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Meet Me At The Museum

By Anne Youngson

Flatiron Books, Kindle Edition, 2018

I read about this book in an English newspaper. The journalist noted with surprise that this finalist in the 2018 Costa Book Awards was the debut novel of a 71-year-old grandmother. The story, the article said, was about two older people who find love through correspondence. True. But the book is so much more than that. Rarely have I savored reading a book as I did this one.

It starts with a note by sixty-something Tina Hopgood, whose best friend, Bella has just died. Bella and she were schoolgirls when they learned about the discovery of the Tollund Man in Denmark. This individual, two thousand years and more ago, had been ritually killed for reasons unknown and interred in a peat bog which preserved the body so perfectly it is as if one is looking at a living person, asleep. Tina writes to the professor who conducted the research on Tollund Man, saying that she and Bella had always wanted to come and see the mummy where he lies at a museum in Denmark. They had never found the time to do so. She writes, with candor and sadness, at this lost opportunity, and her letter is answered by the museum’s curator, Anders Larsen. Professor Glob has died, the curator says, but goes on to discuss what he knows of Tollund Man. So begins an extraordinary conversation conducted by letter and email.

The hook, The Tollund Man, tells us this is no ordinary epistolary love story. Weaving in and out of the story, this person who once lived so long ago reminds Tina and Anders that while humans have a short life span, the very fact of their existence gives meaning to those who come later. We are all part of a great stream of humanity, with hopes and dreams unfulfilled, with anxieties, fears, loves and complicated relationships with our families. What we leave behind matters deeply. As a curator of ancient objects, Anders feels that “the preservation of an object of beauty carries meaning…beyond the physical appearance, to those who look at it and handle it after those who first made it are gone.”

Tina, on the other hand, relates to Tollund Man’s sacrificial death. She feels she’s sacrificed her self to social convention. Yet, despite her despair, as the letters go on the reader sees her life as full of relationships and importance. As a farmer, her work provides food, essential for survival.

Ambivalence about accidental pregnancy is one theme that recurs throughout the book. What might have been is the corollary idea. The whole humbling notion that every human being is in fact a result of accident is something that older people find easier to grasp. We’ve already lost control of events, and the ego becomes less important. Simultaneously though, the miracle of life becomes more obvious. I found my mind spinning to ever larger thoughts as I read this book, such as the notion that life on earth is so precious, however it happened.

Through the letters, we see the day to day lives of both letter-writers, and Youngson does a masterful job of conjuring up places, especially small places like rooms, in her prose. The quality of the writing is extraordinary. And finally, the question of whether an emotional attachment between two people who have never met is actually an affair is left for the reader to ponder. Unlike the illiterate Tollund Man, people today have relationships across time and space unthinkable before the age of electronic communication. Are they any less real? Or does the ease of immediate communication inspire the transmission of untamed thoughts that perhaps should be, to use a word at the heart of the book, curated?

This book is an absolute gift. I just loved it.

Snow Days

Winter has much of the nation still in its grip. My many years in Boston, where snow and ice slushed and slicked the city till well into March, inspired the snow scene in Lipstick on the Strawberry. In this excerpt, my protagonist, Camilla, has just had a disastrous date.

I took the train to my stop and scurried down the two blocks to my apartment building. Dirty mounds of ice lined the street, partially obscuring the fire hydrants, so I panicked for a second about the possibility of fire in my neighborhood and wondered how quickly firefighters could knock off the ice to open the flow of water. I stumbled and nearly fell as a rocky mound impeded my way, ruining my dress shoes as I clambered over it. Trembling as I fitted the key in the lock, I slammed the door behind me and leaned against it, breathing heavily. In a few seconds, my hands and feet began to sting as the blood vessels expanded in the warmth of the foyer. Pain needled my extremities, then seemed to extend into my brain. Tears sprung into my eyes, and I knew I would just have to endure the agony until it passed.

Those needles in the fingers and toes I remember so well. While the snow scene might represent Camilla’s mood at the time – alone, frozen, frightened, – a month or so later she’s in a garden.

A gentle breeze carried the sweet scent of grass as the air warmed around us. Across the green lawn, a cherry tree spread its arms wide, clothed in a crinoline of the palest pink blossoms. Renewal. It could happen. Did.

Redemption. Another chance. All along, under the frozen earth, the ground is being prepared for warmer days, better times. Blossom will hang from the trees like confetti. It will happen.

February holds the promise of spring. Savor the cusp of the season with a book. Lipstick on the Strawberry is on sale for 99¢ through March 1.

Lipstick on the Strawberry-

Kindle Edition
iBooks Edition
NOOK Edition

Welcome Katie O’Rourke

Today it is my pleasure to introduce to you Katie O’Rourke, author of Blood & Water. It’s on sale this week for 99¢. I just downloaded my copy and hope you will, too.

Thanks Katie, for telling us about your writing practice:

1. Tell me about yourself. When did you start writing & how to you get your ideas:

I’m a hybrid author. My debut novel was traditionally published by LittleBrown in 2012. My third novel was chosen for publication by KindleScout in 2015. I’ve self-pubbed a few books in between. It was during my last semester of college that I was introduced to “creative nonfiction” and that was the bridge that led me to write fiction (after years of writing angsty, introspective poetry). People who know me well can find the sections in my novels that have been “stolen” from real life. All of my characters are created from fragments of actual people, but none of my characters are based on a single person.

2. Are you writing a series?

I write family sagas with overlapping characters, so they’re all connected. My current work in progress is my first actual sequel.

3. Do you have a writing routine?

I like to write while listening to music. I don’t focus as well in silence. I’ve never been the kind of writer to force daily outputs, but I participate in Nanowrimo most years to kickstart a project and help me get organized. I’m otherwise pretty distractable!

4. Advice for aspiring writers:

Here’s the thing: writing advice is so valuable. I love to listen to different writers share their different approaches for what works for them. It’s inspiring and it always reminds me how many different paths there are to a similar goal. The problem with writing advice is that often it’s delivered as if it’s coming from an expert who is letting you in on an absolute secret about the definitive correct way to do it.

My advice is that before you take advice (even mine), do two things: 1. consider the source and 2. decide if the advice rings true for you.

If you’re a big fan of Stephen King and you’re interested in learning how to write the kind of books he writes in the way he writes them, you might want to read On Writing. There are other helpful manuals written by other kinds of writers. Find one that’s right for you. Not everyone writes like Stephen King or Charles Bukowski or Earnest Hemingway or Anne Lamott or Ray Bradbury or Sol Stein. Not everyone wants to. I’m sure each one of those authors has helpful nuggets of wisdom to share and I think new writers should be open to all of it, but skeptical when it doesn’t resonate.

The one-size-fits-all advice is something I see more and more as writers are pressured to create content for blogs that will strengthen their “platform”. I don’t think it’s helpful and I’m especially dismayed by how-to book writers claiming to be experts so they can make money off newbie writers. I think it’s exploitative.

Writers who make it through the gauntlet to publishing should absolutely share what worked for them with writers coming up after them. The stories are as fascinating as they are diverse. Some writers get an MFA while others are self-taught. Some writers plot everything out on color-coded note cards while others begin writing without any idea where their characters will take them. Some writers work in seclusion while others rely on supportive writers groups. Some edit only when their first draft is complete while others edit as they’re writing.

The more of these stories you hear, the clearer it becomes that there are many different ways to do it. I think, especially for new writers, the biggest lesson to learn is which advice to take and which advice to ignore.

About Blood & Water

Tucson, Arizona is a place for runaways. Everyone came from somewhere else and has a story about what they left behind.

Delilah arrives on her brother’s doorstep with a secret. She hasn’t seen him in five years. He ran away from their family long ago for reasons no one talks about and she still doesn’t understand. The stress of raising his teenage daughter alone sometimes makes David envious of his deliberately childless friends, Tim and Sara, but they’re runaways too, harboring secrets of their own. Blood & Water tells their stories and traces the deep connections between this unlikely group of friends.

This novel is about family, in its various manifestations: the one you’re born into, the one you choose and the one you create.

BUY THE BOOK

Katie can be contacted on Facebook and Twitter.

Meet Susan Haught

This week I’m teaming up with some Arizona-based fellow writers. We’re all running 99¢ sales on our books. It’s my pleasure to introduce to you Susan Haught. I love that her husband built her a “she-shed” so she can write in peace!

1. Tell me about yourself. When did you start writing & how to you get your ideas?

Good morning! I’m honored to be Margaret’s guest today, so before your coffee gets cold, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Susan Haught and I’m a black liquorice connoisseur (Australian and Finnish are to die for), coffee addict, wine sipper, and brown-thumb gardener who spends a good deal of time murdering the plants unfortunate enough to come home with me. It’s not pretty. I’m also an award-winning author who writes deeply emotional stories of family, friendship, and the healing power of love. I think I’m a little handier at stories than I am with gardens. I call the central mountains of Arizona home, and spend my days training my husband of 45 years, catering to our extremely precious Shih-Tzu, Sadie, visiting our son, and spoiling his Yorkie, Ryleigh—yes, he named her after the main character in A Promise of Fireflies—how cool is that?

My interest in writing started in 3rd grade when my teacher read my summer vacation story out loud to the class. I was mortified! You see, our family rarely took summer vacations and I’d made the whole thing up, so I got away with my first attempt at telling lies for fun at the ripe old age of eight. A major children’s magazine published a short story of mine when I was in my twenties, but I didn’t start writing novels until our son was grown and gone. A small publisher picked up my first three novellas, but I chose to go a different route and self-publish my first full-length novel, A Promise of Fireflies. I’m older than dirt, so time was a major issue in the decision.

My ideas come from everywhere…small tidbits of conversation. An article. A TV show. Ads. A walk around the block, or an interesting character I come across. Something will trigger an idea in my mind and I think, “What would happen if…” The possibilities are endless. The world around me is a gold mine of ideas, little sparks that sometimes fan the flames of a story idea. Other times, it’s sitting quietly or fast asleep when the ghost of an idea will pop into my head. I keep notebooks everywhere so I never miss an opportunity to jot down an idea. My stash increased this Christmas when Santa put a waterproof note pad in my stocking. Does he know me, or what?

2. Are you writing a series?

Yes, my series is titled Whisper of the Pines. There are four books and I’ve just come up with an idea to bring back the couple in A Promise of Fireflies for a Christmas adventure. I’ve missed Logan and Ryleigh and I’m excited to live among old friends again. Whisper of the Pines is a fictional resort along Fall River near Estes Park, Colorado, an area of the Rocky Mountains that takes my breath away. Although the books don’t all take place at the resort, it does play a role in each book. I plan two more books in the series and then I’ll be ready to begin something new and different.

3. Do you have a writing routine?

My writing routine varies. I need absolute quiet when I write and when my husband retired I thought I was going to go nuts, bury his body under the house, or stop writing altogether. He wouldn’t go back to work (not very nice of him, was it?) so he built me a She-Shed. It’s complete with A/C, heat, a coffee and wine bar, and decorated with a beach theme. I named it No Boyz Allowed, and he knows he’d better be bleeding from a main artery or tell me the house is on fire if he chooses to disturb me. So far, so good. It works out nicely, and it was cheaper than a divorce! I write from 4-8 hours a day in my cozy little She-Shed, but that doesn’t always happen. Life, you know?

4. Advice for aspiring writers?

I think the main suggestion I have for aspiring writers is to learn the craft. Please don’t do what I did…finish a manuscript only to discover after all that hard work it’s a train wreck—every single car completely off the track. I knew nothing about point of view, characterization, dialogue tags, adding emotion, or how to plot without boring the reader to death. Each time I’d learn something new, I’d rewrite it. And then I’d do it again. When I was finally ready to let A Promise of Fireflies out into the world, seven years had passed. Talk about a long labor! But Fireflies went on to earn an award for outstanding fiction in self-publishing. Book 2, A Thousand Butterfly Wishes, also won an award for outstanding fiction in self-publishing. And Writer’s Digest (judge 17) gave The Other Side of Broken (Book 3) a shout-out saying it is “a novel not to be missed and placed 4th in the Ink & Insights master category book awards, and one judge said, “This is exactly what women’s fiction is supposed to be.” And I found out yesterday that I was named Rim Country’s Best Writer by the Payson Roundup (local award).

Learn the craft inside and out, keep writing, and never give up on your dreams.

Women’s Fiction: The Power of Sisterhood

The Women’s Fiction Writers Association is a nation-wide, online group offering connection, classes, critique groups, and other helpful programs for authors. It also offers two annual competitions: The Star Award for published books of women’s fiction, and the Rising Star Award, for unpublished novels. Last year I was a judge for the Rising Star Award and enjoyed it so much that I volunteered to judge this year’s Star Award. It’s a lot of reading, but that’s what I do.

This week, I’m teaming up with two other Arizona based members of WFWA to offer a 99¢ ebook sale of our books. My novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, is on sale through March 1, and Susan Haught’s and Katie O’Rourke’s books will go on sale February 19-25th. I’ll interview these writers this week on my blog.

Happy reading!

Valentine’s Victoria Sponge

Who knows why this very British cake is called Victoria Sponge? It’s not elaborate; the ingredients are simple. And it comes topped with cream and strawberries. For that reason, I’ve chosen this as a Valentine’s Day cake. Chocolate is always delicious, but so predictable on this day of romance. Strawberries are equally delicious and, as in my book, Lipstick on the Strawberry, associated with love.

This cake, as with all genoise cakes, bakes up on the dry side. That’s why moistening the top of the layers with macerated liquored strawberries gives it that little extra. Or simply use thick strawberry jam mixed with kirsch to moisten in the same way.

Ingredients:

Cake

Cooking spray for the pans
1 ½ cups cake flour, sifted three times
½ cup sugar
5 eggs
¼ cup melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Strawberry Filling

2 cups strawberries, washed and hulled
3 tbs sugar
2 tsp kirsch
1/8 tsp salt

Or, if you are pressed for time, use 2 cups best-quality strawberry jam, plus the other ingredients.

Cream Topping

1 ½ pints heavy cream, chilled
3 oz powdered sugar

Method

This cake achieves its lightness without the addition of baking soda or powder because it is beaten to an airy froth while warm.

Bring the ingredients to room temperature.

Preheat the oven to 350F. Spray two 9 -inch cake pans, and cover the bottom of each with parchment paper cut to size.

Sift the flour and melt the butter gently.

Bring a large saucepan of water to the simmer. Your mixing bowl should be able to just fit inside the top of the pan so its bottom is over, but not touching, the simmering water.

First, mix the eggs in the bowl in a stand mixer until frothy. Beat in the sugar till it is blended with the eggs. Then put the bowl over the pan of water on the stove and whisk the egg-sugar mixture for 3-4 minutes till it is warm.

Remove the bowl to the stand mixer and beat on high or so until it becomes thick and light and the texture of whipped cream. Separate the already sifted flour into three batches, sift each over the mix and gently fold in each addition. Meanwhile, reheat the butter until hot, and pour into a small bowl. Take one and a half cups of the egg mixture and incorporate into the butter, together with the vanilla. Fold it all gently back into the larger egg/sugar mix bowl.

Pour the batter into the two pans and bake for 20 minutes until the cake starts to pull away from the sides. The top should spring back when touched with your finger. Do not overbake.

Remove from the oven and cool on wire racks for 10 minutes, then run a knife around the edges of the cakes and invert onto racks to cool completely.

Meanwhile, make the strawberry mash filling. Reserve two dozen of the most beautiful strawberries. Cut up the remainder and toss with the sugar into a bowl and let sit for one hour.

Strain the juice from the berries and reserve, to make half a cup. Pour into a small saucepan and add the kirsch. Heat gently and cook until the mixture is syrupy. You should have about 3-4 tbs. Remove from the heat and reserve.

Put the sugared berries into a food processor and chop. This will yield about 1 ½ cups.

Add these processed berries to the syrup, stir in the salt, and wait till the cake is cooled.

If using jam instead of fresh berries, heat it gently in a saucepan and add the kirsch. Let sit so the flavors mingle.

When the cakes are completely cool, take a cake platter and prepare it by cutting four long strips of parchment paper to cover it. This will keep the platter clean while you assemble the cake.

Whip the cream, adding sugar when soft peaks form, until the cream forms stiff peaks.

Carefully lift one cake from its pan and lay on the paper. Spread half of the macerated, liquored berry or jam-kirsch mix onto the cake, leaving about half an inch around the border. With a rubber spatula, carefully cover this layer with half of the whipped cream, again leaving space around the border.

Place the second cake layer on top of the first, pressing gently down. The cream will squish out to the edge of the cake. Repeat the steps of covering this layer with strawberries or jam, then whipped cream.

Now, pull out the parchment strips from under the cake, very carefully. Don’t worry, any little flaws that are caused in the cake by pulling out the strips can be hidden by a ring of berries.

Finally, halve the reserved berries and put them around the side of the completed cake.

If serving several hours after assembling, place in a domed cake carrier to protect the top, and refrigerate.

Some Thoughts on Strawberries

Lipstick on the Strawberry – the ebook: 99¢ Valentine’s Sale!


Maybe it is its red color, but I associate Valentine’s Day with the strawberry. The taste, a combination of the sweet and the tart, might be a truer metaphor for relationship than gooey chocolate.

Toward the end of last year, I planted strawberries. Previously they had done well when planted in a pot, but this new year’s bunch appeared slightly chewed by an inhabitant of the in-ground bed. The insect abandoned the fruit after a couple of munches. Served it right for not waiting till it reached full, juicy ripeness.

My photo shows the strawberries in their bed, ripening. In my novel, Hannah, a food stylist hired by my catering protagonist, Camilla, startles her at the job interview by seizing a lipstick and swiping an unripe strawberry with it. I wrote the scene before I had a final title for my book. But, I realized, this is a metaphor for the story. The perfect exterior is a façade, hiding something not quite so ideal underneath. That’s what Camilla finds when she goes home for her father’s
funeral, meets her first love, and tries to mend bridges with her distant, diffident siblings. Her father’s rejection of her as a teenager led to a lifetime of self-doubt, but his death uncovers secret after family secret.

The ebook sale of Lipstick on the Strawberry starts Friday, February 15th (I know, the day after Valentine’s, but my publisher always has sales start Fridays). I hope you’ll enjoy my bitter-sweet story, as you savor whatever Valentine’s has in store for you.

And in the lead-up to Valentine’s Day on Thursday, I’ll be publishing some strawberry recipes from Camilla’s recipe index. Enjoy!

The Book of Colours

By Robyn Cadwallader

Harper Collins, 2018


Imagine a world without printed or digital book. Imagine a world where books were rare and
precious things, commissioned one by one by the nobility, like works of art. In these books the
story, usually a religious one, becomes intimately connected with the illuminated pictures that
surround the letters on the page.

Imagine being the artist who illustrated these books.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century, as Robyn Cadwallader shows us in this novel, the art
of illuminating manuscripts was moving beyond the monasteries and into the secular world. In
small workshops, closely associated with scribes and stationers who provided the pages of text,
young men apprenticed under master craftsmen. Like all creative businesses, the work was
dependent on commissions, and in this war-torn, famine-riven century in England, the book trade
was not one to make a practitioner wealthy.

The atelier of John Dancaster, a master limner, or illuminator, is the setting for this fascinating
story. Dancaster is assisted by his wife, Gemma, their son, Nick, who is learning to mix paints,
Ben, an apprentice who is about to graduate to become a journeyman, and Will, who arrives in
London looking for work. Will has mysteriously left his own apprenticeship with a master
craftsman in Cambridge just short of producing his “master piece,” which would have enabled
his graduation to skilled artisan. A fine master piece from a student of a famous limner would be
the ticket to employment. Will must now prove his worth in a strange city and workshop.
There are three point of view characters in this story – Will, Gemma, and Mathilda, the widow of
a nobleman who has just died fighting King Edward II. She’s commissioned a book from the
Dancaster workshop as a symbol of the family’s status. But her husband’s death fighting a rebel
cause makes him a traitor and her fate unclear.

Through the characters and the changing relationships between them, Cadwallader explores class
and gender. Through Gemma’s eyes, resentment burns at how women, who might be as skilled
as their husbands and fathers in the trade, were not acknowledged. They were allowed to
supervise the apprentices, and Gemma is writing a book called The Art of Illumination. This
book within a book is fascinating. It describes how to make an illuminated manuscript. These
excerpts, and the entire novel, capture the joy and the frustration of creative work; the absolute
need to do it, to be original, to express something new within a set of traditions, and to strive for
the highest quality.

Robyn Cadwallader’s first novel was The Anchoress, a story of a religious hermit. Also set in
medieval times, that book questions what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated religious
and secular world. This second novel expands that thought through a sympathetic rendering of
male characters as well, and contrasts the ideals of renunciation and acceptance vs. action
involving danger and change. This is riveting history with characters whose traits register today.

Cascade

By Maryanne O’Hara Penguin 2012 In the mid-nineteen thirties, the growing city of Boston needed a secure water supply. To create the Quabbin Reservoir, a thriving small town to the west of the city was submerged. This novel about the threat of the flood to the town, aptly and fictionally named Cascade, tells a story about an artist who is married to a steady but boring man, her desire to paint rather than to have children, and her affair with a fellow artist. Fundamentally, it is about the tension between the need to create art that lives beyond the life of the artist, and the choices the artist makes to achieve that. Set in The Depression, with World War II looming, and anti-Semitism rampant even in America, especially in a small town where gossip runs rife, this story aches with a sense of impending loss before, during and after Dez Hart’s affair with a Jewish peddler who is also a serious artist. Dez’s late father had built a Shakespearian playhouse in the town, and its fate becomes crucial to the story. Dez uses her artistic skills to bring attention to the damage that will be done by flooding people’s homes and farms, and to save the playhouse. The dilemma of a woman artist who cannot help but paint and sees that having a baby will end her budding career is another major theme of the book. I loved 0’Hara’s descriptions of how an artist paints, the conception and the execution. The author’s research into working lives, transportation, communication, housekeeping, and the role of women in the thirties also fascinated me. Minor characters, such as Abby, Dez’s best friend, are well drawn. The lure of the big city versus the security of life in a small town is also articulated well, though only from the point of view of Dez, who wants to escape Cascade. Given the material, this story could be much darker than O’Hara makes it. So many suffered extremely during The Depression and in World War II, and with divorce so difficult to attain and artistic success for a women equally difficult to achieve, Dez’s troubles are overcome a tad too easily. That’s partly because 0’Hara makes Asa, Dez’s unwanted husband, a thoroughly decent person. One never forgets, in this story, that Dez has choices unavailable to others. Still, an historical novel set in a recognizable place, dealing with the real dilemmas of the day, always makes enjoyable reading. It kept me turning pages, wanting to know what happens next.