Saturday, October 31, 2009

Check out my new blog!

Hi Everyone!

thank you so much for following me these past several years, and now I have a new blog! Follow me and comment here at

There'll be book reviews, creativity, networking, and writing articles and much, much more!

See you there!


Friday, October 30, 2009

Flash of Freedom Book Review

Flash of Freedom Flash of Freedom by Dakota Lee

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
An impressive first novel by twelve-year-old Dakota Lee, Flash of Freedom is the story of a lonely, introverted teenager whose life is changed forever when she meets Freedom, a damaged, spirited horse.

Tara Chandler has been on the move most of her young life, her parents are house designers and always relocating the family for their work. Moving so often means that Tara rarely has the opportunity to make friends or, if she does, she has to say goodbye to them all too soon. So Tara has decided that in Green River, Tennessee - her latest new home - she doesn’t need friends, she won't try to belong to one of the groups at school; she will be fine just by herself. Until, that is, Tara meets Nicky.

Nicky, a friendly, horse-loving girl who never stops talking, breaks the mold of the "unfriendly local"; she is interested in Tara and welcoming on Tara's first day at school, introducing her to friends Amber, Casey and Lea, and including Tara in their get-togethers. Tara is confused and initially wary of this interest. Why are Nicky and her friends being so friendly? Is this a trick? It must be a fluke, they can’t really enjoy Tara’s company. But their shared love of horses and Nicky’s sunny, open nature disarms Tara and she starts to relax, enjoying the time she spends with her new friends.

Tara is particularly happy to be involved with Nicky’s latest project - helping Nicky's Aunt Fauna settle three horses into the barn on her parents’ property by clearing the barn and paddock of debris and getting everything clean and tidy. The horses arrive and Tara meets Freedom, the spirited eponymous ‘hero’ of the book. Like Tara, Freedom has moved around a lot and like Tara he is slow to trust people. He has been classed untrainable by Aunt Fauna but she unwillingly allows Tara the opportunity to attempt the training of Freedom herself. With patience and love, Tara teaches Freedom to trust again. And with the confidence this mutual trust brings, Tara finally starts to come out of her shell and show a new happiness to her friends and family.

But then the unthinkable happens. Freedom is stolen. And Tara almost loses faith ... until she finds Freedom again in the most unlikely place, and uses the support of her friends and her newfound inner strength and confidence to face down the thief, take back her horse and regain her happiness.

Dakota Lee’s writing in Flash of Freedom is fresh and engaging, the main character sympathetic not saccharine. Tara isn’t a goody-goody, or a cardboard cut-out; she bickers with her brother, is sometimes flippant to her parents and gets caught not concentrating in class. The opening chapter describing Tara's analysis of the boys and girls on the bus with her, allocating them their place in the school "monarchy"- the school nerd, the jock, the "populars" and the "groupies" - is well-written and amusing and introduces the main theme of the book. The dialogue is realistic; the slang and local dialect are introduced subtly without caricature. For example, Nicky “...[has:] so got it in the bag.” Lee's adult characters in the book are perhaps not as convincingly drawn, and their dialogue does not quite ring true at times, but that is a minor quibble.

A moving portrait of a young girl trying to find her place in life, Flash of Freedom is recommended reading for any young adult, not just for girls who love horses.

View all my reviews >>

Thursday, October 15, 2009

You Can be Sustainable This Holiday Season

Being sustainable means that we all do our part to reuse our natural resources such as light, water, wind and trees, by making sure we consider the impact of not turning off the lights when we leave a room, or of not running the water while we brush our teeth. It’s even more important that we remind ourselves and our families to practice sustainability during the holidays, since this is the time more trash is generated, more food is cooked and we’ll host house guests, who will consume more energy than we’re used to.

Steps to Save Energy around the Home

With the holidays, come the holiday guests. You don’t want to inconvenience your guests by setting the thermostat too low or too high, or by telling them to take three-minute showers, but you should have a family conference to make sure everyone knows that you believe in leaving a small carbon footprint.

• Set your thermostat for 68 degrees for the day, but at night, turn it down to 60 degrees. Use a radiator in your bedroom.
• Replace all of your air filters to maximize efficiency.
• Turn off your lights when you’re away from your room and replace your light bulbs with fluorescents.
• Try to flush one less time a day and turn off the water while soaping hands and while brushing teeth.
• Disconnect the phone charger when you’re done charging your cell phone and disconnect the power strip when it’s not in use. If your out-of-town guests use your computer, remind them about turning everything off and unplugging protocols.
• After dinner, fill up the dishwasher and run it using cold water. Also use cold water for your clothes washing as much as possible, too.
• Open and close the refrigerator minimally. Your fridge is your kitchen’s biggest energy hog. Use the right size pan for the stove burner and use the toaster oven instead of turning on the regular oven.
• Encourage your guests to carpool, to take public transportation or to walk or cycle! Convince them that giving up your car for a day is a great way to see your town.
• If you’re leaving on a holiday vacation, be sure to turn all of your appliances off, stop the paper and the mail (you’ll save on the mail carrier or your friend from making an extra trip).
• Commute to work with well-inflated tires and pack a lunch with a reusable lunch and drink container.

Keep Your Holiday Food Sustainable

• When cooking and baking, measure carefully to avoid food waste and use perishable foods before they spoil.
• For those big holiday meals, buy bread that’s fresh from the bakery and not packaged in double plastic wrapping. Be sure to recycle the paper wrapping that it comes in.
• For grocery shopping, take your own bags instead of using the store’s plastic ones.
• Buy the largest can pumpkin filling you can for your pies; same goes for your cranberries, corn and peas. Buying the larger canned item will not only save you money than buying two smaller cans, but will save energy and resources.
• Buy coffee for your guests that’s organic or Fair Trade. Doing so will help sustainable agriculture and will protect the rain forests. Also, don’t use stirrers for your morning coffee; place your milk and sugar in the mug first and then pour your coffee.
• Buy one gallon jugs of milk instead of three separate milk cartons. Take a poll of what milk variety everyone likes and go with the majority or compromise (two people want skim and two people want whole – so buy 1% milk).

Tips on Holiday Giving and Traditions

• Make it easy on yourself and save the environment by giving gift cards, restaurant/concert/theater certificates, movie passes, services like for spa treatments, or a class. You’ll have your giftee deal with less packaging and you’ll buy just what they want.
• Buy toys that aren’t made with plastic, which are petroleum-based and contain toxins. Instead, buy wooden toys that can be passed down to younger siblings. Also don’t buy toys that have a lot of packaging.
• Use real china or porcelain plates at meal times, along with cloth napkins, instead of paper products.
• Use and/or give soy or beeswax candles instead of paraffin wax candles, which are made from petroleum and damage your indoor air quality.
• Buy a living Christmas tree instead of an artificial one. You can recycle the living instead of having the artificial one emit trace amounts of lead into the environment
• Recycle gift bags, ribbons, bows and wrap when possible. Use the Sunday comics for gift wrapping, or better yet, place your gifts in reusable baskets or bags. If you must wrap, find a brand that uses recycled paper. And instead of using new ribbons or bows, use a scarf, dried flowers or natural-fiber raffia.
• Decorate using reused, borrowed, or vintage-shop items. Keep your d├ęcor natural, so that it doesn’t involve a lot of paper and waste.
• Buy greeting cards made from recycled or tree-free materials.
• When using holiday lights, opt for the LED (light-emitting diode) lights.
• Entertain the family with DVDs that were swapped using DVD Swap ( Membership is free and all members pay for is postage.
• Instead of buying that new holiday album, download it. If you throw away a CD, it will end up in a landfill. Or better yet, you can swap your CD using CD Swap (
• When dining out, choose tap water instead of bottled water.
• Buy rechargeable batteries for toys and personal electronics.
• Buy a GPS so you know where you’re going and you’re not wasting fuel going in the wrong direction.

Any one of these tips can be tweaked into your life and pretty soon you’ll have formed a sustainable habit that will take you successfully into the New Year!

Tell me your energy saving tips that you use with your families!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Seven Steps on the Writers' Path Book Review

Seven Steps on the Writer's Path: The Journey from Frustration to Fulfillment Seven Steps on the Writer's Path: The Journey from Frustration to Fulfillment by Nancy Pickard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
You know you're going to get inspired with any book having lucky number "seven" in the title (seven days of the week, seven wonders of the world and even seven deadly sins!). An inspiring and candid read, "Seven Steps On the Writer's Path: The Journey from Frustration to Fulfillment" by Nancy Pickard and Lynn Lott delivers wisdom, tips and support for writers at all levels and at all experiences. This book is detailed, funny and unconventional. Right away Pickard and Lott let us know that, "Writing is a path as full of darkness as it is of light, and so the way ahead is hard to see."

The authors not only interviewed successfully published authors and got their insights into creating and publishing, but the authors themseleves shared a great deal of their writing frustrations, their regrets and their successes. This book is not for the faint-of-heart writer who is not sure she wants to put in the time and energy to make the writing happen and that's what I loved about this book. They tell us often, "We warned you -- writing is hard." Nancy and Lynn spared no punches about what the writing life is like. Their bottom line: write because you love it and you find joy in it, not because you want to get published. They offer up seven steps (listed below) but the authors emphasize that one size doesn't fit all: all writers have different styles and different methods of getting their writing done. Writers also have different meanings for success. Success for one writer could be a three-book deal of a mystery series, while for another it could mean privately journaling every night.

There were many memorable quotes along the margins from such greats as Henry David Thoreau, Julia Child, Ophrah, Sophocles and Anne Lamott, as well as from the authors and from John Wesley Powell. Powell successfully navigated the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon in 1869. He had to have faith because he couldn't see up ahead -- just like the writer's journey. Here's a good example of a Powell quote: "We know not where we are first this causes us great alarm, but we soon find there is little danger, and that there is a general movement of progression down the river...and it is the merry mood of the river to dance through this deep, dark gorge; and right gaily do we join the sport."

The Seven Steps on the Writers Path compiled by Nancy Pickard and Lynn Lott:
Step 1 Unhappiness -- we're not happy and know we need to write!
Step 2 Wanting -- we really want to write!
Step 3 Commitment -- we're willing to put other things aside
Step 4 Wavering -- we feel paralysis as well as compulsion
Step 5 Letting Go -- it's all about having faith
Step 6 Immersion -- only the writing matters
Step 7 Fulfillment -- you did it!

The Wavering chapter was hard to read because we've all wavered. Wavering is described as being very compulsive as well as experiencing paralysis. Intermediate writers are most susceptible to wavering because they know they can write but they lack a lot of confidence and experience. The authors described one scenario where a woman got into to debt to pay for this conference and her manuscript was harshly critiqued by a prominent author who's workshop she had signed up for. The woman stopped writing for six months, but then got back on the saddle and found great success. The woman didn't have enough experience at the writing game to tell that egotistical fellow to go *&#@ himself.

This book is wonderful for writers who have been on the writing journey for at least a few years. I feel that novice writers might find it intimidating and may quit their writing careers as soon as they read the first few pages. But if you're not a newbie writer read this book if you want fresh insights into why you write and why you're not crazy to have chosen this career.

View all my reviews >>

Thursday, October 01, 2009

How To Have a Fantastic Book Club Discussion

I love reading books and after I finish a good one I love doing my Internet research to find out all I can about the author, his/her creative process and perhaps the historical background of the book. What’s even better is taking this analysis to a book club meeting. Here there are other people who are just as passionate about the book as I am. For the next 90 to 120 minutes, we discuss a single piece of artistic work and really try to drill down the layers of why the author did this and that or why she chose to make her character act like an idiot or a hero. (I also need to mention that I can analyze anything I like to death, which made me a perfect candidate for grad school, and leading book clubs.

In the last decade many people (mostly women) have flocked to book clubs to enjoy camaraderie with other book lovers. I joined a book club soon seven years ago soon after my son was born because I had more time on my hands and I wanted to escape the tedium of diapers, feedings and nightly temper tantrums. This was also the same time that I wanted to get serious about my writing and knew that better readers made better writers.

Now seven years later, I have led two book club groups and have compiled this guide to help you lead a fantastic book club meeting!

• Distribute the reading discussion questions (most books have a reading guide found in the book itself or via Google) a week prior to the book club members so everyone has a chance to prepare
• Offer some kind of food and beverage at every meeting. You can keep it simple and everyone will appreciate the water and cookies. Sugar makes you think better!
• Appoint yourself as the facilitator to keep things moving or appoint the host if you rotate locations every month
• Pick paperback books that are easily found in the library, at used book stores or via friends who let you borrow their books
• Plan out the books for the entire year at a December or January meeting so there everyone knows what the schedule is
• Have everyone introduce themselves at the beginning of the meeting for 30 seconds to a minute. Also provide name tags.
• Do everything in your power to finish the book before the meeting. If you finish the book and encourage others that it’s a good idea to finish, then most folks will comply. No one wants to stay up late, finish the darn book and then show up to the meeting to find out that half of the people there didn’t finish. Can we say, ARGHHH! Now, I haven’t finished every book we’ve read this year in Wonderland Book Club, but I did let my members know and I did finish the book soon after the meeting so the momentum was still there.
• Go around the room or table and let everyone have a turn to share their thoughts on the book. As facilitator, you also have to make sure no one interrupts each other and have personal discussions kept to a minimum. (Ex. “This book reminds of the time when my husband and I decided to sell our house back in the 60s….”)
• Keep an open mind and learn from others who have differing opinions. Listen! Also, try not to repeat what someone else has said – offer a new tidbit!

Here are a few book club conversation Starters from Reading Group Choices (www. if you don’t have the reading group guide on hand.

• Do one or more characters tell the story? Are these characters believable?
• What are the book’s themes? What the main conflicts in the story?
• How does the setting and the time period affect the story?
• Did the story change your opinion of a place, event, time period, etc?
• What do you think will happen to the characters next?

So what did I leave out? Tell me what has worked in your book club to make members come back again and again?

Monday, September 28, 2009

I Saw Rob Thomas

I went by myself to see Rob Thomas at the Koka Booth Amphitheatre for his September 28 show -- I'd been anticipating the event for 2 months. Right after I bought my ticket in the seated area of the booth (Row M, Seat 19), I did something I don't normally do: I went to Walmart and bought, "Cradlesong," Rob's (I'm going to call him Rob from now on -- we're the same age!) newest album. A few of the songs took me a while to really like, such as "Her Diamonds," "Gasoline," "Someday,""Wonderful," and the title track, "Cradlesong." But "Mockingbird" and "Real World 2009" caught me by the throat immediately. I got to Booth around 7:30 after taking a wrong turn and waited in the rain with other concert goers. There were young teens behind me who later punctuated any silence with "We love you, Rob!"and "I love you!", an eleven-year-old with his mom and dad, a gay couple in front of me and a straight one to my right. I stood up the entire time and so did almost everyone else. Our seats were too wet and the show was too good to sit down for.
Rob's lead song was "Fire on the Mountain" -- not one of my favorites but has a good bridge to it and I love the drums (stay tuned for another blog as I make the case for how similiar in styles Rob Thomas and Phil Collins are). He wore a salmon-colored woven button-down shirt with a T-shirt underneath of the same color with a print on the front. Rob's hair looked really good -- not too short and not too long and he wore jeans. Rob's band consisted of his lead guitarist, drummer, bassist, keyboardist, and two backup singers. They were fabulous, as expected. Rob gave them props and they the keyboardist and lead guitarist had a chance to do a little solo work. "Do you know why tonight's special?" Rob asked the crowd, "Because we get to play music! Our only goal at every show we do is give a great two hours." Rob didn't forget to thank Carolina Liar and One Republic, who were his opening bands.
I admire how Rob emphasizes all of his vowel sounds, both short and long, especially his "i's and his "a"s. All that emphasis takes some jaw work and the man's not lazy at all! So coming into the concert, I knew every single song (OK, except "Sunday Morning New York Blues" that was a wayward release) and even knew what kind of gestures he'd make with each song.
If he was singing about his soul, love, his heart or something along those lines, he would hit his chest three times quickly with his left hand while his right hand held the mic. The only exceptions were when he was playing the keyboards and guitar (both electric and accoustic). He also did tight spinning gestures (all in time with the music) with his finger, waves and flowing moves. At the beginning of the show, Rob twirled his mic stand over his head. You're probably wondering if I have a crazy obsession for Rob Thomas at this point and you're partially right...I'm obsessed with his performance and I want to learn from his techniques when I do my poetry performances.
He told us the back stories on several of the songs. "Little Wonders" from the movie "Meet the Robinsons" was inspired by his dog who was so excited about going on a walk with Rob in Phoenix, while Rob wanted to be somewhere else. Rob said he said "I'm a dick," and decided to look around him and appreciate life "because life was happening all around me." I love that song.
He also mentioned that "It's Getting Late" is a "little ditty about death," and "Sunday Morning New York Blues," is about a married couple that go on a date. "Yes," Rob said, "contrary to popular opinion married people still do it!"
Here's the set list from tonight with the corresponding album:
**Note that the songs do mesh very well together and that Rob played almost every "Cradlesong" song except "Wonderful," "Hard on You" and "Snow Blind"**
Fire on the Mountain (Cradlesong)
Give Me The Melt Down (Cradlesong)
Real World '09 (Cradlesong)
Lonely No More (Something to Be)
Mockingbird (Cradlesong) included long keyboard intro!
Sunday Morning New York Blues - I got into it just hearing it for the first time! it includes strong details and movement
Streetcorner Symphony (Something to Be)
Natural (Cradlesong)
It's Getting Late (Cradlesong) the happy little ditty about death. Included a cool dueling-banjo like performance, too!
When the Heartache Ends (Something to Be)
Ever the Same (Something to Be) -- beautifully done! Rob;s voice shines during the slow songs
Cradlesong (Cradlesong) Rob played the keyboards
Someday (Cradlesong) with a long keyboard intro
Something to Be (Something to Be) lots of audience participation in this one!
Gasoline (Cradlesong) with Bond-like girls on the video in the background who turned into matches
Little Wonders (Disney's Meet the Robinsons soundtrack) Rob on keyboards
Fallin' to Pieces (Something to Be)
Her Diamonds (Cradlesong)
I Am an Illusion (Something to Be)
*** Break for Encore***
Bent (Matchbox Twenty's Mad Season) Beautiful! I wasn't sure what the song was at first, but I knew every word, "Can you help me I'm bent?" Just Rob and his accoustic guitar. Rob wrote the song but I guess he paid Matchbox Twenty for its use during his shows?
Still Ain't Over You (Cradlesong)
Smooth -- the crowd favorite! the guitars had a Santana-like quality. He performed the low-key version
This is How a Heart Breaks (Something to Be) -- the last song! what a way to end the night!
Thanks so much, Rob, for sharing your talents with us! You rocked Cary out!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Open Mic Etiquette

Since I’ve MC’d a monthly Open Mic night for the North Carolina Writers’ Network since the beginning of this year, I feel I know a thing or two about how to run an open mic. But before I get into the etiquette of one, I need to define what my Open Mics are because there are a lot of you who may think that Open Mic Nights only apply to musicians. They do, but the ones I host bring out writers of all genres: fiction, memoir, poetry, spoken word and more. We’ve had crossover artists, but for the most part we stick to the written word. At these events, we have about 20 readers and about 40 folks in the audience, which is fantastic! Imagine, 40 people decided to get off their couch and listen to other people read their own poetry!

I have some great readers who come out to our Open Mics – they come on time, they read within the 5 minute time limit and they make sure they don’t say or do anything inappropriate. They also RSVP to say they’re coming so I can get them booked on the schedule. At every Open Mic I MC I give participants a program with all of the readers listed. That way, everyone can know each other’s name and the readers know when they are up next. Having the names also provides a talking point for networking and for getting to know fellow writers. All of my Open Mics end up booked because we fill out our max of 20 readers.

Open Mic Do’s
*Let the MC know you are coming at least 3 days in advance of event (especially mine since they are so popular!)
*Practice reading your work beforehand so you know it’s 5 minutes or less
*Remind the MC if you have any specific requests for your introduction
*Keep it PG or PG-13 – sometimes there are children in the audience. And, yes, maybe they watch HBO, but don’t assume that it’s cool to throw F-bombs every which way
*Do try to stay till the end of the open mic and if you can’t, please tell the MC you have to leave
*Tip generously and patronize the bar, coffee shop, or bookstore

Open Mic Don’ts
*This is not the time or place to get on your political or religious soap box
*If the MC has motioned you to stop, don’t take another 3 minutes to finish!
*Don’t shuffle papers or chit chat while folks are reading
*Turn off your cell phone and don't text during the performance (yes, I'm talking to you!)

Most of all, have fun! Open Mics are meant to support writers and give artists a forum to present and practice their words before a live audience. There’s always a special energy in the room during an Open Mic and it’s because people are there because they want to be with other like-minded creatives who don’t think they’re funny because they scribble or mumble in odd places. See you at the next Open Mic!

Oct/Nov Open Mics

OPEN MIC AT FALLS RIVER BOOKS, Cosponsored by NC Writers' Network (NCWN)
Where: Sunday, October 25th
5:30-7:30pm Falls River Books at Falls River Town Center, N. Raleigh

Contact: If you're interested in reading, please e-mail Megan Cutter at or call her at 919-389-6423.

Join us for a Sunday evening of local literary talent following the Authors Showcase. The first fifteen people to sign up with Megan Cutter in advance will be able to read their poetry, short fiction, or memoir. Each person will read for five minutes. Or come out and listen! Enjoy refreshments: wine, cheese, and other assorted goodies along with fellowship with your fellow readers and listeners!

OPEN MIC: Bring your Five Senses To Life!, Cosponsored by NC Writers' Network (NCWN)
A Wellness-for-Warriors Workshop: Bringing Your Five Senses to Life!
Friday November 13th, 20097:30 pm - 9:30 pm
COST: $10 Donation. FREE for military families
Calm and Sense 2603-111 Glenwood Ave, Raleigh NC
Contact: Alice Osborn at

Join us for a relaxing, Open Mic Night and treat your five senses to simply feel, hear, see, taste and touch the very essence of our peaceful beings. The first fifteen people to sign up with Alice Osborn at in advance will have five minutes each to read their poetry, short fiction, or memoirs, play a guitar and/or sing a song. Let’s just sit back, listen, laugh, lust, linger and love. Enjoy light hors d'oeuvres along with fellowship with your friends and a variety of players, writers, readers and listeners. There will be time allotted for networking; refreshments and raffle drawings. Standing applause for those who attend!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Fear is the Driving Force Behind My Writing by Anthony Policastro, Guest Blogger

Today I'm so thrilled to present Anthony Policastro who will talk to us about how "Fear is the Driving Force Behind My Writing." I know Anthony through the Write 2 Publish Meetup group and just learned that he has started a new company, Outer Banks Publishing Group, which specializes in e-publishing. And so without further ado, here's Anthony....

Fear is the Drivng Force Behind My Writing By Anthony S. Policastro

Alice, thank you so much for helping me with this blog tour and your support.

Both of my novels,DARK END OF THE SPECTRUM and ABSENCE OF FAITH, both mystery/thrillers, were written out of fear, universal fears that I believe all of us consider at one time or another.

DARK END OF THE SPECTRUM is about Dan Riker, a computer security expert whose family is kidnapped by digital terrorists who take over the power grid and cell phone network and hold the United States hostage. Dan is the only one with the know-how to stop them, but the hackers have his family and he must decide to save his family or save millions of people.

While I wrote this book the fear of losing my own family pervaded my thoughts and I wrapped a plot around this fear using the latest wireless technologies and a lot of imagination. I still have my family and the thought of losing them is unimaginable. This was the fuel for DARK END OF THE SPECTRUM.

Dan's life is well planned, predicted and uneventful like most of our lives and I wanted to see how Dan would react when all of that is shattered in an instant when his family disappears.

Does Dan have the courage to save his family or will he just give up because he never had to face such insurmountable odds? Will he save millions of people whose lives are threatened by the terrorists or will he save his family? The book is not just about technology.

These are some of the questions I addressed in the book and when or if you read the book you may ask yourself these same questions and maybe better understand your own capabilities.

ABSENCE OF FAITH also addresses universal fears when residents in a highly-religious small town have horrible near-death experiences and wake up with burnt skin. They believe they went to hell and that God has abandoned them. Matters get worse when a local Satanic cult emerges and wins over many residents.

My fears of losing all hope and all faith in the face of a downturn in life is what spawned ABSENCE OF FAITH. Again, I was interested in how people would react if you stripped them of all hope and faith. Would they pick themselves up and continue their lives? What would they do when this great fear overtakes them.

These are the questions I address in ABSENCE OF FAITH.

Bestselling author and psychic Sylvia Browne writes in her book, Prophecy, that, "...our beliefs are the driving force behind our behavior, our opinions, our actions. Without faith, without our beliefs, we're lost."

I have always been interested in religion and why and how it has such a powerful hold on all of us and what would happen if it were taken away.

I not only wanted my books to entertain, but I also wanted them to inspire, educate and leave readers with something to think about after they put the book down for the last time. I wanted the books to be relevant to people's lives today and some of the problems we all face in the journey of life. I hope my books are that and more.

Both DARK END OF THE SPECTRUM and ABSENCE OF FAITH are available as paperbacks from Outer Banks Publishing Group, and as ebooks from and the Amazon Kindle.

Both books will soon appear on Barnes and Noble's new ebook site.

Visit my blogs for tips on writing, publishing, and books, WRITING IS ABOUT PUTTING YOURSELF TO WORDS and THE WRITER'S EDGE.

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Thursday, September 03, 2009

Be Patient with Finding Your Perfect Writing Group

The journey of finding a supportive and productive writing group came up in my Artist Salon Seminar last week. Many of the ladies present were either trying to find a writing group or they were looking for a new group. I thought about how lucky I am that I’m in a wonderful group that pushes me to be the best writer I can be. My fellow members also offer me support, market suggestions for my work and always contribute detailed and focused critiques. We also listen to each other when we need a sympathetic ear (usually not writing-related). However, it took me a while to find my group.

We hear a lot of talk about writing groups being like marriages, and it's true! It's very important to find a good fit with the folks with whom you share your writing, your thoughts, your concerns, and a lot of your life with. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the writer from her work; it’s going to happen that your writing group may turn into a therapy session, and that's occasionally OK. But, if you do this with the wrong group, and/or the energy level is different from yours, then watch out. You may need to move on and find a different group.

Six years ago, I met with my first writing group. I was very new to writing then and was inspired by the NC Writers' Network Conference in Wilmington to find fellow writers. Well, one woman approached me from a historical fiction workshop -- Meagan -- and then she connected me with Sandy, who was completing her second novel. Meagan was writing a memoir on her coming of age which involved a lot of abuse, both physical and mental. And me? I was working on a short story (really creative nonfiction) about a young woman who reconnects with an old flame, who is also dating her sister. Then all three of them get stuck in the sister's apartment during a hurricane which hits Charleston. I thought it was good…at the time.Meagan, Sandy and I all exchanged numbers, e-mails and manuscripts and before long, we met at Meagan's house.

I was a little late because my husband stopped at the gym first and I had brought cookies. I remember Sandy saying, "I don't eat sugar." I never got good vibes on her after that. We didn't talk much about my work (we focused more on Meagan's), but they both gave me suggestions (Sandy wrote all of hers in red ink. Lots of red ink).The next time we met was at my place on a January Saturday at 11:30. My son Daniel was just starting to walk (he was 16 months) and I knew that once everyone got settled, D-boy would go down for his nap at 12:30. In the meantime, I would put on his "Little People" video while Keith was out grocery shopping and got in his workout. I even served Panera bagels. First, Meagan showed up, a little lost, and then Sandy came in with a Hardees bag. The first thing out of her mouth was, "You didn't tell me you were bringing bagels!" Sorry, maybe read your e-mail next time and don’t insult your host for trying.

My short story was first and it was ripped apart before we even got to the 2nd page. Sandy didn't like how I used brand names to describe tea ("Celestial Seasonings") and told me that I write "like Danielle Steele." Then Meagan chimed in with "you write about rich people too much -- show some diversity." I don't remember hearing a single positive comment. Was this how a writing group was supposed to work?

Then we discussed Sandy's story about a talk show host who picks up empathy and starts acting nice. It was good, but the tone was very angry and sarcastic. Meagan's piece was fine, except Sandy quibbled with Meagan till the end of our time about how the speaker would not have folded her clothes that neatly. Meagan responded that she as a troubled young girl was seeking some order in her life. Sandy didn't buy it.Three and 1/2 hours later, Sandy and Meagan left, just as Daniel woke up from his nap. I felt worn out and a little depressed. I recall not looking over Sandy's notes on my story for about a year.

Later that night, Sandy cc'ed me on Meagan's e-mail telling her that she found my home to hold too many distractions for a writing group. I think the "Little People" played for 15 minutes with Daniel being very quiet and Keith's coming in and out for 2 seconds bothered her. I was furious! I expressed my concerns to Meagan, who didn't respond to them, but later one she e-mailed Sandy to tell her she disagreed with her comments.

I never heard from those two ladies again and it took me a positive critique from Greensboro novelist Quinn Dalton at the 2004 NCWN Spring Conference at Peace College to give me some much-needed confidence. A bad group can do that to you, especially to a new writer.

My advice is this: don't jump into a writing group. Get to know the members as people before you meet and then see if your styles and goals are compatible. See if you share a similar sense of humor and see if they are as smart as you or smarter. If not, run for the door. Your writing and your self-esteem deserve better. Also, gauge their level of writing. I was at a lower level than both Sandy and Meagan (at the time), so we were never going to match. Like finding a tennis partner, find a group that writes at your level or better.

I hope you find your way to the writing group that inspires you and makes you feel great every time you see them.

Now tell me about your writing group experiences -- good and bad!

House of Sand and Fog Review

House of Sand and Fog House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I knew going in that "House of Sand and Fog" would be hard-to-put down novel that was vastly depressing since I had seen the 2003 film and still think it's one of the best movies of this decade. But after reading the book, Andre Dubus III makes not only his three main characters (Col. Behrani, Kathy Nicola and Lester Burdon) indelible, he also makes the suburbs of San Francisco and Kathy's Pontiac Bonneville also important characters. Dubos's descriptions of the town are so precise: "We rode quietly through Corona (where the titular house is located on Bisgrove St)into San Bruno, where he (Lester) turned north just before the El Camino Real Highway. Under the gray sky we passed one-story houses with small grass lawns. Behind them was the highway, and I could see cars and long trucks going south for towns like Hillsborough, San Carlos, Menlo Park, Los Altos, and Sunnyvale..." The descriptions are so accurate I thought Corona was a real town, but, alas, it is the stand-in for Pacifica. But no matter, if the town is a stand-in, the emotions in this book are not. As a side note, check out this link to see a picture of the house they used in the movie, which is now for sale.

Col. Behrani used to be a high ranking Air Force officer in Iran in the days of the Shah, but after his family's exile, he knows he can never reclaim his past glory. He moves his wife, son and daughter to Berkeley, where Soriya will have a chance to marry well. They rent an apartment that costs them over $4,000 a month and Behrani works two jobs so that Soriya will find a suitable husband. She does and now Behrani must do something so that his 14-year-old son, Esmail can go to college and the family can be comfortable. Torn by class, money, culture and appearances, Behrani wants to do the best thing for his family and that's buying an auctioned house for $45,000 in Corona on Bisgrove St. where Kathy Nicola used to live only days before.

Kathy was a hard character to like and I did try. She a recovered drug/alcohol addict who is a cleaning lady. She's in her mid-thirties, goes braless and shoeless on a regular basis and is also a manipulator who lets fear take over her life. Her husband, Nick, left her eight months before and she has ignored notices coming from San Mateo County telling her she still owes taxes on the house (SM County thought her house was a business property and accidentally taxed her and both Kathy and Nick got their paperwork notorized saying it wasn't, but somehow SM County didn't get the message).She gets evicted by Deputy Sherriff Burdon, who immediately takes a liking to her. He helps her move and later sets her up in a motel. But what's really going on with him? He's married with two kids and thinks he loves Kathy because she's exciting and lives on the edge.

As a result of their relationship, which quickly becomes a sexual affair, Kathy starts drinking again and Lester threatens the Behranis and later places them all under house arrest. Lester spirals out of control and because of desparate circumstances, we see a tragic ending for all involved.

Dubus's writing is superb, although sometimes his narrative could have been cut back a little, especially when he described Lester's dream life and his past run-ins with Hispanic bullies. But because of Dubos's meticulous work with backstory, we know why these characters act as crazy as they do. Behrani isn't perfect, either. He hits his wife and his violence is seething under the surface. Still, he was for me the book's most sympathetic character.

I also loved the great lines Dubos gave us such as when Behani leaves Kathy's lawyer's office, "They view my face, my suit, the valise under my arm, and as I return their eyes back to them, they look away as if I have come to collect something they cannot pay." I also love Kathy's line, "I felt as connected to the ground as an old newspaper blowing in the street."

Throughout the book the house, the fog, the ocean and nature as a whole plays a large part in the narrative. I love books that make me take out my Atlas and discover a new city. "House of Sand and Fog" did that for me and it also made me wish I could conjure up images and sensory details as fluidly in my writing like Andre Dubos III.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Keep Your Femininity in the Workplace

Yes, you can be a strong woman, a powerful professional and still retain your femininity in the workplace. Femininity doesn’t equate to sexuality, nor does it mean you only wear frilly clothes with lots of lace and pink flowers. Femininity means responding to your intuition, to your capacity for caring/nurturing and to your ability to multi-task. Femininity also means you stay true to yourself and that you embrace your authentic self. In other words, don’t try to be like the guys just because you think they will like you more or that you’ll be promoted faster.

Connie Cwik is a corporate coach for 20+ years and when she was working for Microsoft was responsible for building a strong team between Microsoft and GM. As a result, Microsoft’s rating on the coveted GM Strategic Vendor Scorecard from 16th to 2nd – in just 36 months. I had the pleasure of meeting Connie at the Coffee and Contacts Power Lunch at Brio Tuscan Grill on Friday, August 14th where she gave an energetic talk on “Femininity in the Workplace.” Dressed in a pale pink jacket with a bias-cut floral cut and pink shoes before the crowd of over fifty women, Connie stressed to the group, “We as women have a way to connect at a different level than men. When you give up your femininity, you give up your power.”

Connie further emphasized how women need to acknowledge their gifts and their strengths that make them great. “Femininity is not a weak term at all! Being feminine means being a lover to your husband or partner, a nurturer and a best friend to all of your girlfriends.”

I also see that acknowledging one’s femininity means setting boundaries and knowing that it’s OK to not do work (if you work for yourself) between the hours of 4-9pm so you can pick up your kids, make dinner and put the kids to bed. Now if you work in a traditional workspace, you need to know it’s OK to leave at 5 or 5:30 to pick up the kids from daycare and not be made to feel guilty that you’re not sharing your weight. You need to know that you put 110% into your work and that you are productive and focused. Before I had kids I worked for a company that made working mothers feel guilty when they didn’t come in on Saturdays or stay till 7pm every night. A few women were on a flexible schedule (coming in at 7:30 and leaving at 4:30), but their bosses didn’t treat them with respect. No one complained because they were scared about losing their job. Of course no one was happy. Studies show that work places that allow for flexibility increase their productivity and morale. In any case, my old company experienced high turnover because many women braver than myself left to seek better working conditions. Since those dark days, I’ve sought a life-family balance and that includes working for myself and not trying to be somebody I’m not.

But with whatever career path women choose, they need to know that they have special gifts that come with being a woman. These gifts include intuition, nurturing and multi-tasking. Intuition is important so you may attract the best business partners and the best clients for you. Nurturing increases morale and employee retention. Connie gave an example of how she repurposed her employee “Paul” from one job into another, rather than firing him because he was a valuable employee who just wasn’t in the right position for his skill set. Because of her attention to his situation, Paul still keeps in touch with Connie years later. Lastly, multi-tasking makes women more productive and focused and allows them to handle stressful situations with grace and aplomb.

Connie concluded, “The only way we can keep the family-life balance is to be authentic to who we are and that means that we don’t all have to be the same!” I took this to mean that women should stop comparing themselves with other women and pay attention to their own thresholds and pain tolerances. Some moms with three children can do more than some moms with one kid and you know what? And that’s OK! But above all, we need to stop wishing we didn’t have family obligations or emotions so the powers that be could like us better. We need to be who we are (women who care about others and family!), set realistic long-term goals (i.e. not try to be superwomen), and celebrate our feminine powers which set us apart from the guys!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Child of the South Book Review

Child of the South Child of the South by Joanna Catherine Scott

My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars
Full of rich language, passion and tension, Joanna Catherine Scott’s Child of the South continues the story of her characters from The Road to Chapel Hill. Her new novel is set in the years immediately following the Civil War told from the point of view of two star-crossed lovers: 24-year-old Eugenia Mae Spotswood, the assumed white daughter of a failed Wilmington businessman and now a nurse for the Freedman's Bureau, and Tom, a former slave who owns a large farm outside Chapel Hill. They initially met as mistress and slave; Eugenia gave Tom his freedom papers and after capture he eventually became a scout for the Union army under the leadership of a dashing mulatto, Abraham Galloway, who taught him the importance of standing up for himself, as well as how to read and write. Galloway is an actual historical figure who died under mysterious circumstances, which Scott fictionalized in her book.

More than anything, Eugenia wants to find her birth mother, whom she knows still lives around Wilmington. This woman was her father's black mistress. Eugenia has a chance to stay in Chapel Hill, but she knows she must find her mother and discover who she really is. Seeing Eugenia as a mixed race person was especially hard for me. We learn that Eugenia has very curly, unruly hair, but other than that, there aren't many clues. No one suspects she could have any black blood in her, not even her Confederate cousins in Wilmington, where she lives for four years after the Civil War. I wanted her to be darker, or at least see something about herself that she knows is different.

Eugenia's story is told in the first person and Tom's is in third person, which is really the only way that all of the historical perspectives can be discussed since Eugenia can't always be in the same place as the decision makers at every turn. However, Eugenia is a catalyst in her own right by balancing historical accuracy. Scott does a great job of making sure Eugenia doesn't go too far beyond historical prejudice between blacks and whites, although at times I was wondering if Eugenia wasn't just a little too liberal. The point of view shifts are divided by chapter so there's no reader confusion and I liked this since I always felt I knew what was coming.

Scott's strengths are with the accurate sensory details of this time and place and with the language. I love how she uses "fell to" a great deal and how she doesn't overdo the African American dialect. Her dialogue is sharp and the details set the tone without being overdone. However, I would have liked to have seen more action and a quicker pace throughout the book and less sitting around talking about the future. Because of the leaps in time there was a great deal of summary, which Scott handled well. However, I would have liked to experience a fight with the Klan or a narrow escape; I always felt that most of the good action happened off stage.

As for the characters, I liked the secondary characters rather than the primaries. Clyde Bricket is an amputee and Tom's former owner and now business partner/fellow farmer and he's very interesting. So is Christopher Clark-Compton, Eugenia's cousin who wants to be her husband. He's not very savory, but he does have his gentler moments. The heroes in the book: Eugenia, Abraham, Tom did seem a little too perfect, but that being said Eugenia had the best voice. We really could experience what 1865 felt like from her point of view. Scott never shies away from addressing post Civil War politics, so we see the great class and race divide that still haunts us to this day.

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Friday, August 07, 2009

Going Above and Beyond Book Review

Going Above and Beyond Going Above and Beyond by Katharine C. Giovanni

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Going Above and Beyond by Katharine Giovanni surveys lead concierges in the hospitality industry on how to exhibit the best customer service possible in business and in your personal life. This book's audience is entrepreneurs, concierges and anyone else who wants to know more about delivering exceptional customer service.
Giovanni divides the book into fifteen chapters, of which she has eleven interviews which discuss topics such as professional image, handshakes, international protocol and more. Many themes are repeated throughout the book such as being nice to customers, never say no, and do whatever the customer needs. I used to be in retail and many of these concepts in Giovanni's book are not new to me and I wished she could have delved into more detail, especially in the communications and international protocol, which was probably her most interesting chapter. For instance, I didn't know that the British think its rude to talk with your hands in your pockets or that feet are considered unclean in South Africa and India.
I loved it when Giovanni would share her customer service horror stories with us such as when she and her boys drove up to a very rude manager at the Drive Thru or when she received a rude man on the phone who wanted to speak to the boss (Giovanni is the boss, along with her husband, Ron). I could have enjoyed more of these personal anecdotes rather than have eleven interviews which really didn't say anything new or fresh. I also wanted more insight into email, speech, dress, posture and speaking. Perhaps she could have listed 10 things of not to do on a voice mail outgoing message or what not to do in an email.
Overall, this is a quick read that emphasizes how important customer service is to grow and sustain your business. My favorite line from Giovanni is, "I return everyone's email lightning fast, even when I'm on the road...this simple thing has done more for growing my business than almost anything I've done." Great advice how important it is to be nice!

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Women Embracing Creativity Book Review

Women Embracing Creativity: Unleashing Your Inner Artist Women Embracing Creativity: Unleashing Your Inner Artist by Christina Thompson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Christina Thompson's Women Embracing Creativity: Unleashing Your Inner Artist does an excellent job of bringing together tips on motivation, creativity concepts, fear of success, making room for creativity and more. In one book you can discover how to set time aside for yourself and how to begin your creative practice which can be dancing, fine arts, writing, singing and more! I have so many books in my library that cover these same subjects, but in Christina's there are all in one source and they are built upon and thoroughly investigated. This book is a companion to Christina Thompson's 8 week Creativity Course she teaches several times a year, but it can certainly stand on its own and does. Christina also includes specific homework exercises such as logging your successes, starting a gratitude journal and paying attention to what's around you.

I can't talk enough about how wonderful and encouraging this book can be for emerging artists. Christina weaves in personal stories, academic references and solid results-oriented solutions for when you feel stuck. She encourages her female readers to stop being an Artist-in-Hiding and stop doing everything for your family. Be creative and be yourself! But I like that she doesn't just say be selfish with your needs and totally ignore your family, either. Instead she tells us to communicate with our families our creative needs and make sure everything is out in the open.

I know in my busy life, I have to make sure that I tell my husband what's going on in my week so there are no surprises in our schedule, and sometimes he wishes he wouldn't have to take care of the kids all day or all weekend. But I have to work at my success and at my career and that involves spending time away from home occasionally. I also try to not have two night events two days in a row so I can be there for my family. Sure my writing career is important but not at the expense of my family. All artists have to know how to balance work and family since we live with being an artist all of the time. It's a lifestyle and not something we leave at door like most traditional W-2 jobs.

One of the points Christina stresses is that successful artists must practice. Do you think Rob Thomas just started singing "Smooth" that first time and it was perfect? I don't think so. Or did a beautiful painting emerge from the first series of brushstrokes? No! A masterpiece emerges only from returning to the canvas, or to the page, or to the dance floor again and again. Chistina also encourages emerging artists to find a great teacher/mentor who guides them on their way. The ones who fail are the ones who don't put the work in and stay glued to the world of ideas. Christina also does a great job of breaking down fear and enumerating the excuses artists make when they don't want to get a project going. After all, who wants to start something that you know will not be perfect because you're new at it? Christina stresses that it takes dedication and commitment to follow through on your dreams and nurture the seeds of creativity.

She also talks about how parents tell their kids not to be artists because this lifestyle isn't "safe" and that's why so there are so many would-be artists who haven't found their path yet. This point I could totally relate to and why I volunteer so much with young people who want to be writers.

Thank you, Christina, for writing this book for all artists and artists to-be. This book is must-have reading.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

How to Say No to Fear

We’ve all had a case of “I don’t wannas” or “I’m too tired” or “I’ll do it tomorrow.” Feeling these impulses as we’re working on any kind project is perfectly normal, but do we push on and complete it? Or do we give in to fear? Don’t you notice that you usually procrastinate when you’re faced with something that you know will be time-intensive or with something that doesn’t yet feel comfortable to you?
I faced a case of the “don’t wannas” this week when I had to work on a new brochure and when I had to create my newsletter. I finished both projects because of my self-imposed deadlines, but I wished I had approached my work with more enthusiasm and had started them earlier. I realize now that I dragged my feet on both the brochure and newsletter since I know I could be judged on my work. Someone might spot a mistake I made and call me out on it. Someone could tell me that I’m not a very good writer/editor if I can’t make everything perfect in my work! But I didn’t let my fear win. I scrunched up my face, turned on Bob Seger and let the work “Roll Me Away.” It’s interesting that this fear of creating anything new can prevent you from completing your project. It’s sometimes called “The Fear of Success,” which is a recognized phobia. According to Michelle Courtney, editor of Triangle (business to business) blog, “Usually the people who have this fear the worst have no idea they have it!” Courtney spoke about the Fear of Success at last Friday’s Final Friday Forum, sponsored by Dancing Elephants at the BNC (Business Networking Center) of Cary.
I know that as a creative person I can deal with my fears and conquer them, but this may not be true of others who are just discovering their creative talents. They are undertaking something new and they may fear failure. They may feel that they lack support from their family and friends. Or they may be afraid of making mistakes. Courtney adds, “We’re taught at a young age that failure isn’t a good thing, so we’re not taught to learn from our mistakes. This kind of thinking makes us inert.” And inertia keeps us in place, leaving us unable to achieve our dreams.
Christina Thompson of Summerglen Music wrote this about fear in her new book, Women Embracing Creativity: Unleashing Your Inner Artist.
Just as the pioneers faced attackers on their westward journeys, we may easily be ambushed by fear as we try new things. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to identify fear for what it really is. Here are some common disguises fear wears when it tries to sneak into the lives of creative people:
1. needing to be in control
2. tolerating unhealthy situations and people
3. being resistant to change
4. creating unnecessary clutter, busy-ness or drama
5. making excuses; rationalizing
6. avoiding the problem
7. trying to manipulate others
8. procrastinating
Are you nodding your head at all or any of these? I know that in the past (and probably today, too) I’ll get so busy to avoid dealing with certain things. I’m also trying hard not to procrastinate on projects that aren’t the easiest to start.
So what can you do to lessen your fears? Michelle Courtney and Christina Thompson both suggest you write down specific goals, establish why a goal is important to you and show up every day despite the fear. That means practicing, doing the work, even if it’s not 100% perfect. Courtney says, “Play Devil’s Advocate and ask yourself what’s the worst that can happen?” I say “To Do” lists and concrete deadlines are a God-send.
I know it’s not easy to get out there when we could easily do the same old thing, but don’t you want to be known as someone who is stronger than her fears? I know I do.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Blind Prophet Book Review

The Blind Prophet (Invisible War) The Blind Prophet by Dr. Larry Richards

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Honestly, I was a little hesitant when Alice asked me to review The Blind Prophet. Considering the extremity of fantasy it might contain made me cautious when I began to read it. However, The Blind Prophet proves to capture the reader, even during the first few chapters. After doing some research, I discovered that Dr. Larry Richards is a renowned author, and Book 1 and Book 2 of the Invisible War series will be coming out this summer.
The Blind Prophet is a fantasy fiction novel about the religious invisible war between Satan’s army of demons and God’s army of angels. However complex it may sound, Richards does a superb job of simplifying the concept without losing his reader’s interest.
The main character, Zaki, is one of few to survive a horrific Babylonian raider attack on his village. After his entire family is brutally murdered, Zaki is left alive, yet blinded. His eyesight isn’t the only thing that is left blinded, but his faith in God is as well. Abandoning God makes Zaki the village’s recluse. Fifty years after the attack, an angel visits Zaki and he introduces him to the Invisible War. They travel together through the spiritual world observing key points of the war. While gaining the knowledge of the war, the angel reveals that God has an important mission for Zaki. As Zaki takes the journey to rebuild his faith, he works to fulfill this mission as one of God’s prophets.
Although this book is a work of fiction, it includes valid information from the Books of Ezekiel and Daniel. Richards gives life to these books, weaving them into his well-crafted novel. I thoroughly enjoyed Richards’s engaging and interesting novel, and I would definitely recommend it to anyone looking for more than your average fantasy novel.

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Keep On Keeping On Book Review

Keep On Keeping On Keep On Keeping On by Jean Davis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When reading the synopsis of Keep On Keeping On, one would assume this book to be your average inspirational story that you hope to pick you up off your feet. However, this is a story of two parents’ and their sons’ journey through addiction and the fight for justice. I was compelled to keep going from the author’s tone, which anyone could relate to. Her simple jargon makes it easy for the average reader to understand, eventhough the content is deep and complex.
This is a story of Ron Davis, a charismatic young man who struggled to beat a twelve year addiction to drugs, only to be brutally murdered at the age of thirty-nine. His parents, Brooks and Jean Davis, born and raised in the South, at first viewed his addiction as sinful. As dedicated Baptists in a small town, it was hard for either of them to comprehend the severity of Ron’s addiction. However, Jean’s unfailing faith shows throughout her writing and in every situation Ron put them in.
Keep On Keeping On goes extensively into the Davis’s family history, pride, and small town reputation. Jean repeatedly says throughout the book, “We had to swallow our pride” in order to help Ron overcome his addiction. This information may seem unnecessary during the reading, but as the reader approaches the end of the book, it is evident that all the little stories about small town life and family history all tie into Ron’s addiction. Family pressures, girlfriend issues, and competition also contributed to Ron becoming addicted to drugs in the first place.
After going through many difficult stages in Ron’s life, including many trips to rehabilitation centers and rebuilding his faith in God, it seems as if Ron was finally going in the right direction. With supportive parents by his side, Ron starts his new life, only to be brutally murdered. As if this tragedy wasn’t hard enough on the family, Jean and Brooks suffered through many years of struggle to gain justice for their son’s sake. This story exemplifies how flawed the American court system can be, and how much Jean and Brooks sacrificed for justice.
Keep On Keeping On is an inspirational story simple enough to be the perfect summer read. I recommend this book to anyone looking for extraordinary pick-me-up book that dives deep into the complexity of addiction and struggle for justice.

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This review was written by my intern, Dana, and you'll see much more from her soon!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Handmaid's Tale Book Review

The Handmaid's Tale The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I've always heard that The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood was one of those books you had to read. I picked it up at my favorite used book store: Falls River Books and nominated it for my book club's July selection. It was haunting, frustrating and I couldn't put it down. I was compelled to keep going from the narrator's first person voice when she tells us that she has to wear red and it's not her color. I thought to myself, here is a narrator in dire circumstances who still has some time to joke -- maybe I'll even like this person.

This person is the 33-year-old Offred whose real name is probably June. She is kept girl, or handmaiden, of Commander Fred and Serena Joy. Get it? She's "Of Fred." The other handmaidens also have male names such as Ofglen, Ofwarren and so forth. They dress in these medieval nun costumes of full head to toe red gowns with white headresses that prevent them from seeing the outside world and from the outside world seeing them. They hardly do any labor except going to the market once a day for their household and they aren't allowed to read. Offred has to have sex once a month with her master Fred PLUS his wife who is lying underneath her in this ceremony that hopefully will produce an heir for the commander.

The U.S. before the Republic of Gilead takeover was bleak: there was massive pornography, pollution, disease and suffering. The new leaders promised a change and boy did they deliver. June (the narrator), Luke, her husband, and their daughter who is never named try to cross the border into Canada, but June and daughter are captured. They are captured because women who is married to a divorced man is a sinner and adultress. We never know what happens to Luke. June is sent to handmaiden school since the government knows she has viable ovaries because she's already a mother and her daughter is adopted by a childless commander and his wife.

The commanders and their wives seem to be in their fifties and the young men are off fighting the wars. The poorer people are left alone and the undesirables (Unwomen) are sent to the Colonies to do toxic clean up detail without benefit of Hazmat suits. Offred's mother is one of the Unwomen since she is an unrepentant feminist.

As the novel progresses, we learn about the goings on in Offred's house and about how the other people in the house feel about her. We know right away there's an attraction between her and Nick, the Commander's manservant. Cora the maid likes her, while Rita the maid thinks she's a slut just because she's a handmaiden. Cora is perpetually afraid Offred will commit suicide because the last one they had did. Serena Joy dislikes her and the Commander sneaks around with her to play Scrabble (one of the funniest parts in the book).

The government hasn't taken everything away from Offred: she still remembers her daughter, her life before, her job, her husband and how it all ended. I was surprised they hadn't blanked her memory. Offred is a passive woman and she'd rather get along than claw her way through to freedom. She wants to live and thinks that if she keeps her head down and doesn't cause much trouble she'll do fine. Unfortunately,this can't be the case. In her small world she runs into Ofglen who is part of the resistance, and she interacts illegally with the two men living around her: the Commander and Nick. Events propel her forward and by virtue of who she is things happen. She is part of the political machine and their agenda for babies wherever she goes.

Unlike 1984 by George Orwell where we got the entire background and history of this dystopia all at once, in this book we get the history in bits and pieces. I liked how this book is like a puzzle and it's not all laid out for the reader. This pattern mirrors Offred's way of receiving information since she can't read and look up things; she has to get her knowledge in bits and pieces, too. By the end of the book, the reader should have a good idea of how Gilead came to be along with its rules and power structure.

Margaret Atwood criticizes both the right and the left in her novel. She's against feminists banning pornography since she feels that's censorship and Atwood's against the right taking arms against society's ills. The theme is that both sides can go to extremes and they do so in Handmaid's Tale.

This novel isn't dated and it still holds up well some 23 years after it was published. It's a haunting vision of what would happen if the people in charge decided to turn back the clock on womens' rights and strip women of their voices. Not only do women suffer, but so do men.

Read this book for Atwood's images, poetry and turns of phrase. Also read it for its well-thought out themes. I promise you, you'll never forget this book.

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Here are the discussion questions for this book:
The Handmaid’s Tale Reading Group Guide
1. The novel begins with three epigraphs. What are their functions?
2. In Gilead, women are categorized as wives, handmaids, Marthas, or Aunts, but Moira refuses to fit into a niche. Offred says she was like an elevator with open sides who made them dizzy; she was their fantasy. Trace Moira's role throughout the tale to determine what she symbolizes.
3. Aunt Lydia, Janine, and Offred's mother also represent more than themselves. What do each of their characters connote? What do the style and color of their clothes symbolize?
4. At one level, The Handmaid's Tale is about the writing process. Atwood cleverly weaves this sub-plot into a major focus with remarks by Offred such as "Context is all, " and "I've filled it out for her, " "I made that up, " and "I wish this story were different." Does Offred's habit of talking about the process of storytelling make it easier or more difficult for you to suspend disbelief?
5. A palimpsest is a medieval parchment that scribes attempted to scrape clean and use again, though they were unable to obliterate all traces of the original. How does the new republic of Gilead's social order often resemble a palimpsest?
6. The Commander in the novel says you can't cheat nature. How do characters find ways to follow their natural instincts?
7. Why is the Bible under lock and key in Gilead?
8. Babies are referred to as "a keeper, " "unbabies, " "shredders." What other real or fictional worlds do these terms suggest?
9. Atwood's title brings to mind titles from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Why might Atwood have wanted you tomake that connection?
10. What do you feel the "Historical Notes" at the book's end add to the reading of this novel? What does the book's last line mean to you?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Don’t be Afraid of Going to the Social Media Party

Even if you don’t use social networking, i.e.: Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, Inside 919 (ning) or other social media sites, for your business, it’s still important to join the social media party because if you don’t, you’re missing out. In fact, this week my mother-in-law just signed up for Facebook because she doesn’t want to miss out on all of the conversations going on between her progeny. And she wants to view all of the fantastic photos I’ve posted from our summer trips. The way the world is working now, people go to social media sites to find out what’s going on via their friends’ links and comments. I found out on Facebook that Walter Cronkite died almost as soon as it was announced and if you use Twitter, you can receive almost instantaneous news. We’re moving away from people going to websites to find out info; instead, users are more passive and are waiting for info to come to them via status updates, blog feeds, e-newsletters and more.
These last two weeks I’ve learned a great deal about social media from two local experts, Deidre Hughey (pictured above) and Eileen Batson, who spoke at my North Raleigh Coffee and Contacts group. Deidre discussed three rules of social networking and several mistakes people make about using this tool. Eileen discussed how to avoid the social media time suck.
According to Deidre Hughey, owner of The Buzz Builder in Apex, NC, social media is a great tool to build relationships and to get more people to know and trust you. Although she emphasizes, “Social media should not replace your marketing plan. It’s a tool like direct marketing or PR. Social media needs to be a part of your overall marketing plan; it’s a piece of a much larger puzzle. Deidre also spoke about not being afraid of filling out your profile block as completely as possible because, “you never know who is going to click on your site right after you fill it out. What if someone clicks and they find nothing there?” To counter the notion that many women think that the crazies will find them on Facebook or other sites, she told us that most people have a reason to friend you and if you don’t want them as a friend there are protection devices in place to block these people. “Have a plan to stay active and top of mind with your connections and commit to thirty minutes a day on your social media sites,” says Deidre.
Eileen Batson of Batson Group Marketing and PR in Raleigh agrees. She told us to set a consistent schedule and even use a kitchen timer to keep track of our time on the computer. “Write down what you need to do and avoid getting distracted,” Eileen says. She also said that you need to spend time where your clients are and if they aren’t using Facebook or Twitter, then you need to find another way to reach them.
This brings to mind running into a friend at Staples the other day where he was getting ink for his printer so he could send out a printed newsletter to his clients. He knew where his clients were and he knew that an online newsletter wouldn’t be as effective as a printed one.
Eileen also told us about leveraging our time with tools that update our status. She mentioned I use Tweetdeck to manage my Twitter and Facebook updates and when I post a video on YouTube, I link that post with Google Alerts, Facebook and Twitter.
Like most of you, I haven’t been on Facebook that long – I believe this month is my first year anniversary. Who would have thought that my entire family is now on it and that I rush to check my Facebook page before my email account? But we also need to bear in mind that Facebook and Twitter might not be around forever and we still need to have a website, blog and a marketing plan in place that’s not all based on social media. We also need to keep in mind that we can’t live our lives on the computer and it’s OK to not check in for a day every now and then.
So, what about you? How are you managing your social media time? Are you getting the most out of your social media networking? How has it benefited you in the last year both personally and professionally? I’d love to hear from you!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Book Review: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Middlesex Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When I first heard about Middlesex's popularity at my favorite independent bookstore and among the book clubs seven years ago, I wasn't that interested in reading it. I mean, a Greek-American tale of a hermaphrodite? No thanks, I thought. But then Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides came up again when my book club (Wonderland Book Club) was discussing titles to read for this year and I agreed to give it a shot. Well, as you know I don't give many books a one out of five stars nor a book five out a five stars, yet Middlesex made the cut because it has heart, a strong narrative, a powerful unique storyline AND I learned something new. I learned about the Turkish invasion of Greek-ruled Asia Minor in 1922, the Detroit environs and the race riots there in 1967. I learned that the movie "Grosse Point Blank" (1997) came from the suburb, Grosse Point outside Detroit. This exclusive suburb is where our hero, Cal (nee Callie) grows into a teen and Middlesex, by the way, is the name of his house. Of course "Middlesex" also depicts Cal's sexuality. And I learned about hermaphroditism.

This very dense novel which took me longer to read than normal (I didn't finish it bofore book club, but neither did many of the fast-readers in my group) is broken into three parts. The first part addresses the story Cal's grandparents (Desdemona and Lefty) who are (SPOILER ALERT!) also brother and sister. It's a wonderful story of love and risk as the two flee Smyrna, on the Aegean Coast as the Turks (or maybe the Greeks) are burning it down. Because of their relationship, Cal has a genetic mutation on Chromosome 5, so he's born a "girl," with girl parts but is really an XY male with male secondary sex characteristics and a short penis (he calls it his "crocus"). But incest isn't new in Cal's family: many of the villagers from Bithynios were also hermaphrodites because of inbreeding and his grandparents' relationship just manifested things a bit faster. In this section we learn to love Desdemona, who fiercely clings to her Old World values and she and her brother hop on a boat to America and later Detroit, where they are sponsored by their lesbian cousin, Lina.

The second book is about Tessie, Lina's daughter and Milton, Lefty and Desdemona's daughter. This couple (Cal's parents) aren't as vivid, nor as memorable, but we need to mention them in order to get to Cal's birth and the start of his story. Throughout the next, Cal the first person narrator has an open and omnicient point of view. He's a very likeable voice and we want to keep turning the page to see what happens next. His point of view even veers to third person when he nears The details and images in this book are marvelous and we see a lot of play on the theme of air and water. Cal is born a Capricorn, which many believe is both a water and an earth sign -- just like Cal has a dual nature (Jesus was also born a Capricorn, but this is a discussion for another time). Eugenides, especially in Book 3, which is Cal's story, water imagery such as sea anemones, jelly fish and more when discussing what he sees in the girls' locker room at his private school.

For example, "Sea anemones sprouted from between my classmates' legs. They came in all colors, black, brown, electric yellow, vivid red. Higher up, their breasts bobbed like jellyfish, softly pulsing, tipped with stinging pink. Everything was waving in the current, feeding on microscopic plankton, growing bigger by the minute. The shy, plump girls were like sea lions, lurking in the depths."

I loved how Cal reflects on his world and how he knows he's different because of his class and ethnicity from the other girls who are white and whose grandparents weren't off the boat. He tells us about the Charm Bracelets, who are the elite white girls at the school and how his knows that the object of his affection, monikered the Obscure Object is one of them. "Her oxfords were stamped down at the heels so that she could slip into them like clogs. This was something the Charm Bracelets did. Also, she had an antique ring on her finger, with real rubies in it. Her lips were thin, austere, Protestant. Her nose was not really a nose at all. It was only a beginning."

All of Eugenides's narrator reflection really made the book for me. We care about how Cal's life turns out and we understand that he may have finally found Ms. Right at forty-one (the age he is presently writing this book). The novel tied up everything at the end from us learning that Cal never underwent any surgery to change his parts (so he remains "middlesex") and what happened to his parents and brother, appropriately nicknamed Chapter Eleven because he runs the family hot dog business into the ground. However, I was left to find out about how or where Cal finished high school and if he ever saw the Obsure Object again -- we'll never know. This was a great read that was honest, stayed classy, where it could have ventured off into crassness with the intersex stuff, and remained hopeful. Eugenides took seven years to write this book and I guess it might be awhile till we see his next work, but it'll be worth it.

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Hiking the Shawangunks in New Paltz, NY

On Wed. July 8th, my husband Keith and I hiked in the Mohonk Preserve in the Shawangunk Mountains (otherwise known as the "Gunks" -- one of the premier rock-climbing destinations in the world). In these this video we climbed up Bonitcou Crag via a rock scramble and were treated to a magnificent view of the lower Catskills.


Friday, July 03, 2009

Coffee Shop God Review

Coffee Shop God Coffee Shop God by Therese Bartholomew

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
Therese Bartholomew's short, yet powerful memoir, Coffee Shop God takes the reader through the journey of a sister's grief of her lost brother. In 2003, two days before Valentine's Day, Therese's younger brother, Steve, was shot in the chest by Karl Staton at a Greenvile, SC-area strip club. Steve and Karl had an argument over Karl's girlfriend and Karl shot Steve in the heart, killing him instantly. The title of the book comes from Therese trying to find Steve so that she can have some hope. While in her neighborhood coffee shop, she meets a man who is also grieving and they comfort each other. She believes this is God's sign to her that Steve is in heaven and that there is a God.

This book is comprised of 10 essays which discuss the moment the family found out about Steve's death, to the days and weeks immediately following the tragedy, and, finally, to discovering the new normal of living in a world without Steve. Therese is a master of funneling the senses we ignore (smell, sound, taste and touch) into powerful word pictures that capture the moment without sentimentality or prolonged trauma. She is matter-of-fact in her delivery, yet poignant and emotionally raw all at the same time. Therese also lets her humor shine through, especially when she acknowleges how much time she spends in her pajamas with "pajamas are my favorite clothes."

Therese describes Steve as her soulmate. She says, "My little brother is alone somewhere, and I need to be there. I need us to be kids again, snuggled in the same top bunk. I need to spend summer hours crouched in our gravel driveway, feeling my palms brush and push the rocks to the side, creating cities and towns and neighborhoods for our Matchbox cars." She later says, "With one phone call, my little brother became a permanent was in my life. I can't grasp the concept of him as past tense -- a phase like bangs or an ex-boyfriend."

Steve was also extremely close to Therese's children, especially Jessica, whom she had while still in high school. She describes Steve as giving her unconditional love and support when her ex-boyfriend stopped returning her calls.

Besides Therese's point of view, we also hear from her parents, her older brother, her niece, nephew and daughter. These voices will be even more fully heard on her upcoming documentary, "The Final Gift," which will be released in late 2009 or early 2010. In this film, she addresses what her brother's killer's life must be like now and how society makes peace with crime.

I had the pleasure of hearing Therese read her essay, "Sisters," from her book at the June Open Mic I facilitated in Wake Forest at Storytellers Bookstore. She commanded the room with her words, especially in passages such as this one where she's in the courtroom bathroom moments before the killer's sentencing. "The door opens and someone moves into the stall next to mine. I flush instinctively even though I've only been taking up this space. A toilet flushes and takes my moment with it. The woman comes out and joins me at the next sink. I look over toward her in that awkward bathroom moment with a stranger."

I wish this book would have been longer so I could have had more opportunity to enjoy Therese's powerful writing. Even though the subject matter is very dark and full of struggle, you finish the book knowing Therese is able to transcend the somber tone into one of hope and forgiveness. She concludes with, "Fear is the truest opposite of faith. I force myself to choose faith every day."

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Does Your Business Need a Helping Hand?

This week I welcomed my intern, Dana, into my home. She’s a rising senior and is very interested in pursuing a writing or communications career. As many of you know, one of my many passions is helping young people who want to engage in a writing career. So this new arrangement is a total win-win for both of us! I get to help Dana, she gets to help me, plus I’ll be able to offload some of my marketing work to be more productive and creative.

Back in April and perhaps before that, I was feeling the pinch. You know, it’s a place where you can’t seem to get everything done that you want to do, you’re just barely making your deadlines and you are afraid of going to sleep because if you do, you may not get everything done and folks will be disappointed in you….(just writing that run-on sentence was stressful and made me out of breath!) I wondered how I could grow my business when I was spending all of my time doing small, yet important marketing tasks like calendar posts and newsletter updates. Should I let some of my marketing go? But if I did, then my participation numbers would severely drop, and so would my income.
I asked my business coach what I should do and he told me to get an assistant. I told him I couldn’t afford an assistant just yet. He then looked me in the eye and said something like, “Don’t worry, you’ll find a way.” Two days later I was getting coffee at Wake County Public Schools’ 9th annual Xtreme Beginnings Career Fair McKimmon Center. I had volunteered to participate in a round-table discussion about writing. The purpose of the fair is to give students an opportunity for students to gain exposure to an array of educational and career opportunities. One of the school leaders and I struck up a conversation and then she asked me if I would be able to sponsor an intern. You all know what my answer was!
After a couple months of ironing out the details, Dana started working her six hours a week at my house in the afternoons. She even has her own office upstairs, while I work on my laptop at the dining room table. I know she’s a good fit since both of my kids like her. In fact, 18-month-old Erin gave her a running hug after first seeing her enter the front door and Daniel, my rising second grader, bounded upstairs and introduced himself to her before I could. Already I feel my load has lightened and as she continues to learn more about me and my business, I know that I’ll give her more and more responsibilities. Wow, I could get used to this after working by myself for more than three years. In fact, three years ago, I was someone’s assistant!
As your business grows, you must think about delegating and hiring help, or at the very least, outsourcing work that eats up your time and makes you less productive. You have to ask yourself, “What am I doing on a daily basis that’s not generating income for me right now?” Let go some of that work, so you can get back to enjoying your entrepreneurship. Tap back into your creative energies so you can be prosperous and not tired, rundown and headed for a burnout. Get creative in finding your help. Here in Raleigh I know that NC State has a strong intern program, as does Meredith and Peace. Go for it and enjoy your life’s work again!