Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home
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Lily Campbell’s Secret

Lily Campbell’s SecretBy Jennifer Bryce

Rightword Publishing, 2019

It is 1913, and seventeen-year-old schoolgirl Lily discovers she is pregnant.

Unmarried motherhood is a social sin that was unforgiveable in that time, but this book takes off in an unexpected way. Lily, an upper-middle class girl with a private school education, with a promising position at the Music Conservatory awaiting her, does not wish her baby away. She’s in love with her boyfriend, Bert,a stable hand with a love of animals, and they marry, happily, and have a baby girl, Edith. Not that things are easy. Lily has no idea how to run a house and her horrified parents shun her.

Then the world erupts in World War 1 and Bert enlists. When he returns, he is changed utterly. Lily has to cope with a man with a head injury so severe he needs round the clock help. There’s no money, and Lily must cope as a wage-earner, carer, and mother. How she does this, and the choices she faces, propel the book along to its shocking conclusion.

This book captures all the senses, as well as historical details that all ring true as the author evokes life in a country town. The war is remote, yet its aftermath reverberates throughout the lives of all who lived in the era, and beyond. That’s why this is a timeless story. Jennifer Bryce captures the heartbreak and helplessness of PTSD and brain injury for the victim and their families. With very appealing main characters, Lily, Bert, and Edith, and a well-drawn cast of supporting characters, this book draws the reader in and won’t let go. I could not put this book down. Please read it.

The Wolf Border

By Sarah Hall

Harper Collins Publishers 2015

Rachel Caine studies wolves. An interesting professional choice, since it takes her far from civilization, into a remote part of Idaho, where wolves are being reintroduced to the wild. Rachel guards herself against emotional involvement. She has sex, not relationships, she tells a doctor. Approaching forty, she must change, somehow, unless she’s headed for a lonely old age like her once-promiscuous mother, who never married. This change does not come as an epiphany at her mother’s death. Rachel does not attend the funeral. But when she discovers she is unexpectedly pregnant, she slowly starts to melt her frozen heart. The reader is way ahead of the protagonist on this. Her health insurance won’t cover the cost of maternity. But fortunately, Rachel is English, so she heads back to the UK – and its free medical care – to supervise the reintroduction of wolves in Cumbria, near the Scottish border. Everything changes here for Rachel, though she is still wary of emotional commitment, like a lone wolf. But wolves, too, love their offspring, and observing them with their pups Rachel feels drawn to them even further. They’re teaching her something. Unlike most wild animals, wolves form lifelong bonds with their mates. The blurring of borders between animal and human behavior, between the habitats of animals and the political boundaries drawn by humans, and the choice of whether to be a mother and then how to be a mother, all are explored here. At the end of the book Rachel will have to make a choice. But that is for the reader to imagine. It would be interesting to know which side most readers come down on. Sarah Hall writes gorgeous prose, too. I was sorry to finish this novel. I felt I was just getting to know this complex person and her passionate devotion to wolves. An original and fascinating book.

The Art of Fiction

Until I started writing novels, I did not realize this. Fiction is made up. It is not autobiography.

I was reminded of this the other day when a friend asked if I had had the experiences I describe in my books. And again, when at a book festival recently, a panel of authors was asked the same question.

No, a panelist replied. I am not a suicide bomber. (One of her protagonists.) No, I replied to my friend. But I had a caveat. When one gets to our age, we’ve had so many experiences, read of so many bizarre situations, have come across so many weird circumstances in the lives of those we’ve met, that “experience” may not be personal, yet it gets immersed in a writer’s thoughts.

How does a writer come up with an idea for a novel?

Camilla, in my novel, Lipstick on the Strawberry, is the daughter of a physician who is also a clergyman. I did not know one could be both, but in England, where Lipstick is partially set, it is possible. A few years ago, I met a man who held both jobs simultaneously. What kind of person, I wondered, would choose two professions which embodied so much power over others?

And what, I wondered, would it be like to be the daughter of such a man? How could a daughter ever measure up? And how easily she could be shamed.

So Camilla was born, her conflict driven by the impossible demands for perfection by her father. Worse, her adult life was shadowed by his disapproval of her teenage love affair, making future relationships difficult. How Camilla comes to true adulthood by learning that her father was himself flawed, and therefore able to be forgiven, is how the story plays out.

On May 6, I was delighted to learn that Lipstick on the Strawberry was a finalist in the 2019 Eric Hoffer Awards. The award highlights excellence in books published by academic, small press, and independent publishers, including self-publishers.

Now on to the next book, which is in the revision stages! That too, started with an idea, and then characters who would not let me alone. More on that in future posts.

Sophie Last Seen

By Marlene Adelstein

Red Adept Publishing, 2018

It is a parent’s worst nightmare to lose a child.

To lose a child while shopping with her in a busy mall is unfathomable. Did she run away, was she kidnapped? Is she alive or dead?

After six years, Jesse is still obsessed with her daughter Sophie’s disappearance. She has lost her marriage and her friends, her house is cluttered with found objects that Jesse feels somehow remind of her lost ten-year-old daughter. She drinks too much, can no longer pursue her career as an artist, and, embroiled in an affair with a married man, has lost her self-respect.

And Jesse is not the only one who cannot let go of her grief. Star, Sophie’s best friend, is in full-fledged teenage goth mode. Depressed and anxious, she sees the ghost of Sophie everywhere.

This haunting story has so many moments of emotional truth. What if the missing child was not easy to live with? What if, in addition to her precocious intelligence and fascination with birds, the missing child flew into tantrums when she didn’t get her way? Does knowing this make her mother more anxious when she contemplates the child’s terror if she’s been kidnapped? Make the kidnapper more likely to want to silence the demanding child?

Sophie’s manipulative personality also casts its shadow on Star. She feels guilty that she didn’t want to go to the mall That Day (as it is ever after known) as she’d promised Sophie, because she sensed Sophie was going into one of her melt-down moods.

Marlene Adelstein’s excellent grasp of psychology makes this study in survivor guilt compelling. Sophie is a fascinating child, and her disappearance at the age of ten is probably a loss to future science because Sophie was a brilliant observer of the natural world. Combine this with her parents’ knowledge that they could not handle their child and found her hard to live with at times, and you have the perfect recipe for intensified guilt and self-loathing.

How Jesse and Star separately and then together come to resolve the situation and begin to heal is the crux of this story. This novel has many layers of complexity, remarkable in a debut novel.

I look forward to reading more of Ms. Adelstein’s work.

Indigo

As part of my foray into the natural world for research for my new novel, the other weekend I learned all about dyeing with colors derived from plants.

I attended the “Indigo Colloquium” at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden.

Why indigo, I wondered as I signed up? What is it about that particular color that attracts such interest?

Turns out indigo is the color of denim. And since over a billion pairs of blue jeans are sold every year, how they are colored is important commercially and environmentally.

Coming at the subject from a level of complete ignorance, I learned that weekend that many plants throughout the world produce the color blue. Remember woad? If you were taught history in the dark ages as I was, you may remember that the Celtic warriors who opposed the troops of Julius Caesar when he invaded Britain terrified the soldiers because their faces were painted a fierce blue from the woad plant.

Woad (isatis tinctoria) is now considered an invasive weed in California. But it can be grown in home gardens to produce the blue dye.

Indigo, however, produces a stronger blue. Hundreds of different plants producing the color indigo are grown throughout the world, and the most popular for dyeing is persicaria tinctoria, otherwise known as polygonum tinctorium. The common term is Japanese indigo.

Indigo is a dye that adheres to the textile without the use of mordants. That’s a fixative produced by alum,iron, copper,or tannic acid often mixed with an acid like vinegar. For that reason, working with leaf-based indigo is safer for the home dyer.

I love the idea that over hundreds if not thousands of years, people have experimented with creating gorgeous color from plants that grown nearby. The process is a series of chemical reactions to release the color from the plant. For the home dyer, this involves heating the harvested leaves in a pot of distilled or rainwater to release the indican in the leaves, and adding a base such as baking soda, washing soda or ammonia to increase the pH to 8 or 9, which helps the hydrolysis of the indican to produce the molecule indoxyl. Then air is introduced to the mix, allowing the indoxyl to combine with oxygen to produce indigo. Finally, in order to make the color water soluble the mixture is reduced over heat with the addition of thiourea dioxide (helpfully available from the drug or craft store as Rit Color Remover). Add your previously wetted fabric to the dye for up to fifteen minutes, lift out carefully and hang to dry. The exposure to air makes the dye color fast and produces the final blue.

The color changes in the dye-in-process are fascinating. The flowers of the plant are actually pink. The composted or heated leaf brew is reddish-brown. Adding the alkali produces a yellow color, and agitating it to add air turns it to green. As the reduction process happens, and you add your fabric, your textile appears yellow green. Taking it out of the dye bath and hanging it up exposed to air turns it first turquoise, then indigo blue.

Indigo can also be produced synthetically. However, this is a petroleum based product (from benzene) and so toxic that synthetic indigo dye is no longer produced in this country. Most of the jeans sold in the world today are colored with synthetic dye made in China.

Some researchers have created a microbiology-based indigo by gene transfer from persicaria tinctoria into ecoli. It may be commercially viable in the future, but so far indigo manufactured through microbiology has not proven cost-effective.

But for now, there’s an opportunity for the revival of dyeing with natural sources of indigo to become a real alternative to synthetic dyes. If enough farmers can be persuaded to grow the indigo plants so that minimal dye batch sizes of consistent color are produced, then clothes manufacturers will be interested.

That’s the hope anyway.

In the meantime, I now know how to work the process of cloth dyeing into my story, in which there’s tension between old ways of doing things as rediscovered by a group of ageing hippies in Northern California, and the encroaching modern world. Can the old be made new again? As I learned, that is very possibly fact, not fiction.

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.

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