Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Better Version

Isn't this the time of year when everyone makes resolutions for the new year? I made one for myself last year, but...uh...I failed to follow through. My resolution was to not buy anymore books until I'd read all the books I already own. Needless to say, my resolve faded quickly...

I will say, however, that while I didn't hit my mark, I did change a lot of my reading habits for the better. I did actually purchase less books than I normally do in a year, and I read more of the books I already have at home. I made more time to read because I was consciously aware of how many really great books I own and I'd been meaning to read. I also hesitate now, before I buy a book, and look at my own shelves first for something to read. It doesn't always mean I don't buy the book, but I usually end up reading something I already have first before I read the new book. That's a good thing. That's a change for the better, I think.

So, this year, my resolution is less complicated, less specific, and more reasonable. This year my only resolution is be a better version of myself. Any improvement on the old me, no matter how slight, will be considered a success and a reason to celebrate at the end of 2015.

You see, I like me. I really do. I'm completely comfortable with who I am, but I'm certainly not the best I can be. Not yet. Not ever. I'm always learning, always improving, always striving for something more. I'm currently learning a new language, deciding what new college courses I'd like to take, working on my novel, researching better ways to help children learn to read, and always looking for ways to be a better teacher - just to name a few things.

If I can improve, even just a little, in any of those areas, I've accomplished a great deal towards making a better version of myself. Simple, yes? But hard work. A better version takes a great deal of work, but when I think about how much better the new model will think and grow and be able to give back to the world, I certainly think it's worth the effort.

I wish you all the happiest of New Years! Whatever else you may resolve to do in the upcoming year, I hope you resolve to work toward a goal that makes you happy in life.

God bless.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Three At A Time

You know, I'm not one of those people who likes to read several books at once. Normally, I enjoy dedicating myself to one book at a time, completely immersing myself in the story. There are exceptions to that rule, though (as there is to everything):

1) If I'm reading a non-fiction, I like a little fiction in between.
2) If I'm reading a book that's a collection of stories, I like to read a novel, as well.
3) I'm almost always reading a young adult book along with an adult book.

Prior to the present, those were my only exceptions. I don't even read multiple young adult books, unless I'm reading them with my class or student book clubs. Even then, I've read the novel before on my own, so I don't count that as reading/absorbing it as I would with a first read. All of this worked fine for me...until now.

You see, I am currently reading a book that I can't stop reading,...but I have to pause and take breaks from it. It is an incredible book, but it is hard on my heart. Because it is hard on my heart (which I will explain in a moment), I have to read something else to take my mind off of it. I have to read something with a lighter, easier topic.

I decided to read a middle school book a friend of mine suggested: The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen. It was a really good book, the first one in a trilogy (and I can't wait to read the second one), but...the topic was a bit more serious than I expected and wasn't pulling me out of the aching, sweet sadness I felt when reading the first book - my "main" book. I really did enjoy it, though, and - as my friend had said - the narrator of the story was my kind of witty character and I had a little 'character crush' on him.

While I was now enjoying both books, I decided to pick up one more. My students and I had been to the library and viewed book trailers. I became interested in Freaky the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick. It isn't a new book, just a good one that's been around long enough to have a movie made about it back in 1998. I had never read the book and never seen the movie was the perfect size: small. That's right, one of the reasons I chose it was because it wasn't a big book. I didn't want to invest too much time in another book, I already had two other ones going. Remember, the intent was to use two for "break books" from my main one.

Needless to say, I found myself in another 'serious' story. Funny, sometimes? Yes. The False Prince also had its funny moments, and both middle school books had good narrators. I enjoyed both, though both were very different. While they did take my mind off of the first book, they did nothing to soothe my emotions. They were distractions and not cures. So, I finished both of the other books and have now focused my attention on finding a humorous adult book and a humorous young adult book for those times when I just have to close my main book and pull away from that ache it causes in my soul.

What book did I need a cure from? What kind of book was I reading (and I'm still reading it - not quite finished yet) that haunts me so much I look for other books to take my mind off of it? Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind by Sarah Wildman. And all I can say is - I am forever changed. I know that was the author's intent...with good reason.

Wildman's novel is a non-fiction book that starts out about a Jewish grandfather she loves and the story of his life - her family's story of his life - and how he successfully got himself and his family (his mother, sister, brother-in-law, and nephew) to America before Hitler took over Vienna. Her grandfather, Karl, has always been the "hero" of the family and the man everyone adores.

After his death, Wildman finds there is another story no one has told her. She discovers letters from a girl her grandfather knew before he came to America - old letters her grandfather had kept all through the years, some of them with photos in them. The letters begin to tell her only part of the story. She becomes determined to find this woman, Valy, and know the rest of the story. The author is driven by the desire to completely understand the kind of man her grandfather was before coming to America and who he really was as a human being.

Wildman goes on a research mission, a journey of discovery that takes her to several countries, to find this girl her grandfather had to leave behind. She travels to Europe to walk the streets her grandfather walked, to see and experience the things the girl talks about in her letters. As she uncovers more and more, and continues to read and re-read Valy's letters, her desire grows to find and know what happened to this incredible woman. Wildman takes us with her as she gets closer and closer to finding out the truth about this girl and her grandfather's past.

Valy & Karl, Vienna - 1936

It's an incredible journey. It's one I'm still on...


Saturday, November 29, 2014

"Actually, I'm Already Writing a Novel..."

From time to time, someone will tell me I should write a book. Sometimes, it's in jest. Most often, they're quite serious. How, you might ask, does such a statement come up in conversation? Well, I talk a lot (just in case you haven't picked up on that yet), and I do have a tendency to talk in story format. You know, using the basic plot diagram for fiction - even when the story I'm telling is true.

People say it for other reasons, as well. Some people like the way I talk, the way I...quip. I can be pretty quick-witted on a good day. I also love to people watch and imitate others in speech and body language. It's just something I've always done. I pay attention to the details of what makes people who they are. I also love to read, and I love words. I think it's important how you say things. I believe words have power, and the power of your words should be used wisely. I talk about books and words and tell stories, in general, quite a bit.

I guess when you mix all that stuff together and add in the rest of my personality, maybe I give off an air of...authoress? That's a nice thought (or a wishful one), don't you think? You see, when I get into one of my 'speeches' about words or a good book or how a good book could have been great book with a better editor, someone usually says I should just write my own book. I always smile when they say that. Sometimes, it's a weary smile. Sometimes, it's a knowing one. My verbal response to that statement, when I feel up to it, is usually, "Actually, I'm already writing a novel..."

Truth is, I've been writing a book for the past few years, and I wrote it in my head long before I ever clicked the first letter on my keyboard. I love my book. It is fiction, but the characters are very close and personal to my heart. I know every movement of their faces, every expression. I know how every word sounds when they speak to one another. I know their disappointments and their joys. I know their hopes and dreams...

And I'm beginning to wonder if I'll ever actually finish the novel.

I wonder, how will I ever be able to write an ending I'm happy with? I'm trying to imagine what it would be like to look at a final draft and say, "Yes, this is it. I'm done. It's exactly what I want to say. It is the story I've always wanted to tell the rest of the world."

It is a story I want to tell. Actually, it's a story my heart needs to tell. You see, my brain gives words to the story my soul already knows,...and my brain is my harshest critic. And, so, I keep writing and hope that one day my heart and mind agree they're both happy with the end result.

"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." ~ Maya Angelou


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

This and That and Nothing Much

I had no idea it's been so long since I blogged! Good grief! Life has been quite busy. 'Tis the season, you know! No, not the holiday season. I mean the school season. When school is in full swing, I barely find time to breathe, much less blog. To be honest, I haven't even had as much time to read as I'd like (gasp!).
I've actually been opting to read middle school books lately, as I'm always on the hunt for good book club books for my middle school students. I'll review some of them on here over Christmas break, once I have a few more under my brain. It's not always easy for me to review middle school books. I don't always agree with the messages.
(Now, here's where I start sounding old...)
You know, it used to be that most books had a good message. And, the way I figure it, life sucks enough without reading a book that just agrees with that theory. Life doesn't really suck, it's all in the way you look at things. Believe it or not, kids aren't as optimistic as they used to be. In fact, I venture to say there is much more depression among pre-teens and teenagers now than there was when I was growing up. It concerns me...a lot.
I don't think it helps that a certain series of books made vampires popular literature for teenagers. As if anyone would actually want to follow some undead guy around, fall in love with him, and have his baby. Really?? I mean, guys have their issues (don't we all?), but I'll take a warm-blooded man over a dead guy any day! Did I mention she wants to be dead, too, just to be with him? Now, I ask you, WHAT kind of messed-up message is that to send to young teenage girls? Especially girls who are already depressed? Let's think this through, folks. Seriously.

And another thing...

Just because paranormal books have become so popular doesn't mean they are well-written. I'm really getting tired of seeing all the vampire books floating around my school's library. I try not to be critical without sampling a few, so...I sampled...and spit them back out. Yuck. Shouldn't there be some standard for what publishers dish-out to pre-teens and younger teenagers? Are good editors in short supply these days?No wonder kids aren't reading if they think this junk is what passes for good books!


I seem to be sighing a good bit these days. It's mostly because I see that people don't know what they're missing. Sometimes by 'people,' I mean my students. Other times, I mean adults. There is such a vast, wonderful world of great books out there that I get a bit discouraged when the only books anyone claims to read are the ones that are movies. Really?

I'm beginning to feel like I belong to the lost generation of people who actually read books to learn more about myself and others and the world around me...


No, we wouldn't be classified as 'the lost generation' - it's the generation that doesn't read that is lost.

Do me a favor, would you? Please read to a child today. Do voices for the characters, and show them the pictures in the book. Talk about the story. Help them understand it. Grow a good reader. You'll make the world a better place. :)

Happy reading!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Lovely Lies

Believe it or not, I've never seen the movie "Memoirs of a Geisha." I don't know why this surprised friends of mine when I told them this recently, but it did. If you're wondering why the topic even came up, it's because when I was asked what I'm reading I told them Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. Their first response was, "Didn't you see the movie?"

No. I didn't see the movie. Believe it or not, there are some movies I haven't seen. I especially avoid movies that were books first, to be honest. If I hear a movie is great, and find it was a book first, I go get the book. Books are always better because no director or actor or computer animation can come close to what my perfectly good brain conjures up when I read.

So, back to my current reading selection...

Actually, I just finished the novel. To be exact, I got up at three this morning...just so I could finish the book before I started my regular day. And, yes, I enjoyed it that much. I love the figurative language in the book. I also love that it's written as a first-person narrative. It is one of those books I have tabbed with several sticky notes to mark my favorite passages. I also find it to be quite a fascinating cultural and historical lesson.

When I closed the book at the end, I sat in my favorite reading chair and let it soak in. I smiled to myself and felt quite satisfied that it was a good read. I had enjoyed the characters, absorbed the surroundings the narrator had described throughout the book, and I was very glad I'd read the novel.

That feeling lasted a few precious moments...

And, then, although I wanted to fight it, my logical brain kicked in. My research brain gave a shout, too. Normally, this is something I like about myself, but just this once I wanted to let something go at face value,...but I wasn't able to do so. My brain just wouldn't allow it.

You see, I began making a connection between SO many similar stories. The first one that came to mind was the movie "Pretty Woman." I couldn't resist, I looked up the date of the movie - 1990. The date of the novel? 1997. While one is an American 'fractured fairy tale,' the Japanese one is too similar to ignore. It's simply set in a different country and a different time. Other than that, there really is no other differences worth mentioning.

I was tempted to hang on to what I was feeling, frustrated by a society that still tries to sell us a package of lies about what love and loyalty and 'happily ever after' should look like. I mean, if a prostitute and a geisha can find real love in this world, it shouldn't be that hard for everyone else, right? Yeah, right.

But I didn't. I didn't hang on to that feeling. I let it go...

While I know it's all lies, even I admit they're lovely ones. And, as long as I see them for what they are, there's no harm done if I indulge in little 'suspension of disbelief' now and then. Who wants to feast on a dose of reality all the time anyway? ;)

Happy reading!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Falling for Autumn

October in Blowing Rock, NC
October has always been my favorite month of the year! When I say that to other people, some think it's because my birthday is in October, but that isn't why...or...maybe it is? Maybe there is some genetic or cosmic reason why I have such a love for this time of year. Since I think it's possible to have been born a bibliophile, I suppose I should be willing to consider the possibility I was born to love October, as well. I mean, I love all the seasons for what makes each one unique, but autumn has been my favorite for as long as I can remember.

While I may live in Texas now, I was born and raised in North Carolina. Autumn in the Carolinas is the best! The leaves on the trees are vibrant colors of red, orange, yellow, and purple. As leaves turn brown and fall to the ground, they layer the earth with a carpet of sound and scent. There is no other sound like walking through leaves, and there is no other scent (no matter how hard the candle and deodorizer companies try) like walking through the woods on a clear, crisp, autumn day. If you want to enhance your autumn walk with some flavor, you should try eating a crunchy, sweet Gala apple as you enjoy your stroll. Mmmmm,...I'm sitting here grinning just thinking about it.

(Let's just pause here a moment to enjoy that thought...)

Yes, October is definitely my favorite month. I did mention, though, that I live in Texas now. There really isn't a true autumn season in the area I live in, at least, not like it is in the Carolinas. I'm not complaining, really. I love living in Texas. I just...miss autumn. This is why I always find my way to some place in the United States that has the season I long for at this time of year. You see, when my love can't come to me, then I must travel to meet my love somewhere else.

I'll let you know how my season hunt goes once I get a fix for my addiction. You see, while Texas was kind enough to give me lovely autumn weather this weekend (for which I am very grateful), and I have a delicious bag of Gala apples in the refrigerator, it just isn't the same. Getting a taste of what I want isn't the same thing as experiencing the whole delicious meal of sight and sound and touch. I still want to see some beautiful fall colors in big trees, and I long to put my feet in some crunchy leaves...

And no matter how many years go by, when this season rolls around, I will always, always, always want to look up at a Carolina blue sky framed in multi-colored leaves, take in a deep breath of crisp autumn air, hold out my arms to spin around, and giggle like a child, as I fall for autumn all over again.


Saturday, October 4, 2014

Unexpected Blessings

Yesterday marked the end of the first six weeks grading period at my school. As teachers know, getting everything up and running at the beginning of the school year is rather hectic. You get new students that you have to learn what their needs are as quickly as possible. It's a busy time, an exciting time, you are getting to know your students, they are getting to know you and beginning to understand your expectations for them for the school year.

As this school year began, I was a bit overwhelmed by the expectations that were put on me. I looked at the broad range of different students I would be teaching and wondered how I was going to be able to do it all. As a literature and writing teacher, I feel the responsibility to make sure my students do well because reading and writing is a life skill. My students need these skills not only for their other classes, but for the rest of their lives. How well they are able to read and write will have a great bearing on their future. It's a responsibility I carry in my mind and heart every day.

I decided the best way to face the new challenges was to buckle down and charge in head first! I was overly organized, had clean and purged my classroom from the previous year, and made goals and promises to myself that I knew would be more work for me,...but would make my daily lessons flow better for my students. I've kept those goals and promises in front of me on days when I've been exhausted. I know I'm doing what is best for my students. What I didn't know was what a blessing I was going to receive from this broad range of students!

You see, my passion has always been for the struggling readers. I worry most about students who enter the sixth grade and can't read on a sixth grade level. It hinders all their academics. I have always volunteered to only teach the strugglers. Does this mean my standardized scores don't look like the teachers' scores who teach the Pre-AP or advanced classes? Of course,...but I don't teach for standardized scores. I teach to help children learn how to read and write well. I meet them at their level and work to help them catch-up with their peers.

This year, though, I have students on all levels, including two classes of Pre-AP students. I am enjoying learning things I could never have learned before because I focused solely on struggling readers. Every day, every lesson, is like a puzzle,...and I love puzzles. It's very interesting to take a lesson and see how many ways you can change it to meet the needs of the students. It's incredible to watch the different levels take different things from each lesson. Do the best answers or work always come from my Pre-AP students? No, actually, they don't. Sometimes they do, but they also come from my special education students and from my strugglers when they bridge a gap and come up with a deep connection to the text.

And you know what? No matter what type of learner makes that deep connection, I am amazed. Absolutely amazed! I love watching all their minds work as they reach to get to another level in their learning. For some of my students, they are reaching for a third grade level in a sixth grade class. For others, they are reaching for an eleventh grade level in a sixth grade class. I have to be able to see the level they are on and challenge them to go higher. It's exhilarating! Yes, it's exhausting, too,...but I go to bed every night with a smile on my face thinking about all my students.

I thought this year was going to be my most difficult, and I am finding that it is one of the greatest unexpected blessings I've ever received. I'm learning and growing with my students every day, and I love it! The more I learn, the harder I want to work. The harder I work for them, the harder I see them working for me. It's an incredible thing to experience on so many different levels.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, I have the very best job in the world!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

A Woman's Prerogative

Have you ever heard it's a woman's prerogative to change her mind? Well, I've changed mine. (And, actually, it's everyone's prerogative,...not just a woman's.) I find that I have too much to say about books I'm reading to keep quiet all the way until Thanksgiving. I'd like to tell you what helped me come to this decision...

One of my wonderful sixth grade students asked me to read a book that she really likes. She told me she connects with one of the main characters and felt that she was like the character in many ways. She even allowed me to borrow her personal copy to read. Now, I have quite a few students who want me to read what they're reading and, when I can, I do. I am always honest with them in my opinion of the book after I read it, and it's never been a problem...until now.

You see, I'm having a real problem with this one, and I haven't resolved it yet. My first thought was to blog about it, and then I remembered I had decided to take a break from blogging. I now realize it's my cheapest form of therapy. I need to write things down to figure them out.

So, I am.

The book my student likes so much? It's bad. Why is it bad? It is poorly written, it feels...clunky...when you read it. There isn't a nice flow to how it reads or describes scenes and characters. The dialogue is pretty cheesy, too. I think the plot is ridiculous, but...I tried to look past that and just focus on what the student must like about it,...and I am at a loss. A real loss.

What do I say to this precious student? How do I tell her I don't like her book at all? We've only known each other four weeks now, so my first feedback to her on the first book she suggests is really important. I know this. I know what it means to her, but I can't say a book is good - or that I enjoy it - when I don't.

To be completely honest, I am forcing myself to read it now because I hate to really pass judgment until I've read it all. (Sigh) Trust me, it feels like a beating. It's a horrible way to feel about a book. It makes me think this student doesn't truly read as well as she wants me to think she does, and I don't want to hurt her feelings.

A friend of mine, who is also a teacher, said that I should suggest another good, well-written fiction book on the same subject. The student could read it and see the difference for herself. I love that idea, and will do that, it just doesn't solve the problem of looking in the face of this child and telling her the book she asked me to read is...awful. (No, of course, I won't actually use that word, but I will use it to tell you. It really IS awful.)


I still have to finish it.

Maybe I could convince her to start the other book before I finish this one and say we'll swap reviews after she finishes the other? I could hope that she sees the difference for herself. And if she doesn't...?



Sunday, August 17, 2014

Au Revoir...

We interrupt our regularly scheduled program...

I don't like it when a blogger just stops blogging completely. You know, you stumble across a blog you like, but then you notice the last post was dated one year ago,...and the blogger hasn't been heard from since. Gee, the person could have, at least, said goodbye.

Now, I'm not really saying goodbye, it's more like I'm saying "see you later." You see, I've set some big, new goals for myself, and it's going to take a great deal of time and energy on my part to accomplish them.  Some things happened to me this summer that made me rethink my life and where I want it to go. I have a lot of work to do, and...I'll just leave it at that.

Where does that leave my blog?

Well, let's say it's on hold for now. I don't know when I'll be back, but I'm thinking I could probably blog a bit during the holidays (Thanksgiving and Christmas) when things slow down a little. I don't want to shut down my blog, as there are people still using old posts for book recommendations. Believe it or not, I have over 17, 000 hits on my blog and, while I don't know who they are, my statistics do show which posts are most popular with my readers. I know people don't often comment on my posts, but I understand that because I very seldom leave comments on other people's blogs. I just enjoy reading them.

For those of you who know me personally, you know how to reach me outside of this blog. For those of you who don't, I hope you've enjoyed what you've read up to this point,  and I hope you keep looking for and reading great books! This isn't goodbye, it's just a long pause. I hope you'll look for me again around the holidays. I promise I'll have more book recommendations for you and, perhaps, I'll share what I've been up to during the pause.

Please don't leave a comment for me, as I won't see it after I've posted this. I'm signing out and signing off for now. Please know, though, that I really do appreciate all my readers, and I hope you'll look me up again in a few months. 

Happy reading!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Mulling It Over

Have you ever read a book that you had mixed feelings about when you read it but, when you finished it, you just couldn't get it out of your mind? In other words, it's the kind of novel you learned to appreciate even more after you've had time to process all the different questions about life the novel brings to the table. Kate Atkinson's novel Life After Life is one of these and her book asks many questions about life, family, and history.

I chose to read this book because it was recommended by an author I respect. It was one of his top choices. I thought there must be something really great about it and, after reading the premise of the book, I found that it interested me. I think the quote in the front of the book intrigued me the most:
What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest
loneliness and say to you: "This life as you now live it and have lived it, you
will have to live once more and innumerable times more"...  Would you not
throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke
thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would
have answered him: "You are a god and never have I heard anything more
divine." ~ Nietzsche

The novel is about Ursula Todd and how she repeats her life over and over, always hoping to get it right. While she isn't actually aware this is what she's doing, she does get 'feelings' or 'notions' about things. It is often labeled deja vu by those around her, while others think she may have 'the second sight' when, in fact, she's repeating her life over and tends to try to avoid the mistakes that ended her life (or someone else's) in her past life. She is always Ursula, always born to the same family, always on a snowy day in February 1910.
Much of the book surrounds World War II, but from different view points because she makes different choice and, therefore, takes a different path in each life. While some of her struggles haunt me, as the book clearly shows how one thing can change a person's life forever, it is the scenes during World War II that left the greatest impression on me. The writing about the war is superb and the descriptions are very vivid and realistic. 
I also need to mention there is a good bit of humor in this book. Ursula has a family and the book often showcases the family dynamic. It's the kind of family where you recognize members of your own family sitting around the Todd family table. There are plenty of witty and sarcastic scenes between characters, as well as some truly endearing moments. While I find the notion of reincarnation unbelievable (but enjoyable),...I found that I wholeheartedly believed in the characters.
I'm not sure this book is for everyone. I noticed the ratings for it are 3.5 to 3.7 on some major book review sites, even though it's a national bestseller and an award winner. So, I'll say this,...if you're a person who needs a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end, then this novel isn't for you. If you need everything wrapped up in a neat, little bow at the end of every book, you should skip this one. If, however, you're willing to try something a little different (and you should always be willing to try) and would like a story that leaves some things open for interpretation, give this one a chance. It IS a good story, it's just many stories about one life that never really ends.
After I was done with the novel, I found it wasn't done with me. I didn't intend to mull it over for as long as I have. In fact, I felt a little odd about it after I finished it. I knew the writing was good, I knew it had touched me, but I wasn't sure how I really felt about it until later when...someone would say something, or I would see something, and I found myself thinking about parts in the story. I still do.
I also wonder about what I would have done differently in my own life,...and what that says about me,...and what ripple effect it would have on other people's lives if I could go back and change just one moment. Would things turn out better? Would things turn out worse?
One of the characters in the book asks, "What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally did get it right? Wouldn't that be wonderful?"
I don't know. Would it?

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Back to Books

I just finished reading another Kate Morton novel. It feels like it took me forever! Actually, it did take me quite awhile, but...I haven't read as much this summer as I usually do because I've been traveling and working on writing my own book. The fact that it took me longer than usual is no reflection on the author or the novel.

First let me say, I really like Morton's books. They are intricately entwined with multiple back stories, and she always ties up all the loose ends so nicely. I have a very busy mind, and her books insist that I stay focused on trying to figure out the mystery of the story. She keeps my mind from wandering when I read, which is one of the highest compliments I can give a writer.  I will be the first to say, though, her books are difficult to truly enjoy unless you read one consistently. I read two other books while reading this one, and I put it down for two weeks while I was gone on vacation. You have to pay attention in Morton's books, or you lose the thread that makes them so delicious. I had a few false starts before I really allowed myself to get in to the story. That isn't the authors fault, though, it's my own.

The Distant Hours is a good, solid story with more than one mystery to be solved. I loved the way it began with a child's scary story, which leads the reader into wanting to know the story behind the tale. In fact, I looked up the tale before I even went on with the novel. I thought it must be a real children's tale I'd never heard! I wanted to know more about it. Everything I searched, though, only turned up references to Morton's book. Of course, I couldn't find out more about it, only she could tell its story. She certainly got my attention. Such a clever woman!

Once I began getting in to the main story, I was - at first - a bit disappointed that the conflict of the story was set in motion by a letter which arrives...fifty years late. I thought it a bit...cliché. What I didn't know was Morton had a different spin on the 'letter from the past' showing up. Typically, when such letters show up in a novel or a movie, it's from an old lover. This is not the case in Morton's story.

As for the setting of the story, it is set in various parts of England and begins before World War I and goes up to the 1990s. The story revolves primarily around a castle, three sisters, and a lifetime of secrets. The father of the three sisters wrote the children's tale and, while he is not a main character in the story, his actions in the past leave a lasting impression on his daughters. The main character in the story, Edie, shows up at the castle to try to figure out the mystery behind the children's tale. Why she is the one who shows up to solve a part of the mystery itself.

Finishing this last Morton novel means I have now read all of her published books to date. This is the last one for me to review. I enjoyed them all, except The House at Riverton. It wasn't a bad novel, just a long, rather tedious one. If you want to read why it is my least favorite Morton novel, you can read my post from November 29th, 2013, entitled "A Reluctant Review,"...which is exactly what it was.

My favorite Morton novel is still The Forgotten Garden. It is near and dear to my heart. I read so many books that I sometimes forget which is which, but this is not so with The Forgotten Garden. The story and its characters have found a permanent place in my reading soul, much like Jane Eyre. Some stories you never forget no matter how many books you read.


Saturday, July 19, 2014

Arizona, Albuquerque, Amarillo, Base, and Home

Amazing Arizona!

After leaving California, we headed for Flagstaff, Arizona. I love Arizona! It has a beauty that is uniquely its own. We spent the first night in Flagstaff and headed to the Grand Canyon the very next morning. My husband had never been to the Grand Canyon, and we were excited to enjoy the experience together.

I won't try to describe everything that's great about it. I don't think anyone ever could. There are different parts of it, and I can't imagine how long it would take to see it all - which would include exploring the floor of it.  We chose to only explore the parts we could drive our Jeep close to and get out to walk a bit. This time of year, they run shuttle buses to many of the trail parts, and you aren't allowed to drive yourself. Neither of us had any desire to stand in line and get on a shuttle packed with people.

One of our favorite stops was to have lunch at El Tovar, which gave us a lovely view from the rim. We also enjoyed visiting the Hopi House and one of the National Park Service's stores. It was at the store that we met a retired teacher named Gene who worked there. He was very helpful and suggested we take the east exit out of the Grand Canyon to see the Desert View and other interesting sites we might not otherwise see. Gene was also kind enough to give me a real map of Arizona, as my phone's GPS did not work in that area at all.

I can tell you, without hesitation, that Gene's suggestion was our favorite part of the Grand Canyon. No one had ever told us about the Watchtower at Desert View. We loved it! We ended up staying there longer than anticipated. The view was incredible because you were able to see the canyon, the Colorado River, and a volcano! Exploring the tower was another great adventure, with even better views of the canyon from the top of it.


We made it to Sedona by nightfall, and we were starving. We'd been so busy looking at the sights around us, we realized we'd not eaten since lunch at El Tovar in the Grand Canyon. We were both tired and agreed we didn't want to go too far for dinner. It was late, our choices were limited, but I found a place that had good reviews and was right across the street from our inn. You couldn't see it from the inn, as it was located in the back corner of a shopping center.

I'll be honest. I didn't have high hopes that a place located in the back corner of a shopping center was actually going to be any good. As we crossed the street and walked through the parking lot to find all the stores were already closed, I held out even less hope.

Now, here is where I tell you just how wrong I was...

As Tom and I approached the restaurant through the dark parking lot, the first thing I noticed was how inviting their patio looked. It had nice tables, umbrellas, plants, and little, white lights strung around it. (Who doesn't love little, white lights?) The closer we got, we heard music emanating from the building. Right as we approached the sidewalk, two couples walked out of the place laughing and talking. One of the men looked at us and said, "You two better get in there!" Then, one of the women looked at us with a big smile and said, "Yes, we need some more people on the dance floor!"

Dance floor?

When we walked through the door, you could tell everything was in full swing and everyone was enjoying it! There was live music and some people were up dancing on the dance floor, located right in front of the band. Others were eating dinner, while their bodies kept rhythm with the music. Either their head was bobbing or they were tapping their hand or foot. It was a happy place!

We were welcomed by a lovely lady at the door and told it was 'Sock Hop' night. While we loved the lively atmosphere of the place, we really were a bit tuckered out. I asked if we could sit on the patio. She assured me we could and escorted us to our table outside. It was perfect. We were the only people on the patio, and we could still enjoy the music and watch the fun because the walls to the patio are glassed in. From our table, we could clearly see the dance floor and the band.

Our waitress, Heather, was fabulous! She made suggestions about what would be good, what the local favorites were, and what the night's specials were like. Tom had the fish and chips, and I had chicken quesadillas. I mention the food here, specifically, because every bite was delicious! Tom couldn't stop raving about the fish and chips, even after we made our way back home later in the week.

We had expected to just find a place that "would do" after a long day of being outside. We had hoped to just find a decent place, grab a bite, and hit the sack in preparation for the next day. Instead, we had a wonderful experience, a relaxing evening, and lingered on that lovely patio for much longer than we would have thought we could stay awake. I made sure to mention to the hostess, on our way out, how much we enjoyed both the food and our excellent server. To my surprise, she seemed genuinely interested and asked what we had for dinner and what we liked. She wished us a good evening, and we felt the warmth of such a wonderful place stayed with us long after we were gone.

So, if you're ever in Sedona, be sure to visit The Marketplace Café. You'll be glad you did!

We also had great experiences the next day, as we explored Sedona. I suggest, if you ever go there, you make sure to enjoy something out on the patio of Canyon Breeze. We chose to start our day there with coffee, looking out over the Red Rocks of Sedona. Later in the day, we had lunch at the Open Range - another place I recommend highly and not just because of the fantastic view. The service was great and the food delicious. We shopped around a bit that day and found that the owners of the small shops were interesting and friendly. We enjoyed several little conversations with some of the shopkeepers. We bought some interesting things and had an overall pleasant day.

Albuquerque, New Mexico

When we headed out of Sedona in the afternoon, we planned on driving all the way to Amarillo, Texas. However, we changed our mind about an hour outside of Albuquerque.

I have to stop here and mention that there is a soundtrack of music I have collected over the years that plays in my head. I don't think I've ever thought of Albuquerque and not heard The Partridge Family's song in my head. So,...I just had to pull the song up on Youtube and play it as we approached the city. I mean, was a must. ;)

Hotel Tonight found us a really nice hotel in this lovely city for a good price. We had a good experience at Hotel Albuquerque. We were on the top floor with a balcony that gave us a beautiful view of downtown. Even though we arrived after dark, we had no trouble getting a delightful dinner in their Mexican restaurant and top-notch service.

Through Amarillo and one last stop...

We were back on the road the very next morning and headed to Amarillo. It was when we were almost to Amarillo that we decided, before we headed  home, we'd make a slightly larger loop and stop in to see our baby girl at Tinker Air Force Base, near Oklahoma City. We all enjoyed the surprise, and it was nice to see where she was living and working for the Navy now.
Home again, home again, jiggety jig...
When we pulled into our driveway, we had been 4,328 glorious miles. It had been a really fabulous trip and, we were surprised to find, we weren't tired and exhausted like we usually are when returning from a vacation trip. We had taken our time, enjoyed everything, and never really got stressed about anything. Wow. Who knew that was possible? I certainly didn't.
I'm thinking...we need another road trip like this next year!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Few More Stops Along the Way...

Muir Woods

After spending two glorious days in San Francisco, we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and headed into Muir Woods for a nice little hike. We had never been before, and we found it to be beautiful in every way. It wasn't just the gorgeous trees, it was the sounds of nature and the wonderful scents. It was very hushed, very relaxing. People told me it feels like a magical place, and it does, but it also feels like a place to be very reverent. It's mystical.

I also loved that, as we passed people on the trails, I heard many different languages being spoken. I found myself smiling at young families around us, as I noticed that a parent speaking to a child sounds the same no matter what language they are speaking. And child's giggle is a universal language...and a universal joy. Everyone seemed happy in Muir Woods. I know I was. Perhaps, that's part of the magic.


Speaking of magic, our next stop was the little town of Sausalito! It's one of my favorite places to eat and look out over the Bay to San Francisco. There's a little Italian place, right on the water, where we love to sit on the dock at a café table and enjoy great panini sandwiches with a couple of cold drinks. It's also fun to people watch and walk around visiting the little shops.

Napa Valley

After spending most of one day in Muir Woods and Sausalito, we headed to Napa Valley. It isn't far, maybe thirty minutes, from Sausalito. I loved the hotel my Hotel Tonight app found for me, and we were in our poolside room just in time to freshen up and head out for a nice dinner. I opted for just walking across the parking lot and eating at a Mexican restaurant that seemed pretty popular. Tom said we should look for some place special, not some place convenient. He said that convenience was probably the only reason the restaurant was popular. Well, that,...and the margaritas.(You know, have a few drinks,...and you don't have to walk far to your nice hotel.)

Tom decided to pick our restaurant after looking at some reviews of other places in Napa Valley. The place he found was absolute perfection! We had dinner on the patio at Bistro Don Giovanni, surrounded by beautiful fields of grapevines. It is a true Italian restaurant with fabulous food and wonderful service! I didn't struggle with the extensive wine list, as I know what I like in wine, but I did struggle with the menu. Our server was extremely helpful and gave great suggestions based on the things we said we like to eat. Our meal was served in four, delicious courses and our dessert was the perfect finale!

After our meal, we took a stroll around the property. The landscaping was so beautiful! There were fruit trees around the building and a lovely garden. There were also roses everywhere. Even the parking lot was amazing because everywhere you looked, fields of grapevines stretched out in front of you with a backdrop of majestic mountains. Amazing.


We had such a wonderful time in Napa Valley, we considered staying a second night. However, Sonoma was just down the street (literally), and we knew we wanted to stay somewhere within walking distance to the Sonoma Plaza where my favorite winery has a tasting room. (And, yes, for the same reason people were eating at the Mexican restaurant near the other hotel. ;)

Hotel Tonight found us a wonderful place just a couple of blocks from Sonoma Plaza. We had a lovely room with a fireplace and our own balcony. A delicious breakfast was included, along with afternoon cookies. We were pleased to be given two discount cards for two wine tastings on the plaza, and it was a nice touch to be escorted to our room and shown where things could be found and how things worked. The name of this special place I will return to is the Inn at Sonoma, and our gracious host that day was a lady named Linda.

There is a great deal of historical things you can see on Sonoma Plaza, as well as shops, restaurants, and different wineries have wonderful tasting rooms. We tried one of the wineries and walked around to see the different tasting rooms, but there was only one winery I was truly interested in...

Roche Winery

I discovered Roche Winery a couple of years ago with a friend of mine, Robin. We had gone to San Francisco and decided to take a wine tour. It was a wonderful experience, and I learned a great deal. I also tasted a good deal of different wines from different wineries. Or, as Robin always says, I educated my palate.

When our tour shuttle arrived at Roche, I had no desire to go anywhere else. I had never had a tasting where I truly liked every wine I tasted. I also loved the way their tasting room was set up right off the plaza. You could taste at the outside bar and enjoy your wine at a patio table, you could also go inside and do some barrel tastings, as well as shop for different wine products. Did I mention the people there are really wonderful? They are. Roche is a family-owned winery, and they make you feel like family when you're there.

Oh, and one more thing. You can't buy Roche anywhere but Roche. I've never belonged to a wine club, never thought I'd want to, but I have been a member of Roche Winery's club for over two years now. Yes, it's that good.

I knew Tom, who had never been, would be enjoy experiencing Roche first hand. He's always loved the wine that comes to the house, but he'd never had the experience of enjoying an afternoon at the tasting room on Sonoma Plaza. We both had a wonderful time and enjoyed making some new friends out on the patio, as we enjoyed some wine and appetizers. 

All in all, it was a few lovely days spent in Wine Country!

Next stop, Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon...


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Need Hotel Tonight?

Need a hotel room tonight?
Before I continue telling you about the rest of my trip, I think now would be a good time to tell you about Hotel Tonight. I knew nothing about Hotel Tonight until a couple of days before my trip when my friend, Tammy, told me about it. I am not exactly a technology-friendly person, believe it or not. I like simple. I was a bit skeptical when Tammy told me, but I trust her - so I tried it. And I loved it!
Here's how it worked...
First, I downloaded the Hotel Tonight app to my phone. Then, I put in my information, including what credit card (or cards) I want to use to pay for hotels. After that, we hit the road and decided where we wanted to stay as we went. This was SO easy, thanks to Hotel Tonight!

Every day, we would travel as far as we wanted to and, at some point, decide what town we would end up in. Once we knew where we were going to stay (or actually arrived there), I would pull up my app and Hotel Tonight would show me what was available in the area that they had reviewed. The app tells me where the hotel is, what they like about it, and the price I could get it for. It also shows me pictures and consumer reviews. 
The Hotel Tonight app also labels the hotels so you'll know what you're getting. Some of their labels are: basic, solid, luxury, and hip. The app defines what those labels mean. After all, sometimes you may just need a 'crash pad' on the road, while sometimes you want some luxury. The app suits what you need where you are.
Another thing I really liked about the app was all I had to do was pick the one I wanted, book it for the price (the exact price w/tax) that would be charged to my card, and confirm I really wanted it by using my finger to trace their logo on my phone's screen. Once I gave final confirmation, I immediately received a confirmation on my screen and a confirmation email in my inbox. All we had to do was pull up to the hotel, walk in, show I.D, and (in some cases) the hotel would require a card on record for incidentals.

When I checked out the next morning, all I had to do was say, "Thanks for they stay! Have a great day!" And, no, I didn't actually have to say that, but I'm a nice, friendly person. I also like to let the front desk know I enjoyed my stay, which I always did. Every. Single. Time.
Amazing, right?! I sure thought so!
Truth is, I didn't even have to check out if I didn't want to. There was never a receipt to sign for the hotel because I didn't pay them. I had paid Hotel Tonight before I ever slept in the room. We were very pleased with every hotel and the service at every hotel. It was also nice to have my receipts on record, as we went, so I knew our total cost without guesswork.
Two more things you should know...

Hotel in the Mojave Desert?
Of course not, but I loved the
search response.
Hotel Tonight doesn't go "live" with deals until nine in the morning. If you try before then, you'll get a cute "early bird" sign that gives you a countdown until deals come on. I don't know who writes all the different little messages on the app and blurbs about the hotels, but I felt like I was carrying around a wise and witty friend with me in my phone. Also, as the app will tell you, it is Hotel Tonight, not Hotel Tomorrow. The deals are only for that day.
Deals can be for more than one night. You can choose whether to stay one night many as five nights. I noticed that you can sometimes get an even better deal the more nights you stay. We stayed in a couple of nights in two places. We found, in more than one case, we really wish we had booked for more than one night because the experience was so wonderful...we hated to leave. Of course, to make the road "loop" we wanted and get back home in two weeks, we needed to. We made notes of the places we'd love to revisit one day.

Now, I'm not a saleswoman, and I don't own stock in Hotel Tonight. I do, however, like to share when I find something wonderful because my fabulous friend was willing to share it with me. I used it, I love it, and I continue to use it now. In other words, I don't have a trip planned, but I pull up deals in different cities on days I could take off somewhere. If my options look good, I'm gone for an unexpected adventure! What could be more fun than that?
Try it. You'll like it!

Trust me...
The Inn at Sonoma was the perfect place for us in Sonoma, California.

Friday, July 11, 2014

San Francisco Love

On the sixth day of our trip, in the afternoon, we arrived in beautiful San Francisco - a city that gets a blog post all its own. It deserves it. I've been to San Francisco several times over the past few years. I've taken day trips and spent long weekends there. I have been at different times during the year. I never get tired of it and have yet to run out of things to see. The difficult part is that I already love what I love about it, so I sometimes hesitate to branch out to new places. This time, though, we decided to try a little blend of new things along with old favorites.

Now, if I try to blog about all my favorites, old and new, I may never finish. While I believe in sharing good things you find when you travel, I also believe in exploring and find out some things for yourself. In the spirit of that, I'd like to share two favorites and encourage you to plan a trip of your own to discover (or rediscover) the City by the Bay.

One old favorite...

When asked about favorite places to eat in the area, I will always start with Empress of China in Chinatown. I have never been to San Francisco, not once, that I haven't found my way to this place for dinner. Tom and I found it, purely by accident, on our first visit to the city. We had been walking around all day and found ourselves in Chinatown. We spotted this lobby with an elevator and all over the walls were pictures of old movie stars who had eaten in this restaurant. We thought that was pretty cool, but didn't quite understand where this restaurant was located. We then realized you had to go up in the elevator to get there. We decided to try it.

The fabulous hospitality and wonderful food and glorious view we enjoyed on our first visit is the same we receive every time we go. It's why we go back. We love everything about the way we are served and how lovely it all looks. All the waiters wear black suits and are excellent at their job. The food is delicious and served in courses, if you choose (and we always do). There are different options. But, you don't just have to take my word about the food, I tell all my friends to go there and have taken some friends there myself. Everyone always loves it!

One new favorite...

I've stayed at The Argonaut Hotel (another favorite) a couple of times, but I've never tried the Winery Collective Tasting Room in the same building. Tom suggested we try it this time, and we had a lovely time! The lady who presented the wines to us, Karen, was very knowledgeable about the wines, the regions they come from, and current concerns wine growers have in the area. We really enjoyed learning about the California wineries while tasting the wines.

We also learned what we want to try the next time we're in San Francisco. Karen told us to head over to Treasure Island next time we're in town for a weekend (we were there during the week) because Vie, a San Francisco winery, has a wonderful place over there to enjoy and explore their wines and learn more about the region. Treasure Island is somewhere we've never tried, and she told us it's only one exit off the road after you cross the Bay Bridge. Needless to say, I put it on my list for next time!

What do I love most about San Francisco?

To be completely honest, I can't tell you that...because I don't know. I love it all. I've been all over the city and explored all parts of it. I've walked in the neighborhoods to see how people live, sat in the parks to enjoy people watching, and biked the Golden Gate Bridge over to Sausalito and back. I've been there during Fleet Week and enjoyed watching the Blue Angels perform over the bay. I love the perfect weather and being able to sit outside in the cafes to enjoy my breakfast...or my lunch...or my dinner. I have my favorite ice cream place on Fisherman's Wharf and always enjoy the live performances that take place on the pier. I've ridden the cable cars, the vintage-style buses, and the BART. Every experience has been a good one, which reminds me to tell you about the first time I knew this was my kind of city.

My first visit...

I will never forget what a resident of the city told us on our very first trip there. We had taken the BART from the airport to San Francisco. We just went for the day to try it. We must have looked a little perplexed about which way to go when a business woman walked up to us and asked if she could help us find something. We told her we were just there on a one day adventure and didn't know where to start. She smiled and said we had nothing to worry about, we could walk anywhere we wanted and always find what we needed. After pointing out which direction to head for various popular places (like Fisherman's Wharf), she wished us a good trip and went on her way. It was a wonderful introduction to a beautiful city I continue to fall more and more in love with every time I go.