First Month

Somehow the second half of January has seemed to last much longer than the first. I look at my last post and think, “wow, was that really only two weeks ago?” And yet … I’m not sure we really did that much. I think more it’s been interior stuff, lots of thinking and pondering and feeling. Life as an HSP can get exhausting sometimes, even when everything seems calm on the surface. Plus, all the turmoil in this country right now is draining. Trying to keep my candle glowing against the darkness gets harder some days than others.

We have had some lovely moments. Carl’s sister came and spent a weekend with us. She spent one afternoon playing games with the kids while he and I snuck off on a date, and the next afternoon the three of them made supper (from the kids’ cookbooks) while Carl and I went for (decaf) coffee. The rest of the time we just hung out and enjoyed being together. A lovely family time.

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Wine tasting date! It was lovely. (The wine was good, too.)

We went to public skating this past Friday, and the kids did great and had a blast. Especially impressive considering Joy hasn’t been on the ice since we lived in Albany, and Grace hated (with a fiery passion) her skating lessons the first winter we lived here. They’ve come a long way. And then, as we were getting ready to leave, another mom and her daughter came to skate, and it took me a few minutes, but then I recognized her from my home club. Back in Canton, NY, when we were both teens. We both live here on the North Shore now and we didn’t even know it! It was great fun to reconnect, especially since it was so unexpected.

It was also fun going out for doughnuts and hot chocolate afterward. Skating is definitely going to be a weekly activity for the rest of the season. (doughnuts, maybe not every single week.) Even Carl is thinking about getting in on the action–for the first time ever he’s contemplating getting skates so we can do this as a whole-family activity! I am delighted.

I got very excited, as usual, over the US Figure Skating Championships. This year there was a little more to get excited about than usual–Nathan Chen made history by landing FIVE QUADS in the men’s free skate. And Karen Chen (no relation) was brilliant in the ladies’. Overall, figure skating looks stronger in the US than it has in at least ten years (except for ice dance, which has been strong all along and is merely continuing the tradition of greatness). In a country racked by division and suspicion, it’s beautiful to me to see the diversity, inclusivity, and joy represented by the world of figure skating.

We had our first Family Meeting this weekend, figuring out chore allotment and allowances and basically cementing the fact that we are so not in the little kid stage of life anymore. It was surprisingly fun.

I have been continuing with my French lessons on Duolingo, finding more things about the app that frustrate me no end, but at the same time I’m progressing and getting better, so it is working. I still would hate to have gone into this without at least some prior knowledge of the language, however far back in my past. And I AM getting a proper French grammar book at some point, because Duolingo never explains the rules. As my mother and any other teacher I ever had could tell you, I need explanations.

My fountain pen arrived and I promptly fell in love and never want to use any other kind of pen, and also want to write all my stories by hand again, like I did in the ancient times of my youth before computers were a thing. Even getting my grandmother’s old electric typewriter was a red-letter day when I was younger! But yes, this pen is a joy to write with, and now Carl wants one too.

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Finished Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season and found it, as usual with her books, a blend of immensely frustrating and immensely uplifting and encouraging. One thing I will say, she always makes me think. Ultimately, it has helped me recognize some of my difficulties with having a still mind, and I was able to come up with a few strategies for minimizing the constant noise in my own head, so very worth it. I’m now in the middle of re-reading Agatha Christie’s autobiography (Christmas present from my in-laws), and finding that bracing, encouraging, laugh-out-loud funny, and just wonderful. My fiction reading has been less memorable. I dutifully recorded each book, but none of them are worthy of repeating here.

Oh, and I taught the kids to knit.

And now we see what February has in store. Fingers crossed it will bring some snow …

Two Weeks In

We are (almost) halfway through January! How is the month looking for everyone else?

Here, we’ve had:

Rearranged our living room and can’t figure out why we waited 3.5 years to set it up like this.

Trip to Grandma’s house to finish off our holiday traveling/festivities.

We had snow this past weekend, enough for sledding, and by Wednesday it had all vanished. No one in this household is particularly pleased about this. I want to use my cross-country skis; the kids want to play in the snow; Carl, believe it or not, wants to shovel. Plus we all just prefer winter to be winter. Hmph.

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but the sledding was fun while it lasted. as was throwing snowballs at daddy.

Kids are enthusiastically participating in the Read-Aloud Revival 31 Days Challenge–they have only missed a few days of reading out loud for at least 15 minutes. Gracie, at least, usually goes longer. Joy is more these-are-the-rules-so-we-should-follow-them and so even if she’s at a really good place, she stops as soon as the timer beeps. It’s great for Gracie in building her confidence (she’s a fantastic reader but thinks she can only handle easy books) and for Joy in forcing her to slow down and process what she’s reading (she reads SO FAST that I’m certain she only takes in about 80% maximum of whatever she reads).

I finally passed the halfway point on my current draft of Magic in Disguise, the next Maia and Len book. Technically this is the first book in the Whitney & Davies series, as this is the one that really starts them off on their detecting careers together, but it is the second book about them–Magic Most Deadly, I’ve decided, really works best as a prequel when compared to how I want the rest of the series to go. Is that over-complicated? Sorry. At any rate, every step of the way with this book has been a slog, but the fog is starting to lift. I had it ready to send to my critique partner (which is when I consider a story done the same way a cake is done–all the editing and polishing I do after that is icing and decorating, but the heart of it is finished) last May, and ever since she sent it back to me I’ve been crawling on it. But I’m getting there, and it’s going to be ready for beta-ing by the end of the month, barring any unforeseen accidents like spraining an ankle or some such nonsense (rap wood).

We got back to Classical Conversations (the kids’ homeschool co-op) and back to school in general. We aren’t quite where I’d like to be yet–our morning time keeps getting started late, so we haven’t been able to work in our Shakespeare memorization this semester yet, and schoolwork keeps spilling into our free time in the afternoons–but we’re getting there. It’s always tricky settling back into our routine after winter break.

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working on their nature journals. sunny but windy today!

I am taking a break from refined sugar and wheat for January, in an attempt to break my body of its dependency on both. I know from experience that a little is fine, a lot wrecks me, and thanks to the holidays, I’ve been having a LOT of both. I’ve also started exercising again, something that slid away when I sprained my ankle last May (see above) and never got picked back up. So far, I’m grumpy and sad because of the diet change, but the exercising is going well.

I’ve managed to catalog each of the books I’ve read so far this month in a book journal. Whether that means I’m reading more mindfully is still up in the air.

Getting prepared for the Bible Study I’m co-leading this semester for the women in our apartment building. We’re going to be going through Philippians this semester, which should be great. I’ve discovered somewhat to my surprise that I really enjoy teaching and leading a study, and thanks to Carl, I have commentaries a-plenty at my fingertips. And I can always ask him if there’s any particularly tricky translation issues!

The only other really interesting thing that’s happened this month is that Carl finally convinced me to give Duolingo a try, and I’m diving back into French. Parts of the app really frustrate me (like when you fail a lesson because they expect you to know something they haven’t yet taught you), but overall it’s been fun. I thoroughly enjoyed taking French back in college and have always wanted to get back to it, and so now I am! I’m already wondering what language I should tackle next after this, Russian or Welsh. I desperately wanted to learn both of them in high school, and now I have a chance!

Oh, and I also got to do an impromptu mini-presentation at CC this week–all the kids have to give an oral presentation each week, and this week they got to pick a topic out of a hat. One of the drawn topics was “why are books so important,” and the tutor laughed and asked me if I wanted to take that one, so I said sure. It wasn’t anywhere near as dramatic as my library presentation last March, but it was a lot of fun and made me think how much I’d love to give a proper, adapted version of my “why stories matter” speech at a school or children’s library sometime. Add that one to my dream list!

And that is my mid-January report. Nothing tremendously spectacular, but I don’t want to look back in December and not remember anything about this month, so I’m writing it down even if it seems simple and small. It’s the little moments that add up to a life anyway.

Looking Ahead

When your year starts in September and ends in August … or starts in June and ends in May, depending on how you feel about things … it can feel a bit disconcerting to hit December 31. This is my fourth year as a “seminary wife,” and our lives follow the school calendar more than anything. This year has definitely felt like it began in June and will end in May, which makes it hard for me to sum up 2016. Not to mention that we’ve been so busy with everything I never had time to record much of our doings, and so it’s all bit of a blur.

I remember the winter being very un-winter-ish … friends graduating … spraining my ankle … lots of trips to the beach (including sun poisoning on one occasion, ugh, you’d think we’d lived here long enough to not make that mistake) … going to Maine … visiting family … saying goodbye to dear friends … bits and pieces of writing squeezed in when possible … new approach to homeschooling … but really, overshadowing everything has been CARL’S LAST YEAR AT SEMINARY. And its follow-up thought, which is WHERE WILL WE BE NEXT YEAR? Next year being next school year, naturally.

I haven’t made resolutions in ages. I used to do the “one word” idea for a year, but that also sort of petered out. However, this year, I do actually have a few resolutions in mind to make.

For one, I don’t like how all my memories are blurred together (see above). This is a chaotic time in our lives, but it’s also precious, and I don’t want it to be vague in future years when I look back. Plus, I think it’s important to live life aware, not drifting through. So, one of my resolutions is to do better at recording this. Either with an end-of-the-month blog post, where I sum up a few things I learned, accomplished, or experienced that month, or with the same sort of idea in a private journal, or with a weekly gratitude journal (say, three things each week you can look back on and be specifically thankful for), or something like that.

And speaking of journaling AND keeping better track of my life, I also want to get better at recording what I read. So many times I read a book and promptly forget it within a week of finishing it. Or I re-read a book and then can’t remember why I wanted to re-read it or how it struck me differently this time around. I used to keep up with Goodreads, but they don’t have a good system for marking re-reads (at least not one that worked for me), plus I realized I was self-censoring the reviews I wrote based on how other people feel writers should review (always positive! Authors should never leave negative reviews even if they hated a book!), or how other people even felt one should respond to a book (if you liked a book that other people found “problematic” then you’re a big jerk!). So Goodreads became more stress than anything. This year, I’m going to try keeping a personal, private reading journal, both for fresh reads and re-reads, where I can either simply mark something as “read” or can leave a brief line or ramble as much as I want. I even have my eye on a fancy fountain pen to help inspire me.

As usual, I need to figure out a healthy way to manage stress. Last year I did start to learn how to minimize outside stressors (that was tied in to our new approach to homeschooling, actually); this year I need to find better ways of handling the stressors I can’t remove. Like, simply living and being a responsible adult. Daily exercise was working for me for the first half of last year, but spraining my ankle put a crimp in that, and I never really got back to it. Also a time of quietness to start my day, but my ability to get up early enough to have that depends on how I’ve slept the previous night, and that varies so much from night to night … I know there’s solutions out there, I just have to work my way to them. So that’s a plan for this year, to be mindful of ways to live wholly and healthily and not constantly fretting.

As for writing, no specific resolutions there. I’ve learned better than to resolve to “Publish X book” or “Submit so many MSS” or even “Finish writing XYZ.” As soon as I set those sort of solid plans in place, they get derailed faster than I can blink. So, again, my goal for this upcoming year is to write mindfully and well, to focus more on crafting the story well than finishing within a certain timeframe, and when I do sit down to write to actually WRITE instead of frittering time away on social media (oh yeah, less social media in general is a goal, and probably always will be). To be a good steward of this gift, basically.

Hmm. I hadn’t realized it until I sat down and typed these out, but there seems to be a common theme winding through all my resolutions: mindful. I guess I have a word for 2017 after all!img_1903

I shall give life here my best, and I believe it will give its best to me in return. When I left Queen’s my future seemed to stretch out before me like a straight road. I thought I could see along it for many a milestone. Now there is a bend in it. I don’t know what lies around the bend, but I’m going to believe that the best does. It has a fascination of its own, that bend, Marilla. I wonder how the road beyond it goes–what there is of green glory and soft, checkered light and shadows–what new landscapes–what new beauties–what curves and hills and valleys further on.” -Anne of Green Gables, LM Montgomery

 

Carry the Light

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Dorothy, Betsy, Trot, Ozma

Lucy, Aravis, Jill

Vesper, Eilonwy, Joy-in-the-Dance, Mickle

Eowyn, Arwen, Galadriel

Leia, Mirax, Mara, Iella, Tyria

Janeway, Torres, Seven, Kes

Zoe

Ista, Iselle, Betriz

Cordelia, Elena, Ekaterin, Tej

Rey

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In order of when I met them, the ladies of speculative fiction who were formative and transformative to my life, from childhood on to now. They were (and are) friends and companions along the road.

Carrie Fisher brought one of the best of them to life. I’m so sorry she’s gone, and so thankful for what she did in creating Leia. She was much more than Leia, of course–her courage, her steadfastness, her honesty, her humor, her fight, her humanness are all what made her a shining light to all people, whether they loved Star Wars or not. Yet much of that very same personality leaked into Leia, and even as other authors and voice actors and the like developed the character further, Carrie Fisher provided the template.

And she is truly immortal for it. When we look at Leia, we see not only a space princess, but a woman who suffered deeply and loved hugely and kept the faith through it all. We see Carrie. And we pick up the torch and carry it for her. We keep it going.

We create characters of our own to honor her legacy. We speak out against injustice. We make good art. We don’t give way to the darkness. We stand with those who are oppressed. We keep loving even when the entire galaxy tells us to quit. We get angry when we need to. We scorn evil. We bear the light.

That’s what all those ladies at the top of this post taught me, in one way or another. And that’s what Carrie Fisher, very much not a fictional person, did as well.

Thank you, Carrie. We won’t let you down. We’ll all carry a piece of Leia in our hearts, and we’ll teach future generations to do the same.

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In Defense of the Detective Novel

This essay came out of some thoughts I had on detective novels and their function in society. I’m not sure any of it is terribly earth-shattering–I’m fairly certain it’s all been said before–but it was important to me, so I wrote it all out, then decided it was worth polishing and sharing. So here it is.

Truth, justice, mercy. All very big, abstract concepts that can be hard to wrap our heads around in concrete terms. What is truth? How do we balance justice and mercy? To whom do we show justice, and when is mercy appropriate? If I were to tell you I was writing a story exploring these concepts, you might reasonably expect some weighty, literary piece of work, with dense prose and a somber tone. What you might not expect would be a detective novel.

Yet it is in mystery stories that I have had some of my most profound realizations regarding said subjects. From Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot I have learned that the truth has a beauty and a virtue of its own, quite apart from its subject. From Lord Peter Wimsey and Brother Cadfael I have learned the importance of understanding human nature and acknowledging one’s own weaknesses. I have grasped the concept of not setting oneself above others–that elusive idea we call humility. These books have taught me the danger of shrugging one’s shoulders at small evils, because they open the way for larger ones. Above all, I have learned that justice must be pursued for those who have no voice of their own, that it the responsibility of everyone who can be heard to speak for those who can’t.

In Dorothy L Sayers’ second Lord Peter novel, Clouds of Witnesses, Lord Peter falls victim to a bog in which he is almost lost. At first glance, it can read as cliche, but I think there’s a deeper metaphor to be drawn from it–whether Sayers meant it or not. Sometimes, in the pursuit of truth and justice, it is easy to get lost in the fog, to get stuck in a mire and lose our way, nearly drowning in uncertainty and confusion. It is only through steadfast patience–as Bunter showed in keeping Lord Peter up until rescue came for them both–and light to show the way that we can make it out.

As a result of his unplanned fall into the bog, Lord Peter comes across the clue which allows him to unravel the entire mystery. The origin of the word “clue,” as I’m sure many of you already know, comes from the ball of thread Theseus used to guide himself through the Labyrinth. In that way, mystery stories themselves can act as clues, providing a thread for people who are stumbling in the miry dark, trying to see truth, walk the path of justice, practice mercy. In the assurance that justice will come, that the killer will be punished, that the dead are not left voiceless, mysteries act as lights against the darkness that can sometimes cause us to despair as we look at all the injustice and horror in the world around us.

I think it is no coincidence that the “Golden Age” of detective fiction was the between-war period, a time when life was changing, the rules by which everyone had always lived were upended, the values and morals they had always held immutable shifted and changed under their very feet. It was a time when an entire generation was trying to learn who they were, and what sort of a world they lived in–perhaps more importantly, what sort of a world they wanted to build. In a time of chaos and uncertainty, when the very ideas of truth and justice seemed like fairy tales, detective stories provided some assurance that good could conquer evil, and that justice was worth pursuing.

We are living in a time of chaos and change ourselves. We hope that the change will be for the better, but sometimes we can lose faith when we look at everything around us. I see an entire generation passionate for justice and truth, and sometimes getting too weighted down by the burden of those concepts to keep going, sometimes feeling like they are one lone voice shouting against the dark. Now, more than ever, we need detective stories to help give us that clue, to help guide us through these times, to remind us that we are not alone, and that even the small acts of justice, mercy, and truth we can do in our everyday lives matter.

And Poof

… just like that, the summer is gone.

I’m not breaking my heart over its departure. I hate the heat with a burning passion. When it gets 90°F or higher, when you can’t even open the windows at night for a fresh breeze, when the humidity is so high you feel like you are drinking the air instead of breathing it, that’s when I start thinking longingly of February. I don’t function well in heat. At least if I’m cold I can always throw on another layer (it is not unusual for me to be wandering around in a sweater, wool socks, fingerless mitts, a scarf, slippers, and sometimes even a hat, inside. And thinking longingly of knitting myself a shawl. Our apartment is VERY poorly insulated) and drink another cup of tea. When it’s hot I simply flop down and whimper pathetically. My southern-born husband cannot understand this.

So this evening, as I listen to rain (at last! On top of everything else, we had the worst drought I’ve ever seen in this part of the world this summer–the poor farmers) patter outside my window, wearing my cozy sweatshirt with a blanket over my legs, I am practically purring with contentment.

This halcyon state of being won’t last long, I know. The kids and I are already three weeks into school. Our homeschool co-op starts a week from tomorrow, and it is going to be INTENSE this year. This is our second year doing Classical Conversations, Joy is starting the Essentials class this year, and oh boy is it going to be wild. I’m not entirely sure how I’ll balance my Teaching from Rest philosophy with CC’s high intensity program, but we’ll see how it goes. Carl’s off-campus class started last week; the Greek class he’s TA-ing and his thesis start next week. Grace’s ballet begins on Wednesday, Joy’s a week from today. As soon as my darned ankle is fully healed I’ll be trying to get back on the ice once a week. Then of course there is all of the “eek this is our last year here” activities, between hiking and apple picking and spending time with friends and church family, and applications for PhD programs and visas and figuring out how to transfer ourselves to another country next year … Our life is suddenly PACKED.

And somehow or other I have to fit writing in there. One of the ladies who came to my library appearance last spring pulled me aside after church yesterday to ask when the next Whitney & Davies book was coming out. “I don’t want to be a nag,” she said, “I just really can’t wait.” Words to inspire any author to feats of greatness! Thankfully she’s also a homeschooling mom, though her kids are older, so she understood my nervous laughter and confession that I have NO idea when anything is going to happen. She also encouraged me AS a homeschooling mom to let not my own passions take too much of a backseat–it has to happen somewhat when one is in this season, but it does not do to neglect them (or your own needs) entirely. That’s the sort of thing I know in my head, but sometimes have a hard time remembering when I’m in the thick of things.

It was also a lovely reminder that my words and my stories are not simply dropping into the void, that there are people out there who care about my characters and my worlds and want to know what’s going to happen next, and that I do have a responsibility to them, as well, to not neglect those stories for too long. So I will squeeze in the writing when I can, waiting during ballet classes, occasionally letting the dirty dishes sit on the counter, sometimes giving the kids independent math work to do, five minutes here and ten minutes there, little by little, letting it add up.

So if you don’t see much of me here on this blog, or on Twitter or FB this fall, it’s not a bad thing–it means I’m spending my time wisely! (Conversely, if you DO see a lot of me on social media … well, that probably means I’m procrastinating with the things I ought to be doing.)

Happy autumn, friends. May your September be filled with blue skies, crisp days, rosy-cheeked apples fresh-picked off a tree, simmering soups, and plenty of hot tea, good friends, and good stories.

Underrated Books

I saw this theme floating around today, and I was intrigued. The stated limit is “books with under 2,000 ratings on Goodreads,” and I cheated a little by including one with 2,039 ratings. I was pleased to see how many of my favorite books were not as underrated as I always suspected–Emily of Deep Valley, for example, had too many ratings to make it onto the list, as did several of Lloyd Alexander’s books. I still managed to find ten, though, and probably could have kept going did not supper interrupt!

Seaward, Susan Cooper. I love The Dark is Rising series, but this book of hers is little known, and deserves better. It is haunting and mysterious, hope-filled with a hint of terror behind it, and it’s the sort of book that stays with you for days afterward. Lovely, lovely writing. More people should read it.

The Rope Trick, Lloyd Alexander. Much as I love Lloyd, I did not love this book the first time I read it. The second (because even an unloved Lloyd warrants at least a second read), I realized it was one of the more powerful books he’d written, and that the very aspects that turned me off at first were its strengths. By the third time I read it, it had become one of my favorites. Again, it’s the sort of book that seeps into your soul and stays with you for a long time after you’ve closed it.

Clover, Susan Coolidge. More confessions: I don’t really like What Katy Did. The next two books in the Carr family series are better (What Katy Did At School will always be cherished by me if for no other reason than it introduces the always-delightful Rose Red), and this one’s my favorite. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people give up before they get to this point. Don’t. As with Louisa May Alcott and LM Montgomery, and Maud Hart Lovelace, these books are more revolutionary and progressive for their era than they appear at first. Plus, this one has some of the most gorgeous descriptions of Colorado I’ve read anywhere in it. I’ve never been further west than Minneapolis, but boy does this book make me want to.

The Keeper of the Mist, Rachel Neumeier. I haven’t come across a Neumeier book I dislike yet, but this one is my favorite of them all. Dreamy, fairy-tale-ish, with a strong edge of practicality, with fabulous characters and beautiful prose. My review on Goodreads itself says it all!

The Gate of Ivory, Doris Egan. Sci-fi that is sheer fun, with some more serious matters snuck in around the edges. Can you say tailor-made for me? It’s delightful.

The Runaway Princess, Kate Coombs. This is the book that goes 39 ratings above the limit, but I don’t care. It’s so much fun, and it’s shamefully under-read. Plus it’s the book that introduced me to one of my best internet friends (hi, Amy!)–after reading it, I looked up the author online, discovered her blog, started commenting on her blog, discovered another blogger who shared my love for Henry Tilney also commenting on her blog, and the rest was history.

Resistance, Laura Josephsen. Laura is one of the first indie authors I ever discovered, and the one who proved to me that independently-published fiction could in fact be brilliant, gripping, and well-written/edited. Sadly, this book and its sequel are now out of print, but I believe you can read them, broken into four parts instead of two, on Wattpad.

The Grass Widow’s Tale, Ellis Peters. I love Peters’ Brother Cadfael books, but I also thoroughly enjoy her lesser-known Inspector Felse books. The Grass-Widow’s Tale focuses on Bunty, Inspector Felse’s wife, and it is another one of those books that makes me want to shout with joyous strength by the time I finish.

The Castle Behind Thorns, Merrie Haskell. A Sleeping Beauty retelling that is really well done, something hard to find for that particular fairy tale. Cinderella, Snow White, even Rapunzel … those all seem easy enough to put a spin on that remains true to the original intent while still making it engaging for readers. Sleeping Beauty, not so much. Which is understandable, given that the heroine of it has pretty much zero agency throughout her entire story, and in order to give her agency one has to twist said story into something else entirely. Haskell manages to avoid both pitfalls, and create an engaging story to boot. It’s lovely.

Seventh Son, A.M. Offenwanger. I am the lucky beta reader who gets to see each tale in this series before publication, and have watched this world and these characters grow from the first. Offenwanger is another of my dear internet friends, and her books are always a joy to read. Seventh Son is especially fun, combining fairy tale elements with everyday life, and introducing some truly lovely characters. I would love to see these books get more appreciation!

As an author who has yet to break double digits for Goodreads reviews myself, I know how hard it is when your books continually fly under the radar–especially when self promotion is so hard to do without being tacky*. So, give some of them a chance and try one or two from my list, and see what you think!

*granted, for the dead authors on my list self promotion is well nigh impossible, and they aren’t exactly weeping into their morning coffee over lack of reviews, but I’m sure their heirs would appreciate the attention.