Friday, December 28, 2012

Disappointing Read

The title of this post should be flat out didn't like it because that's more honest. But since this is my first ever post about a book I didn't like, or, let's be real -- I didn't even finish -- I'm taking a gentler approach. The book? Jo Walton's Among Others. The premise is intriguing (from the inside book cover):

"Raised by a half mad mother who dabbled in magic, Morwenna Phelps found refuge in two worlds. As a child growing up in Wales she played among the spirits who made their homes in industrial ruins. But her mind found freedom in the science fiction novels that were her closest companions. When her mother tried to bend the spirits to dark ends, Mori was forced to confront her in a magical battle that left her crippled--and her twin sister dead."

Sounds exciting, doesn't it? A little magic, fairy spirits, a spell gone bad, hints at sci-fi. Who WOULDN'T by intrigued? The reality is that I had to invoke my daughter's 50-page rule and even then I made it only to page 75 before giving up. The magic? The fairies? We get only the briefest of glimpses of either of these by the 75-page point. Seventy-five pages! And the hints at sci-fi? That comes only via the myriad references to SF book authors, titles, and characters, and I found the constant bombardment irritating. Maybe the intent was to add context? Not sure, but I found my eyes glazing over at every mention. The real disappointment for me was that nothing happens (at least not in the initial 75 pages), rather it's a LOT of plowing through uninteresting family history with brief references to things that happened off the page. Even these references are approached sort of sideways -- more of a by-the-way the twin sister is dead rather than a scene that shows us what happened. Maybe some of these things are played out or come together further in, but I just couldn't make myself keep reading. For me, reading is supposed to be pleasurable, not frustrating.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


My husband and I spent 15 glorious days traveling through Switzerland this past May in celebration of our 30th (!) wedding anniversary. It was a fantastic experience. We used their rail system to get around and it was fast, easy, and fun. I wish we had something like that here in the States... imagine all the extra reading or writing or napping we could get done while being whisked to and from... of course, maybe it works so well there because everything is relatively close together.

Getting to Switzerland took a LOT of work. I first dreamed of the idea several years ago, then we made the commitment to make it happen about a year before we went (deciding on the date, etc). But the real work was in the reading and planning and reading some more during the 6 months prior to our departure. I spent hours upon hours researching various activities and options, learning the lay of the land and the customs. The single smartest thing I did was purchase Rick Steves' book on Switzerland. It gave me a starting point. I made lists of possible cities to visit and then more lists of things to do and see in those cities, places to sleep, restaurants to try. In the end, we visited the following cities in this order:


We took TONS of pictures. I took over 2000 myself; my husband took nearly 1000. It was fun to see our different perspectives. (On our trip to Ireland in 2010, he took a picture of every restroom he visited, but THAT'S a different story.) We put together a slide show for the family and had them over so they could experience Switzerland through our eyes. Here are some of my favorites:

Cows were everywhere, and some wore huge, melodic cow bells. These two greeted us on the road to/from our B&B into Appenzell proper.

This is the Aescher Restaurant where we enjoyed a plate of Rosti, a local favorite made with potatoes and cheese. The restaurant is built into the side of the mountain... one wall in each of the restrooms is actually rock, with the room built around it. To get here, we took the train in Appenzell and rode it to Ebenalp, took a cable car up to 5,380 feet, then followed a very picturesque trail to the restaurant. We hiked back down and learned our 1st important lesson: take whatever time the Swiss give you in terms of how long something will take and TRIPLE it. Their estimate for the hike down: 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Our reality: 4 hours. We missed the last train back to Appenzell, tried hitchhiking (with no luck), and finally flagged down a bus. What an adventure!

I LOVE the look and feel of this little alley... the curve, the warm colors, the bikes are all very inviting to me. This is right off the main thoroughfare in Luzern. We'd just dropped our luggage in our room and headed back out, eager to explore. I looked to my right and stopped in my tracks, absorbing the homeyness of this sight.

Night falls over Lake Luzern with the Hof Church lit up in the background. Isn't this gorgeous??

A night view of Piazza della Riforma in Lugano. We ate at the Olimpia Restaurant and had the best pizza we've ever had! If only we could find a crust like that in the States.

A trail marker in Pontresina. We had a GREAT time in Pontresina... we hiked, saw some wildlife, and when the sun came out, it was breathtaking.

Check out our walking sticks... everyone should have one. The views were fabulous! Imagine waking up to this landscape every morning.

Chateau de Chillon on Lake Geneva just outside Montreux. It began raining just after I took this picture, but the rolling clouds were fantastic, adding drama and mystery.

Talk about clouds! This is the Black Monk shrouded in layer after layer of clouds, taken from where we were staying in Murren (accessible only via a train or cable car) at 5381 feet. We couldn't fully appreciate just how impressive these mountains were until the sun came out. Being so high up, they appeared enormous... and it felt like we could reach right out and touch them. But when the sky cleared and we could see just how big they were... WOW.

Murren was, by far, where we enjoyed ourselves the most. The views are indescribable. Nature's beauty is everywhere and beckons in subtle and grand ways. Being out in it was invigorating and awe-inspiring.

What a difference the sun makes! The Sonnenberg Valley just after sunrise. We got up early and hiked uphill for an hour... the valley was still in shadow when we arrived. But as soon as the sun cleared the Black Monk, light flooded the valley.

When sunlight hits the Sonnenberg Valley, the cabins look magical. Imagine waking to these views every morning... what a fabulous life that would be.

The tulips were glorious here in Murren.

Staubbach Falls (at 300 meters) in the Lauterbrunnen Valley is the 2nd highest waterfall in Switzerland. The highest waterfall (Murrenbachfall - 417 meters) is in this same valley, just down the road a bit. The valley is filled with waterfalls, cows, and wildflowers... just gorgeous.

The big three, from left to right: Eiger, Monch, Jungfrau. They are magnificent!! Truly something to see and experience.

Zurich is a vibrant, exciting city. Here, boats are docked on the Limmat River, which feeds into Lake Zurich.

Night falls on the Limmat River in Zurich, but I'm not sure the city ever sleeps. There were so many folks out and about while we walked the streets, camera and tripod in tow.

This was a trip of a lifetime, magical and enchanting in so many ways. Switzerland is divided into four regions with four official languages (German, Italian, French, and Romansh - an obscure Latin dialect), and each region is distinct from the others. My least favorite was the French, though, to be fair, it was the area where we spent the least amount of time. Maybe another trip to more fully round out my exposure is in order? The folks in the German-speaking regions were very warm and friendly and were, in our experience, the most accommodating to conversing with us in English.

For a girl who absolutely and unequivocally loves and is IN love with mountains, there is no greater place on earth in which to experience their unadulterated grandeur and majesty than Switzerland. It was pure magic, and I feel blessed.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Two Acceptances

I received an acceptance from Santa Fe Literary Review for a short story of mine and I'm THRILLED. This particular story started as a rather brutal scene between a father and mother as witnessed by the young son. I'd initially wanted that scene to stand on its own but couldn't seem to make it work. So I went at it a different way, backing up, going forward, filling in the blanks while trying to keep it short. It comes in at just under 1500 words. I'm SO pleased that it found a home, and the warm acceptance email from the editor made my day. "Picture Window" will be in the next issue, which comes out in June 2013.

I received an acceptance last month from the editor at Blue Lake Review for my short story "Counting Proper." This story was originally published in May 2009 by Bryant Literary Review, and it's still one of my favorites. Every time I reread it, I'm instantly drawn to the place in my mind's eye from which these characters emerged: my neighborhood during the short time I lived in Wheaton, Illinois as a teenager. I'm THRILLED that this story has found a second life. It will appear in the January 2013 issue.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Good Read:

I wanted to read this because I thought it would give me some exposure and insight into what sorts of stories are considered the best of the best in the sci-fi and fantasy world. I've always considered myself a sci-fi fan and, more recently, came to understand that I also enjoy some of the fantasy genre as well. What I've learned after reading this anthology is that I'm more of a middle-of-the-road kind of gal when it comes to sci-fi/fantasy. Or maybe I just need it (the story, the concept) to be somewhat plausible, or, if that's not possible, then it needs to be well written in order for me to make the leap. Now, since this volume is "the best online," that means the stories within are clearly well written and chosen for these and other merits from someone who is well versed in the genre. And, still, I didn't care for a good number of the stories. They were too bizarre, too out there for me.

I find it interesting and ironic that my two favorite stories, ones I really liked and enjoyed, are anything but middle-of-the-road. Yoon Ha Lee's "Blue Ink" begins and ends with sections that are in 2nd person POV, which is almost always an instant turn off for me. But it quickly morphs into 3rd person and a storyline that is just fantastical enough to border on brilliant. Catherynne M. Valente's "Urchins, While Swimming" has a magical realism component that is really well integrated and very engaging. Both of these stories are grounded in three dimensional characters, in elements of the every day... maybe this is the structure in which sci-fi/fantasy works best for me.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Two Reads: One Great, One Not-So-Great

I'm a detail person. Ask anyone. When my husband needs something followed up on, he asks me. When my sister needs the details ironed out on places we'll visit for our next star trails photo outing, she asks me to investigate and map it all out. So imagine my surprise when I visited the library a few weeks ago to check out Lois Lowry's The Giver and was directed to the juvenile section. The juvenile section! How had this distinction escaped me? The book had popped up on my radar repeatedly over the last few months and I knew it had won an award of some kind (only later did I discover that it was the Newbery Medal, an award given to an author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.) I'm sure my face sported a slightly chagrined expression as I walked into the children's section and hunted for the book. I felt out of place... my children are grown and it's been YEARS since I stepped foot in the brightly lit children's department with cushy seating and walls festooned with construction paper cutouts. After locating the book, I tugged it from its snug spot among all the other kid's books and quickly retreated back upstairs to the adult section.

Even though I was fully informed now, I found the first few chapters were more of a struggle to get through than I wanted. It wasn't that they were difficult in the normal sense, it was that they were too simplistic. And although I was a tad bored, I could hardly place the blame at the author's feet... it was written for children, after all.

It picked up for me around halfway through. I LOVED the concept: a little sci-fi-ish, a little other worldly... right up my alley. I can't say that I loved the ending, though, for a children's book, it was perfect. But, really, it was just getting started. I wanted to see what was going to happen next. It was too much about the struggle of getting away, the journey of leaving and not enough about what made it so interesting in the first place. I'd give it a three out of five stars.

I also read Veronica Roth's Divergent. Also a little sci-fi-ish, a little other worldly, but this was a GREAT read. I loved it. And it was terrific for all the right reasons: complex characters, intricate storyline, engaging prose. This also won an award (although I didn't realize that until after I'd finished the book) -- Goodreads Choice Award: Favorite Book of 2011. Pretty cool bragging rights, I'd say.

My daughter recommended this book something like six months ago and I'm really glad I took her advice. The characters got under my skin and I stayed up long into the night reading. I enjoyed it so much that I bought a copy for my dad! He and I like some of the same authors, and although he doesn't read sci-fi as a rule, this is enough of a hybrid that I'm hoping he'll give it a try and like it as much as I did.

I'd give it five out of five stars. And more good news: I hear there's a sequel out now.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Great read:

I've just finished Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants and, I must say, I really enjoyed it. I was pleasantly surprised when I began the novel -- the narrator is a 93-year-old man and his voice intrigued me. Then, in chapter two, the story slips into the narrator's life in the circus, some 70 years in the past. I read a couple of chapters more, but my resolve to continue began to falter for two reasons: I don't particularly care one way or the other about the circus, and I don't much like history-related stuff -- I prefer forward, futuristic settings to a replay of things that have already taken place.

I picked the book up again on a lazy Saturday afternoon and, by chapter six, realized I'd turned a corner. I was invested. The story is compelling (even for those of us who have lived an obviously deprived childhood because we didn't attend a circus), the characters are likeable and flawed and real. But the prose is the kicker -- it ties the story, setting, and characters all together. It's straightforward and elegant all at once, and I found it utterly charming.

Turns out that Baraboo, WI, winter home of the Ringling Brothers circus, is just 145 miles northwest of where I live. Who knew?

Add this book to your must-read list.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


I've just finished a couple of good sci-fi reads and I realized (or perhaps I'm just ready to admit) that sci-fi is my first love. Science fiction gets such a bad rap, and unfairly so in my opinion.  Sure, there are weird aspects of the genre (like swords or over-the-top human-hating aliens), but what draws me in are the possibilities - worlds, beings, ways of living, gadgets, things alien to our way of thinking. The possibilities are limited only by one's imagination, and I find this exciting and so compelling.

I've always been fascinated by the stars, by galaxies and universes, by all things cosmology, and so I guess it's no surprise, really, that I'm drawn to science fiction. Though there are many labels attached to the genre (things like hard/soft science fiction, cyberpunk, social science fiction, apocalyptic, time travel, space, fantasy, superhero), for me, there are just two distinctions: science fiction and/or fantasy. If you'd asked me last week which side I was more aligned to, I would have said without hesitation: science fiction. Fantasy, to me, always involves swords or super heroes - two things I don't particularly care about (though even as I write this HBO's Game of Thrones swims into my awareness - a definite favorite of mine and all about swords. So maybe it's super hero-wielding-swords that I don't like?) However, after doing a little research, I stand corrected: both sides appeal to me. For the record, here's what my research produced by way of definitions:

*  Science fiction: unlikely things that could possibly take place in the real world under certain conditions; no supernatural elements.
* Fantasy: a scientific veneer applied to things that simply could not happen in the real world under any circumstances; allows supernatural elements.

I definitely enjoy supernatural aspects as well as magical components, and, truth be told, sometimes all that technical mumbo jumbo by way of explaining how a science fiction world is possible is sometimes too much for me. So it seems, for me, the perfect sci-fi story involves a bit of magic or supernatural components (magical creatures, potions, voices or knowings from beyond, harnessing the power of mother Earth) as well as the grounding elements of a science fiction world (interplanetary travel, time travel, colonization of multiple planets). Oh, and one more thing - all of these elements need to be written with a literary bent. That's not too much to ask, is it?

Here are the stories I read:

Robert Reed's Five Thrillers - This story is included in The Year's Best Science Fiction, Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection published in 2009. Yeah, I'm a little behind, but in my defense, this collection is 639 pages long. Five Thrillers is a series of 5 short-shorts linked by a character named Joseph Carroway. I LOVED it. It's smartly written, suspenseful, engaging. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I'm going to seek out more of Robert Reed's work.

Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama - I wanted to like this more than I did. It's revered as a classic, and I purposefully sought it out after reading all the glowing reviews for it. It's very imaginative and the world building on the spacecraft Rama is astounding. But it left me feeling a little flat... we go through all of the exploration and discovery of an object that's entered the Earth's solar system only to have it leave again in short order. I'm guessing that the idea of other beings, of having other life confirmed and being exposed to that confirmation is supposed to be enough, and maybe 40 years ago, when it was first published, throwing the idea out there was enough. But for me, it wasn't. I felt like there was all this buildup and then... nothing. Perhaps this was intended to whet my appetite for the sequel, but I think I'll pass.

Monday, July 9, 2012

An okay read

In all the books I've read (and posted about on here), I've never before labeled one "okay." I've always managed to declare it was at least GOOD. But I can't quite bring myself to proclaim that about Liane Moriarty's What Alice Forgot. I loved the premise (a woman wakes up from a fall at the gym and realizes she's lost 10 years of her life), loved the jacket (who doesn't love bright, bold colors with cutouts?), and LOVED the last quarter of the book. But the first three-quarters? Not so much.

It wasn't that the characters weren't interesting, because they were. And the prose was smooth and smartly written. The thing that did it for me was the premise - the very component that intrigued me and made me decide to give this book a go. Because of the setup (woman loses her memory) there's a lot of time devoted to what isn't. She wakes to find that her current life - the people in it, the activities, her surroundings - isn't what she thinks/expects/remembers it (them) to be. There's a LOT of time spent on this negative space and it got tiresome for me. I had to employ my daughter's 50-page-rule (which I've done a couple of other times: Elizabeth Strout's Abide With Me and Jael McHenry's The Kitchen Daughter) and then again, and again. At the halfway point, my husband (who never really pays much attention to what I'm reading) asked me why I was still reading this book... guess I must've been vocal about my displeasure!

There was also the let's-learn-about-a-character-via-letters-written device used that I found slightly off-putting in the beginning. We see not one, but TWO, characters this way. I did get used to it - maybe that's because the letters appear at regular intervals.

Perhaps my three-quarters declaration, above, isn't quite fair. Maybe it was just past the halfway point... or somewhere between halfway and three-quarters? At any rate, at some point I DID find myself interested and reading because I was invested. It all comes together marvelously at the end. And, strangely enough, the characters-revealing-themselves-via-letters segments seemed fitting somehow by the end.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

No Sugar, No Diet Coke

These are fightin' words, right? Who, in their right mind, would willingly follow a "no sugar, no Diet Coke" regimen? Not me. I never really thought about the sugar piece of it, but the Diet Coke? I LOVED Diet Coke. I drank it all the time - as a pick-me-up in the middle of the afternoon, with a bowl of freshly popped popcorn, with pizza (let's face it: pizza isn't PIZZA without a big glass of soda to wash it down!), with a plate of grapes, sliced cheese, and a handful of potato chips. I drank it with everything. My favorite was the 20 oz bottle but, for economical reasons, I'd sometimes switch to the 2 liter bottles. I'd elevate it and bring some elegance to my experience by pouring the Diet Coke into a wine glass. Perhaps you're getting the gist of my love affair and dare I say - addiction - to Diet Coke?

Well, I'm here to say that it's been 3 months since I've tasted a Diet Coke. THREE MONTHS! Or, put another way: it's been 90 days - or - 2,160 hours... Okay, point made. The fact is that I survived, thrived, even.

Three months ago, my husband and I embarked on a wellness journey, one that was as radical as it was simple: eat healthy. That meant organic, whole foods. No chemicals. And, since Diet Coke is not a food, and is, in fact, nothing BUT a conglomeration of chemicals (albeit delicious tasting chemicals), I had to say goodbye.

We started with 21 days of gentle detoxing. It's amazing how much your palate changes when you eliminate toxins, sugar, starches and eat, instead, fruits, vegetables, protein. I began to really taste my food - the delicate flavors, the subtle spices. I realized how wonderfully sweet fruit is: a plump blueberry, or a perfectly ripe strawberry. It was an eye-opening process.

Three months later and I'm down 12 pounds. My husband lost 18 pounds. I feel great. Healthier, stronger. But the "no sugar" part is hard - not in terms of me wanting it, rather that sugar is added to EVERYTHING. Ketchup, salad dressing, peanut butter. The solution: we make our own (well, except for the peanut butter - I've found an organic peanut butter that contains nothing but ground up peanuts) and it's delicious. Really. The ketchup and mustard are better than anything you can buy. I know you're probably thinking hogwash, but it's true. In the interest of full disclosure, this new way of eating takes more time and effort than, say, tearing open a box of processed noodles or popping a frozen pizza into the oven. But the results are absolutely worth it. And delicious.

One other piece of this puzzle: acupuncture. We included this as part of our wellness journey and I'm astounded at the results. When we started, I was not sleeping. No exaggeration. I'd lie in bed every night, unable to fall asleep until 2 or 3 a.m. Come morning, it was all I could do to drag myself out of bed by 11 a.m. I now go to bed around 10 p.m. and am up around 7:30 a.m. Who knew that mornings were so wonderful! The caveat here: make sure your acupuncturist knows his/her stuff. It makes a huge difference.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Great read:

Have you heard of Susanna Daniel's debut novel Stiltsville? I saw a blurb about it in Poet's & Writer's magazine a few months back. I don't remember, now, what the blurb said, but it must've been enticing enough that I decided to take a chance. (For the record, I find it irritating and really disappointing when I ready myself to begin a new novel and discover that I don't like it, whether it's the style or the plot or a combination of the two. Such is the case with Annie Prioulx's The Shipping News, which I'm trying to get through... a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning novel for crying out loud and I'm utterly distracted by the fact that the majority of the prose is written in fragments!)

No such distractions or complaints about Stiltsville, though. Admittedly, I was a little skeptical when I saw that the opening chapter was titled "1969." Why, you ask? I have this thing about history, about things that are set in the past. I simply don't care; I don't want to rehash something that's already been, that's already taken place. I'm the same way with seeing the same movie twice or re-reading a book: I won't do it. Silly? Probably. Unreasonable? Maybe (or a resounding yes from my daughter who can read the same book 2 and 3 times). But I have to say that this opening chapter was delightfully written; it drew me in. I liked the voice, liked the location (Miami, which seems somewhat exotic to me), found the characters interesting. I was pleased and breathed a sigh of relief: I would continue on.

The novel covers a wide expanse of time - roughly 25 years, give or take. I think it's handled marvelously. Each chapter covers a chunk of time: 1969, 1970, 1976, 1982, 1990, 1992, 1993. Each jump in time is handled smoothly: we're quickly and deftly brought up to speed on the important details that might've happened in a missing year and it's done in such a way that it doesn't feel herky-jerky. Small details are given that allow us to see the passage of time. Just wonderfully done.

This novel felt quiet to me, quiet but powerful. It builds, each new era on top of the old so that I felt like I'd spent a lifetime with the narrator. The story is emotional and beautifully rendered. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Great read:

What did you do yesterday? I read Stephanie Meyer's The Host for 12 hours STRAIGHT. I started at 1 p.m. and finished at 1:15 a.m. Yes, it was THAT good. Awesome, really. It's also 619 pages long! I couldn't put it down, and yesterday was the perfect day to read: the kids were out of the house, the hubby was out doing some shopping, a fresh 6 inches of snow covered the ground. Just me and the cats curled up on the couch.

I loved this book, loved the suspense, the characters, the otherworldly touches. I cried several different times (6 or 7, maybe more) and felt completely immersed in this world. Such an amazing feat, imo, to be able to create a foreign, yet believable, world. And being able to lose myself so thoroughly, so completely in a story is pure, unadulterated joy.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


It seems that around here we're on track for the 6th warmest winter ever. And with news like that, you'd think I'd be hip-hip-hooraying or engaged in some other sort of celebrating. But I'm not. Why? Well, because it's still winter. And, yes, temps of 39 or 40 or 45 are really mild for this time of year, and those kinds of temps are definitely better than, say, 20 or 0 or -10, but it's still winter. The grass is still brown and dormant, the trees are still leafless (though they all are sporting new buds, have been for several weeks, in fact, which is WAY too early and makes me wonder what will happen to the tender shoots when the inevitable hammer of winter falls), and the gray days still far outnumber the blue ones. Maybe spending the few extra dollars in my pocket as a result of this season's heating bills being less than last year's bills would be a good way to mark this record-setting year. But I probably won't. Why? Well, because -- say it with me -- it's still winter. Bleh.


For being the shortest month of the year, I sure seem to have a hard time getting through it. If I were to look back at posts made around this time last year or the year before, I'm sure I'd find similar rants against winter, against the cold, sunless days in general. Even though I've lived up "north" for more years than I care to count, I'm still a Southern girl at heart. I need sun. I need warmth. I need spring flowers poking up through the soil, our arms joined and raised skyward heralding the end of winter.

When will we see spring around here? March? April? Yes, sometime in April. Too many weeks away to count.

It's clear that I live in the wrong part of the country.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Good read:

Earlier this month I read Abide with Me. I wanted to love this. The 1st book I'd ever read by Elizabeth Strout was Olive Kitteridge and I LOVED, LOVED it, so I had high expectations. Really high expectations, in fact. Maybe this was unrealistic, might even have been unfair, but how could I not? I found the prose itself elegant and flawless. The characters, though, were less engaging for me. Same with the storyline. It was slow going and I had to invoke my daughter's you-must-give-a-book-50-pages rule and then again. At about the halfway mark, I felt like I was finally engaged. More of a struggle than I wanted it to be.