So what happened in 2017? I was in the Rockies for a week! And somehow, writing about mountain reads just didn’t come to mind. I expect to be in the West again in 2020, and I’ll fix that! In the meantime, this was another beach summer, this time at Bethany Beach, DE.
In case you are interested, the rotation is based on the locations of my daughters—one in Connecticut, one in Massachusetts, and one in Colorado. Traditionally, meeting in the East means the beach somewhere whereas the West has meant mountains. Most of the same people come year after year, all family.
This year’s beach reads
This year we were 14—all family, but all individuals, hence the variety of reads! Here’s what three generations are reading during their week together.
P1: Jan Karon, IN THE COMPANY OF OTHERS; Bob Goff, EVERYBODY, ALWAYS.
P2: David Jeremiah, THE BOOK OF SIGNS; Robert Ludlum, SCORPIO ILLUSION.
Those of you who have been with me for awhile know that I am a HUGE fan of Jane Austen. On March 22, 2017, I posted a blog on the 200th anniversary of her last fiction writing. A gazillion books and articles—that’s by actual count!—have been written about Austen. If you want a pretty thorough overview and summary, with references to delve deeper, check out the 30-page Wikipedia article. What you have in this blog is my personal homage.
My Journey to Jane Austen
Copies of Austen’s novels are old friends. I bought Northanger Abbey secondhand for 35 cents.
Others were bought new for 50 cents each.
All of them have been read and read again, and most show those years of age and love.
I first became a fan in the spring of my sophomore year in college. “Why so late?” you might ask. In my pre-matriculation advisement, the English professor (who happened to teach such classes) urged me toward Chaucer and Beowulf. I took no literature classes after my freshman year, so there were tons (by actual weight) of books that “everyone” had read but I hadn’t. A lot of them are still out there. In any event, during finals week, I devoured every Austen I could lay my hands on.
As I recall, I read Pride and Prejudice first, and it remains my favorite. I’m not alone here. As far back as 1940, various film and TV versions have come to be. If one searches Kindle for Jane Austen Fan Fiction, there are literally hundreds of novels based on this book alone.These include prequels, sequels, murder mysteries, soft-core porn, fantasy, and horror.
Film adaptations of all Austen’s novels abound. In 1995, Emma Thompson won an Academy Award for her role in Sense and Sensibility. 2007 brought forth Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. Love and Friendship, based on Austen’s first novel, Lady Susan, appeared in 2016.
Jane Austen for Writers
Setting pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard—a writer never knows what the future holds. AlthoughAusten’s Lady Susan, written in the epistolary form popular at the time, was penned first (1804), it was published last (1871). Austen published as Anonymous and enjoyed little fame or fortune during her lifetime.
Emma is but one example of why Austen’s work is so enduring. Before she began the novel, she wrote, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like. Emma Woodhouse is handsome, clever, and rich. She is also spoiled, headstrong, and self-satisfied; she greatly overestimates her own insights and abilities; she is blind to the dangers of meddling in other people’s lives; and her imagination and perceptions often lead her astray.” In other words, she paints a timeless portrait of the conceit and hubris of youth.
Austen is a great example of “write what you know.” In all her novels, Austen explores the concerns and difficulties of genteel women living in 18th and 19th century England, their dependence on marriage for security and status. Her novels portray thesocial and economic reality of the period.
And she makes her readers laugh.
Something to aspire to: to express universals of human relationships, personalities, passions, and foibles that transcend time and place. She’s my role model—which is why I continue to acquire her books. This is my most recent one. Although published in 1981, I’ve enjoyed it for only a couple of years—so far!
On the first day of my Nature Writing class, we were assigned to read a book of our choice that had a strong nature theme. It could be anything, from fiction to poetry. I chose Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods (1998) for several reasons. From the time I read Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, I’ve been a Bryson fan. Then, too, my roots are in Appalachia. Last but not least, I had the book on my shelf—still unread. Now that I’ve read it, I want to share.
The Appalachian Trail (AT) is approximately 2100 miles. If you read the book, you will understand why the exact length is unknown, but for my purposes, it is sufficient to know that it’s hugely long and stretches from Georgia to Maine. Bryson (not a hiker) starts with a chapter describing his almost whimsical decision to walk the AT and the buying frenzy of assembling the necessary equipment. And right away I was drawn in. As a reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times said, “Bill Bryson could write an essay about dryer lint or fever reducers and still make us laugh out loud.”
It’s difficult to cite representative funny passages because (1) there are so many of them; and (2) often the humor is in a whole situation, scene or exchange, not a succinct quip. He started in Georgia in March, intending to end in Maine in October, a timetable intended to avoid suffocating heat in the south and New England winter. In the even, that March brought a record cold snap, and the first day of spring came in the midst of a blizzard. And that’s pretty much the way the hike went: never quite what was planned.
Bryson’s writing is take-you-there-with-him vivid. For example, “…we were half-blinded by flying snow and jostled by gusts of wind, which roared through the dancing trees and shook us by our backpacks. This wasn’t a blizzard; it was a tempest.”
I like the insights he shares. “Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way. . . .The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know.” This is true only for those of us living the typical American life or a similar one in another developed country—but that’s true enough for most of his readers.
Reading a Bryson book is always a learning experience. A Walk in the Woods is packed with history, geography, and botany. The idea of the AT started with Benton MacKaye in 1921, work actually started in 1930 under the auspices of Myron Avery, who mapped it out, extended it from 1200 to over 2000 miles, supervised construction, and convinced hiking clubs to provide volunteer work crews.
Bryson is a skilled observer. The details he notes allow the reader to see how the trees of the north differ from those in the south, identify denizens of the flower-strewn meadows, and quake beside sheer drop-offs. And he is wonderfully in touch with real people—people who can cite statistics about the rarity of a hiker being attacked by a black bear, and the greater rarity of one being killed, but still have anxiety attacks because “It does happen!”
The only thing that put me off a bit about the book was a somewhat stereotypical disdain for fat people and hillbillies. Perhaps that’s where the book’s age came into play. Bur it never tipped into meanness. In any event, it didn’t keep me from enjoying the book overall. There are moments of tenderness, and a budding awareness of the danger to our environment.
I’ll end by mentioning his walking companion, Stephen Katz. It wouldn’t have been the same book—and probably not as good—without Bryson’s unexpected fellow traveler. It’s a feel-good book from beginning to end. Other than that, I won’t tell you how it ends—except to say, “They both lived to tell the tale.”
Bottom line:Read this book—or any Bryson book—and be prepared to be drawn into non-fiction.
By “Queen of Mystery,” I don’t mean Agatha Christie. Frankly, Christie’s mysteries usually annoy me—too much alligator-over-the-transom in her solutions—meaning that some completely unforeseen, unpredictable bit of info suddenly appears and unlocks everything. (No offense to Christie fans out there; but reading preferences are very individual. Ask any writer who’s received multiple rejections for a piece of work that someone more on the same wavelength eventually accepts.) No, if I were bestowing the crown, it would be Dorothy L. Sayers.
Sayers was a woman of many achievements. She translated Dante, wrote poetry, and worked as a copyeditor. She was a playwright, essayist, literary critic, and Christian humanist, as well as a student of classical and modern languages. But she is best known for her Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mysteries. You may recall from last Friday’s blog that Sayers is one of the few fiction authors I periodically re-read. Now, you might ask, “Why would anyone reread a mystery? Once you know Who Done It—and probably how and why—what’s the point?”
In the case of Sayers, my answer is three-fold. First there is her openings that draw me. The Unpleasantness at The Bellona Club begins, “’What in the world, Wimsey, are you doing in this Morgue?’ demanded Captain Fentiman, flinging aside “The Evening Banner” with the air of a man released from an irksome duty. ‘Oh, I wouldn’t call it that,’ retorted Wimsey, amiably. ‘Funeral Parlor at the very least. Look at the marble. Look at the furnishings. Look at the palms and the chaste bronze nude in the corner.'”
Five Red Herrings opens, “If one lives in Gallowy, one either fishes or paints. . . To be neither of these things is considered odd and almost eccentric.”
Strong Poison begins, “There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood. The judge was an old man; so old, he seemed to have outlived time and change and death. His parrot-face and parrot-voice were dry, like his old heavily-veined hands. His scarlet robe clashed harshly with the crimson of the roses.”
Have His Carcase begins, “The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth.”
The second reason to reread is to really grasp the intricate plots that often allow me to learn something. And, coincidentally, to appreciate all the ways she foreshadowed the ending and inserted the evidence and clues without telegraphing the ending. In various Sayers novels, I learned the effects of chronic ingestion of arsenic, a lot about English bell-ringing, cyphers, the advertising world, a great deal about the questions surrounding the execution of the family of Czar Nicholas II—among other things.
And then there are the characters and their romance. I recently read that Sayers once commented that Lord Peter Wimsey was a mixture of Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster. I always envisioned Wimsey as Astaire, even when the TV serials starred Ian Carmichael or Edward Petheridge. He’s brilliant, graceful, athletic, debonaire—plus he blathers, and suffers “shell shock” (a.k.a., PTSD). Harriet Vane is highly intelligent, strong-willed, principled, with a low opinion of men—and not really beautiful. I find them appealing in their flaws.
Sayers set her mysteries between WWI and WWII, but they are still popular today. Masterpiece Theater aired the series. The complete DVD collection was released in 2003.
Harriet Vane was very atypical for her time. Sayers did not devote a lot of time to talking or writing about or otherwise dealing with her own non-traditional choices, let alone her heroine’s. In Are Women Human, two Sayers essays address the issue of women in society. Her position is that women are first and foremost human beings, and that women and men must be regarded and treated as essentially much more alike than different. Human beings—color, age, background or abilities aside—are equal. Sex does not, a priori, determine anything. Sounds pretty modern to me!
So get thee to the library or Amazon or your favorite bookstore and sample Dorothy L. Sayers. Her first mystery was Whose Body? That’s as good a place as many to start. Unless you’d rather go for romance first, in which case, start with Strong Poison. But do it!
This is Mystery and Thriller Week on Goodreads, so it seemed like a good idea to blog about that. I enjoy both mysteries and thrillers, and started with enthusiasm. Starting with what separates the two seemed reasonable and easy.
Mysteries are brain books: Some crime has been committed and the point of the book is to solve the puzzle and determine who done it. Mary Burton is a local example of a typical mystery writer.
Thrillers are action books: Typically fast-paced, with lots of physical threat and daring-do, often the point of the action is to keep something dreadful from happening—i.e., stop the bad guys before they do whatever. Fiona Quinn is a local example of a thrill writer. In fact, she writes a blog called Thrill Writing.
That’s a simplification, of course. But when I started to try to refine it, I became mired in exceptions and subcategories. Police procedurals, for example, could be either a cozy mystery or action packed, depending on how the author presents the basic defining characteristic—i.e., how the police operate, collect, analyze, and collate the evidence.
So then I considered citing best sellers in each category—but whose? Goodreads? Amazon? USA Today? NY Times? To list them all would be pages and pages, with lots of overlap.
Then I considered cutting it another way. I searched online for Richmond, Virginia mysteries and thrillers. What I found was that Richmond authors were camouflaged among broader lists of “books written by authors in, from, or about Virginia.” I decided the culling wasn’t worth it.
And so I’ve thrown in the towel. Find your own mysteries and/or thrillers, from whatever sources you rely on, and define those as you will. In such matters, the reader is always right!
Some of you are familiar with my short story mysteries featuring Clara, an engaging prostitute who plied her trade during the Civil War with men whose sexual preferences included “soft” fetishes—i.e., nothing painful, more like making love in caskets, lapping brandy from her bellybutton, or enjoying chocolate applied with feathers. (So far, no one’s complained about the lack of explicit sexual detail on the page!) And somehow, she was repeatedly embroiled in solving mysterious deaths.
Well, I’m working on another Clara story, and here are some bits of info I think you’ll find interesting.
I stumbled across this book some years ago in the gift shop at the Museum of the Confederacy and bought it, because who isn’t interested in sex? Since then, Thomas P. Lowry has become my favorite writer on the topic! However, I’ve also searched online. I won’t be giving specific citations, because many of these facts pop up in several writings.
The topic of prostitution isn’t as intensively researched and written about as many other Civil War topics, and one might assume that’s because it was a minor issue. Wrong! In 1864 there were 450 brothels in Washington and over 75 in Alexandria, Virginia. A newspaper estimated there were 5000 “public women” in DC and another 2500 in Alexandria and Georgetown—and this is just an example. Whenever army troops set up camps, nearby small towns were overrun with women in the sex trade.
One estimate was that 40% of soldiers suffered the pox (syphilis) and/or the clap (gonorrhea). These STIs were nearly as dangerous to soldiers as battle—which prompted military officers to take action. That often took the form of moving bawdy women elsewhere.
For example, Major General William Rosecrans ordered that all prostitutes found in Nashville or known to be there be seized and transported to Louisville. What followed was that a recently christened steamboat, the Idahoe, was basically conscripted to move 111 of the most infamous of the sex workers. Louisville refused dockage to the Idahoe, and ordered them on to Cincinnati instead. Cincinnati also refused to accept them, so they were sent to Kentucky, but were turned away by Covington and Newport. Bottom line: they ended up back in Nashville.
Similar rounding up of prostitutes and forcibly transporting them to the enemy’s city by train was common between Richmond, Virginia and Washington, DC—which promoted women being spies. (But spying is for another day.) In any case, such transportation did not take into account the convenience, preferences, or comfort of the women. For example, one report on the women aboard the Idahoe said the women were in bad shape when they returned to Nashville: “The majority are a homely, forlorn set of degraded creatures. Having been hurried on the boats by a military guard, many were without a change of wardrobe.” Nor were they properly fed after the first three days.
Bottom line: Prostitution during the Civil War is a fascinating topic to pursue!
Like most readers, I have my habits. In the service of exposing my readers to a wider perspective, I have interviewed Christina Cox, fellow book lover, about a recent read she enjoyed: Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly.
As a child, I dreamed of having a job where I could read children’s and middle-grade literature all day. Granted, I don’t get to do it all day, but one amazing perk of my job is I get to read over some wonderful new literature coming from that genre!
Most recently, I picked up Hello, Universe, the 2018 Newbery Award winner. Folks, this book is fantastic. I can absolutely see why Kelly won the award. The book follows four characters: Virgil, Valencia, Kaori, and Chet, all of whom have varied personalities and backgrounds. Their stories collide when Chet, the neighborhood bully, plays a prank on Virgil that will change the course of all of their lives. See its description on Goodreads (I’ve deleted spoilers!):
In one day, four lives weave together in unexpected ways. Virgil Salinas is shy and kindhearted and feels out of place in his loud and boisterous Filipino family. Valencia Somerset, who is deaf, is smart, brave, and secretly lonely, and loves everything about nature. Kaori Tanaka is a self-proclaimed psychic, whose little sister Gen is always following her around. And Chet Bullens wishes the weird kids would just act normal so that he can concentrate on basketball. They aren’t friends—at least not until Chet pulls a prank that puts Virgil and his pet guinea pig in danger. This disaster leads Kaori, Gen, and Valencia on an epic quest to find the missing Virgil. Through luck, smarts, bravery, and a little help from the universe, a rescue is performed, a bully is put in his place, and friendship blooms.
One of my favorite tropes (is it a trope?) in books is when multiple storylines finally converge into one and something clicks with the reader. The best example I’ve ever seen—not just in children’s literature, but in all of the books I’ve read—is Holes by Louis Sachar. Hello, Universe has a more low-key way of converging storylines (and it’s not a surprise it happens—read the dust jacket!), but it’s still satisfying in a way that I’m sure will delight its young readers.
Don’t just take it from me; there are so many starred reviews of this book that it’s hard to pick just one quote. Booklist and Kirkus are among its starred reviewers, which is a huge accomplishment.
Bottom line: Hello, Universe is a delightful book for lovers of children’s and middle-grade fiction. Check it out!
It’s important for writers to practice their craft and to set aside a little time every day (or every week) to do so. But people can’t write if they don’t read—especially within their genres. Have you taken a look to see which books are trending or bestsellers in your genre? If not, I’ve put together some lists for you. The lists on which these books show up are in parentheses next to their titles. The books are listed in no particular order.
Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vandereh (Amazon)
I’ve always read—of course. But I never got involved with Goodreads till 2018. And guess what? It’s great!
I got involved by declaring a reading goal for the year. I figured 52 was a good number. In the event, I read 118 books last year. Who knew?
Among other things, Goodreads tell me is who I read the most—not something I ever paid attention to. But going forward, I’ll check out those top authors for anything they have published recently. Goodreads also allows one to check other aspects of one’s reading activity.
Looking at my reading in review, a couple of things I sort-of knew became absolutely clear. (1) My preferred escapist reading is Regency romance, especially Jane Austin fan fiction. (2) When I latch onto a writer, I read everything, whole series, in order.
At Goodreads, you can see what your friends are reading, rate books you have read, get involved in discussion groups, follow specific authors, and so much more! Among other things, Goodreads will tell you which books READERS choose as the best in various genres.
Check out Goodreads for yourself! Are you already using it? Let’s connect!
VL: I’m delighted that Heather Weidner agreed to an interview. Her most recent publication, “Digging Up Dirt,” appears in To Fetch a Thief. In addition, Heather has published two mystery novels and numerous short stories—and dogs show up frequently!
VL: Is the dog in your story in To Fetch a Thief based at all on your dog?
HW: It is. It’s based on my little female JRT Disney. She’s a bundle of energy, a great companion, and she always likes to explore outside. Thankfully, she’s not dug up anything strange.
VL: Disney is definitely cute! I can understand why you would want to put her in a story. But how did you come up with the actual plot for “Digging Up Dirt”?
HW: My husband is a realtor, and people are always leaving things in houses when they move out. That gave me the idea for the random things (that might not be so random) in the story.
VL: No need for a spoiler alert, but I will say I admired the variety of things left behind and how you tied them together. But back to your passion—I don’t think passion is too strong a word—for dogs. Do any of your other stories (or future stories) involve a canine companion?
HW: They do. In my Delanie Fitzgerald Mystery series, my sassy private investigator has a partner, Duncan Reynolds, and Duncan’s best pal is Margaret, the English bulldog. She’s a brown and white log with legs. She has two speeds, slow and napping. But she likes treats, and she’s a great companion.
I’m also working on another cozy mystery, and there is another Jack Russell Terrier in it. Her name is Bijou.
VL: While you are producing stories involving dogs, what do you do with your actual dogs?
HW: There are two dog beds in my office on either side of my desk. If they aren’t roughhousing, then they’re napping.
VL: Most writers are voracious readers. What types of books do you read?
HW: I love all kinds of mysteries, thrillers, history, and biography.
VL: What are you reading now?
HW: I just finished John Grisham’s The Reckoning, and now I’m reading Lee Child’s Past Tense.
VL: What’s your favorite book or movie that has an animal as a central character? Why?
HW: My early favorites were Charlotte’s Web and Where the Red Fern Grows. I have always loved animal stories, and even today, I tend to read mysteries that have pet sidekicks. My favorite mystery authors who include pets are Bethany Blake, Janet Evanovich, Krista Davis, and Libby Klein.
VL: What’s in your “To Be Read” (TBR) pile right now?
HW: I have three TBR piles right now. One’s on my night stand. I have one on a bookcase, and there’s another downstairs in the den. There are always more books than I have time to read. Most of the books in all three piles are mysteries and thrillers. There are a few biographies in the pile.
VL: Based on the locations of your TBR piles, I could probably guess at the answer to this next question, but I’ll ask anyway. Where is your favorite place to read (or write)? Why?
HW: I can read just about anywhere. At home, I like reading on my deck in the early mornings. At night, I like reading in bed with two snuggly Jack Russell Terriers.
As for the writing part of your question, I tend to be a binge writer. At home, I write in my office or on the deck. But I tend to write or proofread whenever I get a free moment, so it could be at lunch at work or in the dentist’s waiting room.
VL: What’s next for you?
HW: I am working on the third novel in the Delanie Fitzgerald series. It’s called Glitter, Glam, and Contraband. I am also working on a new cozy mystery set in Charlottesville, Virginia. I had a nonfiction piece accepted in the Sisters in Crime book marketing anthology, Promophobia, and that will be out next year, along with a short story, “Art Attack,” in the Deadly Southern Charm: A Lethal Ladies Mystery Anthology.
VL: You clearly have a lot going on! Thank you for taking time for this interview.
VL: Thank you, Heather! Congratulations on all you have done so far. No doubt we will see more of your writing in the future, especially Delaney Fitzgerald. Learn more about Heather Weidner below.
Heather Weidner’s short stories appear in the Virginia is for Mysteries series and 50 Shades of Cabernet. Secret Lives and Private Eyes and The Tulip Shirt Murders are her novels in the Delanie Fitzgerald series. Her novella “Diggin’ up Dirt” appears in To Fetch a Thief.
She is a member of Sisters in Crime – Central Virginia, Guppies, and James River Writers.
Originally from Virginia Beach, Heather has been a mystery fan since Scooby Doo and Nancy Drew. She lives in Central Virginia with her husband and a pair of Jack Russell terriers.
Heather earned her BA in English from Virginia Wesleyan University and her MA in American literature from the University of Richmond. Through the years, she has been a cop’s kid, technical writer, editor, college professor, software tester, and IT manager. She blogs regularly with the Pens, Paws, and Claws authors.