Trails: Campbell Creek Loop Trail at Raven Rock State Park

We are lucky that Raven Rock State Park is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from our house. If we feel like getting some fresh air on a whim, it’s nothing to drive down to this nearly 5,000-acre park and hike a few of its trails.

Last weekend, I took Queso to Raven Rock State Park for a longer walk than normal. The last few weeks, I’ve been making an effort to walk at least a mile a day, and starting off our day with a quick stroll has been helpful for both of our energy levels (raising mine, lowering his).

On Saturday, we decided to pick up the pace a bit and opted for the Campbell Creek Loop Trail, a trail the park service lists as a “moderate” 4.5-mile long hike.

We visited the park around 11:00 AM. The weather forecast predicted rain for a bit later that day, so we tried to beat the storms, hoping to finish before the rain came down. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones with that plan. The park was surprisingly crowded with families, members of the military working out, and couples walking their dogs. Usually Raven Rock isn’t quite as crowded, but maybe everyone wanted to get out of the house after the pandemic.

The trail is distinguished by a blue, circular blaze and is well-marked in most places. There were a few instances where the trail veered off into a false path due to people walking off-trail, but it wasn’t difficult to find the blaze again.

Queso kept us on track!

For a future visit, I would strongly recommend either not visiting the park during humid weather or visiting earlier in the day before it gets warm. The temperature was in the low 90s which isn’t bad, but the humidity was higher than normal, even for North Carolina (probably since it was due to rain). The Campbell Creek Loop Trail follows the creek for a good portion of it, so the humidity was even more intense in those low sections near the water.

While we didn’t encounter mosquitoes, poor Queso and I were harassed by horseflies and hornets the entire time. I couldn’t tell if they were the same, persistent ones following us all 4.5 miles or if we just kept attracting more along the way. Luckily, the hornets didn’t sting us but the horseflies did keep biting us.

Besides the bugs, the trail itself wasn’t too difficult. There were a lot of exposed roots, however, and I almost tripped a few times (though that’s not unusual for my clumsy self). Queso was able to hop in the water to cool off and drink at several spots which was nice. Some of the banks are quite high, though, so if you do visit, be careful of standing too close to the edge, especially with a dog (Queso almost dove five feet into the water before I convinced him that wasn’t the greatest idea while on a leash).

We passed what my PictureThis app told me was sourwood, or more commonly called the Lily of the Valley tree. A quick Google search has informed me that its leaves are a laxative and that honey can be produced from it (hopefully without the same effect as the leaves).

We also saw lots of ferns, which I love.

All in all, we had a great time (minus the insect bites).

Highlights:

  • Loop:(We started on the eastern side, which climbs up a bit)
  • Dog-Friendly: (Lots of dogs use this trail)
  • Restroom:(Around the halfway point – around 2.5 miles in – there’s a latrine near the campsites)
  • Water Available:(Creek. I would bring my own water, though, rather than filtering)
  • Total Distance: 4.5 miles + 0.5 miles hiking in
  • Time Commitment: 2.5 hours (At a slow pace with a few breaks to relax. A sign at the trailhead suggests planning for 3-4 hours)
  • Address: 3009 Raven Rock Rd., Lillington, NC 27546

Have you visited Raven Rock State Park? Is it on your list of future hiking spots? Leave a comment and let everyone know!

So I Decided to Write a Cozy Mystery (Here’s Why!)

I’ve mentioned my recent obsession with cozy mysteries in previous posts. If you’re not sure what a cozy mystery is, think Murder, She Wrote and those infamous Hallmark mystery movies but in book form. According to MasterClass, cozy mysteries consist of three main elements:

  • An amateur detective – An average person that gets mixed up in a whole lot of murders and other crimes. They often have a hobby like knitting, cooking, or gardening, among a million other possibilities.
  • The setting is a small (cozy!) town – Sometimes the town is the narrator’s hometown. The setting may also be a New England bed and breakfast, a beach town resort, etc.
  • The horror is kept to a minimum – Yes, someone will likely get stabbed, poisoned, or murdered by other means. But the violent shenanigans happen “off-page” and the more graphic details are left to the reader’s imagination.

I think sometimes the cozy mystery genre (unfairly) gets a bad rap simply due to the fact that its readers tend to be 1) female and, according to this Sisters in Crime report, 2) almost 70% of mystery buyers are over 45 years old. (Sisters in Crime is an international organization of mystery/crime/thriller writers). While I do identify as female, I’m currently (only?) 31 and have loved a good mystery since I was a teenager. So I encourage everyone to ignore the elitism that so often pervades the book world and just enjoy relaxing with a cozy mystery every now and then!

There are so many perks to the genre. Personally, I love:

  • The camp. It is so fun to read a book when its author doesn’t take themselves too seriously. Why should an author not have tongue-in-cheek mystery trope references, playing into genre expectations and finding a way to make them their own?
  • The lightness. Real life crime happens all the time to people we know: friends, family, and even our ourselves. I appreciate a break from real life once in a while as a form of self-care. Cozy mysteries are a perfect blend of intrigue and light emotions that keeps the reader’s spirits up.
  • The small town atmosphere. Who doesn’t love Stars Hollow, the quaint town where the Gilmore Girls live? Cozy mysteries are always set in a place where people know each other, the townspeople are charismatic, and the shop owners seem to be living their dreams selling coffee, flowers, and chocolates. Every once in a while, it’s nice to read about a town that pays its workers a livable wage and doesn’t crush employees’ souls.

A few weeks ago, I was driving with Alex around our own small town and had the idea that I wanted to write a cozy mystery of my own. How fun would it be to use our own local shops as inspiration? With friends and family as the basis for characters? Why not?!

Since my revelation, poor Alex has had to listen to me come up with a laundry list of alliterative titles and over-the-top character names as I’ve brainstormed. Cozy mysteries always have remarkably spirited names like:

Why disappoint? Give the readers what they want (And that’s camp. Lots of camp!).

I am the type of writer that enjoys some form of structure while planning out texts. For that reason, I bought How to Write a Cozy Mystery by Nina Harrington. It has plenty of detailed scene advice and helpful plotting guidance. I definitely recommend it as a supplement for anyone starting their own cozy mystery novel.

I’m still in the preliminary stages of writing and have a lot of work to do, but I’m off to a great start. I’ve been having a lot of fun planning out the story and figuring out how to spoof my friends within it.

My Rocketbook has been a wonderful resource during this process, since I can handwrite notes but still upload them digitally and convert to typed text when necessary.

Quite honestly, it’s been enjoyable to work on something utterly creative for myself in addition to just freelancing for others. I’m working to create more of this creativity-work balance in my life.

I plan to keep the updates coming as my cozy mystery progresses, so be on the lookout!


What are your thoughts on the cozy mystery genre? Too ridiculous for your liking? Is reading about murder and mayhem in a small town right up your alley? Feel free to leave a comment!

Book Review: “Things We Lost to the Water” by Eric Nguyen

My selection for the Book of the Month club in May was Things We Lost to the Water, the debut novel of Eric Nguyen. I would never have guessed that this was the author’s first book. After making my way just a few pages into the story, I knew I’d stumbled onto something special. (Be prepared. This review will likely border on fangirl territory!)

A mother, Hương, immigrates to the United States from Vietnam to escape the Communist government that has been harassing her family. Fleeing by boat, she brings her young son, Tuấn, with her, later giving birth to another son, Bình, at a Singapore refugee camp.

Công, Hương’s husband and the boys’ father, is supposed to flee with his family yet becomes separated from them as they board the refugee boat. Công is ultimately left behind in Vietnam, and his family is unsure what has happened to him.

Things We Lost to the Water describes Hương’s and her sons’ experiences as they adjust to life in 1970s New Orleans and further years. Hương pours her heart out to Công through recordings on cassette tapes, which she secretly mails to their old home in Vietnam, using pro-Communist titles to avoid detection.

This book is written from multiple perspectives, spanning from 1978 to 2005. As I’ve mentioned in previous book reviews, the multiple-perspective structure is not usually my preferred narrative style. However, I think this instance is actually one in which the structure is essential and adds depth to the story. I really don’t think the book would have been quite as impactful without providing the reader with first-hand accounts of the characters’ experiences.

Even with such a heart-wrenching plot, my favorite feature of Things We Lost to the Water is Nguyen’s writing style. His writing is like poetry, and while descriptive, he doesn’t flood us with unnecessary words. In just a few sentences, he conveys the complex layers of a character’s experiences, emotions, and personality. Take this paragraph for example:

“For the first time since she’d met him, she realized she was less of a person and more of a test to this man. She was a puzzle to figure out, a jigsaw, a number among other numbers. He lived to serve not humanity but his ideas and career. In that way, she thought, Catholics were not too dissimilar from the Communists. She had been hoping this man was different. How foolish she was to put her life in his hands.”

(p. 21)

Throughout the novel, I felt Hương’s unease as she tries to understand her new surroundings. I felt Tuấn’s and Bình’s confusion over their father’s absence while dealing with racism and homophobia in their community.

The theme of water also plays out repeatedly within the story, culminating in their experience of Hurricane Katrina in the early 2000s. Nguyen effortlessly weaves in water references, leaving you with a perfectly crafted story you’ll keep thinking about.

I cannot encourage everyone to read this book enough! I definitely think this book deserves a full 5 crows, and I’ll be on the lookout for more books by Eric Nguyen.


Have you read Things We Lost to the Water? Do you plan to add it to your TBR (To-Be-Read) List? Let us know in the comments!

Writing Product Review: Rocketbook Core

Ah, writing products. I’ve yet to meet a writer that doesn’t have a somewhat unhealthy obsession with pens, paper products, and cute little paperclips that collect dust in the corners of our desks.

Logically, when I heard about the Rocketbook, a reusable notebook that is linked to the almighty Cloud, I was intrigued.

I ended up buying one at Wal-Mart (I know. I don’t go there often, I promise. My town is just super small, and the Office Depot was closed). The cost was around $30, which is a considerable investment for a notebook, but I’d heard a lot of talk about it in my “circles” (Yes, I’m incredibly fun at parties).

In addition to the notebook, the package also came with a soft cloth for erasing and the black Frixion pen seen in the picture above. (The spray bottle of water is mine and wasn’t included.)

So what exactly is the Rocketbook? First off, I bought the Core version, as opposed to the Wave or a few other styles available. This review only pertains to the Core model, as I have no experience with the others (Although I do know the Wave is the one you microwave to erase).

The Rocketbook Core is a thin, medium sized notebook that has several dotted pages with QR codes in their corners. If you look *very* closely, you’ll see that there are also faint emblems at the bottom of each page.

Using a special Frixion pen, you write (or draw) whatever you want on the pages. The double hashtags on each side of the title below are a shorthand the app uses to automatically name your file when you upload it. For example, if I were writing a shopping list for next week, I could write: “## Shopping List for Next Week ##.” When I send it to my email or a folder, the file will already be named appropriately instead of having a string of letters and numbers.

When you’re done writing, you mark an “X” over the emblem that corresponds to the specific location you want to electronically send the document to. You just open the free Rocketbook app and snap a photo of the whole page. You preset your destinations ahead of time so the page will go to the right place. For example, I’ve set my destinations as my email and various Google drive folders. You can also send to Slack, Evernote, Dropbox, OneNote, etc., but I’m personally not that fancy (or organized).

Through the app, you can further choose what happens to the file when you send it. You can have the app:

  • Bundle your scans
  • Turn handwriting into transcribed text
  • Send as one file (the transcribed text has a JPG of your page’s image attached)
  • Send as two files (a PDF of your image and a separate file with the transcribed text)

As you can imagine, there are a ton of potential uses for the device. So how do I feel about the Rocketbook?

The Breakdown

Pros:

  • The pen glides over the paper, effortlessly. It feels kind of like writing on glossy photo paper.
  • You’ll save paper over the long run (although I don’t know how this balances with the carbon footprint of the manufacturing process).
  • The notebook is very lightweight. I’m always weighed down by my multiple notebooks when I work away from home, and this product will help eliminate that issue.
  • The pages are durable (no signs of tearing at the edges or near the binding after use).
  • I like being able to write without staring at a screen sometimes. The transcription option is super helpful to save time transferring written text to digital.
  • The multiple destination options help me stay organized with creative writing. I can instantly send notes to a Characters folder, Settings folder, Plot folder, etc.
  • The Frixion pen erases super clean when you use the eraser for a small mistake. When you need to erase the entire page, the fastest way is just to spray it with water and wipe with the cloth. It comes off as easily as ink on a whiteboard.

Cons:

  • You have to wait for the pages to dry. It’s only a few seconds, but I’m lefthanded and have found there is some smearing when I’m writing quickly or close the book too soon.
  • The pen doesn’t fit in the spiral wire binding. Small complaint, but I’m always worried the Frixion pen will fall off when it’s clipped to the front of the book.
  • Other pens will stain the notebook! I accidentally wrote with a normal pen but was able to remove the ink with rubbing alcohol. I think some of the glossy coating got rubbed off the page in the process, though.
  • The transcription feature isn’t perfect. You have to print (it won’t read cursive), and it can’t read my style of lowercase a’s and g’s (which I write in the same style as the font in this post). So I have to remember to write like a schoolteacher if I want the document transcribed. But even if I just send a picture of the handwritten page to the Cloud, it’s helpful to have the document uploaded.
  • The dots and emblems are too faint for my preference. I’m assuming that’s so the dots don’t appear in your file, but it makes it harder for me to write in a straight line. Maybe other people don’t have trouble seeing them, though, because I haven’t seen anyone mention this in other reviews.
  • Excessive heat will erase your text! There’s a warning in the insert that comes with the notebook, but I figured that was only in extreme cases. However, I left the notebook in my car when I went shopping and some of the text started erasing, Marty McFly style. You can see the fading in the corner of the picture below (notes from my sewing class).

Overall, I am glad I purchased the Rocketbook because I think I’ll use it well into the future. If you’re a writer that likes to try new products, I definitely recommend investing. Although my Cons list is fairly long, the benefits of the notebook outweigh them.

I have a feeling the brand will be coming out with an improved model in the next few years that addresses these small tweaks, so I’ll be looking forward to testing out the updated model.


What do you think about the Rocketbook? How do you use it for your work? Too gimmicky? Very practical? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!

Getting Back to Living (and Reading!)

Here in North Carolina, it’s one of those warm, humid days that slows down time. Few cars are on the road, and the hum of the neighborhood’s air conditioning units seems just as natural as the buzz of the summer insects invading our lawns. Technically, it’s still spring until the 20th, but none of us seem to care. My freckles are out, the sugar snap peas are blossoming by the dozens, and the hummingbirds are drinking faster than we can refill their feeder.

When I lived out in Albuquerque, one of the things I missed the most about North Carolina was summer. The dry New Mexico heat never seemed to warm my bones like the Piedmont does. I think I count on these muggy, summer days to slow me down, to force me to catch my breath every now and then. Here, you have no choice but to take a step back and admit you need a rest. And don’t we need that this year?

May flew by, and June is following suit. With the COVID restrictions lifting around us, my friends, family, and I have all enjoyed getting together more. Christina (my best friend) and I are taking weekend sewing classes – I’m now the proud owner of a handmade hot pad and pillow sewn on our sewing machine. Alex’s family and I celebrated Memorial Day around a campfire together, with all the grandparents. My own family and I are still playing our regular Dungeons & Dragons sessions and had a birthday get-together this weekend.

I know everywhere in the world isn’t so lucky right now, but I am grateful to just breathe a small sigh of relief, at least for a moment. And what do you know? Being around people has helped motivate me in my work, and I find I’m having a much easier time focusing now.

I’ve signed up for a NetGalley account, a site where book reviewers are sent advance review copies (ARCs) or traditional copies for free. This means we can sometimes access books before they’re released for official publication! I got my second review request (The Crowns of Croswald: The Girl with the Whispering Shadow by D.E. Night) last week, and I am so happy to be given free books to write about. How amazing is that?

Next month, I plan to attend an in-person book club session. We’re going to discuss The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner. (I’m fortunate to be friends with Hannah, a fellow bookworm, as she lent me her copy!)

To add to my flurry of reading activity, a few nights ago, I finished Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen. If you follow me on Twitter, you know I’ve been raving about this book, and I plan to do a full review for Paper Crow Blog. I also recently finished the adorable Arsenic and Adobo by Mia Manansala, which is going on the review list, too!

Lots of exciting things are in store in the next few months, as I’ve also decided to begin work on a cozy mystery series 💙. More details will be released about that venture soon!


Thanks so much for stopping by my blog! As always, feel free to leave a comment. I love connecting with fellow readers and writers!

How My Writing Process Has Changed Over the Past Year

Two weekends ago, Alex and I took a much-needed minivacation. Our destination? A little cabin we visited in Western North Carolina almost exactly one year before. We didn’t purposely time the trip this way. After being stuck in our house for most of the winter, we simply decided a change of scenery would do both of us some good.

It was only when we were unpacking in the cabin that I realized it had been a full year since our last visit. That initial trip was back in March 2020, when news about the pandemic was just beginning to spread (publicly in the U.S., at least). On this recent return visit, we entered the cabin half-vaccinated and weary from a year of pandemic life.

Life has changed so drastically in just 12 months. In March 2020, I was still working full-time in the physical therapy clinic (and we were days away from the majority of the company losing their jobs, although I was kept on, fortunately). Now, I’m a full-time freelance writer and editor working from home.

Another change came about since our last cabin visit. We’re engaged! Alex proposed in September 2020 during our Olympic National Park trip. We have our wedding in the works for this fall, as we near the four-year mark in our relationship.

Needless to say, life has changed drastically! Of course, the past year hasn’t all been good changes.

A lot of the time has been tough. When I first thought of taking the plunge into full-time freelancing, I imagined meeting up at coffee shops with my writer and editor friends during the day. I assumed I’d be using the public library as a work station every now and then, browsing the collection when I felt like it. I envisioned meeting clients in person and getting to know businesses in the area.

Instead, like many other people, I’ve been isolated in the house (minus Alex and our pets. THANK GOODNESS for them). The library is open for just 30-minute browsing sessions, the coffee shops all close early and offer a very limited amount of seating. In-person networking has been nonexistent due to COVID.

Since deciding to write full-time, I’ve had to find ways to work while feeling cooped up in the house. I’ve gradually developed a loose routine that fits my current lifestyle, with the understanding that life changes day to day.

This past year has been incredibly difficult in terms of mental health, and I’ve made taking care of myself (and others) a priority. I’m celebrating my successes while trying to go easy on myself when I don’t quite “succeed.”

Some weeks, I haven’t been nearly as productive as I’d hoped. I’ve learned to be okay with that.

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

– Douglas Adams

I’ve begun making an effort to journal daily again, a habit I’d let fall to the wayside. I honestly do credit using the Fabulous app for helping me get back into this and other routines. (I like to mention I’m not a paid advertiser, since that’s a common thing for bloggers. I just genuinely enjoy sharing tips and tossing around ideas to help fellow writers. Or really, anyone reading this blog!)

The app was designed in a lab at Duke University and helps you create positive habits and stick to them. One feature they’ve developed are “challenges” for users to select, like their “Deep Work Challenge” (similar to the writing sprints method used to encourage authors to write). There’s a 7-minute morning exercise one I love, a self-esteem challenge that encourages you to note positive things about yourself, and several other challenges to choose from.

I’ve begun a reading-before-bed ritual that helps me unwind. Even if it is just a single, short chapter, the process of reading for a few minutes before trying to sleep helps transition out of the writing day.

There is something immensely satisfying about checking off on the app that I accomplished a goal. Seriously. The sounds effects make quite a bit of fanfare for the simplest task (although if it were truly that simple, would I need an app to do it?).

While I’ve made adjustments because I’ve had to, I’m ready to get back to socializing and seeing my friends and family regularly (and without worrying about infecting them).

Today’s announcement of easing guidelines for fully vaccinated people is thrilling for this reason. Adjusting to freelancing in a less isolated setting is a writing change I’m happy to make for 2021!


How has your writing process changed over the past year? Has your work been affected by the pandemic? Leave a comment – I’d love to hear from you!

Book Review: “Dear Edward” by Ann Napolitano

FYI: This review contains references to family tragedy.

Dear Edward” was somewhat of an unusual Book of the Month choice for me, mostly because its premise isn’t the happiest. While I don’t go out of my way to choose “cheery” books, I rarely select ones I know are going to be heavily based on tragic themes (simply because my emotions are so fragile).

So what is Ann Napolitano‘s book about? The story focuses on Edward Adler, a 12-year-old kid who’s the sole survivor of a plane crash that kills not only his mother, father, and older brother, but 183 other passengers (plus the plane’s crew). Despite the main plot point being a national tragedy, I chose to read the book because I was curious how the author would develop Edward’s story.

What would it be like to survive a plane crash? What would it be like to be the only person to survive a crash? How would you live your life after such an event?

Luckily, not many of us will ever have to personally find out those answers. However, the book did trigger a Google search on my part about sole survivors. When publicly discussing the book, Napolitano mentioned she was inspired by the true story of a young boy who survived an Afriqiyah Airways crash in 2010. There have been other instances of similar situations as well, so the book’s concept isn’t quite as far-fetched as you might think.

Like the real-life story, the fictional Edward (known as “Eddie” before the plane crash), lives with his aunt and uncle after his immediate family dies. “Dear Edward” is an otherwise fictional account, describing Edward’s own struggle to find a sense of normalcy in the aftermath of tragedy.

Rather unexpectedly, the most compelling parts of the story don’t focus on the crash itself. In fact, Napolitano leaves the actual moment of the crash (mostly) out. Instead, she focuses on the hours before the plane goes down. As she switches chapters, she alternates between the plane ride and Edward’s post-crash life.

Overall, this structure works well for tying the story together, although I did find it hard to keep all the passengers and their backstories straight. While each of their stories were interesting, it seemed like each time they were brought up again, I had forgotten their name and had to look back to remember who was who.

The strongest sections of the book are the ones that capture Edward’s alienation from the surrounding world. He is living a lonely life, haunted by an ordeal only a handful of people have experienced. This emotional isolation contrasts with the world’s reception of the tragedy. Viewed as a miracle child, Edward finds himself constantly in the public eye. Strangers even visit his school, hoping to catch a glimpse of the “chosen” one. It seems like the more famous he becomes, the lonelier he feels.

Edward’s one friend is Shay, a neighbor his age that shies away from social expectations. She compares Edward’s tragedy to that of Harry Potter and is one of the only people he can confide in. Shay’s character strikes me as especially believable, trying to support her friend while struggling to keep him aware of his place in the present world. In a way, she embodies the outside world crossing into Edward’s small, inner circle of trusted people.

“Dear Edward” makes for a good read if emotionally heavy themes don’t bother you. the story is also a fitting choice for people who enjoy reading a book that includes multiple characters’ viewpoints.

I rate the book an overall 3 out of 5 crows.


Have you read “Dear Edward”? Do you have recommendations for other books by Ann Napolitano? Leave your thoughts in the comments section!

Book Review: “A Lack of Temperance” by Anna Loan-Wilsey

Today’s book review is for A Lack of Temperance, a delightfully cozy mystery by Anna Loan-Wilsey. As I mentioned in a previous post, I bought this story a few weeks ago during an impromptu buying spree at our local used bookstore, Books at a Steal. The store is appropriately named, considering the book was an exceptionally reasonable price of just a dollar or two. Yet another reason that buying used is good for the soul!

During the pandemic, I’ve gravitated towards everything related to coziness, quiet, and above all, a sense of escape from the day. The cozy mystery genre is the perfect combination of these traits in book-form. Curl up on the couch with a velvet blanket and a strong cup of coffee, and you can enjoy a peaceful night reading about a plucky narrator solving mysteries that involve only minimal bloodshed. Bad things happen, but the good people always win. Sigh.

(Side Note: In March, I stumbled across an article that informed me I’m not actually the only person that seems to have turned to the cozy mystery genre this past year. In fact, booksellers are reporting an increase in these books’ sales. In case you’re interested, here’s the link to the post by Tamara Lush of the Associated Press).

Going along with the year’s theme of coziness, today’s book review is being written from one of the coziest places I know, from atop my dear little folding desk on the back porch. Our foster dog, Pippa, is snuggled on my left and the ever-faithful Queso stands guard to my right.

Seeing as we’re all cozy, let’s dive into the review!

A Lack of Temperance is the first story in Loan-Wilsey’s Hattie Davish mystery series. After debuting in 2012, the series currently has a total of five books featuring the talented Ms. Davish:

A Lack of Temperance is set in 1892 and takes place in an actual Arkansas town (Eureka Springs) famous for its supposed “miraculous” springs. Narrator Hattie Davish, a secretary by profession, is sent to Eureka Springs by her employer, Sir Arthur Windom-Greene. The assignment is vague, and she only knows she is meant to assist a Mrs. Trevelyan by providing secretarial services.

Upon her arrival to Eureka Springs, Hattie is startled to discover her temporary employer leads the local chapter of the American Women’s Temperance Coalition. These women are encouraging citizens to help make alcohol sales illegal in the midst of the presidential election, citing a long list of problems including substance abuse, drunk husbands, and a general disapproval by God himself.

Some of the group’s members are willing to resort to violence to support this cause. In fact, Hattie’s very first sighting of the elderly Mrs. Trevelyan is watching her swing a hatchet while setting fire to a local saloon in town in the name of the temperance movement. (And you thought your employer had a temper. . .)

When Mrs. Trevelyan vanishes and her body is later found, Hattie gets to work piecing together the clues to find out what really happened to her employer. With some friendly side characters and a little romance sprinkled in, the story makes for a compelling read.

My favorite parts of the book include:

  • The Main Character: I love Hattie’s character! While she is necessarily persistent (crimes don’t get solved by lazybones, after all) her personality isn’t over the top in the way female detectives are typically portrayed. I especially adore that Loan-Wilsey chose to make her a secretary, a realistic job for a woman in the time period. She uses this role to her advantage, uncovering vital information and eventually, revealing the murderer’s identity. She’s also described as in her late 20s or early 30s, which is a refreshing change from teenage and senior detectives.
  • The Setting: The description of Eureka Springs is detailed, and I think the author does a lovely job conveying a newcomer’s impressions of the mountainous town. I actually want to plan a trip to Eureka Springs now, since it isn’t too far from North Carolina! Hattie’s plant-collecting hobby is an ideal source of information about the area, as well.
  • The Writing Style: Loan-Wilsey does an amazing job setting up the book as the first in a series. Details about how Hattie started working for Sir Arthur are naturally sprinkled throughout (rather than the reader getting the dreaded “info dump” at the beginning of the story). The author also includes a few references to Hattie’s past that I imagine are fleshed out in the later books, creating an extra layer of mystery.

I would have enjoyed getting to know the side characters a little more, as I didn’t have much attachment to any of them except the maid, Mary, who made frequent appearances, and Walter, the town doctor. I also didn’t find myself overly surprised by many of the plot points, but the writing style itself was so clear and uncluttered that I didn’t mind.

This book is a great choice for anyone wanting some light reading while on vacation in the mountains or simply an evening imagining you’re not stuck inside during the pandemic.

I rate the book 3 out of 5 crows (and plan to read the next in the series)!


Have you read this book? Do you also have a love of cozy mysteries or want to leave some book recommendations? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section!

Book Review: “The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany” by Lori Nelson Spielman

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the Book of the Month program has been helping me pass the time during the pandemic. I received my eighth box (for March) last week. Four more boxes, and I reach their “BFF” status. This level means I get an extra free book for my birthday and another free one at the end of the year (Quick calculation: 14 new hardback books each year for approximately $12.86 each, with no shipping costs necessary. Nice. Can you tell I’m a big fan of BOTM?)

Receiving my March choice (Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano) reminded me that now would be the perfect time to write a review for last month’s choice, The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany by Lori Nelson Spielman.

I initially chose this book because of its Book of the Month description. The site promoted it with the sentence:

“Escape to the Italian countryside in this hopeful family drama about love, a curse, and second chances.”

I figured, I love curses. And I love other people’s family drama (to get a break from my own). And who doesn’t like second chances? When I selected the book, I honestly thought it was going to have a bit more of a supernatural element. It turns out that was not the case, but that ended up being A-okay.

The Star-Crossed Sisters of Tuscany could be described as a “coming-of-age” story, although the protagonist, Emilia Fontana, is actually in her late 20s. Emilia lives to please her family, giving into her older sister’s every whim while living in fear of displeasing Nonna, her grandmother. She lives a quiet life, content to dress as plainly as possible and avoid any romantic endeavors.

Overshadowing her adulthood is the fact that Emilia is a second-born Fontana daughter. According to family legend, all second-born daughters are doomed to never find love. Approaching her 30s (Side note: Being 30+ years old in real life is AMAZING), the legend has become somewhat more meaningful.

When Nonna’s sister, the peppy and eccentric Aunt Poppy, contacts Emilia out-of-the-blue to invite her along on a generous vacation to Italy, Emilia’s life becomes upended. This chaos is due to a decades long feud between her grandmother and great-aunt, which threatens to break apart even more family relationships.

The book follows Emilia and her younger cousin Lucy (also a second-born Fontana), as they join the aging Aunt Poppy on her seemingly inane quest to meet a lost love in Italy.

My favorite parts of the book are the intrigue of the curse and the role it plays for the women, even if they choose not to believe in it. I also appreciate how Spielman crafts the Fontana family and their interactions with one another. Their emotions were believable, and I didn’t feel like the characters were always making predictable choices.

If you are looking for a quick read that whisks you away to the warm Italian sun for a while, definitely check this one out!

I rate this book 3.5 out of 5 crows.

Staying Motivated While Working from Home

For several weeks now, North Carolina has been rainy. When I say “rainy,” I mean flash floods, overflowing lakes, and dense-fog-obscuring-your-backyard kind of rainy. Much of the country (like Texas) has had worse weather of course, but we’ve been significantly homebound in North Carolina, even by pandemic measures.

I’ve subsequently been feeling very listless due to the weather, mixed with a combination of other factors. I love working from home, but not being able to go outside these past few weeks, or sit in a coffeeshop, visit friends, etc. have all been taking a toll on my mental health.

And surprise! A lack of creativity and motivation makes sitting down at the computer to write more difficult than normal.

When Alex and I saw the weather forecast for this past Wednesday, we were ecstatic. 73 degrees and sunny. We were so excited that we arranged for a day of camping to enjoy some Vitamin D and GET. OUT. OF. THE. HOUSE.

We spent a night at Jordan Lake, which is an expansive, manmade lake about 30 minutes from our home. We bought some bundles of firewood, set up the tent, and basically just sat around the campfire and relaxed.

I delved into reading a used copy of a cozy mystery (A Lack of Temperance by Anna Loan-Wilsey) that I bought earlier in the week from Books at a Steal (a local used bookstore). Alex listened to the Hurricanes game on our portable radio. I think we both needed a break from staring at screens for at least one day.

Queso, on the other hand, is a bit of a diva, and begrudgingly warmed himself by the fire while silently cursing us for taking him away from his beloved couch.

It was helpful getting some fresh air after being glued to my computer, phone, and TV for so many weeks. With this realization, I’m being proactive about finding ways to stay motivated. This strategy includes coming up with things to do that don’t include work.

In my paradoxical way, I somehow get more work done when I have less time to do it. I am mentally nourished by creativity, social interaction, and learning, which in turn, supply me the motivation and determination to work.

Some of the strategies that are helping me stay motivated are:

Spanish Tutoring

A fellow writer on Twitter connected me with her partner, who is now helping me improve my Spanish speaking skills. Although we are using WhatsApp to communicate (over a screen, of course), our sessions are conversation-focused. Being comfortable speaking in Spanish has been a goal of mine since high school, and I am happy to be improving both my confidence and my Spanish.

Yoga Sessions

A friend in Romania and I have been doing yoga each Friday for the past month or two. I’ve also recently started sessions with my friends from Albuquerque on Thursdays. Another friend and I are doing a third weekly session on Tuesdays going forward.

I honestly have to credit yoga for being the only regular exercise I’ve gotten over the past few months. It is a huge stress-reliever for me, so its benefits have been double for me.

Reading Books in Spanish

I have never read an entire novel in Spanish, and I’ve started reading La Sombra del Viento (The Shadow of the Wind) by Carlos Luis Zafón on Kindle. Kindle’s translation features (just click on a word for a quick translation) make it so much easier than constantly searching for the English meaning in a browser or dictionary.

I highlight phrases/words I need to practice so I can remember to go back to them. I also mark parts that are difficult for me to understand so I can clarify their meaning with my tutor.

Improving a skill has always been one of my go-to strategies for staying motivated and alleviating boredom. Who knows, maybe one day I will be able to write and edit well enough in Spanish to expand my freelance services.

According to the app’s estimate, I “only” have 55 hours of reading to go!

Getting Crafty

With the downtime at home, I’ve been trying to find ways to make more homemade products to reduce my levels of consumer waste (and just for fun!). I’ve experimented with making:

  • Soap (with essential oils and eucalyptus leaves)
  • Conditioner (with castor oil, coconut oil, and essential oils)
  • Hair Volumizer (including ingredients like fresh aloe vera)
  • Face Scrub (made from honey, milk, and granulated sugar)

A friend and I are also planning a candle-making venture this upcoming weekend. I’ve been saving store-bought candle containers after I’ve used all the wax out of them, and we want to refill them with our own wax candle recipes.

While not every experiment has been successful (I think I’m still getting the castor oil conditioner out of my hair two weeks later), spending time on money-saving and minimal waste projects has been a good distraction.

Planning Our Garden

I wasn’t sure the time would ever come, but it’s the season for planning spring gardens. Alex and I have done a square-foot garden for the last few years, but this year, we want to branch out into row gardening. I’ve started my pepper plants indoors, and we bought a variety of other vegetable seeds to start in the next few weeks.

I’ve also started a few herbs, catnip, and cat grass to keep indoors. (And yes, those are former containers for Ranch dressing under the thyme and basil pots. Southern recycling 😏).

Even more motivating than all of these strategies is the fact that COVID numbers are dropping substantially in North Carolina. Perhaps sometime in the near future, I’ll be writing posts from coffee shops again!


How are you staying motivated while working from home? Keep the rest of us in the loop and leave a comment!

%d bloggers like this: