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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offers two annual competitions: The Star Award for published books of women’s fiction, and the Rising Star Award, for unpublished novels.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!

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters

By Anne Boyd Rioux

W.W. Norton, 2018

This month is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Louisa May Alcott’s classic, Little Women. Over the years, Jo, the fictional March family’s second, rebellious daughter, has been seen by adventurous girls as a role model. Apparently Jo was based on Alcott herself, and the other three March sisters in the book mirror Alcott’s own three siblings.

When it first appeared, Alcott’s book was ground-breaking because it was written in a realist style. While Marmee’s admonitions to her girls are sometimes preachy, the book lacks the deadly sermon-like style of most Victorian- era children’s books.

Still, Alcott’s book sends a mixed message. Alcott, who famously said, “I’d rather paddle my own canoe,” than be dependent on a man for financial support, never married. And in her book Meg marries a man who is poor, Beth dies, Amy is regarded as frivolous because she aspires to wealth and beauty, and Jo, after an early start as a writer, ends up marrying a man old enough to be her father, and running a school.

To my childish understanding, this sent the same message that I saw at my all-girls’ school, where all the teachers were what used to be called spinsters: that being a writer – or a teacher – means giving up the idea of a joyful, companionate marriage of equals. For boring Professor Bhaer, whom Jo chooses as her husband is anything but sexy, and he talks down to her. So for reasons described further in my article, How Childhood Reading Shapes Identity, which appeared this week in the online magazine Women Writers, Women’s Books, I identified with both Jo and her older sister Meg, my namesake. I wanted it all.

As time went on, generation after generation of girls identified with the March sisters, and more intellectual girls identified with Jo. As Anne Boyd Rioux points out in her new book, in the middle of the twentieth century feminist scholars began to dissect Little Women with new intensity. They brought to light Alcott’s darker theme. Jo, who fought against conventional behavior for women, is eventually controlled by her older husband, and Beth, the perfect, submissive adolescent, dies. Rioux suggests that Beth died of anorexia, a symptom of girls who resist the physical and mental changes puberty brings.

Rioux is concerned that Alcott is no longer taught in American schools. Apparently teachers feel boys won’t read books about girls, while girls are expected to devour classics about boys. Huck Finn is in, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy are out.

In a telling paragraph, Rioux notes: “The main obstacle to Little Women’s continued popularity, though, is that young readers are interested in a fundamentally different kind of literature. Girls want adventure, not domestic drama, and they are much more interested in fantasy than realism.”

To my mind, this demonstrates that not much has changed. If girls like heroines who are “witches, warrior princesses or hunters”, then the idea that a girl on the cusp of puberty can truly aspire to the same life choices that are held out to boys, is still far from being the norm.

Read my article in Women Writers, Women’s Books here:
http://booksbywomen.org/how-childhood-reading-shapes-identity-by-margaret-ann-spence/

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)

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.

Little Gods

By Andrew Levkoff
Peacock Angel Publishing, 2017

Readers of this blog know how fascinated I am with the ancient world. In his trilogy, The Bow of Heaven, Andrew Levkoff introduces us to Alexandros, the Greek-born slave to Marcus Licinius Crassus, Rome’s richest man. Crassus, along with Pompey and Caesar, formed the first triumvirate. Naturally these three ambitious and competitive men were soon at odds. At the end of Levkoff’s trilogy Crassus undertakes a disastrous campaign against the Parthians and is killed. Levkoff ends the book by introducing us to a new character, Melyaket.

Little Gods is the story of the childhood and young adulthood of Melyaket and his rival, Scolotes. As children in the remote village of Sinjar in Parthia (modern day Iran) Scolotes and Melykalet play together. But Scolotes is always an outsider, regarded as being cursed because he was born with one gray and one brown eye. If the circumstances of Scolotes’ birth were unfortunate, Melykalet is blessed. He seems always to have the favor of the gods. How this plays out is the crux of this story. Because of Levkoff’s skilled writing, the reader feels empathy for both characters.

Today the Middle East is still mired in war. So the author does not miss the opportunity to bring the reader into the modern world too. In Little Gods, Andrew Levkoff harnesses his extraordinary story-telling powers to take the reader into the same place, two thousand years apart. In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, helicopters circle the land inhabited by Kurds. Their aim seems to be to annihilate anything that moves. Two thousand years earlier, the same area was also a place of seemingly endless conflict.

The senselessness of war is an underlying theme of Levkoff’s work. Sadly, his book illuminates the fact that humans have not yet learned to live and let live, even two thousand years after the empires of Rome and Parthia fought for domination of this harsh desert.

This rather bleak view of human nature is mitigated by Levkoff’s compassion for human frailty. And by setting his story in a war-torn part of the world, he reminds us that our good fortune is just that -an accident of birth.

This is a fast-paced story you won’t put down.

The All-Americans

The All-Americans
By Angela Farley

Amazon Digital Services, 2017

We live in an age of terrorism. We live in an age of gun violence. When the two are combined on American soil, with innocent hostages slated for execution, our sense of safety unravels.

In this gripping story, twelve random strangers are kidnapped in movie theatres across the United States. They are imprisoned by operatives intent on punishing Americans for the violence they’ve inflicted in other parts of the world during the war on terror. Oddly, the terrorists themselves are for the most part not foreigners, but mercenaries hired to execute the victims one by one. And, foiling their plan to kill all-Americans, the victims are not all native-born citizens of the United States. This is the first twist this author introduces to her plot. It is a telling one, because it indicates the real nature of our diverse society. What truly, does it mean to be an American, she suggests. As the book progresses, it becomes a fascinating study of the relationships that develop between some of the captives and their captors. If the captor can begin to see his victim as a human being, then there is a possibility of hope. But that is not all. The captive too, can shape the narrative if given time to think, observe, and above all, have someone else to live for.

I had the pleasure of meeting Angela Farley when she shared an author event with me at Orinda Books, California, on October 21. She is a nurse by profession, and her knowledge of physiology gives her story a lot of credibility as she describes the reactions of the victims to their predicament. Angela also remarked during her reading of passages from The All-Americans that she reflected on her time in the Emergency Room. Patients would come in with life-altering illnesses or injuries, all of them shocked to find themselves in this situation. Some would fight for their lives and some would give up. The will to live is what enables some victims of threatened death to survive. In another twist on the expected, Angela Farley shows us that this will can change throughout the ordeal; a chance to live given up one moment may not be the end, and conversely, a determination to survive may be snuffed out by a captor’s quick trigger.

Angela Farley has written a movie-worthy thriller, as much a psychological study of captives and captors as an action-filled story. This book kept me up for hours as I read it in a single sitting.