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Margaret Ann Spence > Articles by: Margaret

First Anniversary Sale!

Ever since I was a kid who wrote a “novel” in a blue exercise book, complete with hand-done drawings, I wanted to see a book of mine in actual print.

Last summer, that happened.

It was an amazing feeling to see Lipstick on the Strawberry in print, with its gorgeous cover, designed by Debbie Taylor of The Wild Rose Press. Thanks to everyone who has been so supportive, have written reviews (so important to authors) or have written me a personal note.

I’m especially tickled by the fact that though I consider women to be the book’s target readers, a number of men have commented on how they enjoyed it. They even liked the recipes!

To celebrate the anniversary, the e-book is on sale from August 17-31!
ONLY 99 CENTS!


The Wild Rose Press

Amazon

Barnes and Noble

iBooks (Apple)

The Ones We Choose


By Julie Clark

Simon & Schuster, 2018

The urge to procreate is profound. It’s driven by the genes of every living thing. In the past few years our knowledge of the human genome has revolutionized science, and reproductive technology also advances relentlessly. In this fascinating debut novel, Julie Clark combines both themes. When a geneticist has a baby by an unknown father, can she ever feel secure?

Surrogacy, egg donation, and IVF have all brought the joy of parenthood to countless people who thought they could never have a baby. There is one technology that it old hat by comparison – sperm donation. There are men who donate semen for money or for altruistic reasons. Women who do not have a partner or whose partner is infertile can select donor semen and become pregnant. If they use a sperm bank they never know who sired the child.

This is the story of Paige Robson and her charming, funny, clever eight-year-old, Miles. Paige almost left the baby boat behind because she’s been so damaged by her own childhood that she’s built a wall up around herself. That’s immediately apparent in the opening pages of this book, but Julie Clark’s characterization is so deft that this reader liked Paige immensely, and adored her son. Clark is an elementary school teacher by profession and her descriptions of PTA meetings, a “drill sergeant” third grade teacher, and playground bullies are often hilarious. Her rendering of Miles and his heartbreaking wish to know who his father is centers the novel.

There are so many layers to this book beyond the paradox that Clark poses at the beginning. Paige’s own Dad has been largely absent from her childhood, and this fuels her anger. But she then chooses to create a child who will never know his father. In Clark’s writerly hands, this
makes sense. As the novel progresses, a tragedy happens, and another question occurs to the reader. To what extent is our foreknowledge of a future genetic possibility useful, given that life is so unpredictable? Is the passion for control more important than being vulnerable to pain? And should love for a child trump all other relationships?

Julie Clark signals all these questions in her title. The word “Choose” implies control. But how much control do we have over other people and over ourselves?

A most thought-provoking book.

The Salt House

By Lisa Duffy
Simon & Schuster, 2017

This book grabbed me from the first page. The story of a family unhinged by grief over the death of their toddler, it is told from the points of view of each of the four surviving family members. The author does a remarkable job of getting inside the head of each of the parents, Jack and Hope Kelly, and of their daughters, sixteen-year-old Jess and eight-year-old Kat.

As a writer, I am in awe of Lisa Duffy’s daring to do this in her debut novel. It is hard to create mannerisms and dialogue that reflect each viewpoint character’s personality. There are a number of books that alternate the voices of husband and wife – Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and The Silent Wife, by A.S.A Harrison, come to mind. Each of those stories features childless couples and involve murder. Duffy’s genre is women’s fiction, a supposedly gentler medium. But the plot builds suspense in The Salt House as Duffy writes each member of the family’s reaction to the death of baby Maddie. A sub-plot holds the story together, fueled by the behavior of the taciturn lobsterman Jack Kelly when an old antagonist reappears in town.

With four viewpoint characters, who is the protagonist here? Duffy’s point seems to be that in a house of grief, all the residents are entitled to their own struggle. By writing them all in the first person she enhances our ability to empathize with them. She does an excellent job in her portrait of the two partners in a marriage. She’s able to write the voice of a teenager so the reader feels again the wash of emotion of first love, and then takes us into the language and understanding of an elementary school child. Kat’s misunderstandings and malapropisms provide light relief from what could be an overwhelmingly sad story. It’s fitting that her action provides a turning point in the family’s move from despair to healing.

Lisa Duffy’s ear for dialogue is spot on. Her settings, too, ring true. Having spent some delightful vacations in coastal Maine, I recognized her descriptions of lobster boats and the territorial fishing culture, the hard, sometimes dangerous work of fishermen mitigated by the gorgeous natural beauty of the sea and shore. It’s summer-time Atlantic coast setting make this a great book for late summer reading. Recommended.

Circe

By Madeline Miller
Bloomsbury Publishing, U.K. 2018

The enchantress Circe, who lived alone on a magic island, lured Odysseus, on the last stretch of his long journey from the battle at Troy to his home in Ithaca, to her bed. His men, she turned to pigs.

In this gorgeous imagining of Homer’s story, the classicist Madeline Miller makes Circe intelligent and independent, more mortal than goddess, a woman reacting to men’s betrayal, a young girl considered ugly and stupid by her mother and siblings, an outcast, a single mother, and a woman who escaped danger over and over again by her own ingenuity.

That made the male species wild. In Miller’s telling, Circe’s father Helios exiles her because she used her magic powers to turn a romantic rival, Scylla, into the six-headed monster who haunted the Strait of Messina. The strait was narrow, and ships were forced between two terrors, the monster and the whirlpool known as Charybdis. Miller’s Scylla is the undercurrent of the novel. Perhaps a projection of the evil that jealousy causes, she’s Circe’s nemesis. But then, so are most of the other characters who populate the story, from her hateful siblings to the gentle Penelope, Odysseus’s faithful wife. Circe, Miller seems to say, will always be alone, because she acts with an agency denied to females in the ancient world.

Circe works hard at her profession. After the first night in exile, she wakes and goes into the forest surrounding her house. “I stepped into those woods and my life began.” Circe tells us that witchcraft is like any other trade. It must be learned and practiced. ”Sorcery…must be made and worked, planned and searched out, dug up, dried, chopped and ground, cooked, spoken over and sung. Even after all that, it can fail, as gods cannot…Day after patient day, you must throw out your errors and begin again.”

Fortunately for Circe, she has years, centuries even, to perfect her craft, undistracted by domestic chores. I loved this passage about her island home: “Though the rooms were deserted, there was no speck of dust, and I would learn that none would cross the marble threshold. However I tracked upon it, the floor was always clean, the tables gleaming. The ashes vanished from the fireplace, the dishes washed themselves, and the firewood regrew overnight. In the pantry there were jars of oil and wine, of cheese and barley-grain, always fresh and full.”

And so she gets on with it. Miller brings many other Greek myths into her episodic story, and Odysseus only appears in the latter third of the book. In the meantime, Circe has learned not to trust sailors who happen upon the island and discover that she lives there alone. Miller’s voice is strong and powerful when she describes Circe’s reaction to rape, and later, her wary reaction to Odysseus, who charms her by his diffidence and friendship. It is not a spoiler to tell of Circe’s pregnancy by Odysseus, who sails off unknowing. Here Miller shows us, movingly, Circe’s struggles to bring up a baby alone, while trying to work. What mother cannot sympathize when Circe describes her desperate attempts to get her infant to sleep? “However I wrapped him, however I rocked and sang, he screamed…. The only thing that helped was if I walked – walked the halls, walked the hills, walked the shore.”

The last part of the book is a delight. In a twist on how Homer must surely have imagined Telemachus, Odysseus’s son by Penelope, Miller portrays him with the soul of an accountant. He is no warrior.

Quite simply, I loved this book. Read it.

The Tuscan Child

By Rhys Bowen
Lake Union Publishing, 2018

A young English woman at a crossroads in her life goes searching for “the beautiful boy” her late father had written about in a letter to a mysterious Italian woman years before.

Alternating in time between the nineteen forties and the nineteen seventies, between the point of view of Hugo and his daughter Joanna, we learn about an Italian hillside village in the waning, dangerous months before the end of the Second World War, and about how that village kept its dark secrets a generation later, when Joanna goes looking for them.

With its themes of Europe in World War II and English aristocrats struggling to cope with the loss of their prestige and their homes in the bloodless social revolution that occurred in Britain post-war, this novel combines history with a mystery.

The book, delightfully, is also about food. Living with Paola, a widow who rents out rooms to tourists, Joanna savors specialties like eggplant parmesan, bruschetta, risotto, and other Italian favorites familiar to us today, but strange and wonderful to the English visitor forty years ago.

As to the “beautiful boy”, that is for you to discover as you read this page-turning novel.

Books About Mothers

This Mother’s Day, I mused about how many books focus on mothers and their relationships with their children. Here are ten books about mothers. Some have been reviewed in my blog over the past few years. They range from memoir, romance, and women’s fiction to literary fiction. All are worth reading. Mentioned (almost) alphabetically by author.

Glitter & Glue by Kelly Corrigan
A young American in search of adventure becomes a nanny in Sydney, Australia. The children she cares for have lost their mother to cancer. Poignant, humorous and very well written. Reviewed May 2015.

The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande
A mother leaves her children in Mexico to go to the USA for a better life. The children run away from their grandmother’s house to follow her. A harrowing memoir, more topical today than ever. Reviewed October 2014

The House By The River by Lena Manta
The five daughters of Greek village widow Theodora grow up and move far away. Manta explores the adult lives of all five daughters and their own relationships with their children. One theme running through all the stories is male dominance, and how women in this traditional culture were expected simply to stay home and to find total fulfillment in that role. Translated from the Greek, told from multiple points of view in the manner of a fairy tale.

The Good Mother by Sue Miller
Like the late Anita Shreve, Sue Miller was a best-selling author in the nineteen eighties and nineties. Both wrote what I would call classic women’s fiction, though possibly they didn’t like that label. In The Good Mother, Miller’s debut novel, a woman’s sexuality conflicts with her role as mother. The ironic title refers to how Anna, the protagonist, feels about herself. Yet she is in a custody battle for her daughter, Molly.

Family Pictures, by Sue Miller
Family Pictures tells the story of the Lainey and David Eberhardt, whose third child is autistic. The book is set in the nineteen fifties when birth control was not as reliable as it is today and when mothers were blamed for autism. This confluence off actors leads Lainey to give birth to three more children and to the marriage’s eventual break-down. This is a riveting and convincing story of a family struggling to raise a disabled child among siblings who also need attention.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
In this novel the exceptionally talented Moriarty takes on the subject of kindergarten. Bullying
by both children and adults associated with this innocuous school in its beautiful Sydney
beachside setting shows the nastiness that can lie beneath middle-class lives. Reviewed March 2015.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
This is a story of how it is to grow up without a mother. Sisters Ruth and Lucille, whose mother
died in a car accident, are brought up in a bizarre way. I found this a horrifying story, completely absorbing and brilliantly written.

Nora Webster by Colm Torbin
An Irish widow struggles to bring up her four children after their father’s untimely death. In the hands of this extraordinary writer, the everyday becomes illuminated, the preciousness and intimate richness of every single life, no matter how withdrawn and circumscribed it may seem, is made clear. Reviewed August 2015.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Lucy Barton looks back to a time she was hospitalized and over the course of five days had a conversation with her emotionally distant mother. Lucy tries to get her mother to reveal more of herself, to respect her daughter and her drive to be a writer. Lucy’s lack of self-worth comes from receiving too little love and is associated with physical poverty. The novel reveals itself in a series of flashbacks and as it proceeds we ache for Lucy’s need for acceptance from her mother. Reviewed February 2016.

Searching for Mercy Street by Linda Gray Sexton
In contrast to Strout’s thesis, Linda Gray Sexton shows that poverty is not necessarily a pre-condition for difficulties between mother and daughter. This is evident in this memoir by the Harvard-educated daughter of the famed poet Anne Sexton. Anne Sexton, as beautiful as she was brilliant, had a difficult relationship with her own parents. After suffering post-partum depression, she spent much time in psychiatric hospitals before committing suicide at the age of forty-five, leaving a complicated emotional legacy for her two daughters.

Tides of the Heart

By Jean Stone
Random House, 2011

I couldn’t resist a story set partly in Martha’s Vineyard. That beautiful Island off the coast of Massachusetts has a special lure.

This novel is about Jess Randall’s search for the daughter she was forced to give up when she gave birth at fifteen, in 1968. The story is set thirty years later. The book was first published in 1998, and the 2011 edition demonstrates the book’s timeless theme. While there are many book sabout the children taken from their mothers in the time before legalized abortion and before unwed motherhood became more socially acceptable, this book is different. It involves three children born at the same time to young women who were sent to wait out their pregnancies under the care of an apparently kind woman named Miss Taylor.

Miss Taylor, however, was not as well-intentioned as she seemed. Nevertheless, she is an
intriguing character because she offered a safe, non-judgmental shelter for the girls, and the
portrayal of the unwed mothers’ home is gentle and convincing.

Jean Stone, a prolific romance writer, writes a densely plotted story with great characterization. The now grown-up adopted babies have turned out well. Yet their mothers’ stories are full of heart-ache because they never forgot their first children, never stopped wondering what happened to them.

The life stories of the two main protagonists, Jess and Ginny, who became friends as pregnant
teenagers, are very different from one another. Ms. Stone does a great job of creating larger than life characters, especially Ginny. She also weaves in believable and interesting relationships between parents and grown children, showing in the adoptive children a tremendous desire to please their parents. In contrast, a young adult who is secure in the knowledge of her genealogy because her parents were married, even if now divorced, is shown to openly express her occasionally petulant anger.

In the sometimes contested ground between romance and women’s fiction, I am not quite sure where this falls. I think I’m going to call it a belated coming-of- age story. Jess, the lead character, had her childhood torn from her when she became a mother at fifteen, only to suffer the traumatic loss of the baby. She suffered for the next thirty years in a state of limbo. Perhaps predictably, her marriage was unhappy. The story of her journey to find her first daughter and to accept what happened heals her, and will enable her, the reader feels, to launch the second half of her life with vigor and happiness.

If the plot of the book is intricate and at times far-fetched, Jess and Ginny’s story is a very common one for women in my age group. Maintaining an unwanted pregnancy and letting the resulting child achieve a happy life through adoption into a stable home is clearly the preferred option for this author. Yet this story unflinchingly shows the emotional damage done to the birth mother.

Another Ocean to Cross

By Ann Griffin
Georgic Publishing, 2018

Only occasionally do I find a book that keeps me reading till all hours, taunts me during the daytime with chapters yet to be read.

Such a book is Another Ocean to Cross. This debut novel is a riveting story of World War II. At first a story of escape from the impending Holocaust, the story moves outside Europe to show the war’s global reach. The illusion of safety crumbles, and the book’s main character is confronted with moral choices that take the story beyond the parameters of most historical fiction.

Renata Lowenthal, 18 years old, a promising artist, is flogged by a Nazi officer in front of her family for painting “degenerate art.” It’s the precipitating event that persuades her Jewish family to flee Germany in 1938. A harrowing journey takes Renata and her parents to Alexandria, Egypt, where for the moment, they find safety under British protection and Renata supports the family through her art sales. When the bombing starts, this income dwindles, and Renata’s mother urges her to find a husband among the Allied troops, someone whose passport will protect them all.

There are many books on the Holocaust, yet this book is different. Its focus on the experience of being a refugee, making a dangerous sea crossing to temporary shelter, is brilliantly brought to life by Griffin, and makes the story timely today. Another contemporary echo of problems faced by returning soldiers is PTSD and opioid addiction to wipe out the pain.

Griffin’s research must have been prodigious. Her writing is evocative and her characters spring from the page, their responses completely believable in their desperate situations. I look forwardto reading more work by this promising author.

Take the Long Way Home in Popular Fiction

BONNIE McCUNE’S TAKE ON COMING HOME

I had the pleasure of meeting Bonnie McCune at the Author U Conference in 2016, where my novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, then yet to be published, was a finalist in the “Draft to Dream” competition. Bonnie and I share a background in freelance journalism, and like me, she has won awards for her writing. Her third novel, Never Retreat, was published this week by Imajin Books, and I asked her if she’d be a guest blogger on my website. I’m committed to promoting the work of other women writers, so I’m pleased to offer Bonnie’s essay on women’s fiction in our very complicated world.

TAKE THE LONG WAY HOME IN POPULAR FICTION
By Bonnie McCune

Seems like life gets more complicated as the years pass. What toothpaste do I choose in the
supermarket out of the dozens of brands demanding my attention? How do I choose screen – time programs with thousands of stations, streaming videos, and DVDs at my fingertips? When election time rolls around, which candidates and political parties are worthy of support?

Just as convoluted are our concepts about traditions. Terms as basic as “home” and “family” aren’t simple. Nowadays, a family may have one parent, same-sex parents, one or more children with no genetic ties to the adults, assorted friends and hangers-on who give and receive emotional stability from one another, and an assortment of different ages. Ditto “home.” It might be an apartment, a separate house, a tent, a motel, even a box under a bridge.

Fortunately, we’re more flexible these days. We don’t need to be limited by words when we think about ‘family’ and ‘home.’ These terms are more easily defined by emotions than phrases, and I’m fascinated by the changes reflected in popular fiction. Whereas in romances, the happy ending used to always mean the hero and heroine got married, this is not as true today. The romance field has a term “happy for now” (HFN), meaning the reader can’t predict with  certainty that the main couple will wind up together. Probably they will, but maybe not.

Those of us living in the real world know every life has its share of knocks. Fiction, particularly the type described as “women’s fiction” now incorporates reality. In my new novel, Never Retreat, I wanted all my characters to have feet of clay. L believe there’s room in fiction to include writing unafraid to debate contemporary concerns. Heroine Raye, in addition to being half Latina and facing some kneejerk racism, is a single mom. Hero Des is an ex-military man who doesn’t necessarily agree with all the decisions leaders make. This type of fiction pulls no punches, while providing a fresh look at age-old issues.

The homecomings they experience range from survival in the wilderness to learning how to open up and depend upon each other. When we read fiction, we’re able to encounter many types of people and a multitude of homecomings. The plots of women’s fiction often take the long way home. They wind, tantalize, puzzle, enchant. But one thing they have in common, a truth we’ve long known, as always, home is where the heart is.

NEVER RETREAT – FACT SHEET
A feisty single mom clashes with an ex-military, macho corporate star at a business retreat in the wild Colorado mountains, where only one can win a huge prize. But when a massive flood imperils their love and survival, they learn the meaning of true partnership.

PUBLICATION INFO: PUBLISHING MARCH 15, 2018, 978-1- 77223-350- 6 Kindle ebook, 978-1- 77223-351- 3 Trade paperback, 240 pages. Amazon or Imajin Books. Ebook and paperback.

CONTACT: Bonnie’s writing has won several awards. Visit her at www.BonnieMcCune.com, Email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn.

This Life Is In Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, And A Family Undone – A Memoir

By Melissa Coleman
Harper Collins Publishers 2011

Eliot Coleman is a now famous organic gardener, one of the leading experts in his field, considered a father of the organic food movement. When he was twenty-six years old he and his wife Sue took up land in northern Maine. This memoir by their daughter Melissa tells of the ideals and broken dreams that awaited Eliot and Sue in their quest for utopia.

Though sometimes called hippies, Eliot and Sue were not drop-outs. They were extremely hardworking, dedicated to a goal of total vegetarian self-sufficiency. They moved next door to the legendary back-to- the-land advocates Scott and Helen Nearing. Tellingly, the Nearings chose not to have children and saw them as a distraction.

Living in cabins and a house they built themselves, the Colemans survived without running water, indoor toilets, electricity or telephone. They cooked and warmed themselves on an old
cast iron stove. They took on no debt. Working sixteen hours a day, Eliot Coleman was able to turn the acidic soil of Cape Rosier into productive farmland. He did it by rediscovering natural methods of unlocking the nitrogen stored in the forest floor. He used horse manure and compost instead of chemical fertilizer. He plowed and weeded and hoed until the family was able to produce vegetables they then sold at a roadside stand. They survived on less than $2,000 a year.

And in the meantime, Sue gave birth to three daughters.

Today, when cell phones and the internet keep us in constant touch with the outside world, it is hard to believe that in the nineteen seventies Sue Coleman, pregnant or not, would rise before dawn to carry heavy buckets of water from the well, balancing them from a rod on her shoulders. She milked goats, fed the hens and collected eggs and sewed and mended clothes. Before she could bake the daily bread she had to grind the grains by hand. She cooked three meals a day, first for the family, later for all the workers, and she did it without electricity. She had to care for three children on her own because the others were all in the fields. She endured the sight of nubile, athletic young women striding naked through the farm while she felt cast aside, housebound, unable even to smooth her chapped lips with face-cream. In the midst of her sense of unraveling and chaos, a true family tragedy occurred. The fall-out from this loss flows organically, to overuse that word. No other outcome was possible, in Melissa Coleman’s telling.

Melissa Coleman skillfully blends her present self, her adult knowledge, with her childhood memories. Now that she understands the stresses on the family’s life she is unsparing in the honesty with which she chronicles the breakdown of her parents’ marriage and the farm. Yet she does not judge them. Her father’s urge to succeed was unmatched and one imagines that whatever profession he chose, charismatic, driven Eliot Coleman would leave others far behind. Still, the fact remains that his first wife was his true partner in his first and most difficult endeavor to live self-sustainably. As is true for so many women, her contribution and the toll it took is not recognized in the world.

This book is full of wonderful prose pictures, the soft light of summer, fireflies, snow on the fields, the milking of the goats. The world of farming as it used to be several generations back is presented without sugar-coating. It’s a world that another generation of young people is trying to claw back in a valiant attempt to undo climate change and the ravages of industrialization.

It’s no accident that many visionaries follow their dreams single-mindedly, without the distraction of family. Coleman shows us how sticking to the dream without compromise can destroy the hopes of those closest to the dreamer. The title of this book has a triple meaning and is so very apt. It tells us that we, too, can choose to live an intentional life. It refers to the line in the palm of the hand that presumably augers a person’s years of life. And it also alludes to what we must do for the fragile children we bring into the world, that awesome responsibility. One of the unspoken truths in this book is that the modern world, for all its faults, allows children to grow to adulthood because their mothers have time to care for them, freed from unremitting, backbreaking labor.