Our Book Club

Several years ago, when I was new to blogging, I started a blog specifically as a place for my local book club to keep in touch and also talk about books when they couldn’t attend a meeting or even when they simply wanted the discussion to keep going past our hourly in person allotment each month. The other reason for starting the blog was personal. It happened after I read a book I really wanted to discuss but could not make the meeting. In frustration I opened my laptop, brought up a blog post and started writing. That was even before I entertained the notion of writing fiction as a hobby, let alone a serious sideline business venture.

Regrettably, that blog never really took off. Most of the ladies at that time were not savvy to the new and growing internet let along blogging. Since then, social media and blogs have expanded astronomically. Now, as a published author,  I am finding both a need and a desire to resurrect a blog for my writing in conjunction with my other social media, I still find that original interest and desire to write about books and, perhaps, brag a bit about my book club. Whether they choose to join me in this venture, or if any others would like to vicariously or virtually join in on the discussion via the internet, that all remains to be seen, but all are welcome to read and respond to any of my posts, be they about our book club selections and discussions or anything else.

January seemed like a good time to get things rolling, now that our list of books is set for the year. The 2019 list is available in its own tab at the top of the blog. So, please check it out, read along and watch for upcoming posts about our monthly book club selections. If you happen to be in the area, anyone is welcome to join us on the third Wednesday of the month at the VFW in Staunton, Illinois from 6:30 to 8:00 pm.

Advertisements

Worst Holiday Classic Films: Are They Really?

Jack Frosthttps://www.businessinsider.com/worst-christmas-movies-2018-11?fbclid=IwAR22jYBZjFIHF_lk79-vmuKyus5TI3dUf_qIeGmP2raS2n7Um–IHSnSWJw

When it comes to holiday films and specials, I am an unabashed Christmas movie junkie. I have my favorites from childhood, some classics that return every year and then others I recall with a sentimental nostalgia, those I fished out of some dusty $5 discount bin or sought out in some obscure second-hand video shop to have at the ready for holiday viewing. I relish this time of year when I get to snuggle in and escape the holiday madness with a little cheesy fictional world. So, looking over this list of “50 of the Worst Holiday Films of All Time” I strangely find myself fondly remembering some Christmas pasts when my life (and the world) seemed a bit simpler. Some of these I saw in theaters with my own children and a few I recall seeing in my youth and at the time they really didn’t seem so bad. Perhaps it was on a later viewing that the glaring flaws surfaced, but still, are they really all so bad? And if these truly are the “worst 50” of all time, what about all those forgotten ones prior to the 1990s?
Truth is, there have always been cheesy holiday classics that do not stand the test of time well (anyone recall Santa Conquers the Martians circa 1964? No? Well.. you haven’t missed much. Pity that one didn’t make the list) That’s why the truly good ones prevail and the rest are best left going quietly into the Silent Night, or at best, dusted off for a viewing from time to time, perhaps to recall that time you first saw it with your “auld acquaintances” of yore. Isn’t that also what makes the holidays “the most wonderful time of the year?” But still, a few on this list according to Martha Sorren’s article in The Business Insider, did offer a pleasant holiday diversion from the tried and true classics year after year and apparently made someone a bit of income for holiday shopping. As one writer friend proclaimed on seeing this list: “I think I should pursue a third career writing cheesy holiday movies. Clearly anyone can.” I don’t know about writing cheesy holiday scripts but there is definitely room for some new classics to be made, be they retellings of old stories or originals. And don’t just blame the screenwriter. There’s the director to blame as well. It takes more than script writing to make a good and lasting film, be it a holiday classic or otherwise.
And who’s to say the concept doesn’t have merit? There are a few that could have worked. A kid lost in NY and wreaking havoc at holiday time or a desperate dad on a quest for a sold-out gift his kid wants for Christmas (anyone remember that Cabbage Patch craze? It does happen!) True, some of these are just cringe worthy (a dead dad returning as jack Frost? Um.. no) But then, how dumb do some of the enduring holiday classic premises sound (i.e. a green grumpy monster steals Christmas from a town of weirdos) Most ideas are not essentially bad, just the execution in writing and design. This list of 50 “worst” provide a range of suitable prompts for a creative challenge to reinvent them into something new and improved for next year.
Some on the list are tried and true classic stories that just were badly done (i.e. the 2001 Christmas Carol cartoon) As if we really need another from the many stellar versions out there? Perhaps that’s when the producer or art director might be to blame. But once they’re in for a penny they’re in for a pound, perhaps, and bear in mind all these did make money and helped people put Christmas presents under their trees or a roast beast on the holiday table. Hallmark specials really aren’t worth serving up on the list as they are meant for a specific target audience that does like this sort of formulaic tinsel, leaving the author of this article sounding more like the Grinch than a savvy critic.
And then, sometimes a flop can come back as a classic embraced later by a whole new audience. Perhaps a few of those could have made the list some years back but now are well received and Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without them. A Christmas Story didn’t fare well in theaters in 1982 and nearly disappeared into oblivion until it made a comeback on TV and is now a stage play and musical. Even the classic Nutcracker Suite was a total flop and an embarrassment to the great composer, Peter Illych Tchaikovsky, back in 1890s Russia, but today the ballet music is heard everywhere at holiday time, conjuring visions of sugarplums fairies dancing in our heads. Who’s to say that a few of these won’t make an ironic comeback? So be careful who you diss today and be nice or you might just end up on someone’s naughty list tomorrow. In the meantime, take a moment this season to review and reflect on your favorites, perhaps with a cup of your favorite winter beverage and maybe take in a few of the “worst ever” to decide for yourself. You might even be inspired to pen a classic of your own, in the making that just might charm future generations.

Book Review: The 942 Series by J.I. Rogers 4.8 stars

51VewKUUMfL._SL250_

J.I. Rogers has woven together a trilogy of stories set in a future universe that uncannily mirrors our own world. While on the surface these short fiction pieces are typical science fiction/dystopian, in many ways they also could be seen as cautionary tales or parables of how history truly does repeat itself. Fashion and cultures come and go, and governments may change, but underneath it all we are the same human creatures with common struggles, needs, ambitions and, yes, deeply seated flaws. If there is any connecting thread between these three unrelated short – though seemingly straightforward – stories, it is that. Whether this was intentional crafting on the author’s part or merely a subconscious chance pairing, the result is near brilliant storytelling nonetheless. Apart from that, these all are rather simple in structure, short on plot devices, parse on setting detail and character arc while at the same time, abundant in name dropping of titles, rank and unexplained technology and devices. A thorough grounding in the futuristic culture would have been helpful and these very short tales could readily be expanded to bring more of the puzzle pieces together to engage the reader even more.

Story 1: Protocol 9

Set in the futuristic year 2592, presumably in our universe, this first tale in the collection took a bit of effort to completely engage with. A host of names, ranks and situations are systematically dropped without much context or reason to care about the characters. It appears a rescue mission is in operation heading into a dangerous territory known simply as the Seep, apparently in the aftermath of some war or devastation but that isn’t made clear. The team, led by Col. Kael Sunde, is out to rescue a member of the crew who appears missing or has lost all means of communication. As their mission progresses, it takes a turn for the worse before the all too abrupt ending that seemed to merely effectively draw matters to a conclusion rather than an actual satisfying ending. It was almost as if Rogers ran out of steam while trying to keep to a strict word count. The story begs for a longer delve into the themes and characters and felt more like an excerpt from a novel than a complete short on its own. Perhaps this was not the best choice for opening this trilogy, leaving little reason to continue with the other two stories. But the other two are definitely worth reading.

Story 2: Forget-me-not

The year is 2606 and the world appears not much different than today. A young woman, Isolde, from a privileged family, argues with her parents over a need to shirk her comfortable lifestyle for the chance to help the less fortunate and be part of some significant change. If only the two classes divergent classes – the Diasporan and Korlo – could put aside their differences and unite in a peaceful world. That is her idealistic and sincere hope. A familiar trope in literature, if not in real-world politics, but here Rogers brings it to a new, imagined setting, with a chilling reminder of our current world order and where it is possibly headed – history condemned to repeat itself, regardless of how we try to make it otherwise. When Isolde at last defies her parents and sneaks away, she meets a young man, Yul, at a peaceful demonstration that comes under attack by the authorities – another chilling nod to our modern-day life and an emotional ending that smacks of a cautionary tale with thought-provoking ramifications.

Story 3: Bride Price

In a futuristic world, circa 2568, class struggles continue to exist and the desperate need to hang on to family name and fortune still matter, in spite of advanced technology and enlightened views, apparently. Here is where Bride Price unfolds, a very archaic title to be sure for a story set half a millennium into the future. Regina and Edric Maklon’s scheme to restore their family fortune in the wake of their father’s death sounds more like the plot to a Medieval or Victorian-era story than science fiction. Enter the Harlo family, loaded with dough but lacking in rank. Somehow these two families need to get together. But will they? Again, another overused trope but with a fresh twist combining old world charm with futuristic intrigue. This one at least offered a bit more character development and grounding in the social order of this world, making it my favorite of the three and perhaps a better choice to open or end with while Protocol could be sandwiched in the middle.

Whatever the reading order, these three are short enough to devour in one sitting for a quick diversion while waiting for an appointment or over a lunch break. 4.8 stars for this pithy yet provocative collection of tales in The 942 Series.

Book Review ~ Yesterday: A Novel of Reincarnation by Sammyann

YesterdayA death-defying encounter with a random stranger and a fire ravaged old clock propels a young Chicago woman into a journey of a lifetime, or rather two lifetimes, as she soon discovers she may have lived before during some of the most significant points in her city’s past. Yesterday is more than a typical romance. Rather it’s a historical time travel study that delves into the deepest aspects of who we are, who we possibly were and facing the path before us toward a future destiny.
Amanda Parker is haunted by a tragic past of loss and betrayal when she crosses paths, literally, with handsome Chicago police officer, Mark Callahan. Although she has no intentions of risking her heart again, a strange connection pulls her toward those mesmerizing blue eyes and the man’s familiar face. But how could that be? She’s sure they’ve never met and resists his attentions, until an old grandfather clock, musty and smelling of smoke damage, brings back haunting memories of an undeniable past reaching back to the 19th century. A childhood during the Civil War, left orphaned in the care of runaway slaves, and later barely escaping the Great Chicago fire. As the story unravels back toward these events, the reader discovers gems of untold history and ordinary people who survived the odds, luring us deeper into their lives and connecting seemingly unrelated events as if they could have truly happened that way. By the end, I was almost ready to believe in reincarnation, the author does such a good job of giving insight and background into the para-science, showing her meticulous research into the field as well as the historical background facts.

Underscoring it all is the city of Chicago, resonating as a character within the setting and a vibrant backdrop as luminous as the cover art, featuring an actual painting of the Great Fire from the Chicago Art Museum. I had the privilege of watching this story unfold as a critique partner and waited with bated breath to have the completed copy in hand. It’s a story I’ve returned to again and again, always finding something new to discover in its multi-layered story – a romance, a mystery, a psychological thriller, historical drama and a heartwarming family saga. A little something for everyone and just my kind of read! 5.0 stars!

Tuesday, September 11, 2001

That terrible morning 17 years ago has been on my mind all day today. It was a Tuesday, sunny, warm and with a pleasant breeze that hinted at fall, much like today was. I spent the morning at home watching the events unfold and then went to my afternoon teaching job where I taught music at an elementary school. I had no idea what the other teacher and students knew but I was determined to remain calm and proceed with my lesson plans. Earlier that summer I had devised a lesson plan of patriotic music to begin the school year, after learning the previous year that most of our rousing patriotic tunes and American folk songs were rapidly disappearing from kids’ repertoire. So that day I had planned to continue with teaching songs like “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “America the Beautiful”. How could I bring myself to sing those songs now? That was what I pondered as I drove into the parking lot. How could I keep it together without falling into a blubbering fool in front of the kids?
When the first class of 5th graders entered my room, it was more disturbing than the news I had been hearing all morning. These poor kids were terrified and looking to me for answers. Apparently the principal had systematically gone around and pulled teachers out of the classroom to tell them of the happenings but sternly warned them not to tell the kids. Well, little pitchers do have big ears and those kids heard just enough to be scared out of their wits and let their imaginations take over. “We’re at war! Bombs are dropping all over the country!” they cried and pleaded with me to tell them what was going on. One girl feared for her mother who worked downtown in the big city an hour away and was sure she’d never see her again. I did what I could to reassure them that everything was under control. I spent the next few hours doing the same with every class, except for kindergarten who were young enough to be oblivious to it all. Imagine having to recount these kinds of events to children 5 times over! That was my day. So, while everyone else was glued to their TV’s that evening, we took our kids out to a movie. Spy Kids. We were the only ones in the theater that night and I never regretted missing whatever recap after recap the news media spun across the airwaves. After all, the news still hadn’t gotten all the details right until months later, if they ever really did.
I will always remember that day and the kids who were as much my solace as I hope I was for them. We were more than likely the first, and only, Americans that day to be singing songs of patriotism and freedom while everyone else sat shocked into silence, fear and dread. But in a small town school in Southern Illinois, we sang the songs just as I had planned – songs to keep us strong, to remind us of who we are and where we came from – and we continued to sing them and more in the weeks to come as the nation joined their voices along with us. But I’m proud that my classroom was the first that day to boldly sing of the land of the free and home of the brave.

Historical Ficton: What it is and what it is NOT

My genre of choice is historical fiction, always has been all the way back to grade school when I first picked up chapter books around second grade. We didn’t call them “chapter books” per se and there was no YA section, merely a blanket term of juvenile literature or maybe a small shelf dedicated to “older juvenile” or even more progressively called “teen”.  There also were not the plethora of genre distinctions we have today, from fantasy to paranormal to romance and, yes, historical fiction. So, being the avid reader I became, once I realized words could transport me anywhere I wanted, I was the bookish kid who never was seen without her nose stuck in a book. That said, every adult I met insisted on asking, “What’s your favorite kind of book to read?” And that’s where I was stumped. Because I loved old time stories, novels about history and times past when life seemed more interesting and adventurous. For lack of a better genre label, I often said, “mysteries” because that was one go-to genre back then.

It wasn’t until about fourth or fifth grade I latched onto the notion of historical fiction after reading Johnny Tremain. Here was a genre I could get behind and dig my reader claws into. A story set in times ripped from the headlines of early America but with fictional people, just like me, who could have met or interacted with real historical people like Samuel Adams or even participated in the Boston Tea Party. From there I sought out other historical stories and found authors like Elizabeth George Speare, who wrote The Witch of Blackbird Pond and The Bronze Bow. I went on to read works like Indian Captive by Lois Lenski, and of course, I read every book in the Little House series several times over. I was addicted but still felt somewhat ashamed of adhering to a genre that was not really known for its own genre label. Instead, I clung to classics, devouring works by Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen and Mark Twain, just to get a flavor for life and times of another place. Because these were classics, my teachers and parents encouraged this sort of reading. Because there was little else truly interesting or new happening in juvenile, before YA became a thing, I had little else to choose from before heading into the uncertain waters of the adult stacks.

Now as a historical fiction author, I’m thrilled to see this genre come into its own as a respected place beyond merely Regency Romance or worse, those “bodice rippers” of a generation past. It seems my entire reading life has been headed for this moment when my own historical series, based on early America, can sit along side my beloved favorites on my book shelf. What I’m writing is what I consider the purest definition of historical fiction, based on the same definition my grade school librarian gave when she featured Johnny Tremain at one library hour and started me on that lifelong journey of reading. The story must be set during a historical time period and include real historical people as characters, either primary or secondary. The story can also include fictional characters to flesh out the character list and create a plot driven story. What a historical fiction story is not, is any old story set more than fifty or so years ago, which is what some writers and publishers are going with. So, setting a story somewhere in the mid-20th century America with no context to dates or events, is merely a story set in the past, but not historical fiction. This is the definition I learned in school and will continue to use as a guide when writing my own stories.