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A half dozen books worth reading with your friends, and one terror you might want to skip

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a book review, and thanks to my family’s book club, I’ve read a lot of books outside the genre of memoir.

I’m a fan of memoir, if you’ve forgotten, mostly because I love stranger-than-fiction true stories and because those are the types of stories I write. Writers read, and so I gravitate to the kind of stories I aspire to write. But fiction tantalizes the memoirist’s mind, too, with beautiful writing and pulse-pounding plots, so I appreciate this book club filled with my mom, sister, aunt, uncle and cousins who think highly of science fiction, mysteries and thrillers.

If you’re looking for a book to recommend to your book club, you might like one of these. Or if you’re casting about for a way to connect with your relatives, you might consider forming a book club. I’ve found that even better than any of the books we’ve read is the comradery generating by our monthly Zoom conversations.

My sister chose The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics right before last summer’s Olympic games in Tokyo. This book, a true story written in third person, sparked my interest in the curious sport of rowing. After reading it, your pectorals will hurt, too. Author Daniel James Brown relied on the diaries and memories of the crew members to create this intimate look inside a gold medal run. His research is detailed and compelling. Even knowing how it ends, I was mesmerized. It’s an underdog story because, at the time at least, most crew rowers came from elite eastern and British universities. But this team was built at the University of Washington of the sons of loggers, shipyard workers and farmers. The story also sheds brilliant light on the Great Depression and the 1936 Berlin Olympics. I gave this book an “amazing” rating.

The (Other) You by the well-known novelist Joyce Carol Oates was less compelling. I chose this book of short stories on the recommendation of a writer friend. The prose is quite lovely, but I think writers will find it more interesting than readers of mass market fiction. The (Other) You explores the other lives the characters might have led if they’d made different choices. My favorite story in the collection was “The Bloody Head” because I could imagine being the narrator who didn’t want to be bothered by her husband’s urgent-in-his-own-mind emergency. Besides the through-line of alternative realities, Oates weaves together a couple of settings that are like video game Easter eggs; readers will get that “aha! I’ve found it!” feeling when they run across them. Many of the stories have less than satisfying endings that reminded me of Alice Munro’s writing. If you like her short stories, you’ll appreciate this book.

The One: A Novel is classified as a thriller, and it’s the sort of intriguing book that makes you think about destiny, soul mates and, well, what compels a serial murderer. I didn’t like that part; grisly crime scenes and getting inside the mind of a sicko are not my jam, but still, The One is fascinating. My cousin chose this book. It is set in the real world, but there’s a little science fiction element in concept that every person on the planet can find their genetically perfect match with a DNA test. Author John Marrs tells the story from the perspective of five people who are matched through this genetic discovery. All of the pairings have pitfalls of one sort or another, some more dire than others. I gave this an “I really liked it” rating on Goodreads.

After Joyce Carol Oates’ short stories in The (Other) You, I wasn’t too keen on spending time with Emily C. Skaftun’s Living Forever & Other Terrible Ideas, but her “eerie, unsettling, and occasionally zany” collection (so said Publisher’s Weekly) took me in. Skaftun personifies lawn ornaments, tells a frozen head’s life story and inhabits a sentient text message, and that’s just in the first handful of stories. In the story of the sentient text message, “Only the Messenger,” Skaftun creates alternative, ungendered pronouns: “ze, zim and zir”; I’d never heard of that before, but it’s so much more elegant than referring to an individual as “they, them and their.” My cousin chose this freaky little bit of literature, and I honestly enjoyed reading one of the stories every night before falling asleep; it would be a great October choice for a book club. I got a little bit of creepy without going full-blown horrifying, and I appreciated Skaftun’s approach to endings: she actually gave me closure most of the time. This book garnered an “amazing” rating from me.

However, I hated State of Terror with a white-hot intensity I usually reserve for computer snafus (the kind where I’m yelling and pounding the keyboard with my fist instead of my fingertips). This thriller was co-written by Louise Penny and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Yes, that HRC. I didn’t hate the book because of her political leanings though (be mindful the 1-star ratings on Amazon and Goodreads; most of those haters didn’t actually read the book). I actually encouraged my aunt to choose this book when she was offering up options for her choice because I thought Clinton’s experiences as a U.S. Secretary of State would infuse the story with some reality, but no. State of Terror aptly describes the reading experience because every single chapter ends with some of sort of terrifying cliffhanger that is resolved more or less quickly and unsatisfyingly in the next chapter. The secretary of state in this story speaks non sequiturs like “Jesus wept” in response to being informed Pakistan is a nuclear power. Huh? And she blackmails the Russian dictator in this story with fake news (!) of him being a child predator. And it works. Really? Our character based on Vladimir Putin who has no shame in poisoning agents in other countries or invading defenseless neighbors would care about being called a molester? Nope. Couldn’t swallow that plot point. The acknowledgments describing how State of Terror came about were interesting, I can say that much (also, they signaled the end of the slog). Louise Penny may be a fine writer of other books, and I know I’ve appreciated better non-fiction outings from Clinton, but this book stank.

Even as a kid, I remember my dear mother absorbed in reading books, so I know she’s a connoisseur of mysteries from way back, and she chose one of her favorites when it was her turn to pick a read: A Noise Downstairs: A Novel by Linwood Barclay. This is a murder mystery, but not the murder you think it is in the beginning. There’s also a paranormal element to the story: a possessed typewriter that types by itself! What writer wouldn’t love that! The very clever plotting and characterizations truly will have you guessing until the end. However, even I, a lover of words, might quibble with some of the unnecessary description (“Charlotte got ahead of Paul, turned back the bolt, opened the door, and held it for her husband.” Really? You needed all that to say “she opened the door”?). A Noise Downstairs earned an “I really liked it” rating from me.

The last book we read—the end of these reviews so to speak—was Ender’s Game, a classic piece of award-winning science fiction from Orson Scott Card, who subsequently wrote a number of sequels. This book, chosen by my cousin’s deep-thinking mate, told the story of a kid genius named Ender who was being groomed to command Earth’s military force for a potentially world ending war with the Buggers, an alien race that communicates almost telepathically. Card does a masterful job of describing zero-gravity war games and, in a bit of a prophetic twist, how to manipulate control of Earth’s populace with the equivalent of a social media campaign. This book, originally published in 1985 based on a short story written in the ’70s, stands the test of time. I believe it is classified by some as Young Adult but the story appeals to mature readers for certain. Ender’s Game earned an “I really liked it” rating from me.

The next book in our queue is, God love my sister who picked it, a memoir! I can’t wait.

Candid handiwork of an artiste

For Christmas, my Beloved and I opted to gift each other with a pottery throwing class.

He had long been interested the art after creating a strange and interesting sculpture out of bronze back in the ’80s. And I’m always up for a creative challenge.

Challenge, it was. As a writer, my creativity is cerebral. But for a potter, creativity must be wrested physically from the clay. Successfully throwing pottery requires strength, dexterity and finesse.

I did not learn how to make beautiful cups and plates. As I created bowls (only the simplest bowls), I learned humility, patience and how to let go. When I let the clay speak to me, instead of insisting on dictating to it, I was more successful in my endeavors. Like so many things in life, I learned I didn’t know what I didn’t know. The medium is volatile, and any number of mishaps can occur during the process of wheel-throwing, glazing and firing. I will never gaze upon a piece of hand-thrown pottery again without appreciating all the effort that went into it.

Our class was offered for three hours in the morning once a week for six weeks at Sailing Adrift Studios in Jonestown, Texas. Our teacher, Kim Press, is an accomplished ceramicist with a gift for instruction (you can check out some of her truly amazing pieces by clicking here). My Beloved and I enjoyed the experience immensely though I think I will stick to my knitting (that is, writing). We ended up creating eight bowls each in the course of the six weeks.

In the interest of showing off and, well, let’s face it, practicing humility, here’s a look at our work.

My pieces are on the left, my Beloved’s on the right. Several of his are much bigger because, as you recall, he’s a “go big or go home” kind of guy.

For fun, let’s pretend my works are display at the Gallery of Minnesota Transplant (in reality, most of them might function best as holders for earrings or M&Ms, but for a few minutes, they are art). Follow me, right this way …

Monica Lee

Retrieved From Oblivion, 2022

Glazed stoneware

45/8 in x 11/2 in

On the wheel, the artist compressed the bottom so much, it disappeared. The finished work was salvaged by building a new foundation.

Monica Lee

Blue Dribbler, 2022

Glazed stoneware

43/8 in x 17/8 in

As memoirist Jhumpa Lahiri once wrote in In Other Words, “The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive.”

Monica Lee

Kittyhawk, 2022

Glazed stoneware

33/8 in x 11/8

Wilbur and Orville Wright’s first successful flight in 1903 south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, had their Wright Flyer aloft for 12 seconds, traversing less than 200 feet.

Monica Lee

Rain Kissed Blooms, 2022

Glazed stoneware

33/4 in x 21/4 in

This was the only piece the artist painted with glaze instead of dipping.

Monica Lee

Shallow Triumph, 2022

Glazed stoneware

63/4 in x 11/2 in

The artist’s final and largest work.

Monica Lee

Tea Stained Morning, 2022

Glazed stoneware

53/8 in x 13/4 in

A secondary blue haze accents this balanced finish.

Monica Lee

Secure Border, 2022

Glazed stoneware

41/8 in x 11/2 in

Monica Lee

Larger Beauty ,2022

Glazed stoneware

33/4 in x 13/4 in

Glazed to look like a bird’s egg, this piece echoes a line from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—is that they connect you to some larger beauty?”

I will close with this apt quote from writer Kurt Vonnegut:

To practice art,
no matter how
well or badly,
is a way to make
your soul grow.

What your favorite Christmas cookie says about you

This post originally appeared on this blog eight years ago, but I think it’s clever enough to serve again on a seasonally appropriate platter. Enjoy!

# # #

It’s the time of year flour, sugar and butter manufacturers live for: Christmas cookie baking season. Bakers across the country (and the world) celebrate the season by assembling different combinations of these three ingredients (plus an assortment of others) to tempt the rest of us into gaining Christmas pounds so we can resolve to lose them in January.

Your favorite Christmas cookie can reveal your personality, but before we look deep into your psyche, a definition is in order: Christmas cookies may have chocolate chips, but chocolate chip cookies are not Christmas cookies! As I have ranted in the past, Christmas cookies are special, once-a-year ordeals. They use special ingredients — like crushed candy canes or chocolate extract or dried cranberries or apricot jam. Or they come in special shapes — like spritz cookies or gingerbread men. Or they require complicated assembly, like sandwich cookies or red-hot-nosed reindeer cookies or those tedious twisted candy canes made of vanilla and red-colored sugar cookie dough. Or they have special toppings like powdered sugar or frosting or crushed nuts.

Chocolate chip cookies are for every day – they’re not for Christmas!

So with that in mind, what’s the one Christmas cookie you never pass up when the cookie plate comes your way? The one you pray to see when the neighbors gift you a batch? The one kind you’d make if you had enough discipline to bake only one batch this season?

I Like To Help: Sugar Cookies

My sugar cookies are decorated with mini M&Ms this year (because I thought they needed help).

These sugar cookies have mini M&Ms (because they need help).

When I worked at Target long ago, my name tag (and everyone else’s) read “My Name is [insert first name here] & I Like To Help.” I was imbued with the servant heart I don’t possess, but if sugar cookies are your favorite, helpfulness probably comes naturally to you. Sugar cookies are the Mr. Rogers of the holiday neighborhood: Everyone likes them because they have no offensive qualities like nuts, foreign spices or messy powdered sugar. They offer sweetness and light time after time.


Look At Me: Spritz Cookies

Sylvester Stallone probably likes spritz cookies. Making them, too.

Sylvester Stallone probably likes spritz cookies. Making them, too.

Your favorite Leo probably likes spritz cookies. The ingredients are plain vanilla (with a dash of almond flavoring), but their presentation is anything but. Sometimes food coloring is added to the dough, it’s tortured by being squeezed through a press and decorated with sprinkles. If you like spritz cookies, you’re popular, you work hard to distinguish yourself from others and you’re probably physically attractive. You’re the king of the jungle, and anyone who doesn’t believe that gets mauled and eaten.



Second Thoughts: Snowballs

Nutty on the inside, sweet on the outside.

Nutty on the inside, sweet on the outside.

These cookies go by a half-dozen different names: Mexican Wedding Cakes, Russian (or Polish) Tea Cakes, Butter Pecan Cookies, Snowballs, Crescents, Pecan Sandies or one of the five million names that come up when you enter the recipe into Google. Also known as Those Buttery Cookies With the Powdered Sugar that Make Such A Mess on My Sweater. Despite the coating, they’re distinctive because the dough has relatively little sugar. If snowballs are your favorite, you eat fudge when you want sugar; you eat snowballs when you want Christmas cookies. You think deep thoughts and might be considered eccentric or even radical. At your best, you’re a genius, at your worst, you’re schizophrenic (what name are you going by today?). You probably hate sugar cookies and when you do actually bake, you don’t like to share.

Hey, Man, Don’t Get Crazy on Me: Gingerbread

cookiegingerbreadEverything about gingerbread says tradition. It’s been around for a thousand years in various incarnations; in contemporary times, it’s a handy building block: Think gingerbread men and gingerbread houses. If gingerbread is your favorite, you like a good rut, a good boss and good political party. Family and friends are important to you. Without people like you, the world is an anarchy of white chocolate bark, chocolate sprinkles and whole cloves.

Just Wanna Have Fun: Peanut Blossoms

The No. 1 favorite cookie by many measures, peanut blossoms marry cookies with candy (and Hershey’s Kisses is forever grateful). And who can deny the appeal of peanut butter? If peanut blossoms are your favorite, you’re dazzlingly multitalented, uninhibited and enthusiastic. Haters call you hyperactive. What do they know? They probably like gingerbread.


Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery: White Chocolate Cranberry Cookies or Macaroons

cookiewhitechocolateWhite chocolate cranberry cookies differentiate themselves from chocolate chip cookies with seasonally appropriate coloring that coordinates with Santa’s suit. And the crazy coconut of macaroons reflect his beard. If one of these types of cookies are your favorite, you’re courageous, possibly heroic, and entrepreneurial (how else could you deliver toys to two billion children every Christmas Eve?). At your worst, you’re a megalomaniac running an elf sweatshop in a country without income taxes.

Mr. Spock’s Favorite: Biscotti

cookiebiscottiBiscotti is both the bane and the savior of the holiday baker: It’s a pain in the arse to bake it twice, but once done, crisp biscotti lasts until the 12 days of Christmas are a faint memory. “Moist” and “soft” are insulting to biscotti. If you like biscotti best, you’re wise, ethical and humorless. Be honest: The only reason you even profess to like Christmas cookies is because they’re an excuse to drink coffee.

What’s In A Name: Snickerdoodle

cookiesnickerdoodlesWithout the cinnamon coating and a name that’s as fun to say as boondoggle and dingus, snickerdoodles wouldn’t even qualify as Christmas cookies. If snickerdoodles are your favorite, you’re peace-loving and unpretentious, but whatever you do, don’t bring these to the Christmas cookie exchange: Your lack of flash will get the stink eye from the woman whose favorite cookie is in our final category.

Everything but a pageant sash: Cookie contest cookies and anything with pretzels

Photo by Six Sisters' Stuff

Photo by Six Sisters’ Stuff

Who needs flour, sugar and butter when there are so many other ingredients in the world?  If your favorite Christmas cookie is the one you’ve never seen before it appears on a plate from your familial gourmand, you’re creative and you know it, clap your hands. You are a romantic, possibly tortured and probably competitive. Aesthetics are important to you. And you probably play a mean game of Scrabble.

Daily newspapers across the Midwest hold Christmas cookie contests every year to inspire bakers to try new things, but that’s just a cover: Reporters like free cookies and Christmas cookie contests are a lot more delicious than lutefisk tasting contests. I devour the annual recipes with amused curiosity. Who has time for 16-step recipes and where can you find ground chipotlé pepper (don’t neglect the accent)? But these are my favorite cookies. Really, who can resist cookies with names that include chai latte, salted caramel and spiced something-r-other. In the past, my sister has taunted me on Pinterest with pins of elaborate cookies she thinks I should make in preparation for our family gathering, but this one she sent sounds divine despite the multi-step recipe: Chubby Hubby Buckeye Peanut Butter Truffles. Because it has peanut butter. And crushed pretzels.

I am an artiste.

How about you?

Leap of faith

I walk my neighborhood north of Austin quite often, and I thought I’d found every trail there was to find.

I figured out the shortcut to the mailbox, I found the path up to the smokehouse, and I even discovered the walkway to the former kayak drop.

Some of these unpaved trails through the cedar woods are marked, and some are not.

Recently, I came upon a new path that reminded me a bit of Indiana Jones’ leap of faith in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. If you’ve seen the movie, you know the scene: Indiana is trying to save his father by retrieving the Holy Grail. He has snaked his way through the spinning blades (get that? Indy hates snakes!), and he’s solved the puzzle spelling the Latin name for Jesus Christ, and now he has to find “The Path of God.” The clue is “Only in the leap from the lion’s head will he prove his worth.”

It’s a leap of faith.

Indiana sticks out his foot into the crevasse and begins to fall but instead, lands on a narrow walkway. The camera pans to the side revealing the walkway was painted to blend into the background. It was always there but unseen.

My clue was given to me by a neighbor who claimed there was a pathway from the lower cul-de-sac to the trash dumpster (so not a “path of God,” but a path to the garbage; I’m going with the metaphor anyway). If it existed, it would be a handy shortcut I hadn’t yet found.

I walked to the cul-de-sac and saw this:

Hidden path.

No path here, I thought. Sure, I could trudge through the underbrush, but there be snakes in that grass! I hate snakes!

Even so, I took a leap of faith at my neighbor’s direction. I moved two steps to the right, and behold:

The path revealed.

Sure enough, there was a trail here! I couldn’t follow it with my eyes all the way to the dumpster, so there still was trust involved, but I could see the way.

Isn’t that how life is sometimes? Just when we’re about to give up on a way through, just when we’re thinking we’re going to have to figure out a way around, someone gives us a clue. We take two steps to the right. We trust the beginning of the path will continue and bring us to a proper conclusion.

We just need to take a leap of faith.

I recently took a leap of faith on a new project. If you appreciate Minnesota Transplant’s philosophizing like above, you might like this new project, too. Are you the praying sort? I’m offering a service that will deliver prayers right to your In Box every morning. I’ve named it for the belfry in the church we remodeled into our home: Bell Tower Prayer. To learn more, click here: Bell Tower Prayer.

Road Trip appeals to a modern romantic aesthetic

Is it chick lit? Is it a travelogue? Is it a romance novel?

The Road Trip is a little bit of all these things, a fun distraction but probably designed for someone a little younger than long married and menopausal me.

Author Beth O’Leary tells the story of Dylan and Addie, exes forced to road trip across England for a mutual friend’s wedding. Interwoven with flashbacks to the couple’s love story, the journey is humorously awkward, filled with hijinks, detours and a few wrong turns.

Here’s a line that proved I might not be the target audience:

Wahoo was one of the Oxford nightclubs—actually a sports bar that transformed itself for students at night. It always smelled of sweet corn and inexplicably played the shopping channel on its TV screens while the DJ blasted out something by Flo Rida.

Who is Flo Rida? Well, she’s a he, an American rapper known for such jewels as “Low,” “Jump” and “Sugar.” I’m not even interested enough to click on one of his You Tube videos. But a 20-something might be interested, I don’t know.

Besides describing a nightclub by its odor of sweet corn, which is pretty clever, O’Leary uses other descriptive language:

Already the heat is as thick as honey, viscous and sweet. It’s turning into a glorious summer morning: the sky is a deep lapis lazuli blue, and the fields are sun-kissed and yellow-bright on either side of the road. It’s the sort of day that tastes of crushed ice and suntan lotion, ripe strawberries, the sweet head rush of too many gin and tonics.

Isn’t that lovely? I can feel the day. The plot is a little bit bubblegum, but O’Leary manages to create fully realized characters and plausible conflicts. It wasn’t good enough to inspire me to pick up another O’Leary title, but then, I’m not a huge fan of fiction. I read The Road Trip for our family book club, populated entirely by women except for my uncle, who gamely tolerates our feminine biases.

If you’re looking for something light, clever and modern, you might like the journey offered by The Road Trip.

I appreciate you, regular readers of Minnesota Transplant. So glad you drop by now and again. I’ve started a new project: a blog about prayer. Are you the praying sort? You might find it right up your alley. Check it out by clicking here.

Minnesota Transplant celebrates an anniversary

Look what showed up on my Facebook memories this morning: looks like this blog is celebrating its 13th anniversary today.

My first post here occurred Oct. 18, 2008, the day after I started the blog. It did not break ground in a writerly way, but it did establish a place for me to share my creativity every day or, more recently, only occasionally.

I have not been posting regularly. The blog scene has changed a lot in 13 years, and this blog of random musings is nothing special among bloggers. I still enjoy writing even when I’m not being public about it. Lately, I have been concentrating my efforts on another book, one about my father’s adventures as a TV repairman in central Minnesota. Rest assured, you’ll hear more about this book in the future.

This post is No. 2,092, and if you’re a follower, thank you. Thank you for paying attention, for caring about what Minnesota Transplant has to say, for sharing your thoughts, for being present. I appreciate you.

Thirsty for history? Pore over this book

If you don’t like history or minutiae, there’s nothing to see here. Move along.

But if you like sweeping analysis, interesting historical detail right down to flavors, and a clever look at where culture, politics and technology intersect, then you ought to pick up A History of the World in 6 Glasses and peruse it while quaffing a beer, sipping a whiskey cocktail or lingering over a nice cup of tea.

Author Tom Standage tells the story of agriculture, civilization and globalization through the lens of what we humans were drinking in six eras:

  • Beer in Mesopotamia and Egypt
  • Wine in Greece and Rome
  • Spirits in the Colonial Period
  • Coffee in the Age of Reason
  • Tea and the British Empire
  • Coca-Cola and the Rise of America

I picked up this book at the behest of my aunt, who chose it for our family book club discussion. Though some of my relatives found it was too detailed and would be better as a television documentary, I enjoyed it.

This is not a book about fine wine or how to make the perfect cup of coffee. Instead, Standage persuades readers that each of the six beverages literally changed the world by bringing people together—as wine did in Roman households or Coca-Cola did in globalization—or driving them apart—as in the role tea played in the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. “Everyone has to drink,” Standage writes, “Each drink tells us about the priorities of the people who drank them: who drank what, and where they got it from, tells you a lot about the structure of society.”

I knew Ancients drank beer because potable water was sometimes difficult to get, but I learned that’s true also of wine, whiskey and even coffee and tea (to make coffee and tea, the water has to be boiled, which improves germy water immensely).

I also learned the role rum played in the slave trade. Enjoying a fruity rum drink now feels vaguely wrong to me. The chapter on European coffeehouses in the seventeenth century functioning as the internet by offering news, gossip, networking and lively discussions was also fascinating.

A History of the World in 6 Glasses, isn’t exactly a beach read, but it is an easy read considering all the ground it covers (where else could you find the history of the world in 265 pages?). It is a good choice for a book club (at least, if members are amenable to reading history) because everyone can chat about their takeaways over their favorite drink. Cheers!

Travel Tuesday: Modest canyon northwest of Austin beckons birds, hikers

Sometimes, the best sightseeing is right in your back yard.

If not literally, practically in the back yard.

My Beloved and I discovered a hidden gem only six miles away from our Texas condo. It took us more than a year to spend some time there, and really, it is too bad, especially considering it’s an outdoor venue that is particularly alluring in a pandemic.

The gem is the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, about 45 minutes northwest of Austin and Lake Travis. Imagine the Grand Canyon on a much smaller scale. The comparison is apt because at one time, some version of the Colorado River probably ran through it. In practice, it means you can enjoy the place without all the crowds. And admission is free.

The promotional literature brags up this place for birders. The rugged terrain has spared old Ashe juniper and oak woodlands from logging and shelters some of the best golden-cheeked warbler habitat. Elsewhere in the 27,500-acre park, the open country supports another songbird, the black-capped vireo. Both songbirds are endangered, and the refuge is critical in preserving and restoring their homes. Because of its importance to the birds, this refuge has been officially designated a Globally Important Bird Area.

But I didn’t even notice the birds—it’s a great place to take a quiet walk. Mostly flat, it’s fairly easy to traverse, but there is enough elevation changes to make things interesting. At high points, one can see all the way to Lake Travis and beyond.

Layers of limestone, up to 1,000 feet thick in some places, underlie the refuge. In Spanish, “balcones” mean balconies and is a reference to the limestone terraces clearly visible in many part of the refuge. In some places, huge boulders litter the terrain.

Indian paintbrush flowers, also known as prairie fire, lend drama to the scene.

We hiked through the refuge in spring. As elsewhere this time of year, wildflowers can be found here, too.

There are three trailheads in the park: Doeskin Ranch, Warbler Vista and Headquarters. My Beloved and I traipsed around Warbler Vista, intending to walk a trail for 45 minutes or so. We took a few wrong turns (more our fault than poor signage) and finished our walk two hours after beginning. Oh, well. The detour was pleasant, through mostly shaded forest. The most dramatic part of our hike was through Quarry Canyon. This was like walking around a Grand Canyon in miniature. It’s not shaded though; prepare accordingly if you’re taking on this hike during a Texas summer. The refuge recommends you wear comfortable walking shoes or hiking boots, bring water and carry along protection from the heat or cold (the refuge is open 365 days a year sunrise to sunset). Birders should bring binoculars, and dogs are not permitted.

A Fire Sparkling tells sweeping tale of love and family secrets

Well-researched and descriptive details bring to life a love story in A Fire Sparkling by Julianne MacLean.

Actually, the story showcases more than one love story, but that’s part of the magic of the plot. MacLean weaves together historical fiction, romance and mystery in A Fire Sparkling, and it’s successful.

I picked up MacLean’s book only because it was a book club pick. As I began reading, I noticed most of her other titles were romance novels, and I was instantly skeptical. I didn’t expect to like A Fire Sparkling as much as I did, but MacLean is so successful in writing about a small piece of World War II that it felt a bit like reading memoir, my favorite genre.

The story opens with modern-day Gillian Gibbons fleeing to her family home after a lover’s betrayal. There, she and her father find an incriminating photo of her grandmother, and the multigenerational story shifts to Grandma’s devastating, harrowing and exciting experiences in England before and during World War II.

The title comes from William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “Love is a smoke rais’d with the fume of sighs; being purg’d, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes …,” and after reading descriptions of the Blitz by Germany in the United Kingdom in 1940 and 1941, you understand the references to smoke and fire.

My only quibble with the story is that Grandma appears more than once to be a damsel in distress, rescued by a handsome, courageous man with whom she falls in love. This is a romance novel trope, in my opinion, but other members of the book club pointed out the situations were an accurate reflection of the times.

The story is satisfying, easy to read and a page-turner. If you appreciate books about that era, you might enjoy this one. There’s death, of course, and mayhem, and Adolf Hitler lurks on the edges, as in all World War II novels, but MacLean focuses on the characters and emotions wrought by war in a palatable way.

Sweet book on angels offers spiritual guidance

Among other resolutions this year, I resolved to pray every day.

Prayer isn’t everyone’s jam, but it’s mine. Even if you’re not particularly religious, prayer helps. You won’t always get the answers you want or expect, but the very act of assigning control of chaos to Someone (or Something) else improves your perspective. Scientific studies have proven the power of prayer.

Some folks can be extemporaneous, but I’m not good at free-form prayer. I’m a rule follower, and I like a little guidance. Google comes in handy. Search “prayer for [fill in the blank]” and you’ll find something. In the past four months, I’ve googled prayers for morning, afternoon, evening, healing, the grieving and gratitude. I even prayed a nice prayer for the full moon.

I’ve also looked to YouTube for guidance. My most popular search there has been “2 minute prayer” (I resolved to pray every day, not all day).

But my favorite prayers this year have come from Anne Neilson. I found her book Angels: Devotions and Art to Encourage, Refresh, and Inspire at a gift shop in Galveston when we visited in February. I was drawn to the cover, an image of angel sculpted by Neilson in oil paint. Even in a two-dimensional book, her paintings feel fully developed.

Throughout Angels, Neilson invites readers reflect on one of her paintings and individual words such as create and foundation. She offers a definition of the word, a Bible verse and a prayer with each of forty devotions. “I decided to do a devotional on words because words are so powerful,” she writes in the introduction. “Our thoughts are brought to life through language—the ways we think and act—each word deeply impacting how we live and breathe and view the world.”

Here’s a bit she wrote in her meditation on “purpose”:

As we wear the carpets of our lives threadbare with constant pacing, we may miss out on the miracle appointed for that day. Sometimes God has appointed us to be the ones calling others back. He is constantly arranging His people into positions to be used for His higher purpose.

Neilson’s devotions are personal and homey, reflecting on motherhood, family and creativity. Especially nice are her prayers, which don’t simply repeat the devotion’s message but expand on it. Here’s an especially meaningful one:

Dear God, thank You for exhaling Your divine breath so that I might have lungs full of oxygen. Thank You for choosing for me to have another day on this earth so that I can continue to walk in the purpose You created for me. Show me how to embrace this life fully today so I can be a walking testimony to the goodness You have woven throughout my life.

I came to look forward every morning to reading another devotion from Neilson and praying a prayer, and I was sad when I came to the end. This is a high compliment for a reader to pay to any author. Her ponderings enriched my days.

If you’re a Christian looking for a meaningful devotional, I can’t recommend this one highly enough and I pray you benefit as much as I did.