Not Just a Book Review

There are many reasons to choose a novel to read. It may be for purely entertainment, to immerse oneself in an historical time period or a journey into the future. I choose books for all of those reasons and more.

I have been thinking recently about how novels can inform about issues of the day, and touch our hearts and minds in ways that non-fiction or a news article cannot do. A good novelist who conscientiously researches her subject can make a connection that doesn’t always happen with non-fiction. This will be the first in a series of blog posts where I bring to light a novel that has touched me and informed me at the same time.

Something to Hide by Elizabeth George

Author Elizabeth George touched my mind and heart in her latest novel, Something to Hide, in which she deals with the troubling issue of FGM, or female genital mutilation. I give tremendous credit to George for tackling such a difficult subject. 

As horrifying as the practice of FGM is to those of us in Western cultures, it is a crucial part of the cultures of around thirty countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

Proponents of the practice, including parents of the girls, claim that it “purifies” the girl and makes her “valuable” to her husband. The crux of the problem is the devaluation of a girl as little more than a commodity, and her value as a “marriageable” female far outweighs recognition of her as an individual. Not to mention the life-long physical and medical difficulties it creates for her.

In Something to Hide, author George uses her familiar characters who work for London’s Metropolitan Police to conduct an investigation into a suspicious death. This investigation leads to discovering of a clinic performing illegal FGM procedures. The Metropolitan Police work to close down the clinic as well as solve the suspicious death. 

I have enjoyed Elizabeth George’s novels for many years. I so admire her ability, as an American, to delve into the culture of Britain as it is today, as well as her knowledge of the workings of the police in London.

Something to Hide is #21 in her Inspector Lynley series, but they don’t necessarily have to be read in order. I  highly recommend this book, all 704 pages of it!

Review of The Black Witch by Laurie Forest

I am so overwhelmed by this book! Written for a YA audience, it sends a message of tolerance and understanding of the diverse people inhabiting Earthia. Elloran enters the university and is thrown into contact with the other races that inhabit their world, and whom she has been taught to hate, as they have been taught to hate her, a member of the dominate race, the Gardnerians.

As she is forced to interact with students of other races, whom she has only heard about, she begins to question what she has been taught. She is constantly on her guard, as she has powerful enemies. Her grandmother was the powerful Black Witch. Elloran has no magical powers and relies on her capabilities of intelligence and understanding to begin to break down barriers. Her efforts allow her to make new friends, but her actions also create enemies and place her and her friends in dangerous situations.

The message of learning to understanding and appreciate differences is strong in this book, but it doesn’t overpower an exciting story.

I don’t usually read fantasy, but I’m going look for the sequels to The Black Witch. Thank you, Laurie Forest!

Can You Go Home Again?

Came across these photos and a poem I wrote after my visit back to my home town in Illinois in 2011. A bittersweet journey.

A barn built to last one hundred years.

Rusty now. But the only farm building left standing.

Everything else is corn fields.

Hay bales still crowd the loft, a place a mystery and a home for kittens.

Everything else is gone. The house, the truck shed, even the pond where Grandma taught me to fish.

We tramp the ground – The back door was here. The pump was here. Remember? Remember?

Children of the farm – we came back to see.

Took photos of each other.

Stole an ear of corn to eat later, cooked in the hotel room microwave.

A farm built to last in the hearts of the grandchildren.

Review of The Night Watchman

I don’t know where I picked this book up. Probably from my Little Free Library. I cannot praise and recommend it enough. Set in North Dakota in the early 1950s, it takes us into the lives of Native Americans struggling to survive and preserve their traditional beliefs and way of living, while fighting the U.S. government to retain their right to live on the land that has been their home for as long as they know. 

Thomas is the night watchman at a factory that manufactures jewel bearings for use by the Defense Department and in the manufacture of watches. In the long hours of the night, he writes letters to authorities in support of the rights of his people, especially against the policy of “termination,” a resolution before Congress which would essentially end the reservation system and any government protection of native peoples.

Thomas’s niece is Pixie, who wants now to be called “Patrice.” Patrice is on her own path, valuing the ways of her family and ancestors, while struggling to improve their lives at the same time.

This book is beautifully written, pulling you into the cold North Dakota nights with a sky full of stars. The story vividly tells the story of two cultures in opposition to each other in so many ways: spiritually, materially, linguistically, and just the ways of looking at life. 

I came away wanting to know more. We cannot undo the past, but we can always learn from it.

Found a Poem

Came across a poem I wrote ten years ago. It was the year I went back with my brothers to the Illinois farm where we grew up. We have all traveled so far since then, but some elements provide continuity — like water.

My Thoughts on Water

The pond behind the barn where I caught catfish with Grandma.

The fishpond behind her house, filled in when we were still small.

Mom so worried that one of us would drown in it.

The pump in the yard. Cool water from deep in the earth.

Our farm never was without water, even in the driest summers.

A river ran under our farm, Grandpa said.

I couldn’t picture that. A river underground?

I knew the Embarras, the Wabash, the Mississippi.

Then later the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the fountains on the terraces in Haifa with the water lap lapping down the side of Mount Carmel.

Mist on my face on a rainy day.

The waters of my life.

The Heady kids. Where it started.

Bookstores and More Bookstores

In the infamous year of 2020, I had a plan to visit a new bookstore or library each month. January and February went great. In January, I participated in a book festival at McIntyre’s Books in Pittsboro, North Carolina. In February, I was in Los Angeles visiting family and visited the Hawthorne Public Library and Skylight Books in Los Angeles. Then, well, we know what happened in March, 2020.

2021 started out slowly, but by May I was back in the swing of things. I visited Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, NC, a dream of a bookstore with both new and used titles. In June, I paid a visit to Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC, which my daughter insisted I had visited before, but I did not remember. 

July turned out to be the best month that I have had in a long time — travel, bookstores, new food, new adventures.

After much deliberation about travel during the pandemic, I took the non-stop Raleigh to Los Angeles flight and hung out with my sons and their families for twelve days. After roughing in on Catalina Island for a couple of days, which included two close encounters with resident bison on the island, it was back to enjoying museums and the artsy, literary places that I love.

I managed to hit five bookstores in two days, an adventure only rivaled by the four art museums in six days in the Netherlands in 2018. Ojai Valley Library Friends Twice Sold Tales was the first, followed by Bart’s Books in Ojai, California. Then to Ventura, where my son Will had another bookstore he didn’t want me to miss. OK, it turned out to be three. Bank of Books, Timbre Book, and Abednego Book Shoppe. We were headed for Bank of Books, where I believe I made a purchase. Abednego was about a mile down the street, so three of us decided to walk, along the way we found Timbre Books. A very successful trip. 

Thank heavens for media mail, I was able to mail home several books to avoid an overweight suitcase.

It’s the end of August now. I need to catch up. Fortunately, the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area has several good bookstores I haven’t been to. It’s just a matter of making a choice.

Bart’s Books, Ojai, California

Traveling for Inspiration and Other Things

Most of my inspiration for writing comes when I travel. There is something about being in a new place where I can free my mind from everyday tasks that stimulates my imagination. The idea for my first novel, The Gate House, came about when my husband and I stayed in a bed and breakfast in Spalding, Lincolnshire, England. That bed and breakfast became the setting for most of the story. We also traveled to the city of Lincoln on that trip, which is home to one of the most impressive cathedrals in England in my opinion. 

I loved the cathedral roof tour, where visitors are able to traverse the catwalks situated between the vaulting that forms the cathedral ceiling and the roof. I used this spot for some exciting scenes in The Gate House.

I am fortunate to have relatives and friends who live all over the world, which means not only a free place to stay (although that happens), but it sometimes means carrying some rather odd items back and forth.

In the photo, I was packing for a trip to Alaska where my brother lives. His request from the “lower 48” was fresh summer corn on the cob. Since we grew up in Illinois, we appreciate good corn. The hiking shoes you see in the bag ended up staying in Alaska until the following spring. I didn’t have room for them on the way back, so my sister-in-law brought them to me when we were all in Hawaii together for a wedding.

I think of my main character Nara as an adventurer who would be up for the kinds of trips I enjoy. In fact, a pair of shoes is instrumental in Nara meeting the love of her life in The Gate House.

The cat had to stay home.

And a Full Scottish Breakfast

Now that The Gate House is to be re-released, I have been thinking about how that book came to be. I had always enjoyed writing, and had a few small things published, but didn’t take myself seriously as a writer. And like many people, I had it in the back of my mind that I would like to write a book.

I had created the character of Nara, along with her father, in another unfinished story. When my husband and I visited England in 2004, we stayed at a bed and breakfast in Spalding, Lincolnshire, called the Gate House, so named because historically it was a stopping point on the railroad. The house intrigued me, as well as the cathedral in the city of Lincoln nearby. I could imagine a story taking place involving those two locations. 

Spalding is a relatively small market town in Lincolnshire. Historically it has been a center of tulip growing and has close ties to Holland. Author Margaret Dickinson has written several novels set in the area, including The Tulip Girl. The river Welland runs through the town, creating a beautiful space for walking and biking. In my novel, Nara’s new romantic interest, Alex Collier, lives in a house facing the river, and the two met on the path that runs along the river and through the town. I also set some scenes in the book in the historic church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas, built in the late thirteenth century. Since the story involves thefts of artifacts from historic places, this was a perfect setting for these nefarious activities. 

While staying at the Gate House, we were treated to a full Scottish breakfast. There is a slight difference from a full English breakfast, but the owner of the bed and breakfast was Scottish, so that was what he made for us. It consisted of eggs, sausage, tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans, toast, and black pudding. The black pudding, which is traditionally made with pork blood, is what makes it Scottish, or so our host told us. I didn’t eat any, no offense to my Scottish ancestors.

I visited Spalding again the following year on a research trip to the area as I was completing my book. I did not, unfortunately, stay at the Gate House again, as it was too far out of town and I didn’t have a car. But just being there gave me more opportunity to get a feel for the area, which is important to me in creating the setting of a story. 

The characters have become so real to me after three completed novels, and one more almost completed. I feel as if I could go to Spalding or Lincoln and meet one of them on the street. 

Full Scottish breakfast below.

Grocery Tourist

One of my favorite things to do when I am traveling is to visit grocery stores and food markets. I love looking at the different foods that are available, how they are displayed for purchase, the differences and similarities with foods I am used to at home. I notice differences in grocery stores even in different states within the US. Costco in Anchorage, Alaska is a world unto itself, with its “Alaska sized” coffee roaster. The selection of pastas, tomato sauces and other Italian foods in Philadelphia is huge compared to what we find in North Carolina. 

Since I am working on a book set in Spain right now, I found a photo I took on my last visit to Spain of the colorful spices for sale in the Santa Catarina Market in Barcelona. Santa Caterina Market was built in 1845 as a venue for the working people of the neighborhood. It was built on the former site of the Convent of Santa Caterina. During the period following the Spanish Civil War, when much of the country suffered from severe food shortages, Santa Caterina became the main food supplier to the towns on the outskirts of Barcelona, as people traveled into the city on the tram to buy food in this market.

Zoom in on the photo and enjoy the photos of the spices. The names are listed in English as well as Spanish and Catalan. 

Browsing in a Bookstore — Yes! Really!

Is there anything more pleasurable than browsing in a bookstore? I have always loved the feeling of turning my head sideways to look at the books on the shelf in a bookstore or library. And how about this? Half an hour with the bookstore to yourself to browse to your heart’s content, after you put on your mask and gloves of course. 

My favorite used bookstore, Golden Fig Books in Durham, North Carolina is doing just that. You can sign up for a half an hour time slot online. Members of one household are then welcome to browse in the store for thirty minutes.

My husband and I arrived promptly at the beginning of our allotted time, and after sanitizing our hands and donning the gloves they provided, we headed into the book selection. I wandered from popular fiction to mysteries to historical fiction to memoir, before finally settling to make a choice. We both ended up purchasing used books, so we didn’t spend much. Golden Fig also has a good selection of new arrivals available if you can’t wait for the latest books to appear on the used shelves.

I chose The Atomic City Girls by Janet Beard, a novel about the young women employed in Oak Ridge, Tennessee during World War II at the pilot plutonium and uranium enrichment plant built as part of the Manhattan Project and the creation of the first atomic bombs.

The name of the store, Golden Fig, comes from the book The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. According to the store’s website, there is a point is the story “where the main character is comparing life to a fig tree. Every branch symbolizes a different path she can choose to take, and each fig represents a different career or destination.” I love the symbolism of the fig tree and the life choices it represents, and also the vast choices we face whenever we browse in a bookstore. I read The Bell Jar a few years ago when I realized that although I knew who Sylvia Plath was and had read a biography and some of her poetry, I had never read her most famous book. Once I started it, I couldn’t put it down. It is a sad semi-autobiographical story of a woman’s slide in mental illness, but riveting and thought-provoking.

We celebrated our outing and our purchases by stopping next door at Guglhupf Bakery from some sweet treats to take home. Food and books make for such a great pairing!

It’s amazing how special these little adventures are when we haven’t had the opportunity to go out much in the last few months. I am really pleased that places like Golden Fig are finding creative ways to open to customers.

Sirius Black thinks a book makes a great pillow.