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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Easy DIY Kids Activity in Honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Image source: thespruce.com

Last year, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, my preschool class created Cheerios Birdfeeders. The kids enjoyed stringing Cheerios on pipe cleaners, hanging them up outside of our classroom, and watching for birds, but guess what? The birds didn’t eat them! (Maybe we should have used Honeynut Cheerios?–lol)

Instead, this week with Kindness as our theme, we’re going to create a different DIY Kids Activity–Pine Cone Birdfeeders.

Texture, scent, math, and fine motor skills were explored with the pinecones I collected in the Fall. You know what’s fun? Making pinecone prints by covering them in paint and then rolling them on paper. You never know what patterns will emerge.

Steps to Make Pinecone Birdfeeders:

1) Tie yarn or twine around pinecones.

2) Spread Sunbutter over pinecones (no peanut butter allowed in school, although pb, almond butter, or similar will do).

3) Roll sticky pinecones in pumpkin seeds (birdseed, sunflower seeds, etc. can be used).

4) Hang in bushes and trees.

5) Wash hands!

Tips on creating Pinecone Birdfeeders from The Spruce:

  • Work seeds in between the rows of scales.
  • Hang in cool, shaded area so peanut butter (or whichever butter is used–sun, almond, etc) doesn’t melt.
  • “If you want to make multiple pine cone bird feeders at once but don’t want to hang them out simultaneously, they can easily be frozen for several weeks. The feeders do not need to be thawed before hanging, and freezing them first can help them stay firm in warmer temperatures.”

I’ll let you know what the birds think of them!

Pinecone birdfeeder made by a preschooler.
Image source, BBSMI

This poem by Edgar Albert Guest is thought-provoking and meaningful.

Craft Cocktails & Mocktails, Elegant Lifestyles Magazine, December 2022

Craft Cocktails & Mocktails

For my second article in Elegant Lifestyle Magazine’s Winter 2022 issue, I was tasked with finding fun drinks for a variety of holidays. I admit it, hon, I didn’t know what making a craft cocktail entailed, and researched ingredients and instructions on how to create simple syrups before deciding which drinks to include. Craft Cocktails & Mocktails features recipes for: Cranberry Old Fashioned, Apple Cider Fake-Tini, The First Fruits Cocktail, Bread & Oil, and Cotton Candy Mocktails. Guess which drink sounds the best to me? Hands down…Bread & Oil. Why? It includes jelly doughnut holes!

Good things definitely come in small packages when the “gift” is made with fresh ingredients, tailored to the holiday, and presented in a unique and imaginative way. Craft cocktails, poured one glass at a time, usually include four or five ingredients, homemade syrups, freshly squeezed juices, and niche liqueurs. In a hectic season, creating and serving flavorful upscale drinks is a way to slow down and drink in the moment.

Naomi Gruer

Pretty Party Pieces: Your Guide to Fashion for Festive Occasions, Elegant Lifestyles Magazine, December 2022

Pretty Party Pieces: Your Guide to Fashion for Festive Occasions is the first of two articles I wrote for the December issue of Elegant Lifestyles Magazine. Writing this fashion article put me in the mood for holiday get-togethers and, now that’s it the end of December, I’m happy to say I went to a bunch! The directors of the pre-school hosted a Chanukah dinner, my niece and her husband hosted a family Chanukah brunch, we’ve been out to dinner, the owner of The Red Balloon treated us to a holiday dinner, and we’ve had company here. The best? Visiting our dear friends, their children and extended family on Christmas Eve–think trivia games, Left-Right-Center, and tracking Santa on an app–lol!

Usually, New Year’s Eve is mellow as Hubby and I act as chaperones for our youngest daughter’s annual NYE party. She’s having a party, but this year we’re changing it up. Hubby has planned a “night on the town,” and we’ll be dining and dancing at a restaurant overlooking Times Square! We’re staying in Manhattan overnight, so no need to worry about driving back.

Hon, what should I wear? I better check my article!

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

Transitional Dressing, Elegant Lifestyles Magazine, September 2022

FASHION FLUIDITY IS THE KEY

Though I’m not ready to store my summer clothes just yet, my latest article published in Elegant Lifestyles Magazine is all about transitional dressing–what to wear when the weather is still-summer one day and entering-autumn another. Then there are the days that combine both!

Many years, when heading to our annual Pick-Your-Own-Pumpkin-and-Hay-Ride-Day at Ort Farms in Long Valley, we’d dress for crisp air and then shed layers as the afternoon sun warmed up the fields. We loved deciding which pumpkins would make the best jack-o-lanterns, smell the sweet hay, pet the adorable farm animals, and take home freshly baked apple cider doughnuts. The best part? Spending time together as a family and seeing other families doing the same.

Happy early autumn, hon.


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

Sweet Summer Style, Elegant Lifestyles Magazine, June 2022

Summer Fashion 2022 is all about bright, candy colors.

As soon as I turned in Sweet Summer Style for Elegant Lifestyles Magazine’s June 2022 issue, I noticed brightly colored, braided, quilted, and puffy sandals and bags everywhere. You know I love a theme, puns and wordplay, so I took sweet and ran with it: “Clothes Dress Up summer in Jelly Bean Brights,” “Shoes Loosen Up in Gummy Bear Flavors,” “Bags Act as Arm Candy in Swedish Fish Colors,” and “Sunglasses Shine in Shades of Ice Cream.”

Personally, I’m a big fan of wearing all white in the summer and accessorizing with a pop of color. Not everyone is a fan of wearing all white. I had a funny interaction with colleagues at the preschool this spring. For Purim–the “Halloween” of Jewish holidays–the preschool director decided the staff would dress up as Tootsie Pop lollipops. She ordered Tootsie Pop t-shirts and requested we wear white pants since Tootsie Pop sticks are white.

Me: “Sure. Do you want jeans, slacks or cargo pants?”

Teacher A: “I don’t own white pants.”

Me: “How do you not own white pants?!”

Teacher A: Makes a face at me and says, “You can wear white pants. I cannot!”

Teacher A turns to Teacher B: “Do you own white pants?”

Teacher B: “Definitely not!”

Teacher B tells director their “sticks” will not be white.

Director: “You don’t own white jeans, at least?”

Teachers A & B: “No!”

My co-teacher enters our classroom.

Me: “Can you believe Teachers A and B don’t own white pants?!”

Co-Teacher: “I don’t own white pants, either.”


Hon, which camp are you in? Love white pants or would never wear them?!


Rhyme and Reason, The History and Symbolism of a Wedding Day Tradition, Elegant Lifestyles Magazine, April-May 2022

Where does “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” come from?

Right before the pandemic caused everything to shut down in March 2020, I’d written two articles for Elegant Lifestyles Magazine: one was an in-depth, 6-7 page feature about a fundraiser/showhouse called Mansion in May which included interviews and photos of custom-designed rooms; the other was a shorter bridal article about the history of the saying, “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.”

Though Mansion in May transformed into Splendor in September, ELS was temporarily shuttered and my articles never ran. So, I was pleasantly surprised when the editor of ELS (shout out to Kara Sibilia) included my bridal piece in the Spring 2022 issue. The topic is the saying, “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” which, it turns out, is based on superstitions surrounding evil spirits and fertility. The most interesting thing I learned?

‘Something blue’ is directly related to the Evil Eye jewelry we wear today. Though Evil Eye amulets dates back about 5,000 years, the earliest iterations of blue as the eye color were discovered in the Mediterranean in 1500 BC. Since blue eyes were a genetic rarity in that region, people possessing them were believed to be ‘uncannily proficient at bestowing the curse.’ Blue glass beads circulated around the world, and people wore their own Evil Eyes to deflect wicked stares. Brides traditionally wore blue garters to ward off, once again, the threat of infertility.

Naomi Gruer, Elegant Lifestyles Magazine.