Book Reviews, Fiction

Summertime reading and more!

Phew! It’s been one of those years, months, weeks… Know the feeling? When life gets hectic and stressful, what’s your go-to “summer reading” genre? For me, I like “cozy mysteries.” But not too cozy. At one time, the cozier the better (cat-themed, knitting sleuths, baking detectives, and even ghost-loving detectives), but now I like cozy mysteries with a slight edge. Like Sue Grafton — her alphabet murder mysteries have a tinge of “noir” about them, and I love the fact that they’re set in the 1980s! Just a touch of nostalgia.

Another writer I enjoy is Nevada Barr. If you love nature, you’ll want to pick up one of her Anna Pigeon mysteries. Anna is a no-nonsense U.S. park ranger, and each of her mysteries is set in a different National Park. The last one I read (A Superior Death) was set at Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior, Michigan, and features scuba diving on ship wrecks and floating dead bodies!

I tried reading Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano series, but it’s not quite for me. Set in Sicily, the books DO have lovely descriptions of Italian food, and there is a pleasant, unhurried feel about the way Chief Inspector Montalbano goes about his days. I finished The Patience of the Spider and started reading another but found some irritating similarities in Camilleri’s style; beautiful women keep appearing half-dressed in front of the inspector, their robes just happening to fall open in front of him. I have nothing against this happening as part of the story, but when it keeps happening, I suspect the author’s penchant for nude women is getting in the way of the plot!

Please share your “escapist” books — fiction or nonfiction? Cozy or Edgy?

Author experiences, Embracing Creativity, Fiction, History and culture, Nonfiction, Writing Tips

Digging into your past for relief … and stories!

When I was 16, my grandmother and I had a falling out. She died in 2010, still furious (or perhaps oblivious). I had written to her a year earlier in a final attempt at resolution. But she wasn’t interested and informed me that if I was after her money, she’d already told her lawyers not to give me a dime.

Fast forward to 2021… I see a post on Twitter about a new app that can bring old photographs back to life; I’m not a fan of “deep fake” technology, but I have to admit, I was curious. I tried it on an old photograph of my grandfather (my grandmother’s late husband who died before I was born). His younger self beamed back at me, his smile wide and infectious, eyes twinkling, and I was charmed!

My dad at about four years old.

Right away, I began digging to find out more about my grandfather and my late dad’s side of the family. It turned out my grandfather used to work in a mental health institution, and his dad was a blacksmith. His mother was a school teacher. In the 1950s, he and my grandmother lived in Malaysia, my dad traveling on a troop ship when he was only about seven or eight. The timeline began to shift around, blurred spots becoming clearer, pieces floating into place like a magical jiggle puzzle, and a gap that I hadn’t even realized existed began to fill inside of me.

It turns out, the past takes up a lot of space if it’s not resolved. The unknowns, misunderstandings, and falsehoods hit each other at odd angles, leaving empty pockets. Those “pockets” stick around until you open up the photo albums, read the old letters, study the registers of births, death, and marriages, and have the difficult conversations with family members who don’t really want you to hash it all up again. With dust motes and the bitter scent of dried glue on the backs of black-and-white photographs hovering in the air, that’s the time to talk, cry, think, sigh, take a deep breath, and let it all go.

Two doves from my mom’s garden. Tomorrow is a new day!

Right now, I don’t know where this path is going. But I already have a couple of good ideas for story characters –a mysterious secretary who lopes around a graveyard at night and a proud woman who secretly hates herself for being born a girl. It’s all fodder, after all.

If you have relatives in Great Britain you’d like to research, here are some of the sites I’ve found helpful:

FreeBMD Home Page – this is a great FREE resource to find listings of births, deaths, and marriages in England and Wales.

https://probatesearch.service.gov.uk/ – where you can look up wills and probates of the deceased and purchase a digital copy if you want to.

ancestry.co.uk – you can get a free 14-day trial, and this site will help you build your family tree and keep it organized!

Home | Search the archive | British Newspaper Archive – you can search for free, but if you want to read the actual articles, you have to pay. Still, once you know the name of the newspaper and the date, you can always look the actual paper up through a library or other type of archives.

General Register Office (GRO) – Official information on births, marriages, civil partnerships and deaths – the “biggie,” where to order official certificates, etc…

Author experiences, Embracing Creativity, podcasts, Writing Tips

A new podcast … by me!

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you might know that I love podcasts! Well, a friend, fellow writer Lisa Logan, got me started on Anchor. It’s a site that lets you create your own podcasts for free, and I was immediately hooked!

With Lisa’s encouragement, I’ve begun recording short (about 6 mins) podcasts about how to spark creativity. They’re especially geared for people who are convinced they are NOT creative, but anyone can enjoy the brief lessons on how to get your imagination going.

Lisa will join me on some episodes, as she’s one of the most creative people I know! So, if you’d like, please give a listen!

Embracing Creativity, History and culture, Travels

Explore the mysteries of Mt. Gilead, North Carolina

On a family trip to Lake Tillery this week, we traveled into Mt. Gilead one afternoon to check out a coffee shop. As we got out of the car, the North Carolina August heat rippled up from the sidewalk and silence wrapped us in a blissful blanket of quiet — no constant roar of engines or music blaring from car speakers. A stately red brick Methodist church stood across the street, and a colorful “Welcome to Historic Downtown Mount Gilead” mural hung from a facing wall.

I love murals and street art (check out my Las Vegas post), so I was immediately curious about the town we had stumbled upon.

The first mural …

Next, I saw an old-timey Coca-Cola ad painted on the side of a building. Then, an R.C. Cola one:

We passed a sewing shop, a frame and gift shop, and when we got to the next cross-street, we saw a historical-looking mural:

And opposite this mural, another important-looking one:

A fifth mural up ahead displayed an image of a Native American man. Who were these men, and who commissioned and painted all these murals? We walked back the way we came, crossing the street at the coffee shop, which I later found out had once been a doctor’s office building. I took a photo outside as a record:

Who was Dr. P.R. Rankin? I’m so curious!

Kyle and Myra Poplin own Speckled Paw Coffee and were more than happy to tell us how they started the coffee shop, which is much more than a coffee-and-ice-cream shop. It’s a community center, a place for people to gather and chat. Mt. Gilead didn’t really have a place like that until 2018, when the Poplins bought the old building, which had stood empty for two decades. The Poplins took out the office walls of the main room but kept the original windows (and all the glass except for one pane, which had to be replaced.) Now, it’s an airy, open space with lots of light flowing in.

Guess who Speckled Paw Coffee is named for?

I love mysteries, and Mt. Gilead is full of them. The town is tiny — only about 1000 people — but it has the feel of a place much bigger. The Poplins had the wherewithal to start an online community newsletter to replace the defunct local newspaper, and everyone has jumped on board. Elderly readers often get their children to print out the newsletter so they can read it more easily, Myra says.

The owners of Thistle Ridge Soap just down the street from Speckled Paw, rely on their Internet sales, as well as ones from their brick-and-mortar store. A husband-and-wife team, they make their own soap and sell crafts by local artisans.

Less than 10 miles away stands Town Creek Indian Mound, a State Historic Site. I’ve lived in NC for more than 20 years and have hardly heard anything about this archeological site of the Pee Dee people, other than that it exists. Why? I want to learn more — we arrived about 15 minutes before closing and didn’t have much time to look at the displays inside the museum — so I will need to research this.

Just ten minutes down the road from Mt. Gilead is a North Carolina State Historical Site, the Town Creek Indian Mound. This is the view from atop the mound.

Unlike other places I’ve visited (and lived in), Mt. Gilead seems to peacefully embrace its history and the modern, digital reality forced upon it. The residents I met are friendly and optimistic, proud of the past but also excited about the future. This feels like a healthy place to be!

What’s different about this little town, located near the geographical center of the state, next to the Uwharrie National Forest? Nearby, the bigger towns of Troy and Albemarle get more traffic (and more press), but Mt. Gilead has mysteries to uncover. I’ll be following up with answers to my questions in upcoming posts. If you want to visit Mt. Gilead (and Speckled Paw Coffee), it’s about 90 minutes south of Greensboro, in Montgomery County. And if you live in Mt. Gilead, or know more about this town, please share in the comments!

Education, Health, politics

Let’s help women and girls!

Yesterday, I heard on the BBC that the UK government is planning to cut aid to a United Nations family planning program by 85%. The program provides contraceptives and maternal health care to women in poverty-stricken areas of the world, including Africa. It also works with local governments so that they can provide for their communities in the future.

Photo by UNICEF/Catherine Ntabadde. Babies at a neonatal intensive unit at a hospital in Kampala, Uganda, which was refurbished with support from UNFPA.

“When funding stops, women and girls suffer,” UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem, said in a statement, “especially the poor, those living in remote, underserved communities and through humanitarian crises.”

The withdrawal of approximately $180 million to the UNFPA Supplies Partnership, would have helped prevent around 250,000 maternal and child deaths, 14.6 million unintended pregnancies and 4.3 million unsafe abortions, she added.  (UK’s 85% family planning aid cut will be devastating for women and girls says UNFPA, while UNAIDS also ‘deeply regrets’ cuts | | UN News)

This news made me so angry because it seems that always women and girls, especially those of color and in poverty, are the ones left out in the cold whenever government cuts are announced. And women and girls are vitally important to our global health! No birth control means unplanned pregnancies, leading to unsafe abortions and maternal deaths.

Girls having babies means less chance of them getting an education. Those girls will not have the opportunities to study, have careers, and give back to their communities and the global community. It’s a cliché, but it’s true — we are all connected. When poorer countries suffer, we all suffer.

So, last night, I started a petition. My goal is to raise awareness of the potentially devastating effect these cuts would have on women and girls (and their communities). If enough people sign, we can sent a strong message to the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office that the world sees what they are doing. And we don’t approve!

Let’s stop these cuts!! Please sign my petition today and forward it to as many people as you can!

Author experiences, Book Reviews, Embracing Creativity, Fiction

How the Pandemic Inspired a Love Story — Women Writers, Women’s Books

This is a re-post from the excellent website, “Women Writers, Women’s Books.” They always have interesting articles by women authors. This one caught my attention because Ms. Holloway talks fondly about her grandfather, and my grandfather started writing stories later in his life, so we had that connection that I’ll always hang on to.

After my grandfather had a heart attack four years ago, I moved in with my grandparents during his recovery. Late in the evenings, as my grandmother slept in her recliner beside him and my poodle sprawled across his feet, he and I would watch movies. His preference, inevitably and humorously, was Hallmark movies. I worked…

How the Pandemic Inspired a Love Story — Women Writers, Women’s Books
Embracing Creativity, History and culture, podcasts, politics

Mixing it up!

While my writing has been … a bit slow, I’ve been taking on other creative projects. My podcast, Train Your Brain to be Creative (I know, not a very creative name!), has been really fun to work on. And now, using ideas from my online graphic design classes, I’m creating designs in zazzle.com to put on tee shirts, tote bags, and postcards.

My latest “collection” (sounds fancier than it is!) is of powerful female leaders, inspired by Kamala Harris’s recent win! It’s really fun to take a photograph from the Creative Commons and edit it, adding colors and swirls and all sorts of thing. My goal is to improve my tech skills, have fun, and spread some positive images out there!

Whatever I sell in this collection, I’m going to donate the profits to the Malala Fund, which advocates for girls’ secondary education in Afghanistan, Brazil, India, Lebanon, Nigeria, Pakistan and Turkey. Malala Yousafzai is a hero of mine, having survived being shot by the Taliban when she was only 11 years old. She didn’t let that stop her and went on to become the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate!

You can check out my online zazzle store here: https://www.zazzle.com/collections/woman_power-119711412469975520

Author experiences, Book Reviews, Embracing Creativity, Fiction, History and culture, Writing Tips

A Strong Sense of Place — Women Writers, Women’s Books

This is a re-post from the excellent blog, Women Writers, Women’s Books. How do you handle setting in your fiction writing? I admit that setting is sometimes an afterthought for me, and I constantly have to challenge myself to place it up front!

Should I have chosen an exotic location in which to set my new novel?  Research can be done anywhere in the world (or at least, it could, pre-covid).  Armed with a suitcase, laptop and my writing head firmly switched on, I set forth on a magical adventure to research my new book.  But it was…

A Strong Sense of Place — Women Writers, Women’s Books
Book Reviews, Fiction

The Best Mystery Books of 2021 (Anticipated) — The Bibliofile

This is a re-post from the excellent blog, The Bibliofile! Start planning your reading list with the perfect set of mysteries for rainy, dreary winter weekends!

This is a list of The Best (Anticipated) Mystery Books of 2021. There will probably be more new releases announced in the coming months and through the years, but here’s the best of what’s been announced far to be published in 2021. Will you be reading any of these books when they come out? I’ll…

The Best Mystery Books of 2021 (Anticipated) — The Bibliofile
Author experiences, Embracing Creativity, podcasts, Writing Tips

Creativity and Kids!

Please check out the latest episode of Train Your Brain to be Creative! Lisa and I discuss a really interesting article about how motherhood affects creativity, and we also dive into how children, in general, can help spark creativity. You don’t have to be a parent — you can simply be around children!

Author experiences, Embracing Creativity, Fiction, Getting Published, History and culture, Nonfiction, podcasts

Improving Writing Productivity Amid a Pandemic — Women Writers, Women’s Books

This is a re-post from the excellent Women Writers, Women’s Books

Damyanti Biswas lives in Singapore, and supports Delhi’s underprivileged women and children, volunteering with organisations who work for this cause. Her short stories have been published in magazines in the US, UK, and Asia, and she helps edit the Forge Literary Magazine. Her novel You Beneath Your Skin will be free between 7th and 11th August […]

Improving Writing Productivity Amid a Pandemic — Women Writers, Women’s Books