Salutations February 2021

Winter has never been my favorite season, but I have to admit I’ve rather enjoyed these winter months. We’ve hibernated, sure, but that’s not so unusual for us in winter. And in this household, the December holidays are followed by a slew of birthdays stretching across our coldest months. Add in Valentine’s day, and there’s some kind of celebration every week – subdued this pandemic year, but still chock-full of sweetness.

A satellite view of Kat's family farm in Home Place.
I shared this satellite view of the farm I shared with Kat in my novel Home Place during my library’s Books-Sandwiched-In program.

More sweetness? My wonderful book club discussed (gulp) my novel Home Place last month, and I got to talk about the book and the place that inspired it for a library-sponsored Zoom program. And dare I say it? The book and the library program got rave reviews! It is a joy to share my work – and also an opportunity for nerve-related nausea. I experienced both, and a major sigh of relief that both were received so well. How very kind people can be!

And winter hibernation affords writing and reading time not always experienced as the world turns greener. Progress on my work-in-progress – as yet untitled – continues. I know my characters much better with every page, though at roughly halfway through the story (I think) I remain puzzled about how they’ll face up to their challenges – or won’t. I consider it progress that the challenges are getting tougher, but I’ve got to make more trouble for these characters I’ve come to love before they’ll show me what’s next for them as individuals and maybe as a couple. Stay tuned… It’s what I’m doing. I just keep writing while I wait…

Books take the lion’s share of responsibility for my enjoyment of winter this year. The plentitude and the quality adds to my life satisfaction. Here’s my February list.

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I picked this book from an online bargain bin for the subject matter – wine. Not only am I a fan of wine, but I find the process of winemaking full of romance. So much so that I’ve started hatching a vineyard story of my own – put on hold until I can safely visit wineries again to soak up the ambience (and some wine.) So I looked at this novel as research. And it did give a feel for the life of a wine-making family. I found the main character a tad precious and the story slightly overwrought with multiple sub-plots that didn’t all add depth to the story. But overall, a fun read.

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Warning – if you’re hoping for a sea story, you’ll be disappointed. The title actually refers to a microscopic view of human blood. because a feisty Italian boy raised by his grandparents gets cancer and needs a bone marrow transplant. The donor? Not someone anyone expected to be a match halfway across the world. The ‘secret’ that made this possible is not a great surprise, but it does raise interesting questions – medical, political, moral. This was another bargain book, and it was surely worth the price of admission.

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Now this is a book! One of the best adventures I had this month. Our hero and his entourage are orphans on the run from the meanest excuse for a refuge one could ever imagine, a ‘school’ for Native American children and a place far too real in the history of this country. With shades of Bleak House, The Odyssey, and Huck Finn, the story is a classic road trip – by canoe instead of wheels – during which our orphan band meet up with interesting, frightening, and endearing characters and confront issues of bias, genocide, and religious fervor. I found myself thinking too of Leif Enger’s Peace Like A River, for the hints of mysticism and poetic storytelling that happens along the way. I look forward to reading more from William Kent Krueger. This one was fantastic!

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Sometimes you find something terrific in the bargain bin. And sometimes you don’t. This book fell in the ‘don’t’ category. I had high hopes for the plot – four couples moving for one year to Paris. It seemed likely those characters would change, perhaps in surprising ways. And change they did, predictably. All the women got thinner and more beautiful (really?) while they learned to cook or (really?) got a publishing deal for her first novel written in a cafe. The men learned that family matters. I imagine the characters we were supposed to hate were intended to spice up the story, but I found them too one-dimensional to be interesting. So no for the characters’ arcs and no for the pedestrian writing style. I finished this story only because of some latent Puritan work ethic. But I don’t recommend you bother.

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I expect a fun read from Emily Giffin, something light and chick-lit worthy. What I didn’t expect was a story of depth about haves and have-nots and their kids trying to navigate what it means to belong. What I didn’t expect was a story that grappled with sexual exploitation that can happen when teens, alcohol, and cell phones are in the mix. What I didn’t expect was a story about such real and dire parenting questions as Giffen’s characters experience. What I didn’t expect was the overwhelming urge to make this required reading for all teen-aged girls. Boys and parents too, but especially girls. You’ll know by now that I enjoy a good chick-lit tale – like I enjoy candy. This time Giffen gave me meat and potato nourishment instead, and I was grateful to have it.

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I loved what I think is Bivald’s first novel The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend and Fredrik Backman’s plug on the front cover was another good reason to pick this from the online bargain bin. And this time, I picked a winner. Among other things, I’m intrigued by how Bivald, a Swede, understands American small towns so well. Maybe she didn’t always live in Sweden? Or maybe small towns are alike the world over? This is a wonderful tale not afraid to take on loss, ignorance, and homophobia as well as deep and abiding friendships that continue their influence beyond the grave. I’ve never imagined a motel as being anything dear or romantic, but the Pine Away and its varied residents might have altered my view. Hmmm. No, not a place I want to live, but it was sure fun visiting!

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I loved this book right up to the end – even with all the snakes slithering and rattling about. And if you know me at all, you know that I DO NOT DO SNAKES! I MEAN MAJOR CREEPATOLA! But the humans of western North Carolina were intriguing – an aging woman whose conscience required that she leave her church services but not the church itself, a boy of nine who struggles to comprehend more than any kid ought to have thrust into his life, a sheriff still dealing with his own crippling loss now trying to find answers to another young life taken. I rooted for the boy, commiserated with two adult narrators, found one certifiable bad guy to hate, another to hope for, and was disappointed in others. Right up to the end where the story crashed, burned, and then whimpered to an abrupt and for me, unsatisfying conclusion. But was it worth the read? Oh yeah. Even with the (ewww, ick) snakes.

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The Wedding Game was a romp, start to finish. How could a crafty sort like me not love Luna who is a master of all things craft and the absurd idea of a wedding-planning competition she enters on behalf of her brother and his partner? How could I not find Alec, brother of another competing couple in appealing and sure, sexy? Okay, it was a lot to swallow that Alec could learn to bake a wowzer cake with just one week to practice. I’ve seen too many ‘Great British Baking Shows’ to buy that one. But I was willing to suspend belief on that. More challenging to buy was the forever-long and oh-so graphically described foreplay until Luna and Alec finally consummated their attraction. Those blow-by-blow plays brought my rating down to four stars with a request that authors allow readers to fill in some gaps with their own active and happily gratifying imaginations. It would be useful to remember that the brain is also a sex organ!

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Put a bookshop in any book and I’ll likely read it. Put it in a tiny Australian town, and what’s not to love? Well okay, there was a faithless wife and a fanatic preacher I didn’t love. And the Nazis. And occasionally the bookshop owner who must be forgiven over and over again because of what she endured during the war. But Tom Hope? The farmer and meticulous jack of all trades, his dog, and the child he loves even though he’s not his of the blood make up for anyone and everyone I loved to hate in this story. To follow Tom was a rare treat, as he cares for his woolies, rests his cheeks against his cows as he milks them, builds, sands, and polishes bookshelf after bookshelf for Hannah, and cares for young Peter with only the help of Beau the dog. Tom Hope was a wonderfully self-effacing hero who engenders the emotion of his surname. Lovely.

Next up? I’ve begun another by Joshilyn Jackson and next I’ll be reading The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek which apparently served as Jojo Moyes’ inspiration for The Giver of Stars which I loved. Will it measure up to Jojo? Or maybe even be better? Stay tuned next month (or so) to see what my book club and I think.

In the meantime, stay well and get vaccinated as soon as you’re able. Many blessings!

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