Salutations March 2021

Oh how I love spring! My skin breathes for what feels like the first time in months, and I feel like sprouting out of my winter hibernation just like the buds that pop up in my garden. Even the physical work of clearing away accumulated winter crap feels liberating – certainly for the spears growing underneath and also for my soul. Spring is good!

This spring feels especially hopeful. In just two days, I’ll get my second Moderna vaccine. Liberation indeed – cautious though it will be. As noted before, isolation has not weighed as heavily on me and my partner as for so many, and we intend to stick out toes rather than our whole selves back into a public life. But to go into a store, to meet again with vaccinated friends and family – and with far less fear – these forays back to a land of normal do seem appealing as do outdoor activities and gatherings. Oh yes. I do love spring and the hopeful feelings it generates.

Meanwhile, I’m slogging away with characters Lee and Matt and mulling over what should happen next in their fictional lives. Should they get involved with Black Lives Matter protests? Should they expose the shadowy and somewhat sinister character that showed up in Matt’s life a few chapters ago? And how will that bring up – and perhaps to light – the dark past for Lee? Hmmm… Stay tuned. I’ve set a goal to finish the rough draft this year. From a word count perspective, I’m roughly halfway done. But there’s much yet for me to discover about these two, more challenges for them to face, more resolutions they may or may not achieve.

My first two novels continue to enjoy modest but consistent sales and Kindle Unlimited readers. I still blunder about in the dark with the whole marketing aspect of being an author though I have had some lovely opportunities to share a bit about these books with virtual audiences. My library hosted me for one of their regular Books-Sandwiched-In programs, and I hope to be able to share the recorded version of that program soon. And a newly minted organization called Finger Lakes Authors and Readers Experience (FLARE) did a test run for their conference in August – also virtual this year. They quite kindly asked me to be their featured speaker in their Beta-test where I talked about my process of writing fiction, and especially as I wrote Home Place. That was great fun!

The best question, though came from my book club who asked, ‘How do you write those sex scenes?’ If you’ve read my books, you’ll know that I tend to focus on the build-up toward sexual encounters rather than the mechanics of the act itself. Someone, though I don’t remember who, suggested that the moments in a film before a kiss may make our hearts beat faster than the kiss itself. I find that to be true as I read and as I write. I choose to let my readers imagine what happens after the build-up. The mind is, after all, the most important sexual organ, and I want my readers to exercise their minds. But I did admit to my book club, those dear smart women, that while I write that build-up…I do get excited!

Okay, enough about my writing. Let’s take a look at books I’ve read this month.

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Perhaps you’ve heard that the author of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek has indignantly accused Jojo Moyes’ of writing too similar a tale in The Giver of Stars. There are certainly similarities – same topic about Packhorse Librarians, same time period, same location, and two prologues that display disturbingly similar violence in them thar hills. But I found these to be quite different books.

The biggest difference is in the point of view. Cussy Mary of Troublesome Creek tells her story – which means we get a view of one librarian’s experiences. She’s a native Kentuckian, but an outsider because of her color – blue. She’s one of the Blue People of Kentucky, blue to a genetic condition unique to that area – and something I’d never heard of before. Being blue is no easier than being green, it appears, and that’s a central theme of Richardson’s story.

Moyes tells the story in third person which gives us insights into five different librarians, also all outsiders – two more than the others. Marjory is of the hills but violates local norms of how a woman ought to act. Alice is a transplanted Brit, new to all things Kentucky. We watch Alice begin riding for the library which gives a different perspective than we get from Cussy Mary who’s already been delivering books for some time in Troublesome Creek.

That said, I enjoyed both books. Richardson, herself a Kentuckian gives us more flora and fauna description in addition to teaching about the Blues of Kentucky. Moyes gives us a better story, in my opinion, with an ending at once more fizzy and plausible than Richardson’s abrupt happy-ever-after conclusion. And despite her claims that Moyes stole her ideas, Richardson’s sales have surely benefitted from Moyes’ cachet and talent. The upshot? We get to learn and enjoy different stories in these two books.

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I may, on another occasion have noted that I’ll read anything Joshilyn Jackson ever writes. Yet this one from 2008 had somehow escaped me till now. I’m glad I found it. Here, Jackson draws a remarkable contrast between the more educated and urban new south and the rough and tumble hillbilly south of alcohol, drugs, and despair. Laurel and her sister Thalia are mostly new south, with unshakeable ties to the poorer and less savory side of their family, but that’s not why they can’t get along – or so we think till deep into the story. It takes witnessing a horrible tragedy and trying to prevent another to heal their rift and uncover hard truths they’ve both tried unsuccessfully to bury. Jackson plies her usual skill at drawing characters to care about along with some we love to hate. Oh yes, I’ll read anything by Joshilyn Jackson.

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On the strength of This Tender Land I picked up another William Kent Krueger tale this month – and enjoyed it almost as much. This one leans more toward the homey than Land and takes place in small town Minnesota, 1961. There’s love of place and family here, with clear-eyed understanding that neither is perfect. Add in exploration of church, death, guilt, and other forms of adolescent angst…and this too was a compelling read. At 13, Frank Drum aches to grow into manhood but is not ready to reckon with the unspeakable loss when his sister disappears and then turns up dead. Or the catapulting effects on his family and on his own emergence into an adult world. I’ll be looking for other books by Krueger again.

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Trust Jodi Picoult to teach you about the intersections between law and medicine, and in this tale more than you ever hoped to know about wolf packs and their behavior. Luke Warren is about as interesting a character – and about as loco – as anyone you could imagine. Have you ever heard of a man leaving his family and going into the Canadian wilderness – intentionally, in winter – in the hopes of being adopted into a pack of wolves? I sure hadn’t, and I confess the very idea strains my sense of reality. But of course, Picoult isn’t just telling Luke’s story. She’s telling what his kids have to battle out – what to do about their father after an accident that leaves him brain dead. Do they maintain life support and hope? Or do they pull the plug to allow for a death with dignity – and potential organ transplants? Naturally the two sibs each want different outcomes, and how they pursue those outcomes along with Luke’s ultra-detailed journal of his wolf-pack life offer quite the tale. I read this book slowly – on weekends when I needed a paperback (and not my iPad) to take with me into the tub. I recommend reading Picoult in this way to savor the detail, the clashing perspectives of her characters.

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Some books like Picoult’s teach you a lot. Some are just pure fun. I put Louise Penny in the fun category. This latest Armand Gamache story is set in Paris where his family, rather than the quirky inhabitants of Three Pines, takes center stage . But we’ve come to know the Gamaches quite well in this the sixteenth of the series, and there were enough references to Ruth and Rosa the duck, and all the Three Pines gang for me to conjure their comforting presence. Another good side-effect of setting the story in Paris? Nobody in Three Pines had to die. The sinister plot apparently involving every last official in Paris seemed rather convoluted and far-fetched, but it was all there to set the scene for a father and son reunion that has been volumes overdue. And the Gamache’s familiarity with Paris nooks and crannies as well as spectacular restaurants proved satisfying armchair travel. Penny is all about the characters – and she’s created enough charm in her characters along with enough to abhor in others that it’s no hardship at all to hang out with them through the reading of her stories.

I’ll preface these next two books by saying I had a specific reason to seek out the author Kristan Higgins. This coming August, Higgins will be a featured speaker at the newly minted Finger Lakes Authors and Readers Experience or FLARE, the brainchild of a member of my writers group, Laurie Gifford Adams. Laurie knew Higgins in Connecticut, and after reading her work, but I’d never run across her books. Till now. I’m impressed. And I look forward to hearing Kristan Higgins present. And to reading more of her work – though so far it means I won’t get much else done.

In the first Higgins book I read, Emma London reluctantly reunites with her icy, wealthy, and dying grandmother mostly to get Emma’s daughter away from mean girls back home. Emma has been hugely disappointed in her parents, rejected by her grandmother, taken in and loved by her maternal grandfather. Still she’s managed to earn a PhD in family therapy, working in a grocery store to pay her bills. Despite that unlikely scenario, the rest of Emma’s character seems quite real, and it’s fun to watch her transformation into a strong, loving presence as the family slowly heals. It’s also fun to see her realize she deserves more in a mate than her perpetual Peter Pan first love and father of her daughter. I liked that Higgins told her story from multiple points of view – my own favored style – so we could glean different sides of the story. And her characters had enough dimension – even the evil grandmother and the Peter Pan – so our perspectives on everyone shifted in the telling of the tale.

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My second Higgins read was illuminating. She sure doesn’t shy from tough topics. This one was all about fat-shaming, how one friend dies morbidly obese and alone and two others struggle to accept themselves as they are in a society that is hyper-focused on thinness. This story is filled with insights about food addiction, body-hate, family pressures, the need to heal old losses, and how everyone deserves love regardless and irrespective of their size. As a person who loves food and wine, who’s studied obesity, and who’s always carried more pounds than those pesky height-weight tables suggest, I saw myself in the characters and sadly also in those who measure worth according to size. Is there a woman in America without body-image issues? I’ll be much more aware when I see others at the Y that size is only one truth among many, and that everyone is carrying a lot more than one can see with only our eyes. I hope I’ll be kinder because I read this book – to myself as well as to others.

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Now here was a quirky tale – and would I expect any less from the author who wrote The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry? I chose this new Rachel Joyce book because I expected to find quirky. Two of the most unprepared and mismatched women one would ever hope to meet go halfway round the world in search of a particular beetle – an insect that no one is sure actually exists. How these polar opposites survive in the alien world of north New Caledonia and then become the dearest friends and allies? Oh yeah. There’s plenty of quirk to go around, and a tale that warms the heart in the end as both become the women they were meant to be. But if you’re like me and are prone to sympathetic itching, be prepared. How they survive the mosquito bites is miracle enough to contemplate.

As is frequently the case, it feels like I’ve absorbed more books in March, but this is what Goodreads shows. Have I neglected to record some books? Entirely possible. It also seems that I can’t count on Goodreads to list my book in the chronological order in which I read them. Is anyone else noticing this anomaly? I’d like to see it corrected since I like reflecting not just on the books I’ve read but how they fit into the life I was leading at the time I read them. We’re all different people today than we were yesterday, often because of the books we’ve read. How will I track my personal evolution if my book list gets out of order? Come on Goodreads!

Update: I started this post two days ago. So I am now fully vaccinated as of noon today and awaiting the anticipated side-effects so many have experienced. I feel great so far. And whatever comes in the next 24-48 hours, I’ll maintain a sense of gratitude because surely any puny side-effects will be far better than the disease itself. Please do yourself and everyone around you a favor. Get vaccinated as soon as you possibly can. I look forward to seeing your smiling face!

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