Category Archives: writing

Glam Elf Short Story Contest

You walk outside one evening, about a month after you’ve moved into your new house, and something shiny under a bush catches your eye. You lean down in the gloaming and pull up…this guy, face-planted in the dirt.

IMG_6114Yeah, nothing creepy ’bout that, right?

So I’m offering a prize, free copy of either my book on fostercare FALL OR FLY or some Celtic music CD (we have some good ones lying around) for the best short story explaining why the elf was there. 500-word limit, no minimum. Send your stories to jbeck69087@aol.com. Deadline is next Sunday, Feb. 24.

Winning story as judged by me will be published via this blog weekend after next. Have fun!

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The Monday Book: TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG by Connie Willis

We return to our friend  Jeanne Powers for this week’s Monday Book….

to say nothingWhen Lady Schrapnell agrees to endow the time travel project, it seems like a dream come true for the researchers at Oxford University. They didn’t count on their benefactor deciding to use the project to re-create Coventry Cathedral, sending travelers back to umpteen different time periods to locate objects. Time lagged and exhausted, Ned Henry is sent back to Victorian England to recuperate away from the demanding patron. Unfortunately, he’s sent so hastily that he arrives unprepared to fit into an era of séances, village fetes, and penwipes. He lands at a railway station in 1888 where he meets a dreamy college student who spouts poetry and tends to fall in love suddenly, an eccentric Oxford professor, a bulldog named Cyril and a whole host of characters who could have walked out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Ned is infatuated with Verity, a fellow time traveler, but he isn’t sure if it’s true love or time-lag. Whatever, they need to resolve a little problem caused by Verity’s accidental removal of an item that needs to be returned to its rightful place or else. . . well, they’re not quite certain what may happen but that might mean the downfall of civilization. At the very least they might be stuck in the past.

As you may have gathered, this is a difficult book to explain properly. I can tell you that it’s an entertaining adventure with science fiction, a bit of romance, some farce and a comedy of manners. I think it’s a delightful tale that should appear to a wide variety of readers, including those who don’t usually like science fiction or fantasy. One of my favorite scenes has a weary 1940 time traveler telling a colleague that a native asked about the Queen. “I told him she was wearing a hat. She did, didn’t she? I can never remember which one wore the hats.” They all did, is the response, except for Victoria. And Camilla. (It’s worth noting that this book was written in 1997.)

By the way, the title comes from Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, but you don’t need to have read that to enjoy some of the in-jokes and brushes with history.

I’ve read it twice now, and enjoyed both times.  It’s part of a series which includes The Doomsday Book—a book that is considered a bit of a classic as it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards when first published—and the more recent WW II book, Blackout /All Clear. However, each is a standalone book.  While Dog is a much more light-hearted book than others in the series, Willis is using it to put forth her vision of time and time travel but wrapped up in an entertaining package.

I’ll admit the book drags a bit in the middle, but all the seeming side-trips play a role in the grand dénouement, making for a most satisfactory ending.

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The Monday Book: GNOMELAND by Margaret Egleton

Many thanks to Jeanne Powers for this review!

gnomelandGnomeland:  An Introduction to the Little People

 

First off, this is not a sequel to Gnomes by Wil Huygen, the marvelous and charming “natural history” of the shy Holland gnomes.  No, this is a book about garden gnomes.

 

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, garden gnomes seem to pop up everywhere.  Travelocity even has a spokesgnome, possibly inspired by a rash of gnome-nappings a few years back, in which a person or persons would swipe a garden gnome and take photos of it in various settings, sometimes sending postcards back to the owner from the gnome to illustrate its travels.

Egleton devotes the first few pages of the book to a very brief overview of gnomes in general, noting that there are several variations and tracing the origin both gnomes and their appearance. Then she delves specifically into the evolution of the classic garden gnome.

The earliest statues of the “classic” garden gnome apparently were created in the late 19th century when a large ceramic industry met an enthusiasm for garden decoration. The early figures were more of the bearded and wizened little old man variety before morphing into bright and merry little figures, which Egleton attributes to Disney’s cute little dwarf characters from Snow White.

For me, the most interesting part of the book was about the early creators of garden gnomes. Philipp Griebel added the figure to his factory shortly after opening in 1874, causing Grafenroda, Germany to lay claim to being the birthplace of the modern gnome, though there are those who would challenge this.  August Heissner apparently began creating hand-painted clay gnomes for sale around 1870.

But all of this pales beside the glorious photos of gnomes of all sorts. There are bathing beauties, politicians (there are several versions of George W. Bush), athletes, naughty gnomes, and smoking and drinking gnomes.  “Mobile Joe” is a gnome with a cell phone who crashed the Chelsea Flower Show, despite the “no gnomes” rule.  There are some astounding photos of “gnome gardens” with large collections.  One woman took inspiration from George Harrison, who had posed with the Friar Park gnomes for two albums, and created a gnome garden in tribute to the Beatle.

Gnomes are a world-wide phenomenon: they can be found all over Europe, North and South America, and even Antarctica.  Australia seems to be particularly fond of gnomes, harboring several large gnome gardens and organizations dedicated to preservation and proliferation of gnomes. “Gnomesville” in Australia has become quite the tourist attraction, despite a lack of parking and toilets.

Even if you think gnomes are tackiness personified (the book says they’ve “been restored to their rightful place of kitsch honor”) you’ll smile at some of the creative ways people have used gnomes.  It may just inspire you to add a gnome or two to your own garden. Or not.

 

Note:  this review is written by a person who has pink flamingos in the garden

 

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The Monday Book: WALKING ON MY GRAVE by Carolyn Hart

50065987_583494335446320_9215025291901009920_nThis week’s Monday book comes from Martha Evans Wiley, a fellow cat rescuer and margarita drinker. Here’s her review of Walking on My Grave by Carolyn Hart (actually a look at the whole series).

2017 Berkley Prime Crime

One of my great guilty pleasures is hunkering down with a new Carolyn Hart book, more specifically one in her Death on Demand series.  Hart’s written 26 cozies in this series, almost half of the more than 60 novels she has penned in her long career.

What I find most charming about this series is Hart’s gift for establishing a sense of place; set on Broward’s Rock, a wonderful island off the coast of South Carolina, each new book feels like coming home. Hart’s two protagonists, Annie and Max Darling, are transplants to the island having moved there when Annie inherited her uncle’s bookstore upon his mysterious death. Annie is compassionate to a fault –  her endless capacity to believe in the good in people balances well with her husband’s proclivity to be a little cynical. Her wonderful bookstore, the eponymous Death on Demand – “the finest mystery bookstore east of Atlanta” – gives Hart plenty of opportunity to show off her mystery knowledge, throwing loads of references to authors and their work, both past and present.

The latest installment, Walking on My Grave, follows much of the same successful formula that Hart has stuck with over the years. She is a master of the red herring, and it’s always fun to watch an enthusiastic Annie go head-long into impulsive schemes while Max tries to keep up with her. This time the story revolves around a rich older woman whose many heirs all have reasons to kill her – not the most original plot, but again, it’s the characters and setting that makes Hart’s work so much fun to read. She always includes a very handy guide to who’s who in the beginning, and often sprinkles sketches in the narrative to ensure that the reader isn’t left behind.

It’s not necessary to read  the series in order to enjoy it, but if you want to start at the very beginning, pick up “Death on Demand,” which sets up the setting and main characters. If you want to read just one, I recommend “The Christie Caper,” a heftier read than most of the others and a real treat for any Agatha Christie fan, or “Southern Ghost,” set in Beaufort, SC,  a wonderful trip to the old south with its dripping Spanish moss and antebellum houses.

As with any long-running series, there are some tropes – for a small island, there’s no end of people being introduced who are then murdered. Annie, Max and the gang don’t age at all, and they are curiously unaffected by any hurricanes or other weather events. But reality isn’t something I search for in a mystery, and I’m never disappointed in the adventures of Annie and Max. I’m already looking forward to my next trip to the island of Broward’s Rock.

50065987_583494335446320_9215025291901009920_n

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The Monday Book: NEWS OF OUR LOVED ONES by Abigail DeWitt

newsI met Abigail at this year’s Festival of the Book, where we were both featured authors. She sent me a review copy on request for the Journal of Appalachian Studies, since she’s an author from NC, part of our jurisdiction. I’m the book editor for the Journal, although I am relinquishing the position in 2019. (If you’re a member of ASA and interested, please contact the Journal editor!)

Before passing the book on for review, I gave it a read myself. A novel in the form of multiple short stories among characters tied together by war experiences in France and in America after World War II, Loved Ones tends to focus on the family women. The first story is intense and even violent, not in keeping with the gentler, more measured and internally-exploring tones of the rest. Altogether, they trace from the loss of the family home to why the granddaughter raised in America continues to fixate on tragic events from family history.

Witt uses some lovely poetic language, but it is her women, from a small child to a grandmother, who bring to life the experiences of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. A gentle, breezy quality suffuses her descriptions with a one-step-removed sense of what horrors the stories may encompass or even hide between the lines.

In Mathilde, for instance, a girl is as much in love with the mother of her lad gone for a soldier as she is the boy himself, perhaps even more as the mother notices and returns affection, accompanied by advice in beauty tips and attracting men. Witt’s description of Mathilde as is lovely in itself, the kind of woman almost translucent in her paleness, made of steel beneath the skin.

I enjoyed News of our Loved Ones as a set of short stories, telling the story of one family and its scattered members, primarily because of Witt’s light touch on a dark time in human history.

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Letters, Boxes, Words–Tomatoes

hidden roomThis time next month Jack and I should be finding places to put things in our new house. It’s 550 Tazewell St, Wytheville if you want to look up the rooms and stuff. People have already observed (correctly) that it is a half-size version of our current bookstore home.

No, we won’t be running a bookstore. Yes, the blog will continue. Yes, I’m still writing, working on my fourth book and oh glory the joy when I can stop packing boxes and start using the time for writing instead. No, I won’t be working with Appalachian Feline Friends in any significant capacity, just driving transports and running an online craft store for fundraising. I’m retiring and turning it over to younger people with more fresh ideas: no strategizing. I need the brain space.

The joys of the new house include: a hidden bedroom. Halfway up the staircase is a small hobbit-shaped door, with no stairs into it. You have to hop. This reveals a slope-sided attic space in which any self-respecting hobbit or child would delight. I revel in the prospect of filling it with my yarn, lining the sides in visible boxes, waiting for me to pluck it out and make it into things that will assist the cats or surprise and terrify friends at Christmas (2019, I hasten to add).

A small greenhouse. My heirloom tomato nerd side is already planning. If you have heirloom tomato seeds you’d like to send me, please do. Oh, the happiness of growing baby tomatoes from seeds. I’m going to pipe in classical music to help them along.

The old jail. Seriously, we inherited the 1866 Wytheville jail as part of the property. It has heat and light and it’s the perfect size for a 9-months-of-the-year writing studio. A small table, my laptop, and NOTHING ELSE! I haven’t had a designated writing room since I finished the writing residency in Fayetteville last March. Jack is the one who called it, too. As soon as he saw the room, he said, “Well, you got your studio back.” Yep.

The tiny balcony. Despite his best efforts and mine, Jack still smokes. Not in the house. It’s a deal-breaker. But on the lee side sheltered by the roof and some trees sits a small patio on the second floor, just big enough for two chairs and an ashtray. My beloved can do his bad thing out there and I won’t have to smell it and he won’t be cold in winter. Little portable heater’s chord fits under the glass door.

The big ceilidh room. The house is 1890, so it has an original and an added bit. The original has big wooden timbers framing it, exposed for aesthetic pleasure. It’s a big room, and even with two sets of double doors leading to the front and back gardens, it gets less light than the rest of the house. And it has the fireplace. This will be our music room and where we hold ceilidhs and house concerts. No furniture, just folding chairs, instruments, and the bookshelves at the far end holding our collection of rounds and songs to sing together. Already we are looking forward to meeting the Wytheville musical crowd. Debra Preese, the lady we bought the house from, knows several, and our realtor Tyler Hughes knows more. They’re rumored to be happy to have a Celtic music couple arriving.

There’s still a twinge at letting go of the bookstore, but it’s thriving and we have high hopes the next owner will continue its community service. Jack and me, we are ready for our next adventure, in a smaller house with a big heart.

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That Moment When….

Last night Deborah and I did our book talk at Arlington Central Library, DC. We’ve done these many times; her memoir Counting Down is a deep dive into a personal adoption story, while my book Fall or Fly is journalism storytelling about the system as it operates in rural Appalachia. cover

We’ve fielded many questions during our 20+ talks together, and at almost every venue–library, bookstore, adoption expo, whatever it was–foster parents have been part of the audience. In Asheville’s Malaprops, a newly licensed couple sat on the front row, hoping their phone would go off during our time together. (It did, but it was a sales call. You never saw so many disappointed audience members.) At Quail Books in NC, parents asked about how to help their 11-year-old daughter communicate in safety with her birth mom.

Last night, two foster parents who had already read Fall or Fly expressed appreciation for its straight talk about two subjects the prep classes and society in general tend to avoid: love and money. One woman talked about how, the first time she held her first foster son in the middle of the night as he cried, she had a “freak out” moment because, “I had no idea who this kid was. He didn’t smell like my birth children, he didn’t react the way my birth children did, he didn’t know me and I didn’t know him, but here I am with him in his onesie and me in my robe, trying to tell him it’s okay and he can sleep safe. There’s nothing about those classes that can get you ready for this. Finally, I don’t feel like a failure. I know other people had this feeling too.”counting cover

Another foster mom was struggling with the fact that the adoption agency had presented her with a “perfect match,” but she and the teen girl were struggling to know one another. “No click, I guess, is the best way to put it. She was perfect on paper, everything I wanted. And like the woman in your book says, ‘You don’t get to choose your bio kids for the qualities you want most. They are yours, and your responsibility.’ So I don’t know, do I take it as a job now for a future of love, or will love never come?” She paused, then turned to me. “You have no idea how grateful I am that someone has talked about this in print.”

As a writer, there is nothing in the world so rewarding as hearing someone say that. That a person has found themselves in your words, identified and no longer alone, is the most energizing thing an author can hear. I’m glad you don’t feel so isolated any more, that the stories are out there, and that people are hearing them at last.

 

 

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