Penguin Comic-Con 2014 Sweepstakes

Enter by July 27, 2014 for the chance to 20 books from 2014 San Diego Comic-Con!
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Penguin Sweepstakes Entry

You can find my post about Midnight Crossroad by Charlaine Harris here.

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One winner will receive copies of the following books:

◾Atlantia by Ally Condie
◾The Young Elites by Marie Lu
◾Proxy by Alex London
◾Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes
◾Zodiac by Romina Russell
◾Half Bad by Sally Green
◾The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove
◾Conversion by Katherine Howe
◾Frozen by Melissa de la Cruz
◾The Thousand Names, The Shadow Throne and The Forbidden Library by Django Wexler
◾Maplecroft by Cherie Priest
◾The Midnight Queen by Sylvia Izzo Hunter
◾Midnight Crossroad by Charlaine Harris
◾The Magicians, The Magician King and The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman
◾Blood Song by Anthony Ryan
◾The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

Would you like to see more opportunities to enter book contests? Please comment and let me know.

Mysterious Caged Graves in Catawissa, PA

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In “The Caged Graves,” author and retired school teacher Dianne Salerni has created an historical mystery filled with intrigue, suspense, rumors and betrayals. Ultimately, it is up to newcomer Verity Brown to untangle the twisted crime that directly impacts her family’s past and her future happiness.

It’s 1867, and 17-year old Verity Boone moves from urban Worcester, Massachusetts to remote, rural Catawissa, Pennsylvania. Salerni uses her history and teaching background to good effect, and has created an historically accurate tale that is relatable and exciting for YA readers. Similar novels feature “feisty” heroines who inexplicably fight the status quo. Boone comes by her independence honestly, since May of 1850 marked a meeting of a National Woman’s Rights Convention in Worcester.

While independent in spirit, Boone decides to return to her father’s home; her birthplace Catawissa, Pennsylvania, after corresponding with a local farmer and accepting his proposal of marriage. Boone quickly realizes things are not what they seem, and not what she’s been told while growing up with her aunt and uncle in Worcester.

Most startling are the cages placed over the graves of her mother and aunt. This unusual structure upset Boone, and everyone she questioned. While I was not familiar with “caged graves” prior to reading the novel, Salerni came across two in the Old Mount Zion Cemetery, now called the Hooded Cemetery, near Catawissa, PA.

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While caged graves are not common in the United States, they go by a different name in Europe. Mortsafes, or Mort safes, were designed in the early 1800’s to protect graves from disturbance. Medical students or paid grave robbers, called resurrectionists, disinterred bodies of the recently deceased to supply schools of anatomy. Some modern funeral practices owe their origins to 19th century funerary customs. Flowers, rocks, heavy headstones, live bushes and trees were all placed upon graves to make tampering difficult and easy to detect.

 Mortsafes at a church yard in Logierait, Perth and Kinross, Scotland. Photo by Judy Willson via Wikipedia

Mortsafes at a church yard in Logierait, Perth and Kinross, Scotland. Photo by Judy Willson via Wikipedia

Mortsafes were frequently iron or iron-and-stone devices of great weight, like the examples found in Catawissa, PA. Sometimes they were highly decorative, at others they were merely padlocked iron contraptions of rods and plates. Since they were expensive, and beyond the reach of the working class, churches sometimes bought the cages and placed them upon a grave for about six weeks. After that, they could be moved to another site, since the deceased they protected would be beyond the point of use of anatomists. Burial societies sometimes formed to purchase them for the use of their members.

Mortsafe, Greyfriars Kirk  CC by Kim Traynor via Wikipedia
Mortsafe, Greyfriars Kirk CC by Kim Traynor via Wikipedia

The caged graves outside Catawissa can still be seen.

For more information about Catawissa, PA and the region, please visit:
Columbia-Montour Visitors Bureau

Meet Your Favorite Storybook Characters in the Laurel Highlands, PA

Image Courtesy of Storybook Forest
Image Courtesy of Storybook Forest

Large scale theme parks, like Disneyland, Disneyworld and Universal Studios in SoCal and Florida, tempt family travelers with their state-of-the-art attractions featuring comic book, story book, and movie tie-ins. While these parks can be exciting for older children and adults, I know from experience they are not always appealing to younger children. Long lines test the tempers of young children and adults; bright lights and loud music can be frightening. In fact, some parents have reported their little ones liked the hotel pool just as much as the expensive park.

Image Courtesy of Storybook Forest
Image Courtesy of Storybook Forest

Fortunately, regional parks like Storybook Forest at Idlewild Park in the Laurel Highlands near Ligonier, Pennsylvania fit the bill for families with little ones. It features thirty-three scenes and landmarks from an array of children’s fairytales and fables, including The Little Engine That Could, Jack and Jill, Humpty Dumpty, Aladdin, The Three Little Pigs, and Alice in Wonderland. There are also six costumed actors in character as Mother Goose, Captain Candy, Goldilocks; The Old Woman Who Lived in the Shoe, Little Red Riding Hood, and Snow White.

Image Courtesy of Storybook Forest
Image Courtesy of Storybook Forest

Tickets can be pricey, but discounts are available if you buy them online in advance. Admission tickets cost $39 per person at the gate, but can be purchased online in advance for a discount of up to $11. If you live nearby, various season passes with different privileges can be purchased and range from $57 to $82 per person.

Image Courtesy of Storybook Forest
Image Courtesy of Storybook Forest

Storybook Forest in Idlewild & SoakZone
Ligonier, PA 15658
Phone: (724) 238-3666
https://www.idlewild.com/things-to-do/attractions/story-book-forest

The Battle of the Wilderness & Baseball in McFarland’s “Nostalgia”

Washington Post Best 50 Books of the Year
Washington Post Best 50 Books of the Year

Novels about baseball aren’t new. Novels about the Civil War aren’t new. But in Nostalgia, Dennis McFarland blends the two themes and creates a unique coming of age story. Injured, lost and left-behind, 19-year old Summerfield Hayes stumbles through deadly terrain in the aftermath of the bloody war of attrition at the Battle of the Wilderness. The dense underbrush of Spotsylvania County, VA, proved difficult for both the North and South to navigate, and the battle was fought to a draw. McFarland’s evocative, empathetic and lyrical prose skillfully depicts the beauty and horror of America’s mid-1800 history.

Battle of the Wilderness by Kurz and Allison
Battle of the Wilderness by Kurz and Allison

In spite of his privileged background, Hayes chose to enlist rather than avoid the Union Army draft. His enlistment is an escape from the life he shares with his older sister in the home left to them after the death of their parents. As a soldier, he befriends a variety of men from different social backgrounds, and gains a new perspective on life.

 Ellwood Manor, built in 1790, is the last remaining structure from the Battle of the Wilderness still standing today. (Via Wikipedia)
Ellwood Manor, built in 1790, is the last remaining structure from the Battle of the Wilderness still standing today. (Via Wikipedia)

During the winter of 1864, Summerfield Hayes, played baseball for the Eckford Club. His passion for the game, and his skill at pitching initially give Hayes a naive, innocent appeal. Once he goes to war, however, and uses his baseball prowess to make friends, McFarland’s narrative overlays the popular 19th century sport with the deadly game of war.

In the mid-19th century, baseball was played by different rules than modern baseball. It was also the custom for fielders play barehanded, without gloves.

If baseball or history is your passion, there are a surprising number of venues at which you can see clubs play. Gettysburg, PA hosts a National 19th Century Base Ball Festival, and this year 18 clubs will compete in the two day event from July 19-20, 2014.

If you are not able to make it to the Gettysburg Festival, the Flemington Neshanock Base Ball Club plays at different events. They consider themselves to be “Civil War re-enactors,” except they use a bat and ball instead of rifles and bayonets. Check their website for their schedule. Other clubs are listed on the Gettysburg National 19th Century Base Ball Festival site.

The Flemington Neshanock - 2011. Courtesy of The Flemington Neshanock
The Flemington Neshanock – 2011. Courtesy of The Flemington Neshanock

The original Flemington Neshanock were established in July 1866 and comprised mainly of the town’s prominent constituents. The President was George F. Crater, owner of the Crater’s Hotel, now the site of the Union Hotel. Other notable members include E. Vosseller (VP and short stop), R. S. Kuhl (Captain) and E. Page Southwick (Secretary and catcher).

For More Information:
Battle of the Wilderness National Park

Destination Gettysburg

The Flemington Neshanock Base Ball Club

Fredericksburg, VA Tourism

Gettysburg National 19th Century Base Ball Festival

Virginia Tourism

Savoring the Delights of Belle Époque by Elizabeth Ross

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Since today is Bastille Day, I decided to review a novel set in Paris, the glorious city of lights. The YA award winning novel, Belle Époque by Elizabeth Ross, features strong female characters and deals with strikingly relevant contemporary issues such as friendship, body image, social class and self-worth. Though the setting, brash and “beautiful era” Paris is historical, the themes are timeless and infinitely relatable.

The protagonist Maude Pichon runs away from home and ends up in a Paris far crueler than the one she imagined. Faded postcards and half-forgotten tales told by her dead mother lead Maude to believe city life would be brighter and more romantic the drudge-filled existence she endured in Brittany. Employment proves hard to find and Maude ends up working as a repoussoir.

In art, a repoussoir is a foreground object that draws the viewer’s eye into the main composition. In Belle Époque Paris, a repoussoir, or plain girl, is hired out to wealthy patrons in order to allow their daughters to shine during their debuts. Seemingly cruel, the practice allowed poor girls to earn a living, and vicariously enjoy the delights offered by Parisian society.

Jacob Isaaksz. van Ruisdael, The Jewish Cemetery (1655-60, oil on canvas, 141 x 182.9 cm). The tree in the right-foreground of Ruisdael's painting is an example of repoussoir that pushes the viewer's eye into the composition. (Source: Wikipedia)
Jacob Isaaksz. van Ruisdael, The Jewish Cemetery (1655-60, oil on canvas, 141 x 182.9 cm). The tree in the right-foreground of Ruisdael’s painting is an example of repoussoir that pushes the viewer’s eye into the composition. (Source: Wikipedia)

Maude spends many afternoons site-seeing, and viewing places depicted in her mother’s postcards. As a good Catholic woman, Maude’s mother naturally included an image of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris . The cathedral is widely considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture and among the largest church buildings in the world.

Vintage Postcard via Wikipedia
Vintage Postcard via Wikipedia

While Madame Pichon may have admired the spiritual, she must also have enjoyed the secular since she had images of the former Tuileries Palace and the Palais Garnier in her collection.

Former Tuileries Palace, 1867 via Wikipedia
Former Tuileries Palace, 1867 via Wikipedia
Palais Garnier, via Wikipedia
Palais Garnier, via Wikipedia

Indeed, Maude visited a destination undreamed of by her mother, the Eiffel Tower . Named after the engineer Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and built the tower in 1889, the iron structure is one of the most recognized and copied monuments in the world. That was not the case when Eiffel proposed the project. Controversy and criticism dogged Eiffel. Many did not believe the tower could be built; others thought it lacked artistic merit. This controversy, juxtaposed with the steady rise of the tower, serves as a metaphor for societal change during the Belle Époque.

Eiffel Tower Construction, via Wikipedia
Eiffel Tower Construction, via Wikipedia
Gustave Eiffel Caricature, via Wikipedia
Gustave Eiffel Caricature, via Wikipedia

Site-seeing is all well and good, but a novel about Paris set in any era would be remiss of it did not include luscious descriptions of food. Accounts of grand feasts and fantastic dinners spill from the pages of Ross’ novel. Delicious meals feature bounties of foie gras, smoked trout, roast goose, lobster a la Russe and rack of lamb. While these staggering displays of gastronomic excess form a backdrop for social galas, it is the intimate breakfasts shared between Maude’s agency friends which provide delight, particularly their favorite pâtisserie, Pain au Chocolat.

Image Courtesy of Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be
Image Courtesy of Luc Viatour / http://www.Lucnix.be

My husband and I toured the Châteaux of the Loire years ago. At the time, he was training for a marathon and would often disappear for long early-morning runs. I used the time to take sunrise photographs and explore on my own. I became used to lining up with local housewives to await the opening of village bakeries, where I would buy bread for the day. Yummy baguettes, eggy brioche and of course pain au chocolat. Starting the day with warm melted chocolate wrapped in flaky pastry is my idea of perfection.

Cooking the Book

If you’d like to try making your own Pain au Chocolat, here are two recipes. The first is an easy adaptation, which uses puff pastry instead of hand made. Purists may not like it, since it is not as buttery or flakey as the real thing. The second is a Jane Barton step-by-step tutorial from her Simply So Good blog. The ingredients are simple, but the labor must be spread out over several days.

I think I will stick to buying them. Does anyone have a favorite French bakery in the U.S.?


Version I: Petits Pains au Chocolat from Bon Appétit

Yield: Makes 24

Ingredients

•2 sheets frozen puff pastry (one 17.3-ounce package), thawed, each sheet cut into 12 squares
•1 large egg beaten to blend with 1 tablespoon water (for glaze)
•4 3.5-ounce bars imported bittersweet or milk chocolate, each cut into six 2×3/4-inch pieces
•Sugar

Preparation:

Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Brush top of each puff pastry square with egg glaze. Place 1 chocolate piece on edge of 1 pastry square. Roll up dough tightly, enclosing chocolate. Repeat with remaining pastry and chocolate. Place pastry rolls on baking sheet, seam side down. DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover pastries with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Cover and refrigerate remaining egg glaze.

Preheat oven to 400°F. Brush tops of pastry rolls with remaining egg glaze. Sprinkle lightly with sugar. Bake until pastries are golden brown, about 15 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Version II: Pain au Chocolat via Jane Barton’s Simply So Good

Croissant dough:

1/4 cup warm water
1 tablespoon active dry yeast (Not instant or rapid rise)
4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 cup butter, at room temperature
1 cup cold milk
1 1/2 cups cold unsalted butter

Egg glaze:

1 egg
2 tablespoons milk

Filling:

12-oz semi-sweet chocolate chip

To make the dough, place the water in a small bowl, sprinkle with yeast. Dissolve and let rest undisturbed for about 10 minutes.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Pinch off small pieces of the 1/4 cup of butter, sprinkle them over the dry ingredients. Rub in to the flour by hand until they are almost fully dissolved. Stir in the yeast mixture and add it to the flour mixture. Add the cold milk.

With a wooden spoon, mix the wet and dry ingredients just until evenly combined and all dry spots have disappeared. The dough will be of medium stiffness, like a moist bread dough. The dough may also be mixed in an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook; just be careful not to over mix it or it will become too elastic to roll out.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead for about 1 minutes. Place the dough on a floured baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate the dough overnight.

To roll in the butter, remove the butter from the refrigerator. Leaving the butter in its wrappers, with a wooden rolling pin pound each stick lightly but firmly on all four sides until softened.

Unwrap the sticks and join them together. On a lightly floured surface, using the rolling pin, mold the butter into a flat block measuring 5 x 5 -3/4-inch. Work quickly, making sure the butter is soft, but still cold. If it gets warm, return it to the refrigerator for several minutes.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator, place it on a lightly floured table, and roll it into a 12 x 6-inch rectangle.

Place the cold butter on the right half of the dough, then fold the other half of the dough over the butter. Pinch the edges to seal.

With the folded edge on your left, roll the dough out lengthwise so that it measures 22 x 10-inches. Next, fold the bottom third up and the top third down. This is the beurrage.

Cover the dough, place it on a baking sheet and refrigerate for 45 minutes.

For the turns, remove the dough from the refrigerator and place it on a lightly floured surface.

Position the dough so that the folded edge running the length of the dough is on the left. Make sure the edges are still sealed. Roll the dough out length wise so it measures approximately 22 x 10-inches. Fold the dough in thirds, beginning with the lower third, as before (you have completed one turn.)

Place the dough on the baking sheet. With your finger make one small indentation on an edge of the dough to indicate one turn has been made. Cover and refrigerate for 45 minutes. Repeat this process 2 more times. Doing three turns. Return the dough to the baking sheet and refrigerate overnight.

To make Pain au Chocolate:

Whisk together the egg and milk. Line a baking with parchment paper.

Roll the croissant dough out to a 28 x 12-inch rectangle.

Cut the dough into three 4-inch strips.

Cut each strip into 7-inch long pieces.

Brush each piece with egg wash.

Sprinkle with 2-3 tablespoon of chocolate chips onto the middle third of each piece of dough.

Fold the lower third over the chips and the upper third over that. Gently press or seal with your fingers.

Repeat this process with the rest of the dough.

Place seam side down on a baking sheet.

Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and divide the pastries between them, leaving approximately 2inches between each one to allow space for rising. Brush them with the left over egg glaze and let rise until they are puffy and feel like marshmallows.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place the baking sheets on the center 4rack in the oven and bake for approximately 20 minutes, or until golden brown.

Tea & Fantasy in Seana McGuire’s Rosemary and Rue

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Urban fantasy may not be to everyone’s taste, but I must admit I look forward new releases by some of the best-selling authors in the genre, including Kim Harrison and Jim Butcher. IMO, both have created fabulous other worlds, peopled with compelling if eerie characters. The novels may be set in the United States, but both authors have created surreal blends of fact and fantasy which challenge the reader’s imagination.

Since I read very quickly and race through the latest offerings by Butcher and Harrison, I am frequently bereft of my urban fantasy fix until a new novel is published. There may seem like there are a lot of similar novels out there, but many of them are paranormal romances. The difference appears small I admit, but I’m rarely in the mood for a novel where the protagonist’s love life drives the plot.

I was happy to discover the October Daye Series by Seanan McGuire. In the first novel, Rosemary and Rue, McGuire has provided a twisty mystery filled with fae, as the fairies and fair folk prefer to be called. Protagonist October “Toby” Daye, is a changeling, half-human/half-fae, woman fighting to find her place in both worlds. After spending 14 years cursed as a fish, Daye finds she must return to her abandoned life in the fae world if she hopes to survive.

The novel is set in San Francisco, and many important scenes take place in Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Tea Garden . I lived in California for 17 years, and have many happy childhood memories of the lush gardens; the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States.

Image via Wikipedia
Image via Wikipedia

I found it easy to believe magical and mundane worlds lived side-by-side in the garden. Access to the garden is free, and since my post-war parents had four children, they looked for free destinations to anchor family drives. We loved wandering through all five acres of its carefully manicured landscaping.
The same elements we loved as children secure one aspect of McGuire’s fairy realm. A feeling of other worldliness is immediately established upon entrance via the elaborately carved wood gates. You just know something magical is going to take place when you cross their threshold.

Image Via Wikipedia
Image Via Wikipedia

Similarly, it is easy to image water sprites, fairies and their fae kin populate the magnificently landscaped pools. It’s almost harder to believe that magic wasn’t involved in their creation. My mother worried about us when we dashed over the stepping stones; she was afraid we’d fall in.

Image First Appeared in SF Chronicle: Photographer Kat Wade
Image First Appeared in SF Chronicle: Photographer Kat Wade

Our greatest challenge in the gardens, however, was to cross the high-arching Drum Bridge. All bold travelers face difficulties on their epic journeys, and with our short-legs we often felt we were worthy of an award if we successfully completed the crossing.

Image Via Wikipedia
Image Via Wikipedia

The tearoom has remained a highly sought-after treat. We were always intrigued by its shadowed depths. It was always crowded though, and too expensive for a family of six. Someday, I’ll return to test their menu, even though main character October Daye sniffs at its “tourist” appeal.

Image Via Wikipedia
Image Via Wikipedia

Rosemary and Rue
Seanan McGuire
Series: October Daye (Book 1)
Mass Market Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: DAW (September 1, 2009)

The Hunt for Midnight, Texas

Charlaine Harris novels are pure brain candy, which makes them fast, fun summer reads. After closing her wildly successful Southern Vampire Series (SVS), which was made into TV’s popular “True Blood,” Harris takes readers on a new adventure to Midnight, Texas; a small town with big mysteries.

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Moving from steamy Louisiana to blistering west Texas allows Harris to create a new world as well as introduce her trademark quirky characters.

Midnight Crossroad is written in the third person, a departure from SVS and my favorite of her series, The Harper Connelly Mysteries. The new POV felt more detached to me, and lacks Harris usual witty banter. Additionally, the tale is told from multiple perspectives instead of focusing on a single character. While this change gives readers insight into the lives of the local citizenry, I felt that it lacked the immediacy found in Harris’ other novels.

Harris also mentions characters and situations which took place in other books. Manfred Bernardo, a key character in Midnight Crossroad, was introduced in Book 2 of The Harper Connelly Mysteries, Grave Surprise, and was significant to the resolution of the storylines in both An Ice Cold Grave, and Grave Secret. While it is not unusual for an author to spin off characters and create new stories for them, I found what appeared to be references to individuals and events from the Lily Bard (Shakespeare) Series and the Aurora Teagarden Series.

These cross references began to bother me so much that they started throwing me out of the Midnight Crossroad. Every time a new character was introduced, I wondered if it was one I had read about in another series. While The Harper Connelly Mysteries /Midnight Crossroad link seems to be relevant, the references to other works don’t seem significant to the plot. Perhaps this will change as the series develops, but for now it feels like a marketing ploy designed to sell books. This supposition is not helped by Harris’ 2012 announcement that the SyFy Channel is making a television adaption of The Harper Connelly Mysteries series. It’s smart marketing, but it annoyed me.

The town of Midnight, TX fascinated me though, particularly since I lived in Texas for ten years. I kept trying to figure out if a real town served as a template, and where it might be located. While there doesn’t appear to be a “real” Midnight, there are couple of places which could easily serve as a stand-in.

Harris gives lots of clues as to the possible location of Midnight. In the novel, the town is described as “west of Fort Worth.” It’s additionally about thirty miles from Lubbock. Readers familiar with Texas know that puts Midnight smack dab in the middle of nowhere.

There are a couple of other tempting clues that suggest a possible location. The “Roca Fria” meanders past “Cold Rock;” a popular picnic spot for locals. The key clue for siting Midnight is the reference to dinosaur footprints in a streambed. All of the tips add up to a location near the Dinosaur Valley State Park close to Glen Rose, Texas. Glen Rose may be a little big to be Midnight, but its location four miles from the Dinosaur Valley State Park makes it a plausible contender. Glen Rose is also the self-proclaimed “Dinosaur Capital of Texas.”

Image Courtesy of Glen Rose CVB
Image Courtesy of Glen Rose CVB

At Dinosaur Valley State Park, visitors can compare their footprints to those left long ago by dinosaurs, just like in the novel. Approximately 113 million years ago during the early Cretaceous Period, the limestones, sandstones, and mudstones of the Glen Rose Formation were deposited along the shorelines of an ancient sea. Over the last million years, the layered formations have been carved away by the Paluxy River revealing dinosaur footprints.

The park site has been surprisingly controversial. Claims made by “young-earth” creationists, (YECs) say that “twin set” tracks found in the limestone beds actually show fossilized human footprints alongside dinosaur tracks. In recent years, many creationists have abandoned this theory.

None of the current information stops YEC Carl Bagh from operating The Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose, which “provides scientific evidence for creation to thousands of people each year.”

Image Courtesy of The Creation Evidence Museum
Image Courtesy of The Creation Evidence Museum

I’d love to see Harris tackle the YECs in her new Midnight, TX series. She’s already introduced a creepy reclusive preacher, “The Rev,” who oversees Midnight’s tiny, rundown church and attached pet cemetery. It would be great to see her spin on the “twin set” tracks, and other YEC creation theories.

I travel to Texas at least once per year. The next time I head south, I plan to stop in the Dinosaur Valley State Park and The Creation Evidence Museum to compare notes. I’ll take Midnight Crossroad with me, to see if I can locate the “Home Cookin” diner.

Midnight Crossroad
Chalaine Harris
Series: Midnight, Texas (Book 1)
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Ace Hardcover; First Edition edition (May 6, 2014)