Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Today I Spent Five Hours on Hold with United Airlines to Cancel My Trip to Italy—Travel in the Time of Coronavirus

saffi karfelt, stephanie karfelt, italy, travel, coronavirus

This past weekend I flew to visit a sick friend. The airports were business as usual. Other than if someone sneezed. Then they got the death glare and hisses of indignation. A woman asked to borrow the little hand sanitizer I keep hanging on the side of my purse—it's a mom thang—telling me someone had sneezed on her. In a shuttle going between terminals in Washington DC a pilot sneezed on me. He tried to cover his mouth but it was one of those kind that sneak up on you. I get that because I have photic sneeze. It might be a blue-eyed thing and according to 23andMe DNA results it's a genetic thing, but if I look into the sun or get the rays hitting my eyes sideways it induces a violent sneeze. So I realize that sometimes it happens.

Still, dang it, cootie boy cover your beak!

All in all I follow coronavirus math, try to be smart, and always remember Edgar Allen Poe's short story The Death of the Red Masque. Moral of the story? You can run, but you can't hide, and like it or not we are in this together.

That last part is why I decided in the end to cancel my trip to Italy. For a good part of the past year I've been prepping to attend a writing workshop there. It's one that I was so lucky to get into. I've been spending a good amount of time huddled in my office writing away in preparation for it. Hours went into shopping for a cheap flight, hotels before and after the workshop, ferries, etc. Eventually I got it all done.

My round trip flight to Italy only cost just over $100. That's on account of my poor husband saying, "Hey, Saff, you can use my airline miles if you think it'll help." What I heard was, "Hey, Saff, let me leave you alone with my airline miles HELP YOURSELF." That's how I wound up with several "free" flights, two of them international.

Life does not get any better than that.

I just hadn't figured coronavirus into it. 

Because they cancelled my writing workshop. In a world where people are sick and some are dying, I know it's not a big thing but it was for me and I had to grieve about it for a few days. At first I thought I'm just going to go by myself to Italy. I'd purchased insurance, but it wasn't going to cover my prepaid non-refundable hotels or my "free" flight. Then I read some articles on protecting the herd. Namely, just because you're one of the healthy people that the virus probably won't hurt much, you're still spreading it. That means you could spread it to your sick friends, your grandmother, or someone else.

We're in it together. Like in The Masque of the Red Death, we can go on with our lives and ignore it, but it's still going to be there. So I spent my five hours on hold with freaking United Airlines, three in the morning and two more in the evening when they didn't actually do what they said they were going to do in the morning. I went to my favorite hiking place after and hiked for a couple of hours, waved at fellow hikers, and admired their doggos and grieved the loss of Italy.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe—by Heather Webber

The Glitter Globe

Magical Realism is a delicious little genre. I have a slightly scientific background and a respect for logic so it suits my tastes. It's a type of story set in a real world setting with fantastical elements and there are four or five characteristics a book is supposed to have to be called Magical Realism. For our purposes let's say it's realistic with fantastic or mythological components to make a point.

Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe by Heather Webber reminds me of Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns—if it was mixed with the slightest sprinkling of the fantastical, like cinnamon atop a pie and less is more in this case.

Doctor in training Anna Kate has been left the Blackbird Cafe in Wicklow, Alabama by her recently deceased grandmother. In order to be able to sell it and get back to her medical training, Anna Kate has to work there for a couple of months. 

It's a popular cafe in a dying small town. Residents have been going there for generations for a slice of the famous blackbird pie, which is made of fruit NOT blackbirds.


At midnight exactly twenty-four blackbirds fly out of the mulberry bushes and take to the skies before settling to sing for precisely one hour. This is not normal blackbird behavior. 

Anna Kate is a descendant of the Callow women whose cosmic job is to bake the locally famous pies. She'd never been to Wicklow before her grandmother's death, but Anna Kate had known her grandmother, Zee Callow. During visits over the years, and under the disapproving eye of Anna Kate's mother, Zee had discreetly passed on necessary knowledge and the secrets to baking the magical pies. 

The magic of eating a slice of the pie is that the night after consuming a piece you receive a message from a loved one who has passed away. Sometimes they remind you to pay the taxes, sometimes it's far more. 

Anna Kate believes in her family legacy. She knows only she can make the pies work properly, and she pushes away the thoughts of what will happen to the people of Wicklow when she sells the place so she can return to medical school. 

In some ways I held a grudge against this book as I read it. You know the Hallmark movies where a career woman finds Real Love and Meaning in a small town and realizes her Big City Dreams aren't worth pursuing? I was worried it was going to be like that. 

Also, in some ways, SPOILER ALERT, Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe is exactly like that. Anna Kate promised her mother that she'd finish medical school but we find out that it isn't her dream to be a doctor so much as it was her mother's. I had to forgive the story because this book is about Anna Kate discovering her purpose and allowing herself to lead a life she wants in the way that will lead to her happiness and fulfillment. 

Who can argue that? I can't argue it, but deep down I'm formulating a story where a woman's purpose and happiness is found in the Big City with her Big Career and not back in her hometown, because that's a thing too, Hallmark Channel.

Yet I enjoyed Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe with its southern small town 'Bama cast of characters. Anna Kate's priorities and life changes with her SPOILER ALERT undiscovered-until-now family (when she had felt alone in the world) and SPOILER ALERT—no, no. I'm not going to tell you anymore. You have to read it yourself. Don't worry, I didn't even tell you about the Natalie story line at all or Bow and Jena, the mysterious kitchen help with a couple of big Magical Realism secrets.

If you read it, let me know what you think. I especially want to know what you think about the ever-popular Big City Dreams life versus the homey small town life story line. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Pride & Prejudice with Dragons—FLAME BRINGER, A Heartstone Novel


Flame Bringer by Elle Katharine White is the final book in the Heartstone novel series by Harper Voyager. Heartstone is the first in the series, followed by Dragon Shadow, with newly released Flame Bringer being the last in the YA trilogy. 

In the first book, Heartstone, Aliza Bentaine's family of Merrybourne Manor has secured the funds to hire esteemed dragon rider Alastair Daired to battle gryphons. It's a story about war, kingdoms, class lines, and hearts. 

The Greater Lindworm is dead in book two, Dragon Shadow. Aliza and Alastair are a happy couple in the Daireds' fortress, safe from the Tekari. Unfortunately their happily ever after is soon interrupted by the reality of the mutilated bodies of humans and Oldkind creatures. 

Book three, Flame Bringer,  starts with Wydrick, sworn enemy of the Daireds, back from the dead. My favorite thing about these books is the fantastic world-building. These stories are far more Lord of the Rings than they are Pride and Prejudice, but in a world where women hold their own in a satisfying twenty-first century style. They're stories for this generation of young adults.

Young Adult dragon stories aren't often my go-to read, but I was drawn in by the first book's Pride and Prejudice with dragons tie-in. What I've enjoyed most is that Aliza is her own person and partner with Daired. If he's battle worn and weary riding his dragon Akarra, Aliza is usually with him.

What worked most for me were the wonderful details from the angry hobgoblin in the opening of the first book, to the Mermish in the second, and onto Master Gargoyle sliding through the walls to follow Aliza in the third. 

Elle Katharine White
reading at Bell's Country Coffee Elmira Heights, NY
Elle Katharine White grew up in Buffalo, New York where she learned valuable life skills like how to clear a snowy driveway in under twenty minutes and how to cheer for the perennial underdog. I'm looking forward to her next book The Book of Dragons, which releases July 7, 2020. Harper Collins lists her with the "Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy writers working today", and I couldn't agree more. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Elevator Pitch by Linwood Barclay—How Great is This?

Photo Credit: S.R. Karfelt

This is a book I picked up at the library. I couldn't resist the title. An elevator pitch is what you call the pitch writers give to garner interest in their book. It's supposed to be a quick thirty second pitch that you can give if you happen to be in an elevator with someone.

Elevator Pitch starts off with just that. A screenwriter stalking someone he hopes will help him. Like with any stalking situation, it doesn't work out as planned. The elevator pitches to the basement.

The scenario is in the vertical city of New York where someone is messing with elevators. It's deliciously terrifying and can do for elevators what Jaws did for swimming in the ocean. I loved it and found it hard to put down. 

If I was going to give it stars, it would rate a solid five out of five stars. It's captivating, clever, original, and surprising. Mind you I read with half a cynical brain running in the background watching for clues and red herrings and what will happen next. 

This book surprised me. I LOVE IT WHEN THAT HAPPENS.

I won't say more about that because I don't want to spoil it for you. Read this one and let me know what you think. 

Lately I have been taking out library books. Since I can't keep them long they don't wind up living in my TBR (To Be Read) pile for years. I usually choose two fun reads and one educational. 

So, get out of your wintery house and go to the library. Get books. Borrow books. Buy books. They're the antidote to too many memes sugar-coating your brains. At least they are for me. If you want to recommend any books, leave a comment below. I like pretty much anything except Amish Romance or Erotica with no plot or contractions in the entire book. I'm still scarred from judging a Romance Writers of America contest a couple years ago. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

DARK MATTER by Blake Crouch—Book Review FIVE STARS

"Are You Happy With Your Life?"

Those are the last words Jason Dessen hears before his abductor knocks him unconscious. He wakes up in a world where everyone knows him, but he doesn't know them and his wife and child are missing. 

Dark Matter is Science Fiction and explores a multiverse theory and the question of what's more important, love, or dreams and aspirations. I found it hard to put this book down and tore through it in a day. I love to read when I have a deadline bearing down and I'm feeling anxious about how my own work is going. It's like taking a break in an alternate universe, a good one.

Physics fascinates me, and I've explored dark matter and string universes in my own writing. (In a Fantasy setting, see Bitch Witch or FOREVER The Constantine's Secret.) There's heart and soul in Dark Matter and I loved the twists and turns as Jason Dessen tries to keep up with reality and find his way. 

For me this book presented a fresh take and new theories. I'm far behind in my theoretical physics books, and I don't understand half of what I read anyway, so I love exploring the process in fiction.

Few books truly surprise me, and I'm so thrilled when they do. Dark Matter surprised me, several times. It stressed me out page by page too. I've never read Blake Crouch's work before. I happened upon this book in The Book of the Month Club and I have to say I've enjoyed most books I found there. 

I don't want to give anything away, other than to say this is the kind of work that took some serious blood, sweat, and tears from an author. I'm impressed, and if you enjoy Science Fiction on any level, you'll enjoy this book. 


Friday, January 17, 2020

The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind—by Jackson Ford

The only thing that could inspire me to step away from writing is the threat of a government fine. So I stopped writing long enough to pay my taxes and get my car inspected. While waiting on my car, I walked to the library. Yes, in January. I'm impressed too. It's cold. I froze. 

It's probably been ten years since I went into a library. I love libraries. I'm one of those people who always votes to increase their budget because I want it to be there when it's time for my ten year visit. One of the perks of being a writer is people give me books. Sometimes they're from other writers for a review or promotion, and sometimes they're simply gifts. Also, the local bookstore has chai tea and I go there too much and I buy books there. It's not a financially sound process to buy books with each cup of chai, and to give them away after I read them. But I have to or I'd need a bigger house.

It's really not a surprise, if you've ever seen my purse, that even after ten years I'd still have my library card in there. I also have a card for a taxi driver named Stephanos in Athens, Greece, a stone from Stonehenge, a piece of amber with a bug in it, and a one dollar Egyptian coin with King Tut on it. If I had the chance to take an unplanned trip to Greece or Cairo, I could get a taxi driver I know or skip converting my money because I have a coin worth a good eighteen cents.

What is a surprise was that the ten-year-old library card still works. It was nice and warm in the library and I could have free books for about three weeks which makes good fiscal sense. I grabbed the newest Margaret Atwood novel and a book on coding written for someone about ten years old. I learned more about coding in the few minutes I perused it than I ever knew, so I checked it out. 

I also picked up a book by a writer I'd never heard of before. Jackson Ford. He wrote The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind. I love titles that tell you what you need to know. There's a book I loved called The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. It's by Jonas Jonasson. You have the synopsis in the title with these kinds of books. 

I'd bet that The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind will become a television show/movie (the 100 year old man book did). I could sense that as I read it. It's about a woman named Teagan Frost, who was genetically altered by her science-minded parents to have the ability to move sh*t with her mind. She gets taken by the government and forced to work for an agency called China Shop. By day they move furniture, and on the side they're spies. At least they're the kind who break into buildings and take information. 

It's an action packed novel and nothing goes right for Teagan. Her powers are limited and hurt her, and you can't help but feel sorry for her forced into a life she doesn't want. Teagan wants to run a restaurant. Her hobby is eating. She's rude and swears a lot. You can't help but like her when she's getting tasered, punched in the face, or jumping out an eighty story window. 

The book is set in L.A., and I'm not familiar with L.A. other than passing through a couple times. The setting didn't sound like the place I'd passed through, and at the end of the book the author admitted he'd never been there. Someone more familiar with it would have to make the call on the authenticity, but who cares? It was escapism. My only other criticism is that they use the word kerb for curb and somehow they use that word a lot. That may be a translation issue, I don't think it was written in English originally.

As a nitpicky writer little things like that bump me out of a story. I know it's dumb, but it does. Mostly I think things like OMG, is this a new writing thing? Has curb officially become kerb? Because sometimes there are weird little writing rules, like having to capitalize dumpster (I refuse. I hate other people's nitpicky rules, especially when they look like errors to the reader when technically they're correct. Dumpster was/is a brand name). I only like MY nitpicky things, not other peoples. I can be annoying like Teagan. 

Anyway, I'd give this book a solid four out of five stars for pure escapism, but no depth. I tend to be generous with my stars. As a writer I'm aware that someone took the time to do all that work and transform this story into a fast-paced exciting read. I'm not going to poo-poo it because it's not what I'd have written. 

The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind ends by opening up the story for the next book in a series, which is a thing series writers are supposed to do too. So kudos to Jackson Ford. But I'll be moving on to my ten-year-old level book on coding now, and I'll wait for the movie or the series. If it never happens, and I spot the next book in the library someday, well, I'd definitely pick it up. Maybe, maybe, I'd buy it to read with a chai too—that depends entirely on the cover. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Golden Retrievers, Angels, and a Big Little Life

On Black Friday I go to the bookstore. They have autographed editions of bestselling books at Barnes & Noble. I like to pick up a couple to give as Christmas gifts to my favorite people. Like myself. Normally I do this one for you, one for me thing.

First I pretend I'm just getting only a few books and I try to carry them in my arms. After I hit the journal section, and I'm dropping things, I get a basket to drag. 

This year the store manager spotted me and asked if I'd be willing to sign copies of my angel book as they were selling like hotcakes. 

Cue me standing there blankly running through all my books in my mind, and wondering which one she thought was about angels. Both angels and my books selling like hotcakes is what threw me. My books don't sell like hotcakes. When I think about my books I think about my novels or memoir. I've got immortals, warriors, assassins, a bitch witch, and dementia. We walked over to the bookcase where they keep my books and looked at it. 

That's when I spotted the angel book.

It's an anthology.

That's right! I have a story in the new Chicken Soup for the Soul book, Angels All Around. Suddenly it all made sense. Chicken Soup for the Soul books and books about angels make excellent Christmas gifts. I'm not surprised it was selling. Happily I signed every copy in the store before continuing my book-gathering extravaganza. 

After loading so many books into the basket that I had trouble even dragging it, I spotted one more.

A Big Little Life a memoir of a joyful dog named Trixie caught my eye because it was shelved under Philosophy, had been written by Dean Koontz—who writes suspense—and I have a huge weakness for Golden Retrievers.

Years ago when my husband and I were in the middle of moving from Boston to Dallas, he came home with a surprise. It's been ages, many states and babies ago, but I still remember him walking through the door and unzipping his jacket. A Golden Retriever puppy poked his head out. 

We named him Maximillian. He lived in our first house with us and I loved him beyond reason. Goldens are kind and smart. I just visited a friend in Boston who has a Golden. I sat beside it and petted it the entire visit. It was bliss.

It was easy to justify buying another book. I'd give it as a Christmas gift to someone. As soon as I got home I peeked inside and read the first couple of pages. It wasn't what I thought. I expected something sappy and cheesy. I have this thing against stories that are designed to play with your emotions. I swear I can tell a genuine story from one manufactured to sell and become a Major Motion Picture. 

Within an hour I quit trying not to bend the spine too far so that I could still gift the book. This might change how you feel about this writer, but I have a tendency to devour my books. I reread a lot and I multitask. Most of my favorite books look slightly abused, worn, and have a few tea stains on them. 

Go ahead and judge me. It's all true. 

A Big Little Life a memoir of a joyful dog named Trixie by Dean Koontz is surprising. It's not cheesy or campy. It's smart, philosophical, deep, and clever. I absolutely loved it. Trixie was a retired service dog. I liked learning about CCI, Canine Companions for Independence

My all-time favorite Dean Koontz book is Watchers. It's a story about a Golden Retriever who was raised in a lab and has human intelligence. If you haven't read it, it's the kind of book you will want to reread regularly. As I read the memoir I assumed that Trixie is who inspired the author to write Watchers. But Watchers had been written many years before Dean Koontz had a dog. 

If you need some holiday escapism and want to give yourself a treat, read them both. Now that I've mentioned Watchers, I guess I need to read it again too. 

I wish I'd thought to take a selfie with my friend's Golden, Kona. Here's a picture of Kona though, and that's the important part.

If you read the books, let me know what you think, and if you'd like to keep up with my big little life, be sure to sign up for my monthly newsletter (via the contact form, bottom right of this blog).

Wishing you joy in your own big little life, until next time.