Christmas Story


We had a baby born to our family early this morning. The first of a new generation on my side.

It is a muddled winter dawn. I lie in bed pondering the miracle of birth and feeling grateful for the health of mother and baby, as two great horned owls sing to one another in the woods.

There is joy in all creation.

Merry Christmas.

And now a little something from Book Three, Robert’s Rules.

Book Three of the North of the Tension Line Series is now with the publisher, being made beautiful for publication in the Spring.

In response to some enquiries, here is a brief excerpt.

****

After breakfast, Pali, who had the day off, came into the kitchen and kissed his wife on the neck.

“Let’s talk,” he said.

“What about?” she asked, envisioning her mental list of the many things she had to do.

“Let’s just sit down together.”

With an inner sigh, Nika followed him into the next room. She never got as much done when he was home as when he was away. She sat in her favorite chair and looked at him with some impatience.

Pali looked down as he began to talk. “I think it’s time we thought about leaving the Island. I’ve been thinking that it might be a good thing for Ben.”

Her impatience forgotten, she focused all her attention on him as if her life depended on it. She forced herself to sound calm. “But we promised ourselves we’d never do that again. We love it here. It’s our home.”

“Nika, we need to think about this. We need to prepare Ben for his life. He’s growing up, and I can’t say I’m liking the way things are going. He can’t hide away here on the Island forever. There’s no future for him here—“.

Nika started to interrupt, but Pali kept talking “—or if there is, it’s a future he can only choose when he knows what else is out there. Think about his life here. He needs to learn about the world. Ben has no experience with the worst of human character. We can’t just throw him to the winds and expect him to fly.”

“But we did. We left and found our way. We were ok.” Her voice was low.

Pali shook his head. “It’s such a different world now. This culture. The lack of values. The pace. Ben won’t be able to keep up if we don’t help him to acclimate. And isn’t it better for him to encounter these things while we’re there to guide him and protect him?”

Nika was silent. Pali could see the tears welling up.

“We don’t have to decide now. We can think about it.” He got up and went over to her, kneeling next to her chair and taking her hands in his. “It’s our decision, Nika. Ours together. But I’m going to start looking. If something comes along, I won’t say yes if you don’t want me to. Just think about it, ok?”

She sat silent, afraid to speak, her heart and mind in a turmoil. She hated this. When they returned to the Island they had sworn they would never move away again. And now, here he was, threatening to rip her away from everything that mattered.

“Well,” she corrected herself silently, “not everything.”

She felt a flash of her old passion for this man who had been her other self for so long. She had always loved him, from the first day she saw him. He was the best man she had ever known. And, when she looked into her heart, she knew, as much as she fought against admitting it, that he was right.

“Just think about it,” he said again.

She nodded.

****

 

An Evening with Alexander McCall Smith

I had the pleasure of introducing Alexander McCall Smith on Thursday night at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee. He was here to promote  his new book, The House of Unexpected Sisters. You can buy it here.

It can always be a bit dicey meeting someone you admire, because you’re never sure whether he will live up to your expectations. In this case, however, the author was exactly as his books reveal him to be: erudite, kind, funny, and charming. I hung back at the end of the signing in order to present him with one of my books (a presumption I had to work myself up to) and was able to observe his patience and warmth with every single one of the three hundred-some people who waited in line for his autograph.

Screen Shot 2017-11-10 at 7.12.54 AMIt is difficult–if not impossible–to say anything original about a man so well-known, and, indeed, a Commander of the British Empire, but my attempt follows:

We live in troubled times. Although in the West we have lives of comfort and ease beyond the dreams of any other era of humanity, we wake, I believe, most days, with the sense that something has gone deeply wrong.

And then we realize that our Iphones are safe in the next room.

Modern life, in its material richness, is often plagued by anxiety. And when we have read the dire stories in the news, witnessed the crudeness and vulgarity of mainstream culture, and exhausted our capacity for cruelty and vituperation on Twitter, our minds and souls are in desperate need of an escape. If we have any sense at all, we turn to books as our refuge.

Alexander McCall Smith is the master of escapist literature. I use that term with deep admiration. It requires firm principles, deep courage, and a steadfast heart to look around and find joy and things to laugh about. Perhaps it also requires a bit of desperation.

His books, however charming, express both a deeply held moral philosophy and biting social satire. And whether it’s Isabel Dalhousie in her beautiful house in Edinburgh, Mma Ramatswe in Botswana, or seven year old Bertie reluctantly practicing yoga at 44 Scotland Street, his protagonists have a firm determination to do what’s right: to be honest, to express and appreciate beauty, to find meaning, and most particularly, to be kind.

The humor can be subtle or riotous, but the beauty, and warmth, and rich value of everyday people living everyday lives of meaning and virtue is at the core of every book. And today—indeed, in any era—that is a powerful and important thing.

Escapist literature is a banner of hope in a dark world. And, as Mma Ramotswe says: “… it is possible to change the world, if one is determined enough, and if one sees with sufficient clarity just what has to be changed.”

Our guest, tonight, is an extraordinarily prolific novelist and story writer, over the course of many years. He is the author of multiple series—including my favorite, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, which features the hapless Herr Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Iglefeld—and along with this new addition to his Number One Ladies Detective Agency series, and to the 44 Scotland Street Series, has another new children’s book about to be published in Britain. He is the recipient of many honors, and a Commander of the British Empire.

The truth is, he needs no introduction to any of you, but I really wanted to meet him.

Ladies and Gentlemen: Alexander McCall Smith.

 

The King is Dead. Long Live the King.

Well, it’s happened. Book Three, Robert’s Rules (Beaufort Books, Spring 2018), is finished, and off to the publisher. I say that in passive voice, as if it miraculously wrote itself. Not so. Over the course of the past year, and most particularly of the past six months, I have neglected friends, family, and dogs, and reduced my life to work, writing, and basic human survival. A trail of entropy lies behind me.

IMG_5146So, you ask: Now what will you do? Revel in the freedom? Drink champagne, or possibly bourbon? Walk the dogs? Go to Disney World?

Well, some of the above, except for the Disney part. But mostly more mundane things like do laundry, overthrow the reigning chaos in my office, and remind my family and friends that I still love them (the dogs, being dogs, still knew that). For both my dear readers, I will also go back to writing my blog.

On the other hand, I have, unintentionally, but apparently irresistibly (again that misleading sense of the passive), begun work on Book Four, A Small Earnest Question.

Life has its cycles.

 

Why Exile?

My books are set primarily on Washington Island, located in Lake Michigan about four miles off the tip of Door County Wisconsin. From the first moment I crossed Death’s Door on the ferry, Washington Island took hold of me. I often tell people that I live in exile from the Island, which they tend to assume is a joke. But the truth is that whatever magic the place weaves has utterly ensnared me, and when I am not there I am thinking about being there, imagining being there, and, well, writing about being there.

I suppose I write these books so that I can create for myself a sense of being on the Island, even when I’m not.

Big Mouse

Gratuitous Dog Picture

Ein Mäuchen and me

We’d been having a butter situation. I mean, I am one of those people who scoffs at the avoidance of butter. Avoidance of wheat? Fine. Sugar? Ok. Salty crackers? Reluctantly. Dairy products? Sigh. Ok. Alcohol?  On week nights. And even for long periods of weekends. But butter is essential to the flavor of vegetables, and if I’m going to eat vegetables, or eggs, or…lots of things, there has to be butter. Not a whole stick or anything, but enough. I am willing to eat healthy things. I have my blueberries and kale daily. But we all have our limits to sacrifice.

I make omelets a lot in the morning, and these require butter. They used to require a special, expensive omelet pan, but it’s gone now. Another story. Anyway, I’m the only cook in our household, so I’m fairly acquainted with the butter usage in our house, and I suddenly noticed that we were going through an awful lot of butter. But I’m busy, kind of absent-minded, and not always fully attentive to the tasks at hand, so when the butter ran out, I didn’t think that much about it. I’d just grab another stick, and put it on a fresh butter dish, in its place on an open shelf next to the stove, about five feet up.

This had been going on for some time. But eventually the light dawned on me, even when I’m in the midst of plotting out a book.  I knew I’d opened a fresh stick of butter at dinner, and the next morning there wasn’t any.  Odd, I thought.  I asked my husband: Did you use any butter? He hadn’t, as I had known. I turned to look at my dogs, lying patiently nearby, and they gazed back with the usual proportion of adoration, hope, and pseudo guilelessness.

Pete is nearly 12–we think–and not inclined to much in the way of vigor these days. When inspired, he can still run like the wind, but inspiration is more of a once-a-day thing: during one of our walks in the woods, for example, or to chase off a particularly arrogant turkey. But he doesn’t jump much anymore. We have to lure him with treats to get him to come up on the bed to cuddle.

This left Moses, our 125 pound German Shepherd, who has been known to jump horse hurdles in agility classes, and has an intellectual capacity superior to that of a small child. He held my gaze and thumped his tale affectionately. He is a well-trained–and, like both my dogs–a very well-loved animal. He knows the rules. He lies peacefully nearby while we eat. He takes treats gently from fingers. He asks to go out. He comes when he’s called, crashing thunderously through the underbrush when drawn away from chasing a deer, to sit, panting, at my feet. He stays where he’s been told for long periods of time in unfamiliar environments. He is certified to go to schools and hospitals, and it is only my own schedule that keeps him from being certified as a therapy dog. He is my heart and soul.

I’d like to point out, too, that my dogs are well-fed. In addition to ridiculously expensive grain-free organic dog food, they eat fresh chicken or turkey every day; eggs on occasion;  human-grade freeze-dried chicken and turkey hearts as treats; and large, lovely, smoked beef bones from the grocery store butcher shop.

The suspicion in my mind was fully formed. “Listen,” I said to my husband, who needs prompting to do so. “You are my witness. I’m putting out a full stick of butter this morning.” He was skeptical. “That shelf is pretty high up.”

We went our separate ways to work.

He called around lunch time to tell me that the butter was gone.

A little butter isn’t bad for dogs. But too much fat is, causing pancreatitis, which is pretty serious.

The next morning, with some trepidation, I put out a fresh stick of butter. On the counter I put a mouse trap, and covered it with a dish towel, a method I had learned from our dog trainer, but had never tried before. It is not suitable for small dogs, but for big dudes like Moses, it merely startles and stings. Nervously, I tried the trap on my fingers. It hurt.

When we came home, the trap and towel were on the floor. The butter was untouched, and has not been touched since. We caught a very big mouse that day. A very big, very smart mouse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dog Joy

Whenever I can, I like to take our dogs for a walk in a particular woods. We have to drive there, and the dogs know the place by sight. They also know the difference between when we are actually going there, and when we are only driving past. Even if I haven’t said anything, when the turn signal goes on at a particular intersection, they know we are going to the woods. But usually, just to give them the pleasure of anticipation, I say to them: “Do you want to go to the woods?” and they immediately begin to sing with joy.

Moses, who until recently had been the least vocal of the two, is the most expressive where the woods are concerned. It’s his favorite place. He starts with warbles in a rich baritone, but as we get closer he switches to yipes in an increasingly higher tessitura, until he reaches soprano range, in keeping with his rising excitement. Pete joins in with his characteristic alto.  By the time I can get around to open the door, they are tumbling over one another to get out and run, barking as if they were on the hunt. Sometimes there are deer, or squirrels, and the dogs tear after them, disappearing into the hills out of sight. If I am patient–meaning: not too cold–I let them come back when they want to. But if I whistle they always come. I can hear them coming usually before I see them, and they arrive at my feet bustling with joy and pride.

Their happiness delights me, and is often the best part of the day.

IMG_6841

What People Are Saying About North of the Tension Line

Tension_Line_rd4


melkitemomma –
Perfect book for curling up with a glass of wine (though lead character Fiona would prefer scotch!), and crossing over your own tension line to relaxation. It’s hard to find a novel today that is interesting and yet relaxing, but J. F. Riordan has done it right.

I started reading this on an airplane, and had to laugh out loud several times, because I couldn’t help visualizing the scene — would make an entertaining movie!

The characterization is incisive, and the sense of place she creates is brilliant. It’s very absorbing, but not in an adrenalin-pumping way. My only complaint: it didn’t last long enough! Hope the author writes another.
***
By mike nichols
Wonderful character development, excellent dialogue. Riordan has a knack for making you want to sit down with her characters and root for them or despise them or just wonder what will become of them. This is the equivalent of latter-day Jane Austen, but with contemporary humor. It’s engrossing and poignant. I hope there’s a sequel.
***
By Thomas P
North of the Tension Line was one of the best novels I have read in a very long time. The writing is excellent and J.F. Riordan is a great story teller. The story takes place in Door County, Wisconsin and on Washington Island which is off of the thumb of Door County. If you visualize Wisconsin as a mitten, the thumb is Door County.

The two main characters are Fiona and Elizabeth, a writer and an artist/gallery owner. One a long time resident and the other a move-in from the Chicago area. They are both in their thirties. The story takes place over a years time.

Riordan tells the story with the knowledge and cadence of a Wisconsinite, I could hear the Door way of speaking and the small town emotion or lack of… in every sentence. I was reminded of what Garrison Keeler’s, Prairie Home Companion is to Minnesota. North of the Tension Line a wonderful story which one has a hard time putting down.

Having grown up a few miles from Door County in Green Bay, I was quite familiar with the attitudes of the people in the Door, the tourism and the very closed society in the county. There are the long time residents, those who have moved in and the tourists. Now, myself, having moved into a small town in Wisconsin, I really appreciated the way the author was able to get the true feeling of a small town and how a new comer feels. Though the businesses and people were fictional, I recognized many of the places described in the book.

This book is a fun “slice of life” but more than that. I will not go into any real detail of the story since it was great fun getting to know the characters and I mean some of them were real “characters” and the turn of events. I’m a stickler for well written endings and this was a very good one.Though I fear this book will likely appeal more to women, I hope it will be read by men as well. I highly recommend this novel.
***
By D. Matlack
This book is lovely, just in how it’s written. The story and the lives of the characters unfold like a beautiful unhurried day. In many ways it reminded me of A Good Year and Under the Tuscan sun in how the verse and the easy literary focus invites the reader to sit back and relax and take their time with this book to better enjoy it.

When Fiona moves to Washington Island, as the title implies she steps into a small town where the pace of life slows down, loneliness increases, yet the stress of bigger cities. What is kind of funny about this is the life she lived in Ephraim with her friends Elizabeth, Roger, terry and Mike was not really much different. She just moved into a smaller environment by going to Washington Island and finds that it is more difficult to make friends tho most islanders are polite and helpful if not a bit detached. Coming from a small town myself I can vouch for this, the turnover is so high for newcomers, particularly more urban ones their is no real point in getting attached….

Overall, I wound up falling into this book and the characters felt like real people I know. I liked Fiona very much and I laughed and appreciated her thoughts and wanted her to succeed in her new venture and be happy – whether she found Mr. Right or not. This is a particularly good novel to snuggle up with on a cool Fall/Winter afternoon, like many of the classics sited in this novel Ms. Riordan writes with a deep appreciation of good literature, Marcus Aurelius,Churchill and a decent bottle of Scotch.
***
By Quirky Girl
For those who love when authors use words to create description and flavor without abusing that talent, this is a book for you. Riordan excellently captures (and makes me envious!) of small town life – of what real friendship means. This is a character driven book, which, I feel, takes a special author to make the story compelling and keep it moving.

Not only do characters shape the quote, but nature, its’ elements, and the nuances of a small town are also what makes North of the Tension Line an entertaining yet somewhat poetic and at many time humorous, read.

Recommended!
***
By Jay Gilbertson

Recently I was invited to the Fond du Lac Fondue Festival for a book event held at Book World. There were over 15 Wisconsin authors there and I was lucky enough to share a table with newly published author, J.F. Riordan. Her novel had literally come hot off the press the day of the event and boy was she excited! The physical book itself is beautiful inside and out. The title has an interesting meaning in that there is a “peculiar spiritual renewal of life north of the tension line.”

One of the many elements about author Riordan’s tale that I enjoyed was the setting; small town, Ephraim, Wisconsin and then part of the story moves to Washington Island. The story is woven around two best girlfriends, both in their thirties and looking for life’s next adventure. Though there is some romance swirled into the mix, the focus is on community and the unpredictable ways we treat one another. Oh, and there’s a goat named Robert.

Fiona Campbell was by far my favorite of the two ladies. A perfect combination of overly curious and brazen to a fault. There was very little that she wouldn’t consider and when she is dared to live on Washington Island through a Wisconsin winter, off she goes. What keeps the story fresh is the way Riordan weaves her words together into beautiful sentences that perfectly conjure the island and all its quiet and magical and sometimes unpredictable beauty.

“The meadow grass, the scrub brush, the harvested fields with their long rows of stubble, the bare trees and even the sand and water seemed to have been infused with purple, and they glowed with it, even in overcast days. Fiona loved the raw quality of the bare landscape; it seemed purer, stripped to its essential shapes as if it had been drawn with a few sharp lines.”

And then there’s Stella. Great name for a nasty next door neighbor and man is this lady a piece of work. Loved her/hated her–wanted more of her. This particular neighbor not only plotted and planned against Fiona and her goat, but did her utmost dastardly darndest to squash any hopes Fiona may have attempted at enjoying a peaceful island life.

Her trust-fund girlfriend, Elizabeth, provides the novel with some much needed balance and harmony in a life full of just about every joy imaginable except someone to share it with. The yin and yang of their friendship serves the story well by showing that no matter how much cash you have in the bank, the richness of friends is the true wealth of a life well lived. There were a few scenes in which some minor head-hopping gave me pause (bouncing from one narrator to another) but then off the story unfolded and on we went!

Riordan left a few story-lines unfulfilled and I’m happy to report a sequel is in the works and I for one hope Stella and the goat will be back, and who knows about the ghost on the ferry and how about Fiona’s love-interest, Pete? If you enjoy a cozy read full of colorful characters and breezy sand beaches and pot-luck suppers, this is for you.

Pass the casserole and who brought the goat?
***
By Lauri Crumley Coates
Small town life, winter, slowly meandering along the way, with great writing and interesting characters. Depending on your tastes, you will either really like this, or find it boring or too slow moving. As a voracious reader, I found it an unexpected and surprisingly wonderful break from my usual breakneck speed reading of novels hard to put down, full of tension, etc.

Too life in a small town with a harsh winter, one must either be a hermit or lunatic. That’s basically what Fiona thought when she accepted a bet to spend a rough winter in the town, with only a fine single malt scotch and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Expecting a quiet and boring winter, she finds life in Ephraim Wisconsin is more than she expected.

Great small town characters, with all the charming eccentricities we small town people tend to have. While I wouldn’t exactly classify it as a mystery, there are interesting things going on that require Fiona to do some investigating. Lyrical writing with well drawn characters, it was a nice change from lots of the normal reading I do.
***
By Deborah Verlen
Door County Wisconsin is one of my favorite places so of course picking up a story set in Ephraim and Washington Island Door County was a no brainer. And it was really really good!

Fiona Campbell takes on a dare to live in an old ramshackle house on Washington Island for a Wisconsin winter. She moves there expecting basically a dull winter in a small town, but soon learns that even small towns have their excitement. Now I’m from Chciago and to me Ephraim is really small and yes, Washington Island is smaller, but not that much smaller.

Fiona is a multi-layered character. I can’t say I was in love with the character; at times I didn’t care for her. My favorite character was actually Robert the goat.

I loved the author’s descriptions of the weather and the surroundings. I thought she wrote a bit like she was a British author–slow, descriptive and into details. I think if you like British lit you’ll like this book for sure. This is a nice solid story and a great first novel for the author.
***
By Darlene M. Petri
My wife and I vacationed on Washington Island a few of years ago and the story rang true to our short experience on the island. The island is as she describes island the landmarks are surely recognizable. The characters are well developed, but by the end of the book a few issues are still unresolved. The publisher promised a series would come of this book so I guess the issues are not so much unresolved as delayed. OK, something to look forward to. One quibble from our brief stay on the island, the author says no bookstore on the island! There were two, in 2005, one was a gift shop that claimed bookstore status which we didn’t stop at. The was a real if small bookstore where I found several books on Joyce’s “Ulysses”. Ordered for locals who left for Bloom’s Day before the books came in the owner was happy to give us a great discount on the books we bought to get the Joyces out of inventory. Then again that might explain why no bookstore–too bad.
***
(From LibraryThings)
I received this book as part of LT’s Early Reviewer program…and I loved it. North of the Tension Line took me a few chapters to become deeply engrossed, but this lyrical novel set in Wisconsin is a beautiful novel. Fiona takes a dare and moves to a rural island, discovering both a deep peace and facing challenges of making her way in a small, insular community. Fiona and her close friend, Elizabeth, are introspective characters, and some of that threw me off a bit…they are a bit too mature and self-knowing for women in their early 30s, yet they still kept me interested. North of the Tension Line is not a fast-paced, light hearted, beach road, but is a wonderful novel to enjoy and savor.( )
journeygirl
***
I loved this book. … Maybe it’s the story line that I found so interesting and when I read a book I like to escape into the characters and places. I think the author did a great job of introducing us to all the characters and I found something to like in most of them. I think the descriptions of the landscapes in the story were excellent and made me (winter hater) want to visit Washington Island in winter! I’d love to read more from this author and I’d love this to become a series! ( )
lorimarie
***
Terrific book – I read it in one day. Could not put it down.

Fiona is challenged to stay the winter on Washington Island in Wisconsin, and takes the challenge. She buys a house, endears herself to some of the islanders and annoys others, acquires a goat, and finds love.

I highly recommend this book! ( )
mbsam
***
Awesome, awesome. I loved the setting, small island, with some really quirky characters. Brave Fiona to live on the island by herself through a harsh winter. The detail from landscape to coffee house, food and art made for an escaping read and you don’t want to put the book down. ( )
mchwest