Tues. Sept. 17: Anthology #ReaderExpansionChallenge

Many Bloody Returns: Tales of Birthdays With Bite. Edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Keller. NY: Ace Books. 2007.

September’s challenge is an anthology. I love anthologies, especially themed anthologies, because it introduces me to writers whose work I don’t know, and I get the chance to enjoy short pieces by writers whose work I do know.

This anthology is about vampires and birthdays. There are thirteen stories in it (which makes sense). They aren’t linked to each other, but they are each author’s unique take on the theme.

All the stories I read are interesting. I skipped one, because it was in present tense, and I don’t like prose in present tense. But I enjoyed the twelve I read.

My favorites, however, were:

“It’s My Birthday, Too” by Jim Butcher. It’s a Harry Dresden short story, exceptionally well done. It reminds me why I enjoy this series so much, and makes me want to go back and re-read the series in order.

“Grave-Robbed” by P.N. Elrod, featuring un-dead detective Jack Fleming. I wasn’t familiar with that series before, but this story makes me want to read more. Jack helps a young woman protect her widowed sister from a scheming medium who wants to steal her fortune.

“Blood Wrapped” by Tanya Huff was my introduction to her Smoke series, and I’m going to read the whole thing. Vampires outside of Vancouver? One of them the bastard son of Henry VIII who writes romance novels under a female pseudonym? Yeah, I’m in.

“Vampire Hours” by Elaine Viets. I’ve been reading all three of Elaine’s series over the past few weeks, and enjoy her writing. This isn’t tied to any of those series; it’s a stand-alone, and it’s lovely and touching, about a woman facing menopause and divorce in Fort Lauderdale.

It’s always wonderful to find new-to-you authors and then seek out more of their work. I had a great time with it.

What did you read this month? Leave the answer in the comments.

We reconvene on October 15. October’s theme is to read something Samhain (Halloween) related.

Happy reading!

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Tues. Aug. 20, 2019: The Secret In the Old Attic

 

Secret Old Attic

Reader Expansion Challenge August — THE SECRET IN THE OLD ATTIC.

It was difficult to pick a favorite book from childhood, because there were so many. I read all the time.

But I finally decided to re-read my very first Nancy Drew book, THE SECRET IN THE OLD ATTIC. This is the 1970 version, with the yellow spine. I bought it, along with THE MYSTERY OF THE 99 STEPS, with my allowance at a store called Mead’s Department Store on Greenwich Avenue. The books were $1.99 each.

It totally plays into the fantasy that I (and many of my friends) still have about wonderful finds in attic trunks and secret rooms. I’d completely forgotten that the main plot revolved around stolen music, and the subplot about black widow spiders and special formulas for fabric.

Nancy, as usual, can do anything. Bess and George were barely in the book, and Ned arrived at the end to break down a door. There was some caricature instead of character stuff with the way Effie the maid is drawn, and the villains.

I kept trying to remind myself that this is a middle-grade book; the characters won’t be as complex as other books. Plus, it’s a Strathmeyer Syndicate book — the Nancy Drew mysteries were comfort books for little white girls. Because Nancy didn’t let anything like sexism get in her way (and, in fact, depending on which ghost writer handled a particular volume, played against it), she made us believe we could do the same. Not just survive, but thrive and beat the bad guys.

I don’t remember a lot of diverse characters in the series as a whole. As I go back and re-read, I’m sure the racism and ethnic slurs will be more evident than they were when I was 8 and 10.

When people bring up those elements of the juvenile mystery fiction of the 20th century — Bobbsey Twins, Dana Girls, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Judy Bolton, Vicky Barr, Beverly Gray, Trixie Belden, etc. — I point out that these books were a snapshot of their times. Of the attitudes. The attitudes weren’t right then any more than they are now. Up until 2016, it was a reminder of the progress we’ve made, and a reminder of how much we still have to work. Sadly, we’re now moving backwards.

There are logistical lapses and a few times where I thought, “That didn’t make sense.” While I didn’t have the unbridled joy I felt the first time I read it, I still enjoyed it. And it was a definite encouragement for me to play with some of the tropes (attics, trunks, hidden rooms) in my own work. It was fun (I read it in about 90 minutes) while still being flawed.

And it’s sending me back to re-read (for the umpteenth time), one of my favorite books, Melanie Rehak’s GIRL SLEUTH: NANCY DREW AND THE WOMEN WHO CREATED HER. Several years ago, I wrote about that book, right here on Biblio Paradise.

September’s challenge is to read an anthology of short stories. We will reconvene here to share on September 17.

What was your favorite childhood re-read for this challenge? Leave your musings in the comments!

 

Tues. July 16, 2019: SAY UNCLE by Kay Ryan — #ReaderExpansionChallenge

 

Say Uncle. Kay Ryan. NY:Grove Press. 1991.

This month’s challenge was for poetry. I can’t write poetry worth a damn, but I love reading it.

Early in the month, I was blown away by Patty Seyburn’s THRESHOLD DELIVERY. However, I was paid to read it for a review site, so I couldn’t talk about it here. But seriously, it’s a brilliant book, go read it.

I thought about re-reading Sharon Olds or Jackie Kay. I’ve found all their work transformational. But part of the point of this month’s challenge was to read work by someone new-to-me.

I found Kay Ryan’s SAY UNCLE in the library. Ms. Ryan was a Library of Congress Poet Laureate.

I’m so glad I picked it up. The poems are energetic and delightful and funny and painful and powerful, all at once.

“The Museum of False Starts” could represent any creative project. “Crash” has so many things going on at so many levels in a short poem that it needs to be re-read multiple times, each one revealing another layer. “Say Uncle” is funny in a ha-ha-ow! kind of way.

Every poem has something dynamic and delightful about it.

I may have found it at the library, but I’m ordering my own copy to re-read often. And I’m searching for her other work now, too.

What did you read this month, and what was your response? Post in the comments, and we can share what we read.

Next month’s challenge is to re-read a favorite childhood book from your current perspective. We will reconvene here to discuss them on August 20th.

Fri. June 21: Signs of Life — #ReaderExpansionChallenge

Signs of Life by Deborah Brevoort. NY: Samuel French. 1990, 2007.

Hello, there, and I’m sorry this is up late. This has been a busy week. I’d planned to get ahead last weekend, but that didn’t happen.

Also, I changed my mind on the play about which I would write. The first one I read, I didn’t finish. Plays are short, so it’s rare not to finish. But the author broke one of the cardinal rules — he dictated the jobs of the director and designers, and designated every breath and gesture and inflection for the actors.

That’s an insulting thing to do to the creative team. Theatre is collaborative. Unless you are the director (and even if you are), the rest of the team has to have a say or there’s no point in working in this format.

So I put the play down and picked up this one.

I read a lot of plays, but the point of the Reader Expansion Challenge is to read authors you haven’t previously read, and Deborah Brevoort fit the bill. It won a contest, was workshopped in Banff, and had a couple of productions before it was published.

One of the reasons I love to read plays is because it allows me to engage my imagination in a different way than a novel does. A novel uses more description (in most cases) and chooses where to guide my eye. While a play has specifics and a more limited scope, because the protocol is to leave description and inflection to the rest of the creative team, and hint at it by specific placement and word choice, it allows my imagination more room to soar.

Only two characters, a couple determined to leave their life in a New Jersey trailer part and follow the omens sent by the stars (the ones in the sky, not those on the screen) to California. Odd and funny and poignant, it was a good read, and made me want to see it on stage. It was written to be deceptively simple, with plenty of subtext and room for actors and the director and designers to play. It was a lot of fun.

Reading a good play reminds me how much I love the theatre, and how happy I am that I had such a fulfilling career in it for decades.

Next month, the challenge is poetry. The date is Tuesday, July 16 — which just happens to be the full moon. I’m going to see if I can find a poet whose work is new to me, who writes about the moon!

What play did you read this month? How did it affect you?

 

Tuesday, May 21, 2019: IT SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME by Moira Hodgson. #ReadersExpansion Challenge

 

IT SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME: My Adventures in Life and Food. By Moira Hodgson. NY: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 2008.

This month’s choice was a nonfiction, food/art memoir. I read more fiction than non-fiction, and often, in nonfiction, I read books that pertain to whatever book I’m writing at the time.

As a cook and a traveler, I like to read about other kinds of cooking. Moira Hodgson’s memoir contains all of that. The daughter of a British diplomat, she grew up all over the world: Egypt, Sweden, Vietnam, Berlin, New York. Moira grew up adjusting to new locations, languages, and food, and used her innate curiosity and artist’s eye to learn as much as she could. When she finally moved to Greenwich Village and started writing cookbooks, moving into restaurant reviews made a lot of sense.

As most good cooks and good travel writers, Hodgson has an eye for sensory detail, and a sense of humor. Some of the places she lived and visited were familiar to me from my own travels; many were places I’d like to visit in the future, and her descriptions made me even more eager.

She finds the world an interesting place. Therefore, she is able to communicate that interest in good writing.

Recipes follow anecdotes, scattered throughout the book instead of lumped in the back. And her work history makes me long for the days when there were a plethora of interesting, engaged newspapers and magazines, instead of our current, bland conglomerate media empires.

The book is fun, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Her history starts earlier than mine, but it’s interesting to see where we overlap, and how we responded to the same events. Reading the book is like spending time with a new friend; someone I wanted to spend more time with, and get to know better. I may even try some of the recipes!

What did you read this month, and how did you feel about it? Please leave your response in the comments.

Next month’s challenge is to read a play — one for stage, not screen. Our rendezvous date is Tuesday, June 18.

Happy reading!

Special Guest: Heather Haven!

Circus redo-sepia9 photo copy

Buy Link

I’m so delighted that the amazing Heather Haven is my guest today. She kindly shared some of her process and inspiration for her latest release, MURDER UNDER THE BIG TOP.

Devon Ellington: What inspired you to write MURDER UNDER THE BIG TOP?

Heather Haven: All my life I remember my mother showing me pictures, costumes, and souvenirs from her time at the circus. She was a person who liked to savor her memories of people and incidents. Her stories about what brought her to join the circus as a twenty-year old with her two gorgeous, screwball pals, Margie and Doris, were hilarious, never ceasing to thrill and entertain me. Each time she described her stint there, she would whip out a picture from what seemed to be an endless supply of black and white photos. Even though I wasn’t a part of it in reality, it made me feel as if I was there, experiencing it all. One day when I was all grown up and already writing the Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, my eye caught one photo out of a pile of dozens. It was a picture of her dressed for the show sitting atop a curled elephant’s trunk. She was looking down at a clown whose back was to the camera. I was intrigued and picked the photo up. I remember thinking how odd it was I hadn’t noticed this amazing picture before.

I turned to Mom and said, “Who is this clown? What’s his name?” I knew she was like a walking catalogue of the times, remembering names and stories from long gone.

But this time, she took the fading photo from my hand and shook her head. “I can’t remember his name. I don’t know what happened to him.”

Well! Never say that to a writer. I decided then and there I was going to make up a story about my mom and that clown. Of course, as I write mysteries, something dastardly would happen to him. On paper. What happened to him in real life, we’ll never know.

DE: How did you meld fiction and fact? Was it hard to move away from “this is how it really happened” in order to make it more dramatic for the story?
HH: This was the hardest novel I’ve ever written because I was combining fact and fiction, all wrapped around my mother. She was beautiful, inside and out, and I wanted to do right by that part of her life. In my mind’s eye, she was my ‘muse’, which only added to the pressure. While the story, itself, is totally made up, I want to stress that the day-to-day existence at Ringling Brothers’ is true to life and very factual. That’s why I call this a documentary fiction. I not only used her memories and written accounts, but did a lot of research. It took me six long years but I made construction mistakes, too. Initially, I wrote the story in third person. It didn’t work. Too stilted. So I change the entire work to first person. Jeri Deanne talking, thinking, feeling, reacting, upfront and real. It was a big job. Actually, more tedious than big. That took me another eight months. Then my editor decided past tense wasn’t working. Not immediate enough. So back to the keyboard. Once again, I changed the entire novel beginning to end, going from past tense to present tense. That was when it leapt out at me it should have a short-fuse time period. 48-hours. Become a real thriller. But then the framing I’d used for the story, a prologue and epilogue, didn’t fit. Out, out, out. But I was getting used to total rewrites, never being done. Then one day everything worked. Just like that. It wasn’t an easy journey, but a fulfilling one.


DE: What was the most unusual nugget you came across in your research?

HH: I discovered that the country – our country – was completely freaked out by the war. German subs off the Atlantic and Japanese subs off the Pacific. American service men and women dying on foreign soil. I had no idea there was such rampant fear looming within the populace and with such cause. Most people from the 50s on never talked about it. Certainly no one I knew talked about the effects of the war on them. But it was absolutely there. Do a little digging and you find the early 40s were terrifying times for most Americans. The second world war became very real for me when I read the accounts of what people went through.

DE: What assumptions about circus life changed as you researched and wrote?
HH: It was a world unto itself. And it was an escape from WWII, much as the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies were during the depression. Remember, the depression only happened a few years before. America was already tired and worn out from that. Adding a world war to the mix was much more than the average person could handle. Ringling Brothers’ Circus offered them an afternoon’s respite. And it was huge! The sheer volume of the circus was almost overwhelming. They traveled with fifty-one elephants, over two thousand animals, eighteen hundred people. It also carried housing, food, costumes, everything to be completely self-contained. It was a traveling city, bigger than many towns they played. Any circus today pales in comparison. Seriously.


DE: What did you have to cut out that you wish you could have kept?

HH: Not one blasted thing. I kept everything in I wanted to keep in. I compromised on nothing.

DE: How did the experience of writing this book differ from your other books?
HH: I put everything I had into this book. I understand completely how authors can devote their lives to words. The power of them! And remember, it was an homage of sorts to Mom. That’s why I was delighted the novel won the Silver IPPY for Best Mystery/thriller near Mother’s Day, the same year my mother passed. The award meant a lot then; it means a lot now. I knew Mom was smiling down on me. Job well done, I think – I hope – she said.

Mom and Clown

About Heather Haven:

Back in the Punic Wars, Heather moved to the Bay Area and studied creative writing in the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University. Previously, several of her comedy acts and plays were performed in NYC. Her novels include the multi-award winning Silicon Valley based Alvarez Family Murder Mysteries, Manhattan based Persephone Cole Vintage Mysteries, and standalone mystery documentary fiction, Murder under the Big Top, based upon her mother’s stint as a performer with Ringling Brothers’ Circus. Just to break up the monotony, her short stories are featured in Corliss and Other Award-Winning Stories. Her latest endeavor is the September 2019 release of Christmas Trifle, Book One of the Snow Lake Romantic Suspense Novels.
She and her husband of thirty-seven years are allowed to live with their two cats in the foothills of San Jose, California.

Website: http://www.heatherhavenstories.com/
https://www.facebook.com/HeatherHavenStories
Twitter@HeatherHaven
Email me at: Heather@HeatherHavenStories.com

Thank you, Heather! I can’t wait to read this!