Reading Outside Your Comfort Level

When children learn to read, they choose books based on their interests. Dinosaurs, super heroes, ocean life, fairies, and adventure stories are all fair game. As they grow, they develop a preference for certain story types. We know them as genres.

Adults usually discover two or three genres they enjoy reading and tend to stick to them. The story flow becomes familiar, and readers expect certain things. Fantasy readers will expect magic and adventure; readers of mystery, crime, or thrillers will expect a sense of suspense and danger; sci-fi fans know there will be futuristic worlds and inventions. Reading becomes comfortable.

What happens, though, if you branch out and read outside of your comfort level?

I’ve experienced this several times in the last few years, and it’s pleasantly surprising. The top three genres I gravitate towards are, in no particular order, fantasy, contemporary fiction, and speculative fiction. Of course, there are sub-genres, but this gives you an overview of my preferred novels.

Over the last few years, I’ve pushed myself to read books I usually wouldn’t pick up. So far, there’s only one I haven’t enjoyed. The Southern Book Club’s Guide To Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix was not for me. I read it after an excellent review by a friend, but there were too many aspects that made me cringe. Some books I appreciated and even recommended to others are:

The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz — This is a memoir about escaping from a Soviet labor camp in 1941. The escapees spent months in the freezing cold of Siberia, and this book recounts their trek. I read it for a book club and would never choose it for myself. But the impression it left on me is powerful.

The Knife Of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness — I mentioned this in my last newsletter and have since finished the entire series. This is a young adult science fiction novel that takes place on an alien world where men’s thoughts are visible or heard by everyone around them. I had a book hangover for days.

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown — I picked this book up at a local bookstore as a “blind date” book, and wasn’t sure about it when I began reading. It started a bit slow for me, but I discovered some thought-provoking scenes as the story progressed. Three adult sisters move back home, secrets are revealed, and relationships are changed.

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult — A mystery novel is not high on my TBR list, and I never heard of this author before but have since explored several other of her novels. A daughter searches for her mother, who disappeared years earlier, and discovers more than she bargained for.

The Lost Queen by Signe Pike — I usually find historical fiction heavy and hard to follow, especially if I’m not particularly familiar with the time period, but this one was very well done. In a time of druids and blooming Christianity, the fate of one girl is also the destiny of her people. The explanations of current events to the modern reader were subtle and just enough to get the point across, so it did not lose me in the details.

The result of reading each of these books was the same. I discovered a story that was engaging and fulfilling. As I continue working through my huge TBR list, I plan to add books from genres or authors outside of my top three genres. I challenge you to do the same. Who knows? You may discover a new favorite author or genre, but at the very least, you will broaden your horizons.

What genres do you like? Comment below and I will try to recommend some books outside of your comfort zone.

Writing Should Be Fun

An author friend and I recently created our own writing retreat. Neither one of us has had much time to work on our novels recently, so we spent the night at a local bed-and-breakfast and stayed up late drinking wine and writing. We both feel we got a significant amount of work done during this time. 

At one point, we were taking a break and discussing where we were in our plots. I mentioned a scene I was leading into, and my friend said, “That’s great! There can be comic relief with some odd characters.” (Sorry, no spoilers.) I sort of laughed, agreed, then asked about her story. I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to do what she suggested, and my original idea was much more serious. In fact, my entire novel’s premise is based on a deep emotional wound.

However, after letting it sit in the back of my mind for a bit, I thought, “Why not?” After all, I enjoy reading books that have funny moments even though the overall storyline is about danger or high emotions. Plus, writing should be fun,[added comma] or why am I even bothering with it as a career aside from editing? 

I think this moment shifted my writing style. For fiction, I’ve always written meaningful stories that plod along with intention. They’re solid and thoughtful, and nothing’s wrong with that. But I have a wry sense of humor that rarely comes out in my writing. With this revelation comes advice I have for authors, new or otherwise. 

Voice

When I edit someone’s manuscript, I get a feel for their writing voice. This is important because the author’s voice needs to be consistent throughout the manuscript, especially if it’s nonfiction. Part of my job is to ensure that consistency. I also get a feel for the author’s personality. Are they sarcastic, imaginative, or adaptable? Do they have a sense of humor? These things will all come out in their writing voice, regardless of genre. 

Connection To Readers

With voice and personality revelations comes a connection to the reader. It’s a subtle thing, but it’s there. The reader will enjoy your writing more if they associate it with something they already like. Allow your nature to shine through your writing and you will gain a loyal readership following, which will result in those readers recommending your books to their friends.

Writing Should Be Fun

Okay, sure, some writers do it because their job requires it. Authors of technical manuals and medical or court transcriptionists come to mind, yet even those people must like some aspect of it, or they wouldn’t continue in that field. But for those of us who choose this as a career or a side-hustle, it should be fun. It should make our blood sing with energy and fill our souls. Otherwise, what’s the point?

I may not shift my writing voice right away, as solemnity has been part of it for years now. But you can count on me to show more of my quirky personality, including silly or off-beat moments in an otherwise deep and somber story.

Avoiding Burn Out

I am an advocate for self-care. I don’t mean only bubble baths and special snacks. I’m talking about true self-care. Putting yourself first is something most people don’t do. We have families, jobs, church, volunteer obligations, goals… the list goes on and on. But what happens if you are constantly going and do not take time to care for yourself? 

Burn out. 

Total and utter burn out, and not just the “I need a nap” or “I am going to watch a movie and not move for two hours” type of burn out. We’re looking at the physical and mental inability to accomplish anything beyond the most important tasks. Most of us have been there at one point or another, and it can take weeks to years to recover from it. 

The only way I know to avoid a complete shut-down is to make your self-care the top priority, even above church, family, and work. 

When I tell my friends this, I get some resistance, usually in the form of “God will pick me up.” Listen, I get it. Faith is a powerful thing. But God, the Universe, Spirit, whatever you believe in will only help you if you’re helping yourself. 

What constitutes true self-care? 

Let’s start by making a list. What fills you up? What makes you feel recharged and able to take on challenges? For me, it’s yoga, walking, reading, writing, crocheting, spinning yarn, and coffee dates with friends. 

The formula for true self-care is simple. Do one thing every day from that list. It doesn’t have to be an all-day event. I know you’re busy. I’m busy. If I gave you a glimpse of my to-do list and calendar, you would wonder why I advocate making time to read or crochet every day. My secret? I set a timer. 

Today is a perfect example. Yoga class started at 8:30 AM, so I went to that. When I got home, I had a mess to clean up from the cat who got into the pantry and broke a glass bottle of salad dressing. Then I set a timer and worked outside for one hour, came in, and set another timer and read for thirty minutes. Once my timer goes off, I’m done and I move to the next thing. 

Even fifteen minutes a day will be enough to keep you from losing your shit when the boss asks you to stay late or your kid remembers a book report due tomorrow and needs help. That “one more thing and I’ll break” feeling will not be there. Think of how wonderful it will be to go through your day knowing you have self-care scheduled. 

The next step: schedule it. I know if it’s not on my list or calendar, it won’t get done. After a while, it will become a habit. But for now, get it on the list as a daily task. 

Finally, learn to say no. We’re a society that prides itself on being busy. The more work we do, the more accomplished we feel. But do we actually feel more accomplished? Or are we tired and worn out? 

One of my wise friends said to me she practices the prayerful no. She tells the person asking that she’s booked and thanks them for offering her a chance to help. Even if she’s booked with herself for self-care, she’s still busy during that time. The other person doesn’t need to know that from 4 to 5 PM is your scheduled time to sit in the hammock and nap. And guess what? The world doesn’t fall apart. The thing still gets done by someone else. We are not as indispensable as we like to think. 

Another way to learn to say no to things that might be too much is to look at it and ask yourself if it is something that will fill you or drain you. The answer should be obvious. Using the fill/drain method as a guide will assist you in saying yes to things that truly matter and letting the rest go. 

The only way to avoid burn out is to care for yourself before it gets to that point. I promise you that your kids won’t burn the house down in the fifteen minutes you’re reading a book, and the neighbor’s grass will still get mowed if you say no.

Books vs. Movies

Ask any avid reader, and they will give you at least five instances where they think the book was better than the movie. I tend to agree. There are very few movies that did the book justice.

Typically, people complain the movie didn’t show a certain scene that the reader felt was pivotal to the plot. They bemoan the looks of characters that are described differently in the book. Or they compare the medium of film directly to the medium of the written word, when in fact the two are very different.

In writing, the author has to create an entire world, cast of characters, and story using descriptions, dialogue, and subtext. They have to describe the scene well enough that it creates a picture in the readers’ minds. As a result, two people can read the same book simultaneously and have very different ideas regarding the appearances of people and places.

In films, the director takes his or her vision of what they imagine the characters and locations to be and translates it to visual images. The world-building is still there, but they incorporate it into the background. A well-done movie adaptation will contain the main elements of the book and follow the plot as closely as possible. However, since it is a different media, some things do not translate well.

As readers and viewers, we need to give credit to the attempts made to “due the book justice,” so to speak. That does not excuse poorly executed movies, however. Chaos Walking is one example of a movie that needed to be more. Eragon is another. In both cases, crucial information was withheld from the viewer, which made the movie simply confusing if you hadn’t read the book.

Some movies are extremely well-done, despite varying from the book. In my opinion, Hunger Games and Harry Potter are examples of excellent movie adaptations. There are many differences, but overall these two movies managed to keep the essence of the books.

I think there are some subtleties in films that still require us to pay attention to the details. While we may not have to envision the entire setting on our own, we still have to use intellect to determine what intricacies exist in the film and how they play upon each other.

McFarlane seems to agree as he states, “Each of these three categories of film’s narrational arsenal has numerous subdivisions, and a full response to the film will ask the viewer, at various levels of consciousness, to take them all into account, sometimes separately, more often in concert.”

He makes another point later on that really hit home for me. He stated that a colleague was trained to recognize subtleties in literature but not film, and she therefore failed to see how the film was complex as well. I love this because sometimes I’ve read a book then watched the adaptation film and decided that the book had more details or was more intricate than the film. After watching the film a couple more times, I begin to see some of the deeper aspects that I missed the first time around. Hunger Games is actually a perfect example of this for me.

I can (and probably will) write a whole blog post on Hunger Games movie vs. book, but for now, I want to open this up for discussion.

What do you think of books vs. movies? What are your favorite and least-favorite adaptations, and why?

Be Kind

A Survival Guide For Dealing With Stress

Let’s consider the state of the world we currently live in. Besides the usual stressors of daily living, whatever that looks like for you, we’ve dealt with a pandemic for two years, which resulted in a loss of work, supply chain issues, inflation, overworked employees, and health concerns. Now there’s war, and we’re seeing additional increases in costs and worry for loved ones. If you’re not directly affected by the Russian attack on Ukraine, you are most like indirectly affected, whether economically or mentally and emotionally. 

Our time is not an easy place to be. 

That’s not to say that other times were any easier, but we’re not living in those times. We’re living in this one, and it’s grueling. The additional burdens placed on us of figuring out what is best for our health and then watching a country decimate another one causes breakdowns among the most level-headed of us

In the last two years, I’ve observed people being flat out ugly to each other, and it’s gotten worse in the last two months. Customers are rude to overworked cashiers; cashiers become snappish. People are quicker to judge others. Friends cut off friends for perceived slights. All any of this does is increase already high stress levels.  

I want to tell everyone to be like Thumper. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” I’m afraid to do so. Many people are agitated, and saying something might result in violence towards my family or me. 

Instead, I find ways to keep my stress at a manageable level. 

1. Practice Self-Care

Start with your self-care to reduce stress and make room for caring for others. It’s difficult to be kind to strangers when your own stress levels are through the roof. I’m a firm believer in self-love being fundamental to making healthy and positive life-choices. This extends to how you treat others. If you’re new to creating a self-care routine or need to revamp your current routine, check out “Why You Should Prioritize Self-Care” and “Stress Coping Mechanisms.”

2. Journal

I journal almost every morning, even if it’s only for a few minutes. It’s not your typical “dear diary” entries, although you can certainly do that. Some days, I may write pages about the previous day’s events and my thoughts. Other days, I only write a few sentences and my to-do list. It doesn’t matter. It’s important to have a safe place to release those thoughts and feelings.

3. Exercise

This one isn’t new for anyone, but it’s important to mention. Exercise will reduce stress. Physical movement gives stress hormones an outlet. Everyone has different physical abilities and time allowances, so definitely move your body in a way that works for you. Start slowly so you don’t give up after the first run or yoga class. Hundreds of free workout videos are available for all levels, or you can subscribe to a service. As Nike says, “Just do it.” As I like to say, “Any movement is better than no movement.”

4. Supplements

Chat with your healthcare provider about what supplements your body might be missing. For example, I’m habitually low on Vitamin D and Iron, so my doctor recommended I take those. When I don’t, I feel tired, and my brain is sluggish. Then I get less done, so my stress goes up. Supplements can also help with your mood. Support your body, and your body will keep up with the pressures of the world.

“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”

Thumper in Disney’s Bambi

5. Practice Kindness and Patience 

Aware that almost everyone in the world is under tremendous stress, I try to be polite when I am out in it. Some days I’m grumpy, but I don’t take it out on the cashier. Say “please” and “thank you” when talking to someone—anyone! Offer to return someone’s cart, hold the door for the person behind you, and smile when you make eye contact. Of course, you can go above basic politeness and pay for someone’s coffee or donate to a local charity or a cause to help refugees. If you haven’t been out much in the last two years, start small. Being kind and patient goes double for your family. Usually, the people closest to us are the ones who endure our tempers.

6. Refrain from Judgment

That person driving slow in front of you may be a teenager who recently got their license or an old man taking his wife to the doctor. They aren’t being slow to piss you off. This falls under practicing kindness and patience but deserves its own recognition. We are all dealing with something almost daily. The same goes for the server at a restaurant, your friend, and the guy walking his dog. We are not here to judge each other; we are here to help each other. Have a conversation if there’s a miscommunication. Pick up the mess without making a big deal about it, and offer to help. We’ve all been there at some point. If you haven’t been there, you will. Trust me. 

7. Limit Time on Social Media and News

I can’t emphasize this one enough. Even just ten years ago, the news didn’t come at us lightning fast. We are constantly being bombarded by headlines and opinions and advertisements. That perpetual noise increases mental health issues. Are there benefits? Sure! It’s great to catch up with friends and family from around the world and be aware of current events. However, taking a break or limiting time spent on social media and news sites is healthy. 

It’s heartbreaking that I actually wrote a similar article approximately eighteen months ago. “Love One Another” is a lecture rather than a survival guide, but it’s still relevant. I would dare to say it’s even more relevant now than it was then, as the world contains more hate. 

For the world’s sake, please be kind.

The Grandfather Clock’s Secret

Evelyn’s red-lacquered fingertips glided over the surface of the grandfather clock. It was a beautiful piece of workmanship. The cherry-stained pinewood gleamed with age and love. The potbellied case had a glass door and the brass pendulum was visible as it swung, keeping constant rhythmic time. Roman numerals and hands of shining brass graced the face of the clock. Standing at almost eight feet tall, Evelyn stepped back to view the delicate carvings of leaves across the top.

Evelyn’s discovery of an old diary years before led her to the French Comtoise clock. Determined to have it, Evelyn traveled to Paris from New York for this auction. The auction was beginning soon, so she hurried to her seat. Evelyn suffered through the first items presented for sale. She tapped one fingernail on the handle of her paddle impatiently. Small tendrils of hair escaped the bun, her auburn hair curling in the humid heat.

Finally, the auctioneer called, “Item number 17, a Comtoise Grandfather Clock, built in 1854. We’ll start the bidding at $3,000.00.”

Evelyn raised her paddle, the number 416 showing clearly. Several other bidders quickly fell out of the running. Evelyn glared at the dark head of the man in front of her as he continued to bid.

“7,800.00. Do I hear $8,000.00?”

Inside, Evelyn screamed with fury as the dark-haired man bid again. “$12,000.00,” she pronounced.

The dark-haired man turned to regard her for a moment, then nodded in defeat.

“Sold to bidder 416!”

The auctioneer continued until he sold all the items. Evelyn waited, a small smile of satisfaction playing on her rosy lips. When the auction ended, Evelyn went to claim her prize. She arranged for delivery to her home later in the week.

Upon the clock’s arrival, Evelyn took a few minutes to admire it before calmly opening the glass door. Stopping the pendulum, she reached down and released a small catch. A panel popped open, and Evelyn retrieved a black velvet bag. She untied the drawstring, spilling the contents into her palm. Ten red gemstones, perfectly cut, glinted in the morning light. The extraordinarily rare Painite was hidden in the bowels of the clock since 1862. Every single carat gem was worth at least $50,000. 

“Now, what to do with my new fortune?” she murmured.


Author’s Note: Originally titled “The Secret of the Grandfather Clock,” I published this story first on Helium (no longer in existence) in 2010 or 2011. Beyond Prose, another now-defunct website, snagged it from Helium in 2013. I reworked this piece, changing not only the title but also a few of the details. 

Opinion – Monitoring Children’s Reading

As a mom of four children, I have enjoyed many trips to the library. Our family loves the various programs available to the community. And I always encouraged my kids to read.

During one visit to the library, I was waiting for my children to pick out the books they wanted when another mom approached me.

“Don’t you help your kids pick out books?” she asked.

“Not usually. They know what they like,” I responded.

“But what if they choose something inappropriate or above their reading level?”

“Then they will either ask for help with the hard words or they won’t read it.”

She made it obvious that my answer displeased her, and left once she wrangled her children.

I thought about her reaction and mentioned it to my grandmother the next time I saw her. I figured if anyone could give me good advice about children choosing proper reading material, it would be her. She loved books and was constantly giving me things to read. Granted, they were mostly books on government or authored by political leaders, but she had a passion for the written word.

“Kids won’t read anything they think is too big for them,” my grandma said.

We talked about it for a few more minutes before the conversation shifted to other things.

On occasion, I would pick up and read a book that one of my children was reading. When my oldest daughter was obsessed with the Twilight series, I read them all. When my son fell in love with the Guardians of Ga’hoole books, I skimmed through a few. I felt confident allowing my kids to choose their own reading adventures.

Then it happened.

My oldest son is an avid reader. He always carries a book with him, sometimes two, and prefers reading to watching television or playing video games. He was about twelve or thirteen years old and went to the library weekly, so he could stay stocked on books. The library also offered a summer reading program for kids, complete with weekly activities and presentations.

The library summer reading program often rewarded kids with a free book if they read a certain number of books. Of course, my son qualified for the free book within a few weeks, and we stopped by the library. He picked out a book that sounded interesting to him. A few days later, he came to me and asked if we could go back because he didn’t like the book and wanted to return it.

I read the back cover. It seemed to be a similar genre to what he usually read, and I asked him what he didn’t like about it.

“It has two boys kissing in it,” he said. “I don’t want to read it anymore.”

We went back to the library, and the librarian graciously exchanged the book for another, and my son was happy.

My son did not finish the book because he came across a scene that made him uncomfortable. It didn’t shock him into reading more to find out what happened next, and he didn’t hide it from me. He just stopped reading and asked for a different book.

Monitoring what a kid reads limits them.

Some parents may decide this is a perfect example of why it’s important to monitor what their children read and choose reading material for them. Books are challenged in school and public libraries because parents despise the content and want those books removed from the shelves. I only have one question for those parents: What gives you the right to decide for every child?

If you have not taught your child proper moral values that align with your family, whatever those values may be, then you may have cause to worry about what they’re reading. However, parents should lead by example, and give their children the tools they need to make good choices in all aspects of their lives. If you do that, then you should also be able to trust your child. Trust that they will put down a book that has content they are not ready to explore.

I can already hear the naysayers and arguments now, so let me head you off.

No, we do not monitor what my kids watch. However, we don’t have satellite TV, only streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. Yes, there are some very adult shows available. But my kids will walk out of the room if my husband and I watch something that has mature content. They don’t want to see it. I am not concerned that they are secretly watching explicit material.

Yes, we pay attention — somewhat — to our children’s online presence. It’s lessened over the years, but when they first entered the world of online gaming and had access to things on their own, we had parental controls in place. This was more for blocking predators than it was for blocking content. We would read text/chat messages and randomly search their tablet browser histories. They were required to leave their tablets and phones in the dining room from 9 p.m. until the next morning. Now, at ages fifteen (almost sixteen) and seventeen, my youngest children police themselves.

Because I trust them.

My husband and I worked extremely hard to instill virtuous principles in our children. We taught them from a young age what is right and wrong and how to avoid peer pressure. Our kids may roll their eyes at us, forget to tell us when they get to a friend’s house, and argue with us, but they are also upstanding citizens. They will stand up for what’s right, work hard, and help others.

I feel that monitoring what a kid reads limits them. My oldest son was reading at a high-school level by the time he was in fifth grade. He is now in his last year of college as an engineering student. If I monitored what he read and only allowed him to read books in his recommended age range, I do not think he would have excelled in math and science enough to make it into his desired degree program.

My youngest daughter once purchased a high-school algebra book from a thrift store and perused it during a road trip. She was ten years old. While this isn’t fiction, it is still a book, and I could have told her no. Instead, I paid $1.50, and now she’s at the top of her class for math.

My five-year-old grandson wanted to learn about volcanoes and found a book in the middle-grade section of the library. We checked it out, and I read parts of it to him, but not all of it. He wouldn’t sit still long enough. But he remembers some names of the different formations of volcanoes. Who knows? Maybe he’ll grow up to be a geologist or a volcanologist. Perhaps it’s a phase, and he’ll decide to be a mechanic.

Reading is an exploration of different parts of the universe that we would not have access to otherwise. It allows the imagination to flourish and inspires creativity and learning. If parents refuse to let their children have some leniency with reading, they will stifle their children’s ability to learn.

Let them read.


Featured image by qiangxuer on Pixabay.

Make Memories This Holiday Season

Disclaimer: This article specifically mentions Christmas because that is what my family celebrates. But the ideas presented here can be used for other holidays such as (but not limited to): Yule, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, birthdays, or anniversaries.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a post from a friend about her son’s upcoming birthday. She wasn’t sure how to “top” last year’s gift. The timing was interesting because I just finished reading an article about why there are so many shipping delays and product shortages. I was already mulling over how to make this year’s holiday season a little less about things and more about family. 

The winter holidays, regardless of what you celebrate, can be focused on spending time with family and friends and not on spending money. 

I only remember two gifts from my childhood. One was a doll set, complete with a cradle, from my grandma. The other was a Barbie camper bus. I remember the doll and cradle because my grandma gave my two cousins the same thing, only in different colors. I remember the Barbie bus because it was part of a traumatic Christmas morning for me as an eight-year-old. 

I woke up, excited to see what “Santa” brought me, only to find a mesh stocking full of real coal hanging on my door. I was devastated. What my parents thought would be a fun joke turned into tears; then they brought the bus out from behind the tree. 

The things I remember most during the winter holidays are events. We went caroling with my cousins (there are a lot of us!), and secretly left boxes full of food and little gifts on someone’s doorstep. We had sledding parties complete with snowball fights and snowman building contests. My parents were geniuses at making memories! 

Then I became an adult and, for a while, I was sucked into the commercialism of the season. Have you ever made a list of gifts to buy and added everyone from neighbors to coworkers? Did you ever feel slightly guilty when you received an invitation to a gift exchange but couldn’t afford it? Did you stop to ask yourself why? Why are we, as a society, so programmed to purchase a present for every single person we’re in contact with? 

It’s time to break the cycle and enjoy the holidays again.

At one point, my husband and I were raising four young children on a single income of approximately $25,000 a year. Birthday and Christmas gifts always included something they needed, because we couldn’t afford to just buy toys. One year, I came up with the brilliant yet ironic idea of putting socks in their stockings. “Socks in socks,” I called it. I always tried to find themed socks to make it fun, and the kids love it. Even now, fifteen-plus years later, they still want socks in their stockings. 

That same year, my husband and I decided to buy a single gift that the family could enjoy instead of buying a lot of individual gifts. When the new Nintendo Wii went on sale in a package deal with a new television, we jumped on it. We only had the game that came with the system, but it was enough for us. Over time, we purchased other games at the pawnshops. 

Now, we have a family tradition of getting a new board or card game and playing it on Christmas. There are so many games out there, and we can get more advanced ones as our family gets older. This gift allows us both to have fun and spend time together. 

Other family traditions for us include books and pajamas for Christmas Eve. And we always take a winter evening to go look at light displays. I pack cookies and a thermos of hot chocolate, and we drive around for hours. There’s a local Facebook group that lists all the really fancy displays, including ones that are set to music, so we use that to plan our outing.

My mom and I started exchanging our stockings for each other to fill many years ago. It’s usually all we do for each other, but it’s challenging and enjoyable finding lots of small items that are useful or fun. As my children got older, we started including them in the stocking exchange. We give each other the stockings at Thanksgiving and return them filled right before Christmas. 

We also have an advent calendar, created by my mom, made up of mini stockings strung together and numbered 1-25. In each stocking is a little slip of paper with an activity. Some we skip due to lack of interest or time, but it gives us a way to do things together as a family. 

Another year, we wanted to challenge ourselves and made the rule that every gift had to be handmade. I think this was my favorite Christmas of all since becoming an adult. My youngest son and husband got together to make me a jewelry stand with hooks for my rings, and my daughter made soap. Not only do I remember the gifts from that year, but I remember all the fun we had making them as well.

This year, our family is composed of adults, older teens, and two young children. The younger ones will each get a “Santa” gift of a special toy. For everyone else? We are capping the cost per gift at $25, and are not making gift-giving mandatory. Then we will spend the day playing games, doing puzzles, watching movies, and making cookies. 

A different idea we had was for each of us to buy one small gift for everyone’s stocking. The stocking gift cannot be money or a gift card unless attached to a physical item. The idea is to be creative, since the item has to fit in a stocking and be useful or fun for that individual. This idea got vetoed by the teens who are used to being able to dig into their stockings at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning.

“But wait!” I can hear the masses cry. “We’ve been buying gifts for everyone for years. They’re going to be so disappointed!” My response? Check your mindset. If you’re excited to do the holidays differently, then your family and friends will be too. But if you’re negative about it and bemoaning the shortages or wishing you could get more, you will be miserable. And misery loves company. 

Tips to make a “less is more” holiday work for you:

Buy a new puzzle or board game everyone can play.

Get a new video game, especially those that are multiplayer. Check pawnshops to get it for less than the original price. 

For about a month before Christmas, when you do your regular grocery shopping, add an ingredient or two for baking special cookies. This supports a healthy budget. My family’s favorite is Monster Cookies. It makes a LOT and we always have enough to eat, share with neighbors, and even freeze some for later. There are several recipes online for Monster Cookies but see below for the one I’ve used for over twenty years.

Before it gets too close to December, create a simple advent calendar and do one activity a day leading up to the holidays. 

Other fun and inexpensive holiday activities might include cutting your tree, making a new memory decoration, reading a book together (a chapter or section a night), or having a sledding party with hot chocolate and sugar cookies. You can also donate your time to the food bank/soup kitchen. This is a teachable moment for your children to learn that there are others who need more help and compassion. 

Create some new traditions this season. Time spent with family is more important than the items we buy. 


Monster Cookies

  • 12 eggs
  • 4 c. sugar
  • 2 lb. brown sugar
  • 1 lb. butter or margarine, softened
  • 3 lb. peanut butter
  • 8 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla
  • 18 c. oatmeal
  • 1 lb. plain M&M’S®
  • 12 oz. chocolate chips

Mix all ingredients in the order given. To make Monster size cookies, use an ice cream scoop to drop cookie dough onto cookie sheets, otherwise, a 1/2 inch size ball makes a nice size cookie. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. Makes 20 dozen cookies. You can freeze baked cookies or freeze small 1/2 inch size balls of uncooked cookie dough on a cookie sheet. When frozen, store in a freezer bag or Tupperware until ready to bake. 


Advent Calendar List

  1. Write letters to Santa
  2. Learn a new Christmas song
  3. Make an ornament
  4. Drink hot drinks and talk about good family times
  5. Write a note to each family member 
  6. Make paper snowflakes
  7. Play a board game
  8. Decorate the tree
  9. Make a popcorn treat
  10. Read a favorite holiday story
  11. Bake cookies and take some to a neighbor
  12. Make reindeer food (this is for young kids to sprinkle outside for Santa’s reindeer)
  13. Eat oranges and read “Christmas Oranges” 
  14. Visit the library for books for holiday break
  15. Make a treat for the birds
  16. Bake dog treats
  17. Watch a holiday movie
  18. See Christmas lights
  19. Drink hot cocoa and eat buttered toast
  20. Be quiet and enjoy some holiday music
  21. Make a table centerpiece
  22. Make apple pretzels
  23. Relax
  24. Set out Santa’s treat
  25. Enjoy Christmas with your family 

Book Review: These Toxic Things

May Contain Spoilers

I recently read These Toxic Things by Rachel Howzell Hall. I want to start off by saying this is not my usual genre. It’s billed as a thriller. I typically read fantasy of all types and some historical fiction. Every once in a while, I’ll delve into the world of mysteries (think Agatha Christie type) or gothic paranormal books. A “thriller” is not something I would gravitate toward. 

So you may wonder why I read this one. It was part of Amazon’s First Reads for Prime Readers, and the only one that was intriguing to me on the day I read the email. I, like many of my friends, choose books based on my current mood. Nothing else stood out, and I thought it would be good to branch out of my comfort zone. 

Please take all of this into consideration when reading my review. I do not have a lot of previous experience to go on. 

First, the plot grabbed me from the start. The idea of a digital scrapbooking service made me wonder what items of mine I would choose. And the fact that Mickie is curious enough to dig deeper while being threatened indicated a strong female character, which I enjoy. 

As I read, I thought Mickie was a little too early-adult melodramatic. Boyfriend troubles, possible career changes, and some tense moments with her parents made the main character seem shallow. I pushed on. 

It didn’t take long for the real action to begin. Mickie went to her client’s store but before she could start work, Nadia was dead. Since Nadia paid in full for the digital scrapbook, Mickie was sure someone from Nadia’s life would want it and continued working on it. That’s when the threats started. 

As Mickie digs deeper into Nadia’s past, what she believes about her own past unravels as family secrets are revealed. Slowly, the reader builds their own theory about how Nadia really died and what Mickie’s parents are hiding. 

There’s also still the spectacle of Mickie’s romantic relationships, which were very superficial and could be left out of the book without really affecting the plot. Make her boss just a boss, not a lover. Make Nadia’s son just her son and Mickie’s friend, not a fling. If the relationships were deeper or more meaningful, they would have more sway over the plot. As you can tell, I despise fluff and nonsense in novels.

Interspersed throughout the book are mini-chapters from the stalker’s point of view. The way Hall wrote these insights reveals nothing about the stalker. Their sex, appearance, and reason for stalking are all slowly unveiled as Mickie performs amateur sleuth work. Interestingly, the stalker is not obvious, which makes the book worthwhile.

Honestly, I was not paying too much attention to some of the details in the story as someone who regularly reads thrillers might. There are sections about Nadia’s treasures that include details of the victims and hints of who the murderer is. I’m sure my oversight would exasperate thriller enthusiasts. But I was trying to figure out who really killed Nadia and who the stalker was, and didn’t see the memory box information as relevant. 

When the climax of the book revealed the killer and the stalker, I was pleased to be wrong on both counts. Mysteries that are too easy for me to figure out are not any fun to read, and I quickly get bored with the story. This book kept me interested until the final showdown.

I rolled my eyes at the nod to the beginning of the pandemic lockdown at the end of the book. We’re living it; we don’t need to be reminded that it happened. Any book that references the current pandemic is immediately put on my “do not read” list. Enough with that, already.

There is some lack of character development for the minor characters. I didn’t really care when Anna went missing, although I was pleased she wasn’t another murder victim. The emotional connection between reader and character is missing. The story definitely moved forward based on the reader’s curiosity of “who done it” instead of “what happens to Mickie.” I definitely prefer novels that have deeper and more vibrant characters.

Will I pick up another book by Ms. Hall? Unlikely. But I also don’t regret reading this one.


Featured Image by Luiz-Jorge-Artista on Pixabay.