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

More March 2018 Reading

March brought a return of cooler weather than we had in February in North Carolina. It also brought a stack of good books. I blogged about some of them last Monday (Some March Reading), and today I’m blogging about the rest of those that I read last month.

Four Short Stories:  In Need of Assistance, Saving the Unicorn, Faerie Blues, and Trophy Hunting, by Chris Andrews

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Four Short Stories: In Need of Assistance, Saving the Unicorn, Faerie Blues, and Trophy Hunting — by Chris Andrews

Science fiction and fantasy are not my reading genres of choice, but Chris Andrews and I connected with each other in the blogosphere as two struggling writers. (Actually, I’m struggling. I’m not so sure about Chris.) We live in different hemispheres but I have learned a great deal from him about writing. He recently published an e-book of four short stories and I was eager to read them.

“In Need of Assistance” leads off the short story collection. Well written and suspenseful, this person (me) who never reads sci-fi got pulled into the story and thought it ended too soon. In other words, I wanted to know what happened next.

The second story in this e-book is “Saving the Unicorn.” It is about a magician who travels 4,000 years back in time to free the last unicorn…. or is it?

“Faerie Blues” is the third story in Chris’ book. The identity of the faerie is a surprise.

The fourth and last story in the book is “Trophy Hunting.” This story is survival of the fittest with a twist.

Following the four short stories are the first seven chapters of Chris’ novel, Divine Prey, which is due for release in May 2018.

The Atomic City Girls, by Janet Beard

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The Atomic City Girls, by Janet Beard

This historical novel was inspired by the creation of Oak Ridge, Tennessee during World War II and the top-secret work carried on there in the development of the atomic bomb.

Ms. Beard invented characters from all walks of like and guides the reader to like most of them and identify with them as much as is possible for we who live in a different time. I liked that she included the black people as well as the white people who lived and worked at Oak Ridge because, as much as they had in common, their housing and treatment by the US Army was quite different. It was in the racially segregated South and the book stands as witness to the prejudice and unequal treatment that existed legally at that time.

The author included not only Christians but an atheist and a Jewish physicist. This book’s cast of characters runs the gamut from redneck bigot to the Jewish scientist whose family had surely died in Germany during the War. True to the history of the facility at Oak Ridge, some characters are poorly educated while others are highly educated, but the emphasis is on the everyday people who worked there and did not know what they were working on.

Ms. Beard follows each character and through them she allows the reader to experience World War II on the home front in the USA and through the stress and struggles of the people who worked in complete secrecy at Oak Ridge. She brings to life the inevitable inner conflicts experienced by some of the scientists who worked there and at Los Alamos, New Mexico as they were simultaneously excited by the physics of the atomic bomb and yet horrified by the realities of what the unleashing of such a weapon would mean and the suffering it would cause for thousands of innocent people.

I never had really thought about how conflicted some of those scientists must have felt. I’d also never given much thought to how many thousands of people worked at Oak Ridge and the majority not knowing they were working on developing an atomic bomb until the day the first one was dropped on Hiroshima.

Need to Know, by Karen Cleveland

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Need to Know, by Karen Cleveland

This is a debut novel by Karen Cleveland. It has received rave reviews from highly-respected authors, so I was eager to read this espionage thriller. After having read it, all I can say is, “Wow!”

Written by a former CIA analyst, this novel has a female CIA analyst working in a division studying Russia and looking for Russian sleeper cells in the USA. I don’t want to spoil the story for you, so I’ll just say her marriage and work ethic are tested to the limit.

This novel will make you wonder who you can trust. It is the story of betrayal on many levels, and it will keep you turning pages and wishing you didn’t have to stop to eat, sleep, or work. If you like to read espionage thrillers, you will love this book.

A Piece of the World, by Kristina Baker Kline

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A Piece of the World, by Christina Baker Kline

We’re all familiar with Andrew Wyeth’s most famous painting, “Kristina’s World.” This historical novel is based on the imaginary life of the woman lying in a semi-prone position in the grass on the hillside below the house in that painting.

The author, who also wrote The Orphan Train, did a beautiful job developing the characters in A Piece of the World. They were so believable, the reader will forget the book is fiction. The woman in the painting, Kristina, becomes increasingly disabled due to an unknown condition affecting her legs. She lives in the grey clapboard house on the hill as depicted in the painting. Unable and unwilling to empathize with their daughter, Kristina’s parents do little to try to get her help.

Drawn to the feel and essence of the old house, Andrew, the son of artist N.C. Wyeth comes and asks if he can paint. He sketches and paints Kristina’s brother, but the brother has little patience for posing so Kristina becomes his most consistent model. He continues his work for years.

Kristina falls in love, but is it with Andrew? I’ll leave that for you to discover if you choose to read the book.

Another Ocean to Cross, by Ann Griffin

Another Ocean to Cross by Ann Griffin
Another Ocean to Cross, by Ann Griffin

After reading Ann Griffin’s guest blog post on Writers in the Storm about how to or how not to use family history in your fiction (http://writersinthestormblog.com/2017/12/writing-fiction-using-family-history/), I pre-ordered her debut historical novel, Another Ocean to Cross. I followed her blog and she, subsequently, followed mine.

In Another Ocean to Cross, Ann Griffin weaves a compelling story about 18-year-old Renata Lowenthal, a Jewish woman desperate to escape Germany in 1938 as Hitler makes life ever-more tenuous for the Jewish population. Renata is an artist and her gentile boyfriend is in the military. He has to leave Munich, but he is smuggling Renata’s renderings of the Third Reich’s mistreatment of Jews to journalists in Switzerland.

No matter what the world throws at Renata, she meets the challenge.

The descriptions in this book are vivid and draw on all the senses. Being about the Jews who escaped to Egypt, this book enlightened me about an aspect of World War II that I hadn’t known much about.

Renata struggles to convince her parents that it is imperative that they get out of Germany and try to get to Palestine before it’s too late to escape. The tale Ms. Griffin spins will keep you turning the pages of this book and staying up at night to read just one more chapter. I will not give more details because you will want to read this novel and I don’t want to take away any suspense for you. It will take you and Renata to some surprising locations.

Reading Like a Writer:  A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, by Francine Prose

In case your eyes have glazed over, I’ll save my comments about this book until next Monday’s blog post.

Since my last blog post

I have continued to read about writing and study areas I need help with. I have worked on my outline for The Spanish Coin, the working title for what I hope will be my first novel.

One of my readers reported difficulty in getting my comments section below to work. If you have trouble with it, too, please send me a message through the contact form/newsletter sign-up sheet below. I’m sorry for any inconvenience.

My blog steadily attracts more readers and followers, which is gratifying. One new reader and follower, Neil, also signed up for my sometime-in-the-future newsletters. Thank you, Neil.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading The Last Child, by John Hart, so I’ll be ready to read The Hush in a few weeks.

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

If you haven’t signed up for my sometime-in-the-future newsletters, please do so by completing the form below.

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