Books: The Perfect Christmas

I picked up this book at Value Village just before Christmas, and only just now got around to reading it. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it very much.
This two-tale book is well written, as are all of Debbie Macomber’s books, I’ve found. The first and longer tale, The Perfect Christmas — © 2009 — is one of those non-romantic romances where two people meet and don’t like each other. However, the author does this in a realistic way with no phony melodrama, no spitting nails at each other, such as you often see in modern anti-romances. The characters and dialogue are believable, professional, and respectful. The idea of paying that much money to find a spouse is the only thing I found incredible — but I don’t live in big city USA.
Seeing as the dating scene hasn’t delivered her dream spouse, Cassie Beaumont takes a friend’s advice and hands over $30,000 to a professional matchmaker to find her a well-matched mate. Rude and abrupt Simon Dodson may be, but she has to go along with his programme if she wants results. Determined to find the man she can live with, and have a family with, she can’t afford to have Simon, the psychologist running this business, get upset and refuse to work with her.
He proposes three character tests for her — and these are real jewels in themselves! I really enjoyed the realistic experiences Cassie has and what she learns as she works in these situations Simon has set up for her. Hats off to the writer for an excellent job on this part! She passes the tests and Simon promises to deliver the perfect spouse for her. But a wrench lands in the gears…

Can This Be Christmas? is an older, shorter story (© 1998) the writer has added as a bonus, yet it’s worth buying the book just for this one. Focusing on five characters needing to join family for Christmas, this morphs into a heartwarming human interest account of strangers stranded in a train station by a winter storm. None of them want to be here, but the Christmas spirit softens each one individually and melts them together as friends.

I rarely give a book five stars, but this one deserves them all.

Truth, Lies, and Desk-ku

According to haiku poet David Lanoue in his book Write Like Issa, “Many poets and some editors of journals dislike so-called “desk-ku”; haiku dreamed up as works of pure imaginations. Such writers and readers much prefer haiku to erupt from raw, genuine sensations and feelings.”

the furious sea’s
cat-and-mouse game with the ship
the band plays on

I guess this is desk-ku, since I’ve never been on a cruise, nor at sea in a storm. I was on a whale watch cruise once and did sense the power of the deep sea below. Also, I’ve read A Mighty Tempest by Michelle Hamilton, who describes her own experience in a small craft during a ferocious storm. So I let myself envision what might go on if a wild storm suddenly swept down on a cruise ship and picture the wild sea tossing even a behemoth like that into and out of troughs. I imagine the crew trying to distract passengers from the danger and keep up morale. I remember the story of the Titanic, how the band played as the ship went down.

In reality, cruise ships nowadays have enough weather-watch equipment to avoid that kind of a storm. Passengers would be ordered to their cabins until the danger was past. Oh, well…exciting to imagine.

This thought of genuine experiences and emotions versus writer imagination brings to my mind a similar sentiment expressed by a couple of different friends: “There’s no point reading fiction. It’s just lies someone’s dreamed up.”

To which I’ve replied, “Not very many writers just dream up everything they write in their stories. While the setting itself is invented, fiction involves weaving in incidents we writers have seen, heard, and experienced ourselves. The characteristics of our heroes and villains may be over-balanced compared to real-world people, but if they behave too irrationally, the story is spoiled and the reader disgusted — unless they like fantasy.

I think of Jesus, whose parables have come down to us through the ages, and how He left his stories open so readers could put themselves in the place of his characters. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus no doubt had a real situation in mind. He didn’t tell this as a dry account, however. He didn’t explain how “Twenty years ago back in Bethlehem, A, a middle-aged farmer, had two sons, B and C. One day C decided he’d had enough of working long hours in the fields; he wanted to see the world. So he says to his dad…and then he takes his share of the inheritance and heads off to xxx where he shells out his shekels on booze and parties. Etc.”

Leaving the actual facts unsaid, Jesus invites his audience — and us today — to see ourselves in all those characters. Haven’t all of us wandered down some wrong path — in attitude if not in fact? Then something woke us up, we saw where we were headed. We sensed we were polluting our minds, bodies, lives, with garbage, and we turned around. Haven’t we all had to go back and admit, apologize, figuratively if not literally ask to be taken back into the family or friendship?

Years ago a teen wanted “freedom” from the restrictions of her Christian home. She became infatuated with a ‘leader-of-the pack’ type, the head of a biker gang, and became his girl. But those bikers worked their girls; she ended up in the pigsty of prostitution, not at all free, and was finally cast aside by the leader. One day, soon to give birth, she finally came to herself, thought of her parents, the love she once knew, and started walking. She started to hemorrhage there on the sidewalk; a good Samaritan picked her up and drove her to the hospital. From there she and her baby girl went back to Mom & Dad and were welcomed back into the family fold.

Most parents can identify with the father, anxiously watching for the return of his prodigal. Whether the child has distanced himself in fact or in spirit, haven’t we hoped and prayed they’d come to their senses, deal with their sour attitude, and get their life back on track?

If we’re honest, we can place ourselves in the role of brother B, who kept his nose to the grindstone, bearing an extra-heavy workload because C took himself off to the fun-fair for a year or two. Now here comes his long-lost brother, crawling home broke and wasted, and their father lays out the red carpet, kills the fatted calf, and is in the middle of a big “Welcome Home” party for this loser.

Some writers do spin fantasies. Even if they try to cover their tale with a realistic setting, no real human beings would react the way their characters do. In real life, if you’re harsh and demanding, often rake your friend or partner over the coals for minor faults, he or she is not going to respond with profuse apologies and promises to get it right and pay attention to your feelings from now on. Trust me. Won’t happen. Modern romances really lead you astray on this one, because real human beings will either lash back or clam up and resent — just like you would if treated that way.

When I was a girl my mom wanted me to take an aspirin for whatever “growing pains” I had, so she’d crush it on a spoon together with sugar. The sweetness masked the taste of the medicine that relieved my pain.

That’s what writers do, sort of. A good fiction writer can take real life situations, dream up a fiction setting, give various incidents a twist — so Aunt Vanilla doesn’t know this humorous bit is based on her baked beans and Uncle Shellby doesn’t realize we’re describing his snoring — and head into a story that has a theme, a point. Something to ease the reader’s pain if they’re hurting.

I recall a time when I was worried about a situation that needed to be addressed somehow. It seemed someone(s) must see the light before too much damage was done — but I could hardly go and educate the attitude-riddled parties involved. Then a story seed dropped into my fertile mind and expanded into a somewhat exaggerated illustration with the point snugly wrapped inside.

My take on the gossip after a minor accident in our community, and how you just can’t believe everything you hear, became Brother Ed’s Accident in Silver Morning Song. Poor Brother Ed had a simple incident when hauling cattle, and thanks to the arrival of a helping hand, the problem was easily solved. But when he got to church the next Sunday… When I asked another writer for a critique, he told me, “This exact thing happened to me after I had a minor accident; the gossip had us dead and dying and what-not-all.”

One local farmer read that story and said he didn’t believe cattle could ever be rounded up that easily, I told him, “I’ve seen it done.” I also researched stock trailer doors online to find out if they might occasion pop open. Yes, it has; a horseman once lost a good stallion that way.

Writer integrity is the key phrase here. Realistic fiction, like all other writing, is a blend of personal experience & emotion, eye-witness accounts, stories heard, and a LOT of research. It shouldn’t be dismissed as “Just a bunch of lies.”

Never Look Back

This is my response to fellow blogger Kristian’s “Tell the Story” Challenge. Here’s the picture he’s given about which to write my story:

IMG_3163

Never Look Down: A Lesson in Corporate Ladders

“Never look down,” I whispered to myself. “Never, never, never look down.” I forced myself to focus on the floor above and took another step on the winding staircase.

So what quirk of nature is at play in the human brain — or is it something more sinister perhaps, some evil force at work? How can it be that, when you so much don’t want to do a thing…

I couldn’t stop myself. I leaned over the railing and looked at the landing below. Before I could grab them, my glasses slid off my face and went sailing down the staircase and crashed on the floor. I shook my head and hurried back down to grab my shattered glasses, then started up again.

I’d been so delighted when, after several years on the working in Accounts Receivable on the ground floor at the Apex Complex, I was able to get the position of Personal Assistant to Ms DeVerre, one of the company executives three floors up. I didn’t realize when I started in my new position that there’d be days when the elevator was out-of-order or otherwise tied up, and I’d have to take the stairs.

I was hunched over my desk trying to read the daily planner when Ms DeVerre walked in. I looked up at the sound of her greeting and she stopped to take a good look at me.

“Lost another pair of glasses down the staircase,” she asked. “Isn’t that the third pair this month? This must be getting expensive for you.”

I quickly pulled my spare pair out of my desk drawer. “I can’t seem to resist looking down. I think it’s some kind of compulsion. Maybe I should apply for a job as chambermaid at the local Holiday Inn. At least if my glasses fall off there, they’ll land on a soft bed.”

She didn’t laugh at my joke. “Surely contact lenses would be a better solution, Miss Shattner. You should look into that.”

“I’ve never liked the thought of wearing contacts, but you’re right, of course.”

She gave me an odd look before she went into her office, almost like she was wondering about my intelligence.

I sighed. Something told me I wasn’t going to get much higher on this corporate ladder.

Possibilities

I haven’t written a short story for awhile, so I’ll go with the prompt from Word of the Day: POSSIBILITIES

Dark Door

My spirits are as bright as the sky above as I hurry down the street of the small Italian village. I’m so thrilled to think of what Gabriel is doing for me. It’s beyond wonderful! A few more blocks — maybe fifteen minutes — and I may be meeting my great Aunt Vittoria. Oh, I hope I’ve really found her!

Just before the Second World War my grandparents, Arturo and Bianca Santini, emigrated to Toronto from this little town in the north of Italy. Still teenagers, and just married, they left most of their family behind, promising to send for the others once they’d made their fortune in the land where money grew on trees.

Talk about delusion! Life as an immigrant in Toronto turned out to be decades of hard scrabble. Yes, they’re comfortable in their old age, but never have had the cash to support other family members. Still, it’s been their intention to someday come back, revisit their childhood home and renew family ties. Grandfather’s heart problems have prevented them from making the trip now, but I determined that I would visit this village and do what I could to restore the lost family connections on their behalf.

I started working as a physiotherapist and saving my money; now, with a little help from folks and grandpas, I had enough cash to make this two-week trip. April 8, 1996 was the big day! My parents and grandparents drove me to the airport in Toronto and I was off and the adventure of a lifetime. Before I boarded Mom waved a finger at me: “Don’t let any handsome young Italian turn your head. We don’t want you staying there!”

I landed in Firenze, I rented a car and headed for Pisa — the Leaning Tower being one of the first tourist stops on my list. I visited several more spots, then headed north toward the Alps where I finally found the little village I’ve heard so much about from Grandpa and Grandma.

For the first couple of days I just wandered around, getting a feel of the place and practicing my poor Italian on the natives. If they shake their heads, I pull out my Italian phrases book and show them what I’m trying to say. They laugh, shake their heads again, and pronounce it properly, delighted when, after half a dozen tries at copying, I finally get it right.

I visited the cemetery and found the great-grandparent’s graves. I visited the town records office, where I learned that my grandfathers’ siblings all scattered after the war. There are no Santinis left here, sorry. Maybe in the next village? Grandma’s sisters likely remarried and changed their names. I should check the church records.

Those first few mornings I’ve been enjoying real Italian espressos at a little bistro that caters to tourists like me. I was there yesterday when a very handsome young man approached me. Thankfully he does okay in English and I didn’t need my little book of phrases. He introduced himself as Gabriel Venturi and excused himself for being so bold, but said I look so much like his Auntie Ginevra did when she was young. He asked where I’m from and if I have family here in the village?

Grasping at the possibility of a connection, I spilled out the story of my grandparents who left before the war. He studied me closely until I turned very pink, then he apologized for being rude and asked, “Was your Grandma a Ricci before she married?”

Hope flared like fireworks. “Yes! And her two sisters stayed here, Maria and Vittoria. Grandpa’s parents had died in an accident but three of his brothers and a sister were here when he left. All communication stopped after the war, though.”

He looked rather grave for a moment. “A lot of young men died in the war, out in the battlefields. Or in the ocean. And others emigrated, hoping for a more peaceful life elsewhere. Your grandparents did well to leave when they did. But I think I maybe can help you. Vittoria Lorenzo, my Auntie Ginevra’s mother is still alive, though she’s very old and not able to get out much. She was a Ricci before she married and I think she did have a sister who went to Canada. Of course these are very common names and perhaps no relation. Still, I’ll talk to my auntie. Meet me here tomorrow morning and I’ll see if I can arrange for you to meet them.”

My heart skipped a beat. Could this old lady really be Grandma’s sister?

Gabriel smiled. “If you would like to walk around the town with me, I’ll show you where the Ricci family lived when those girls were growing up.”

I’ll confess, my heart did flutter a bit as we walked along. This man could be a tour guide. I wondered for a moment just what he did for a living, but the chance never came up. He seems like a great person to talk to about any subject under the sun.

Not only did he show me around the town, but also bought us a delicious dinner at the hotel. I did wonder for a moment when the young waiter gave him a sly wink. They must be friends. Or maybe he thought I was Gabriel’s new girlfriend. I didn’t see any wedding ring, but I still made a point of asking him if he had a wife or sweetheart. He shook his head, looking — or trying hard to look— very dejected, then asked about my work in Toronto. Again I wanted to ask what he did for a living, but somehow we never got to that topic.

This morning he met me at the café as promised and told me he’d arranged for me to meet my possible Great-Aunt Vittoria. He said he’d go a few minutes early and explain things to her again — she’s old and very forgetful. I should wait five minutes and then walk straight uphill from the bistro, cross five streets, and turn right at Giordano. Half a block up I’d see #16. Vittoria’s daughter lives downstairs and keep a box of pink flowers in the window and there’s a birdhouse hanging by the door. He’d be sure to leave the door ajar for me; I should go up the stairs to the first floor and knock at the second door. He’ll be waiting in the apartment with Vittoria and Aunt Ginevra.

So I’m following instructions, hurrying along with high hopes my search will be rewarded. Won’t Grandma Bianca be thrilled to know her sister still lives here in the village! If it’s her…

Suddenly some other possibilities sweep through my mind. Suspicions. I’ve always had a suspicious nature and now it’s rearing its ugly head, growling like the Troll of Terror. “Is Gabriel really the helpful fellow he’s pretending to be? What if, instead of meeting a sweet old lady, I’ll be meeting a couple of thugs? How can I know?” My feet start to drag.

I turn the corner at Giordano Street and see an old man sitting on a bench. I greet him politely and ask about Vittoria… Oh, what was her married name? I ask about Ginevra. He nods and points to the house down the street. Number 16. He holds up fingers to show me, just in case I don’t get it. I wince, knowing how poor my Italian really is. He says something else and I catch it that Vittoria is very old, very old.

Somewhat reassured, I approach the door, standing ajar just as Gabriel said it would be, and see the dark stairway inside.

“I’ll gladly hand over my cash, if that’s what they want. Wait! I’m being foolish.” I take the first few steps up the shadowy staircase and heave a sigh. “At least my passport and ID are hidden at the Inn. If this is a robbery, they won’t get that.” I scold myself for being such a fraidy cat and walk up the rest of the stairs. Gabriel is too kind and friendly to be a crook. “He surely wouldn’t let anyone murder me.”

Now I’m facing the door. I give it a couple quick knocks and hold my breath. Such possibilities!

Gabriel opens the door and waves his hand, inviting me in with a flourish. I take a step forward and my eyes pop open. The little old lady sitting in a soft chair and smiling up at me is a perfect copy of Grandma Santini.

A Light, Enjoyable Series

Over the Christmas holidays I discovered a new series and have been reading through them one after the other. This is the Markham Sisters series by Diana Xarissa, who also does the Aunt Bessie (An Isle of Man Cozy Mystery) series.

The Markham sisters are two retired teachers who spend their little inheritance windfall on a bed & breakfast in what they think will be a calm little English village. Which it is, for the most part; the locals do their best to make the sisters welcome. The constable drops in often just to check on them—and is easily persuaded to stay for a bite to eat, seeing what a great cook Joan is.

Owning a bed & breakfast has been Joan’s dream since she was young, and since she’s the older, she’s persuaded younger sister Janet to go along with the plan. But running a business and dealing with customers sometimes proves intriguing. Joan has a stronger sense of propriety — which means “no snooping.” It’s Janet who gets quite curious about people who are acting suspiciously or whose stories don’t add up. Joan tells her to mind her own business, but Janet can’t resist doing some investigating.

This series is quite tame, more along the lines of Nancy Drew mysteries. Just what I like: no dead bodies discovered, but smaller crimes like art fraud, an odd shortage of narcotics at the drug store, counterfeit money being passed, and people who aren’t who they claim to be. The novel “cases” are named alphabetically and each book is a short, easy read.

There are ordinary day-to-day details some might find rather boring, but I enjoy the setting and characters. I’d take away one star, though, for the way the sisters interact sometimes. They are in their 60s but Joan is still bossing Janet like a teen older sister — at times this seems overplayed. And Janet, when she’s miffed, still sticks her tongue out behind Joan’s back. I’d think if they’ve lived together all their lives they’d have developed more of a respect for each other, show more of an accepting, “live-and-let-live” attitude. (Mind you, I’ve never lived with a sister for years, so I can’t say what roles they might fall into.)

There is a certain “ghost” angle written into these tales that, for my part, could have been left out. In the stories I’ve read so far it’s only been references to sounds Janet hears and occasionally a strange wind slamming a door.

Anyway, I’d give this series four stars. I read each book separately, but I see the author has published collections now, available free to those of you who have Kindle Unlimited. Here are first four cases:

A Markham Sisters Collection - ABCD by [Xarissa, Diana]

 

Birds, Books and Verses

Hello Everyone!

I’ve been dropping in here and there on other people’s blogs this month, but haven’t posted much of anything myself. It feels like “too long” but my time has been devoted to going over and polishing an acquaintance’s book.

Some great writer once said, “A book is never finished; it’s finally just abandoned.” Well, coming to the end of my fifth edit, I’m ready to abandon this book to the marketplace. I still have to set it up on Amazon and insert the images, but I can see light at the end of the tunnel.

Hari & Rudi in the Land of Fruit is a Christian allegory along the lines of Pilgrim’s Progress. The main characters are two young teens who find themselves on an intriguing journey through a strange land. Here they meet creatures who represent the fruit of the Holy Spirit: Joy, Peace, Love, Goodness, Patience, etc.

Doing this work has given me a good idea of that final drive necessary to get a book “out there” in a short time. (I’ve written a few of my own that are just waiting for that kind of commitment. 😉 )

To get some idea of teen fiction, I’ve been reading some very interesting books for teens, like the first book in Gordon Korman’s Kidnapped series. He’s a very good writer and this book is WELL done!

Last night, for something different — and because I enjoy reading haiku — I downloaded a book through Kindle Unlimited. The title is Redbird tree: one thousand haiku, and it’s written by James Dildine. I really like his introduction, about how the great haiku poet, Basho, didn’t limit himself to a rigid form, but wanted each verse to share a mini- experience with his readers. Then the author shares his own verses, not fussing about exact number of syllables and such. Which is fine, but…

What I’ve learned from this book so far is how important it is to get the formatting right — and if you can’t, then hire someone who can. Poetry is as much visual as sound, so when verses look like this…

86.) Afternoon rain The afternoon

rain
was cool and very welcome
spirits damp, not wet 87.) Neighbors

leaving

Storms came after noon,
with antlers high
they both left,thun-
der followed them

…it makes your eyes cross!
Note: This writer numbers and titles each haiku, and about half of his verses come out normally.

I took a break from editing Thursday and we went into the city to meet some writer friends for coffee and do some shopping. This afternoon and tomorrow dinner I’m cooking at the Villa, the seniors’ residence where I work on a casual basis. While in the city I saw this neat little car, so of course had to write a verse about it:

Mercedes
cherry red
executive class

Another treat we had yesterday: around 5 pm I looked out the back bedroom window and saw the Grand duke himself — our resident great-horned owl — sitting on a branch behind our property. He sat there awhile, so we got quite a clear look at him, all puffed up for the -20̊C evening.

We’ve actually had a very mild winter this time around, but right now the temp has dipped low. Supposed to be much milder next week. And a SUPER-moon + lunar eclipse tomorrow, I hear!

Thinking of birds all puffed up from the cold reminds me of the magpies we’re seeing hanging around our feeder. Which led me to write this verse last night and post it on Tree Top Haiku:

Winter Magpies

winter magpies
fat from feasting at the feeder
parade past the cats
🙂

And one more bird I’ll leave with you as a smile this morning. Apparently this is an aracani +/or tucano. The “thought” is mine. 😉
unique aricari