Book Favorites Round-Up for 2013

I was surprised when I counted up the number of books recorded this year on my Goodreads log—many less than my usual 30 - 40.  Of course, that was only novels I’d recorded.  I’ve read many books in the name of research this year.  


Here are my ten favorites, in no particular order:


1.   The Sleeping Dictionary, by Sujata Massey

2.   Calling Me Home, by Julie Kibler

3.   The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan

4.   Hemingway’s Girl, by Erika Robuck

5.   Cold Days, by Jim Butcher

6.   The Fireman’s Homecoming, by Allie Pleiter

7.   Smarty Bones, by Carolyn Haines

8.   The Ides of April, by Lindsey Davis

9.   Songs of Willow Frost, by Jamie Ford

10. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. (Audiobook, read by Sissy Spacek.  



What were some of your favorites this year? 



Here’s to authors everywhere, and to more great reading in the New Year.  Happy Holidays!









The Bean of Character Development

Paris may have the Eiffel Tower, but Chicago has Cloud-Gate,

(aka, The Bean) -- a highly-polished sculpture that reflects the city, the sky, the Lake, Centennial Park, and any person within reflecting distance.


No matter your vantage point, the curvy reflection is beautiful and interesting. The sky was blue when we visited recently, but for high drama, I recommend a cloudy or stormy day. 


It’s fun to walk around and view The Bean from various vantage points. The reflections change and morph; you change and morph. If you stand directly beneath it, you see multiple reflections of yourself in different sizes. It’s a little trippy.

(Note to self: don’t walk around while looking up!)


It occurred to me that we writers get to know our characters by viewing them from different angles and perspectives. As we polish them into being, what is reflecting back? From here, Bob seems affable and responsible. From there, we see an angry side with a tendency to shove problems under the rug. From fifty feet away, he’s helping an old lady cross the street. From ten, he’s threatening a neighbor.  Standing underneath, we see a scared little boy, bruised and hiding in the closet.


What if our heroine is prickly at a distance, but on closer inspection we find her stopping to rescue turtles from the middle of dusty rural roads? 


The day we visited, there were a lot of people walking around, taking photographs and enjoying themselves. Some were mugging for the camera, others were simply documenting a unique sculpture and experience.  (Did someone say secondary characters? Hmm...I wonder how would they would reflect off the protagonist?)











Our water tower is across the street from the grocery store. I pass it daily—seeing it without really seeing it.  I was waiting in the parking lot one night last week while my husband bought a couple items for dinner. It gave me the chance to observe my surroundings, and the water tower caught my eye. I was shocked at its transformation: a large clump of antennae stuck up from the center like a punk hair-do, and the foundation was criss-crossed with wires supporting numerous cell phone transmitters.


I looked at this now-ugly structure, thinking, When did this happen?— realizing that it’s probably been that way for a long time. Where was I? 


Transformations can be surprising. They can also be fleeting and delightful. When I drive to Missouri to visit my mother, I leave very early—about 5:00 a.m.  I do this for two reasons: I like to avoid the worst of the morning rush hour, and I’ve always loved leaving early…especially if it is dark.  There’s just something about leaving a still-dark, mostly-sleeping town with hot tea in my go-mug and cool jazz playing on the radio that is extra fun.


As I drive, the world slowly transforms from dark to dawn to daylight. It’s different each time, depending on the weather and the time of sunrise. On one trip, the mist hovered thickly over cornfields and steamed up from ponds and the Illinois river. An omen, apparently, as I proceeded to drive into fog that lasted until Bloomington. 


Another time, I was passing near acres and acres of wind-turbines. The sun was just coming up and was reflecting off the bases, creating the illusion that the blades were turning on pillars of light. I’d given anything for a camera and a safe place to pull over!


On my last trip, the eastern clouds were like “flat, charcoal-colored amoebas against the brightening sky.”  (I wrote that down at my first rest break.) 


By observing these transformations of nature, I find that I, too, am transformed. There is a serenity that results from focusing on beauty and detail; from gratitude for our amazing world and the opportunity to observe it. As I circle around ideas for my new project, slowly spiraling closer to character arcs and premise, I ask who are my main characters, and how will they be transformed? And in the silence of a changing day, I listen.










Traveling with David Sedaris

On a recent road trip to Missouri, I listened to the audiobook version of Dress Your Family in Cordurory and Denim, by David Sedaris, the popular essayist.  This was my first exposure to his writing—although I’ve been aware of his books for years, and enjoyed his interview in the current issue of Writer’s Digest.


This six-cd audiobook begins with remembrances of his early childhood and moves to adulthood (primarily featuring his, er, wacky family.) The essays are often poignant and heartbreaking. They can also be downright hilarious.  The best part is that Sedaris himself reads the essays, which makes them even funnier--or more heartbreaking, as the case may be.


There were a few times I was laughing so hard, that if another car happened to pass from the opposite direction, I imagine the conversation would run something like this:


Driver: “Did you see that woman? She was screaming with laughter.”


Passenger: “Don't some of the Harry Potter characters do that?”


Driver: “Only the mean Slytherin girls.”


Passenger: “Did the woman look mean?”


Driver: “No. Just maniacal, like when that Hogwart’s teacher gets drunk on cooking sherry...”



You get the idea. 


The nice thing about listening to an audiobook is that my eight-hour drive flies by. I typically spend time thinking about my current writing project and the scenery and sky, which is enjoyable and lets my creativity sort of go on subliminal auto-pilot.  However, on the trip before this one I found that worries about the health of my 90 year-old mother was pushing into my creative space...and the driving time seemed to stretch out. That was the impetus for getting an audiobook for the next trip. 


Trust me when I say: Never doubt the healing power of laughter. 


I will probably never read one of David Sedaris’s books, because I’m convinced that listening is the best way experience them. That, and he's a darn good traveling companion.











Anniversary Inspiration

My husband and I celebrated our 25th anniversary by becoming members of the Art Institute of Chicago. I mean, who really needs a piece of silver when one can view the real deal—bowls, vessels, jewelry—from ancient Rome?  It’s nice knowing we can visit often and take our time with a few exhibits, rather than ending up with “museum daze” from trying to see everything.


A current exhibit (running through September) which is simply fabulous is “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity.” If you love Renoir, Monet, Manet, Cassat, and others, GO.  Not only are there amazing paintings that detail French fashion in the 1800’s, they have period dresses and other attire which are very similar to those in the paintings. In some cases, the actual outfit worn by the model. 


There are corsets, hats, shoes; there are paintings that were considered scandalous during that time; and oh, there is a single room dedicated to men’s fashion. (As my husband put it, “The token room. How many ways can you cut a jacket?”) It includes some good paintings that feature men, including one of Renoir relaxing on a chair.


The term “fashion plate" came from illustrations of fashions that were used in advertising and fashion magazines of the day. There were exquisite samples of these “plates,” and apparently many of the leading artists earned money this way. 


Fashion was such a vibrant, quickly-evolving industry back then, that artists strove to keep at the forefront of current trends. Often, by the time a painting was finished, the featured outfit--and thus the painting--was considered passé. How's that for motivation?


Viewing artistic excellence feeds my creativity and inspires ideas--a perfect anniversary gift, wouldn't you say?

Renoir, La Loge (from the Art Institute website)
Renoir, La Loge (from the Art Institute website)





A July Road Trip

I’m a perfect example of a writer who enjoys being alone for hours at a time—which makes taking a road trip by myself a guilty pleasure. Last week I drove from Chicago to Columbia, Missouri. I like to take the scenic route, turning west at Springfield, IL (Starbucks!) and heading toward the Mississippi river-crossing at Louisiana, MO.


There’s something about highway driving that allows my thoughts to drift and ideas to form. I put gentle attention on my current project while taking in scenic details. I’ve waxed rhapsodic before about loving the July sky. That day delivered a spectacular display of white cumulus mountains. At one point I was driving between two soybean fields that sloped up. The green extending to the horizon and topped by an expanse of blue sky and those clouds was stunning.


West of Springfield and about twenty miles from the Mississippi, I encountered the Valley City Eagle Bridges. These sleek bridges arch high over fields and the Illinois River. They have the magical quality of a temporary “time-stop,” as special places can do. I love driving over them! (Incidentally, I just read that Valley City, at population 13, is the smallest municipality in Illinois.)


Not long after, I crossed the Mississippi on another high bridge. This one was hold-your-breath-as-you-pass-an-oncoming-vehicle narrow. On the Missouri side I breathed a sigh of relief, patted my Chevy Equinox, and turned left into Louisiana—a picturesque river town that has some lovely old homes. I ended up at a small park situated on a bluff high above the river and bridge I’d just crossed. The view extended for miles. And, oh…that sky.


On the way out of town, I stopped to top off my tank. (Because, after paying Illinois gas prices, it’s the right thing to do!) From there, I followed highway 54 west and south past pretty woods and fields, and through sleepy farming towns with names like Bowling Green and Vandalia. I was happy to see a few bloom-laden mimosa trees, and even rolled down my window hoping to smell their peachy perfume. (Actually, I was hoping to see one close enough to the road to hop out and pick a couple blossoms, but no such luck.)


I eventually merged onto I-70 about thirty miles east of Columbia—as always, a jarring leap back to reality. Luckily, it was tempered by the anticipation of seeing my mother and sisters…and knowing that in a few days I would be retracing my route under another July sky.











Characters I Have Known: Mom Ragon

I grew up in a small college town in Arkansas where people knew and helped each other. My parents were no exception to this, and had a wide circle of acquaintances who were either associated with the college or simply lived in the area.  My mother took a particular interest in individuals whom she could help out in some way.  


One of these persons was an old woman affectionately known as Mom Ragon.  She’d been married for years to Pop Ragon, and they were a sweet couple who lived out in the country. I remember Pop Ragon as a deeply-tanned, soft-spoken man who wore overalls and a train engineer-style cap. After he died, his wife came to town on a regular basis, wandering around and visiting the funeral homes to pay her respects to the deceased--whether she knew them or not. 


Apparently my kind-hearted mother thought Mom Ragon needed to expand her horizons. Every few months, my twin sister and I would have orthodontic or optometrist appointments in Fort Smith, a city about 80 miles away. A highlight of the trip—aside from getting out of school for the day—was visiting the mall. There were no malls in our town, so this was a big deal. The mall! We looked forward to it and dreamed of visiting the clothing stores that catered to young teens. 


Imagine our horror when, the morning of our Big Trip, my mother would say, “I invited Mom Ragon to go with us. We’ll pick her up on the way.” Of course we’d moan and complain about it—my mom’s charitable leanings were admirable, but she had a way of springing them on us when our whining wouldn’t change a thing. (Don’t get me wrong, we had plenty of compassion for others, but this was the mall.)


The ride over was pleasant enough. Mom Ragon was chatty, and my sister and I were comfortable around older people. It was later that things got dicey. After our appointments, we’d drive to the mall and have lunch. Then my sister and I would ditch my mother and Mrs. Ragon and go our separate ways. 


Alone at last, things would be fine until I’d walk out of a shop and be spotted by Mom Ragon, who’d been wandering around the mall sans my mother. She would insist on holding my hand, and away we’d go—a plump, eccentric-looking old woman in a house dress, and a mortified teen girl—making their way down the long corridors. 


To make matters worse, she’d swing my hand as we walked along; swing my hand as we passed by the stores where the city girls shopped on a regular basis. While the stylish city girls bought their fashionable clothes, I was saddled with an old lady and an inferiority complex. (I wonder if my sister felt the same way when she was the “lucky” one?) This happened on several occasions until we were old enough to drive to Ft. Smith on our own.


Looking back from a mature standpoint, I suspect Mom Ragon was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease at that time. I have no doubt that going to the mall was as huge an excursion for her as it was for us. Being around the lively energy of shoppers; interesting people to look at; and time with friends would have been a highlight of her month. My mother surely knew this, and realized that a lonely old woman could feel a measure of happiness—even while holding the hand of a reluctant young girl.









Heavenly Detail

I was “in heaven” last weekend as I turned over the soil in my vegetable garden. The air was saturated with the perfume of lilacs from shrubs two yards over; the early morning was that perfect cool-with-a-promise-of-a-warm-day temperature; and the garden was still shady. 



It got me thinking about memories connected with scent and flowers—in particular at my childhood home in Arkansas. The previous homeowners were gardeners, and left a legacy of flower borders and trees, as well as a little pine forest the last quarter of the lot.


Our yard was bordered by a field at the side and back, with a fence separating the pine forest and the field. On the other side of the fence was an old crabapple tree. It was underplanted with dozens of daffodils. These were the old-fashioned variety that had amazing fragrance. Each spring I’d find myself lying among the daffodils, lost in scented daydreams.  To this day, that is the smell of spring.


We had two mimosa trees in the side yard. When they bloomed in the summer, I loved climbing up and pressing fuzzy pink blossoms to my nose, inhaling the peachy-sweetness. I get  sentimental about mimosas now that I live in a northern climate!


A honeysuckle vine grew on the fence between our yard and our neighbor’s. I can still feel the warm grass—dormant and prickly on my bare feet—as I ran over to breathe in the honeysuckle’s exquisite fragrance. This was followed (naturally) by picking a red trumpet-shaped blossom, pinching off the tip and touching it to my tongue to taste a drop of nectar.


The summer I turned twenty, I worked doing odd jobs for a couple who lived out in the country.  After work I’d often stop at a pretty little cemetery. It was just off a dirt road and loosely maintained—which meant that it was covered in wildflowers. 


I’d sit on the grass in the shade of a large oak, breathing in the heat-kissed scent of flowers, grass, and earth. It was lovely and peaceful there with my father’s headstone a few feet away. He’d died the previous summer, and the time I spent at his gravesite was healing.


It’s been a long time since I moved away from that part of the country. Thirty-three years since my father and I shared that bit of spiritual landscape, and many more since running barefoot over brown summer grass. Immersed in lilac-infused air, I feel blessed that I’m attuned to “heavenly detail” with which I can infuse my writing—a literary drop of nectar that blooms into sweetness on the page.  










Ancestral Hair

I’ve been growing my hair out for over a year now. With warm weather arriving, I’m relieved it’s long enough to put up in a ponytail or an approximation of a bun. This morning as I reached for my hair-tie and bobby pins (for my bed-head bangs), it occurred to me that this is a classic look that fits into nearly every decade or century. (We’ll ignore the eighties…) 

For fun, I grabbed a booklet of geneology on my father’s side to view the history of Angell hair. The earliest photo is my great-great-great-great grandmother Angell (circa late 1700’s/early 1800’s) with a rather severe, slicked down affair. She looks strict, but I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt and believe that she had the Angell sense-of-humor.



My great-great grandmother, Lodema Sebring Angell, with two daughters-in-law (circa early 1900’s) . Clearly they were pleasant, practical types—more interested in ruffles and bows than fancy hairdo’s. 



Here’s a photo of Lodema (3rd row, second from right) at the Sebring reunion, early 1900’s. Nary a bang in sight…and I daresay the men’s hairstyles were more adventurous in those days! 




My father’s mother, Hazel Baughman Angell, in 1911, age 18. Not sure about the hairstyle, but don’t you love her hat?  I must point out that when she died in 1968, her pretty chestnut hair was nearly grey-free. 






Here is her daughter, my beautiful Aunt Chrystal (Angell) Finley in the 1940’s. In this photo, she is modeling a gown worn at Lincoln’s Inaugural Ball. Her hair is fixed for the photo, but she always wore her long hair in a french twist until she died. (And she had her mother’s chestnut hair, as well.)



I’m jumping ship here to the ancestry on my mother’s side. The Mayflower, in fact! My ancestor John Howland landed in Plymouth, followed by his 2 brothers…and now there are thousands of us.  One of his direct descendants is Esther Howland, the famed Mother of the Valentine Industry in America.  This lady had great hair!  Take a moment to check out this nice article (with photo) about her.


My mother has had beautiful iron grey/white hair—styled in medium layers—since she was in her thirties. She never colored it, and at age 90 her hair is still pretty.  That said, I’m banking on hair genes from my Grandmother Angell!  


(So far, so good…)







Occasional Fire

I spent time last weekend at my favorite “reading and thinking” spot: the prairie at the Morton Arboretum outside Chicago. The parking area overlooks the gentle rolls of open space, and is perfect for enjoying a book and a chai latte. I was expecting the monochromatic browns and gold of late winter/early spring, but the arboretum staff had done controlled burning recently and much of the ground was black. Still lovely—in an interesting way.  


Before leaving, I took a walk on one of the paths that skirts the edge of the prairie. It was a study in contrasts. The unburned paths, either wood-chipped or grass, wove across the fields in stark relief to the blackened ground. The bare trees spoke of winter while exuberant birdsong spoke of spring. At closer view, green shoots of grasses and plants were pushing up through the burned areas, while the cool spring air was overlaid with a lingering smokiness.


I read that occasional fire is beneficial to prairies and woodlands in terms of controlling overgrowth, assisting in seed germination, and in general making it a stronger, healthier environment. Hmmm…(metaphor alert!)…occasional fire makes us stronger, too, doesn’t it?  Our life experiences provide us with plenty of chances for transformation; to rise from the ashes and begin anew. And this translates to writing fiction as we light the fire under our characters with a torch-like pen. 


Ignore the smoldering embers and fan the flames. Your readers will thank you for it!











Emotional Foxfire

Foxfire is a lovely name for light emitted by certain species of fungi. This bioluminescence is the result of a chemical reaction between two compounds, and ranges from dim to fairly bright. It has been the inspiration for folklore, and referred to in classics such as the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.


According to Wikipedia, Ben Franklin suggested its use as a light source in the first submarine. Can you imagine? I have an image of the pilot casting furtive glances at it and mumbling the Lord’s Prayer.


Years ago I had the good fortune of seeing foxfire while camping in the Appalachian mountains. Patches of greenish-white light glowed on decaying wood up the hill from our tent. It was surreal seeing light in an otherwise pitch-dark forest, and easy to see why our ancestors attributed it to fairies!


Let’s switch from folklore to metaphor. What if we called the magic that happens between a reader and a story foxfire? In other words, an emotional reaction that lights the reader up with joy, tears, laughter, anger, tension, or hope?  The stronger the reaction, the brighter the foxfire.


I recently read a novel that lit me up from the first chapter: CALLING ME HOME, by debut author Julie Kibler. The story follows an elderly white woman, Isabelle, and her good friend and hairdresser—a young black woman named Dorrie—as they drive cross country to a funeral. Kibler does an admirable job of weaving present and past as Isabelle shares the story of discovering her one true love, and the subsequent consequences that shaped her life. Dorrie has troubles of her own weighing heavily on her mind as they drive eastward.


I experienced plenty of emotional foxfire with issues such as racism, bigotry, and forbidden love. There were also many poignant moments between Isabelle and Dorrie as they navigate a journey as well as a new level of friendship. 


I highly recommend this page-turner with its unforgettable characters. You have my guarantee that your own foxfire will be blazing by the end...and will continue to glow for days.










Rescuing Love

Our home was much too quiet a few weeks ago. It was the empty kind of quiet resulting from the absence of a loved one. In this case, our beloved dog, Luci. This sweet soul had been with us for ten years, and went from being her normal perky self to unresponsive within three days. Her vet suspected a brain tumor. We were profoundly saddened, but grateful that she didn’t suffer long.   


In the following days, I realized how much of Luci was in my cell memory. At certain times of the day I “expected” to hear nails clicking on the floor, or a whimper at the back door, or the ka-thunk of her plopping down for a nap. I missed petting her and kissing her snout and going for long walks.  I missed her long dark-chocolate coat and expressive brown eyes. As my neighbor said later, “Luci was such a Light.”  


I start my writing sessions each day with a bit of free-writing.  Here is what I wrote a few days after:


Grief is a necessary weight, equal to the weight of love we feel for a loved one.  If grief was any lighter, perhaps it would slip off before we plumbed the depths of our emotions, making room for greater healing; a greater “before” and “after.”  Today I feel that weight: a 30 lb. weight on my chest in the form of our beloved Luci.  One of these days, the weight will be replaced with the lightness of memory. For now, I embrace the weight as a testament to my love for my best canine friend.


Such were my feelings that I figured it would be several months before I was ready to get another dog. At 10 days I was thinking maybe a few weeks. At two weeks, I want another dog! hit me like a ton of bricks. Seriously, I went from Not Ready to SO Ready within seconds. The empty place in my chest filled with a big ball of emotion and love, and I felt happy and light-hearted. 


As it happens, my (wise) husband had been doing puppy research, and found a dandy agency (Wright Way Rescue) in Chicago that serves rescued dogs and puppies from rural areas. We’d already zeroed in on one of the puppies on their website, so things progressed fairly quickly.


A week later we met/adopted our little “Wookie.”  Her mother had been rescued from a rest stop in South Dakota a few months ago by a truck driver who witnessed her being pushed out of a car.  She was so skinny that he had no idea she was pregnant. She ended up in the rescue program and was fostered with a wonderful family in Indiana for several weeks until the puppies were born and old enough to be adopted.

And here’s a happy ending: Now that all nine puppies have been adopted, the mother will be adopted by the truck driver. (I still get teary thinking about that!)


It’s wonderful having doggie energy in the house again. The too-quiet has been replaced with a scampering, romping, chewing sweetie-pie, Wookie (aka, The Wookster, Wookie-Woo, Miss Woo, Wookity-Woo…)  Yeah…we’re smitten. 


Rescued love. Rescued hearts. 









A Novel Soup

Today’s post was inspired by supper. I made potato soup which I thought was delicious—and that my husband thought was “Good, but not great.”  While I thought using coconut milk was a creative dairy/gluten-free option to make it “creamy,” we were clearly on a different taste wavelength. Which goes to show that one person’s yum is another person’s meh.


In the spirit of metaphor,  here’s why writing a novel is a lot like making soup: 


Act 1: Preparation:

Choose recipe (story idea; concept)

Assemble ingredients (do research; make character sketches)

Assemble equipment (computer; notebooks)


Act 2: Cooking

In large pot (story idea), add:

Stock or broth (setting)

Veggies (characters)

Meat (plot)

Spices (voice)

“Secret” ingredient (unexpected twist)

Simmer until done, stirring occasionally. Ask friends to taste it. (Don’t rush the process; revise as needed; get other opinions.)


Act 3: Serving/Eating

Make a guest list. (Research agents)

Send invitations. (Send query letters.)

Set table for guests who RSVP’d. (Requests for sample pages)


Just before serving, add:

Fresh herbs (make sure the work is polished and ready)


Serve in lovely bowls and garnish with a dollop of yogurt. (Submit a clean, correctly-formatted manuscript.)


Be prepared for mixed reactions, even if it tastes like heaven to you:


“I’m sorry…I thought you knew I was a vegetarian.”

“I like this, but I’m not a big fan of cumin.”

“I prefer a spicier broth.”

“Not bad, but it tastes similar to soup I had last Tuesday…”

“Delicious! I MUST have this recipe. What else are you cooking?”




Bon Appetit!  (Remember to savor the process.)










Truth and Beauty in the New Year

Why should we all use our creative power and write or play music, or whatever it tells us to do?


Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money.


Because the best way to know the Truth or Beauty is to try to express it. And what is the purpose of existence Here or Yonder but to discover truth and beauty and express it, i.e, share it with others?


                              —Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write



This quote has hung above my desk for nearly five years. I can’t think of a better directive for expressing our creativity.  How can we not uplift others when we are being “generous, joyful, lively, bold and compassionate?”  That phrase makes me want to join a metaphorical conga line and dance with abandon toward my goals.


I make a point of reading it at the beginning of each year when I’m taking stock and making plans. How will I express “Truth and Beauty” this year?  How will I share my “creative power” with others?  


My husband and I saw a concert last weekend by Special Consensus—a grammy-nominated bluegrass band. It was their annual concert in a historic church not far from where we live in the Chicago suburbs. Tight harmonies and superb musicianship are the hallmark of this group, but what really struck me was their work ethic. Three of the four were apparently recovering from the flu, but they were giving it all they had. 


Sure, there might have been some throat clearing and such, but they managed to pull off a terrific performance.  It was an inspiring example of creative power fueled by a good work ethic and self-discipline; of showing up and giving it their best effort.


Creative power comes from within, but can certainly be bolstered through team effort—as evidenced by Special C.  Have you noticed a boost in creativity after meeting writer friends for lunch, or attending a writer’s group, or conference? Support and encouragement go a long way toward maintaining enthusiasm and belief in what we do, whatever that may be.


I wonder if Ms. Ueland wrote those wise words near the first of the year? I like to think so. Her creative power--her expression truth and beauty--has been uplifting writers since 1938.