Book Review, The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave is a beautifully-written, detail-rich, atmospheric historical novel. Though the story’s setting in 1617 Finnmark couldn’t be more different than that of the 21st century, grief, worry, family, religion, curiosity, power, accusations, betrayal, and love are timeless. I wanted to delve deeper into characters’ motivations and personalities as well as find out the thing that makes us turn the pages–what happens next? I only have one critique. The portion of the book which describes historical events might have been placed before the first chapter. Knowing the research done ahead of time would give this novel even more gravitas.

Hon, have you read this book? What did you think of it?

The Mercies Book Review

After a storm has killed off all the island’s men, two women in a 1600s Norwegian coastal village struggle to survive against both natural forces and the men who have been sent to rid the community of alleged witchcraft.

Finnmark, Norway, 1617. Twenty-year-old Maren Bergensdatter stands on the craggy coast, watching the sea break into a sudden and reckless storm. Forty fishermen, including her brother and father, are drowned and left broken on the rocks below. With the menfolk wiped out, the women of the tiny Northern town of Vardø must fend for themselves. 

Three years later, a sinister figure arrives. Absalom Cornet comes from Scotland, where he burned witches in the northern isles. He brings with him his young Norwegian wife, Ursa, who is both heady with her husband’s authority and terrified by it. In Vardø, and in Maren, Ursa sees something she has never seen before: independent women. But Absalom sees only a place untouched by God and flooded with a mighty evil. 

As Maren and Ursa are pushed together and are drawn to one another in ways that surprise them both, the island begins to close in on them with Absalom’s iron rule threatening Vardø’s very existence. 

Inspired by the real events of the Vardø storm and the 1620 witch trials, The Mercies is a feminist story of love, evil, and obsession, set at the edge of civilization.

Goodreads

Quotes from The Mercies

“I remember once when runes gave you comfort, when sailors came to my father to cast bones and tell them of their time to come. They are a language, Maren. Just because you do not speak it doesn’t make it devilry.”

“But now she knows she was foolish to believe that evil existed only out there. It was here, among them, walking on two legs, passing judgement with a human tongue.” 

“This story is about people, and how they lived; before why and how they died became what defined them.” 

Goodreads
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Kids Kindness Project + Picture Book

I had the opportunity to meet art director and author/illustrator Ann Koffsky when I attended Highlights Foundation “Jewish Symposium 2022: An In-Community Experience for Jewish Creatives” in October. She wrote the adorable picture book What’s In Tuli’s Box? When I read it, I knew just how I wanted to tie it in with a preschool class project.

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, our theme was Kindness. Our project? Tzedakah boxes! Prevalent in Jewish homes, Tzedakah boxes collect extra coins to be donated to those in need. What an important lesson, in addition to a hands-on, tactile activity, for preschoolers.

The children painted glue on containers, chose colors of tissue paper, and stuck the tissue paper to the gluey containers. They practiced dropping coins in the coin slots, listened it jingle, and discussed the kind acts that they–even as young as they are–can do.

Tzedakah is the Hebrew word for philanthropy and charity. It is a form of social justice in which donors benefit from giving as much or more than the recipients. So much more than a financial transaction, tzedakah builds trusting relationships and includes contributions of time, effort, and insight.

Learning to Give

Review of What’s In Tuli’s Box

In this charm­ing pic­ture book for young chil­dren, Ann D. Koff­sky presents the con­cept of tzedakah through the char­ac­ters of a kit­ten and her moth­er. With kinet­ic images and bright col­ors, chil­dren learn that a sim­ple box pro­vides not only an oppor­tu­ni­ty to climb and play, but is also a means to con­tribute to char­i­ty. The book’s sim­ple text mim­ics the way a child learns from her par­ents about an impor­tant mitzvah.

For par­ents and care­givers con­sid­er­ing the most effec­tive way to intro­duce the con­cept, Tuli the kit­ten pro­vides one answer: con­crete expe­ri­ences and few abstrac­tions. Tuli is as active as a tod­dler, and just as focused on explor­ing her world. Koff­sky begins with Tuli becom­ing inter­est­ed in a box labeled tzedakah. Nei­ther this nor its slit for deposit­ing a coin means any­thing to her. Through touch­ing, push­ing, and lis­ten­ing, she dis­cov­ers the box’s phys­i­cal qual­i­ties, while her moth­er offers more infor­ma­tion. The box is not a toy, she comes to find, although the clink­ing sound of a coin drop­ping would seem to sug­gest that it is.

Koff­sky com­bines feline and human char­ac­ter­is­tics with sub­tle humor. While the char­ac­ters look like real cats, their facial expres­sions of curios­i­ty and affec­tion, cou­pled with the mother’s pur­ple pock­et­book, add a dif­fer­ent visu­al ele­ment to the sto­ry. Gen­tle expla­na­tions from Tuli’s moth­er con­firm what the kit­ten has learned, but also extend the pos­si­bil­i­ties. Tuli is final­ly ready to hear that the coins are meant to help those in need. As moth­er and child rest their heads against one anoth­er, young read­ers fin­ish the book with a sense of sat­is­fac­tion. Tuli’s ener­getic activ­i­ty has become a path to empa­thy, and to the reward of her mother’s pride and love.

Emily Schneider for The Jewish Book Council

Times Square Ball Drop on New Year’s Eve

Guess what’s now crossed off my bucket list?!

Watching the Times Square Ball Drop live on New Year’s Eve!

Watching the Ball Drop in person wasn’t actually on my list. The thought of being squished in a giant crowd is not my cup of tea. Every year as I watch the Ball Drop on t.v, I wonder why anyone would want to wait for hours on end to be in Times Square whether it’s clear, raining or snowing. To confirm that this was not something I ever wanted to do, I found myself in Times Square a bunch of year ago at the end of December. Cousins and our daughters got together to see a matinee and, though I’m not claustrophobic, I couldn’t get out of the packed-with-people streets fast enough. Hubby and I agreed that the only way we’d go to Manhattan on New Year’s Eve was if we had reservations at a restaurant near the festivities. This year, an opportunity came up.

Hubby found a promotion through United Airlines Mileage Plus and Visa Lifestyle Events–heavy hors d’oeuvres, open bar, dancing, and more at Charlie Palmer Steak. We stayed overnight at the beautifully appointed Conrad hotel. United Airlines threw in an Uber credit. We booked it!

On December 31, 2022, we drove into the city and passed thousands of people waiting in line. Security in the area was intense, so we had to show our hotel confirmation and restaurant reservations to be allowed through metal barriers.

We finally joined the New Year’s Eve party at Charlie Palmer’s where the restaurant was decked out in a 1920’s themes, flappers danced along with the guests, a woman performed acrobatics on an aerial ring, blackjack tables were bustling (people played for fun, not real winnings), a line formed to take photos at the photo booth, friendly people were ready to welcome in a new year, and there were even swag bags.

About 11:40 pm, the entire restaurant–patrons and the event and kitchen and staff–emptied into the closed-off street. There was the ball! We counted down from 10 to 1. Fireworks erupted immediately after. It was very exciting!

Hon, wishing you unexpected opportunities and happy surprises in 2023!

Book Review, Little Weirds by Jenny Slate

I recently finished reading a strange, delightful, searching and insightful book by American actress and stand-up comedian, Jenny Slate. Slate is the brain-child behind Marcel the Shell, which is just about the most endearing anthropomorphized character I’ve ever seen. Her book was like Marcel–a tiny shell with a large voice; an odd outlook with mainstream problems; interruptions in thought with concentrated musings; a lost soul who finds a home inside herself.

I kept reading Little Weirds to find out which bizarre thoughts would come out of Slate’s mind and to hear the unique way in which she expresses those thoughts. Slate uses words to create her own language and to illustrate how she views the world.

Hon, have you read Little Weirds? What did you think?

You may “know” Jenny Slate from her Netflix special, Stage Fright, as the creator of Marcel the Shell, or as the star of “Obvious Child.” But you don’t really know Jenny Slate until you get bonked on the head by her absolutely singular writing style. To see the world through Jenny’s eyes is to see it as though for the first time, shimmering with strangeness and possibility.

As she will remind you, we live on an ancient ball that rotates around a bigger ball made up of lights and gasses that are science gasses, not farts (don’t be immature). Heartbreak, confusion, and misogyny stalk this blue-green sphere, yes, but it is also a place of wild delight and unconstrained vitality, a place where we can start living as soon as we are born, and we can be born at any time. In her dazzling, impossible-to-categorize debut, Jenny channels the pain and beauty of life in writing so fresh, so new, and so burstingly alive, we catch her vision like a fever and bring it back out into the bright day with us, where everything has changed.

Amazon

Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt, Review and Interview with author Kathleen Wilford

Kathleen Wilford, one of my critique partners, can now say her middle-grade historical novel is published! The story is funny, emotional, full of interesting, historical details and, most of all, Cabby is engaging!

All credit for this review and interview are due to middle-grade author Darlene Beck-Jacobson and her blog Gold From The Dust: Bringing Stories To Life.

Kathleen Wilford’s debut CABBY POTTS, DUCHESS OF DIRT (Little Press) is a delightful story set in the 1870’s during the migration of Americans to the prairies of the Midwest for homesteading. Here is my review:

This historical fiction story set in the 1870’s, is a fast-paced trip to the days of homesteading on the Kansas prairies. When her parents force her to work at grand Ashford Manor, 12-year-old Cabby Potts will do anything to escape, including playing matchmaker between her sister and the rich young lord of the manor. If it succeeds, her scheme will save her family’s struggling homestead. If it fails? Cabby can’t even think about that.

Can Cabby find the courage to stand up for her family, a Native American friend, and an entire community threatened by land-grabbers?

The author does a wonderful job grounding the reader in time and place with period details and appropriate phrasing and language of the era. “My brain buzzed like it was full of gnats” is one of many similes that feels fresh and original. The characters are well-rounded and engaging, making for a quick read. Readers will enjoy Cabby’s antics and feisty demeanor as she navigates the unfamiliar world of the wealthy. A highly recommended debut.

Darlene Beck-Jacobson

Thanks Darlene and Kathy for this interview!

What was your inspiration for Cabby Potts?

I ran across a book called Prairie Fever, by Peter Pagnamenta, and I was intrigued to learn about the British aristocracy’s fascination with the American West. Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt is based on the true story of Victoria, Kansas, an enclave of British aristocrats in the 1870’s. Victoria was designed as a “community of culture and refinement” where “the arts and graces of life” could be imported straight from London.

I couldn’t imagine a bigger culture clash than between the English nobility and hardscrabble American homesteaders. I pictured an outdoorsy 12-year-old girl forced to work as a housemaid at a grand English manor, and the character of Cabby was born. Trying to save her family’s struggling homestead, Cabby plays matchmaker between her pretty, romantic sister Emmeline and the rich young lord of Ashford Manor. What could go wrong with that scheme?

As an author of historical fiction myself, I was immediately drawn into the setting and era of the story. What drew you to writing historical fiction?

I love the way historical fiction immerses readers into a different world. All good fiction is immersive, but with historical fiction, the past comes alive in a fresh way. And there’s a serious side too: I believe that to understand where we ARE, we need to understand where we’ve BEEN. Non-fiction helps readers do that too, but fiction adds an important layer of empathy.

As for this particular era, 1870’s Kansas, I’ve always been fascinated by pioneer literature, from Willa Cather to Laura Ingalls Wilder. My life is so easy compared to women who endured life on lonely prairies, living in sod houses and struggling to keep themselves and their families alive.

Tell us a bit about your research process.

I like to begin with books that situate the time period I’m studying in a larger historical context. I follow that up with more specific books and then with primary sources. For Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt, I consulted homesteader journals, 1870’s editions of the Dodge City Times, an 1841 book by Dr. Samuel Sheldon Fitch called Diseases of the Chest (fascinating, trust me), Mrs. Beeton’s book on the duties of a housemaid . . . etc.! Since I work for Rutgers, I’m lucky enough to have access to the rich depth of primary materials owned by the university. I think primary sources are key not only to authentic details but to the language of the times.

Several experts also helped me with questions, and of course, Google is great for filling in details!

What amazing thing did you discover while writing?

How much time do we have?? I learned so many fascinating tidbits of information, many of which I couldn’t include in the book but would be happy to tell you about sometime. Some facts that DID make it into the book: people used to believe that walking on the prairie could cure consumption (tuberculosis)—housemaids were not allowed to whistle in the house—dried up buffalo dung was burned for fuel.

One fact that informed my book: fully half of all homesteaders didn’t make it and never “proved up” on their claims. We tend to romanticize homesteading on the prairies, but it was brutally difficult.

What message do you want young readers to take away from this story?

I hope kids will enjoy a funny, fast-paced story with lots of drama! Beyond that, I hoped to give readers a clearer picture of the homesteading life. Along with showing how difficult the life was, I wanted readers to see how race and class prejudices infiltrated even supposedly egalitarian rural America. Cabby wakes up to this prejudice as she forms a friendship with Eli, a half-Kiowa boy. She finally learns to use her “intemperate tongue” to stand up for him, her family, and her whole community. In Cabby Potts, I tried to portray a funny, feisty girl growing into more awareness of her world, with all its imperfections. She learns to use her voice to make that world a better place, something I hope we all can do.

Kathleen Wilford, @kathwilford

Book Review, The Lending Library by Aliza Fogelson

Cousin Connection

When one needs writing/publishing advice, who should one go to? First, I checked in with fellow NJSCBWI writer-friends. Shout to Laurie Wallmark who has written many women in STEM biographies in addition to Dino Pajama Party: A Bedtime Book, Donna Cangelosi whose debut picture book Mr. Roger’s Gift of Music launches Aug. 2022, and Ariel Bernstein who has written many humorous books including We Love Fishing. Then I connected with my cousin, writer/editor/novelist Aliza Fogelson. Aliza shared her publishing journey, listened to my concerns, and gave me honest and insightful advice. Thanks, Aliza!

I just finished reading Aliza’s adult novel The Lending Library, and the more I read, the more I wanted to find out what was going to happen to Dodie, her love life, friends, family, and the library she created in her home. Issues weren’t easily solvable, real-life emotions such as grief and longing for a child were explored, and the main character actually worked (as opposed to many stories/tv shows/movies where I wonder why isn’t anyone working?). Aliza’s descriptions of food highlighted one of Dodie’s passions and added–ahem–flavor to the story.

For fans of Jane Green and Loretta Nyhan, a heartwarming debut novel about a daydreamer who gives her town, and herself, an amazing gift: a lending library in her sunroom while confronting an even higher stakes, life-changing, decision.

When the Chatsworth library closes indefinitely, Dodie Fairisle loses her sanctuary. How is a small-town art teacher supposed to cope without the never-ending life advice and enjoyment that books give her? Well, when she’s as resourceful and generous as Dodie, she turns her sunroom into her very own little lending library.

At first just a hobby, this lit lovers’ haven opens up her world in incredible ways. She knows books are powerful, and soon enough they help her forge friendships between her zany neighbors―and attract an exciting new romance.

But when the chance to adopt an orphaned child brings Dodie’s secret dream of motherhood within reach, everything else suddenly seems less important. Finding herself at a crossroads, Dodie must figure out what it means to live a full, happy life. If only there were a book that could tell her what to do…

Amazon.com

In an interview with Christine L. Henderson, Reading and Writing Books, I liked this Q and A because, hon, I spend a lot of time writing and revising!

What is the best advice you’ve been given about writing or that you’ve learned that you would like to pass along? 

If at all possible, write for pleasure—for your imagined reader and for yourself—instead of worrying about whether your book will ultimately be published or sell well. When inspiration strikes, follow it and write without editing or criticizing what you’ve written. Let that come later. If you can enjoy the process, the time you spent will likely feel worthwhile to you and you will learn a lot about writing whether or not your manuscript ends up as a published book.

Aliza Fogelson

Calling Dibs, Jinx, Shotgun, and Other Things No One Knows the Rules To by Theresa Julian

Humor Expert At It Again!

Theresa Julian’s newest book, Calling Dibs, Jinx, Shotgun, and Other Things No One Knows the Rules to is a natural third book in her series with the The Joke Machine and 101 Hilarious Pranks and Practical Jokes. Like the Joke and Pranks books, illustrated by Pat Lewis, Calling Dibs, illustrated by Kim Griffin, is a funny, punny guide on “who gets dibs on the last slice of pizza” and “who’s ‘it’ when two people call ‘not it’ at the same time.” The book was written with 8-12 year-olds in mind, but anyone who wants to connect with kids and nostalgic adults will laugh-out-loud at Theresa’s rules and game challenges.

Theresa, critique-partner, writer-friend, and fellow triplets-mom, is getting good press! Time for Kids magazine featured her “How to Write Funny” advice and Highlights for Children Magazine asked her to share some “tips and tricks of the trade.” So cool!

Published June 29, 2020

Connect with Theresa on Twitter @Theresa_Julian, Instagram tm_julian, TikTok @thefunnyu

House of Many Colors: Casa Vicens, Barcelona

Image source: Accessable

Barcelona is the city of Gaudí.

The first place we visited in Barcelona was Gaudi’s first project. Casa Vicens was designed and built between 1883 and 1885 as a summer house for the Vicens family. Antoni Gaudi i Cornet (1852-1926) “is one of the most noteworthy figures in universal architecture.” The house is a marvel even before you enter, with its wrought iron palm leaf gates, ceramic tiled walls, and interesting doorways. The garden is planted in colors that coordinate with the house.

Gaudi was lauded for “his support for traditional architecture, along with his exceptionally ground-breaking genius both in terms of shapes and the building and structural systems of his projects.” He designed buildings where “the construction and ornamentation are integrated in such a way that one cannot be understood without the other.” Casa Vicens was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 2005. ( https://casavicens.org/casa-vicens/)

Have you been to Barcelona? What did you think of the Gaudi architecture?

Palm leaf fence, ceramic-tiled walls, and unusually shaped doorway.

Wall of ceramic sunflowers and leaves.

Lantern with colorful disks in entranceway filled with texture, colors and patterns.

Vivid blue arched ceilings and stained glass windows.

Cool perspective and view of cherub sitting on a ledge.

Meaning and Miró , The Smallest Noise and Constellations of Sounds

Joan Miró, gouache, c.1934

Last in series of posts from Fundació Joan Miró in Barcelona.

I found many of Miró’s works intriguing for their artistry and for their meanings. As a writer whose Kidlit language is lyrical and seemingly simple, but actually layered with emotion and action, I appreciate knowing the thoughts that inspired the process.

When it comes to canvases saturated with one color, I have a harder time connecting to the work, but the meaning behind “Landscape” felt different–it’s like us as individuals in our lives or us as humans in the universe.

“Letters and Numbers Attracted by a Spark(V)” called out to me. Letters float in the sky and look down on water and earth. I wonder,

Do the letters which form sentences and tell stories that are derived from my imagination with the goal of resonating with children ever going to get a chance to come to life?

The depth of meaning in Joan Miró’s work springs from a desire to capture the essence of human existence. On a personal level, this desire also implied an affirmation of identity that arose from Miró’s strong connection with the land–with Mont-roig, the original source of his creativity. ‘It is the land, the land. It is stronger than I. The fantastic mountains have a very important role in my life, and so does the sky. It is the clash between these forms within my soul, rather than the vision itself. In Mont-roig it is the force that nurtures me, the force.’

Excerpts from Fundació Joan Miró

Landscape, c. 1968

“‘Silence is a denial of noise – but the smallest noise in the midst of silence becomes enormous,’ said Miró. As the only referential element, a blurry point acquires a powerful presence, but also makes the space around it resonate. Therefore the point reinforces the presence of the space while also emphasizing the weave, the material of the canvas.” (https://www.fmirobcn.org/en/)

Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona, Part 2

Joan Miró

At the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona, I found the sculptures and enormous wall hangings as intriguing as the paintings. The museum has several outside areas as well as interactive art and a place for young children to explore and build. Kudos to including the kiddos! Just like the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, I’d return to the Foundation if I traveled to Barcelona again.

Miró insisted that art ought to be an extension of life and part of life itself…His increasing knowledge of ceramics and sculpture led him to cultivate some of these techniques using more weather-resistant materials…Beginning in the 1960’s he was particularly prolific sculpting in bronze. In Miró’s view, both sculpture and ceramics were closely bound to nature…Landscape claimed the last word: out in the open, his pieces interact with their surroundings and, to some extent, give back to the land that which has always belonged to it.

Excerpts from the Fundació Joan Miró

Hon, if you ever go, I highly recommend bringing headphones so that you can listen to explanations of pieces throughout the museum via your phone.

“Lovers playing with almond blossom,” resin, c.1975, These sculptures are models for the enormous sculptures displayed at La Defense, Paris.” Of the two people, “One is captured as a tall cyclinder with yellow and reddish regions, with a blue ball shape on top. The round blue shape is decorated with pre-historic style abstract shapes which would deliver symbolic meaning to this intriguing piece. There is then a second tall construction, with a pointed blue shape that leans away, though with a red claw-like feature which is placed around half way up. It could perhaps be a hand reaching out to catch the ball which sits on the other figure…” (joanmiropaitings.org)