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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.

Quick, Grab The Lipstick!

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

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

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

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

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

Now For The Thank Yous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lipstick Launches!

Lipstick on the StrawberryI am so excited that my book, Lipstick on the Strawberry, will be officially launched by The Wild Rose Press on July 5! Its been wonderful to work with this small publisher, which has consistently been named best book publisher by author websites.

People always ask me about what my title means. Photographers do weird things to make food more visually appetizing. They spritz a cake with hairspray, decorate a pie with shaving cream, and swipe a pale strawberry with lipstick to make it glisten. When I learned that, I knew I had my book title. My caterer protagonist, Camilla, always felt unable to live up to her family’s expectations. After returning to England for her father’s funeral, she finds that beneath the veneer of respectability lie imperfection and secrets.

Here’s an excerpt, to give you the flavor:

My fingers searched the back of the drawer and felt something glossy. I pulled, and saw in my hand a colored photograph of a woman who looked to be about the age I was now. She had hair the color of fallen leaves. Only the woman’s shoulders were visible below the head, she was wearing a scarf of blue and green, which reflected the color of her laughing eyes. In the background was the blurred green of a field. I flicked the photo over. The penciled initials N.B. were the only notation.

A cold prickle ran down my back as I stared at it. I tucked the photo into my pocket. How peculiar was it to find this woman’s image stuffed in the back of a drawer? Daddy had gone to pains to hide the picture. In one hand, I lifted the plastic bags of trash, picked up the passport in the other, and went to find Tilda.

“Would you mind if I went home and rested?” I asked. “I feel a headache coming on.”

“Yes, of course. What did you find in there? Oh, good, Daddy’s passport. I’d like to keep that. How thoughtful of you. Anything else of interest?”

I turned so Tilda couldn’t see and fingered the pocketed photo. The letters N.B. intrigued me. Was this just the acronym to remind our father of something important? Or did it mean something else?

Lipstick on the Strawberry, by Margaret Ann Spence, available at The Wild Rose Press, Amazon, nook, bookstrand, kobo and itunes.

What Makes A Book Cover Great?

Lipstick on the Strawberry“A truly great jacket is one that captures the book inside it in some fundamental and perhaps unforeseen way,” says writer Kyle Vanhemert in Wired Magazine’s September 23, 2014 article, “What Makes for a Brilliant Book Cover? A Master Explains“.

When my manuscript of Lipstick on the Strawberry was still at the querying stage last year, I learned that it was a finalist in the Author U’s novel competition. As a result, I got to go to the Denver, Colorado, conference put on annually by Judith Briles, the brilliant author mentor and publicist.

The Author U conference is primarily for self-published authors, and among the panel discussions was one on designing a book cover. A writer held up his jacket, which featured a skimpily clad, twenty-something woman brandishing a rifle. A male fantasy, no doubt. Independent publishing expert Amy Collins (newshelves.com) asked the author who this book was written for. He replied, “Soccer moms.”

Ms. Collins asked him if he was open to suggestions on the cover, and the writer said, “Possibly.”

To which Amy Collins replied, “That’s like telling a cancer doctor you’d be open to chemotherapy.” After the nervous laughter died down, she continued, “Authors have no business designing a book cover. Leave that to the professionals.”

I’m pleased to tell you that my book jacket has been designed by a true professional, Debbie Taylor, an artist working for my publisher, The Wild Rose Press. It is exactly what I had in mind, except for one thing.

It is even better than I anticipated.

In my cover, the lipstick and the strawberry dominate, but the addition of a cup with smudged lipstick next to the strawberries and lipstick adds mystery, a sense of something interrupted, and the hint of imperfection to this serene scene.

Which captures the theme of my book. Exactly.

I hope you’ll want to read Lipstick on the Strawberry when it is released in July 2017.

Thank you to The Wild Rose Press.

For Love of Libraries

Saturday morning has always been my favorite time of the week. That’s because when I was a kid, this was my special time with my father. I’d accompany him on his errands, and one of our favorites was going to the Library. It was Dad who intervened when the librarian said I could not take books out from the general fiction area because I was only a child. I protested that I’d read most of the kids’ books and found the grown up books more interesting. Note that I don’t say “adult” books because that has a different meaning in today’s culture, and besides, our municipal library’s selection was on the tame side. These memories surfaced this week because National Library Week occurs April 9-15. April is School Library Month, and the 12th of April celebrates National Library Workers and National Bookmobile Day. Finally, April 23rd, the day of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564 and his death in 1616 was chosen in 1995 to be UNESCO’s World Book and Copyright Day. It’s a month to celebrate writers and readers everywhere. In his wonderful book, The View from the Cheap Seats, the British writer Neil Gaiman describes how he spent his school vacations at the local library. His parents dropped him off on their way to work and he happily spent his days in the children’s section, working through the card catalogue. Neil Gaiman, one of my very favorite authors, now has rock-star status with his fans. This week he’s doing a multi-city book tour throughout the United States. I was thrilled to go to his packed-out presentation Saturday night. Every one of the 1,600 seats was filled, there were calls of “we love you!” from the audience, and the line to purchase his books after his talk snaked out into the parking lot. Gaiman read from his latest book, Norse Mythology. His genius is to make the fantastic believable. His empathy for his characters, his humor, and his gorgeous cadences make his work spell-binding. This is a writer who clearly became intoxicated with the English language through deep immersion in children’s literature. That’s what libraries do for children. For all of us. And they’re free.

The Dying Beach

By Angela Savage Text Publishing 2013 Jayne Keeney is not your typical detective. As her author so deftly puts it on page 1 of this page-turning book, even her physical description defies the stereotype. Jayne, in her lover and partner Rajiv’s arms, has a moment of narcissistic pleasure when she thinks, “Being soft, white and fat had never felt so good.” People, place and purpose of the story are set in this first chapter. We learn that Jayne, a private investigator based in Thailand, has gone into business with her boyfriend, and they’re now on vacation in the resort area of Krabi, on the Andaman Sea. When they go to book a day trip with their favorite tour guide, they learn she is dead. Bodies pile up, the police aren’t interested, and Jayne’s relationship becomes frayed. That’s all classic detective drama, yet Savage keeps reminding us that Jayne is no typical private eye. With a nod to those of us who find expectations for female dress and behavior suffocating, even in fiction, this author gives us a wonderful picture of Jayne. A man named Paul “expected someone glamorous, not the frump who met him at the guesthouse reception desk…She couldn’t have been more than thirty-five, but her clothes were the sort his grandmother might wear.” Jayne isn’t the slightest bit interested in feminism, or its opposite, glamour, but just gets on with the job. One of the glories of Angela Savage’s writing is her gift for physical description. We see  dazzling beaches, snake farms, orchids, braziers sizzling with barbequed food, mosquito-deterring curtains of stringed shells. Dialogue is interspersed with Thai phrases whose meaning is apparent. Corruption and beauty intermingle. It was in her class on scene and setting that I met the delightful Angela Savage. She was visiting the U.S. for the very first time, she said, as a presenter at the Arizona State University’s Desert Nights, Rising Stars Writers Conference. (See Angela’s blog on the conference and shared on my Facebook post) Angela, a former community aid worker in Asia, started winning awards with her first book, Behind The Night Bazaar, before it was even published. The Dying Beach is her third novel. I hope there will be many more.

How Book Club Questions Can Help The Author As She Writes

My experience with book clubs has been enjoyable, but as guides to reading fiction, they’ve tended to go off the point. Depending on the quality of the food, or let’s just blame the wine (both always necessary!), the discussion meanders into participants' marital problems, politics, or neighborhood gossip. Great, bonding evenings. Many book groups have lasted for years. It matters little if participants like the book or pan it, the novel is often just the excuse for getting together. That’s all wonderful, and was for me, too, until a friend suggested me that being a writer must spoil the experience of reading, because it would become too analytical. Not true. I can get swept up in the power of good prose just as much as I ever did. It’s just that now I know that every sentence did not get there by magic – it was planned. Now that I review fiction and try to write it as well as I can, I’ve found that “book club questions” (for those that actually ask them) really help in thinking about a novel. I found these from a site called LitLovers.com. The most interesting thing for me as a writer, is that these questions sharpened my thinking about how to put a story together, or at an even earlier stage, how to pre-write a novel. LitLovers.com questions 1, 4 and 7 are questions only the reader can answer. But as a writer I can see I have to ask questions 2, 3, 5, 6, and 8 before I even put a word to paper. Do these questions help you in figuring out how a novel works? 1. How did you experience the book? Were you engaged immediately, or did it take you a while to “get into it”? How did you feel reading it—amused, sad, disturbed, confused, bored…? 2. Describe the main characters—personality traits, motivations, and inner qualities. • Why do characters do what they do? • Are their actions justified? • Describe the dynamics between characters (in a marriage, family, or friendship). • How has the past shaped their lives? • Do you admire or disapprove of them? • Do they remind you of people you know? 3. Are the main characters dynamic—changing or maturing by the end of the book? Do they learn about themselves, how the world works and their role in it? 4. Discuss the plot: • Is it engaging—do you find the story interesting? • Is this a plot-driven book—a fast-paced page-turner? • Does the plot unfold slowly with a focus on character? • Were you surprised by complications, twists & turns? • Did you find the plot predictable, even formulaic? 5. Talk about the book’s structure. • Is it a continuous story… or interlocking short stories? • Does the time-line move forward chronologically? • Does time shift back & forth from past to present? • Is there a single viewpoint or shifting viewpoints? • Why might the author have chosen to tell the story the way he or she did? • What difference does the structure make in the way  you read or understand the book? 6. What main ideas—themes—does the author explore? (Consider the title, often a clue to a theme.) Does the author use symbols to reinforce the main ideas? (See the free LitCourses on both Symbol and Theme.) 7. What passages strike you as insightful, even profound? Perhaps a bit of dialog that’s funny or poignant or that encapsulates a character? Maybe there’s a particular comment that states the book’s thematic concerns? 8. Is the ending satisfying? If so, why? If not, why not… and how would you change it? Thanks, LitLovers.com for putting together this thoughtful list!