Tuesday, October 1, 2013

My Blog Is Moving

When I was at a conference this past summer, one of the speakers warned all of us wanna be authors to pick a name. It seems he reads many submissions for an anthology and he's noticed that people keep using different variations of their name.

When my late husband, Mike and I married, I assumed I would carry his name for the rest of my life.

Now that I've remarried, what name do I choose? In my personal life, I proudly take my husband's name.

For my writing life, I decided to use the name my parents blessed me with.
Connie (for my Mom) Thompson (for my Dad)

My new blog address:

Email me: connie (at) connieathompson (dot) com

I hope you'll join me there.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Review: The Firebird

The Firebird is an enchanting novel by Susanna Kearsley. It is the July selection of She Reads, an organization dedicated to bringing great books to women. I promise you that once you start reading, you will not want to put it down.

Through the narrative, Kearsley tells the story of Nicola and Rob and their ability to see into the past. Through their gift, they reveal the story of Anna, an enchanting young girl who lived in the early 1700s during the exile of King James VII. Her family are Jacobites, loyal to the king they wish to help return to his throne. Anna’s father, John Moray was a crucial part of the rebellion and the family fears the knowledge of the child’s birth would put her in danger as well as give the enemy leverage against her father. The Morays are known for their loyalty, but will that loyalty hold fast against the threat and torture of a child? The child remains hidden. She doesn’t know the truth until her uncle comes to take her to a safer place, but the convent isn’t safe for long.

Nicola Marter is cursed with a gift. She has the ability to see an object’s past. At her grandfather’s insistence, she keeps her ability a secret. He knows the hardships this gift can bring. Nicola longs to be average and she avoids using her gift as much as possible, but sometimes an object’s history demands revelation.

Nicola works in a gallery where she acquires beautiful artifacts and sells them. When Margaret Ross brings in the firebird for an evaluation, Nicola immediately sees an image of a young woman. She wonders if it is possible the firebird could have been given to Margaret’s ancestor by the Empress Catherine of Russia. But there is no way to prove it.

Encouraged by the pleadings of her late mother, Margaret wants to see the firebird so that she may finally travel. Nicola sees the woman’s intense longing and desire and her heart goes out to her. But how could she prove the firebird was a gift from the empress?

There is only one person who can help Nicola, Rob McMorran. Rob doesn’t hide his gift. He cultivates it. They have a complicated history and it doesn’t help that their gifts allows access into each other’s private thoughts. Will Nicola dare to ignore her grandfather’s warnings and use her gift to prove the history of the firebird?

It is definitely a book you will not want to put down. You're anxious to find out Anna's story as well as Nicola's.

I chose to listen to the audio edition of The Firebird. I found Katherine Kellgreen's performance to add a depth to the characters that my own American voice could not give them.

Please join us at She Reads where we will be featuring The Firebird this month. Pop over for the chance to win five of Susanna Kearsley's novels.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sunday Dinner: Happy Father's Day

Dad and Me

My Dad was only 18 when I was born. By today's standards this is extremely young, but in the 60s it wasn't all that unusual. When my youngest brother was born in 1984, my Dad was 36 years old. I thought he was crazy. He was too old to be a father. I can laugh about that now.

My Dad is the most patient man I know. I don't ever remember him getting too excited about much of anything. I've heard stories, but I've never actually seen it. He is always calm.

I rarely remember him punishing me, but when he did it was awful. The worst was when he would say, "I'm disappointed in you." I strived to avoid those words.

Dad always encouraged me to go back to school. I finally did. It took me years, but I now have the diploma to prove it.

Things I Remember About My Dad (somethings he likes to tease me with that never happened, but I know it did)

Dad sang in the car, in the shower, and just about anywhere. Delta Dawn and The Sugar Shack were too of his favorites.

He had a blue 66' Ford Falcon he called Nellie. He bought the car new before I was born with cash he earned from his paper route and driving the school bus. Can you believe they used to let teenagers drive a school bus?

One night he was making cornbread muffins and all we had left was chocolate milk; he used it. They were awful, but my sister, Dawn loved them.

We had a race one night, me and Dad against Mom and Dawn. Since Randall and Dennis were babies and we couldn't leave them, my parents timed each other. I remember a dog getting after us as we ran, but Dad scooped me up and fussed at the dog. It only slowed us a minute or two. Mom and Dawn lost. Mom claimed they had to stop by grandmother's for Dawn to use the bathroom, which was probably true. Dawn always had to go to the bathroom.

My parents were always competitive with each other. Scrabble was one of their favorite games. They were brutal and played for high points. In my Mom's stacks of pictures, there are several of their games at conclusion showing the words and points they had made, often the game went well above 400 points for both of them.

Dad, Amanda, Elizabeth, Randall, Ethan
Dad loved Star Trek, Daniel Boone, and Emergency 51. I can remember watching all of those with him on our new console color television.

Several years ago we were at the movies, Dad, me, Randall, and Dennis. We had some of the kids with us, but I'm not sure which ones. I think my kids thought they were too cool to go to the movies with their Mom. Dad looks down the row and laughs. "I never thought I'd be taking my kids to see a cartoon  when they're over 30." We saw The Incredibles.

Dad, Me, Dennis
I haven't always appreciated my father as I should. I was very upset with him for divorcing my mother. It took a long time to come to terms with that. He didn't abandon me, but it seemed that way to my ten year old self. When Mom got cancer and I learned she was dying, I was overwhelmed. The one person I would share such awful news with I couldn't because she was dying. I went to my Dad. He was there for me. He was there for all of us. He still us. I've come to understand, he was always there, but out of respect for Mom, he let her remain center stage in our lives. I'll always miss my Mom, but I'm thankful for the wonderful father I'm blessed with.

Today we'll be having one of Dad's favorites, brownies. My Dad sure loves chocolate. Happy Father's Day Daddy!

Happy Father's Day to my brothers, Randall and Dennis. I appreciate how you stepped in to be father figures to my children.

Happy Father's Day Chuck. You're such a wonderful man and I'm so thankful to be marrying you next week. Five more days.

Elizabeth, Dad, Ethan
Dad and Zachary

Thursday, June 6, 2013

On Waiting for the Right One

This week I met a young woman, Leslie. She is 22 and single. Loneliness is her constant companion. She's not found the one and she wants to find the one.

There she is having dinner with a happily married couple of eleven years, a married woman of five years, and me, engaged to be married June 21st. Love is all around, but not for her (at least not right now).

We all had some interesting advice to give her.

Movies: He's Just Not That Into You and Runaway Bride

If a man is truly interested, he will get in touch with you. Don't put your life on hold while you wait by the phone.

Quit looking so hard. He will find you. Her brother-in-law told her that the one is out there right now running as hard as he can to her. He just hasn't found her yet.

Don't get too upset if after a couple of weeks things cool off and he stops calling. Let it go. As my brother once told me, sometimes you didn't do anything wrong. It just isn't the right time for him to have a girlfriend. And what if there is something he doesn't like? Do you honestly want to makeover yourself to make him happy?

This is where Runaway Bride comes in. Maggie wants to get married. She's famous at finding men, but when the wedding day comes, she runs.

The reporter following her around as she prepares for her next wedding asks all her previous fiancés "How did she take her eggs?"

"Just like me," they all reply. They all had different preferences for eggs.

Maggie becomes the woman she thinks a man wants her to be rather than allowing them to see the woman she is.

Be yourself. If he doesn't like you for you, do you truly want to build a life with him?

Just because, we said not to be looking, doesn't mean she should put her life on hold. We encouraged her to do things she likes. Join groups. Go to events. Enjoy life.

When needing advice about men, sorry ladies, but turn to the men in your life — brother, father, uncle, trusted friend. Women do not know what men are thinking. Ask a man. He'll give you some exceptional insight. Sometimes when a guy has that zoned out look, and you ask him what he's thinking. He isn't thinking anything — men can do this. Or he may be thinking about when was the last time he had his oil changed.

A first date is an opportunity to get to know someone not a marriage proposal.

My fiancé, Chuck teases me that our first two weeks of dating was the longest job interview of his life. I asked him a million questions and I was very honest when answering his questions. Dating is an opportunity to get to know someone. Have fun, but get to know them. It is a lot easier to let go in the first few weeks then later when you've built a life together only to find that you're just, not into each other.

Be patient Leslie. When you don't have a man in your life, it is the perfect opportunity to get to know yourself. Make good girlfriends. I know one day that a wonderful guy will meet you and know that you're what he's been waiting for all along.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Review: The Wishing Tree

Every little girl dreams of her wedding day, but what happens when that dream doesn't come true?

Ivy Marshall has made a life for herself in the mountains of Asheville six hours away from her beloved Sunset Beach, North Carolina, where her mother, sister, and aunt still reside.

Five years earlier a family rift sent her packing, running away, and straight into the strong arms of Elliot, who became her husband.

Ivy finds out that her job is ending on the same day she finds out her sister, Shea is being proposed to on national television, and Ivy fears her husband is having an affair.

Ivy returns home to help plan the wedding, which now will also be televised. Her sister is having the wedding Ivy always dreamed of, well minus the television coverage. Ivy certainly would not want that. Ivy finds that more than just the landscape has changed. A new bridge has replaced the old drawbridge allowing traffic to flow under and over without impeding either. While this is more efficient, things are just not the same.

Her aunt Leah laughs and flirts with Lester, the man who works for her in the bakery and also helps deliver wedding cakes.

Her mother is always laughing and talking with friends on the phone and leaving her daughters to join these friends for coffee.

Her sister Shea seems to be running away from her own wedding, a wedding that Ivy can't help but wish she had. And Ivy's mother has delegated the job of taking care of the wishing tree, a long standing family tradition where guests, family, and friends write down wishes for the happy couple. The tree was originally Ivy's when she was engaged to marry Michael, her childhood sweetheart. But Ivy met Elliot and everything changed.

And now Ivy can't help but wonder if she should have chosen Michael. Was he the one? Is there still something there? Should she leave her husband and be with the first man who asked for her hand in marriage?

Ivy tries to fix things while also seeking divine help. Faith in God has always been a strong part of her life. Will God see things the way she does? Should she go after Michael or try to work things out with her husband? 

When Ivy left, she cut off all ties with her husband — she changed her email address, phone number, and blocked him from her Facebook. The only way he can reach out to her is through Twitter, where he tweets asking for her forgiveness. And while Ivy isn't responding, other people are including women who let Elliot know that they would love to give him a chance if his wife won't.

This is a delightful read. You feel Ivy's pain and frustration. You see the life she could have as well as the life she does have. This time she can't run, she's at a crossroad and a decision must be made.

Mary Beth Whalen has written three other novels. She is the wife of Curt and the mom of six children. She is the director of She Reads, an online book club  focusing on spotlighting the best in women's fiction.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Sunday Dinner: Family Pictures and Stories

When I was a little girl, my paternal grandfather, Papa Clyde would allow me to look through his family book, a most prized possession his Aunt Daisy had written, assembled, and illustrated. In it were family pictures, records of births, deaths, and marriages, and family stories.

I've read that book cover to cover. I would look into the pictures searching for familiar family traits in them. At the time, I didn't always see it. Now when I look I see my father when I look at the image of his great great grandfather. When I look at my Aunt Daisy's childhood photo, I see a little of myself, but not too much for I am my mother's daughter and my features are more like hers.

A page from the family album
What a treasure this book has been to me. The original book is stored away at my uncle's house, but I convinced him years ago to let me borrow it. I scanned all the pages and returned it to him. A treasure like that is so priceless, I was terrified my daughter might find it, and if you know her, you know she is accident prone. That child, woman now, has broken more things than anyone I know. Perhaps she is misfortunate, but I try not to let her near anything with sentimental value.

I was in a writer's craft lecture yesterday and the author, Cary Holladay talked about a family diary she had come across. I immediately thought of my own family's and then I realized that all those years ago while perusing those pages and reading the history influenced me more than I knew.

When I was a little girl, I wanted to learn to read because I watched my grandmother's face transform as she read. I saw the tears she brushed away and heard her giggle and often laugh at loud at something she had read. I pestered her and she taught me. My mother didn't realize I could read until one day I picked up the TV guide and told her what was coming on television that night. Watching my grandmother was the birth of a dream, a little girl who wanted to write books in order to make people cry and laugh out loud.

But it was my Aunt Daisy's family history book that further infused this dream. When I introduced myself to the class on the first day, I told them my name, about my children, but most importantly that now with my children grown, I have the opportunity to bring that little girl's dream true.

We won't be having Sunday dinner today since I will be at lectures and workshops with the Converse College low residency MFA. Check back next week. We'll be celebrating a couple of birthdays and anniversaries - a little late, but I'm sure my family understands.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Reflections of the My First Day of First Semester in the MFA

Yesterday was the first day of the Converse College MFA, but we all glided into our new setting. We received our packets, school IDs, parking passes, and key (if you're staying on campus). We had our meeting warning us to keep up with the work, follow the rules, and what material we needed to turn in when we leave.

At dinner, there was a hum that can only be attained through people with like minded passions. Individuals jumped from various conversations speaking with fellow students and faculty members. It was similar to writer's conferences that I've been to, but we all know that once this week is over, we're tied to one another for the next couple of years.

I got to meet the ladies who are part of my first group. Kim, Kathy, Sara, and I will be critiquing each other's work under the guidance of our mentor, Cary Holladay. It was so nice last night because Cary sought each of us out in the crowd to welcome us and introduce herself. I was at ease. We had already had the opportunity to spend a few minutes getting to know our fellow students before the faculty arrived.

Any time someone reads your work in progress it can be like being caught on your worst day — no makeup, hair all mussed up, and that pallor you have when first startled awake from a deep sleep.

It is still scary to let people read your finished work, but by that time, hopefully you're presenting your best and not likely to land in the worst dressed list or as they say in the South, "Bless her heart. What was she thinking when she picked out that outfit? Did she not look in the mirror before she left the house?"

I'm looking forward to the second day. We have a full day of craft lectures, critiques, and readings scheduled.

Last night Susan Tekulve and Denise Duhamel were our faculty readers. Susan's novel, In the Garden of Stone was just published by Hub City Press and won the SC First Novel Prize. Denise's latest book of poetry, Blowout is also available

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Day Before The Semester Begins

Tomorrow begins my 10 day residency with the Converse MFA program. We'll meet twice a year, but the rest of the time I will work with my mentor. For the first semester, I have Cary Holladay. I've read a few of her short stories and I'm in awe. While she is an accomplished writer and renowned professor, she is new to this program too.

We have craft lectures and reading scheduled with Susan Tekulve, Denise Duhamel, Marlin Barton, Suzanne Cleary, Allison Joseph, Jon Tribble, Robert Olmstead, Jim Minick, Cary Holladay, John Bensko, Richard Tillinghast, Dan Wakefield, Rick Mulkey, and Leslie Pietrzyk.

I am excited and overwhelmed. It is scary when you go into a new situation and I will be having workshops with people I don't know.

For those of you who don't know, workshops are where you meet with your mentor and fellow students and critique one another's work. While it is usually in the best of spirits, I have been through some tough critiques while in the BFA, thankfully not with my mentor, but with one student in particular. I finally quit subjecting myself to her criticism. It wasn't worth it to read what she had to say. It is hard to see your work slashed and laid open for all to see. When you write, you expose yourself and there you are waiting for other people to criticize you.

One of my professors told me that workshops are valuable, but you also have to pay attention to who is critiquing you. Note the general consensus of the critiques. If the majority says to cut a scene or make a change, you should consider it. If one person just doesn't seem to get your work, then maybe they aren't your target audience. Be respectful, listen, but remember that you are the author — it is ultimately your decision when revising.

While reading my fellow students work (we received them back in April, but I like to wait until closer so that the pieces are still fresh in my mind), I was amazed by the talent. I know you'll be seeing some of these folks in print in the future.

I also saw some areas for possible improvements. I saw mistakes, which were easy to point out because I am guilty too.

I had to read several war stories. I liked the first one, but after that it was too much for me, and not because the writing was bad, but just because it is a subject that doesn't appeal to me. I'm a middle aged Southern woman, war stories just aren't my thing.

When critiquing, I try to keep to the golden rule by saying things in a way that I feel I would like to receive them. I hope my fellow students do the same.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review: The Wisdom of Hair

“The problem with cutting your own hair is that once you start, you just keep cutting, trying to fix it, and the truth is, some things can never be fixed. The day of my daddy’s funeral, I cut my bangs until they were the length of those little paintbrushes that come with dime-store watercolor sets. I was nine years old. People asked me why I did it, but I was too young then to know I was changing my hair because I wanted to change my life.”

I believe that hair is probably one of the most defining features of any true Southern woman. We are taught from a young age to wash, condition, roll, tease, comb, brush, and curl our hair. Most Southern women my age have been subjected to visiting the beauty shop, not a salon, but the beauty shop, the kind you find in the movie, Steel Magnolias.

The novel is set in 1983, when big hair was all the rage in the South. Zora Adams has the grades and brilliance to go to college, but she doesn't have the means. She sets her sights on beauty school, where she can learn to cut and style hair and make a living for herself.

She's spent most of her life in the shadow of her mother, who is an alcoholic Judy Garland wanna be, complete with hair, make-up, and clothes. But there is only so much a girl can take and she leaves her Mama and her beloved mountains for a beauty school near the coast. She meets Sara Jane Farquhar and they quickly become best friends. She is the first true friend Zora has ever had.

Zora and Sara spend their days at school, learning about fixing hair, fixing hair, and drinking wine. Sara pines after the yard boy while Zora is more interested in the young widower, Winston Sawyer, who drinks himself to sleep every night.

Zora and Sara have some wonderful adventures together. This is what true friendship really is like. I enjoyed the characters, the setting, and the story.

This is a wonderful read for those days when you would just love to get wrapped up in someone else's troubles, heartaches, and blessings. 

I would like to thank the wonderful ladies at She Reads for turning me on to this great new author.

Kim Boykin's The Wisdom of Hair is a Spring Okra Pick from SIBA.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sunday Dinner: Chocolate Chip Cookies

The delicious smell calls to you the minute you walk through the door, there waiting for you are fresh baked cookies and a glass of milk. My Mama wasn't really the kind to have fresh baked cookies waiting for you when you came home from school, but that didn't mean she wasn't a good Mama.

I came home from school crying because nobody picked me for their kickball team, they had to take me.

"Are you going to cry about it or do something?" she said.

"What can I do?" I whined.

She took me outside. We only had a basketball, but it would do. There in the backyard, she first taught me the rules. She rolled the ball and taught me to wait for the kick. She taught me how to align myself and to get some momentum from the ball. I was not a very coordinated child, never had been, but we worked that afternoon and every afternoon for a couple of weeks.

The time came when a team had to take me. It was my turn. Everyone came in from the outfield. They laughed at me. The ball rolled faster than usual towards me. I waited, preparing myself for the right moment, and then I stepped up kicking the ball. It went in a nice beautiful arc, just beyond the infield. Nobody was there, they all went running, chasing after the rolling ball. All my teammates crossed home plate and I made it to third. 

That afternoon when Mama got home from work, I told her about my victory. She was so proud of me. We went outside and practiced for a bit.

After that day, I was never chosen first, but at least the team was happy to have me rather than being forced to accept me. 

Mama taught me to practice. 

Practice and perseverance might not make you perfect, but it can definitely make you proficient.

For Sunday dinner today, I'm taking it easy. We're having tacos. And for dessert, we'll be having chocolate chip cookies.

You can find the recipe my Mama used and passed down to me here. You can also find it on the back of the package of Nestle Tollhouse Chocolate Chips. I've tried others, but to me, these are the best. I leave out the nuts, my family is not a big fan. Sometimes I add peanut butter chips too.

Happy Mother's Day!

If your Mom is still with you, take a moment to tell her how much she means to you. 

I find it hard to fathom, but some people didn't grow up with exceptional mothers like mine. If you are one of those unfortunate people, why don't you think instead of the grandmother, aunt, teacher, or any woman who came along beside you to help you during your youth. I know they will appreciate it and it will make you feel better.

Friday, May 10, 2013

It Would Have Been 5

"Five years ago today I married a wonderful man. "We're making bittersweet memories," one of the wedding guests said. It was a small wedding in the living room of our home surrounded by family and friends. We said our vows in front of the fireplace, looking in each others' eyes, holding hands. He stumbled over the words: in sickness and in health. When it was my turn, I squeezed his hand gently with each of those words.

Just a month earlier he had been in a hospital bed. The doctor had given him ten days to live. Mike was always surprising his oncologist and mostly in wonderful ways.

Mike had a quiet strength about him. He was an encourager. He was a listener. There were so many lives he touched during the cancer year. He taught me so much.

Not long after our wedding, Mike was told he was in remission. The doctor cautioned him that the cancer would eventually take his life, but for then, he should do the things he wanted to do. I asked Mike if there was a special place or thing he wanted to do.

"The average ordinary days are extraordinary," he said.

We spent time doing our favorite things: sitting on the deck, watching "House" on television, riding in his new car, going to church, visiting with family and friends, playing Yahtzee, and so many other simple things.

One of Mike's favorite things was to go to McDonald's for his Big Mac and chocolate shake and drive to the local park, where we would sit by the lake and have a little picnic.

This man was a blessing to me. Five years later, he continues to bless me in ways I could never have imagined. I am a better person because of the time we spent together. I cherish those moments. And he taught me so much about living in the moment and appreciating the simple things.

Mike's mother, Jan Kuhn has written a memoir, "Hi, Mike. It's Mom!" about his life and the cancer. If you're interested, you can find it on Amazon. The Kindle price is amazing. My mother in law is a wonderful storyteller and I believe she captures her son in a way he would be proud.

Thanks for stopping by.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Review of In the Garden of Stone

As I read the first pages of Susan Tekulve’s In the Garden of Stone, the image of my grandmother as a young girl came to mind – the details of washday and baking day evoked the beautiful rich stories of everyday life my grandmother once told me of when she was a girl.

In the Garden of Stone is a novel in stories, which for a writer can be daunting and risky. Many readers favor a traditional plot that remains with the same character throughout the novel, but in Tekulve’s novel, it is the land that binds the passing generations.

Tekulve sets the novel in a coal town in the Appalachian mountains. The story begins in 1924 with Emma as a young woman, “sixteen, old enough to work like a woman alongside her mother and speak her mind.” Later you see Emma as an old woman, ravaged by the same disease that incapacitated her mother, but there is still that quiet strength and resolve that remains with her throughout her life.

The story ends almost fifty years later. The changing landscape continues to resonate with beauty and history throughout the pages of the novel. With each passing generation, the way of life changes — the coal mines close and a new way of life emerges. But for some, the land remains a source of pride and heritage.

The story is told through the perspectives of Emma, the matriarch; Dean, her son; Sadie, Dean’s wife; and Hannah, the daughter of Dean and Sadie.  I found the transition and influence of each passing generation mesmerizing. You could see how Emma’s choices and life continued to influence her child and grandchild.

Character, plot, and setting all come together like a prize winning recipe to make a good story. I’ve had the privilege of having Susan as my teacher and mentor. She’s an excellent creative writing teacher because she is an excellent writer. It was amazing to see her applying the principles she teaches so well. 

Susan Tekulve is the winner of the South Carolina First Novel prize. In the Garden of Stone is published by Hub City Press.

If you would like to read more about Susan and her culinary skills, follow the link for an earlier post for Appalachian Wedding Cake.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Review of Orphan Train — Entertaining and Enlightening

However hard I try, I will always feel alien and strange. And now I’ve stumbled on a fellow outsider, one who speaks my language without saying a word.

Short on time, busy with finals, projects, work, family, etc., I wondered how I would possibly be able to fit in reading and reviewing Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline for She Reads for May. I knew from the dust jacket copy, it would be a book I would thoroughly enjoy. Instead of reading it, I decided to listen to it.

I downloaded it from Audible to the app on my phone. Sometimes I love technology. I listened while walking and doing my daily routines, you know the kind that don’t require your undivided attention, but must be done — laundry, dishwashing, commuting, etc.

Penobscot Indian Molly Ayers is seventeen and about to age out of the foster care system. She’s in trouble for stealing a library book, a worn, tattered copy of her favorite book, Jane Eyre. Molly is forced to do fifty hours of community service and she will do these hours by helping ninety-one year old Vivian Daly clean out her attic.

As Vivian and Molly begin to go through the trunks, Vivian reveals her story, a story she has never shared with anyone.

Like Molly, Vivian is also an orphan. She was not given the name Vivian at birth. She was born Niamh (pronounced Neev) in Ireland. She came to America with her parents, two brothers, and sister. She lost her family in a fire. Niamh and her mother were the only survivors, b heer mother was mentally unstable and placed in an institution. Naimh is placed on the orphan train, which is leaving New York City bound for rural areas in the hopes that good people will want to adopt and provide homes to the trainful of orphaned children.

How much of our identity comes with a name? Niamh immediately loses her name when she steps off the orphan train. First she is given the name Dorothy. And like Molly, Dorothy lives in several homes, none of which she ever truly belongs. She eventually becomes Vivian, but I won’t ruin the story by telling you how.

I loved listening to the book. Jessica Almasy and Suzanne Toren wonderfully portray these women. Molly’s character is given the right “bite” and sarcasm I would picture her to have. With Vivian, there is an underlying tone of strength and courage that surviving such a life would leave you with.

Of course Vivian’s past is full of many secrets and Molly is able to use modern technology to find answers to some of Vivian’s questions.

Whether you read the book or listen to the audio version, Orphan Train is a novel that is sure to delight you — entertaining and enlightening.

Please check back tomorrow when I will be reviewing In the Garden of Stone by Susan Tekulve.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Sunday Dinner: Appalachian Wedding Cake

Appalachian Wedding Cake

Today I have a guest post from Susan Tekulve, the author of In the Garden of Stone.

I came to know my mother-in-law, Mary, through the recipes she gave to me. In my memory, I always see and hear Mary in the kitchen of the two-story brick house my father-in-law built after he retired from the Norfolk and Southern Railroad, in the mountain town of Bluefield, Virginia, where Mary had lived all her life, and raised all five of her children.  When my husband, Rick, and I went back to Virginia for a visit, Mary and I often woke before dawn and sat across from each other at the kitchen table, waiting for the sun to rise, and for the rest of the house to wake.  Sometimes, we peeled apples together. Rick’s grandmother still lived back on the family’s home place, on a ridge between a limestone quarry and the town’s cemetery.  Below the grandmother’s house was a green apple tree that continually dropped spotted, lopsided apples onto the gravel drive leading to the grandmother’s house.  Rick’s father wouldn’t throw any of the fallen fruit away.  Summers, he brought home a bushel basket full of bruised and torn apples every evening, after he’d been up to check on his mother.  
Mary and I would stand in the morning quiet of her kitchen, peeling and discarding the damaged spots off each apple, dropping the good slices into a pot of water, sugar, cinnamon and cloves, boiling this mixture into dark brown apple butter. While the apples simmered, Mary baked six thin layers of a gingery molasses cake, three at a time, in three well-seasoned cast iron skillets. When the cake layers cooled, she stacked them, frosting each layer with the apple butter.  The cake was supposed to “age” for a day, so that the apple butter could soak into the spiced layers until they became sweet and delicate.  Nobody in the house ever waited for this cake to age.  They ate it young, right after supper, which was always served at midday at my in-law’s house.  
Mary called this dessert molasses cake, or apple stack cake. Though she made this cake for all kinds of family gatherings, it was once the traditional wedding cake at Appalachian weddings.  The brides who lived on the remote sides of these Southern mountains relied on their guests to bring a thin layer of molasses cake when they arrived at the wedding, and the brides’ family members would assemble the cake, spreading apple butter between the layers. It is said that the popularity of the bride determined the final height of the cake.
This is a humble-looking cake that most women of this region make without a written recipe.  It’s not difficult. It requires only the patience for simmering a bushel of apples into butter, and waiting for six layers of cake to bake. While we waited for the cake layers to cool, Mary often told stories about her family.  She’d grown up in a trailer on the other side of Bluefield, on a ridge known locally as Dump Hill.  My father-in-law always said that Mary’s early upbringing was so rough that the details of what happened to her as a child on Dump Hill could not be repeated.  Though she hardly ever spoke of herself, Mary told stories about the women of her family.  These women married young and faced almost unendurable hardships—poverty, abandonment, violence--and endured.   
Perhaps the bitterness of Mary’s past was what prompted her to adore anything sweet. Perhaps her hardscrabble childhood and early marriage made her into the genuinely kind mother woman who readily adopted me as her daughter-in-law, and taught me how to make the Appalachian wedding cake recipe she’d learned from her own mother-in-law. 
When Mary passed away from cancer, Rick’s father began making all of Mary’s dessert recipes—brown sugar fudge, chess pie, and banana pudding—for the family. The last time Rick and I visited Virginia, I woke early and found Rick’s father in the kitchen. The whole house smelled warmly of the ginger and molasses cakes that he’d been baking while the rest of the house slept.  As he assembled and iced the cake layers, his grizzled face softened, turning almost boyish.  I could tell he was remembering Mary, perhaps recalling her as a young wife, still healthy enough to stand in that kitchen for hours, peeling those homely apples, baking those humble layers of cake.  Larry had baked his cake layers in different sized skillets, and he’d iced the layers with cooked apples rather than apple butter.  The finished cake looked a bit like a lopsided beehive, but there was no mistaking.  It was an Appalachian wedding cake.    We ate it “young,” drizzled with caramel, and dusted with powdered sugar. 

Here is the recipe for Appalachian Wedding Cake.  I use 3  9-inch cake pans instead of 3 cast iron skillets—mainly because I don’t own 3 cast iron skillets that are the same size.  If I don’t have the time to make my own, I use apple butter that you can find at produce stands or at church bake sales.  I pretty up the cake a little, dusting the assembled layers with powdered sugar, drizzling the top and sides with caramel sauce, garnishing it with a few slices of dried apples.  

Appalachian Wedding Cake

1 cup sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, room temp.
1 cup molasses
3 eggs
4 cups all purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. ground clove
1 cup buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 ½ cups apple butter, preferably homemade
powdered sugar, for dusting
Dried apples and caramel sauce for decorating

Method:  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Grease 3 9-inch cake pans.  Combine all dry ingredients and sift.  Cream butter and sugar together.  Add molasses and eggs and mix until combined.  Alternating dry and wet, add in sifted flour mixture and buttermilk.  Stir in vanilla extract and divide half the batter among the three greased cake pans.  Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean when tested in the center of a cake.  Let cool for a few minutes, then invert cakes onto paper plates.  Bake the other half of the batter.
When all cakes have cooled, spread several tablespoons of the apple butter on each layer—stacking as you go.  Wrap cake tightly and let “mature” for a day.  Or, if you can’t wait that long, dust finished cake with powdered sugar and serve.

I hoped you've enjoyed Susan's post.

Please check back tomorrow for my review on the She Reads May Selection, Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline.

On Tuesday I will be reviewing Susan Tekulve's In the Garden of Stone.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sunday Dinner: A Visit to the Biltmore House in Asheville, NC

Biltmore House in Asheville, NC
Yesterday my fiancé and I went to the Biltmore Estate. It is only an hour away, but I've never been before and I've lived in this area all of my life. Chuck surprised me with season passes to the estate so that we could enjoy the spring and summer flowers, fall foliage, and Christmas at Biltmore. All of these are supposed to be spectacular sights.

Gardens at Biltmore on April 27, 2013. Picture by Julie Scruggs.

Biltmore was built by George Vanderbilt in 1895. The cottage was only a day's rail trip from New York. At the time he built the home, he was still a bachelor, but that would soon change when he met the lovely, Edith and they made their home at Biltmore. Their home soon became a place for their family and friends to visit. They opened their home giving them a place to relax and have fun. Edith Wharton, a famous writer of the time was often a frequent guest.

Edith Vanderbilt and her daughter, Cornelia

Edith strived to make her guests as comfortable as possible. She would spend her mornings planning the meals and the day's events. Some of the amenities their guests could enjoy were a heated indoor pool as well as a bowling alley. This is the early part of the twentieth century when many homes didn't have indoor bathrooms or electricity.

People have often commented when they find out about Sunday dinners I cook about how difficult that must be. It is challenging and often time consuming, but it is so rewarding to have my family and friends at my home for a meal. Sure we could go to a restaurant, but there you're confined and really only able to converse with those seated beside you.

Today I'm taking it easy, we're having chicken (cooked in the deli at the local grocery store), mashed potatoes, green beans, macaroni and cheese, brown and serve rolls, and a cake (baked in the bakery at the local grocery store). Sunday dinner doesn't always have to be an elaborate meal. All of this will take less than an hour to pull together, but it is so worth the time and energy it takes to have time to spend with my grown children, my grandson, my father, my brothers and their families, and friends. I encourage you to skip the restaurant and invite everyone over.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Widow's Walk: What I Learned While Grieving For My Husband

Last week a friend of mine lost her husband in an accident. While I had time to prepare, she didn't. She said good-bye to him before he left for work and he was gone less than an hour later. My first thoughts were on praying for her and her daughters. 

Death changes your life. Your version of a normal day will never be what it was. After a few days, family and friends return to their normal, but the spouse and children are left struggling. What is normal now?

On Saturday I had lunch with a woman who lost her husband several years ago. We got on the subject of things that helped us in the days, weeks, and months after such a devastating loss. Here are some of the things we talked about that we found that helped us. 

Some say it takes a year and a day. Grief does not have a schedule.

There are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They do not follow any order. You can experience them all in a short period of time. Grief is messy and unpredictable.

Find a few movies that make you laugh or give you comfort and watch them when you need to. Mine were Bruce Almighty and The Lake House.

Give yourself permission to take the day off from everyone and everything. Stay in your pajamas and watch gameshows. Cry. Wail. Plant flowers. Anything that you want to. It is your day, but the next day – resume your normal schedule.

Find a hobby or something to do. I liked to work puzzles. It kept me busy and kept my mind off of things. Beware of busyness though, it can only mask your emotions for a short time.

Some restaurants and places will be difficult, but one day they will be special again.

Keep a journal.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. So many will offer by saying “Just let me know what you need.” Dinner. A movie. A trip to the mall. Allow people the opportunity to help.

Don’t feel bad about wanting time alone. You have a lot to process.

When you want to cry, but you’re afraid you’ll fall apart and never pull yourself back together,  set a timer for five minutes. Allow yourself those five minutes to wail. You’ll find that you’re probably done after four minutes (at least for that moment). There is something about allowing yourself a few minutes of letting your emotions out.

Walk. Workout. Try a class. Do something physical. Some who lose a spouse, gain weight while others lose. Having a physical outlet will help you at least feel better physically and it will also help with some of the stress.

Know that around six months, there will be a moment that really knocks you for a loop. Give yourself a little down time. 

If you have children, spend time with your kids, they lost him too. Take a trip. Do something fun. And it is always great to try something new rather than a favorite of the one you've lost. One day those things will you give you comfort, but usually not at first.

Turn resentfulness into thankfulness. This doesn’t happen over night, but I found that when I focused on the good times we shared, I could be thankful and accept things better.

Also know that it is the little things that will get you. I caught myself crying over dryer sheets and Toaster Streudel. You don't know what will get you.

There are some wonderful grief support groups. Give one a try, it might help. It helps to be with others who have also suffered such a loss.

On anniversaries and special days, send a balloon up to heaven. You can include a note if you choose.

There is no wrong or right answer. You have to do what is best for you and it will take some time to figure it out.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Review: Therese Anne Fowler's Z

There's nothing like losing yourself in someone else's troubles to make you forget your own.
—Zelda in Z, A Novel Zelda Fitzgerald

As I read a novel, there are usually a few sentences that always make me stop and take a second notice of. I love highlighting these, but of course only if it is my novel.

And in Therese Anne Fowler's latest novel, Z, there are quite a few highlights. Therese makes the scenes of the novel jump off the page and into your mind. I could see Zelda and Scott in New York, Paris, and Montgomery, Alabama.

Zelda was such a magnificent woman, but I've only thought of her as the woman behind the man. I've heard that she was the inspiration for many of Fitzgerald's female characters, especially Daisy Buchanan of The Great Gatsby. Daisy was never a favorite of mine and I didn't know if I really wanted to know anything about this woman.

I'm so happy that I had an open mind. This is not a memoir, but Therese spent many hours doing research. She made every effort to have the Fitzgeralds in the proper place and time according to their life. She read many letters written by Zelda. She read their novels. Notice I said their. Zelda wrote many stories, essays, and even a few novels. She wasn't trained like Fitzgerald, but she quips that she had a wonderful education for Scott used Zelda as his reader for most of his works. Zelda often offered suggestions, plot points, and was considered his muse.

Zelda wanted more than the typical marriage, children, and home that her sisters and friends had. She and Scott marry and the adventure begins. They live in New York and Paris. They vacation in Europe. They spend time with Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, and many other wonderful writers of that era.

Their perfect life is not so perfect. Scott drinks a lot. Zelda is infatuated with the ballet. She spends so much time dancing and perfecting her performances that she is offered a professional position as a ballet dancer. Zelda also has dark times and Scott turns to many doctors and institutions to help his wife. Scott is not an angel. Both husband and wife engage in affairs. Zelda is often hospitalized and incapable of caring for their only daughter, Scottie.

Despite Zelda's shortcomings, I couldn't help but love her. She is so misunderstood by her family, friends, and even herself. And the medical community of that time does not know how to deal with the mental problems she has.

The Fitzgeralds lived a life of excess. They were free with their money. They liked to drink. They loved to socialize. Scott earned an exorbitant amount of money, but never learned to manage it, spend all you have, there will always be more later. Scott eventually turned to Hollywood, where his screenplays fared better financially than many of his novels.

Even though I knew how the story ends, I couldn't help but hope for a happy ending. And while that isn't the case for Zelda, I was happy to have read her story. Zelda was an accomplished writer, dancer, and painter and I feel that Therese Anne Fowler did a wonderful job of humanizing the woman, who I once only thought of as the woman behind the great F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I am looking forward to reading some of Zelda's work, and I can't wait to reread The Great Gatsby through a new lens.

I first met Therese a few years ago at a writer's conference. She was so encouraging. It is always wonderful to meet a kindred spirit, a person who shares a similar interest and passion. I've read all of her novels and loved each one. I've seen her grow as a writer. Each new novel is better than the previous. I'm so happy to see other readers finding her works. She truly deserves to be part of the New York Times Bestsellers.

And on a special note, today is also Therese's birthday and it is so wonderful that we also have that in common. I'm looking forward to lunch tomorrow where Fiction Addiction in Greenville, SC is hosting Book Your Lunch with Therese Fowler. There are still a few tickets left so if you're in the area, you should treat yourself.

                                —The Great Gatsby

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday Dinner: Happy Birthday to Me and My Brother, Randall

Randall and Connie
I was only three years old when I celebrated my birthday alone for the last time. My little brother, Randall was born the year I turned four. He did actually miss the actual day, but with our birthdays only twenty-four hours apart, there were many shared birthday parties and cakes.

When we were kids birthday parties were held in your kitchen or your backyard if the weather permitted. There weren't any special decorations or goody bags. You had a cake usually baked by your mother, Kool-Aid, and a birthday present. Sometimes we had ice cream, but not always.

One year, we each had our very own cake. My birthday is the 22nd, while Randall's is the 23rd. On the 22nd, Mama invited all the kids from the neighborhood for cake and Kool-Aid. When everyone left, there was a small solitary piece of cake.

As Randall got ready for bed that night, he was upset. You would think with his birthday to come, he would be excited. After some questioning by our mother, Randall said, "I don't want all those other kids coming to my birthday. Did you see what they did to Connie's cake?"

Mama laughed, but the next day it was just a family celebration, which also included Lisa, our honorary sibling, who lived next door. Randall's cake actually lasted a couple of days.

Today for Sunday dinner, I decided to make one of our favorites, spaghetti and meatballs. And I was nice and made my brother's favorite cake, orange cake with orange icing.

I told Randall he would have to take any cake that was left home with him.

"And I've got a gallon of milk," he said with just a little sparkle in his eyes. "I'll probably gain a couple of pounds though."

I'm sure he'll be enjoying a nice slice of cake and a tall glass of milk as he watches the Amazing Race tonight.

I used to hate sharing a birthday with my bratty little brother when we were kids. But now I think it's kind of cool. Happy Birthday Little Brother!

Come back tomorrow where I'll be reviewing Z, A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler. And it just so happens that we celebrate the same birthday - April 22nd.