Holiday Gift Ideas 2021

Like the last two years, I want to post some ideas for mid-winter gifts. This year, to do my personal utmost to fight the pandemic and still support bricks-and-mortar and small businesses, I’ve mostly avoided crowded shops and post offices and instead ordered online. As always, my favorite gifts to give are books, and I ordered all these from my local indie bookstore.

But Christmas is fast approaching. If you have a local indie, check with them to see if they have time to get your books by Christmas. Or you can use Barnes & Noble – their website notes if you order by Dec. 20th you can get books shipped just in time with express shipping.

These are the books I’ve gotten for my loved ones – and some for myself!

my own copy

For picture-book lovers of all ages: The Shortest Day by Susan Cooper. The text is a poem from the Christmas Revels, and celebrates the return of light into the darkest of times. I love this poem so much I bought a copy of the book for myself.

For young middle-schoolers: Stuntboy by Jason Reynolds. Full disclosure: I haven’t read this book, but I was greatly impressed by the book Stamped Jason Reynolds co-wrote with Ibram X. Kendi, and by hearing Jason talk at a book-signing. Also, his description of the book was so charming, I knew I wanted to get it for my nephew. Here’s Jason’s description of Stuntboy aka Portico Reeves: “he’s awesome. He’s got a hightop fade, a cape, a cat, a grandmother, a best friend (which has been hard for me to get used to because I thought I was his best friend) and lives in a castle. Most importantly, he has a super power.”

my advance copy

For young adults and older: For All Time by Shanna Miles. This is a great story of star-crossed lovers meeting and being parted across time, with vivid glimpses into times past and some excellent twists. I feel honored to have gotten an advance reader’s copy, and hope to post a more full review in the new year.

my own copy

Also for young adults and older: Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche by Nancy Springer. One of my favorite books of the year – I highly recommend it for anyone who has read all the previous Enola Holmes books. For fans of Sherlock Holmes, Victorian mysteries, and the Enola Holmes movie – I highly recommend starting with the first book, Enola Holmes and the Case of the Missing Marquess.

Photo Provided by Laura Selinsky

For adults young and old: Whitstead Christmastide edited by Abigail and Sara Falanga. A collection of short stories set in a Dickensian village where the veil between worlds is thin, and wondrous things can happen. I read one of the stories as my friend Laura Selinsky was polishing it, and that inspired me to buy three copies, one for myself. I am reading it presently, and it is warming my heart.

For animal lovers: All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. The wonderful stories from the life of a Yorkshire veterinarian; if you’ve seen the excellent adaptation on PBS, know that the stories are even richer.

For more ideas, I invite you to see my blogposts from 2019 and 2020.

May we all celebrate the light, and share it.

Book Review: From Ashes to Song by Hilary Hauck

From Ashes to Song by Hilary Hauck is a gentle, yearning love story about a young composer, Pietro, who loses what he loves most in Italy, and comes to America for a new start. On the voyage over, he meets Assunta, whose warm heart and beautiful voice touch him, though she is married to another man. Never letting his feelings show, from a chaste distance Pietro is inspired by Assunta, even as he works in the depths of the Pennsylvania coal mines.

Pietro and Assunta both endure grievous losses, but these losses are told gently, subtly, and nonetheless poignantly. What was most vivid to me in this story is how Pietro finds music in everything: in the grapevines of his old-world home, in the voice of Assunta, in the ring of hammers and picks in the darkness of the mines. That music blossoms even amidst the coal dust of the mining towns, just as Pietro and Assunta’s love blossoms and comes to bear fruit in the fullness of time.

Hilary Hauck’s writing is delicate and elegantly understated; she brings the true story that inspired her novel to life. On her website, I was quite happy to find photos of the actual people who inspired her characters; it was very gratifying to see their faces, and they look a lot like I imagined them. You can also read the story about the beautiful cover art.

I recommend From Ashes to Song, especially for readers who enjoy literary fiction, particularly with a taste of history, and for musicians and other lovers of music.

Book Reviews: Stamped and The Lost Tribes

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You  by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi

Based on (a Remix of) Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi

I expected this book to be well-written, thought-provoking, and engaging. And it truly was, starting with the Introduction by Ibram X. Kendi (how often are Introductions themselves absorbing?) It was also painstakingly researched by Dr. Kendi, (a professor of history and international relations), as revealed in the twenty pages of source notes.

What I didn’t expect was that it would be so hard to put down. But that’s how Jason Reynolds made his remix of Kendi’s book. Once I started reading, I didn’t want to stop. Even though I am decades away from Jason Reynolds’ target audience, I had to keep turning the pages.

The book traces the history of racism over six hundred years, from its roots and through its introduction to newly-colonized America, up to the present day. But it is not, as Reynolds emphasizes, a history book. It is a book that contains history – a history that is most often troubled and troubling.

It was hard to read about some people I admired from the past. Jason Reynolds paints nuanced portraits that shows how complex these people were, and how they changed and evolved over time. It was harder still to read about people from my lifetime – some of whom I voted for. This book is eye-opening and revealing, including about some of my own unconscious assumptions. Because, as Jason says, this book is about all of us.

This is a vital, riveting book. I read it months ago and have wanted to review it ever since, but, well, it’s been a fraught year. Also, I was daunted by the knowledge that I can’t begin to do the book justice. Read it and let it speak for itself. I highly recommend it. If you don’t think a Young Adult book is for you, consider Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi. It may be the next book I read on this subject.

These two authors held a very interesting discussion about their book with some high school students you can read about and listen to.

As  Christine Taylor-Butler wrote in June of last year, “I’m a parent, author, and a former college interviewer. Please hear me – in this time of stress people want to “flood” their kids with books about racism. Please provide 20 joyful books for every one book on racism. They also need to know POC kids are like every other kid.”

I began to take her advice for myself, and read her book The Lost Tribes. It fulfills her suggestion perfectly! Five friends from diverse backgrounds have adventures while just being kids. And what adventures! They’re given a high-tech computer puzzle to solve, with virtual reality that takes them to Egypt, Easter Island, Peru, and sub-Saharan Africa among other far-off places. The computer simulations become eerily realistic. And when their parents disappear, they have to undertake a dangerous journey. The kids discover that nothing is what they thought. The truth is amazing and empowering.

I can’t really capture the story, especially without giving too much away. Science and history are woven throughout in fun and interesting ways. There are puzzles and codes the kids have to solve, and readers can try out, too. And the website has a couple of fun challenges with more to come (delayed by the pandemic). But you can watch the cool trailer, meet the kids, and get introduced to their parents.

Kirkus Reviews calls it “Well-written and well-paced: a promising start to what should be an exciting and unusual sci-fi series.” See the full review here.

I recommend this book if you’re looking for a good story for kids who like adventure – or if you’re such a kid at heart yourself.

The next book, Safe Harbor, is out, and a third is expected later this year. I’m looking forward to continuing the adventure!

Happy Juneteenth!

Happy News for Enola Holmes Fans!

I’m emerging from my deep Cave of Projects to sing out some good news. I just found out this morning that there’s more Enola Holmes on the way! I’m so excited, I hardly know what to announce first.

Ok, here goes: there’s going to be a second Enola movie on Netflix!

I really enjoyed the first one, so much so I’ve watched it twice and look forward to watching it again for a future review I hope to post.

Even better news: there’s going to be a NEW Enola Holmes book! Enola Holmes and the Black Barouche.

As much as I enjoyed the movie – the books are some of my favorite books ever. They are mysteries with clever, riveting plots, great atmosphere, codes the readers can work on, and the deeply appealing Enola herself.

I thought the series was complete, with the very satisfying (and more than a little moving) The Case of the Gypsy Goodbye. So my surprise at another book is exceeded only by my delight.

And there’s more! A new short story: Enola Holmes and the Boy in Buttons. That particular boy is a lot of fun, so I can’t wait to get the e-book.

On top of all this, last weekend I had the great pleasure to attend an online workshop with Nancy Springer as part of the online Pennwriters Conference. She was such fun! And had so much good advice for writing. I intend to share some highlights of the conference and what Nancy had to say.

Meanwhile, I have seven projects I’m working on, only one of which is my fantasy novel in progress, so it may be a while before I emerge. Back into my Cave of Projects! (Ok, it’s sunlit and infused with fresh spring air, but still – I’m trying to work on several of these things at once, so it’s a little hectic in here…)

In the meantime if you like a good Victorian mystery, read the Enola Holmes books!

Mid-Winter Gift Ideas

Someone’s wise tweet – I think it may have been Nicole Valentine’s – commended a plan to buy all Christmas gifts from bookstores and museum shops. I love this idea for supporting great places hard-hit by the pandemic.

I have hopefully dogeared a museum shop catalog with a desire of my own. As for gifts to give – books are always top of my list, and I’ve been collecting a small hoard all year. Which is a good thing, because shopping is not as easy or as safe as last year. It’s very fortunate indeed that two of my local bookstores offer curbside delivery. You, too, can give a gift to your community and order books from your local bookstore if you have one, and stay safely at home while you do it. They may also be able to send them for you.*

Here are some books I am going to give this year (shhh, no telling).

For a science fiction and comic book fan: Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles: The Authorized Adaptation, which I was lucky enough to find at my local indie bookshop (they don’t have it in stock now, but it can be ordered from Barnes and Noble).

For a history/nonfiction buff, who, after reading on my blog about the Winchester Mystery House, was inspired to dig deeper: Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune by Mary Jo Ignoffo.

For a young adult horror fan, The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. Series #1) by Jonathan Stroud, because this book gave me great chills and I don’t even really love horror.

For a middle-grader with a big heart, a middle-grade book with great heart:  A Time Traveler’s Theory of Relativity by Nicole Valentine. This is another book I read and loved, though I am well out of the focus audience.

And for a dear aunt, a warm-hearted Christmas romance, Season of Hope by Laura Nelson Selinsky.

cover art for Season of Hope novella

For more ideas of books to give, you can see my blog on this from last year.

Another suggestion for gift ideas: are there local artists and artisans who might have websites you could order gifts from?

How about a gift for yourself: a short collection of fine tales to take you back to the old West? My writing friend VT Dorchester has a great tale online in the December issue of Frontier Tales. I’ve read a number of these, and they are fine stories. So far, I’m particularly fond of VT’s, “Horseshoe Nail Stew”, a clever and deepened retelling of the Stone Soup folktale. I’m looking forward to taking a small break and reading more stories, then choosing and voting for my favorite. Well done, VT!

Whatever holidays you observe, may you find the light, and celebrate and share it.

*Yes, you could probably get most if not all of these books at Amazon, but Amazon has done extremely well during the pandemic. Why not support bookstores, museums, and artisans who have been hit hard?

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