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Seeds of Hope

By Jane Goodall, with Gail Hudson

Grand Central Publishing, 2013


This week I’ve abandoned my usual practice of reviewing a book by a non-famous author. That’s because the great Jane Goodall has, in her unique way, cut through journalistic “the sky is falling” tropes as well as academic gobbledygook to show us how plants can save our planet.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about trees and organic farming for my new novel-in-progress. So when I picked up Jane Goodall’s book, which is sub-titled Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants, it was in anticipation of learning about plants through her habit of keen observation. Ms. Goodall has, of course, achieved world-wide fame for her pioneering studies of chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania.

Seeds of Hope is far more broad-ranging than that. Written in a delightful conversational style, the book’s topics range from tales of early European plant hunters and a very brief history of our understanding of plants to the fate of the planet due to climate change and agri-business’s monocultures. It ends with a discussion of organic farming, and the remarkable ability of plants to adapt. As a conservationist, Jane Goodall sometimes lets her mission get in the way of facts, as for example, in the chapter on GMO foods. Her arguments on their dangers are anecdotal rather than scientific. However, she is making a broader point – that human hubris has led to a loss of plant diversity. Nonetheless, as she also points out, flora indigenous to one area have been hybridized for centuries to provide an even greater variety and range of their species.

Never polemical, but written in a tone that invites the reader to join in, as if we were sitting with Jane around her campfire, the book inspires a re-thinking of what we wear and how we eat.

The book starts with a description of The Birches, her grandmother’s home in southern England. Born in 1934, Jane was sent to live there with her sister and mother while her father served in World War II. It was an exceptionally happy home, with a grandmother who cooked from the garden, baked bread, and made her own jam. Lucky Jane! Her freedom to roam the garden, the woods beyond, the cliffs, and the beaches nearby inspired her love of nature.

What’s instructive about the authorial choice to include so much about this childhood in the book is that these happy memories occurred during a terrible war, in which food was rationed and suffering was rampant. Jane was a child, true, and not personally involved in the horrors of World War II. And yet within it she found her Seeds of Hope.

Jane Goodall is saying to us that even if the natural world has never seemed more threatened, we can do something about it. “If plants could be credited with reasoning powers, we would marvel at the imaginative ways they bribe or ensnare other creatures into carrying out their wishes,” she writes.

Humans are their greatest rival. But since we depend on plants for our survival, we can make sure they do. This book plants more than a seed of hope.

The Sewing Machine

By Natalie Fergie

Unbound, 2017


It is hard to imagine today a world in which plastics did not exist, where people used and re-used parts of everything, machines included. Yet this was part of everyday life until recently. The Sewing Machine is set in Scotland in the years just before and during World War I, in the mid-twentieth century, and the present day. Tracking changes in living standards in the past century through the food, clothing and technology her characters use, Natalie Fergie transports us to this world. She starts with an actual historical incident, the Glasgow Singer Sewing Machine factory strike of 1911.

It was an unusual strike in these years before widespread trade unionism because it was huge – involving eleven thousand workers – and because it was a strike on behalf of women workers. At the time British women did not even have the right to vote. In the novel, Jean Ferrier, an eighteen–year- old whose job it is to test the bobbins on the machines, is forced to leave the city with her strike leader boyfriend, Donald Cameron, when he loses his job. The action in the story then shifts to mid-century Edinburgh, where Kathleen Baxter and her daughter Connie sew and mend almost every garment they wear. Connie gets a job at the city’s major hospital as a seamstress. Yes, in those days, British hospitals had a sewing room. All the gowns, nurses’ uniforms, sheets, drapes, and towels were sewn in-house. The third protagonist in this story is Fred Morrison, who, in 2016, inherits his Nana Connie’s old sewing machine, as well as the tenement house in which she grew up.

The sewing machine and the tenement house are so vividly rendered they are almost characters in this story. People live without modern conveniences and in close quarters. Laundry was (and still is, I gather from this book) dried in this damp climate on a pulley in the warmth of the kitchen. Neighbors look out for one another. The old fashioned house which Fred has grown up in and loved is contrasted with the all-white sleek and modern apartment of his girlfriend in London. They work together until he’s made redundant. She visits him in Edinburgh and is so appalled by the old-fashioned house he’s attached to that she dumps him by text.

Living conditions change over time but human nature does not. Disappointments, betrayals, and new beginnings weave their way through this book. I have to say that I loved it.

As someone who has never had the patience to thread the needle on a machine I found some of the technical discussion of bobbins hard to follow. Nevertheless, I loved it. I love the idea of researching and restoring old technology. I especially loved Ellen, a subsidiary character who takes old sewing machines apart and repurposes them into jewelry and art objects. And I loved Kathleen and Connie, who sew into exercise books fabric scraps of every item they make. Record keeping as art. I also enjoyed the time markers indicated by the food the characters ate – broth and bread at the beginning of the twentieth century, stodgy meat pies in the middle, and in the twenty-first, daily treats of sweets and cakes and a bottle of champagne kept on hand.

The story structure alternates between the three time periods, allowing the reader to reflect on societal changes for good or ill. The sewing machine, a product of the industrial revolution, was a godsend to women the world over, who were freed from the daily task of hand-stitching every item of clothing their families wore. It allowed women to earn a living on their own. For Fred, the male protagonist, twentieth century technology allows him to use email and text to communicate and to seek work. Yet this also creates a sense of isolation he must work hard to overcome.

This unusual story was for me, a page-turner. If you like books in which the female characters are strong, not in the sense of being warriors or rebels but simply because they see a problem and take action to fix it, you will like this book. Natalie Fergie is a gifted writer.

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!

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.