One thing I love about the holidays is that I can share my love of reading and all things book-related through gift giving. In my holiday message to readers I share information about the presents I'm giving this year, plus some tips for gifting ebooks. Click here to read more!
I wish you and yours the happiest of holidays filled with stories that inspire and delight you.
Sara When She Chooses is a book about a young girl, her ties to a mysterious heritage and a choice that has the potential to change her life. The novel is written for readers ages nine to twelve, but I enjoyed it as an adult reader.
Every summer, eleven-year-old Sara is sent to spend a few weeks with her grandmother in the deep, deep bayou where there is no electricity or other links to the outside world. World building is obviously a strength of author Cat Jenkins, who creates a lush, mysterious environment that slowly begins to reveal itself to Sarah in unexpected ways. It is thus that Sara realizes she has special gifts, and that her visits to her grandmother are not mere social visits. She is there to learn and grow her unusual talents. She is there to choose the path she will take for the rest of her life.
The author skillfully leads the reader until we willingly suspend disbelief and enter the main character’s fantastical world, comprised of a crew of imaginative, mythical creatures, each with its own quirks and purpose.
I particularly enjoyed the dialogue, especially that of Sara’s grandmother. It is authentically homespun—not an easy achievement, especially because the author carries the thread very well throughout the entire book.
I really hope there will be a sequel because at the end.... Well. You’ll see what I mean when you get there!
Because I am a reader and a writer, chances are if you’re on my gift list, you’re going to get a book for Christmas! I have some serious readers in my circle of friends and family, and I am very particular about the books I give them. Fortunately, for all the readers in the world, there is always something to choose from, whether it’s an anticipated new release (The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek), or a small, quiet book from my past (The Two Pound Tram) that I know others will also appreciate.
Sometimes, I end up finding one book that I know everyone will love. Last year it was Matka, by Sarah Hanley. The year before that it was The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli. And this year? Well, now, if I tell you, it won’t be a surprise, will it? But if you really want to know, click here.
To help you find the perfect book for everyone on your list, I’ve compiled a list of 101 books I love. There is a little bit of everything: general fiction, historical fiction, science, historical non-fiction, middle-grade and young adult, suspense, cozy mystery, sweet romance, biographies, and of course books about dogs. Enjoy!
Oh, Scottdale, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Your buckled slate sidewalks and back alleys. Your broad avenues. Your charming Pittsburgh Street. The old IGA and McCrory’s Five and Dime. Your post office WPA murals. Your lovely parks. Your stately Greystone Manor.
I'm an American girl—the daughter of two Scottdale natives—but I grew up overseas. I spoke four languages over the course of my childhood because my parents, siblings and I moved frequently for my father’s career. During those years, as we travelled like gypsies, there was one place that anchored us. And that place was Scottdale, Pennsylvania.
To many, Scottdale is a small town of about 5,000, nestled in the Laurel Highlands of western Pennsylvania. For me, Scottdale has been a magical place for more than forty years. It is where my parents grew up and where I spent summers as a girl. Although it was typically thousands of miles away from me, except for those brief weeks of summer, Scottdale was always with me.
When my brother and sister and I were kids, our grandmothers still lived in Scottdale. Once school was out, our parents put us on an airplane, sending us on our way across the Atlantic. On the other end, our Aunt Mary Ellen would pick us up at the Pittsburgh airport and drive us to Scottdale. For the next few weeks, we would shuttle our way between our grandmothers’ homes, walking along the alley behind Grandma Martha Rhodes’ house on Loucks Avenue, and down the big hill to Grandma Ruby Ruth’s on Arthur Avenue, and vice versa.
At Ruby’s, we watched the Lawrence Welk Show, played rummy and accompanied her as she called on her friends and neighbors. She zoomed around town in her 1955 black Plymouth Valiant with red leather interior, stopping at the IGA for ingredients to make her dreaded ham loaf. The library, Mennonite bookstore and post office were also regular destinations. She took us to the United Methodist Church on Sundays, the same church my father attended before he left for the Military Academy at West Point. For a treat, we would go to the neighboring town of Mt. Pleasant to visit Brown’s Candy Kitchen, or for ham BBQ sandwiches at Miedels Restaurant in nearby Connellsville.
At our Grandmother Martha’s, bookended by her cats Fluffy and Smokey, we played penny-ante poker, using the spare change she had squirreled away between our visits. We took our poker winnings around the corner to Barry’s Market to buy candy, or down to McCrory’s Five and Dime on Pittsburgh Street. Almost completely bed-ridden with arthritis, Grandma Martha taught us about nature as we studied the outdoors from her bedroom windows. I was mesmerized by her long silver braid and the silky quilted bed jackets she wore all the time.
High above Scottdale on Walnut Street was the Mennonite Publishing House, which produced materials for that religious order beginning in 1908. As a young girl, I fantasied about becoming a Mennonite so that when I grew up I could move to Scottdale and work at the publishing company as a writer. The building is still there, but in 2011 the company merged with another and was absorbed into a media network in Virginia. And now, decades later, my sister Melissa and I joke that when we are widows we will buy a big house on Loucks Avenue and live out our golden years together in Scottdale. Although, I don't think we're joking.
In the Scottdale of my childhood, time seemed to stop, so much in fact that most of the memories of my childhood are rooted in my days there. The Scottdale of our summers was a comfortable bubble where everything was familiar and everyone spoke my native language. All the books at the library were in English! We could gorge ourselves on Cap’t Crunch, Apple Jacks and Fruit Loops cereals, and strawberry-frosted Pop-Tarts because our parents weren’t around and our grandmothers indulged us. I think they knew, as much as we did, that as soon as we got on the plane to fly home, it would be another year until we had those American treats.
By September, we had left our idyllic summer behind and were back home and in school. And so that is why it took me until 2014 to learn that Scottdale has an Annual Fall Festival, dating back to 1974.
And this is when my small-town cozy fiction series, Finch’s Crossing, was born. I had waited for years to find the right way to write about Scottdale, and when I attended that first festival five years ago, I knew I had found it. That September, the festival opened at Gazebo Park in the main commercial district, and vendors and artisan booths dotted the downtown area. The town was alive with music, and the scent of funnel cakes and an unmistakable hint of fall wafted all around. As I walked through the festivities, I knew that I wanted to make the Fall Festival the centerpiece of my first novel about the community. Autumn, Book One in my Finch’s Crossing series, came out the next year. In 2017, I released a Finch’s Crossing holiday novella, and book two in the series will be out in early 2020.
But the Fall Festival has become so much more than a setting and a plot point. It would be three years until I made it back to the festival, this time with my father, sister and cousin in tow. For my father, then eighty-years-old, it was a chance to return to his hometown decades after moving away, and show his daughters the Scottdale of his youth. We learned about and saw things we had not known before: The girls he had walked to school. The place he learned to play Taps on the trumpet. All the houses he and his family lived in. How he unloaded lumber from scorching hot boxcars at his father’s lumber yard during the summers. We even met some of his high school classmates, and members of his high school dance band, The Blue Dots.
We thought the 2017 visit would be our last trip together to Scottdale, but my father is still going strong at eighty-three, so we’re getting the band back together for the 45th Annual Scottdale Fall Festival, September 20-22. The first order of business is my father’s 65th high school reunion luncheon, with the dozen or so remaining classmates, at Carson’s Tavern. We will have lunch in the dining room under a photo of The Blue Dots band on stage when they won the Lions Club Amateur contest in the 1950s. Over the course of the following few days, we will watch the parade and stroll around the vendors and food trucks. We will eat hot ham sandwiches and pie at Miedels Restaurant and have an authentic home-cooked meal at Wise’s. But most of all, we will walk the streets and proclaim, “Oh, do you remember when…,” and let time transport us back to those halcyon days of our childhoods.
I’ll see you soon, Scottdale. Until then, love and kisses!
Amy Ruth Allen
Enjoy the photos below from our trip to Scottdale for the 2017 Fall Festival.
GUEST POST by Ronald Leigh Allen, jr.
I have been a soccer fan my whole life, and at 57 I still get out there on the field and mix it up in pick-up games. I always preferred to spend my time playing soccer rather than watching it. But alas, the older I get the higher percentage of my "soccer time" goes toward watching rather than playing.
Unlike most fans of the game, I never really had a favorite team. I enjoy watching the English Premier League, and a few years back when the wife and I were in London I actually bought a handsome long sleeve Arsenal jersey. But Arsenal wasn't really my favorite. team. Not my "real" favorite. I have some favorite players— like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi (and there is absolutely nothing wrong with loving both of those guys equally). But I never really fell in love with Barcelona, or Real Madrid, or Juventus. I occasionally watch Major League Soccer matches, and am drawn to teams that have star European players like Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who have chosen to finish out their careers in the United States (both of whom join a distinguished list of non-American world soccer standouts that finished their careers in the MLS, and both of whom are still performing at the highest level). But I never had a favorite team, which kinda bothered me. What's wrong with me? I wondered. Everybody I know has a favorite team. Except me. I began to gradually develop a deep longing to be part of the fan base of a team—to be part of a supporters' community.
My wife and I moved from the East Coast to Minneapolis four years ago (2015). After realizing that the winters wouldn't necessarily kill us, we fell in love with the city. About the time we arrived here, I was very excited when it was announced that Minnesota United Football Club (MNUFC) had been named by Major League Soccer as the 22nd team in the league. I started loosely following the team, occasionally catching a game on TV, or at the very least, watching the match highlights on YouTube.
I got very excited again when it was announced that we (I guess I am starting to have a favorite team!) were going to get our very own soccer specific stadium in Saint Paul ( Minneapolis' twin city), called Allianz Field. I drove by the site shortly after the groundbreaking, and periodically throughout the construction process. It was absolutely amazing to watch this architectural masterpiece arise from the ground. And when the first match took place on April 13, 2019, against New York City Football Club, I was in the stands of this ultra-modern, absolutely gorgeous facility!
But I was alone. My wife had previous engagements. My buddies couldn't make it for one reason or another. I was alone. But not really alone, as it was a sell-out crowd. As the 3-3 draw played out before my eyes, I found myself high-fiving perfect strangers in the seats around me, everyone just insanely supportive of their team—and dare I say it? My team! I felt like I finally had a favorite team. Minnesota United Football Club. Go team! Needless to say, I had an absolute blast that night, and couldn't wait until the next match when my wife could come with me and experience this unbridled joy!
So, Amy is not really a sports fan. At all. She agreed to go to a match with me, but I am guessing only to be a good wife, and not as an MNUFC fan. But she went. Knowing that she didn't like surprises, like a good husband I researched the nuances of attending a match from a wife's point of view. I knew Allianz Field had a "clear bag" policy (for security), so on our first foray she left her purse at home. But she did bring her iPhone with earbuds. As we found our seats (which were first row field level near the half field line) she surveyed the crowd. Crowds are not her thing. We found our seats and we waited for the match to start.
Amy informed me that she would be listening to a book on Audible, so if she seemed to be ignoring me, it was because she was ignoring me. And the game. Occasionally I would try to share some of my vast soccer knowledge with her, but she wasn't having any of it. The only thing she came away with that night, was her very own MNUFC clear bag, which she thought was very fashionable, so much so that she did an Instagram post, not about the match, but about her new clear bag.
So when she agreed to accompany me to the next match at Allianz Field I was a little surprised, but very pleased. This match was a little different. Its was part of the CONCACAF Gold Cub and a rare soccer double header, the first match being Panama versus Trinidad and Tobago, and then the match we came to see, Team USA versus Guyana. We arrived in time to catch most of the second half of the first match. The Twin Cities being the diverse international community that it is (and that we love), fans from both countries were all around us. Amy loved them. She watched the fans while I watched the match. But she still put in her earbuds, even through the US versus Guyana match (which we won 4-0).
I was feeling pretty good about my chances to have her accompany me to another match. Our schedules worked out such that we were both available on July 27th, so I got us tickets to see MNUFC play the Vancouver Whitecaps. It was a 7 p.m. kickoff, and I accidentally got tickets on the sunny (hot!) side of the stadium. Amy had her earbuds with her, but never went into her MNUFC clear bag (now a fashion essential) to get them. Before the game began, we were so honored to witness five new citizens participate in the naturalization ceremony to the roaring applause of 20,000 MNUFC fans.
Amy was interested in the game. She was interested in the players. By 7:30 the sun had shifted so we were in the shade (cool!). We both cheered for our Loons (yep, that's what they are called, Loons, and we love them!). The game turned out to be a frustrating draw, but for me it was a huge victory, because Amy said to me, "I think I really like soccer. We should come to these games as much as we can." Between halves, she made her way to the fan store and bought a scarf for me, and a t-shirt for herself. She had been good-naturedly wearing the team colors to the matches (black and light blue), but now she had an official emblem of support.
So I am very lucky to announce to the world that I now have a favorite team, MNUFC! Not only do I have a favorite team, but I have a wife who, in a matter of months, went from totally not interested in soccer, to being indifferent, to being a new fan! I have the MNUFC app on my phone, and we are even on the waiting list to buy season tickets. And Amy is all in. And maybe next time she'll even leave her earbuds at home!
Leigh Allen has been a soccer player and fan since he was six-years-old, and still plays occasionally in recreational league pick-up games throughout the Twin Cities. In fact, at this writing, he's just grabbed his cleats and is on his way out the door.
My father and his wife recently moved into a retirement community in Iowa and are enjoying their active lifestyle in the independent living wing of this very nice facility, called Grand Living at Indian Creek. For years they have walked at least two miles almost daily, and in the early days of the Fitbit craze, Dad (currently 83) was the first in our family to buy this gadget. I got my first Fitbit about a year after he did, and he was quick to send me his weekly Fitbit progress report that showed how far behind him I was in daily steps. (In my defense, I work full time and he is retired. And because he spends October through April in Arizona, he can pretty much walk outside year-round, while I am stuck in a six-month Minnesota winter.)
When I went to visit him a few months ago at Grand Living, the latest thing trending in his life was a stainless steel magnetic wristband that attaches to any Fitbit, is adjustable to any wrist size, and keeps the band securely in place without the awkward buckle function. He enthusiastically demonstrated the magnetic prowess of this band and pointed out that the steel mesh loop construction provided good ventilation, something that serves him well on the Pickleball court and golf course.
I agreed that this band was far superior to the plastic version that comes “factory-standard.” He then had Judy, my stepmother, hold up her wrist to model the pinky bronze version he had purchased for her, and then promptly pulled out his laptop, navigated to eBay (he loves eBay) and ordered one for me.
It was thus I learned Dad had become The Fitbit Guy among his new neighbors, many of whom aren’t as technologically inclined as my father. As of this writing, he has ordered Fitbits on eBay for six residents, downloaded the app onto their devices and shown them how to navigate the dashboard, sync their data, and send and accept friend requests.
While this is a sweet, endearing story, it doesn’t surprise me at all. Dad has always understood the impact of technology, and the value it brings to one’s life. It started in the early 1980s when he bought an Apple IIe computer for our family. Personal computing really took off for the first time around 1977, so Dad wasn’t far behind.
Fast forward to when I was a young career woman, and hand-held personal digital assistants (PDAs) become all the rage. Not only could you keep your calendar and contacts on it, you could take notes, surf the Internet, and a lot of other cool things that in the late 1990s seemed pretty revolutionary. The Palm Pilot was the first of the hand-held computers that paved the way for the smartphone era.
I remember Dad telling me that when he attended business meetings, whether in his company or for various boards he served on, he would take his Palm Pilot from his pocket and put it, and the accompanying stylus, on the table in front of him. He wanted his colleagues and peers (especially those who were younger) to know that, despite his greying and thinning hair and advancing age, he was a Renaissance man who was quite capable, thank you very much, of keeping up with the technologies evolving around him.
So enamored was he of the Palm Pilot, he insisted that I get one. And when I didn’t, he promptly ordered one for me on eBay (I told you he loved eBay).
Dad had a Facebook account before I did, and I’m pretty he sure he was on LinkedIn before me. In a way, this makes me sound behind the times. But I have bested him when it comes to Instagram and Twitter, and I did get an iPad first and showed him how to play backgammon on it. Point for me. Point for Dad: He started using the iPhone’s voice-to-text function before I did.
His final two frontiers on the technology landscape are (1) placing and retrieving his electronic boarding pass via his mobile wallet, and (2) using Apple Pay. However, I’m travelling with him in September and can show him how it’s done. I have no doubt he will easily master both of these processes, just as he has everything else. And who knows, before too long, the residents of Grand Living might be paying their rent with Apple Pay!
Have you ever awakened in the morning and the first thought you have is, "I just had the strangest dream!" Well, that was my feeling when I finished The Bonerunners (The Chronicles of Corvacadia Book 1), by Karen Turkal. But I felt this in a good way. The book is filled with magic and mystery, well-developed and interesting characters, a well-paced story line, and settings brought alive by the essence of the tale.
The story is built around a group of people, known as Corvids, who have survived an outbreak of a very strong strain of flu and suddenly begin to grow “outer bones,” which are literally bones that grow on the outside of their bodies. The Corvids are hunted by the “bonerunners,” the evil-doers who will stop at nothing to harvest the bones and reap their special powers. Grim, right? Yes, but very well done.
Throughout the book the main character, Dia, must deal with this unspeakable evil and violence, and she does so with the help of a peculiar but likeable group of new friends. In addition, she draws on the magical powers she learns she has inherited, and must rely on the sometimes puzzling guidance of her grandmother, Gram Spina. Dia is haunted throughout the book by a personal tragedy which opens the story, and plunges her into the horrific world of the bonerunners.
Turkal's considerable imagination has conjured up a compelling story that can be described as a cross between a fairy tale and a horror story, with the underlying struggle of good versus evil intertwined. Her talent for world-building immerses the reader fully into Dia’s surroundings.
The author’s respect for and knowledge of nature is also evident. There are even a few adorable animals. As this first book in the series comes to a close, the reader is introduced to the wonders of Corvacadia, a magical and beautiful world with surprises of its own. Readers will be eager to know more about Corvacadia in subsequent books in the series, and will certainly want to keep up with Dia and her tribe of unusual but capable allies as she navigates an increasingly complicated maze where magic and evil come together.
As I read this book, I was constantly amazed at the author's ability to keep all the events, characters, plot twists, and surprises straight, but she managed to do so, and do it well.
After you’ve read this mesmerizing book, be sure to check out books two and three, The Corvids and Corvacadia.
Connect with Karen on Twitter and Goodreads.
I was delighted in January when my friend Mary suggested we organize a book club by mail, just for the two of us, and I jumped at the suggestion.
When we first met in Virginia fifteen years ago, Mary invited me to join her long-time traditional book club, and I participated enthusiastically until I moved out of state. I never did get back into another book club, and not for a lack of trying. Somehow, I just didn't find the right one. Some met during the day. Others were dedicated to just one genre. One had too much socializing and not enough book discussion. Another was too much book discussion, and presided over by a leader who might as well of had a ring of keys at her waist and be named Matron.
But Mary's book club fit just right! Our rules, if you can call them that, are loose-goosey, to use a technical term. We will send each other books we have enjoyed and if we feel like it, we will exchange insights and commentary by text, email, and/or phone.
It began when I received "If the Creek Don't Rise," by Leah Weiss, an author from our Central Virginia town. This beautifully written book made me practically weep with its perfectly executed prose and solid expanse of time and place. In exchange, I sent Mary "The Flight of the Maidens," by Jane Gardam, a post- WW II coming-of-age story. We were off to a good start!
Then we moved on to "The Dollhouse," by Fiona Davis, and Mary sent me "Angel," by Elizabeth Taylor.
I have to pause here to say that "Angel" perfectly exemplifies the point of book clubs. This is a book I never would have picked up, and had it not been for Mary's endorsement, probably would not have kept reading. The main character has only one redeeming quality, and that is her love for animals, something that Mary and I have in common. I ended up loving this book, in a macabre kind of way, and will read more by this author.
We exchanged biographies of Wallis Simpson and Beatrix Potter. I'm currently reading "Normal People" by Sally Rooney, and recently sent Mary a book of short stories, "An Evening in Paradise," by Lucia Berlin. As a birthday present Mary slipped in a copy of "A Woman of No Importance," by Sonia Purnell, about an American woman super spy in World War II. She bought a copy for herself, too, and for the first time we're reading the same book together!
I find myself thinking of Mary when I buy a new book. Yesterday, at my local library book sale, I purchased a copy of "The New Woman," by John Hassler, thinking to myself, this looks like something Mary would like, too!
Another bonus of our little book club? It reverberates beyond just the two of us. I've shared copies of books Mary has sent me with my sister in New York and a friend in Virginia, who in turns shares them with her daughter in South Carolina, and Mary shares my books with her sister in Maryland.
Books are indeed the gifts that keep on giving.
Read our literary insights, exchanged via texts, in the slideshow below.
I’m an emotional reader, picking up a book based on what I’m feeling at that exact moment. I typically read as many as seven books or more at a time, both fiction and non-fiction. As a result, sometimes it can take me a long time to finish a book. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this habit and that there is a lot of concurrent reading going on in the world!
On a dreary day when I’ve done all my chores and need a distraction from the writing I should be doing (hah!), there’s nothing better than a cozy mystery, such as the Booktown mysteries by Lorna Barrett. In the mornings when I’m getting ready for work and don’t want to tune into the horrible news of the day, I listen to something from Audible (Right now it’s The Golden Tresses of the Dead by Alan Bradley) When I’m traveling, I treat myself to something from the airport bookstore to distract me on long flights, such as The Woman in Cabin 10.
And in the winter, I hunker down with solid, cerebral reads to combat the dark and dreary climate. I seem to gravitate to books that are dense and intense, almost like a bowl of rich stew or a hearty soup, and with the same delicious result, such as Elmet, by Fiona Mozley or A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towels.
Now Spring is on its way, and beach read season is around the corner. Here’s a little taste of what’s on my nightstand and devices, followed by the "coming soon" books I can’t wait to be released.
Currently on my nightstand:
Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng
Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser
Lad: A Dog, Albert Payson Terhune
The Meaning of Maggie, Jean Sovern
Angel, Elizabeth Taylor
The Golden Tresses of the Dead, Alan Bradley (Audible)
The Bone Runners, Karen Turkal (Kindle)
And I’m eagerly anticipating the following releases!
Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson and Call Your Daughter Home by Deb Spera. My current novel-in-progress (as in, I’m on the third re-write) is set during the Great Depression, so I’m anxious to read other books set during that time period.
Love and Death Among the Cheetahs, book 11 in Her Royal Spyness series, by Rhys Bowen and A Killer Mystery, by Lorna Barrett, are light reading that will arrive just in time for entertaining beach and pool-side reading
I am a Murder She Wrote freak for light reading (my dog’s name is Jessica Fletcher). The next installment in the franchise, A Time for Murder, arrives in November. Ah, something to look forward to as the cool Autumnal days settle in to stay.
What's on your nightstand?
A Note on Murder She Wrote
This is my dear, sweet Jessica Fletcher! For those of you not familiar with the Murder She Wrote franchise, here's a brief overview. Angela Lansbury starred in this cozy mystery drama as a late-in-life bestselling author, who bested law enforcement as an amateur sleuth. When she wasn't traveling to promote her books, Jessica was solving murders in her beloved home town of Cabot Cove, Maine. The show was extremely popular and ran for 12 seasons between 1984 and 1996. Jessica was a kind, thoughtful, smart and successful woman who enjoyed small-town living and international success. Sounds like the perfect life to me!
At first I didn’t know what to make of this book. It seemed like Don Quixote meets the Ghost of Christmas past in a Vermont Bread and Breakfast setting with a twist of romance and a fairy godmother thrown in. But after reading through to the end, I discovered that throwing all this together in a story was not necessarily a bad thing!
I was intrigued by the character of Alexis (the fairy godmother inspired character), who charms Blake, the main character, with her quirky, loveable, and mysterious personality. When she promises Blake that she can heal his broken heart in twenty-four hours, my interest was piqued, and I wanted to know more about her, which kept me reading. Was she real? Or a figment of Blake’s imagination? Would Blake wake up and realize it was all a dream? I didn’t know…so I kept reading. And after all, isn’t that the sign of a good storyteller?
The themes of kindness and generosity of spirit were presented in an original way, not in a preachy, moralistic message.
I would have liked to have seen more back story about the characters, besides the heartache of lost love. After all, we are more than our experiences, and always more than what other people think we are. Our lives don’t happen in a vacuum, and I would have appreciated a broader view.
But all in all, this was a fun, sweet read.
Follow Mel Walker on his Amazon Author Page
Other books by Mel Walker: The Lonely Place and Second Chances