Three Books I Read in January 2020

The first Monday of the month seems to come around faster and faster, and it’s time for me to blog about the books I read the previous month. As usually happens, I have to divide the books I read the month before into two blog posts. No one wants to read a 2,000-word blog post.

I read approximately 6.5 books in January. Today’s blog post is about three of them. I’ll write about the other 3.5 books next Monday.

The Devil in the White City:  Murder, Magic and Madness and the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson

This book pleasantly surprised me. From the title, I wasn’t sure I’d like the book, but it’s an excellent piece of creative nonfiction.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson

I didn’t know the history of the World’s Fair:  Columbian Exposition except that it was held in Chicago to mark the 400th anniversary of the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus’s.

Chicago was a rough-and-tumble place at that time, known primarily for the slaughterhouses located there. The city was in competition with Washington, DC as the site of the fair.

When Chicago was selected, the depth of the bedrock immediately became a source of concern for the fair’s planners, architects, and construction engineers. The weight of the fair’s proposed buildings and the poor soil were difficult to overcome with the construction equipment of the day. I found that aspect of the book to be fascinating.

The fair was planned, built, and held with a backdrop of mysterious disappearances and murders in Chicago. As the title suggests, that comes into play. The murderer is a physician.

The mandate the Chicago fair had was to “out-Eiffel Eiffel.” The grand Eiffel Tower was built as part of the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, so the Chicago fair authorities were under a lot of pressure to construct something more amazing at their fair. That turned out to be the Ferris wheel, although that first Ferris wheel was made up of “cars” that could hold 20 passengers. The construction details about the Ferris wheel were interesting to me. Being the daughter of a structural steel draftsman, I grew up being exposed to discussions and an appreciation of such things.

Mingled in with the details of the construction and operation of the fair itself are tidbits of the personal lives of the people involved such as landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, who was also working on the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina at the same time.

Reference is also made to some of the new inventions that were introduced to the public at the Chicago fair, including zippers, Juicy Fruit chewing gum, Cracker Jacks snack, moving pictures, the vertical file, shredded wheat cereal, and Aunt Jemima’s pancake mix in a box.


A Minute to Midnight, by David Baldacci

A Minute to Midnight is David Baldacci’s latest novel and the second book in his Atlee Pine thriller series. I’ve only read five of Mr. Baldacci’s books, so I’ve missed a lot of his work. I missed the first book in this series, Long Road to Mercy. I’ll definitely read it before the third book in the series is published.

A Minute to Midnight, by David Baldacci

Atlee Pine is an FBI Special Agent. In A Minute to Midnight, she returns to her small hometown in Georgia to try to find answers to some nagging questions about her family. In the process of finding out some startling information about her parents, she is drawn into the investigation of several local murders. Who is the murderer? Are these murders – which are rare in this small town – somehow connected to Pine’s presence in the community?

Mr. Baldacci takes us on an eerie journey as he ties in the morbid history of the infamous Andersonville prisoner-of-war prison of American Civil War days. The prison’s cemetery plays a part in this novel, as that is where the murderer likes to leave his victims.


The Lies We Told, by Diane Chamberlain

In this novel, Diane Chamberlain takes us into a devastating hurricane on the North Carolina coast. There is massive flooding in the southeastern portion of the state, and we’re soon caught up in the lives of two sisters who just happen to be doctors. Each sister tries to do her part to help in the aftermath of the hurricane. Their duties take them to different directions and a breakdown of telephone communications results of their not being able to communicate for two long weeks.

The Lies We Told, by Diane Chamberlain

The sisters have a history of secrets that date back to the day their parents were murdered. One sister desperately wants children, while the other one is wrapped up in her career and doesn’t let herself have dreams of a family of her own.

There is a helicopter crash and one of the sisters cannot be located at the crash scene. She’s found by a local citizen and taken to his home for recovery. There are undertones of trouble within that home, though. Tensions rise because the small rural community is cut off from the mainland by the flooding, and the wife’s baby is due at any time.

I got a little weary of the part of the book that gave details of rescue efforts, but I’m glad a stuck with it. The ending was worth the wait.


Since my last blog post

Since my blog post last Monday, I had a freak accident and broke my right tibia. Therefore, you won’t see me as much on social media as usual.


Until my next blog post

I’ll be seeing an orthopedic surgeon to see what the plan of treatment will be for the next months. I hope I’ll get to blog about the other books I read in January next Monday.

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m listening to The Cold, Cold Ground, by Adrian McKinty, a novel set in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland.

If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have productive creative time.

Thank you for reading my blog post. You have many things vying for your attention and time, so I appreciate the fact that you took time to read my blog today.

Janet

Books I Enjoyed in December 2018

The Dream Daughter, by Diane Chamberlain

Diane Chamberlain broke away from her usual form of writing novels and did a great job with time travel in The Dream Daughterr. The book begins in 1970 with a pregnant woman, Caroline Sears, finding out that her unborn baby has a heart defect.

The Dream Daughter, by Diane Chamberlain

It turns out that Caroline’s brother-in-law has come to 1970 from the future. He knows that if Caroline can find her way to the future, her unborn daughter can have fetal surgery – the unthinkable in 1970.

I won’t give away any details of Caroline’s journey. I’ll just say things don’t go smoothly. This trip across decades will keep you turning pages.

There Was an Old Woman, by Hallie Ephron

The title of this book caught by attention and immediately took me back 60 years to nursery rhymes about the old woman who lived in a shoe and the old woman who swallowed a fly. I’d never read anything by Hallie Ephron, so I decided to give There Was an Old Woman a try.

The story involves multiple generations, with an emphasis on several independent-living octogenarians. Things in the neighborhood keep disappearing. What’s happening? Who is doing this? Is it the strange man across the street?

There Was an Old Woman, by Hallie Ephron

Thrown into the mix is a subplot about the B-25 Mitchell bomber that crashed into the Empire State Building on July 28, 1945. Ms. Ephron sheds a light on that much-forgotten event by making one of the main characters in the book be a survivor of that plane crash. I must admit, I did not know about that tragedy in which 14 people were killed.

There Was an Old Woman is categorized as a thriller, but it did not come across to me as such. It’s more like a neighborhood mystery in which the daughter of one of the 80+-year-olds is forced to come home and deal with her mother’s illness and neglected house. The book has received an interesting mix of 1-star and 5-star reviews, with most reviews falling into the 3- or 4-star categories.

Undaunted: Surviving Jonestown, Summoning Courage, and Fighting Back, by Jackie Speier

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this memoir by United States Representative Jackie Speier of California’s 14th congressional district. I was not aware that Ms. Speier survived the Jonestown Massacre, so that fact alone drew me to this memoir.

Undaunted, by Jackie Speier

What a life Ms. Speier has had! When she was 28 years old, she worked for California Congressman Leo Ryan. She and others accompanied Ryan to Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana on November 14, 1978 to rescue individuals being held there against their will.

Those who are old enough to remember that fateful event know that things rapidly soured upon the delegation’s arrival. Congressman Ryan was murdered and Jackie Speier was shot five times and nearly died.

For someone like me who is a history and political “junkie,” this memoir was compelling and inspiring. Ms. Speier writes about her widowhood, motherhood, her lifelong work in politics, and her 40-year determination to overcome the scars she has from her Jonestown experience.

Since my last blog post

I continue to receive encouraging comments in response to my December 17, 2018 blog post, https://janetswritingblog.com/2018/12/17/to-write-or-not-to-write/. I appreciate each and every one of them and each and every one of my blog readers. I have a more positive attitude about my novel in progress since being bolstered up by so many of you over the last three weeks.

The holidays turned out not to be conducive to my getting back to putting words on paper (or the computer screen, as the case may be.) I’ve mulled the story over and over in my mind, though, and I intend to get back to writing that book this week. I need my blog readers to hold me accountable!

I’ve read many helpful blog posts and articles this week about the various facets of writing. One in particular hit a chord with me, but I’ve misplaced the link to it. The piece recommends that an aspiring novelist publish one or more short story collections in order to build readership. I’m kicking around that idea. It makes sense. The theory is that more people will want to buy my novel if they have read and liked my short stories. I needed one more project!

Call me a klutz if you want to, because I think I qualify. In the last four or five days I’ve broken a toe on both feet, but not at the same time. Don’t laugh; broken toes are painful.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading The Reckoning, by John Grisham.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time. I hope I do, too!

Thank you for reading my blog. You could have spent the last few minutes doing something else, but you chose to read my blog. I appreciate it! I welcome your comments.

Let’s continue the conversation.

Have you read any books recently that you’d recommend to me and my blog readers?

Have any of you writers had experience – good or bad – in publishing short stories to build readership prior to publishing your first novel?

Janet

In Search of Grandma’s Chow-Chow

When I Googled “images of chow-chow,” I only found photos of chow dogs and pandas. (I’m not sure why a few panda pictures were scattered among those of dog, but that’s what I got.)  I wasn’t looking for dog pictures. I’m not talking about grandma’s lost dog. I’m talking about a condiment made up of green tomatoes, cabbage, onions, bell peppers, spices, and vinegar.

I finally found some pictures of chow-chow but, not wanting to risk breaking copyright laws, I chose not to include one in today’s post. Pictures are an important aspect of blogging, so I try to include at least one in each post.

But I digress.

Story’s inspiration

When fall came, my mother started looking for homemade chow-chow to buy. She liked to eat it along with turnip and mustard greens and black-eyed peas. That memory of my mother inspired me to write the following short story. Since it’s fewer than 1,000 words, it qualifies as flash fiction – which is something I didn’t think I was capable of writing!

The following story is pure fiction. I never knew either of my grandmothers. All names are fictitious. It’s all a bit of surprise to me. I never dreamed I’d write a story about chow-chow!

A Short Story/Flash Fiction:  “In Search of Grandma’s Chow-Chow”

Millie walked up and down the rows of tents at the farmers’ market. Her eyes quickly scanned each stall for canned homemade chow-chow. A stroke had left her mother unable to speak or write. The chow-chow recipe, which had been Millie’s grandmother’s, was trapped in her mother’s head, unable to get out.

She thought if she could find someone else’s chow-chow that tasted like her mother’s, maybe she could get the recipe. Nothing would please her more than to duplicate the special condiment that her mother liked so much.

Millie visited every farmer’s market, country store, and produce stand she found. She’d bought enough chow-chow and pickle relish in the last five years to sink a ship. Every time she came home with another jar of chow-chow, her mother’s eyes danced in anticipation.

“Maybe this will be the one, Mama,” Millie said one day as she held up the jar of chow-chow she’d bought that afternoon. Her mother smiled a lopsided smile and nodded in silence.

The next day Millie cooked pinto beans and cornbread. The latest jar of chow-chow was given a place of honor in the center of the table.

“Oh no. Not more chow-chow!” 14-year-old Darrell said. “I don’t think I can face it anymore.”

“You don’t have to eat it,” Millie said. “Just humor me and your grandmother, okay?”

Millie spooned a big helping of beans on her mother’s plate with a wedge of cornbread on the side. Then, with great fanfare, she topped the beans with a spoonful of chow-chow and put the plate in front of her mother. Millie waited expectantly, almost praying this would be “the one.”

Yet again, her mother struggled to get a spoonful of beans and chow-chow to her crooked mouth. After a few seconds of deliberate chewing, and with all eyes on her, she shook her head.

Millie slumped in her chair and let out an audible sigh. “I never thought it would be so hard to find chow-chow like Mama used to make.”

“Don’t give up,” Millie’s husband, John, said. “Maybe the next jar will be the charm.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Millie said. “I can’t give up now. Let’s drive to the mountains this Sunday to see the fall leaves. I bet I’ll find lots of good chow-chow up there.”

“It’s worth a try,” John said. “The trip might do us all good.”

The next Sunday, Millie packed a picnic lunch. The family went to the early worship service at their church before heading for the Blue Ridge Mountains. They stopped at every country store and produce stand by the side of the road. Millie left each one armed with at least one jar of chow-chow and a carefully written note giving the name and address of the person who made it.

At the last place they stopped, the shop keeper handed her a pre-printed piece of paper. “Here’s the name of the lady who made it,” he said. She folded it up without reading it and put it in the bag with the chow-chow.

The next morning, Millie lined up the new jars of chow-chow on the kitchen counter. She studied each one. She selected the jar she would open that night. When the family gathered for supper, all eyes fell on Millie’s mother. Darrell suggested that his father include in the evening’s blessing a plea asking God to let this be the last jar of chow-chow his mother would have to buy.

“God has better things to do with his time than worry about chow-chow,” John said. Darrell couldn’t help but wonder if his father secretly prayed for God to make this jar be “the one.”

Millie put a plate of greens and black-eyed peas in front of her mother and smiled. Her mother tasted the beans and chow-chow. A broad smile filled her face and she gave a slow but deliberate nod of her head.

“Eureka!” Millie shouted. She jumped up and gave her mother a big hug. Then she rushed to the kitchen counter and unfolded the note that accompanied that jar of chow-chow.

“Drum roll!” Darrell said.

“And the winner is . . .” John said.

“Marjorie Holbrooks of Shady Creek!” Millie said.

After supper, Millie took her cell phone out of her pocket and called the number on the piece of paper. “Mrs. Holbrooks?” Millie asked when a woman answered the phone. “You don’t know me, but I bought a jar of your chow-chow yesterday. It tastes just like what my mother and grandmother used to make. I wondered if you could give me the recipe.”

Mrs. Holbrooks told Millie that it was an old family recipe but she’d be happy to e-mail it to her.  Millie told Mrs. Holbrooks that it seemed like more than a coincidence that her chow-chow tasted just like the one that had been passed down in her family, too. They each named their mothers’ maiden names and grandmothers’ names only to discover a connection.

When Millie got off the phone she couldn’t wait to tell her mother about the conversation. “Guess what! Marjorie Holbrooks is the granddaughter of your Grandma Bradley’s cousin Rachel. She’s sending me the recipe tonight. It’s been passed down in her branch of the family, too.”

Millie’s mother smiled and a tear rolled down her cheek. She mouthed the words, “Small world. Thank you.”

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I finished reading The Last Ballad, by Wiley Cash last night and started reading The Stolen Marriage, by Diane Chamberlain. I’m listening to A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles as I can find the time. Too bad I can’t read one book and listen to another one at the same time!

The Rocky River Readers Book Club will discuss Signs in the Blood, by Vicki Lane tonight. I read it a few years ago and immediately became a fan of this North Carolina writer. If you’re looking for good southern Appalachian Mountain fiction, I suggest you read this book. It is the first in a series by Vicki Lane.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

Janet

Diane Chamberlain Author Event

Hearing a published author speak is one of my favorite things to do. I had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Diane Chamberlain yesterday afternoon at the Ashe County Public Library in West Jefferson, North Carolina. Her appearance was part of the annual Ashe County Arts Council’s On the Same Page Book Festival.

Ashe Co. Book Fair 015
View of downtown West Jefferson, NC from the Ashe County Public Library in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.

In her opening remarks, Ms. Chamberlain said that her books are “part suspense, part mystery, and 100% family drama.” She quoted a Japanese fan who wrote, “You make me believe life is beautiful even if it is full of pain and rage.”

As is the case with most authors, Ms. Chamberlain’s publishing journey was tough. She said that a writer needs three things in order to get published:  “talent, perseverance, and luck.” She started writing her first novel in 1981, but it was not published until 1989. She kept writing and finally got lucky in 2008. Her book, The Secret Life of CeeCee Wilkes, was chosen as the Target Book Club Book one month which meant it was prominently displayed in every Target store.

Also in 1981, the wife of a United Kingdom publisher visited Ms. Chamberlain’s publisher in the U.S. and requested a book to read on her flight back to England. The book she was handed was the CeeCee Wilkes book. After reading it on her way home, she told her husband that he had to publish it in the U.K. She has been published in the U.S. and the U.K. ever since.

Each of Ms. Chamberlain’s books is different. She enjoys finding the perfect setting for each of her novels and draws from her own life experiences, including her education and first career in the field of psychology. I found it interesting that she occasionally asks her fans on the Diane Chamberlain Readers Facebook page to suggest names for characters or locations. She related an amusing story about how for a while she got ideas for male characters by going on an online dating site.

I’ll save some of Ms. Chamberlain’s comments about her 2015 novel, Pretending to Dance, for my blog post in a couple of weeks after Rocky River Readers Book Club meets to discuss the book.

Until my next blog post, I hope you have a good book to read — perhaps one of Diane Chamberlain’s best-selling novels.

Janet

Disclaimer: I attended this event and wrote this blog post on my own volition and received no compensation for endorsing Diane Chamberlain’s books.