Pages & Paws

Writing, Reading, and Rural Life With a Border Collie

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A Simple Guide to 20-ish BEST Reads of 2019

Selection criteria for an annual “best of” list is kinda squishy, especially when it comes to books. We all have our fave authors, genres and styles, right? If a book made it onto my “best of” list, it had to include:

1. Rich, robust writing that’s a cut above.

2. A creative, clever plot that grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go until The End. The story had to be powerful, poignant, or unusually memorable. Even better: all of the above.

3. Three dimensional characters that are lively, intriguing, and powerful. The type you don’t forget after you close the book.

4. Bonus points for a fresh approach on an old topic, a unique perspective, or inspiration as sound as sterling.

So here’s my totally unscientific, 100% subjective list of Best Reads of 2019. (Not every title on this list was published in 2019. It’s just the year I read it, okay?)

In no particular order, here are my top reads of 2019, by category:


Bòrn Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds, Joy Adamson

My Pride and Joy: An Autobiography, George Adamson

The Winter Pony, Iain Lawrence

Tuesdays With Morrie, Mitch Ablom

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Heather Morris

Lassie Come Home, Eric Knight


One of Our Thursdays is Missing, Jasper Fforde

Flame in the Mist, Renee Adieh

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of 4 Sisters, 2 Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy – Jeanne Birdsall

Out of my Mind, Sharon Draper

Maze Runner, James Dashner

The Prey, Andrew Fukuda

I Am Still Alive, Kate Alice Marshall

A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean. I’ve read this before, but I appreciated it more the second time through.


Sky in the Deep, Adrienne Young

At the Mountain’s Edge, Genevieve Graham

Making Bombs for Hitler, Stolen Girl, and The War Below, Marsha Skrypuch


Fatal Throne: The Wives of Henry VIII Tell All, Various

Spencer’s Mountain, Earl Hamner (A novel, but with a strong narrative voice)

‘NEW’ AUTHORS OF NOTE (In no particular order. List not exhaustive)

Will Hobbs

James Dashner

Genevieve Graham

Lauren Tarsis


The Case Against Socialism, Rand Paul

The Library Book, Susan Orlean

No Safe Spaces – Dennis Prager,


Max Lucado, Scott O’Dell, Gary Paulsen and Sarah Sund. Also Ingrid Paulson and Richard Paul Evans. Karen Kingsbury. Debbie Macomber. And I don’t think I’ve ever met a book I didn’t like by C.W. Anderson, Walt Morey, or Maurice Sendak.

I’m working on a TBR list for 2020. What do you recommend? Holler in the Comments!

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13 of the Best Christmas Movies You Never Heard Of

‘Tis the season for merry-making and movie-watching. Grab some hot chocolate. Plop in a peppermint stick. Gather the fam or invite some friends over and get comfy. (Don’t forget the little’uns!) Here’s my 100% subjective, totally unscientific list of Best Christmas Movies Ever.

Several are well-known, perennial favorites. But you may findYsome surprises here. In fact, you may have never heard of some of these. All are worthwhile.

In no particular order:


Photo credit: IMBD

1. A Thousand Men and a Baby (1997): Based on the true story about the men of the U.S.S. Point Cruz who break all of the rules in order to save an Amerasian infant abandoned at an American Army supply depot in 1953. Knowing that the baby boy will not survive in Korea, the men sneak him aboard their ship, nurse him back to health and find a way to get him to America so he may be adopted in time for Christmas.

Public domain

2. White Christmas (1954): Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and a snowless Vermont. Okay. So it’s a little thin on a few essentials. Like a coherent plot. But who cares?

Photo credit: IMBD

3. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989): When there’s no place like home for the holidays!

Photo credit: IMBD

4. The Homecoming: A Christmas Story (1971). A rural family awaits the return of their father on Christmas Eve. Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia during the Depression. The pilot that launched The Waltons.

Photo credit: IMBd

5. The Littlest Angel (1969): A little shepherd boy, newly arrived in Heaven, tries to adjust to life in the Hereafter.

6. Scrooge (1970): There have been about a zillion adaptations of this Charles Dickens chestnut. My favorite, by far, is the musical version starring Albert Finney. Thank you very, very, very much…

Photo credit: IMBD

7. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). The original, animated version with Boris Karloff. (The remakes were awful.)

Photo credit: IMBd

8. The Small One (1978): A young Judean boy tries to sell his beloved old donkey to someone who would care for him as much as he does.

Photo credit: IMBd.

9. The Christmas Box (1995).  A poignant, heartwarming story of timeless truths about love, family, and faith. A seasonal classic starring Richard Thomas and Maureen O’Hara, based on the Richard Paul Evans book of the same name. A perennial favorite, along with:

Public domain

10. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). James Stewart and Donna Reed star in this wonderful film by Frank Capra. In a class by itself.

11. Babette’s Feast (1987). Based on a short story by Isak Dinesen (Out of Africa) about two sisters in a small Danish town takes in a French refugee woman from the Franco-Prussian War as their servant. A beautiful story of devotion and sacrifice, and grace.


Winner of the Best Foreign Film of that year, with easy-to-read-subtitles. Subtle but sumptuous!

Photo credit: IMBd

12. Inn of the Sixth happiness (1958). Ingrid stars in this moving true story of a missionary, Gladys Aylward, who leads a group of children on a dangerous journey trough pre-WWII China. Includes a re-telling of the Christmas story from Luke 2.

13. The Scarlet and the Black (1983). Made for TV. True story of a priest, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, (Gregory Peck) who harbored Allied POW escapees during WWII and the Nazi official (Christopher Plummer) who tries to catch him.

The film has little to do with Christmas other than the examination of the life of a man who was affected by Christ. The film is long – about 155 minutes. But the message at the end is not to be missed.


Did yours make the cut? What would you add?

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12 Ways to Bless Others This Christmas

Christmas is a time for joy! For celebrating! For family and friends! It’s a time for Child-like wonder and merry-making. But shadows can also hover over the season, intensifying feelings of loneliness or loss.

For those whose family relationships are strained or difficult, the obligatory annual Christmas gathering can feel like getting a root canal. And may be just as dreaded.


For those who’ve lost loved ones, the holidays may accentuate those absences.


Singer/songwriter Matthew West understands this.


West came out with a song awhile back that captures both the joy and sense of loss that can accompany the season: “The Heart of Christmas.”


It’s a perennial favorite. Lyrics include:


“Wherever you are, no matter how far
Come back to the heart, the heart of Christmas
Live while you can, cherish the moment
The ones that you love, make sure they know it
Don’t miss it, the heart of Christmas.”

While you’re celebrating and making merry this season, can you slow down and remember those who may be struggling?


Here are 12 Ways To Bless Others This Christmas:

🎄Donate to your local food bank
🎄Befriend an elderly neighbor. Just starting a conversation can have a positive impact. You can also offer to help with practical tasks like shopping or dog-walking or getting them to medical appointments.
🎄Invite international students over for dinner
🎄Give a generous tip to a friendly customer service worker like a waiter or barista
🎄Buy a homeless person a sandwich and a hot drink
🎄Help someone who’s struggling with their luggage on public transport and/or give up your seat for same
🎄Buy your friend chocolate when they’re feeling down. Listen more than you talk if they need to vent
🎄Treat a friend to a movie or a trip to a Christmas tree farm. Serve hot cocoa and cookies afterwards.
🎄Be extra patient with retail workers, many of whom are stressed and harried this time of year. Don’t forget to thank them and say “Merry Christmas”!
🎄Bake and deliver homemade goodies to your local police and/or fire departments with a note of thanks
🎄Offer free babysitting to friends with small children so Mom and Dad can have a Parents Night Out.

“Come on and open up your eyes!”


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10 Tips for Reducing Holiday Stress

You know I’m a happy camper, right? My middle name is “merry and bright”! So I don’t quite get all this barking about “holiday stress.” Mom says it’s a thing. So it must be a thing.

Well. You also know I’m a helper. I help going out on walks and hikes. Cleaning up kitchen spills. Guarding the house. Especially from menacing deer. Lurking Fed Ex drivers. Sketchy-looking plastic bags.

Being a world class helper and all, I figure I better help with this holiday stress thing. So here are my top ten tips for reducing holiday stress. Ready? Okay. Here goes:

1 – 9: Get a dog.

10. Take her for long walks. Preferably without that stupid orange doggie coat.


Oh, alright. Mom says I have to try harder to be helpful. Sigh. Here we go:

  1. Take extra precautions to stay healthy. Getting sick can wreck anyone’s holiday faster than you can say “Ebenezer.” So drink plenty of water. Get a good night’s sleep. Wash your hands. (Something about killing germs?) Take Vitamin C to ward off the effects of Jack Frost. (Anyone nipping at my family’s noses is in deep doo-doo! Just sayin’.)
  2. Say “No.” I hear this all the time. It’s easy. Like, if it feels wrong, too stressful, or there’s a cat involved, just trot out this handy-dandy two-letter word. Works wonders!
  3. Make scents. No, really. Find a plug-in, candle, or potpourri pot with a favorite, soothing scent. Activate. Let it fill the whole house with a refreshing, relaxing aroma. (Mom made me say that.)
  4. Exercise. Even if you have to chug up stairs or do jumping jacks in the basement due to weather, get moving! Get that heart rate up! Exercise reduces stress. (Or you could just walk the dog, ya know.)
  5. Sing. I don’t quite get it. But Mom always feels better when she’s rocking out to Manheim Steimroller at nose bleed volume (see # 4, above). Or belting out Joy to the World at the top of her lungs. So it must work. You could also listen to this guy:

6. Take a hot bath. And lock the door. (Mom made me say that, too. You know how moms are.)

7. Practice an “attitude of gratitude.” Like me. I’m thankful for everything! Family! Walks! Chow! A new leash! A warm fireplace! Sunshine! Well, okay. Maybe not The Powder Puff on four legs. (Nobody’s perfect.) Altho I wouldn’t know myself, I hear it’s hard to be a Scrooge when you’re focusing on being thankful.

8. Slow. Down. For just five minutes, okay? Related: Apply the “KISS” principle. Keep things simple. If you don’t know how to do that, lemme help:

9. Get a dog. (That Scrooge dude? Bet he was a feline fun. Hah, bumhug!)

10. Hang out with me! Cuz I love everyone! O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy…

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How To Write a Killer Christmas Letter

Writing an annual Christmas letter is as seasonal as eggnog and mistletoe. Some Christmas letters have flair and panache. Others are like watching paint peel. How can you write a Christmas letter that’ll knock the socks of your family Saint Nick and make Rudolph’s nose dim?

Here are 12 tips for writing a killer Christmas letter:

1. Keep it short.

I’m talking one page. Preferrably just the front. The more loquacious you are, the less likely people are to read the whole thing.

People are busy, especially during the holidays. No one has time to read a Christmas epistle that’s a War and Peace wannabe. So keep it short and sweet.

2. Be yourself.

This may seem obvious. But it’s amazing how many people try to copy someone else’s style or voice. Don’t. People want to hear from you, not a clone.

3. If you include a photo, make sure you tie it in with the text of the letter. And caption it with the place, date, who’s featured and what they’re doing.

4. Mix it up.

If you used a first person narrative last year, try writing from another point of view. The kids? The dog? A neighbor?

5. Include humor.

Not everyone has an active funny bone. But most people like to laugh and enjoy some levity. Include some.

6. Choose a font that’s easy on the eyes.

I can’t tell you the number of times I gave up trying to read through fancy calligraphy or curliqued letters on steroids. It may look pretty. But if your type font is hard to read, few will.

Choose a standard font like Times Roman or Arial.

7. Handwrite the salutation and conclusion.

If you’re writing your letter on the computer and tucking it into an envelope, be sure to start it with, “Hello Bill and Marilyn” (or whatever). In handwriting.

Also hand write your conclusion and signature: “Merry Christmas from Jim and Eileen, Chad, Chloe, and Joey.”

It takes longer. But it’s more personal.

If you’re using an email delivery platform like Mail Chimp, you can customize the “To” field and do likewise.

8. Keep a list. Check it twice.

Staring at a blank piece of paper or screen and waiting for writing inspiration to strike can be intimidating. It’s helpful to keep a running list of key dates and events through the year.

If possible, jot them down real time. It’s a lot easier to just grab your list or review your calendar than it is trying to remember the last 11.5 months off the top of your head, without prompts.

9. Inclufe your contact info.

Make it easy for people to respond by including your address, email, phone, etc. In The Letter. You can do this in the footer of a Mail Chimp or in a regular email or hard copy letter.

10. Use white space generously

Resist the temptation to jam in as much copy as you can on a sheet of paper by cramming every available millimeter with type. It’s hard to read!

Instead, keep your paragraphs short. Indent for new paragraphs. Or better yet, double space between paragraphs.

Make sure margins are adequate. Choose Justify rather than ragged right for your right margin. It looks cleaner and more polished.

11. Put yourself in the recipient’s shoes.

What do you want to know? What will be of interest? Do I really care about your second cousin’s bunion surgery or the egg substitute you just discovered?

We all find ourselves fascinating. But try to write yiur update with an eye toward news that will resonate with and be interesting to your recipient(s). Think: What will my friends want to know about and what can they best relate to?

12. Draw the reader in.

This is key. It’s also rare, as most Christmas letters tend to be one-sided. Even self-centric.

Engage your reader by “pencilling in” a question specifically for them. How was vacation? The new job? Is Norbert coming home for Christmas?

You might also close with something like, “Please let us know what’s going on with you, too” or drawing attention to your contact contact info. so they can easily respond. (See above.)

If your budget allows, print up your letter on some Christmas-y stationery.

Well, that’s it. Now get those creative juices going and make this year’s Christmas letter the best ever!

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In Defense of Christmas Cards: 10 Reasons to Still Write Them

We live in the digital age. It’s filled with techno-gadgetry that’s supposed to make our lives easier. More efficient.

But have you noticed? All that technology and 24/7 mobile device/social media stuff is no substitute for one-on-one face time. Building genuine relationships. Or sending Christmas greetings.

Here are 10 reasons why sending Christmas cards the ‘old fashioned way – with a paper card, an envelope and stamps – beats Facebook, email, and Mail Chimp every time:

1. Christmas cards are more personal.

While electronic greetings or a global “Merry Christmas” Facebook post may be quick, free, and easy, it’s also pretty impersonal. There’s something about taking the time to pick up a pen, address an envelope, add a card and a personalized greeting that a status update can’t convey.

2. Christmas cards are individual.

Physically writing out an address means that card is going to that one address. And in that moment at least, you’re thinking of them. And them only. Not on how quick you can cross the “get a Christmas post up” task off your To Do list.

3. Not everyone has a computer or a mobile device.

Believe it or not, not every life revolves around a smart phone or Instagram. Some folks still like and prefer hard copy greetings.

4. You can save and re-read paper cards throughout the year.

How many emails or status updates can you say that about?

5. Paper cards can be physically displayed during the holidays, reminding you of those who took time to keep in touch and exchange greetings.

6. You can hold, open, touch and smell a paper card.

Don’t make me explain this.

7. You can tuck a little something physical into an envelope.

Like a bookmark. A family photo that you can put on your fridge or bulletin board. Maybe even a check from grandma.

8. Christmas cards are pretty.

Taking time to select a particular design, graphic, or greeting says something about you and what you want to convey to the recipient.

9. Sending and receiving Christmas cards is fun!

It means someone took time to think of Just You.

10. It makes us slow down.

Related to the above, taking the time and effort to send out paper Christmas cards can be a slow process. But during a season that’s often hustle and bustle and whirling past at warp speed, slowing down even to address an envelope can give us cause to pause. And reflect.

That’s a good thing. Especially when it also gives us a chance to re-connect and re-focus on the Reason for the Season.

So yes, friends, sometimes being quick, easy, and efficient isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Especially at Christmas.

Have you or will you send out Christmas cards this year?

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7 Surprisingly Splendid Seasonal Reads

Ready for reading that’s merry and bright? Here are seven uplifting, engaging reads to help celebrate the season with faith, hope, and love. In no particular order:

The Christmas Box. A perennial favorite from master storyteller Richard Paul Evans.

A young family moves in with a wealthy widow just before the holidays as caretakers. The father, Richard, is so engrossed in getting his fledgling business off the ground that he is unaware of his misplaced piorities. Sensing this, the widow Mary Parkin is determined to not let Richard make the same mistake that haunts her past. Can she reach him before it’s too late?

A rich, warm tale of family, faith, and the brevity of life. Beautifully written.

The Homecoming. It’s Christmas Eve in the Blue Ridge Moutains of Virginia during the Depression. Clay Spencer, patriarch of a large family, is overdue. While the Spencer clan anxiously awaits Clay’s homecoming, the older son, Clay-boy, goes in search of his father.

The novel that launched The Waltons.

Like The Christmas Box, I read this story every Christmas season.

Homespun Christmas.

Can love be kindled in the seemingly dying embers of this small logging town? Can the Christmas wishes of one young boy once again ignite the fires of optimism in the inhabitants of Hope? Will one Christmas centennial celebration change an inevitable outcome?

Four multi-published, award-winning authors present a heart-warming story of people working together for a common cause and finding love. Just fun. I can almost hear the sleigh bells!

Shepherds Abiding. The eighth Mitford novel provides a glimpse of the best present of all: one’s heart.

Father Tim discovers an old nativity scene in need of repair. Even though he’s not exactly the “artsy” type like his wife, Cynthia, he decides to undertake its restoration because he knows how much she’ll love it. Through Father Tim’s journey, readers are treated to a seat at Mitford’s holiday table and a wonderful tale about the true Christmas spirit.

The Christmas Secret. A struggling young mother saves the life of a stranger and sets in motion a series of events that no one could’ve imagined as she navigates crushing defeat and disappointment on the way to hope, faith, and love. Warm, wonderful characters and a rich storyline.

Note: The timeline gets a little muddled as it skips back and forth between present and past. Also, the POV flips between first and third person and can get confusing. Still a cozy read for cold winter nights!

The Gift of the Magi. One of O. Henry’s most poignant and best-loved short stories. It’s Christmas and neither Mr. nor Mrs. Jim Dillingham can afford to buy the other a gift. Selfless sacrifices and an O. Henry ending ensue. A lovely read.

Because Easter begins with Christmas.

Honorable Mentions:

A Christmas Carol -Charles Dickens

How the Grinch Stole Christmas – Dr. Seuss

The Mistletoe Secret – Richard Paul Evans.

Twas the Night Before Christmas – Clement Moore

What are your seasonal favorites?