Out of Twenty: Sarah Kennedy, Author of The Altarpiece, Answers Six Questions

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing Sarah Kennedy, novelistvictim author and they choose their own interview by picking which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer. Sarah Kennedy’s novel, The Altarpiece, the first in a series about Catherine Havens, a mystery solving nun in the era of Henry Tudor. Here is what Sarah had to say about reading, writing, and developing compassion through novel writing.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

In addition to being the author of The Altarpiece, the first book in a series of historical novels, I am also a poet, gardener, teacher, and the head of the English Department at Mary Baldwin College.  My scholarly background is in the Renaissance.  I have a PhD in Renaissance Literature and teach all the good stuff—including Shakespeare, of course!  I also have an MFA in Creative Writing, and I also teach both poetry and fiction workshops.

I’ve been a reader since childhood and a writer since my early twenties.  I started out as a poet and I’ve published seven books of poems, but I’m also addicted to novels!  I began with autobiographical writing, but after a few books I got rather tired of myself and moved on to what interests me in the larger world.  I now focus on historical poems and novels.  I’m particularly interested in the lives of women and people who are caught in a cultural crisis.

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

My husband tells me that I have a preternaturally high energy level, and I fear that he may be right about that—I fidget constantly if I am not completely focused!  When I was writing poetry most of the time, I would fuss around with a poem for half an hour, then go off and do something else.  Sometimes I would think of the exact word I wanted during a class and run down to my office to fiddle with a line between classes.

Writing a novel has made me a different writer entirely, and I honestly can’t explain how this happened.  Where I once worked in fits and starts throughout the day, I now have a calmer routine:  I do my teaching first (and I love teaching); I work in my garden every day.  I try to make a decent homemade dinner for myself and my husband almost every day, with wine and candles, because I like to cook.  We sit down together and share our days.

The AltarpieceAfter dinner, I write.  It doesn’t matter what else is going on—the TV can be on; the phone can ring.  I sit down with the laptop and disappear into my created world until I’m exhausted.  Then I close it up and I’m done for the day.  I do this almost every day.  The only change in this routine comes if I have an event or reading in the evening.  Then, I will try to write in the afternoon . . . but it feels odd!

People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time?  What impact did telling this story have on your life?  Did you find that it had changed you?

People have to have stories to make sense of their lives.  It’s one of the reasons we crave fiction; we need to shape events in such a way that they conform to our notions of right and wrong, of justice and fairness—and to our notions of the reality of danger and evil.

The story of The Altarpiece was necessary for me because my main character, Catherine Havens, must choose between fundamentally different lives—devotion to her religion or conformity to her government.  The choice is especially acute because the options for women were very limited, but we all have to make life-altering decisions.  Writing Catherine’s story has really made me think about why people do what they do—and I hope it’s developed compassion in me as well.

What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors?  Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?

I’m currently reading a lot of old James Lee Burke novels, which is a big departure for me.  I usually read Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory, Tana French—British and Irish writers of historical and crime fiction.  I turned to Burke to stretch my imagination, and he has done that.  As a novelist, I do read differently now, studying ways that other authors balance description and dialogue, action and reflection, flashbacks, and pacing.  Burke, for example, always tells you what characters are wearing, which surprised me.

Many writers say they can’t read in their genre while they’re working on a project, but just the opposite is true for me.  I have to read, because I need the energy.  It’s like maintaining a good diet when you’re exercising hard.  I get hungry for words and sentences!

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The Boleyn King by Laura Anderson – Book Review

The Boleyn King by Laura AndersonLaura Anderson’s The Boleyn King piqued my interest when Michele from A Reader’s Respite called it the “Tudors for the teenage set”, and said it was “a fun romp” (Disclaimer: I am totally paraphrasing/making up what she said from a Twitter conversation. Really, I don’t remember what she said.) This also falls under the category of alternate universe/ historical re-imagining, and I just love those, so yeah. I wolfed this down pretty quickly. If Anne Bolyen had given birth to a son in 1536, ya’ll! Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I have signed on for yet another trilogy. Le sigh.

Anyway. The Boleyn King follows the lives of the Boleyn king, William; his sister, the Princess Elizabeth; and their best friends Dominic (also one of Will’s advisers) and Minuette (also Elizabeth’s  head lady-in-waiting). The action begins on the eve on William’s birthday (also Minuette’s birthday); Dominic has just returned from soldiering, and Minuette has just re-joined Elizabeth’s household after Queen Anne’s separating her from her friends for a few years to toughen her up in other households. William has only a year left before he rules England in his own right, without the approval or veto power of his regent and council.

When Alyce, one of the Queen Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, takes a header down some stairs, Minuette has reason to believe that foul play is the culprit since she  also suspected that Alyce was pregnant. As the quad work together to solve the mystery, they quickly realize that Alyce’s mysterious death has everything to do with English royal succession, and William’s official ascension to the throne as England’s King.

Anderson does a fine job of speculating the issues that still would have faced England had a son of Anne’s lived and became England’s king. Anderson knows her history and puts it to good use, which makes this book a delight to read. Anne’s giving birth to a son would have saved her neck and solved the immediate issue of Henry having a male heir, but to a considerable part of the country Anne was still “The Great Whore”. The shenanigans that made her Queen also divided England into bitter religious factions, and would have made that no less a problem for fictional William than it was for real life Elizabeth – what with Mary still running around as a potential Catholic Queen. This bears out in The Boleyn King, and the more things change, the more they stay the same. Elizabeth is still smart as a whip, studious, interested in foreign policy and Robert Dudley. Much is still being made of who she might marry, and of course who William might marry. It’s very interesting to see people continue to be themselves in entirely different circumstances.

Anderson skips to William’s adulthood, so we don’t get to see what Anne would have been like as a she gloried in her power and the triumph of a male child, or the role she takes in William’s rule after Henry’s death. There are some hints that she was not allowed free reign, but intimations of who she is and how she relates to Elizabeth give an idea of who this volatile woman might have been as a mother, and what regrets she had, if any. Anne’s relationship with Minuette, and how that bears on the younger girl’s future is something I loved seeing develop, as her role in Dominic and William’s life begins to change. Everyone is growing to consider the others in a different light. The Boleyn King is a really lovely alternate history, mystery, romance. I’m very much looking forward to the next installment. Recommended.

And because you know you want to, start reading it now!

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Big Brother by Lionel Shriver – Book Review

Big BrotherLionel Shriver is synonymous with smart writing and controversial issues. She first came to my attention in, of all places, an airport bookstore where I picked up a copy of We Need To Talk About Kevin – a stunning book She handles difficult subject matter with an unflinching aplomb and I knew I would be on the look out for more of her books.

Big Brother centers around obesity, and examines societal issues of fat through how relationships are affected, and what responsibility is required of family when one of its members is morbidly obese. How much can, and should, you sacrifice to help someone who may or may not even want to be helped? Fat has quickly become a hot, hot issue; not only in terms of advertising, eating disorders, health issues and how society views obesity but also in terms of legislation. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been in the news for attempting to ban large size soft drinks, and for several years in New York portion sizes and calorie counts have been included in fast food menus. In her title, Shriver ominously hints at many forms of “Big Brother”, while cloaking her cautionary tale in the story of Pandora Halfdanarson and Edison Appaloosa, children of former second tier sitcom star, who are strongly bonded over ridiculing episodes of their father’s old shows and the trauma of being famous by association rather than achievement.

The novel is told from Pandora’s first person perspective, and we learn that she  is married to Fletcher, a high end furniture maker whose dismal sales have left him slightly resentful of his wife’s success. Though Pandora has opted out of motherhood in the traditional sense, she is happy to be stepmother to his children, whom he has separated from their drug addicted mother. Fletcher and Pandora’s marriage is clearly strained, partially due the success of her burgeoning business called Baby Monotony, and his own newly developed aversion to the elaborate meals Pandora prepared in their courtship and early marriage. Fletcher has crossed the line between health nut and ascetic. Pandora clearly welcomes the distraction her brother, who she has heard from a friend is down on his luck, will bring. What she doesn’t bargain for is a 200+ pounds overweight and out of work brother who threatens to destroy all that she has built. Still, she stands in solidarity with Edison and moves out from her husband and children in order to help him lose the weight that will surely kill him.

Big Brother is written with Shriver’s characteristic acerbic wit and is filled with insightful commentary on familial and sibling bonds – how the dynamics formed in childhood can threaten the responsibilities and loyalties of marriage. While Big Brother is an absorbing read, it’s also one that I have deeply mixed feelings about. Shriver specializes in thoughtful books about characters you don’t necessarily like, which is fine in and of itself. My main problem with Pandora is that she was interchangeable with Shriver’s other main characters – smart, cold, conflicted about motherhood, and manipulative of her audience. She could have been any of the achieving, critical protagonists before encountered in Shriver, and that makes Big Brother feel longer than it would have otherwise. Though on a different subject matter,  the cadence and construction of Pandora’s rants, diatribes, circuitous arguments and justifications were extremely familiar.

Shriver also has a way of playing with readers in a major way, particularly with her endings. You’ll either be angry, disbelieving, inspired  or gradually resigned to the way she chooses to bring closure to her novels. Pandora wraps up her story in a way that isn’t entirely satisfactory, but not unexpected if you’ve read any of Shriver’s previous novels. The groundwork is laid for the ending but it has a “fool me once, shame on you…” type feeling. We Need To Talk About Kevin sparked much discussion on whether it’s ending was a gimmick (and whether or not it was a successful one), and Big Brother certainly comes up the the line and kisses it. I would have been more upset with it had I not already come to think of Shriver’s works more as astute observations of social issues masquerading as novels. Big Brother seemed less plausible as a novel than some of her other work. It felt like reading an “issues” book, a screed on obesity.

Nevertheless Big Brother is a compelling, thought provoking read, and it characters are well drawn, if annoying. Many theories and perspectives compete for the readers attention –  to be agreed with and disavowed, to be ashamed of and accepted, sometimes within the same paragraph. Never for the faint of heart, Shriver’s latest effort is both haunting and sad. Though I have many reservations, it’s hard not to recommend Big Brother for consideration especially for those looking for something of relevance and worthy of discussion.

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The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison – Book Review

The Silent Wife by ASA HarrisonOne day, a couple of weeks ago, I was on Twitter bemoaning the fact that so few novels clue you into their big mystery at the beginning of the book. There is usually a long, slow process where little is revealed, but much is hinted at, until the story comes to a close. It’s tried and true storytelling, for sure, but it can also get a little stale in even the best hands. Where are the novels that drop the bomb on you right from the beginning? Tayari Jones did it with Silver Sparrow, but I am hard pressed to think of many recent novels where this happens. Well, A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife is one such novel. Right away you know that a killing occurs, who the victim is, and who done it –  so to speak. Jodi is the killer and Todd is the victim.

 

Todd Gilbert and Jodi Brett have been together for twenty years and live a life of affluence in Chicago, Illinois. He has found great success in real estate development, and she keeps house as well as maintains a part-time psychotherapy practice from their luxury condo overlooking the lake. It quickly becomes apparent that the state of their marriage is not a healthy one, and is predicated on maintaining a heavy lie between them. Todd is a habitual cheater, and aside from occasional and petty acts of revenge, Jodi perpetually turns a blind eye and concentrates on making a good home for the two of them. For Todd’s part, though he strays constantly, he always knows that his place is with Jodi. He’s happy to return to her – until one day he isn’t, and doesn’t. That’s when it gets crazy, you guys!

 

The Silent Wife alternates between Jodi and Todd’s perspectives in an eerily omniscient type narrative that’s mostly in the present tense. This, along with the countdown like nature of the novel, makes it a particularly stressful read. Though you know what’s coming, the revelations of Jodi and Todd’s backgrounds, how they have shaped who they are, and how it has played into the dynamics of their relationship inform all the factors contributing to their final circumstances. Quite frankly neither Todd nor Jodi are characters you want to spend much time with. Jodi is cold and schedules time with friends as activities to fill a to-do list, and Todd seems incapable of thinking of anyone else’s needs but his own. Both are extremely entitled and self-absorbed, but they aren’t boring – which is far, far worse in fiction than not being a good person.

 

Harrison fills The Silent Wife with heavy psychological examinations of each of Todd and Jodi’s past and juxtaposes it with their present actions. Sometimes I was reading between my hands as each party’s behavior escalated. Boy, was this an uncomfortable read in places! There is a lot to think about in terms of what, if anything, would have changed the outcome for these characters -what the final straw was, and what could have led them back to a relationship which had fulfilled their acknowledged needs for many years. Readers who enjoy tension filled forays into toxic minds and marriages will enjoy dissecting this relationship, either alone or with the friends they urge to read it. Recommended.

 

Giveaway: I have one finished copy of The Silent Wife to giveaway to readers with a US address. If you’re interested in reading the book, please fill out this brief form. I will pick a winner at random on Friday, June 28. Your email address will be discarded if you do not win. I do not share or retain any personal information. No purchase necessary and void where prohibited. Only selected winner(s) will be contacted by email. Thanks and good luck!

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Out of Twenty: Sally Koslow, Author of The Widow Waltz, Answers Sixteen Questions

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which sally-koslow2questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Last week I read and reviewed Sally Koslow’s newest novel, The Widow Waltz, the story of what happens when a loving wife discovers her husband has left her penniless. Here is what Sally had to say about reading, writing, and making bestseller lists.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?  

First, thanks for the chance to contribute to Linus’s Blanket. Your interviews and reviews make writers and readers feel as if we are all part of a small but friendly international community. (aww, thanks!)

Writing books is my second career after a long run as a magazine editor. I started as an assistant and eventual writer at Mademoiselle, right out of college, and worked myself up the editorial masthead. Four out of my five books have been novels. My new book is The Widow Waltz, preceded by With Friends like These, which was chosen by Target for its Emerging Writers category; The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, a Target Book Club Pick and bestseller in Germany; and my debut, Little Pink Slips, inspired by my years as editor-in-chief of McCall’s Magazine, which was taken over by a hell raising celebrity. I toggle between fiction and non-fiction. Last year Viking released my first non-fiction book, Slouching Toward Adulthood, about the trials and tribulations of being a helicopter parent and the adolescents such parenting creates. I also publish essays– usually memoir-y– in websites and magazines like More, Real Simple and O the Oprah Magazine, and report stories for magazines. I’m at home in either genre, fiction or non-fiction, which is more left-brainish, as is all magazine work.

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

What does it say that I’ve moved my computer from the extra bedroom in the back of my apartment to the dining room table next to the kitchen? I love the fantasy of writing and cooking, cooking and writing, and in the winter, do a lot of that. I usually write first thing in the morning, still in my jammies, and warm up by rereading—which inevitably means rewriting—whatever I worked on the previous day. Once I’ve composed a first draft, I tweak it mercilessly at any time of day. I am capable of parking my butt in front of my laptop for hours on end, but I make myself take breaks, and have learned the benefit of running, which helps generate ideas. About one mile into a run—I’m talking s-l-o-w jogging—it’s as if I hit an “on” button and come up with ideas for new or current projects.

Write the question you would most like to answer in an interview, and then answer it.

“Ms Koslow, how does it feel to have a breakout book? To be on every bestseller list?”

“Fine,” I answer with great humility

What are you reading now?

I started Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, having just finished Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Next up will be Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline, whom I met when we did a book discussion together last week. My book club has been reading titles that have been written mostly by men—Lolita, Portrait of a Lady, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, The Finkler Question—so on my own I’m committed to authors who are contemporary American women.

Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?

Yes, I used to read mostly for plot but now I’m attempting to slow down and look for construction and craft.

Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?

The Widow Waltz by Sally Koslow

If I stumble into a book with rich language, wit, and sharp characters, reading in tandem with writing is like getting a booster shot. I find myself stopping mid-paragraph and running from my book to my manuscript with an idea.

In the past I have visited a blog called Daily Routines and it’s all about the schedules of writers and creative people.  What does a typical day look like for you and how do you manage a busy schedule?Run some mornings. Read newspaper/eat breakfast. Check email, Facebook, Twitter. Write. Break for Pilates or lunch with a friend if I haven’t run, write, reward myself with a little reading, dinner, write a little, watch some great cable TV or enjoy some wonderful New York thing like a play or

dinner with friends, read. Life is a lot easier when your children have grown up and you don’t have a full time job as an editor who works 24-7 and reads manuscripts all night and weekend.

Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be?  How involved were in choosing the name of the book?  

The Widow Waltz came to me whole, as did The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, incorporating the main characters’ names–and no one ever questioned either. My other books’ titles were collaborative. Slouching Toward Adulthood came from my editor or one of her colleagues. I originally called that book The Wander Years. Their title is much better.

Do you ever look back at your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approach to writing has evolved since you first began?

Hell yes. My first novel, Little Pink Slips, four books ago, was far fluffier than my current work. The character’s name was Magnolia, for God’s sake, and I dropped brand names, although in all fairness, I was writing as an insider about the world of glossy magazines, which offer editors clothing allowances and expects its leaders to be well-shod and well-coiffed. It’s a deeply shallow multi-million dollar industry. My books that have followed have explored darker subjects. In The Late, Lamented Molly Marx the heroine watches over her family after death. With Friends like These parses challenges of contemporary friendship—not boyfriend problems, but what happens when two people crave the same scarce commodity, the same real estate, let’s say, or a swell job.  The Widow Waltz is about death, betrayal, reinvention, Alzheimer’s disease, unplanned pregnancy and jewelry. Slouching Toward Adulthood is loaded with first-person interviews and statistics. I hope readers notice that over time I’ve become a better architect of sentences and that my characterizations have grown meatier. I keep trying to raise the bar for myself in this regard.

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Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight – Book Review

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreightKimberly McCreight’s Reconstructing Amelia seems to be the big buzz book that everyone is taking about. With comparisons to last year’s Gillian Flynn hit Gone Girl (not one I agree with), and a movie in the works featuring Nicole Kidman, it’s easy to see why. When  Amy recommended it in Bloggers Recommend and  followed up with an equally compelling review at My Friend Amy, I was persuaded to push this one up the stack for sooner rather than later. I wasn’t disappointed with that decision.

Kate Baron is a litigation attorney at a prestigious Manhattan firm and a single mom, guilt ridden by how little time she spends with her daughter, fifteen year old Amelia. While Kate struggles to balance work responsibilities with quality time at home, she is never completely satisfied with the equation. Despite her long hours at the firm, she and Amelia have always shared a close loving relationship, but, Amelia increasingly has questions about her father, whom she’s never met. The thin cover story Kate has constructed about him is no longer satisfactory.

Then, Kate gets a call asking her to pick Amelia up from Grace Hall, and learns that her smart, achieving daughter is uncharacteristically being suspended for plagiarism. Before Kate can get there, Amelia jumps off the roof in what the school, and police officials, term a “spontaneous suicide”. Grieving heavily, Kate tries to come to terms with her daughter’s death, but a text message suggesting Amelia didn’t jump sends Kate on a hunt to find the truth about her daughter’s last days.

McCreight does wonderful work getting the reader into Kate’s head as a parent who has done her best to be true to herself and her career while still supporting  Amelia, and making sure she has the best of everything- including knowing she is loved. The grief, guilt and fear she feels upon investigating her daughter’s life, and what led to her death, is palpable and deeply touching. Watching Kate face her fears about what her daughter might have felt about her, especially in the last days when they weren’t getting along, was hard. I also felt for Amelia, caught up in losing and finding herself while  also juggling mean girls and a questionable relationship with her best friend, her questions about her father, and ultimately failed attempts to open up to her mother. McCreight’s characters are so real and carefully considered. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with them; even the difficult moments.

There is a special satisfaction in reading novels which acknowledge the way the changes in communication, technology and personal online presence have affected our social interactions and relationships, and what happens to that information after death. These days most of us will leave behind an extensive online footprint and documentation of day by day thoughts and feelings. Kate struggles to comb through thousands of  Amelia’s e-mail and text messages, Facebook and Twitter updates, her daughters unadulterated opinion of her, and how Amelia viewed her own life. Amelia’s situation highlights how technology has made it easier to connect in a bigger ways and beyond our natural social circles, but to also be destroyed on just as large a scale.

McCreight’s novel is incredibly engrossing, and to start reading it is to make a commitment. I kept coming back to it – wanting to get just a little closer to finding out what happens to Kate and Amelia. Cleverly, there are several threads to be sorted by the end. Some come to more satisfying and plausible conclusions than others, but the emotions and relationships are spot on, and cannot be denied. Reconstructing Amelia is well worth the read and every stolen moment you’ll take to finish it. Highly Recommended.

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Out of Twenty: Jennie Fields, Author of The Age of Desire, Answers Eight Questions

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which Jennie Fieldsquestions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Jennie Fields’s fascinating novel about Edith Wharton , The Age of Desire is now out in paperback. Rich in period detail and colorful characters, The Age of Desire concerns itself with a scandalous affair which threatens here relationship with one of the closest people in her life. Here is what Jennie had to say about reading, writing, and the tenet she always adheres to when writing.

Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

My fourth and most recent novel is The Age of Desire, based on the life of my favorite novelist, Edith Wharton, who’s wild mid- life love affair with Morton Fullerton changed her view of the world and her writing forever.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was six years old.  Books have always been a life-saving escape for me.  (The name of your blog, Linus’ Blanket rings a real note of truth!)  By writing, I was able to go beyond just reading and actually create the stories into which I wanted to escape.  By fifth grade, I wrote a 365 page novel.  It’s somewhere in my basement.  I’m afraid to look at it.  I majored in writing in college, and I received my MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

Since then, I’ve published many short stories and as I said, four novels.  All of them have a similar theme: women struggling between a sense of duty and the permission to seek one’s own joy.  I think it’s a universal issue for women in particular.

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

I write in the afternoons.  It’s the time I’m most creative.  I always have to walk my puppy, Violet Jane until she’s absolutely exhausted first so she lets me write for a few hours without needing anything.  I walk her about five miles a day.  I make a cup of tea – this is my very favorite indulgence.  I love Lady Grey by Twinings.  And I enjoy a piece of really good chocolate.  If you haven’t tried Lindt Sea Salt Dark Chocolate set aside time to swoon!  (When the sea salt crystals assert themselves over the bittersweet chocolate, you will be hooked.)  And then I read for a while.  The reason I read first is to put myself in the mindset of a reader, not an editor.  I’m less self-critical when I read first.  When I was writing about Edith, I always read a passage from one of her books.  I find her so insightful, endlessly inspiring.

My writing room was built as a sleeping porch off the back of our 1930’s stone bungalow in Nashville, Tennessee.  Imagine how hot it used to be in the South in summers before air conditioning!  To counteract Nashville’s prodigious heat, my writing room was built with windows on three sides –twelve windows and a glass door to a deck.  When someone opened every window on steamy nights back in the thirties and during World War II, this cross-draft set-up would have provided desperately needed relief to someone trying to sleep.   It’s a huge room.  You could have put a bed for every member of the family out there.  These days, the house is surrounded by big shade trees and a bamboo grove so it’s very green all around.  And God bless air conditioning!  I settle into my comfy chair, a MacBook Pro on my lap.  True to the spirit of my room, Violet sleeps at my feet on the ottoman.  Birds whistle in the branches.  In mid-summer, a red-orange trumpet vine blossoms on the deck and hummingbirds hover all around drinking the nectar.  It’s pretty heavenly.  I covered the only wall of the room that isn’t windows with bookcases and filled them with my favorite books.  I walk into my writing room, and I’m ready to write.

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Nine Rules to Break When Romancing A Rake by Sarah MacLean – Book Review

Nine Rules to Break While Romancing a RakeThe more the outrageous the title of a historical romance the more inclined I am to enjoy reading it. This one was no exception. Lady Calpurnia has spent ten years as a retiring wallflower, a little plumper than the average debutante; she spends each dance with the matrons though she really loves to dance. At twenty seven, she’s never been kissed though she has secretly harbored a crush on Gabriel, the Duke of Ralston, ever since he long ago said a few kind words for her at a dismal party.

The aforementioned Duke has a dilemma on his hands in the form of a long lost sister, who shows up on his doorstep after her father’s death, in need of chaperoning and entre into society. Their mother’s questionable behavior makes a successful debut far from certain, so Ralston needs to find a woman of impeccable manners and breeding to sponsor his sister. Meanwhile, Lady Calpurnia draws up a list of all the things she would like to do in order to feel as if she has lived a little.

Nine Rules to Break When Romancing A Rake, is a fun break from the strictures of reality. Of course these two strike a bargain of mutual satisfaction, and fall in love along the way and in spite of themselves. Calpurnia helps  Gabriel launch his sister and he helps her safely negotiate some of the more challenging items on her list – gambling, smoking cheroots, drinking scotch in public, and kissing passionately – to name just a few. Calpurnia and Gabriel are engaging characters who suffer a couple of bumps along the way to happily ever after, but I enjoyed their journey, and that of the charming supporting characters- Calpurnia’s sister and Gabriel’s brother and sister, to be specific.

MacLean is a talented writer and I loved the well rounded people and carefully considered story line. Plus, Calpurnia is a reader! So she talks about books. We like this, yes?  This is wonderful escapist fare that I devoured over the course of a day. Recommended.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Simon Vance (Narrator)  Audiobook Review

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Out of Twenty: Beth Hoffman, Author of Looking For Me, Answers Eight Questions

In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Beth Hoffman’s new novel, Looking for MeBeth Hoffman tells the story of a woman trying to find herself in the wake of a difficult childhood and the reappearance of  a brother long thought missing or dead. This is Beth’s second round of Out of Twenty (check out her first interview) Here is what she had to say about reading, writing, and being a nature girl.

Would you give us a bit of an introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?

In childhood I loved to create stories and draw. By the time I was a teenager I was selling paintings, which ultimately led me to study art and interior design. Eventually I became co-owner and president of an interior design studio, and though I loved my work, I always dreamed of writing. Then, when I nearly died from the same infection that took puppeteer Jim Henson’s life, my priorities began to shift and I wrestled with the big question: How do I want to spend the remainder of my life? Eventually I decided that worrying about fabric delays and broken lamps just wasn’t feeding my soul, so I sold my portion of the business and went after my dream of writing a novel. It was the gutsiest decision I’ve ever made.

As for the inspiration for my writing, that comes from my lifelong fascination with the lives of seemingly ordinary people who, upon closer inspection, have experienced extraordinary events.

I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?

Each morning, after loving up my kitties and giving them breakfast, I go outside to the back porch. While watching the birds come to the feeders and breathing in the fresh air, I sit on the steps and think about my place within this world and what I want to write about. I’m an introvert and need lots of quiet time. Starting my day surrounded by nature and animals helps me feel grounded. Before bed, I pop a CD into the player and listen to recordings of rainstorms while I read.

Write the question you would most like to answer in an interview, and then answer it.

That question would be: Tell us about the research for the farm and nature scenes.

Few people know that I spent my youth living on my grandparents’ farm. We didn’t have all that much in the material sense, but what we had reached far beyond anything money could buy. Besides a big old farmhouse where homemade bread was pulled from the oven each day and supper plates were filled with fresh produce from land that was lovingly tended, we had something that very few children experience. We had land populated by an amazing assortment of wildlife.

Looking For Me by Beth HoffmanThe crop fields backed up to hundreds of acres of dense woodlands that I explored with endless curiosity. Fox, white-tailed deer, raccoons, beavers, rabbits, woodchucks and countless birds (from raptors to tiny chickadees) were frequent visitors to our farm. Though my grandma tried her best to interest me with paper dolls, it was the animals and birds that held my fascination. Wildlife was (and always will be) a big part of my life so the scenes in my new novel were easy to create because, in one form or another, I lived them.

Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working on your own book(s)?

Yes, whether it’s for research or pure enjoyment, I always read when I’m working on my own project. I think it’s accurate to say that I’m addicted to novels. I also read quite a bit of poetry. Not only because I enjoy poems, but also because poets have so much to teach novel writers. While an ill-chosen word in a full-length novel can go unnoticed, in a poem it would be disastrous.

Do you ever look back at your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approach to writing has evolved since you first began?

Whenever I look back on my earlier works, I’m struck by how much my writing has evolved. While distinct characteristics are as permanent as my fingerprints, I can see that I have, albeit subconsciously, embraced the idea that less is more.

As a published author, what’s been the biggest surprise about life after the publication of your first book?

Several things have surprised me, and at the top of the list would be how grateful I feel. Though becoming a New York Times bestselling author was an achievement beyond my dreams, nothing can compare to the countless kindnesses I’ve received. From as close as across the street to as far away as Russia, book bloggers, librarians, booksellers, and readers have had a positive impact on my life. It’s sobering to know that my work is being read by people across the globe.

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The Widow Waltz by Sally Koslow – Book Review

The Widow Waltz by Sally KoslowGeorgia Silver-Waltz is a woman who still adores her husband, Ben Silver, after two children and many years of marriage. Georgia is thrown into a tailspin when Ben suffers a fatal heart attack while prepping for the New York City Marathon. A subsequent reading of Ben’s will leads to the grim discovery that he’s left Georgia and their daughters, Nicola and Luey,with little money and few prospects of supporting their lavish lifestyle – which includes a car and driver, a sumptuous apartment overlooking Central Park West, and a summer home on Long Island. More digging hints at secrets Georgia might not want to fully uncover, especially since she has all she can do to keep her family’s head above water.

The Widow Waltz employs clever word play its title as indeed Georgia is not only the Widow Waltz, but she is also left doing a precarious dance to balance her home life and sanity while adjusting to greatly reduced circumstances. Koslow’s novel is told not only from Georgia’s perspective but that of her timid though mercurial daughter Nicola, and her vivacious and prickly younger daughter, Luey. In addition to their father’s death both girls have some surprises of their own to add to the mix.

Koslow paints a vivid picture of a woman coming to grips with the life she is losing while challenging herself to explore a pared down but possibly more meaningful existence.  Georgia manages to keep a keen sense of humor as she sorts through her situation and colorful supporting characters, her brother Stephan and her sometimes coherent and crotchety mother, keeps the novel from veering too sharply into gloom. Though Georgia has to move on, finding out what happened to the family money is an ongoing process and whether and how that mystery is resolved is fodder for plenty of consideration and discussion. Recommended.

1DA652C2516038AE4D02F55645591F39 Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel, Simon Vance (Narrator)  Audiobook Review

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