Don’t Judge a Gas Station By Its Murdery Exterior

A few times a year, I drive from Texas to Arizona, and back again. It’s a 14 hour drive total, and I generally do it in two days. Why? you ask. Great question. It’s because my parents live in Arizona, and I go to visit them. Why not fly? you ask. Also a fantastic question. It’s because I have a 14 year old lab mix who is not happy when I leave her behind with my husband. Version 2She likes him well enough… until I go away. So I make the drive with two dogs in tow. Which makes it even more fun.


So anyway, I was driving home from Arizona when I realized that the cup of coffee I’d had wasn’t a spectacular idea. I was in the middle of nowhere, praying for a gas station. I was listening to the audiobook of Food: A Love Story, by Jim Gaffigan. While the book is great, I was at the part where he was describing poutine. And, I don’t know… for some reason, I had to turn it off. It just added to my torture. When I saw the sign telling me that salvation was in a half mile, I almost cried.

When I got off the exit, I didn’t see the gas station at first. The road bent left, and the first thing I saw was this:


By this point, even if that had been the gas station, I probably would have gone in. It was like that.

The one I was looking for was right after it, and while it looked better than the abandoned, busted down one, it still looked a little… murdery. There were signs all over about “fresh jerky.” (This is an Arizona thing. Roadside stands are always advertising fresh jerky.) I texted my husband with my location, just in case the jerky was made from the flesh of desperate travelers.

I did my business, and then, wanting a drink, I wandered inside. I know, I know… I never learn, right? The inside had nuts and jerky on shelves along the walls, with handcrafted items in the center. It actually was quite homey. I ended up buying a wind chime (because I love wind chimes). While I was paying, the cashier offered me a sample of jerky. When I declined, she then said, “We have sugar free jerky, in case that’s your concern.” I wasn’t sure what to say to that, except to murmur, “No thanks.”

Do I look like I’m worried about the sugar content of jerky? Was she trying to get me to eat it because it actually contains a sedative, and that’s how they get a fresh supply?

I really liked the place, so the next time I’m traveling that way, I’ll probably stop in. Maybe I’m pushing my luck, but it’s hard to find really nice wind chimes.

Why I’ve Started Giving Books As Gifts

I’ve always been a lousy gift giver. I want to give great gifts, but my brain mostly doesn’t work that way. My sister-in-law is one of those talented people who always seems to know the perfect gift. Over the years, she’s gotten me a subscription to Writer’s Digest, a subscription to the Book of the Month Club, and Alice In Wonderland pajamas. And this clock:


Every once in awhile, I’ll be out somewhere and spot the perfect thing. But mostly… not.

A few years ago, I had an inspiration to start requesting other people’s favorite books as gifts. It seemed like a fun idea, and I liked seeing what other people picked. Then I realized that one thing I know pretty well is books. People come to me for recommendations, and since I read across many genres, I’m usually pretty good at figuring out what others will like.

As adults, most of us no longer want to receive more stuff. Sticking to consumables just makes sense to me, but does anyone really want to receive more food at Christmas?

Enter books. They’re personal gifts that never expire. They’re decorative. They’re fun. And best of all, they’re thoughtful gifts that I can actually give. It’s fun to think about what each person on my shopping list might like.

What’s the best gift you’ve given or received?

12 Books I Read (Almost) Every Year

Version 2I love a lot of books, and as I said a few days ago, I re-read when I’m stressed out or just in the mood, but there are a handful I tend to read almost every year. (I wanted to do a nice even 10… but this was as far as I could pare down my list).

  1. Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls- I read this book for the first time in elementary school. My copy is pretty much falling apart. This book never fails to make me cry, but I love it. It’s a book I go for if I’m feeling a little nostalgic and a little sad. Having a good cry cheers me up, and then I’m ready to get back to my normal cheerful self.
  2. These Happy Golden Years, by Laura Ingalls Wilder- I read the whole series as a kid (and then re-read it maybe 2 years ago), but this is the one that appealed to me. I grew up with Laura on TV and in books, and this book reminds me of sitting at home as a kid on a cold winter’s night.
  3. Watership Down, by Richard Adams- This book, told from the point of view of rabbits, never fails to delight me. I was obsessed with this book from the first time I read it, looking up every word I didn’t know (mostly flower references). I quoted it, and when I wrote stories, named my characters after the ones in this book. It’s an epic adventure, and I loved the fact that it developed from a father telling his kids a story.
  4. Pollyanna, by Eleanor H. Porter- I strive to live my life like Pollyanna, always finding a reason to be glad and count my blessings. Reading this book every year reminds me of the person I want to be.
  5. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen- I love Elizabeth Bennett, and she and I share a love of laughing at the follies of ourselves and others. Like Elizabeth, I can sometimes jump to conclusions. Though I’ve never said anything quite as regrettable as Elizabeth said to Darcy, I have said and thought things I wish I hadn’t.
  6. Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes- This book caused a lot of controversy, but I loved it. I love books about controversial topics because I love books that generate discussion. Spoiler alert** This book may ultimately be about dying, but it’s also very much about life.
  7. Where The Heart Is, by Billie Letts- Novalee Nation is an unlikely heroine. In the beginning of the book, she’s so inept that she ends up living in a Wal-mart, and ultimately having her baby there. As time goes on, she makes connections with people and finds an unlikely family. She stops letting her past define her, and makes herself into a strong woman.
  8. Francesca, Baby, by Joan Oppenheimer- I found this book at a used book sale when I was a kid. Without knowing anything about it, I brought it home. It’s about a young girl struggling with an alcoholic mother. First published in 1976, it’s definitely somewhat dated. But I love the characters, and I love the way the book handles the topic of mom’s alcoholism. Mom is, at times, a pathetic character. But she’s not a caricature. It’s an easy read, and one I tend to go for when I need something on the lighter side.
  9. The Silver Link, The Silken Tie, by Mildred Ames- This was another used book sale find. It’s about two misfits, and how they find one another. It was also my introduction to a character with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. (Though it’s never specifically named, that’s what it is.) Being a misfit myself, I love main characters who feel out of place, but ultimately find their tribe. Oh, and there’s a subplot about mind control and a speculative fiction element involving shared dreaming.
  10. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte- What can I say about this book that hasn’t already been said? I know some people find the relationship between Mr. Rochester and Jane to be problematic, but I love it. Yes, he makes mistakes, but he pays for them. And ultimately, they may not be right for anyone other than each other.
  11. Remember Me, by Christopher Pike- In typical Christopher Pike fashion, the plot is a bit convoluted, but ultimately, it’s fun. I love the idea of a girl sticking around long enough to figure out who murdered her. I reach for this one if I need a quick read, but don’t want something I’ll get so into that I can’t put it down. (Since I’ve read it a billion times, I can put it down anytime.)
  12. The Forbidden Game series, by LJ Smith- I love the settings and format of these books. The first one is set inside a board game, in an old house where people have to face off against their nightmares. That pretty much hits all my “shut up and take my money!” points. Nightmares? Check. Creepy houses? Check. Board games? Check. The last one is set in a defunct amusement park, which is also a big ol’ check mark. This is a series I read when I’m not feeling well and want to spend some time resting on the couch. The books aren’t long, and I can make it through all of them in a day.

Do you have any go-to books that you read every year, or you reach for if you’re stressed or having a bad day?

Why I Love To Re-read

In December, I read All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Bryn Greenwood. I stayed up until 2:30 a.m. reading it, and then I went to bed. In the morning, I started reading it again. I later posted a picture of me re-reading it, which then started a conversation about re-reading books.

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Some people never re-read a book. Others, like me, love to re-read. I have a few books I read almost every year. When I love a book, I might read it twice, back to back. I own several books that have post it notes stuck in my favorite parts. That way, if I’m having a bad day, I just go back and read the super-abridged version, and it never fails to cheer me up.

Re-reading a book I love never gets boring to me. It’s like visiting old friends. Sometimes I find details I missed during the first reading. Or I may make connections I missed. As a writer, a second reading can allow me to appreciate the structure of the book, or character development. Some books may have a particularly great ending that I enjoy going back to read over.

In particularly stressful times in my life, I read books I know I love; I call them “comfort books.” When life is hard, the last thing I want to deal with is a mediocre book. Plus, since I’m a moody reader, if I’ve already read a book, I know exactly what’s wonderful about it, and exactly which mood it will suit.

Are you a re-reader? Or do you read once and only once?


My Most Popular Posts in 2016

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At Austin Trail of Lights, Photo credit: Doree Weller

It’s always fun for me to look back on the year and see what posts were most liked by other people. I published 71 posts last year, and these were the 10 you liked most.

  1.  But What if There Are Bad People? Written in 2015, but my most popular post for 2016, it’s my opinion that we shouldn’t give into fear or allow bullies to win.
  2. 10 Best Novels from Over 100 Years Ago– A perennial favorite, this was penned in 2011! I think the title is self-explanatory. 🙂
  3. E is For Encyclopedia Brown– My A to Z Challenge theme in 2016 was “Books that have influenced me.” This series was one from my formative years, and I reflect on them in this post.
  4. B is For Behind a Mask, the Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott– Did you know she wrote thrillers?
  5. Z is For Zen Pencils– Have you read this webcomic? If not, you should.
  6. N is for Nineteen Eighty-Four– Terrifying book, but it’s a classic for a reason.
  7. H is for Happy Money– Money can buy happiness, depending on how you spend it.
  8. How My Former Bullies Are Doing Now– I was a weird kid who was picked on by others. But the magic of Facebook has allowed me to reconnect with some of those bullies and get a different perspective on them.
  9. How to Win At Life– How to reframe “failure.”
  10. The Timelessness of Stories– Why stories matter.

Thanks for another great year.

What I Read In 2016

img_73542016 was a great year for reading. I ended up reading a lot of books I really liked, which is always nice.

I recorded a lot more information about what I read this year, including year published and genre. It was a lot of work, but kind of fun to see too. I still haven’t found an app I really like, so I just use a document on Pages, plus Goodreads. (If you have a Goodreads page, friend me!)

I ended up reading 117 books, for a total of 221,641 pages. I abandoned 3 books this year, though I plan to return to one of them. In case you’re curious about my criteria for abandoning books, you can find it here.

I read 81 new books, and 36 were re-reads, which are noted with asterisks.

My favorite book of the year was All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Bryn Greenwood, though I also loved: This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab, The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey, Made You Up by Francesca Zappia, People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, Six Months, Three Days by Charlie Jane Anders, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

What was the best book you read in 2016? Have you read any of my favorites? What did you think of any of those?

The complete list of what I read:

Heart Shaped Box, Joe Hill
In the Unlikely Event, Judy Blume
*Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Olive Kitteredge, Elizabeth Strout
*Watchers, Dean Koontz
Devoted in Death, JD Robb
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Stephen King
One Plus One, Jojo Moyes
Six Months, Three Days, Charlie Jane Anders
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Jessee Andrews
We Are Called to Rise, Laura McBride
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky
* The Face, Dean Koontz
Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing, Larry Brooks
* Where The Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls
Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell
My True Love Gave to Me, Edited by Stephanie Perkins
Knight’s Wyrd Debra Doyle & James D. Macdonald
I’ve Got a Time B*mb, Sybil Lamb- did not finish
Everything, Everything, Nicola Yoon
The Mystery of Hollow Places, Rebecca Podos
Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher
Still Alice, Lisa Genova
The Day We Met, Rowan Coleman
*Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, JK Rowling
Brotherhood in Death (# 42), JD Robb
* The Secret Garden, Francis Hodges Burnett
Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martel
* The Martian, Andy Weir
*Naked in Death, JD Robb
The Library of Souls, Ransom Riggs
Bossypants, Tina Fey
* Sushi for Beginners, Marian Keyes
* Morrigan’s Cross, Nora Roberts
*Pollyanna, Eleanor H. Porter
* Watership Down, Richard Adams
* Dance of the Gods, Nora Roberts
* Valley of Silence, Nora Roberts
* Slumber Party, Christopher Pike
Room, Emma Donoghue
* Mr. Darcy’s Diary, Amanda Grange
*Every Breath You Take, Judith McNaught
*Truly Madly Manhattan, Nora Roberts
Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez- did not finish
People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks
*Peppermints in the Parlor, Barbara Brooks Wallace
*Who Moved My Cheese? Spencer Johnson, MD
*What Dreams May Come, Richard Matheson
*Daddy Long-Legs, Jean Webster
A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness
Issola, Stephen Brust
*These Happy Golden Years, Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Lightning Thief, Rick Riorden
Sea of Monsters, Rick Riorden
The Stepford Wives, Ira Levin
Made You Up, Francesca Zappia
Titan’s Curse, Rick Riordan
The Battle of the Labyrinth, Rick Riordan
The Dude and The Zen Master, Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman
*Lover Eternal, JR Ward
The Outliers, Kimberly McCreight
A Tyranny of Petticoats, Edited by Jessica Spotswood
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson
The Way Back to You, Michelle Andreani & Mindi Scott
*Blithe Images, Nora Roberts
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
A Green and Ancient Light, Frederic S. Durbin
Lone Wolf, Jodi Picoult
Eat to Live, Joel Fuhrman, MD
*Where the Heart Is, Billie Letts
*The Host, Stephanie Meyer
Party of One, Dave Holmes
The Last Olympian, Rick Riordan
Dark Town, Kaja Blackley & Vanessa Chong
All the Bright Places, Jennifer Niven
There Will Be Lies, Nick Lake
The Obsession, Nora Roberts
I Am Providence, Nick Mamatas
*Francesca, Baby, Joan L. Oppenheimer
The Honey Thief, Elizabeth Graver
Mr. Perfect, Linda Howard
The Truth About Alice, Jennifer Mathieu
A Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay
*Dance Upon the Air, Nora Roberts
*Heaven and Earth, Nora Roberts
*Face the Fire, Nora Roberts
*Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell
Coraline, Neil Gaiman
The Girl With All the Gifts, M.R. Carey
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
*The Cold Dish (Longmire 1), Craig Johnson
Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer
For Women Only
I Was Here, Gayle Forman
You, Caroline Kepnes
*The Shining, Stephen King
Doctor Sleep, Stephen King
Death Without Company, Craig Johnson
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Holly Black
Kindness Goes Unpunished, Craig Johnson
The Liar, Nora Roberts
Another Man’s Moccasins, Craig Johnson
*The Darkest Part of the Forest, Holly Black
This Savage Song, Victoria Schwab
The Woman in Cabin 10, Ruth Ware
The Dark Horse, Craig Johnson
Little Paris Bookshop, Nina George
Infomocracy, Malka Older
I, Robot, Isaac Asimov
Junkyard Dogs, Craig Johnson
Hell is Empty, Craig Johnson
Divorce Horse, Craig Johnson
Hidden Bodies, Caroline Kepnes
All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Bryn Greenwood
The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin
Before I Fall, Lauren Oliver
Wait for Signs, Craig Johnson
*The Night Circus, Erin Morganstern
Wildflower, Drew Barrymore

Bookish New Year’s Resolutions


At Austin’s Trail of Lights, 2016

Last year, I started the Read Harder reading challenge. I was enthusiastic, making the list in color and planning out the books I wanted to read. And then I just… stopped.

The problem, I realized, was that it wasn’t fun for me. I made it harder on myself than it needed to be (which is something I do). One of the challenge points was to read a book by a transgendered author. I read Six Months, Three Days by Charlie Jane Anders, and I loved it. but it was only a novella, and I decided that didn’t count. So then I started reading I’ve Got a Time Bomb by Sybil Lamb. And. I. Hated. It.

I started looking at some of the other challenge points. A book about politics. A book set in the Middle East. A book of historical fiction set before 1900. And they looked overwhelming. Not fun. So I just stopped.

But I really liked the reading challenge I did in 2015, so I thought about what I liked and didn’t like about the challenge.

I like it when it’s a scavenger hunt, playful.

I don’t like it when the criteria are too specific.

This year, I’m going to do the Popsugar reading challenge. I’ve already started thinking about what books I can use in the different categories. And on Goodreads, there’s a group devoted to the reading challenge, so we can all get different ideas for the various categories, in case they’re difficult to find books.

Hopefully, I complete the challenge this year. Or, if not complete it, I just hope I don’t get frustrated and give up. Because looking back on the 2016 Read Harder challenge, I think I would have enjoyed it if I didn’t get fixated on that one book I didn’t finish. I don’t read to challenge myself or to impress people. I read to entertain myself. And as long as I don’t lose sight of that, I should be in good shape.

Are you doing a reading challenge this year? Which one?