Margaret Ann Spence Coming Home

Beneath the Apple Leaves

By Harmony Verna
Kensington, 2017

As in her previous historical novel, Daughter of Australia, the landscape becomes a character in Harmony Verna’s Beneath the Apple Leaves.

This time the landscape is as it was in the early twentieth century in the Eastern United States, and in most of the novel, in farmland around Pittsburgh.

Harmony Verna’s book tells a story of Andrew Houghton, a coal-miner’s son, who believed he was destined to be a veterinarian until his father died, his mother left the country, and he was badly injured in an accident. Andrew goes to live with his young aunt Eveline and her husband, Willhelm Kiser. Misfortune follows the family as anti-German sentiment intensifies when America enters World War I.

The author displays compassion for her characters, giving them all too-human faults and complicated emotions. One of her skills is to convey her characters’ negative traits and behaviors while showing us how these coexist with the good, keeping us invested in their fates.

As Harmony Verna tells it, life was hard for simple people in the early years of last century. Her research must have been prodigious as she tells a story of physical discomfort, cold, hard labor, dreadful medical practices, domestic abuse. Yet her descriptions of the landscape are lyrical. Her characters draw strength from it, trying to make things better. Her empathy for the people who lived before us is remarkable.

For warmth of characterization, some truly gorgeous prose and hard-to- put-down action, Harmony Verna’s writing excels. A lovely book.

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.

The Two Family House

By Lynda Cohen Loigman
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016

This debut novel captures a time, a place and a culture – a Jewish community in New York in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s. Two brothers settle their families in one two-family house in Brooklyn. The brothers work together, and as their fortunes improve, one family after the other moves out of the house and to the suburbs of Long Island.

But this is not the plot. Without being a spoiler, I can say that this story revolves around the sisters-in- law, Rose, wife of Mort, and Helen, wife of Abe. Helen has four boys and wants a girl, and Rose has three girls and longs for a boy to satisfy her unhappy husband.

This novel is remarkable in that Loigman so deeply and honestly probes the emotions of the female characters. The story aroused all sorts of complicated feelings in me.

Many cultures have and do still value the birth of boys over girls. Yet parents of girls consistently say they feel closer to girls. This is true of both fathers and mothers.

For me, being the only girl in a big family of brothers, and growing up to have sons but not daughters, family life involved a certain rough and tumble, noise and mayhem. Dainty it was not. On the plus side, being an only girl carried with it a sense of specialness. And I’ve always felt I understood men and forgave them for their lapses. All men, to me, are at their core vulnerable little boys and I’ve never felt that they were the enemy.

Yet I always wanted a sister and a daughter and envied my mother’s own close relationship with her sisters. I also remember an acquaintance who had two sons and a daughter. She lost her daughter to cancer and said the loss was so enormous because with the boys “it was not the same.”

Loigman raises several questions: One is how far should a woman go to give her husband a son if that is the only thing that will please him? And are all sisters really good friends and confidantes? Do all mothers like their daughters? What if neither mother nor father cares for them deeply, since none satisfies the desperate need for a boy? Or conversely, will a mother who gets a girl be happier in the long term than the one who gets a boy?

This story is told in several viewpoints, those of the two brothers and their wives, and that of two of the girls. The four boys of Abe and Helen who are already born by the start of the book are distinguishable only by name. Whether Loigman is making a point about gender – that girls are more complicated and interesting – or simply letting the story tell itself from the point of view of those most affected by the plot’s premise is unspoken. This is a book that will linger for me, with its layers of questions and emotions.

Feast of Sorrow

By Crystal King
Touchstone, 2017

Marcus Gavius Apicius was a wealthy patrician who lived in Rome in the time of the Emperor Augustus. Stories about this extravagant epicure have come down to us, and he is said to have published the very first printed cookbook.

Crystal King has taken the love of luxury, the obsession with fine dining and the notion of the chef as a star – themes we recognize in our own time – and mixed them up with history in a fine concoction of a novel.

Since it is a stretch to imagine that a patrician would actually do his own cooking, King has imagined Thrasius, a slave who turned Apicius’ dinner parties into the most sought-after in Rome. In the book, Apicius founds the first-ever cooking school, with Thrasius as its manager.

King shows for us the frescoed halls, the fountains and gardens, the markets, the fine architecture and the slums of ancient Rome. The brutality of this world is made clear in the very first sentence when Thrasius is shown on the auction block awaiting purchase as a slave.

Absolute power being as corrosive as it is known to be, King shows us what happens to slaves and to women who disobey or who are forced to marry men they loathe. Intricate to the plot too, is what happens when the power of Caesar forces men to curry favor with him.

This book was a compulsive page turner for me. I loved the recipes that preceded each chapter, tried to imagine eating them, and realized that Roman tastes differed greatly from our own.

Still, I’m going to try some of them. Although I draw a line at snails cooked in milk.

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 ( 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.

The Blazing World

By Siri Hustvedt
Simon & Schuster, 2014

To set the world ablaze is what ambitious artists want to do. Looking back over her life, how could Harriet Burden have failed? The artist in this story has ticked all the boxes; luck, hard work, a sense of where the market is going. What she lacks is the right gender.

That’s the premise that starts this satire about the New York art world. Short listed for the Booker Prize, it is at times laugh-out- loud funny, and at times so sad it makes you want to cry.

Gathered together by an “editor” who is writing about the artist, the novel’s chapters consist of parts of Harriet’s diary, the words of her critics, notes by her collaborators, and comments by her children and her friend Rachel.

To the outside world, Harriet has lived the good life. Born to an upper middle class family, she married a wealthy art dealer, had the requisite boy and girl, loved being a mother, has a grandchild and a delightful best friend. When the book begins, both her parents and her beloved husband, Felix Lord, have recently died. After a period of almost demented mourning, Harriet opens her large New York apartment to needy individuals. One is a young man called Phineas Q. Eldridge. Perhaps the Q stands for quirky. He is a sympathetic character. Harriet also attracts an admirer in Bruno, a man her own age who truly loves her.

But Harriet rages inside. She’s created art for years, in solitude. She’s had exhibitions but her work has been dismissed. Rather than giving her a helping hand, her husband’s position as a powerful art dealer delegitimized her work. Critics implied that she only received any notice at all because of his influence.

Harriet plans revenge. She negotiates with three males to pose as her alter ego, to claim as their own work three exhibitions of art she created on her own. Only with Eldridge is this a true collaboration and meeting of the minds. The other two men are basically frauds.

Hustvedt persuades us that the three pieces Harriet attributed to others are by far her best work. But like many women artists before her, Harriet made her point at the cost of her own identity.

Since we know from the beginning that this masked work was lauded and the pretend artists feted, I wondered at times where this story could possibly go.

Still, the climax came as a surprise to me and was as powerful as a sock to the gut. Yet like all good writers, Hustvedt had laid the clues like breadcrumbs throughout the story.

This is extremely skilled writing. I liked Harriet and responded to the other characters as I believe the author intended. I enjoyed the irony of a main character who always lived at the heart of New York cultural life, yet never felt accepted. But I did not quite get “Harry” as she refers to herself. Her behavior to her husband, parents and children is much too sweet and undemanding to convince me that she is really a smoldering volcano of resentment and self-hatred. The portrayal of Harriet’s relationship with her father is an attempt explain her self-defeating actions, her fury at not being truly seen or understood.

Still, Harriet’s vengeful scheme does not quite mesh with the personality her author created for her. Harriet is a cipher rather than a truly convincing literary character.

Could she be a vehicle through which Hustvedt has expressed her own rage? Has she created Harriet as a metaphor for women and for their treatment at the hands of a male-dominated cultural world?

The Nest

By Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Ecco 2016

The word “dysfunctional” has been overused in reviews about the fictional Plumb family of this wryly amusing tale. Would that word describe Jane Austen’s Bennet family? No. I think humanly flawed would be a more apt description. Not that this book rivals Austen’s in any way. But this story is a contemporary American take on the British comedy of manners. Or what happens when members of an upper middle-class family aspire to careers that offer artistic fulfillment but little steady income – all in the expectation that an inheritance will take care of their financial needs. The Nest is the nickname given to the trust fund that the four Plumb siblings will receive when the youngest of them, Melody, turns forty. That’s a few months away when the book begins, but the oldest sibling, Leo, a man-child at forty-six, has involved himself in an expensive divorce precipitated when he left a wedding with a waitress and caused a car crash. As in the classic British melodrama, the financial needs of the younger siblings are ignored as the nest egg is drained because of the misdeeds of the eldest. Not that the Great Recession helped. Leo’s sisters and brother are mired in mortgage payments, equity lines of credit, looming college expenses for their offspring, and the fact that the fortune may have been diminished since 2007. This is great social satire with a large cast of characters, all satisfyingly drawn. How ironic that this debut novel reportedly received a million-dollar advance, when several of its main characters work in the world of New York publishing, described as chaotic and financially unstable. Like its characters, this book’s author might have toiled for years in obscurity, all in the hopes of a fortune that might or might not happen. Nope. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney was a copywriter who completed an MFA when she was fifty years old, and only four years later published this book to great acclaim. In awe of this writer, I read interviews in which she revealed that she tried writing a novel in her twenties and because she failed at the attempt, put it off while life in the form of family and work got in the way. But there it was, percolating away until the right time came. Kudos to Sweeney for giving us a delightful romp through her fictional world, and for waiting till she was ready to write it.

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.

Lilac Girls

By Martha Hall Kelly
Ballantine Books 2017

This is not a book for the faint-hearted. It brings to novelistic life the true story of Caroline Ferriday, an American socialite who helped bring to the United States Polish survivors of the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. The author gives fictional names to two of these women, in the book the sisters Kasia and Zuzanna Kuzmerick, but leaves for all to see the real name of the Nazi woman doctor who worked at Ravensbruck, Herta Oberheuser. Told in three voices, that of Caroline, Kasia and Herta, the alternating chapters end on cliff-hangers, leading the reader on, compulsively. I am squeamish, yet I admire the author’s insistence on showing exactly what went on in that camp, in the medical experiments conducted on the inmates by Dr. Oberheuser and her fellow traitors to the medical profession. It is quite a feat to make such an unsympathetic character into someone we want to read about. Yet Kelly has done this remarkably well. She shows how Oberheuser just went along, not so much “obeying orders” (which was the usual defense at the Nuremburg trials) as numbing her conscience by degrees. It is no accident, perhaps, that Kelly first shows this gradual acquiescence to evil in her portrayal of Oberheuser honing her surgical skills in a butcher’s shop at the beginning of the war. A former journalist, Kelly based the book on interviews with survivors in Poland, France and Germany, as well as the United States and on two memoirs she found in Caroline Ferriday’s archives. Caroline had submitted these memoirs to publishers. They were rejected on the grounds that they were of no interest to the public. Seventy years after these terrible events, we know that these stories must be told. We must never forget.