfect number because the factors of 6 (1,2 and 3) make 6 whether you add them together or multiply them. Perhaps that’s why many people think of six as a lucky number.  

In nature, the honeycombs made by bees are six-sided or hexagonal in shape. Many flowers have six petals. Bell peppers and tomatoes often have six seed chambers. When water freezes, it often forms six-pointed crystals and snowflakes.

Being at sixes and sevens means being in a state of disorder or confusion. Having a six-pack used to mean having six cans or bottles, but now it’s a reference to a set of well-defined abdominal muscles.  

In literature, book titles featuring the letter six are popular: The Sixth Man by David Baldacci; Six Years by Harlan Coben; Six of One by Rita Mae Brown; and The 6th Target by James Patterson. Speaking of books, here’s a quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass. “Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” exclaimed the White Queen.

As we start another year with significant Covid restrictions, it seems an almost impossible dream that we’ll ever be finished with this virus. But, as the Queen encouraged Alice, it’s vital to have grit, courage and believe in a positive future. So, since six is considered a lucky number, I’m counting on the coming year to be a good one. And with that in mind, let’s deep-six 2021 and look forward with optimism to 2022!

Fiction For the Holidays

I have some fiction suggestions for you this week.  Below you’ll find novel recommendations for young children, teens and adults. Happy reading!

Our Little Kitchen written and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki. Picture book, ages 4 – 8. A story about a lively gathering when neighbours come together to prepare a meal for their community. With a garden full of produce, a joyfully chaotic kitchen, and a friendly meal shared at the table, this sweet story celebrates diversity, camaraderie and community. 

Sour Cakes written by Karen Krossing and illustrated by Anna Kwan. Picture book, ages 3 – 7. Two sisters wake up in very different moods: the older one cheerful, the younger one grumpy. The older sister proposes they bake a cake, but the younger sibling only wants to bake a sour one. When the younger girl’s mood reaches the boiling point, the older sister agrees to bake the gloomy sour cake. With that, the two sisters navigate the younger one’s messy feelings and get back to playing.

Firefly by Phillipa Dowding. Middle-grade novel, ages 9 – 12. Thirteen-year-old Firefly has had a difficult childhood. When her mother is taken into custody, Firefly goes to live with her aunt Gayle, who owns The Corseted Lady costume shop. Between her aunt’s secure and steadfast support and the millions of costumes in the shop, Firefly is able to try on different identities, find herself in the process and heal.

Facing the Sun by Janice Lynn Mather, teen novel, ages 14 and up. Set in the Caribbean, this story focuses on four friends who experience unexpected changes in their lives when a hotel developer purchases their community’s beloved beach. Facing the Sun, which is told from four points of view, is a coming-of-age story about navigating family, friendship, self-worth and growing up.

People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry. Contemporary Romance/Women’s Fiction. Travel writer Poppy decides to take one last shot at reconnecting with Alex, her former best friend, who quite possibly might be her dream man. Best friends since college and complete opposites, Poppy and Alex have taken an annual summer vacation together for years. Or they did up until two years ago when they had a serious falling out. Hoping to mend the rift between them and win back the heart of her best friend, Poppy invites Alex on one last trip. An unabashedly feel-good read with the prerequisite happy ending.

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn. Historical fiction. At 650+ pages, The Rose Code is a time commitment but a worthwhile one. This novel focuses on three very different women, once friends and then estranged, who come back together to help the British solve codes that the Germans have been sending back and forth.  Though it’s a little slow to start, this is a character-driven and suspenseful story of friendship, betrayal, hope and redemption.

Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult. Set in the early months of the Covid pandemic, this recently released Picoult title is garnering solid reviews.  In March 2020, Diana O’Toole takes a planned romantic holiday to the Galapagos alone as her boyfriend Finn, who expected to join her on their nonrefundable vacation (and where Diana is almost certain he is going to propose), is needed at the hospital in New York. Unfortunately, the island is soon under quarantine and Diana is stranded there until the borders reopen. Completely isolated, Diana must venture out of her comfort zone and, in fact, eventually comes to question everything she knows about her relationships, her choices and herself.

Not a Happy Family by Shari Lapina. This domestic suspense read from Canadian novelist Lapina will appeal to the thriller lover on your list. The story takes place in the days following the brutal murders of Fred and Sheila Merton in their mansion on Easter Sunday. Their three adult children, who stand to inherit a fortune, are all deemed suspects. And as the story unfolds, Catherine, Dan and Jenna begin to suspect each other as well.

And one I’m anticipating:

The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle by Matt Cain. Published in the UK this year and being re-released in North America in early 2022, this novel tells the story of 64-year-old postman Albert Entwistle who has been living alone in a quiet North England town since his mother died eighteen years ago. But Albert has just learned he’ll be forced to retire on his next birthday. Friendless and with little to look forward to, Albert realizes it’s time to be honest about who he is and to ask for what he wants. So, Albert sets out to find George, the man that many years ago he loved and lost. As Albert embraces a new future, extraordinary things begin to happen.

And That’s a Wrap

 NaNoWriMo wrapped up Tuesday. For the writers who signed on and stayed the course, that means they have a finished – albeit rough – manuscript of around the 50,000-words. I didn’t sign up, at least not officially, but I did commit to writing fresh material for Something About Julian every day.

And I did!

However, I didn’t get as much written as I’d hoped for. Some of that was because of external circumstances (having evacuated friends coming to stay wasn’t in the original plan!), and some of it was because of the story. I ran into a problem with a scene the same week we had our friends here. It was an issue with pacing and the revelation of an important piece of information. Generally, when I run into that kind of thing, I’m always inclined to go back and read over what I’ve written to date, looking to see if a previous misstep brought me to that point. Since that’s a NaNoWriMo no-no, I resisted. I forced myself to go forward. I wrote and rewrote the troublesome scene more than once. That’s also a NaNoWriMo no-no, but I was worried that if I didn’t nail the bones of the problematic scene, the following scenes might stall out too.  Eventually, things gelled. In fact, they more than gelled because the scene took off in a direction I hadn’t considered, one that moves the story forward beautifully. That was great news.

I’ve not finished the manuscript, but I’m a lot closer than I was at the beginning of November. That’s great news too. And with a bit of luck – and if the river doesn’t rise – I should have a finished manuscript by the new year. Just in time for January revisions!

NaNoWriMo Reimagined

It’s November, and for writers, that conjures thoughts of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month.

For those who aren’t familiar, NaNoWriMo participants attempt to write a 50,000-word manuscript between November 1st and November 30th. If you’re breaking it down, that’s 1667 words every day. Most participants prepare well ahead by brainstorming plot points and outlining their novel, organizing notes and documents, cleaning their desks and clearing their ‘to do’ list as much as they can. They often join online support groups to check-in and be accountable for their progress. As a result, most people come away from the month with a deep sense of accomplishment.

 For a lot of reasons, mostly to do with scheduling and other writing commitments, I’ve never signed on for NaNoWriMo, though I admire the writers who do. This year, however, around about October 29th, it occurred to me that I have a middle-grade novel that’s half-finished, one I’ve been dragging my heels on for far too long. Maybe I could retool NaNoWriMo to suit my current schedule.

So, for the month of November I’m writing fresh material for Something About Julian every day. Focusing on new writing rather than obsessively editing what I’ve previously written should move me forward. If nothing else, it will change up my routine, and that’s always a good thing. I don’t expect to produce 50,000 words. I’m not aiming that high and I don’t need to. Half that amount would give me a complete (or nearly complete) manuscript. And it would give me (and the story!) the momentum that’s been lacking the last few months.

 Wish me luck!

My October Reads

And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees and changing leaves.” Virginia Woolf

To me, fall is a time of simple pleasures like going for a walk and observing the leaves changing colour. The change seems to start like a slow dance with a touch of red here and a dash of gold there, but then if the wind stays down, it picks up speed, and the colours change daily.  Before long, the trees are dancing at the last party of the year, shimmering with brilliant reds and oranges and golds. I love coming home after my walk and sitting in front of a cozy fire. I love the smell of soup simmering in the kitchen and knowing dinner is taken care of too. I especially love knowing there’s a stack of books waiting for me at the end of the day. Here’s what I’m reading this month.  

An Island by Karen Jennings

Memorial Drive, A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

Never Have I Ever by Joshilyn Jackson

Books read to date in 2021: 71

The Power of Fiction

When I’m not writing or editing fiction, I write articles. This week, I’m writing a short piece on power bowls (they’re sometimes called Buddha bowls or grain bowls, but regardless of what you call them, they pack a potent nutritional punch, and they’re delicious).

That got me thinking about power in a general sense and about the power of words. The words we speak, the words we write. We’re familiar with the power of a memorable speech to inspire us (Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ or Winston Churchill’s ‘We Shall Fight on the Beaches’ come to mind) or a powerful essay to make us think (E.B. White’s ‘Once More to the Lake’ or Roger Ebert’s ‘Go Gentle into That Good Night’ both do that).’

However, literature has innate power too. Stories and fictional worlds can inspire, provoke and nourish our souls in the same way power bowls nourish our bodies.

According to the Harvard Business Review, recent research in neuroscience suggests that reading literary fiction helps people develop empathy and understanding, as well as critical thinking. It helps reduce stress and make sense of the world too. The bottom line is stories can make us happier.  Research by the University of Liverpool’s Centre for Research into Reading, Literature and Society (CRISL) says all it takes is thirty minutes a week. https://news.liverpool.ac.uk/2015/02/06/30-minutes-reading-week-can-improve-life/

A small investment of time can yield substantial results. And that’s a powerful thing.

Seeing Flowers with New Eyes

 A few weekends back, I zoomed into an all-day writing workshop. One of the speakers was author Jeff Elkins.

Elkins spoke at length about how we can develop and deepen our characters through the use of dialogue. As soon as he brought up what he called the character daisy, I was hooked (anything that relates gardening or food to writing gets my immediate and full attention).

Flowers grow in a predictable order: roots, stems and blooms. Jeff believes that order is reflected in the way we develop as individuals too. We also start off with roots: the genetics we inherit from our family, our ethnicity and nationality, and our gender and family history. Our stem grows out of our roots. That stem represents our hopes and dreams, our strengths and weaknesses, and the inner facets of the personality we bring to the world. The flower is the outer way we show up: what we focus on in our lives, how we talk, live and interact. The bloom is, in essence, our gift to the world in the same way flower blossoms are gifts to the garden.

Literature is full of references to flowers. An old French proverb says, “Wherever life plants you, bloom with grace.”  Saint Francis de Sales, the Bishop of Geneva, made the phrase more colloquial in the early 1600s when he urged his followers to “bloom where you are planted,” and artist Mary Engelbreit picked it up and turned it into a catchphrase in the 1990s.

Author Stephen Richards links flowers to the way we think. “Minds are like flowers; they open only when the time is right,” he says.

Musician Aaron Neville says flowers offer lessons on how to behave. “Be honest, be nice, be a flower, not a weed.”

Poet E.V. Rogina believes flowers can teach us about inner growth. “Like wildflowers, you must allow yourself to grow in all the places people thought you never would,” she says.

And last but definitely not least is John Lennon: “Love is the flower you’ve got to let grow.”

So, as the last of my summer flowers slowly succumb to cooler temperatures, and we hunker down for fall and winter, I’ll focus on the words of poet Jennae Cecilia:  

That Pesky Point of View

To a writer, point of view is everything. It makes – or breaks – characters. It plays into conflict. It spins a story forward. In fact, no decision a writer makes will impact their story more. Point of view flavors everything in the story world.

It also heavily flavors our own lives. Today I’m going for my first Covid vaccine, and I’ve never been this excited to get a shot. Most of my family and close friends are on board and have either gotten their first jab or are waiting to book. From their point of view, the decision to get it is a no-brainer. But not everyone shares that sentiment.

The topic of the vaccine came up last week while we were walking Team Sheltie. We stopped to say hi and admire a dog belonging to a couple we’ve seen only a few times. I asked if they’d had their shot yet. They hesitated before responding, and I had the fleeting thought that perhaps I should have asked ‘how do you feel about the vaccine?” Fortunately, they weren’t offended and responded by saying they were getting it in a few days.

I should have remembered that hesitancy on their part when I asked one of my cousins if she’d registered yet for her shot. She danced around the issue for a while before finally saying she wasn’t about to subject herself to changes in her DNA or a possible microchip implant. She was serious, and I was momentarily speechless.

It’s a point of view, a perspective I’ve read about but never expected to hear from someone I loved and respected.  

Point of view is everything. Not just for writers, but for all of us. It flavors everything we do: our relationships and our choices, our lifestyles and our attitudes. It flavors consequences too. And these days, some of those consequences can be far-reaching.  

Quiet or Boring? You Decide

There’s been chatter lately on a few of my writing loops about quiet books. Everyone defines the term differently. Some suggest quiet books are stories that are forgettable, that don’t have exciting plots or that have stakes too low for the characters. Agents and publishers sometimes refer to quiet novels as low concept. By that, they mean books without flashy hooks or any obvious marketing angle, which makes them hard to sell. To those who don’t like them, quieter books are considered boring and a waste of time.

And yet, there are readers who love quieter novels. To them, the moniker ‘quiet book’ isn’t negative. It doesn’t mean a boring or plotless read. Instead, proponents define quiet books as introspective, character-driven stories that are rich with language and emotion. They frequently say that while the story may not be huge, the books take them deep into the character’s world and those characters always resonate in a personal way. Some even suggest that quiet books say things about the human condition that their faster-paced counterparts can’t touch on. Quiet books make ripples rather than waves. And yet ripples can be powerful in their own way too.

Around the same time as the quiet book discussion took place, a writer friend died. Jodie’s passing was sudden and unexpected, and it came just a few weeks after my father’s death. I couldn’t help noticing the different responses. There was an outpouring at Jodie’s passing. It was indicative of the fact that she touched a great many lives. She was an author and, before that, a school teacher and principal. My father, on the other hand, touched far fewer lives, and the response to his death reflected that. One life much quieter than the other, and yet both touched and impacted others.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to equate lives with books. Perhaps, as someone pointed out, the reason many people don’t enjoy quiet books is we live quiet lives (especially these days with Covid), and we’re looking to escape into a larger, noisier world.  

Whatever your taste in books, I’m on board with children’s author Barbara Park. She once said, “I happen to think a book is of extraordinary value if it gives the reader nothing more than a smile or two. In fact, I happen to think that’s huge.”

So, whether it’s a book or a life, whether it’s quiet or roaring with action, if it touches us in some way, that’s enough. That, as Barbara Park said, is huge.