Category: books

Amazed by A House in the Sky

houseintheskyAwhile back, when the book Unbroken first came out, I told my husband that I wanted to read it because I loved Seabiscuit and I knew what an amazing writer Laura Hillenbrand was. I didn’t know much about Louie Zamperini (sad to say) so I had not heard prior to this the depths of his suffering at the hands of cruel men. Bob read the book first, and then said something along the lines of, “So, Sue. This is no Seabiscuit.” The graphic details of Louie’s torture were all there on the pages of the book and he wanted me to know that. It is one thing to read a work of fiction and imagine the suffering of a certain character (like the mom in Room, for example). It’s quite another to read a piece of non-fiction and have to wrestle with the ponderous truth that everything you are reading is real. It happened.

What kept me reading A House in the Sky (other than it was my book club’s pick) was knowing that Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout survived the hell she was thrust into when she was kidnapped in Mogadishu and held for ransom for more than a year. I knew she survived because she co-wrote her story. Several times in the reading I found myself turning the book over to its backside to look at her beautiful author photo. You can’t write about an experience after the fact if you’re dead. When the telling got really hard to read, I’d remind myself, She lives, she lives, she lives.

I honestly don’t think I could have coped the way she she did. When I wasn’t stunned by the cruelty of her captors, I was stunned by her ability to hang on to hope. Hope is one of those invisible weights that we can only lift if we summon enough strength to do so. The harder the situation, the heavier it is to hold. Despair is easier. Despair is heavy, too. But it just overtakes you. You don’t have to do anything but lie there and let it fall.

So how did Amanda Lindhout keep hold of hope when despair was just waiting to devour her? She built a place in her mind to keep it. A place her brutal captors could not see and could not enter.

She built with her mind — the only thing she had left — a secret place for hope to hide. And it was this secret place that existed in her imagination that got her through the darkest days; days when I would have long given up.

She built a house in the sky.

This book is powerfully written and unforgettable.  But it is no easy read.  It is no Seabiscuit.

I still haven’t read Unbroken.

 

Little things under the stars

StarsCoverReveal_edited-1So the book that I’ve been researching since last spring and writing since last summer is finally nearing its send-back day to my editor. This second draft has been an interesting, exhausting ride and I am eager to see if I have been able to pull of what I’ve wanted to from the get-go. STARS OVER SUNSET BOULEVARD is a story about friendship that plays out in Hollywood on the 1939 set of Gone With the Wind. You can probably imagine how many GWTW details are floating around in my head. I will spend today, tomorrow and Monday going over the manuscript one last time before sending it off to New York before I get into bed Monday night. I thought you might enjoy reading a few interesting facts about this movie that may or may not make it into my final pages. I am trying to find a place for these nuggets somewhere in the manuscript so that it seems like they belong there… Wish me luck!

Leslie Howard, who played Scarlett O’Hara’s love interest (go figure),  was – gulp – 45 years old when he made this movie. Vivien Leigh, in her mid-twenties, played a teenaged Scarlett. Yikes, right? Filming began in late January 1939. By the end of May, Leslie still hadn’t read Margaret Mitchell’s book..

ScarlettMelanie

Gone With the Wind won 8 Academy Awards. There were fifteen screenwriters on it, five directors and 160,000 feet of finished film that had to be cut to 18,000.

On the night the carriage scene in front of the Atlanta hospital (where Belle Watling gives Melanie gold for the cause) was shot, it was freezing cold (that can happen in SoCal now and then) and the dang horses kept peeing, ruining all the takes.

belle

Wardrobe master Walter Plunkett designed more than 2,000 costumes.

Vivien Leigh worked 121 days on the film compared to Clark Gable’s 73 and was paid less than half what he was.

When the movie was screened in Sept 1939 to a test audience in Riverside, the movie was almost five hours long. One of the scenes that was cut to trim the final version to less than four hours was Scarlett’s wedding night with Charles Hamilton. She made him sleep in a chair.

Within four years of the film’s release it had sold sixty million tickets in the US, which was just about equal to half the population at the time.

In the famous “I’ll never be hungry again” scene—the part where Scarlett attempts – unsuccessfully – to choke down a pitiful radish—the vomiting noises had to be recorded by Olivia de Havilland. I guess Olivia’s wretching skills were better!

There are more tiddly bits like this but I need to get back to the cave and edit like a mad woman. Tell me I have your interest so far…

candid shot filimg Gone with the Wind

 

 

Thoughts on The Nightingale

TheNightingale2You might have noticed that there have been and continue to be a lot of World War II novels on bookstore shelves these days. This particular setting has always been a storyteller’s sad paradise; there are just so many untold tales of the courageous and cunning and clever and cowardly and compassionate. So many little and big backdrops in which to place a character on a quest. I availed myself of this setting for Secrets of a Charmed Life.

I knew when Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale was due to be released that I would grab it up, and not only because it’s a WW2 tale, but it’s a French Resistance tale (always of interest to me) about two sisters, just as my WW2 is a story about two sisters. The Nightingale was one of those books that I could not wait to get back to. I read for pleasure at the end of the day, and I know I’ve got a great book when I can’t wait for night to fall, for the clock to strike ten o’clock, so to speak, so that I can crawl into bed with the pages.

This book, like All the Light We Cannot See, Life After Life, Those Who Save Us (all five-star WW2 novels in my opinion, is not an easy read. War is a cruel canvas for any story to be told and yet this tale is inspired by true events. This story of two French sisters named Vianne and Isabelle did not really happen but you know without a shadow of a doubt that it could have.

occupied_franceThe story in a nutshell is this:  When France is occupied by the Nazis, Vianne Mauriac is forced to board an officer of the Third Reich in her house, and suddenly “her every move is watched; her life and her child’s life is at constant risk. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates around her, she must make one terrible choice after another.” Her sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old searching for purpose who races headlong into danger and joins the Resistance, never looking back or giving a thought to the real–and deadly–consequences.

Goodreads says: “The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France–a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.”

Just a few days ago America quietly noted that it had been 70 years since VE Day -Victory in Europe. Seven decades had passed since the Allies – against incredible odds and a formidable enemy – accepted the unconditional surrender of  Germany’s Nazi forces. I was stunned by how noiselessly May 8, 2015 came and went. I think the older we get and the more generations there are removed from WW2, the more out of touch we become with how it changed the landscape of who we are. I am glad for books like this one that will resonate into the future (it’s a runaway bestseller right now) so that we won’t lose sight of how this season of history shaped humanity.

Highly recommended.

 

Christian Fiction Scavenger Hunt! Stop 14

Welcome to the Christian Fiction Scavenger Hunt! I am a part of TEAM PURPLE, and this is Stop #14. If you’re just joining us, there are two loops—pink and purple—and they begin at Lisa Bergren’s site and Robin Hatcher’s site for stop #1 for either stream. If you complete either the pink loop or purple loop, you can enter for a Kindle paperwhite and the 17 autographed books from that loop. If you complete BOTH loops, you can enter for the Grand Prize of a Kindle Fire HDX and ALL 34 autographed books. If you get lost along the way, here’s the place to get back on track.

BE SURE to keep track of the clues at the bottom of every post in the loop and the favorite number mentioned. You’ll need those clues to enter for the loop prize and every number mentioned in order to enter for the grand prize. The Hunt begins at NOON Mountain time on April 16 and ends at midnight Mountain on April 19, 2015, so you have a long weekend to complete all 32 stops and maximize your chances at prizes!

ALSO, please don’t use Internet Explorer to navigate through the loops. Some web sites won’t show up using IE. For a less stressful hunt, do use Chrome or Firefox! (Read to the end for a special giveaway only on my site!)

Without further ado, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to my guest for the Scavenger Hunt, Beth Vogt.

headshotVogt

Here’s her professional bio: Beth K. Vogt believes God’s best often waits behind the doors marked “Never.” A 2014 Carol Award finalist, her novel, Somebody Like You, was one of Publisher’s Weekly’s Best Books of 2014. You can connect with Beth at bethvogt.com or on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

Here’s the summary of her latest book, CRAZY LITTLE THING CALLED LOVE: Paramedic Vanessa Hollister has put her adolescence behind her, including the unwanted label of being the new kid in town over and over again, thanks to her father’s military career. She’s overcome what her mother called “the biggest mistake of her life” and is planning an elegant destination wedding in Destin, Florida with her new fiancé. But will the reappearance of her first husband from her what-were-you-thinking teenage elopement disrupt her dream of an idyllic beach wedding? As a professional storm chaser, Logan Hollister is used to taking risks. However, a reckless decision during the last tornado season has him questioning the future of his team, the Stormmeisters. Coming face to face with his ex-wife eight years after their divorce compels him to confront his greatest regret: losing Vanessa. Does their past give him the right to interfere with her future? scavhunt2A fast-moving, powerful hurricane throws Vanessa and Logan together as they evacuate to a storm shelter along with other residents of the Florida Gulf Coast. Forced to spend time together, the pair battles unexpected renewed feelings for each other.

 

And here’s her EXCLUSIVE content, that you’ll only find in this hunt!

When my husband Rob and I got married, the idea of a destination wedding never occurred to me. Eloping, yes – but only for the briefest of moments. When we mentioned the idea to Rob’s best friend, he said he would tell both our families, insisting that we get married the “right way,” with our families and friends there.

He was right. And so, we had a traditional wedding in our hometown in Maryland.  The next day, we flew three thousand miles across the country to our new home in California – a tiny, one bedroom apartment. Rob went back to work the next day.

And so began our happily ever after!

VogtweddingToday, one in four couples include travel in their weddings by having a destination wedding. The average destination wedding costs approximately $22,000 – you read that right! –and averages around 75 guests.

There are two basic choices when it comes to a destination wedding: Do you stay in the U.S. or do you go international? When I pitched my editors the idea for my destination wedding series, I gave them three options:

  • US. locations
  • International locations
  • A fictional U.S. town that was an up-and-coming wedding destination location

We settled on locations in the U.S. and opted for city, beach, mountain, and one yet-to-be-determined destination wedding locale. According to a 2013 study, when a bride and groom get married in the U.S., they pick a location that has special meaning to them. So far, that’s been true for my imaginary characters.

YeVogtlocations, for the past couple of years, I’ve been all about destination weddings. I still haven’t been to one – except in my imagination. In Crazy Little Thing Called Love, the location is a beach destination wedding. I knew immediately what beach I was going to choose. When my husband was in the military, our family lived in the Panhandle of Florida for eight years, just over the bridge from Destin, Florida. We saw up-close and personal why Destin (at right) is called the Emerald Coast. Where else would I want Vanessa and Logan, my imaginary bride and groom, to get married?

THE SCAVENGER HUNT SKINNY:

Thanks for stopping by on the hunt! Before you go, make sure you WRITE DOWN THESE CLUES:

Secret Word(s): don’t

Secret Number: 77  a number I chose, because because sevens look nice and sound nice!

Got ‘em down?? Great! Your next stop is #15 Beth Vogt’s siteClick on over there now. And if you get lost, a complete list of the loop with links can be found at our mother host’s site.

And for anyone still reading, if you comment below to say hi you will be in the running for the complete trilogy of THE MEN OF LANCASTER COUNTY; 3 books that I co-wrote with Mindy Starns Clark, one of which is the newest of the three, The Amish Clockmaker – a CBA bestseller two months in a row! Enjoy the rest of the hunt!

Drum roll, please…

It’s always a thrilling day for me when I can reveal a new cover for a book that is headed your way in the months to come. I love the artistry of book covers and I am not the least bit ashamed to admit I put a lot of stock in a book’s cover.

The old maxim that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover is really more a call to appraise someone’s character by who she is on the inside (rather than her outward appearance) than it is advice about an actual book.  A person can’t always help how she looks. But an artist is in full control of a book cover’s look.  You can’t just say of a book cover, “Well, that’s just its DNA.” A book cover is the first visScarlettMelanieual connection readers make with a book; and usually the only one that’s handed to them. The rest of the visuals we come up with on our own as we read.  So I expect a lot out of covers!

This one delights me.

My first reaction when I saw this beautiful cover for STARS OVER SUNSET BOULEVARD, which is headed your way in January 2016, was that the color palette is perfect, and that the lettering – which will be in shimmery gold – is wonderfully apropos for the golden age of Hollywood; the time period of the majority of this book’s storyline. This is a book about two studio secretaries who become friends while working on the set of most iconic film of all time, Gone With the Wind.  One of them longs to be wanted, and the other longs to be needed. They both go after their desires against the backdrop of the most memorable movie ever made, and at times their desires collide, as the desires of two flawed people often do. ScarlettMel3 copy

The amazing thing about true friends is it that theirs is a relationship that is chosen. Friends decide over and over again, as they grow and mature and seek out their life dreams, to remain close to each other. It’s the easiest relationship to walk away from, but we decide, again and again, to love our closest friends, despite all that is happening around us and inside us, despite hurt feelings and cross purposes. This is a book about friendship in a time a change, just as Gone With the Wind is a story – among other things – about the friendship of Scarlett and Melanie in a time of change.

ScarlettMel2This book is about Violet – who wants to be needed – and Audrey – who wants to be wanted, and this stunning woman on the cover above could honestly be either one of them. And because her face is mostly hidden from us, which I like so very much, it is up to each reader to decide who the woman on the front is, which I also like.

There will be much more about this book in the weeks ahead – I am hard at work in revisions on it right now – but in the meantime I’d love to hear what you think about this cover! And what you know of the book so far…

Too soon gone

West ofIt’s always sad when the talents of a gifted person collide with harsh reality, missed opportunities, and the frailty of that person’s own psyche.  I wouldn’t say I am a devotee of F. Scott Fitzgerald; I’ve only read The Great Gatsby (who hasn’t?), but I read Stewart O’Nan’s latest, West of Sunset, because it is set in Hollywood in the late 1930’s – the era of the book I just finished writing. (As with so many historical places, you can only tour them in the pages of books. The Hollywood of today is vastly different than the the golden age of Tinseltown).  The fact that the the story was a fictionalized account of the last few years of this celebrated novelist’s life was a bonus.

Prior to reading West of Sunset I knew only that F. Scott Fitzgerald died too young, and that when he left us, he wasn’t at the top of his game. The immediate glory of Gatsby was behind him, and he did not know that future generations of high school students would be reading his book year after year after year. I also knew his wife Zelda had been placed in psychiatric care and that he had come west to California to earn money for her care.

O’Nan dealt with finesse and artistry the material he had to work with.  And while I wanted it to be a book that took me and all my senses back to Hollywood’s golden days, this was primarily a book about Fitzgerald’s struggle with an entire cast of inner enemies; the fact that he had to confront them on the glamorous streets of Hollywood was incidental. As one Goodreads reviewer put it: “This isn’t a book for lovers of the flickering, fleeting Lost Generation. It is a peek into the charred last years of Fitzgerald, his battle with writing, at war with his demons.”

Stewart O’Nan is an amazing writer, and since I had gone to hear him speak about this book and heard him read from its pages (he is also an engaging orator) I could hear his commanding voice in every line. The publisher’s blurb about the book says that this book is a“rich, sometimes heartbreaking” novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last years in Hollywood. I would have to agree. You read it wishing things could end differently.

When you already know the story’s outcome,  and that’s it’s a sad ending, you need a skilled writer at the helm. O’Nan delivers.  Narrative nonfiction or fictionalized history – whatever you choose to call it- is often only as interesting as the writer entrusted with the story can make it. For me, West of Sunset excelled where The Devil in White City did not. There was pathos here. And a wish for a magic wand to fix what was broken so long ago.

Today’s the Day!

SecretsOfACharmedLifefinalcoverToday Secrets of a Charmed Life hits bookstore shelves! This WW2 story began first as just an image in my head of a teenage girl sketching wedding dresses in the tiny bedroom she shares with a younger half-sister. I could see Emmy in my mind’s eye imagining a life far different from the one she is living. She wants a happily-ever-after life where love and comfort are in abundance, and for her, that charmed existence begins with a wedding dress worn on that day a girl’s childhood dreams come true. I decided to set Emmy in London at the start of the war because I knew that even for a young woman not yet sixteen, war is a crucible. It is a tester of dreams and desires and determination. I knew the London Blitz was an opposition that would bring out the very best and the very worst in this girl, as war so often does.

Like many of my other novels, Secrets of a Charmed Life is historical fiction framed by a contemporary layer linked to the past. An American college student studying abroad at Oxford interviews Blitz survivor Isabel McFarland just when the elderly woman is ready to give up secrets she has kept all her life – beginning with who she really is. The story then takes the reader to England in 1940, where an unprecedented war against London’s civilian population is about to take place and half a million children are evacuated to foster homes in the countryside. Fifteen-year-old Emmy Downtree and her much younger sister Julia find refuge in a charming Cotswold cottage, but Emmy’s burning ambition to return to the city and apprentice with a fashion designer pits her against Julia’s profound need for her sister’s presence. The sisters’ lives are forever changed when—acting at cross purposes—they secretly return to London on the first day of the Blitz.

As always, if you decide to read this book, and I so very much hope you do, I’d love to hear what you thought of it. Your reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and Barnes and Noble are appreciated more than you know. Readers trust other readers, and your honest reaction to any book of mine is the best kind of word of mouth. If you haven’t already ordered a copy of Secrets of A Charmed Life, today would be a great day to do that!

As Iwrite this, Secrets of A Charmed Life is #44 on Goodreads’ Top 200 most anticipated February releases, and #20 on Amazon’s hot new digital releases for February! What a wonderful way to release a new book into the wild.

There are a number of drawings for this book on the web right now. Here’s one of them.  There’s an interview there where I shared some of what I told you above, plus lots more.

Thanks so much for being a part of my life. You are the reason I write.

The Thorn Birds and me

TBirdsI’ve always had an itch to write; most people who know me already know that. But there have been books in my long-ago past that served to assure I would never – must never – grow desensitized to that itch and every now and then I am reminded how grateful I am for those books. Charlotte’s Web was one, so was The Island of the Blue Dolphins, and The Grapes of Wrath. And so was Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds.

When I heard yesterday that Colleen McCullough had passed away, I felt like I’d lost a friend and mentor even though we’d never met. Plus, I had only ever read the one book by her.  I know she wrote other novels but I never read them. She stands out as a pillar on my path to having become a novelist, so perhaps I subconsciously chose to read nothing else by her so that her mark on me couldn’t possibly be sullied by a book not on par (at least to me, anyway) with The Thorn Birds.  

I am not alone in my admiration of this book. It has sold 30 million copies in paperback, 3 million in hard. It was made into a TV mini series that I still hunger to re-watch from time to time. including right now.

I was probably a senior in high school the first time I read The Thorn Birds, in my twenties the second. In my thirties, the third.  I loved how she wove the story over the decades, how she parceled the story out to us by sections separated by names. And oh, the names.meggieandralph

I fell in love with the names Meghann (with the h and the two n’s), Padraic, Fiona, Justine, and Dane. And I’ve never forgotten the shade of the dress Meggie wore when everything was suddenly different: ashes of roses. Such a hauntingly, metaphorical, foreshadowing description of a hue that would’ve been pink if life was easy.

I am not altogether sure why some books stay with you, decades after you’ve read them, other than there is something special about those books that touches you in a place where you are most deeply you.

I was a novelist who hadn’t written anything yet when I first read The Thorn Birds. And then I was a wannabe when I read it again. Then I was a “will I ever be?” And now, I am going to read it again as dear Colleen’s much-lesser-known colleague in the trenches.

Thank you Colleen, for laying kindling on the little fire that would be my offering back to the world…I am forever grateful.

A different kind of book club

parisaptWe’re doing something new and fun at Women’s Fiction Writers that I am pretty jazzed about. We’ve put together a different kind of book club that is all about the word “BEFORE” instead of “after.”  This online club will “get together” over on Facebook to talk about books BEFORE we’ve read them – without giving away any spoilers of course. It’s a book club to talk about out what fabulous new book TO read instead of a club for great books you just read.

That means you can get in on the club anytime and come to the online club meetings – which we are calling Fiction Cafe – and it will never matter if you haven’t read the book, because no one is expected to have read the book. Cool, right? I don’t know about you but there have been times at my physical book club when I’ve not been able to get to the book we’ve chosen. I have always felt like a flunkatoid when that happens. Not so with this one.  Our Fiction Cafe weeks will happen twice a month and will introduce you to new books by great authors and lots more. There will be a drawing of the book, a Q and A with the author, behind-the-scene looks at how the book came to be, photos of historical significance or current day locales or maybe even recipes inspired by the story. Best of all you will get to know the author because you will have the fabulous opportunity to chat together on our Facebook event page.

MichelleGThe first Cafe Week is coming next week, January 12 through 16, and the book we are showcasing is Michelle Gable’s stunning debut, A Paris Apartment. Here’s a little teaser:

When April Vogt’s boss tells her about an apartment in the ninth arrondissement that has been shuttered for the past seventy years, the Sotheby’s continental furniture specialist does not hear the words “dust” or “rats” or “decrepit.” She hears Paris. She hears escape. Once in France, April quickly learns the apartment is not merely some rich hoarder’s repository. Beneath the cobwebs and stale perfumed air is a portrait by one of the masters of the Belle Epoque, Giovanni Boldini. And then there are letters and journals written by the very woman in the painting, Marthe de Florian. Suddenly April’s quest is no longer about the Louis-style armchairs that will fetch millions at auction. It’s about discovering the story behind this charismatic woman.

Library Journal gave it a starred review and said this: “With its well-developed, memorable characters and the author’s skillful transitioning between story lines…this stunning and fascinating debut will capture the interest of a wide audience but particularly those interested in stories about women behind famous men like Melanie Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife or Nancy Horan’s Under the Wide and Starry Sky. Highly recommended.”

All the fun starts on Monday at our Facebook page for this event. Come on over as you start your day, then pop in from time to time as your schedule allows. Michelle will be telling us all about the book without giving away anything, and there will be a book giveaway, and of course, photos of Paris. If you are not a part of Facebook, you might want to join just to be able to come to these fun, free, and fabulous events. Did I mention a drawing for the book??

I will be hosting this first Fiction Cafe Week and I sure hope to see you there!

Have a great weekend and see you Monday at the cafe… Oui?

Not just for Windy devotees…

MakingofGWTWOne of the things I enjoy most about writing historical fiction is the research I must do up front. The novel I am writing for release in 2016 is about two studio secretaries who meet in 1939 during the filming of Gone With The Wind, so I’ve been devouring everything I can about the making of this epic film for about a year, and had been anxiously awaiting the release of Steve Wilson’s The Making of Gone With the Wind.

This beautifully designed book, pretty enough for your coffee table, was well worth the wait. It was just released this autumn in conjunction with a GWTW exhibit at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, where a stellar collection of costumes and such has been on display since September. Steve Wilson’s intriguing look back on the drama of making what is the most popular movie to date is both informational and insightful and the photos and sketches take you right to the sets at Selznick International.

Gone With the Wind, the book and its movie, has endured for a host of reasons; perhaps every person that loves it, loves it for a different reason. And it might be that it’s hated by others for just as many varied reasons. But as Steve Wilson says in his book, “In the seventy-five years since Gone With the Wind premiered, Selznick’s masterpiece has continued to elicit emotional responses from viewers. It is both adored and reviled. The controversies that attended the production of Gone With the Wind remain, and the film continues to be a powerful touchstone for questions of race, gender, violence, and regionalism in America.”

Any backdrop that is a historically powerful touchstone is the perfect place to set a story. I am learning so much about human nature – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful, by writing this novel which at the moment is titled “Stars Over Sunset Boulevard.” And may I just say you don’t have to be a Windie to be impacted by Wilson’s The Making of Gone With the Wind. I wouldn’t call myself a long-suffering devotee. I just know I never tire of watching Gone With the Wind, the soundtrack alone gets me every time I hear it. It is as complex a story as any novelist could hope to deliver centered on the ages-old themes of love, home, and survival. Which is why it is such a powerful film. And always will be.