Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home

Quick, Grab The Lipstick!

People always ask me about my book’s title, Lipstick on the Strawberry. I came across the idea while researching a caterer’s daily life. My heroine, Camilla, has a catering business. She hires a young woman who is training to be a food stylist. The girl grabs an unripe strawberry, swipes red lipstick across its green surface and snaps a photo. The picture shows a luscious, shiny fruit.

My story involves a family secret hidden under a gloss of respectability. How often does that happen in real life? Even in families with perfectly ordinary lives, there are often stories best left kept from the world.

Camilla is English. The story is set partly in Boston, where I lived for many years, and partly in Cambridge, England, where I’ve spent months at a time. I wanted to capture Camilla’s sense of “in between-ness” as she contemplates whether to stay in the U.S. where business opportunities are better, or to try to reconcile with her estranged family in England. Her romance complicates these decisions.

Cambridge, England, is to my mind one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is the home of one of the world’s oldest universities and of some of the world’s finest minds. So to an ordinary person like myself it can seem intimidating. Camilla feels shut out of this world because unlike her academic family, she struggled at school. All she wants to do is to cook.

I took the above photo of King’s College, Cambridge. I think it illustrates Camilla’s mindset – and as
the book progresses, she becomes more self-accepting.

The Secret Wife

By Gill Paul
Harper Collins Publishing UK 2016

One of the mantras of writing classes is that a story should have a singular topic. “What is this about?” some critique partners cry when faced with a manuscript that struggles to identify its theme.

So when I read on the cover of the Secret Wife that this novel was about the love affair of army captain Dmitri Malama and Grand Duchess Tatiana, a daughter of Nicholas II, last Tsar of Russia, and was also about Dmitri’s great-grand- daughter and a crisis in her marriage, I worried a

I needn’t have. British writer Gill Paul blends these threads together well. If the beginning of the book, an unexpected legacy bequeathed to a protagonist by an unknown great-grandfather, is somewhat clichéd, this story moves quickly to become quite original. A contemporary narrator, Kitty, furious by the discovery of her husband’s infidelity, flies to upstate New York to consider what to do next. She’s learned she’s the sole beneficiary of her great-grandfather’s estate and uncovers, literally, his cabin by a lake. Her ancestor was a Russian immigrant and also, she learns, a writer. The second thread of the book is narrated by Dmitri Malama, a Russian nobleman and army officer. Wounded in World War I, he is nursed by Tatiana, the Tsar’s daughter. By 1914, the chaos of war had led the sheltered royal princesses to help in the bloody field hospitals. Despite this, they were imprisoned in 1917 and murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. That’s not a spoiler, it is history. Gill Paul heard that Tatiana had fallen in love with one of her patients, Malama. Her book is a fictionalized version of their relationship.

By the end of the book this reader had deep sympathy for the Romanovs, blinded by their own belief in the divine right of kings to the dire situation of their subjects, and a more nuanced understanding of the book’s contemporary narrator, Kitty. Human frailty, the impossibility for people always to do the right thing or to foresee consequences, and the possibility of enduring love are the underlying themes of both parts of this book. I found it a page-turner. Paul’s descriptions of the royal family’s captivity, the horrors of war, and more benignly, the pleasures of restoring an old cabin by the lake are very well done.

The book makes a timely appearance since next year marks one hundred years since the
Romanovs’ were killed and the Soviet era began.

Beneath the Apple Leaves

By Harmony Verna
Kensington, 2017

As in her previous historical novel, Daughter of Australia, the landscape becomes a character in Harmony Verna’s Beneath the Apple Leaves.

This time the landscape is as it was in the early twentieth century in the Eastern United States, and in most of the novel, in farmland around Pittsburgh.

Harmony Verna’s book tells a story of Andrew Houghton, a coal-miner’s son, who believed he was destined to be a veterinarian until his father died, his mother left the country, and he was badly injured in an accident. Andrew goes to live with his young aunt Eveline and her husband, Willhelm Kiser. Misfortune follows the family as anti-German sentiment intensifies when America enters World War I.

The author displays compassion for her characters, giving them all too-human faults and complicated emotions. One of her skills is to convey her characters’ negative traits and behaviors while showing us how these coexist with the good, keeping us invested in their fates.

As Harmony Verna tells it, life was hard for simple people in the early years of last century. Her research must have been prodigious as she tells a story of physical discomfort, cold, hard labor, dreadful medical practices, domestic abuse. Yet her descriptions of the landscape are lyrical. Her characters draw strength from it, trying to make things better. Her empathy for the people who lived before us is remarkable.

For warmth of characterization, some truly gorgeous prose and hard-to- put-down action, Harmony Verna’s writing excels. A lovely book.

Now For The Thank Yous

As I go into launch week for my debut novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, I want to thank everyone who helped it happen.

First, (and they all know this) my wonderful, wonderful writer’s group, led by the generous and insightful Marylee MacDonald. I’ve been in writers’ groups before, but this group is by far the most productive and supportive. We’ve produced several books between us in the past few years and more are in the pipeline.

Secondly, The Wild Rose Press. This amazing small publisher has a devoted stable of authors. Why devoted? Because TWRP creates a community amongst its writers with weekly online chats, a very active marketing director who answers questions promptly and kindly even though she must be asked the same question a thousand times over, and a fabulous editorial team, including my own editor Sherri Good. And Debbie Taylor, the cover artist, created a cover which exactly captures the essence of the book.

Thirdly, the talented Kristen Burkhart Ferhati, who designed my website and helps this technologically challenged writer put up the blog.

Finally, my friends and family, particularly my dearest John, my husband, for their interest, support, and patience as I birthed this fourth baby of mine (The others are human. I could have told you that characters in books don’t answer you back, but that is actually not true. Those pesky characters often surprise the author and do exactly what they want – just like human offspring!)

I’ve also been honored to be a guest on several author blogs. So if you would like to pop over to the delightful Peggy Jaeger’s site, Writing Is My Oxygen, please do. She’s featuring an interview with me on Wednesday, 6th July.
Also check out Bonnie McCune’s blog, Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives. My piece, Jury Duty, appeared on Bonnie’s site in February.

August 15, I’ll be engaging with fellow women’s fiction writers at the WFWA’s Launch Party and also appearing on the writer and photographer Clancy Tucker’s charming blog.
July 4 falls on a Tuesday this year and many people are taking an extra-long weekend. Enjoy, and eat an extra serving of ice-cream. Strawberry of course. 🍓