Salutations April 2021

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After a long hiatus, is it weird to feel re-entry challenges? If so – news flash – I’m weird. I still approach the world with a wariness that my head recognizes is overkill now that I’ve been fully vaccinated for nearly a month. One indoor lunch with vaccinated others, one trip each to crafts and wine stores, several to get groceries. Besides the Y which I’ve been carefully attending since last July, these have been my only outings this April. And I feel no big compulsion for more. Have my hermit tendencies taken over? Will I shy from even small gatherings when the CDC tells me it will be okay? Surely I’m not the only one wondering. Am I?

I will say that I’ve found grocery shopping fun – to see for myself after these months of Insta-carting what’s available. I anticipated the same as I sauntered through the wine store and was surprised to find myself somewhat overwhelmed by all the choices before me. I think about other kinds of shopping excursions – again with no real urge to indulge. My apologies, TJ Maxx, Chicos, and the Christmas Tree Shoppe. I don’t seem to care about what you want to sell me. Can you see why I’m saying ‘huh?’ about this new life? Ah well, this too shall undoubtedly pass.

I’m excited to announce that this morning my novel Home Place ranked #39 in Amazon’s top 100 Best Selling Literary Fiction books and #84 in Romance Literary Fiction. Cool, right? Okay, that rank is no doubt influenced because the Kindle version is free today. But still. With Amazon’s new approach that counts ratings as well as reviews, Home Place is doing more than holding its own. Only about a third of the people who rated the book have written a review, but with 104 ratings and an average of 4.5 stars, why would I complain?

In Facebook groups focused on writing, authors frequently post about how to earn more money. Though that would be nice, my goal has been to gather more readers. I’ve no idea how that might or might not pay off in terms of future sales, but hope exists – the hope that people will read Come Back when they finish Home Place or vice versa. And that they feel their investment (a whopping $2.99 for a Kindle) is worth it. But in case you’re wondering, I’m still not breaking even with the money I’ve invested in these books. And the time? Forget about that! I’m in it for love, not money!

This morning I read an Edutopia article about fostering reading for fun and the academic benefits kids get when they develop a love of reading. Yes. Research proves it. Kids who read for fun – and not just because they have to – do better in school. No surprise to me, the kid who snuck a novel under the desk when she was supposed to be doing math. But really, can you think of a better or more important lifelong skill than reading? Or one that pays such dividends in pleasure time and again? Here’s what I’ve been reading for fun – and sustenance – this month.

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My third Kristan Higgins novel in a row didn’t disappoint. This one returns to that lovely community overlooking Long Island Sound and introduces another complex set of characters. Barb is contemplating an escape from her long marriage when her husband has a stroke and she discovers he’s been unfaithful. Daughter Juliette is feeling career threats when she should be at the pinnacle of her productive creativity. And daddy’s girl Sadie returns to provide care and to wrestle with why she hasn’t made the big splash in the art world that she’s always wanted. Higgins tackles marital, parenting, career, and romance questions in this aptly-titled tale. A minor complaint about the previous Higgins I’ve read is that the titles evoke little of what the story is about. I was glad this one gave hints. I like stories that center around the rich possibility of home and family and that let us inside the heads of the characters. When the cast is as likable as this mom and daughters – and their various supporting players, it’s a good read.

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There was a lot of charm in this story – but hey, it was a bookshop and we count on charm in bookshop stories. This particular bookshop sounds particularly appealing with a mysterious and intriguing history, an emerging neighborhood and the requisite quirky characters that run it. And who doesn’t dream of a rich uncle leaving you a thriving bookshop in his will? Except this uncle is estranged, isn’t rich, and the bookshop is not remotely close to thriving. Which means of course that our lead character has to dig to uncover what all the mystery and estrangement was about by solving obtuse book-related riddles and clues her dead uncle scattered about his messy life. And, oh by the way, find a way to make the bookshop profitable. The mystery and the plans to create profit didn’t hold up for me – not in this age when independent bookstores find their existence so challenging. The ‘Yesterdays’ title alone seems to portend doom for this one – and that’s the name they give the shop to put a new shine on it? Still, any book about books is worth a read.

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And now for something completely different. Picture a judge, a woman at 60ish, who hands down judgments affecting children and families that would cross Solomon’s eyes – usually with professional detachment and certainty in the rightness of her decision. Except for that one case. And now her husband has announced that he wants to open their marriage and have an affair – partly because she’s been so distant for seven weeks and one day when previously theirs was a richly sexual relationship. Hmmm. On the heels of that announcement and perhaps because of how his announcement has unsettled her, she decides another case after an unconventional visit with the young man who is the subject of that case. And suffers within her soul as he, seeing her as his savior, pursues a less than professional relationship with her. Ah the moral dilemmas. Above all, McEwan has demonstrated how vitally important it is for child-serving professionals to maintain their own mental health – and that no one can do that alone. I liked this story a lot and related to the childless Fiona Maye who invested her career in the service of children.

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I expected something a tad fluffy (flitty) from this title and was pleasantly surprised to find it filled with grit. PhD candidate Greta is a terrific character – a hot mess of suppressed emotion, unless it’s antipathy for anything not butterfly-related. I found her delightfully crusty, opinionated, and self-involved. Not your most-likely-to-succeed caregiver. But that’s the role Greta has to play – after alienating other more likely options – when her twin brother has an aneurysm. In the process – with lots of missteps – she learns to flex on her unyielding expectations of her brother’s oh-so-sweet fiance, of the mother who abandoned the family when Greta was a teen, even of her dead father whom she idolized to the extent that she never saw him as a whole person. And all this takes place in the presence of bugs and butterflies. You’ll learn more about entomology than you might sign on for with this book – and maybe more about the human condition and healing than you expect too.

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Nothing much happens in Silver Bay – unless you count watching whales and dolphins. Reason enough for me to visit this quiet bay on Australia’s coast. But the quiet of the small hotel is about to be disrupted by a corporation more concerned with profits than sea life. There’s an element of Hallmark between Mike who represents the developers and Liza whose aunt runs the hotel and nearly-defunct whaling museum. Liza has secluded herself in fear of discovery, grieving the loss of one daughter while over-protecting her other child. Mike has it all back in London but is drawn to Liza and to a far-different lifestyle in Silver Bay. In classic Jojo style, we hear from multiple points of view and get inside some intriguing heads. And we learn a little about dangers facing migrating whales. Is it Jojo’s best? Probably not. Was it engrossing enough to cast aside chores and other pleasures? Absolutely!

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This was one of Amazon’s ‘First Reads’ offerings, so I followed my mom’s mantra, ‘For free, take.’ I was curious and skeptical because I couldn’t get into Vanderah’s debut novel Where the Forest Meets the Stars even though it got great reviews. I’ll likely give it another go now. But perhaps not in a hurry. Light Through the Leaves starts slow too with a character that compels sympathy but not liking until deep into the story. When the story shifts to six-year-old Raven though, my heart melted. She’s a happy child despite what most would call the psychological abuse of extreme isolation. But Raven doesn’t feel the loss of others when Mama and her forest supply all her needs. Until she meets and becomes friends with a neighbor’s family of boys. Watching Raven grow and struggle to balance what she’s been taught with the world’s realities, and how she heals the previously unlikable Ellis and newly-found brothers is the heart of this story. I hope Vanderah keeps writing for the sake of characters like Raven.

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I admit it. I got on a Jojo kick. Sometimes – maybe even often – I want a reliably satisfying read. Jojo does that for me. Here she weaves a generational tale. Joy who never satisfied her mother, who finds a surprising love and who must bury a devastating betrayal begets Kate who doesn’t fit her mother’s Irish life of horses and hounds. Kate feels just as incapable of measuring up to what she sees as her parents’ idyllic love, especially as she’s just bulldozed her most recent relationship, trading safety for passion which sadly proves short-lived. And then there’s Sabine, Kate’s daughter. Willful, teenaged Sabine whom Kate sends to her grandparents to save her from her own relationship drama. Sabine who’s sure her life is over, surrounded by everyone old. There’s plenty of drama, enough repressed emotion for a dozen characters, and a darn good read to help these women finally sort out their messed up lives. Thanks Jojo!

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There can be no good end to a story about Indian life in the 1870s, so I went into this story with reluctance and only a distant memory of the plotline in Fergus’ One Thousand White Women. But the way it is written in the guise of journal entries gives an immediacy and a sense of connection to the characters. I saw no hopeful outcome for them, but I cared. Enough to keep reading, keep hoping against hope. And in the end… It was worth the read. Fergus has his characters explain much about Cheyenne life, the various roles, responsibilities, joys, and sorrows compounded by the army and white settlement. That alone is enlightening as is the perspective of learning about and adjusting to that way of life by white women with a past. And hope on, hope ever, there will be a third volume where the army led by Custer will at last get its comeuppance.

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And finally there’s Backman. I mentioned Anxious People a few months back but stayed cagey about my review because it was my pick for our book club meeting in April – a meeting I’d have hosted in person in most years. But for two years in a row I haven’t had to clean, clean, clean my house! Anyway, I didn’t want my thoughts to dominate my fellow readers before they had a chance to delve into this book for themselves. So I reined in my gushing adoration for this story till now – and at our meeting. I started laughing on the first page and once, regarding a description that suggested a character’s ‘clothing-to-skin ratio’ was not an optimal choice, nearly fell off my chair. Backman has such a talent for metaphor and simile, such a wonderful turn of a phrase that I don’t know how any writer could not admire his work. More, he uses a light touch to make the difficult topic of suicide palatable while he shows the long-lasting impact of one man’s dire choice on a group of people who never even knew him. This is a clever, funny, and poignant story about a collection of disparate individuals who each has their own reasons for feeling anxious. I can’t recommend it highly enough!

And that, my friends, has been my life in books this April. Everyone should be so lucky! And next month, who knows? Maybe I’ll see you out and about town. Meanwhile, enjoy every moment of this wonderful though fickle time of year – the sights, sounds, smells, colors, and the warm sun on skin. It’s all to be savored before the serious planting begins in our northeast.

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