The last post!

Guys.

My new author site is bethstillmanblaha.com.

March 22, 2021 would have been six whole years of blogging as Donovan Reads.

Six years on a project that I started just to get my feet wet in writing internet content. March 2015 I had a two and a half year old child and my doctorate and it was time to start thinking about what exactly was on my writing bucket list. How was I going to fulfill the writing dreams I had since I was a kid, dreams that were waylaid when I decided to spend my formal schooling opportunities becoming a Psychologist?

I spent years either not writing or writing some nonfiction because academia numbed out my creativity. My creativity had to be dormant or I wouldn’t have made it so far in my professional healing career, which is just as much what I feel called to do in this life as be a writer. But we got to 2015 and I had finally recouped enough sleep to make sentences and have an interest in what was next.

The easiest writing advice, for me, in the entire world, came next: read read read, and read with intention. Read what you’d like to write and notice what works and what doesn’t. Read with a new lens. And since reading was the first thing I turned to when grad school slowed enough for hobbies other than mindless internet games, and reading got me through the interminable first few months as a new and slightly ambivalent mom, it was the perfect place for me to start.

And then writing about what I learned from books, all these years with you, has helped tremendously, exposing me to all sorts of writing with reading challenges, and building my empathy, structure my reading and help me really think about what I want to write, and the blog keeping me consistent, and keeping me supporting and reviewing indie writers because now I am at the brink of becoming one myself.

This is where I wanted the blog to get me, but it’s really not ending here. I’m just moving to a more formal author website and I hope you’ll come with me. It will be more YA reads and not as much of the wide reading I’ve done here, but it will still be talking about books, and my love of audiobooks, and magic, and diversion books as well as the ones you really gotta work for but you’re glad, in the end, that you did it. Books have just been my survival, and with the life I’ve chosen, been blessed with, I’ll always be more of a reader.

In case anyone has been thinking of becoming a book blogger, here are some of my favorite hacks:

wordpress, obviously, for it’s extreme user friendliness in all aspects.

canva.com for graphics, for someone with no knowledge of graphics and only limited need for them

pexels.com is my favorite place for stock images. I have been using completely open license for my author site because of the commercial nature but since I made zero dollars from this blog I used pexels.

NYPL card for ebooks and audiobooks, if you’re a resident of New York State like I am. The Simply E app sometimes gives me a hassle with audiobooks but the selection is so much bigger and I send money to the NYPL out of guilt because I definitely do not pay NYC taxes.

Librivox is good for public domain stuff, more so when I was reading the older classics from which to build a base. I’m not so drawn now to the stories written that were more from people with the means to write and not necessarily the same editorial context of today. I’m having an increasingly harder time spending hours and hours on stories and coming to care about characters who end up like unnecessarily dying in poverty. I’m looking at you, Edith Wharton. But, Librivox is freakin awesome when I’m thinking about reading some older classics to brush up into something modern.

Honestly, though, my authoring karma has caused me to spend more on books, not less, as I’d like people to do that for me when my time comes. I’ve pre-ordered some books this Spring to support authors, and I don’t always stalk prices before buying. Sometimes I’ll be excited enough an author to just buy something I want. If someone has made my reader’s heart sing, they deserve to be paid for it. If someone has made it as an author, they deserve to be paid for it. It’s so hard. So, so hard. I have to cheer for others who have gotten there.

Book blogging has been a great side project and I entered it with a do-it-and-see attitude. Not attaching to outcomes has become easier as I get older and I hope it will continue to do so. Because of this starter project I’m confident I can generate content for my author page.

New author site: bethstillmanblaha.com. I have a post over there today too. Please hop over 🙂 I have not worked out how to be followed yet, wordpress makes a nice “follow” button but I moved to Squarespace because someone I’m considering hiring prefers to work with Squarespace and can guide me with it.

Please go check out my skeletal site, where I’ll be blogging to begin making content as the details of my book, that will be launched this year, are worked out. Title and graphics are still in progress, as well as magnet material and other decisions I didn’t exactly anticipate.

I am so grateful to everyone that has taken the time to read and especially comment on my content. You know how important you are to me and I want to keep you. I anticipate this is my last post on here before the domain expires in a month. I need to start populating and learning my author site, as much as it would be nice to continue on here.

February: Love and Treats

Just because this blog is winding down does not mean I have not binge read appropriately seasonal books for it. Well, partially. If I was as seasonal as I’d like to think, this month would also feature presidents and Black History Month topics (it still could, one never knows). But for now, the plan is Valentine’s Day. Because I’ve been a white girl with protestant heritage since I blew onto this planet and with that privilege I have enjoyed many a Hallmark holiday. And I plan to, pun intended, spread the love!

Also for some reason I have been eating those boxed chocolates for three weeks already, pretty much since they hit the stores in January and I was buying 37 cent chocolate Santas. Those were good Santas.

Valentine’s Day is about treats and couples. This week is two magical realism titles about treats. Because a magical realism backlist that fits into a holiday theme is a double win for me.

The Cake Therapist, Judith Fertig

Claire O’Neil, or Neely, returns to her hometown after her marriage flounders back in NYC to start a bakery of her own.  The narrative alternates with that of two poor sisters down on their luck sixty years before, and the mystery of how they get lost from one another after losing what little they had in the world.  Added to this is Neely’s marriage drama and her sixth sense, centered mainly in her sense of taste.  She is a bakery owner, but her extra abilities make her a healer and a savior too.

This was darker than I expected.  It has been sitting on my magical realism list forever and I thought it would be like other books I have read centered around creative hobby businesses.  I love me a book about creative hobby businesses and some psychic abilities rolled in there so you can be like low key helpful without all the responsibility of being in a healing profession.  Total wish fulfillment.  But this narrative is deepened with the intersecting historical fiction tale with the two little girls on the edge of disaster, and then one outright has a crisis.  It’s very different from the wedding business and the single woman in her thirties trying to get out of her marriage and try to make sense out of her childhood.  I don’t know if the contrast in the tone between stories would turn off some readers.  One reading for diversion might not like the dark aspects.  A reader who likes darker things might not even want to read a book about a bakery.   I mean, I liked it.  I’m glad I got it out of my nightstand in a fit of feeling like I never make serious progress with my book piles.  And there’s more depth than expected.  I can respect that in a book, even if it’s not what I was picking it up to read. A mystery that doesn’t turn out to be cozy at all.

Chocolat, Joanne Harris

Vienne Rocher moves into a devout Catholic, sleepy town in France and opens a chocolate shop.  An independent woman raised as a transient herself, she shakes up this town of traditional values, bringing change and healing to them and healing her own childhood wounds in the process.

This was feel good book for sure, but like with The Cake Therapist, there was more darkness than I expected and more magic.  I mean both books were recommended as Magical Realism even though they don’t feel like the South American magical realism that I’ve read.  Psychic abilities are more mainstream and subtle than like all the weird and fantastical stuff that goes on with Marquez and Allende. Anyway, this was compelling and multi-layered and I love books where magical treats bring people together.  I love books about attachment and healing, and outgroups coming together.  I kind of wanted it to end differently, but it was probably meant to end the way that it did.  An outcome I’d prefer for myself does not mean that it is in keeping with the character or the best outcome for everyone, and I think to be widely read and enjoy being widely read is appreciating outcomes that you would not personally want.  

Next week, the veritable day of love itself! Will feature at least one book about a couple. I still have to finish it and I’m woefully behind because I am working on books to blog about on the author website I am building. So many questions I don’t know the answers to, but that’s always part of the adventure!

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January has been Conquered!

So, guys. Totes late today but I still showed up.

January seems to have reserved it’s worst for the end as we get peppered with a snowstorm to open February and it’s bitter cold, which is not what my first winter ever chickens would prefer. But it can do what it wants. I have my second shot this week and anything is better than January.

Except this is my last post in the Alice Hoffman series! Full disclosure, I have one audiobook I didn’t make it to. I am working on a Feb read that I need all my audio goodness for getting through. You’ll see what it is but I’m not sure if you’ll really be impressed.

White Horses, Alice Hoffman

I’m actually stumbling around how to describe the plot of this book that is pretty plotless.  It’s a family that essentially falls apart, scattering to the wind.  It’s about women who romanticize inaccessible, damaged and selfish men to their own detriment before they realize that kindness is better, or that in the end they can save themselves. It’s a lot about selfishness. Selfish and helpless characters who seem aimless at times, and you waver on how much you like them. The main characters, or the two still standing at the end, are a woman, Teresa, and her brother, Silver. Teresa has a sleeping disorder where she sleeps for endless hours as a stress response, and most of the book when she’s awake she is either allowing men to do what they want with her or pining after her brother, Silver.  She does find her way, which is redeeming.

This is not to say that I didn’t like this book.  I love all the different places her books take me, this time the Pacific Northwest and the desert/American West, with her descriptions of the heat, and the atmosphere, the colors and smells of it all. The women in this book find their way back to themselves after losing themselves in dreams and men and the feminist I am loves that, and she finds ways to keep me interested in her often half appealing characters. I have never been one to fall for the golden, unattainable man just because of an enigmatic draw that is misinterpreted as romance, and this book is a lot about the unattainable, as well as a level of dysfunction her other novels do not share.  This one was darker and more unexpected from my Alice Hoffman binge reading, and looking at Goodreads, others of her fans were not entirely thrilled with it either.  Some were swept along, like her writing does to me, and others just couldn’t stomach it.  

The Story Sisters, Alice Hoffman

Three sisters meet different fates, coming together and falling apart, on the pages of this novel.  The eldest sister Elv spirals into drug abuse following a trauma she can’t talk about, pulling apart her mother and other two sisters. They all feel responsible for terrible things that happen to each other and do find themselves at the end, each in their own way.

Another one that is hard to really describe an actual plot, although things happen, and everyone is affected by what happens to others.  This one is later than the ones of hers I’ve been reading, and the magical elements are definitely in this one, and I like the way it adds to the stories.  I also liked how this one had a more clear reason why Elv spiraled off the way she did.  Sometimes I have felt that Hoffman’s teen girls in her earlier books are rebellious just because, not because of anything that happened to them that they are struggling with.  I mean, many of those girls are merely ones who have a lot of casual sex, but the oldest sister here gets into drugs, which is a whole other animal. Trauma is heaped on with a rehab program where she meets a guy who gets her into harder stuff.   But she was more damaged than a spoiled brat, like some of Hoffman’s early teen girls are. Like, I have considered reading her very first novel, Property Of, but I think it’s more the rebellious teen girl thing and because I have read so many of her novels in succession I’m over that trope. 

I read this one right after White Horses and there are some similarities between these stories and some similar elements to her older ones.  In both books, the mom’s heart is saved following a failed marriage by a private detective in half retirement who falls in love with them and carries the family forward even after the mother dies early from cancer, and takes care of her kids as a paternal figure.  There is much gardening, and the cycle of seasons, early mother deaths, dads who leave, headstrong daughters escaping their mothers. I liked how she wrote Elv’s boyfriend, and how the surprises about him were not what you expected and you found yourself liking him.  Usually I can’t stand all her selfish bad boys and I love her steady loving paternal good guys, but this guy was kind of both, and I found myself pleasantly surprised and intrigued by him.  So this one kind of broke away from her earlier novels in certain ways, even if it held very much the same in others.  She still made most everyone okay and she paints such magical imagery so she always wins.

Beautiful Alice to get me through the snowy dark winter. So grateful for her and her lovely writing career. I’m open to reading more of her backlist at some point, and that one audiobook I didn’t make it to. I’m certainly not done with enjoying her work.

Also, new author site is not off the ground. At all. I paid for the final copy and proofing and all the graphic artistry it will need and I’m beginning my collaboration with those professionals. And some magnet stuff. I’ll at least have a domain when this blog expires in six weeks. It’s exciting to feel tangible progress on getting it into the world and building my own empire. I will have a blog on there too.

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Alice Hoffman Goodness continued

You know, the winter has not been so bad this year. Probably because I don’t have to drive in it, not really, working from home. I can largely avoid the unpredictable snowfalls and driving in the early dusk. We are only days away from a glorious 5 pm sunset. I noticed this more when I’d leave for the day to a parking lot that didn’t need the streetlamps quite yet, or my headlights all the way home.

My husband just drove the snowmobile past my window with my son on it.

So, a peaceful transition of power here has taken place and I’m really starting to feel a true new start and a new year in many ways! More on that to come.

Alice Hoffman books continue. I really had a lot of them to read down, so bear with me.

The Red Garden, Alice Hoffman

This is a series of short stories moving through time centered on a small town in Massachusetts, from it’s first settlers in the 1600-1700s and through the late twentieth century.  Family ties to the originals find their way into all of these stories.  

I like Alice’s historical fiction and shorts so far more than I like her novels, I think.  Here on Earth, a retelling of Wuthering Heights that I read a few years back, I felt was brilliant, maybe because I felt she wrote the dynamics of Heathcliff and Cathy so well, but when it comes down to her shorter novels and stories I found I was enjoying this like I enjoyed Blackbird House,  which was the same idea as linked stories through time.  I also find her historical fiction more appealing.  I was immediately engrossed by the story of the original families that came West to claim their own space from Boston and had no idea what they were doing and ultimately were saved by a scrappy seventeen year old who refused to lay down and die in the cold winter.  Having grown up and mostly lived in rural New York I can relate to the small town ness of the stories and the feeling of being linked to an early history.  I definitely enjoyed this one and was sucked up into it when I was not sure I was going to press on through my Alice Hoffman backlog.

The Third Angel, Alice Hoffman

This is another one of her books that are intertwined around a central place and a few characters whose ties to one another artfully converge as the story progresses.  This time it is around a hotel in London, which is different from her usual New England, and it’s The Lion Hotel, rather than a small town family home.  Love and betrayal are the usual features, and families changing after devastation.  A  widowed man and his daughter, two sisters preparing for an ill fated wedding, a maid in love with a heroin addicted and engaged rockstar to be.

Something about this one was more engaging than some of her others.  I liked the sisters and their family story coming together for the wedding, and I could relate to the ways she talks about how parenthood changes you and you love a little human more than you ever knew you could love, a discussion I often have with my eight year old over who loves who more.  I liked the interesting little twelve year old coping with being dragged across the ocean by a beastly stepmother.  The only part of this one that started to lose me was the maid who fell in love with the budding rockstar and how she compromised her lovely and gifted self for him. I had to skim that part because she was willing to be completely exploited by him before she got herself on track.  Other than that near disaster the characters were interesting and relatable, maybe more so for me than in the Drowning Season or The Probable Future.

Okay, one more January to go, and I promise it will be my last Alice post. For better or for worse. Then it will be some books I thought would be fun for Valentine’s Day but not in like a romance novels kind of way.

And then….

Friday I officially canceled my automatic blog renewal, deciding that come mid March, on it’s sixth anniversary, Donovan Reads book blog will be no more. I am going to be creating an author website to publish my book that I have sent off for copyediting and proofreading, and will be working with professionals to get the thing designed and formatted to look amazing. To do it every justice my book deserves and to build my own writing empire. When I have the domain name settled on, I will be sharing that with my readers in hopes that you will continue to read my blog posts there, as I will still be talking books, but also about writing and my published stuff. It’s time.

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The Read Down Continues: Alice Hoffman

Okay all my lovelies!!

Like sooo 2021. Not even past the free trial and I’m almost ready to return it. Ugh. I mean, not that my spidey sense hasn’t been twinkling for months that things had the potential to go wildly off track, but I’m one of those people who isn’t used to bad things happening. I’m just not. I’m privileged. Unprecedented times.

I wish for healing and love for 2021 and us all to get back to working on the best possible version of themselves. This includes me who has to make an author platform this year and when it is finished I would love any of my followers to check it out when it’s ready. Already a plug. I already feel shameless.

So, okay. Read down continues. I spent the end of last year in a blur of Alice Hoffman books. I collected a lot of her early pre magical realism, the stuff before the spinoffs of Practical Magic that are so popular right now.

I want to start off this series of posts by stating that no matter how I felt about any particular book of hers, I deeply respect her work. She’s talented and she’s amazing with the way she has built a career as an author. I like seeing how she changes and experiments as her writing career goes on. She’s part of our fabric as a culture. She’s amazing no matter what.

Also these are in no particular order. It’s the order in which I felt like reading them.

Fortune’s Daughter, Alice Hoffman

An unlikely friendship forms between Rae, a deserted, pregnant girlfriend and a fortune teller, Lila, struggling with the old trauma of being forced to give up a baby for adoption in Southern California during the game changing earthquake season.  

Somehow this story was just what I needed, even though I was taking a break from the heaviness of another novel and this had its own heaviness, just different. Readers on Goodreads complain that this one is not as dazzling and magical as some of her more recent stuff, but it still has magic to it.  More subtle magic, times where you aren’t sure what’s based in reality.  Rae and Lila were both terribly emotionally deserted by their families of origin and are only trying to make it in a world where a woman could only just recently have a credit card in her own name. Lila is ambivalent at best about her psychic abilities and more interested in healing the heartache of her past that she can only barely seem to put words to. The reading pulls them together but only because it’s the only person since Rae left home that she’s tried to connect to, not because Lila reads tea leaves.  And Rae grows up when she becomes pregnant and her selfish boyfriend chases the next big break instead of staying home to make a family for her.  She realizes who she is and that she likes that person and her freedom once she gets a taste of it. Maybe it doesn’t have the razzle dazzle of her later stuff but her writing is so beautiful and true that I don’t need to be astounded to keep coming back to her books.  

Also the cover of my kindle edition of this book is way better. I don’t like these random covers that are similar across all her early stuff with like stock images. Mine has a teacup on it. So much more fitting.

I do agree with other reviewers that it was hard for it to end as abruptly as it did, and I won’t say at what point.  I don’t know how she got away with ending it right at a new beginning, but maybe if she went into the new beginning there would not have been a better place to end it.

The Probable Future, Alice Hoffman

Each woman in the Sparrow family is gifted with a psychic ability on her thirteenth birthday.  As one would expect, they are gifts accompanied by burdens.  The most recent Sparrow girl, Stella, can see how people will die, and when she presses her father to tell the police about a murder she has seen, he spins into suspicion for murder that changes everything for the Sparrow women, bringing back together a family that has been distanced from one another way too long.  And bringing a true love together that was long overdue.

All right, so that plot summary is super reductive.  As with any Hoffman novel, the setting of a small New England town with its history of witch persecution is a character in and of itself, as well as ill fated relationships with males and ice cold relations between mothers and daughters.  A family gift/curse that has molded each woman in her own way. The origin story of a girl who comes out of the trees and becomes the object of suspicion because for a woman she is entirely too powerful.  And some nice magical realism in there, as any reader of mine knows I love a subtle but present magic.  So many people and stories and layers.

I had more frustrations with the plot of this one than I did for Fortune’s Daughter.  I wasn’t sure how Stella really ended up estranged from her mother when her mother Jenny gave her all the attention that Jenny didn’t get from her mother, Elinor.  I understand how Jenny ended up taking off with her classic ne’er do well charmed boyfriend, but I don’t understand why Stella, with all the attention in the world from Jenny, ended up with the same angry coldness and the same attraction to negative guys as her mother did.  I’m less sympathetic to her resentful nature, even though at thirteen, it’s more acceptable than if she was older. She acts like a spoiled brat with how she treats her mother. I don’t understand Stella’s ability to relate to her friend Juliet, who has been truly abandoned and neglected, as fun as Juliet is. And Stella’s father Will is truly awful and gets off lightly with every crappy self centered thing he does.  He puts his family in danger and ends up smelling like roses with some inexplicable turnaround.  Like, he gets with another woman who he doesn’t deserve and is just like oh I’m going to quit drinking now because this one woman who doesn’t really know me believes in me.  After I’ve spent my whole life exploiting people and not dealing with my demons.  I can’t.  Maybe I’ve known too many men like that.

Characterization aside, this novel has all the artful writing, beauty and complexity that always draw me back to her novels.

So at least the next two Sundays will be Alice Hoffman books, maybe a third Sunday. I’m glad I did read up some books to have time to be building my author empire for releasing my book this year. So much research involved. Every self pub author I follow has done so much work. But it’s always work, whether it’s researching agents and then begging for consideration from them or publishers or if it’s just setting it all up myself or coming up with the money for someone else to do it. Sometimes I just want to leave the damn thing on my google drive and let that be that.

Stay tuned for more Alice Hoffman goodness this month.

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A New Year: 2020 Specs and 2021 Goals

Yas!  Okay so everyone is pumped to see 2020 go.  Me too. The Oatmeal had the best cartoon about it up on FB that explains all my feelings.  If you don’t know about The Oatmeal, consider that my Donovan Reads official holiday gift to all you lovely readers, for whom I am grateful.

Gratitude is the way to begin any new venture.  Raise your vibration to let the light in and the manifestation happen!  I have to keep this in mind as we enter a January that might be even darker than most.

This post is my 2020 roundup and my goals for 2021 all together in one bit.   One juicy post with specs and what you need to know about my 2021 (and, of course, feel free to comment and share where you are for this, the lovely first Sunday of the New Year).

My 2020 specs according to goodreads is a little off because I did not count every book I enjoyed listening to with my son.  I didn’t record my third go round with Harry Potter. I thought about it and didn’t want to put in all the effort.  So it’s an under estimation, really, as Audible has a different report than Goodreads about how I spent this trip around the sun.

2020:  78 books, 26994 pages

Goodreads goal, which I like to set last minute, was 75.  I wish they counted books before you set a goal.   

Shortest book 31 pages, Tarot for Creatives

Longest book 829 pages, Winter, Marissa Meyer

Kindle specs (as of my phone app): 

Read:  477

Unread:758

I made it through all of my Susanna Kearsley books and all the Lunar Chronicles books.  Susanna was definitely my most hoarded and unread author.  I also did the Linda Lafferty historical fictions, the Jandy Nelsons and some other YA staples that had to be read for someone trying to get into the market.I have a lot of Nero Wolfe books but they have all been read. At the end of last year I went through my books and grouped them according to series, short stories, and similar themes, and I might go back and group them by what year I bought them too to work on who has been there the longest if I’m not sure.   The biggest grouping that got knocked out was my Halloween reads, to be sure.  

These numbers only feel okay to me.  I feel like still having 758 unread is a lot, and, full disclosure, I have actually taken to deleting some of the early stuff I got in 2010 that was all public domain when I wasn’t entirely sure of what I wanted to read and have.  I still have books that I am ambivalent about that have sat unread for almost ten years but those have audiobooks now to them and I still have some interest.  I realize that 80 books a year times a smidge under 80 books with my love of new books and library books means it will still be ten years plus at this pace.

Which is why 2021 will still be a read down. I see the other challenges.  I see Modern Mrs. Darcy and I see Popsugar and BookRiot.  I see you guys out there tempting me to push out my reading horizons, but I have to get through what I have.  I still have a ton of series I haven’t done that I want to, and I have LOADS of short story collections. 

Writing has to happen this year, but guess what:  if I read about the same as last year I can make it to a thousand books read on my Goodreads!  I would like to achieve the thousandth book.

I wanted to see how I did with my book buying but I ordered a lot of credits for a game I like to play so I have too many pages of digital orders to go through. I know at the end of June I took a tally and I slid off the wagon a little when I discovered Hester Fox but I think that I actually did pretty well with not buying new books. I will do audio of books I already have to get them read, and this round up for the new wave of reading down has been no different.

Also, audible adding a catalog of included titles for free in the membership?  Holy crap.  Totally love it.

The biggest challenge I’m anticipating is what I collected in my more classic novel phase a few years ago when I was really starting to be mindful of reading to build up a decent exposure to stories through time to work on my writing, which really I committed more to in 2015 when my son allowed me enough sleep and time to myself to start in with that adult bucket list item.  Classic novels have become difficult now not only because they can be slow but also because I just don’t want to read about the tragedy anymore.  The lovely women and men who just make terrible choices for themselves and throw it all away without the redemption and the more modern literary devices to make it marketable.  I mean some of the depressing literary stuff still makes it out there but I feel like Edith Wharton, if she was trying to break into publishing today, would have been forced to make a happier ending for House of Mirth. Do I want to tackle Portrait of a Lady by Henry James?  I do not.  Will I take it off my TBR?  Unlikely.  Also, I’ve moved away from some of the hefty tomes in favor of getting more books read.  Like, do I want to spend 32 hours on The Goldfinch?  It’s not like 2008 anymore and I’m not a single woman holed up in a rented room without a smartphone to ruin my attention span anymore.

I continue to read some stuff in the public domain as well because I can modernize them for my own stories.  Which leads me to the writing goals next.

Writing in 2020:  I had some wins.  I did a piece of flash for the first 70 days of the coronavirus lockdown and I got the opening pages of my novel where I want them as well as another big edit for it, cutting out 10k words.  I had my first and only request to see a full manuscript.  I got two more flash and another short publication under my belt and I continued to do my 12 short stories.

But I decided last month I can’t do the finding an agent and go the traditional route anymore.  I promised myself that 2020 was going to be about joy, and largely it has been about that in my personal world.  I have a lot of creative and spiritual accomplishments from the past year that really feel good.  I’m starting this year better than last to be certain.  And one of those ways I am starting it better is by knowing that even though I have only queried about half the number recommended for agents, I just want to build my own empire.  I have a self publishing consultation booked this week with someone whose empire I admire and who I’d like to look over my work and get it out there, without the subjective rat race that’s so full of uncertainty.  It will be work, time and money, but this January will be three years on this project, and as how that was how long it took to get my doctoral project finished, I am ready to stop battling with myself over if I need to keep investing the energy in it or just let it sit on my hard drive for all time, unseen for the larger world.

Remind me I said this when I am in the throes of building an author platform or I have anxiety about approaching local bookstores for signing.  And when hopefully post corona the library can have another local authors fair, or when I decide to drive north for hours to participate in an Adirondack Writer’s Conference to get it out there.  It’s work and anxiety but it’s all back in my control.

And you never know what can happen if the book gets out there and someone who would have initially overlooked it develops an interest?  I am paying people to help me make this book the best it can possibly be without relying on gatekeepers to even get to those talents. 

I am going to continue to write shorts.  I like flash, and I love my 12 short stories, and some of my reading, especially all the nonfiction I got that I thought I needed in preparation for the book that has already been written, can be used as fodder for more stories. Because having ideas flowing and not worrying so much about immediate outcome and publication is important.  It’s a form of spirituality.  

And, speaking of spirituality, there are more spiritual books I have on deck as well as some online material I am planning on consuming as far as meditation and intuition.  I continue to work on tarot reading and crystals, too.  But the changes coming to this blog will be about managing the book I want to get out there, not about the magic of divination, despite my love of divination.

Where’s your 2021 at?  Are you ready to dip your toes and be hopeful and make projects for any possible added time at home?  

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My Metaphysical Reads of 2020

I hope everyone had the sort of Christmas that brought the love and light that 2020 so desperately needs. We had such a nice snowfall here, complete with a chance to go sledding, and then Christmas eve rained most of it off so it was really more of a green and muddy Christmas here, but it meant my chickens could range a little and now chicken prints are frozen into the mud and snow around my home, and it feels complete.

I also found hay cubes to roll under the shed where wild rabbits have made a winter hideaway.  My sister is sending me gifs of old school Snow White.

I was going to do my 2020 specs today but seriously, I can kill more books between today and the New Year on Friday, especially with the cold and the pandemic preventing me from doing a whole lot of anything.  And I love the reading binge that these dark, cold nights bring on at the end of the year while I’m eating Christmas treats.  Sidebar:  my college roomie has a baking blog, Boston Girl Bakes, and I made her Irish Cream pie and summarily won the Christmas meal.  No small feat as my husband breaks out a reliably excellent holiday meal. Sidebar sidebar: I feel badly for my son when he moves out and realizes the excellent cooking he had at home.  But hopefully he will be a decent cook himself by then.

Instead of reading specs, then, I decided to share something a little more personal, and that is the metaphysical reading I’ve been into since I received a Reiki attunement in September.  It’s a good thing I read so many scary reads over the summer to leave me the space to learn about the spiritual side I’ve known I’d be welcoming back someday.  I know, not my usual post, but I’ll try not to make it terribly woo-woo.  Reading is such a lifetime love and how I learn, so a foray into metaphysical books has been important for me this year, too. I also tend to read spiritual books as the year closes out.  Maybe it’s because I’ve likely finished my other challenges, but also maybe there’s something about the changing year that makes me want to get back in touch with it. 

I won’t go through every one like I do most of my posts, but there are some that deserve mention.

Resonance:  Nine Practices for Harmonious Health and Vitality, Joyce Whiteley Hawkes

I had the pleasure of watching Dr. Hawkes present at a complementary therapies conference a few years back and she’s absolutely captivating. She’s incredible in person and I bought both her books when I was there and her work inspired my current novel (more on that to come).  But I had not actually sat down and read this one and I felt called to go back to her profound spiritual journey and what it was for her.  She’s a gifted cell biologist whose near death experience propelled a spiritual awakening that has taken her all over the globe.

The magic of this book is that she breaks down the spiritual magic of how our bodies work on a cellular level and juxtaposes it with stories of healing for others and her own spiritual experiences. She talks about how meditation turned from an obligation to a joy and suggests meditations for the practices she discusses. It’s a spiritual and scientific text.  I can relate to hating meditation; as a Psychology student and practitioner it is so emphasized with mindfulness as the hot thing, but it didn’t hold a lot of appeal for me until I could use it to deepen my intuition.  In the process I have also found more energy, less exhaustion, and my mood is consistently brighter. I connected with some of her processes and the changes she saw through meditation.  As I am really just starting out I can only be in awe of what she has done and seen in her travels and the healing that she does, but the journey makes me consider where my own might go.  It’s just a great book and I wish her meditations were available on iTunes or youtube or something so I could just stream them rather than looking in the book, but she’s not a spring chicken and she has built her empire without a social media platform.  So she probably doesn’t have to produce and market her meditations, as much as I’d buy them.

Crystal Reiki, Krista Mitchell

This book was recommended to me by the woman who certified me in Reiki.  A woman who I knew I needed when I met her ahead of a card reading I had booked with her, right after thinking I needed a spiritual support person more locally.  A woman my age who works with kids like I do.  I always remember the moments I meet the people who end up playing a serious role in my life, and with my increased awareness I can usually tell immediately when I’ve come in contact with someone important.  This lovely human was no exception.

Now, this book is about reiki, but it’s really more about energy, and how crystals combine with energy.  It’s a lot about being conscious of, clearing, and really taking care of one’s own energy.  The protocols and her healing work are obviously very cool, but this book made me so aware of energy and the magic of crystals.  I bought one of her classes and I like her youtube videos and insta posts about meditations and crystals.  She is much more bonded with and responsive to crystals than I am, but the larger lessons about energy and helping me understand it better have really been her gift to me.  As much as I love my work I used to wonder how long I could really feasibly do it for, but with increased awareness and care of my energy, I don’t feel so depleted as I used to, and part of that I owe to this book as well as my meditation practice. So cool, so much more than placing stones next to someone on a healing table.  I bought more energy clearing tools and she makes the whole idea super accessible.

I can’t write much more of this post without getting super exhaustive about my personal journey so I’m tossing in one more because it’s a good intro book if any of my readers feels pulled toward the woo:

Witch, Lisa Lister

This book is a general introduction to witchcraft without being super overwhelming.  It, like witchcraft, is deeply feminist, and I feel more than teaching about spells and tools it’s more about how a woman chooses to embrace her particular power.  It mentions the seasonal rituals and recovering from the wounds of witch trials of the past. The tools mentioned talk about the physical ways a woman can manifest her power, but in the end it’s truly about empowerment.   You can do all of it, you can do some of it, but the power to create and manifest is already there and we have to know it and feel it. Not be afraid or ashamed of it.  Crystals, spells, herbs, and divination are all mentioned in a general way, but all as a means to harness the power we already have.  I have read general books to learn more for the purposes of writing fiction, and this is definitely one I would have read at that point too.  It’s a good starting point.

Others worthy of mention:  Moonology, Yasmin Boland, Tarot for Creatives, Jessa Crispin, and Lisa Chamberlain’s Wicca series.

Ooh, longer than I expected.   I promise specs next week, let’s see what I can get done in the next few days.

Let us ease a toe into the hope of a new year.

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On that Weird Cusp of Late(r) Summer

Sunflowers were trendy when I was in high school and I liked to fancy myself a free thinker at that time, but maybe a little because we weren’t as likely to get the trendy stuff, being 45 minutes from a mall with no internet to speak of. So I wasn’t into them then. To cool for me.

But I’ve recently fallen in love with them in their own right, their vivid beauty signaling that summer is moving on. They are a crossover between summer and fall, can be seasonal for both of those times. I am begrudgingly accepting the cooler days and the sooner nights, the fall flavors starting to pop up everywhere. Not ready for a pumpkin coffee myself but I don’t begrudge those who are. I used to love fall. Now I desperately cling to any last vestiges of summer. I feel traitorous to myself that I tried Bath and Body Works new Sweater Weather scent and I LOVE it and I am wearing it in August. Not. Sweater. Weather.

In keeping with that, I am starting my fall reads with books that can be Halloweeny but can be good for any time. The classic Witch cozy mystery, of course.

Miss Spelled, Morgana Best

Amelia has a bad week.  She loses her boyfriend, her job, and is evicted all in the same week.  She’s saved by a letter telling her she has inherited her grandmother’s business, which she finds out when she arrives at her new home that it’s a bakery, and she’s hopeless in the kitchen.  Not only is it a bakery, but she finds out she has magical powers, AND someone is murdered in her new bakery.  So she has to make heads and tails of all that!

My energy levels have been inconsistent, to say the least, since the coronavirus hit us in full force, and I read this one way before witchy read time to let my brain experience the guilty pleasure of a witch cozy.  And this very much is a guilty pleasure for house chores.  I think I mopped the floor and did some gardening while I listened.  It may have been a little predictable, but that has its place.  Some of the witch books I’m reading are grave and scary, but sometimes, it’s nice just to have some magic and be a young woman just trying to find her way. I would absolutely check into another Morgana Best witch cozy.    Which is good, because combing the goodreads site it looks like there are a ton of them in the Kitchen Witch series alone.  The next one, Dizzy Spells, looks higher rated AND she has Halloween cozies in the series.  She has other series too.

Southern Magic, Amy Boyles

This one follows the same formula as Miss Spelled:  Pepper loses everything in a day only to find out she inherited a magical business from a magical grandmother she never knew, only to find out she is magical as well, complete with an unknown ability to talk to animals.  It’s a business pairing familiars to owners, and she doesn’t like animals.  She decides to sell the business in this magical Magnolia Cove but becomes a prime suspect in a murder, so is forced to stay while she solves the mystery so she can bust out of town.  It doesn’t help that the prime witness is a cat who is reluctant to speak with her about what she saw.  And of course there is a hunky police office who sounds like he might be harboring a dark secret of his own.

This one is more creative and I felt a little more fleshed out than Miss Spelled.  It follows the same formula, and that’s what mysteries do, but the business was creative with the pairing of familiars.  And I love the American South as a setting, even though I’d never be able to fit in there myself.  I’m not sure I understand the appeal, but there’s definitely a draw there.  This one is part of a developed series as well and it looks like there are at least werewolves mixed in for more paranormal fun. 

I am not ready to call this my Halloween Reads or do my usual opening to survey what’s lined up. I have definitely started the list as I do in August, but I’m not ready to make it official.

Also I had a request for a full manuscript for the first time ever!!! I sent it with joy and some crossed fingers.

Halloween Reads will start in earnest with the next post. Labor Day is the last hurrah of the summer so I can kind of swing it?

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YA Historical Fiction: Lady Janies

So, the US is kind of going to crap right now, and figuring out school this fall…what? The need for diverting reads is such.a.thing. right now.

So divert I shall!!

But first I need to note that I finished the revisions on the opening of my novel and I sent out six new queries this morning! The emotional investment in getting myself back to my novel is astronomical. But it happened, and issue my gratitude to the universe.

My Lady Jane, by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton and Jodi Meadows

My Lady Jane is a historical tweaking of Henry VIII throne ascension issues back in the sixteenth century.  It is about a woman who gets crowned queen for nine days after the death of her cousin, and there are rival, plotting sister queens involved, and there is tension between two groups, but instead of it being between Catholics and Protestants, it is between people who can change into animals and people who cannot.   

This is a hilarious romp into twisted history.  You don’t need to have read all about Henry VIII’s reign to be able to understand relevant events and he is thankfully dead by this time, as I have read enough about him and his crazy.  It has the teen style friendships and romances appropriate for YA.  And the changing into animals is so funny but also relevant to the plot and self actualization of the teen characters and narrators.. It’s not just a random pot stirrer.  The romance is believable.  I still don’t know how much teen girls,even educated ones, were allowed to speak their minds like Jane does without having her spirit broken back then, but teen girls now are allowed personalities, so I suppose they need to be able to relate to Lady Jane to have this book feasible.  So I get that.  And of course it’s narrated by the late incomparable Katherine Kellgren.  It’s fun, and it’s funny, and it’s so YA. I loved it.

My Plain Jane, Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows

So this is a retelling of Jane Eyre, and I think it was this book that drew me to the series, even though it was 2 and I read it as 2.   It is a blend of Jane Eyre, ghost hunting, and a biography of the Bronte family.   Good stuff for me, who loves Gothic novels and Jane Eyre retellings are of particular appeal.  Jane is a beacon, which is someone who attracts and can compel ghosts, and there is a society that gets rid of ghosts, and Jane lives with Charlotte Bronte at Lowood school before she goes to the Rochester home to be a governess and fall in love with Mr. Rochester.   Jane and Charlotte are besties so stay around each other in the book, even after Jane leaves school.  There is a murder to make some intrigue but it’s not the focus of the book.

I read one review on Goodreads that indicated that this plot didn’t add much to the original tale, but I thought there were a lot of changes to the original tale.  I don’t want to give away too much, but even having the Bronte family as characters changes things up, as well as ghost hunting and possession being a major part of the plot.  This is funny but not as funny as My Lady Jane, and I don’t know how it could compare anyway with the hilarity of people being able to change into animals.  But it holds true, still, to the realities faced by women back then, of not having the resources and independence of women now.  The girls are still focused on love and finding husbands, which is accurate for their time, even at the expense of independent jobs and means.  Depressing still for them. Like with Carriger’s series, you can punch up historical plots some, but there were still the realities of confining clothing and a society predicated on the oppression of women to contend with when spicing up historical plots and settings.  Jane Eyre does have a depressing end, at least to me, but it was considered romantic at one time (maybe even now, I’m not sure).  But it’s another fun retelling, twist on an original tale.  I’m always game for such things as ghosts and witches, especially mixed in with a good Gothic tale.

My Calamity Jane, Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows

The third in the series is set in the Wild West, America in the 1800s, with Annie Oakley as the familiar historical figure, and the main supernatural threat being werewolves. A traveling show is a cover for werewolf hunters, referred to as garou. They seek to find and destroy an alpha wolf who has a pack of violent garou under his thrall.

If this book followed an Annie Oakley or Wild Bill narrative, I wouldn’t be familiar enough to know it, like I was with Lady Jane and Plain Jane. I still enjoyed the rag tag bunch of friends who are more like chosen family, as their regular families have abandoned them or are gone. I think friendship bonds that replace family ones is a common theme for teens and young adults, and it works in this book. Also, for someone who doesn’t tend to read about werewolves, I thought the werewolf element was well done, especially since it didn’t generalize about werewolves in the same way people shouldn’t generalize about groups of others.

The best and clearest character was Calamity Jane, an orphan taken in, a survivor, rough around the edges but with a heart of gold. She wavers with her place in the world, has a chance at a second relationship with family, falls in love for the first time, but ultimately ends up on her feet. She has her vices and is a little dim, literal in ways that are uproariously funny. She’s cut out for living in a rough and tumble world that lets her get out of following the gender rules. And she’s Calamity Jane, because, like I said, girl can end up on her feet even in the most adverse circumstances.

Also, because a slightly faster pace can lead to a more comedic cadence, at least for me, I tried this sucker at 1.5 narration speed for the audiobook, which made it perfect, because the narrator also had a Western twang and emphasis. Some readers complained of the narration shift from the other two, but the other two happened in England. There needs to be a narration shift, even if the narrator of the first one hadn’t passed.

All three Janes are survivors in worlds stacked against them, and who doesn’t want to read about that? Historical outlines, written as comedies, with paranormal elements tossed in? Completely cool mashup. I want to say I wish I had read these as a teen, but I loved knowing the original stories of the first two to add more hilarious context.

So, six queries, and I have to wait two months at most for the agency asking for the most time. These have stated I will not hear from them if they are not interested, and while I understand that, the feedback from other rejections moved the project forward in ways it would not have without that feedback. Even if one place wanted to see more, I’d be heartened, with full knowledge that it’s still more likely to get rejected.

I don’t know how things will look in two months, thanks COVID, but with even one request to see more…that could really be a thing for me. Even if it’s a pass in the end.

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Historical Fiction for Summer Diversion

So this is my first late blog post maybe ever and I don’t have a good reason for it. Maybe my reason is I have been doing my home stuff, caring for the chickens, a continued pandemic win, and I feel compelled to check the veggie garden daily, which leads to weeding. But I’ve definitely been reading and for the month of July (and so sadly this is the last week) I am keeping to historical fiction, and one is YA and one is genre. But you’ll see the similarities as you read on.

Briefly, I hope everyone is staying safe in the current pandemic. Even though NY is in good shape and I got a nice taste of normal yesterday with a scout outing for my son, the rest of the country is experiencing something very different.

Drowning my brains in historical fiction has been fun.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, Mackenzi Lee

Henry Montague, Monty son of an earl, is to have his come of age trip to the Continent with his childhood friend, Percy, and his sister Felicity, before Percy has to go to law school, Felicity has to go to finishing school, and Monty has to settle down into a more adult life.  Up to this point Monty has been carousing and drinking too much and is disappointed that the trip will be chaperoned and intended to be cultural and boring.  Moreover, he has a crush on Percy, who also happens to have a mother with dark skin.  All kinds of things that don’t fit in with the intended plan.  Monty makes an impulsive decision early on that throws off the intended course of the trip and they are hurtled into more adventure than they intended.

So in my historical fiction romp I needed some characters with more choices.  Granted, no youth back in the day had a lot of choices, but the roles of males were a little less restrictive, means or no. The added intrigue of Monty’s homosexuality helps with the stakes and helps with generating empathy in teen readers, much like Percy being on the fringes of society even though his aristocratic father, before he died, acknowledged him.  The subject of race is talked about too.  This book is exciting and fun. There’s alchemy, migrants, and plots.  

Monty is very well done as a main character.  He is clear with his desires, faults, and what is at stake.  I enjoyed his humor as the narrator and the exploration of his flaws and downfalls as the story goes on, and the unexpected strengths of his sister, Felicity, and how they are so different but love each other fiercely. Siblings are also so important to teens, as well as that intense, real first love, whether it fits into society or not. Some relationships are the same through time, and those are the relationships that keep us reading.  

I absolutely enjoyed this and the ending was satisfying. I might read the next in the series of Felicity’s story, but again, its hard to read historical fiction women as they have so many more restrictions. This sat on my TBR for far too long.

The Magpie Lord, KC Charles

This one starts out with a man of means, Crane, trying to commit suicide while under spirit possession and being stopped by his butler for the third time in the course of a few weeks. He finds a shaman for help, even though their families have a checkered, tangled past and they are from different social backgrounds, they go back to the family homestead to figure out the curse. It’s Victorian England and they gay men who find themselves attracted to one another, so it is a love story too, as well as the story of men trying to fit into their worlds as who they are.

This is much more genre than Gentlemen’s Guide. There is character development but not so well done as the characters in Gentlemen’s Guide, and it’s deliciously Gothic with a dark family estate drained of magical power. I know Gothic doesn’t necessarily mean magic but both? Yes. And the romance is definitely more sexually explicit, and it’s shorter, and the plot is more instant gratification than the slower burn of GG. But I like how it ends up, the twist at the very end which clearly I shall not reveal here. This would have been good for my diversion craving brain last summer, being shorter, more intense, and it’s a series in case I want more.

With both of these books, because the main characters are male, I had less of that depressive feeling at the end that involves the character either following her heart and fighting social convention or giving up what she loves to fit in. I am absolutely not saying that being homosexual in the past was any sort of easy, but these both resolved in a way I could live with. And I’d read more of both. My understanding and appreciation of genre has really grown with my focus on reading in the last few years.

In a guilty confession I have definitely broken my book buying ban because I have been opening BookRiot deal emails. It’s really the clincher to avoid those. Part of the issue is I am starting to acquire and read books for my Halloween Reads series and I get a little fast and loose there, even if I am continuing to read books off my list that didn’t make it into last year’s series. Every once in awhile I consider a beach reads/women’s fiction feature on here for the summer but I usually choose to focus on BookRiot challenges or my backlist. I’m not too good for women’s fiction or genre, we know this, but it never seems that I get into the beachy stuff.

I’ve already finished a witch book and I got the next audio of that author’s from the library I’m waiting for the third in the series I want to post on in two weeks to get off hold at the library so I can barrel through it. Audiobook secret for NY residents: You can get a NYPL library card for e and audiobooks from anywhere in NYS! It has expanded my audiobook access a little, but I definitely caved and bought three audio companions of Halloween books I already had to gear up for the series.

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Happy Valentine’s Day!

I’m blaming the pandemic for the stupid amount of chocolate I’ve eaten since it hit stores after Christmas. And bought more for the actual day today, even though I know my husband will be hitting the sale candy this week.

Before I launch into the somewhat V-Day appropriate read for this post, I must announce that this is probably the last book review that I will be writing on here. Ever. I bit the bullet last weekend and bought my author website, bethstillmanblaha.com. It is not up yet, so I will also be posting on this next week when I’ll have it up with a nice juicy post to welcome you all to my new author website, which is really just my blog, moved over, for now. It is my hope that most of you lovely followers will check me out over there. Also, the author page will have a Facebook page under Beth Stillman Blaha, Author, and the fb page for this blog will also be phased out. The novel that is in the works to come out this year is a YA fantasy/thriller novel, and yes, I can genre blend because I ‘m not trying to romance agents anymore so I can do what I please! If I’m putting all my own money and time into making this happen, I will be building my own empire.

I can wax poetic on this next week. I promised a book review here and a book review is what you’ll get!

Oscar & Lucinda, Peter Carey

A young clergyman and a woman of independent means, both with an unexpected predisposition toward gambling, converge on an ill fated sea voyage to Australia in the 1800s. They each have unusual and uncommon upbringings for their time, and each don’t really fit into the world in which they were born, so, you know the inevitable. Their lives intersect in a slow burn, completely believable love story, with, as the blurb states, “a stunning conclusion.”

Now, I thought I was all smart about this post because its a book I’ve had forever that needed to be read and it’s about a couple on this, the day of love. And, with my new blog having more focus on books that readers of my impending novel will enjoy, I thought I’d squeeze in one more read outside that purview. Now that the book is done I feel less smart about this.

This book is gorgeously written, poetic, memorable, vivid in my mind’s eye. This is a book for people who love just reading about lives different from their own in a different historical context, as one would expect from Peter Carey. It’s a prizewinner in that not entirely accessible way. It’s literary. AND I do like historical fiction set in the early days of white settlement in Australia. It made me want to pick up The Luminaries again.

But wow, it’s really freakin disappointing. My readers are aware of my aversion to spoilers and I’ll hold true to that, however, I was pretty upset that after 500+ pages I didn’t get any satisfaction from the ending. I felt sad and cheated, and I like to think of myself as one open to many different ways a story can end. I’m left wondering if Carey intended it to go the way it did or he just got to a certain point and had some sort of shower revelation about how he could most disappoint the readers who had invested themselves in these extensive character backgrounds. I hate leaving this blog on a book that was ultimately disappointing for me. Back when I was reading about book blogging I read it’s best to be positive about books, but it’s not in my nature to be blindly positive unless it’s really how I feel.

I have been reading more genre than literary stuff since I shifted to my own read down instead of the reading challenges that I was loving on for a few years. I have been reading a lot of YA to have blog posts ready for you lovelies while I get the book related stuff up and running (get ready for pics of my writing space and the headshots I’ve been avoiding) and maybe it’s the emotionally stressful time of COVID and all the other ways the outside world feels lost these days that makes me crave the resolution that I’ve come to expect out of books for an audience that thrives on some kind of satisfaction from their endings. So maybe it’s me, not the book. A very love thing to say, isn’t it. It’s not you, it’s me.

Please with all the pleases stay tuned for the upcoming blog shift. There will be more of this greatness just in a new space.

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January is for Alice Hoffman Books

Winds of change continue to blow in this country as the new year pushes on.

It’s been mild enough for me to be able to keep getting outside, and I love how the snow is blue at dusk. My dog LOVES the weekend walks and its starting to stay light longer so I can sometimes get her out with me after sessions. My poor chickens don’t like being confined to their pen all winter but there’s nowhere to go in the yard. I feel for them. It’s too bad they can’t read to get them through this.

I’m finding that the late fall and winter are just about binge reading for me, whether it be the Snow Reads I used to do (that I kind of miss doing, honestly) or ticking down my back list.

After my Susanna Kearsley books I had a ton of Alice Hoffmans and I have enough of them read to cover me through this month of posts, and it’s mostly her older stuff. Very cool to read an author’s backlist to get a feel for their awesome growth as a writer and admire them making a career in the crazy competitive world of publishing. And she’s so lyrical and I love how she includes details to make things come to life, so it’s good for my writing as well.

Drowning Season, Alice Hoffman

A short, intergenerational family saga that centers around a family living in a compound united by the goal of keeping one of its members from drowning himself in the ocean for a few weeks every summer.  A rich family that came from nothing and how it’s individual members feel trapped in their own way, either by circumstances or love or being consistently prevented from becoming “one” with the water.   This one follows some of the same themes as the other Hoffman books I have been reading, with strained family members who don’t understand one another, and a dying matriarch, and a love somewhere in there dying to manifest.  This one does not have some of the magic that can be interwoven in her narratives.

At times I was absorbed by the narrative and trying to understand an unlikable matriarch who thinks maybe she should repent a little as cancer overtakes her body. Absorbed by the parts of her life where she was vulnerable when she was initially an ice queen.  Other times I didn’t care as much about what happens to her trapped family.  I found the part where she falls in love with the tattooed man the most interesting and how that scrap of her humanity stays with her to her dying days. This family is painfully disconnected and they only break further apart as the narrative continues, so there wasn’t that satisfying resolution.  Although if the family had suddenly truly come together it would have been entirely unrealistic and annoyed me.  

It was an okay one of her books.  Not amazing, and I think it was one of her earlier buildup ones to the mastery of her later books, just a testament to how being a writer is truly a lifelong journey into creativity.   I feel less guilty about a lackluster review when it didn’t score super high in Goodreads either. But as I said, with the context of the time in which she wrote it and still developing, I’ll take it.

Illumination Night, Alice Hoffman

Neighbors on Martha’s Vineyard intersect for about a two year span:  A teen girl coming to nurse her ailing grandmother and a young couple struggling financially and with the demands of parenthood and mental illness. The story goes between perspectives of different members of these two families and their backstories.  

Like her other older works that I have been reading through, this is more that ‘slice of life’ type writing than it is about a plot, a definite story with a beginning, middle and end.  It’s a period of interwoven lives and where they converge and diverge.  That didn’t mean I was not interested in all their individual tales and woes and intersections; I definitely was, but I am increasingly finding that her early books are something you really have to be in the mood for.  You have to be in the mood for character stories and slice of life rather than a high stakes or fast paced, twisty, diverting plot.  These books are really more about getting consumed in individual stories than they are about a unifying plot, per se.

I am not reading her novels in order, I am reading them by what I think I am in the mood for, and working down my TBR, of course, but I’m wondering when she’s going to stop writing about angry disconnected teenaged daughters from mothers that may or may not deserve it.This particular one grows up helping her grandmother and managing more responsibility, but she also goes after the married man next door and has casual sex with most of the eligible teen boys in town, stays out all night, and barely does any schoolwork. Her teen girls all over are falling for the wrong guys and having sex with them.  As this was very much not my own experience or the experiences of many teen girls I’ve worked with, she needs to flesh this out.  This book is from 1987, so way early on.  Also, the love connection she makes in the end?  There was definitely romance to it but the end of the story became a lot about a character that wasn’t big in the rest of the book.    

I did like how she managed Vonny, the young wife’s, agoraphobia and I think she does well with portraying the complications and evolutions of marriage and parenthood.  I like how Vonny’s husband is both annoyed with her agoraphobia but likes having the chance to be the hero in her eyes, even though the marriage has changed in ways he doesn’t particularly like, either, as marriages do. Vonny needs to grow up a little too, as she relates to teen girls more than she does other adult women, even though she proves herself to be a responsible parent.

So all month, like I said, will be the talented Ms. Alice. Might help get us through the snow and all the other anxiety producing things swirling about this January.

I’ve started to make progress toward getting my book off the ground in a real way. Yes, that means changes to this blog project. More to come.

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The One Christmas Read of 2020

So I got my Christmas wish of a white Christmas. Wednesday night into Thursday morning saw an approximately two foot snow dump unparalleled in recent history (although I remember 1993) in keeping with all the extremes that 2020 has seen fit to bring. This picture is my son enjoying a snow bath in the forest.

Briefly, it’s the first time my chickens saw a decent snowfall and some of them thought they could just live their usual lives despite this event (a mistake I made when entering grad school, becoming a parent, and having a to do list for the day after I had my wisdom teeth out, so I feel this) and almost killed themselves in snowbanks. They are all fine four days in but no one is leaving the comfort of the heated coop now.

But my brief motivation to read a Christmas book pre-dated the snow, but not by much, so I had my one Christmas read for my readers on this, five days before the day. Baking has helped in a time where rona has taken away the rest, I’m a week into a ten day quarantine (feeling perfectly fine) and have to put off my getting my last gift, the thing I usually wait to get, until entirely too close to the holiday this year because I’m trying to follow the rules and keep out of stores. I’m the person that would have all her papers done weeks before the end of the semester to everyone else’s chagrin so not being able to go into a store until Dec 23 is going to kill part of my soul.

Let me just also say that Audible Originals for the win. Last year I felt that scraping together Christmas audiobooks was an expensive pain in the butt because I had blown through most of my library’s short and sweet Christmas audiobooks. This year I browsed the catalog and much to my excitement found (among other gems, of course):

Tied up in Tinsel, Ngaio Marsh

This cover is decidedly more mid century than the copy I have, which is the one my grandfather, who died in the 80s, owned. But this is what kindle has done to it.

Christmas 1972 and a young painter, commissioned to do the portrait of a wealthy estate owner, is pulled into intrigue when a Christmas party with a Father Christmas (it’s the British countryside) ends in a disappearance of a guest.

My grandfather was both an avid anglophile and reader of mid century mystery novels, many of which I own, so I was delighted to find one for free on audio. His old books keep me at a healthy emotional distance while taking me on a ride so they are perfect for my tender soul right now. I read Nero Wolfe novels for fun in grad school, the few moments I did read for fun, for the same reason. I wouldn’t get wrecked over some poor woman getting pregnant at the wrong time or something with his books. They are trusty in this respect.

Interestingly, the crime, and then the arrival of the investigator, happens halfway through this book a decent space of time after the actual Christmas party, so it’s not like the usual modern mysteries for those of us with short attention spans where the poop hits the fan long before you’re three chapters in. I loved the characters coming for a benevolent party in an English country manor, and although you had to wait for the crime, the setup was superb. The estate owner hires ex murderers from the local penitentiary for his house staff and the reader is privy to each character’s past murder, so all sorts of red herrings are tossed in as well as less than ideal cooperation from staff who want to stay on this side of the prison gates. And then the relationships between the guests are harried and multidimensional, so I was in the dark much of the time. To be fair, I don’t tend to figure out mysteries before they are revealed, and as much as I’d love to be able to write a cozy mystery series, I think my brain doesn’t work that way. Not without a lot of like, encouragement from my end. I like a complex web of relationships in a mystery novel, complete with the last secrets coming out at the eleventh hour and an idyllic setting, so this was totally it.

Like the snow, the cookie recipes I’ve made (peanut blossoms, peppermint oreo bark, butter pecan rounds, Christmas crack, pecan rolo pretzel bites, russian tea cakes, raspberry jam bars and gingerbread blondies with white chocolate), 98% of my shopping done, and my focus on gratitude, this book was what I needed to warm my COVID-19 frosted half dead holiday soul. Also peppermint schnapps mixed into coffee or cocoa haven’t hurt anything either.

Next week is the end of year specs and goals moving forward and I wish every single reader an awesome Christmas that ameliorates at least some of this psyche damaging dumpster fire of a year.

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