Category: books

All about heirlooms

To mark the release of A FALL OF MARIGOLDS this month, I am happy to welcome writer friends to the blog to share with you a story about a family heirloom that is precious to them. An heirloom scarf is what ties two women together in A FALL OF MARIGOLDS, and heirlooms are what tie these blog posts together. At the end of the month, there will be a fun giveaway. Enjoy!

Today I’m happy to welcome Heather Barbieri, the USA Today bestselling author of novels Snow in July, The Lace Makers of Glenmara, and The Cottage at Glass Beach. She lives in Seattle with her family. Read to the end to see how you can win a signed copy of The Cottage at Glass Beach.

“As if the books were a part of her…”

Heather BabieriThey are old and new. Covered in tooled leather or glossy paper. Some lettered in gilt. Others illustrated with detailed pen and ink drawings or watercolor paintings of bygone eras. The pages thick, deckled, well-loved. Laughed and wept over. Loved. Collections of fairytales, beastiaries, poems, essays, novels, comprising a library handed down through generations of women in my late mother’s family. Women who escaped, for a time, their difficult lives by turning the pages and stepping into another world.

My grandmother’s early years were nearly Dickensian—orphaned young, married at 17, her first child drowning, my mother born, to replace the one who had been lost, though the marriage ended in divorce at a time Catholics never separated. My grandmother went to work as a secretary to support her young daughter, acquiring more books for her growing library, the classics she would have read if she’d gone to college: Steinbeck, Dickens, Buck, Tolstoy, Maugham, Dostoevsky.

My mother read them all. She was a latchkey child, cooking for herself, keeping house, a child alone much of the time. She began to assemble a her own library, Little Women being a favorite, evidence of a complete, loving family, she hoped to have some day. My grandmother gave her books every holiday, and she carried on the tradition with us, one of which struck a particular chord with me. (Little did she know I’d stay up nearly all night, reading by flashlight.) My mother had a keen literary eye: the work of Joan Aiken (The Wolves of Willoughby Chawolvesse), The Witch of Blackbird Pond, A Wrinkle in Time, stories childhood peril and redemption, which I eagerly devoured. No books were off-limits. I remember being particularly thrilled when, at age 12, I was allowed to read The Thorn Birds and Trinity.

As adults, my mother and I continued to give each other books, conducting a mother-daughter book club by phone. As it turned out, books were at the heart of us in deeper ways than I imagined. I recall being puzzled by my mother’s dislike of Susanna Clarke’s fabulous Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell—I’d been so sure she would adore it; it was right in her literary wheelhouse—and she probably would have, even a year or two before. But with its length and copious footnotes, the book asked too much of her. It wasn’t until later that I understood why: her memory was being eroded by the illness that would take her life suddenly, a condition that was a cousin of Alzheimer’s, attacking the brain and giving its victims a series of strokes, one of which felled her that afternoon. Four days later, she was gone.

Certain books became bittersweet signposts. While visiting myHeatherGlassCottage dad, I noticed a beloved novel I’d given her, Old Filth by Jane Gardam, which she’d been reading at the time on my recommendation, on a side table by her reading chair, the place she’d left off held by a bookmark. She’d apparently just passed the scene in which the main character’s wife falls down dead in the garden, which, by eerie coincidence, had been my mother’s fate too.

I caught my breath. It was as if the books, in some strange way, knew. As if the books were a part of her, and me, too, binding us together, holding our many lively discussions and observations sparked by their stories, a precious legacy now. What was a love of the written word expanded to contain a love of my mother too, inspiring, in part, my most recent book, The Cottage at Glass Beach, and my novel-in-progress, as I attempt to add to the family library, the story of us, with each book I read and write.

Thanks, Heather for a beautifully crafted reminder of how books leave their marks on us. If you have a US postal address, you can be in on the drawing for Heather’s newest book, The Cottage at Glass Beach, by commenting below. Did you have a favorite book growing up? Is there an heirloom book in your home library? Do tell!  Post your comment here by noon Pacific on Feb 9.

A great month is in store!

FallMarigolds_final coverOn Tuesday, my first book with Penguin NAL, A FALL OF MARIGOLDS, will be released out into the world — always a wonderful, terrifying day. I love the characters in this book and I almost feel badly for what I put them through. Almost.  I am anxious about its debut, of course, and since I aim to please, I really want you all to like it.  It’s a dual time-periods story, like my last five have been, with the majority of the tale centering around a grieving nurse named Clara living at Ellis Island’s hospital in 1911. Her story is paired with that of a 9/11 widow named Taryn one hundred years later. The two never meet, but a scarf patterned in marigolds will bring them together in a way that I hope you find compelling.

To celebrate the release of A FALL OF MARIGOLDS, on Monday a blog tour will begin and which will continue throughout the month of February. The book and me will be featured on more than 50 blogs, more than half of which will participate in a drawing for some really cool stuff!

One winner from among all those who post a comment on the blogs will win the grand prize, which includes a beautiful up-cycled infinity scarf (made from Gift basket itemsa real vintage Indian sari), a signed copy of A FALL OF MARIGOLDS, a DVD copy of the PBS documentary Forgotten Ellis Island, and a $100 Visa gift card.  In addition, one winner from each individual blogger’s commenters will win a signed copy of the book. The grand prize winner from among all the participating blogs as well as the individual book winners will be chosen by random drawing. Comments must be posted by midnight Eastern on Feb 28. (The contest is limited to those residing in the United States.)

On Monday I will post the complete list of participating blogs so that you can begin the tour. Just hop over to the blogs each day and drop a comment in the comment section (just one comment per blog) and you’re in the running. The content of the blog tour (the question and and answer part) will likely be the same from blog to blog, but the blogs themselves are all different, and hosted by gifted people whom I hope you will get to know and want to revisit in the future.  Plus you will want to check back with them to see if you are the individual winner of a signed copy of A FALL OF MARIGOLDS — there will be a winner of a book on every blog!

I am so looking forward to hearing from you in the weeks and months ahead. I love hearing back from you, even if you DON’T like a book I’ve written. It actually helps to hear why, for I very much want to make your reading time memorable. Hope to see you along for the ride this month!

The overlapping of lives…

the postmistressI’ve had Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress on the bedside table for more than a year, waiting for life to slow down so that I could read it. It kept getting pushed to the wayside by the famed tyranny of the urgent until I finally realized my reasons for needing to read it were of the urgent type. This book is set during World War 2, some of it in London during the Blitz, and as I am needing to finish the book I am writing next (it’s due on Feb 1!) and it’s also set during World War 2 during the Blitz, I knew I needed to cast aside all other books and read it. I am so glad I did. Not just because the story answered some lingering research questions, but because the prose was so delicious.

The Postmistress is about three women, really, in a time of war. There is Iris, the postmistress; Emma, the young doctor’s new wife; and Frankie, the radio correspondent on assignment in London during the Blitz of 1940. The book is less about letters and the post office and more about what we might do to withhold truth from someone we think is better off not knowing it. I love how Sarah Blake begins an interview with The Help’s Kathryn Stockett. Stockett asked her to describe where the idea for the book came from and here is Blake’s answer:

The Postmistress began with a picture that sprang into my head one day, of a woman sorting the mail in the back of a post office, quietly slipping a letter into her pocket instead of delivering it. Immediately, questions flooded forward: Whose letter was it? Why on earth would she choose to pocket it? What havoc would be wreaked by not delivering a letter? As I answered those questions, Emma and Will and their love story, and the workings of the small town in which Iris was the center, came to life. One hundred pages into that draft, Frankie Bard arrived on the bus, out of the blue. I had no idea who she was or why she was there, except that one character referred to her as a war correspondent without a war. That was interesting, I thought. By this time I had decided to set the novel in the late thirties, early forties. It was 2001 and I was living in Washington, D.C., after the attacks of 9/11, and I was very preoccupied with trying to make sense of what was happening around me. Were we in danger? Would we go to war? The parallels between that uncertain time and the time before the United States entered World War II resonated with me, and what was a novel about accident and fate and the overlapping of lives deepened into a novel with war as its backdrop, which asked questions about how we understand ourselves to be in a historical moment and what we do when we are called to it.”

I love this answer because this is often how stories come to me, vaporous and barely there, but then I imagine someone and I see them doing what they do everyday, only today is different. And then I just start asking why.

And thus begins the overlapping of lives that is every story I love and every story I try to write.

Here are some great quotes from the book. If you are in a blazing hurry, wait until you have time for it. This is a story to be read when you have time to think and ponder…

“Every story – love or war – is a story about looking left when we should have been looking right.”


“Some stories don’t get told. Some stories you hold on to. To stand and watch and hold it in your arms was not cowardice. To look straight at the beast and feel its breath on your flanks and not to turn–one could carry the world that way.”


“They sat together, the four of them, a little longer, before Harry rose slowly to his feet. It was Thursday. It was the end of the afternoon. It was time to pick up and carry on to the other side of the day.”


“She imagined she could pull Time like taffy, stretching it longer and longer between her hands until the finest point had been reached, the point just before breaking, and she could live there. A point at the center of time with no going forward, no going back. Clasped in this way, without speaking, walking into no discernible ending, she could almost believe they tread on time.”

There is so much more like about Sarah Blake’s mastery with words. If you’ve read The Postmistress, I’d love to hear your thoughts…

Light Between Oceans

Light Between OceansAfter four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne, a kind but changed veteran of the Western Front, comes home to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on a tiny and remote island, 100 miles from the coast. He brings with him his new bride, Isabel. Some years later, after miscarriages and a stillbirth, a very sad Isabel hears a baby’s cry. A boat has washed up onshore. Inside are a dead man and a crying baby.

Tom, a rule-keeper and an honest man, wants to send word to the mainland but Isabel convinces him that God has brought this poor orphan to them. With milk still in her breasts from the birth of their stillborn baby, Isabel convinces Tom they are perfectly placed to care for this infant girl who would be just be an unloved ward of the state if they were to alert the authorities. They name her Lucy and begin to raise her as their own. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland for a respite and to see their families. That trip will change everything. You can only live on an island where you are the only ones in the world for so long…

M. L. Stedman’s book is called “mesmerizing, beautifully written,” and I would have to agree.  In no time at all I was swept away into Isabel’s flawed but understandable desires, Tom’s unflagging love for his wife and yet his devotion to doing the right thing, and the other characters in the book who have a stake in what is to become of an innocent child. Sometimes there are no easy answers, even if love is at the heart of every nagging detail.

This is a book to keep you up at night, turning pages.

Welcome, Robin Lee Hatcher

robinleeWhen my dear friend and fellow novelist Robin Lee Hatcher’s marriage ended in divorce some years ago, she remembers being devastated. In the following years she learned that sometimes God answers prayer in the most unexpected ways. God used the pain of what appeared to be a failed marriage to draw her closer. I am happy to welcome Robin to my blog home today to talk about her new book, A Promise Kept, which was born from that difficult experience.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about A Promise Kept and specifically how your own life inspired this story?
Robin: A Promise Kept opens as Allison Kavanagh arrives at the house her aunt Emma bequeathed to her — a log home in the mountains. Her marriage of more than twenty years has ended in divorce because of her husband’s alcoholism. She was so certain God had promised to save her marriage, but obviously she was wrong. Now she is moving from Boise to Kings Meadow to start life afresh and find a way to heal from her heartbreak.

Like Allison, my marriage ended in divorce because of my husband’s alcoholism. I was devastated because I’d been so convinced God had promised me He would save our marriage. I had believed His promise through many difficult times, but it hadn’t come to pass. I knew God didn’t lie. Therefore, I must have misunderstood.

But God had many things to teach me in the following years, including that He answers prayers in totally unexpected ways and in His own time, not mine. One of those unexpected ways was realized when my husband and I were remarried more than five years later. God used the divorce to save our marriage!

Q: So how does your husband feel this book and your story as a couple kind of being out in the open?
Robin: Thanks so much for asking this question. In order to honor my husband, I made certain from the very beginning that he was on-board for me to write about and talk about our marriage — which would mean talking about him and his battles with addiction. His response was, “If my story can help someone else, use it.”

PromiseKeptQ: How much of your main character’s situation is based on your own life?
Robin: While my characters are never me — I allow them to be individuals and allow their lives to unfold in their own way — there are always pieces of me in them. Allison’s life is not the same as mine. I didn’t retreat to a mountain cabin nor have an aunt whose journals helped me discover truths I needed to know, nor did I withdraw from God during the depths of my grief as Allison does. But every lesson God teaches me eventually makes its way into one of my stories. That was certainly true of A Promise Kept.

Q: Because of what you went through, what do you say now to someone who feels like God has abandoned her?
Robin: Hold onto Him no matter what. We only see such a tiny scrap of reality. God sees the whole picture. He knows you intimately, and He loves you extravagantly. He hasn’t abandoned you.

Faith isn’t about feelings. We cannot trust our feelings. The Bible warns us that the heart is deceptive. If you are feeling abandoned, get into God’s word and do a study on His character. When you know His character, you will cease to fear that He might leave you alone in your trials.

 Q: What is the most important thing God taught you during this difficult time in your life?
Robin: Not the most important but certainly the most surprising was when I realized I had reached the place where I could thank God for my marriage to an alcoholic and mean it. Because of what happened in my marriage, my faith was deepened and strengthened. I learned to hold onto the foot of the cross so tightly that I could feel the splinters in the palms of my hands. No matter what comes, I’m holding onto the Lord, from where my help comes.

I consider my life lesson to be this: Nothing, absolutely nothing, enters my life that isn’t caused or allowed by God, filtered through His loving hands, for the purpose of making me more like Jesus.

Q: I’ve found that when things don’t work out the way we want them to, it’s pretty easy to blame God. What would you say to someone wrestling with these feelings?
Robin: Blaming God for things not working out the way we want is a fruitless action. And it means we still believe that life is about us. Me and my happiness. You and your happiness. But it isn’t. Not in the way we think, anyway.

About ten or so years ago, I was standing in my office, weeping over my husband and our marriage. Big crocodile tears that splattered loudly when they hit the floor mat. I asked God, “Why?” What I meant was, “Why me?” And after a long period of time, I felt God speak to my heart, “Why not you, beloved?” It quieted me, stopped me cold. Yes, why not me? Did I think I was so special that I could avoid what Christ told me would be true? Jesus said, “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”

Q: In your letter to readers, which appears at the end of A Promise Kept, you talk about how your divorce felt like a failure. How did God turn that failure around in your life?
Robin: When we were first married, my husband and I promised until death do us part. We meant it. So it felt like failure when God told me to “let go” of him after nearly a year of separation, even though I was acting in obedience. What I couldn’t see or understand at first was that God needed to get my husband off by himself so the two of them could work on his life without me being there as a safety net, as the strong one. I believe my husband would have died if we continued on the way we had been, but I didn’t see it that way at the time. I had to stand back and let God be God.

Q: Alcoholism played a large part in your marriage and eventually your divorce. What gave you the strength to continue to pray for your husband even when no answer seemed to come?
Robin: Strength comes from believing deep down in my soul that God is in control and that He wants the best for both me and my husband. I don’t always know what that “best” is, but He does.

Me again! Thanks, Robin, for being here! It’s always nice to have friends over for a chat. If you want to get to know Robin better, visit her at her lovely website. She is one of the kindest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. If you have a question for Robin, I know she’d be happy to answer it. Ask away…


I wanted to but I couldn’t

BellmanI remember reading once that Harper Lee didn’t write another novel after To Kill a Mockingbird because she knew readers would expect too much with a second book and that kind of pressure was wholly unattractive. Perhaps Margaret Mitchell felt the same way after Gone With the Wind. We readers can be heartless in our desire to be wooed and won at a more breath-taking level than the book before.

Some years ago I read, nay, devoured Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale. I told every one I knew who loved fiction to read it, it was such a well-written, captivating tale. I read the book a second time for book club, and then a third time to just study the craft of having a young, idealistic protagonist cross paths with a much older realist; a pairing I wanted for The Shape of Mercy which I wrote in 2007.

I waited and waited for Ms. Setterfield to write a second book, and while I read many other novels in the interim, The Thirteenth Tale remained in my perennial  top five. When people would ask me to recommend a book in those in-between years, I would invariably ask, “Have you read The Thirteenth Tale?” and if they hadn’t, I would tell them that was the book they needed to read next.

So when I learned that, after eight years,  a new Setterfield book was on the horizon, I gleefully pre-ordered it – months before it was to hit bookstore shelves- and counted the days. Bellman & Black arrived on my doorstep in all its hardback beauty two days after its release. I had to finish another book I was reading and I itched to be done so that I could crack open the Setterfieldian pages and consume them.

I finished the book last night.  I can only say that I wanted so very much to be transported to another place with the story, just as I had been before. My expectations were high, perhaps illogically so. Perhaps with The Thirteenth Tale it was the writer’s story, not the story’s writer that so captivated me before. Perhaps it was something unique about me that made The Thirteenth Tale resonate within me, rather than something unique about its author.  The prose in Bellman & Black was lovely, Setterfield is still a master, but I never left the room while reading her second book. And I wanted to. Too much so. I wanted to be transported. I was not.

Perhaps I need to book-club this one to appreciate it properly. Sometimes it’s only after I’ve discussed a book with people that I realize what I missed. Some reader reviewers have said Bellman & Black is too dark; but so was The Thirteenth Tale, so I don’t think for me, that it was because there wasn’t enough light. As a novelist myself I know that in every great story, the main character has to be on a quest, a pursuit to have something he doesn’t have, and he has to overcome recognizable and somewhat relatable obstacles to get it. Doesn’t matter if you are reading Green Eggs and Ham or The Silence of the the Lambs. The protagonist, flawed but likeable, must want something and must overcome opposition to get it. What the character wants must be something we readers understand and WANT them to want. Their opposition must also be understood and recognizable. This is how we become emotionally invested. This is what keeps us turning pages. This is what transports us. The clash of the quest and the character and the conflict must captivate us.

Otherwise you just have words on a page. They can be great words, skillfully placed. But unless they transport, they remain words.

Not a ticket.

Will I read Setterfield again? Absolutely. This one just wasn’t the trip for me.

My favorite reads of 2013

speakingWhenever a year ends and I look back at its days to see which books were my favorite of all those I read, I always get a teensy bit melancholy. Part of me finds it a bid sad that the books that were my favorite have been read. I can’t read them again for the first time. And sadder still? I probably won’t be able to read them again — ever — because of the other thing that makes me a bit blue on the look-back, and that is that the number of books is always less than what I had hoped for.  The mantra that there are too many books and too little time has never been more true than this stage of my life. The To-Be-Read pile at my bedside (which could double nicely as a ladder to the stars) is now becoming eclipsed by the invisible tower inside my Kindle.  I find it funny and pathetic that earlier this year I bought Orphan Train (yes, one of my other faves for 2013) read it, and then found the dang thing buried on my Kindle – from an earlier purchase in 2013. Sheesh. All that aside, 2013 was a great year for books. Here are my five favorites, in no order at all. It wasn’t easy to pick just five, by the way. I had to look at their covers — in color — and gauge how just the mere visual nudge made me feel inside. Here are the five that made me feel the pull of a magnet at just another glance at their covers…


Here was a book that had been sleeping on the TBR shelf all 2012. I finally pulled it out when it became my local book club’s pick. I remember thinking that I didn’t have time to read a nearly-700-page novel, especially in a squished time frame, and I nearly took that month off from my beloved book club. But Abraham Verghese’s masterpiece had me from the very first page. I simply had to know what would become of the likeable and utterly compelling narrator, Marion Stone. The prose was delicious and there were many lines that cut me to the core. Like this one: “Wasn’t that the definition of home? Not where you are from, but where you are wanted.” And this one: “The key to your happiness is to…own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don’t. [Otherwise] you’ll die searching, you’ll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more. Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny.”



Here was another that had been on the AYEGTRI pile (Aren’t You Ever Going To Read It!?) I finally did just that after months and months and months of hearing how wonderful a book it was. What finally got me going was I began doing research for a World War II book I was writing.  This is quite likely one of the most cleverly constructed novels I’ve read in a long time (as was “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”) and I was completely taken by the devastating charm of the narrator. That’s all I will say. If you haven’t read it yet, what are you waiting for? And please, do yourself a favor and read the book before you go see the movie.



life after lifeLIFE AFTER LIFE

Speaking of research for World War II, this gem by Kate Atkinson had me spellbound from the first line. And interestingly enough, this was the only book in 2013 that I had read to me, in that I listened to this book on CD on a long car trip to the Sierras. Perhaps having a plethora of British voices speaking the story to me was what fully captivated me, but I am thinking even if I’d read the print version, I’d still be talking this book’s praises. The premise alone is brilliant, and the execution of that premise is stellar. Can you imagine what it would be like to keep living your life over and over and over again, and being only barely aware that you are doing so? What would you change? What would you run from or run to or run over? This was Time magazine’s number one choice for Book of the Year, and GoodReads Best of 2013 historical fiction award-winner. I would have to concur.


secretkeeperblog2THE SECRET KEEPER

Kate Morton is one of my tippy-top favorite novelists ever. I love her style, her voice, her care with words, her attention to detail, the skill of her story weave, and her appreciation for her readers. If you’ve read nothing by her before, can I just gently say, where the Dickens have you been? I loved this book, as I have loved everything she has written. It is also a World War II book, but it’s much more than that. If you like stories with overlapping time periods and special attention given to each of the main characters, you are in for a treat. After you read this one, get your hands on The Forgotten Garden, The House at Riverton and The Distant Hours.




I’ve been a fan of Khaled Hosseini’s story-telling since he whisked me away with The Kite Runner. What I liked best about And The Mountains Echoed might be the very thing that others who’ve read him before didn’t like. And that was the lack of a singular main protagonist on an obvious chronological pursuit of happiness.  This story is different, it is more episodic, far less linear than his other two books, and because it was so masterfully done, I loved this aspect of this book. And quotable quotes? They abound in the pages. Like this one: “It’s a funny thing… but people mostly have it backward. They think they live by what they want. But really, what guides them is what they’re afraid of. What they don’t want.” And this one: “For courage, there must be something at stake.”  And this one: “They say, Find a purpose in your life and live it. But, sometimes, it is only after you have lived that you recognize your life had a purpose, and likely one you never had in mind.”

So there you have it. My top 5! Were any of these in your top reads for 2013? What were your top 5? I’d love to know!

Blue Heart, Big Blessing

Sarah bookSo here’s a little story to make you smile. A few years back, I wrote a book about a woman who, after getting stood up at the altar, decides to open a used wedding dress boutique in a brave to attempt to sell her custom-made, dress-of-her-dreams wedding gown. The book, entitled Blue Heart Blessed, was so named because the main character, Daisy, sewed a little blue satin heart that had been blessed by an Episcopal priest, into the inside of each dress she sold, so that those beautiful gowns could be properly repurposed. The story was primarily about Daisy needing to sell her dress and her inability to let it go, but in the meantime, she helped lots of brides find beautiful dresses, each one with a tiny blue heart stitched inside.  The uptown boutique was called Something Blue and I situated it in St. Paul. (The book is sadly no longer in print, but it is available as an e-book for a great price and has a fun, new cover!)

Last week, when I held a little contest on my Facebook author page where I offered a print copy of Blue Heart Blessed to a lucky winner who correctly guessed the year I got married (based on a very hip-looking pic of my hubby and me). One of the responses was from a lovely reader named Sarah. Sarah told me that she had loved Blue Heart Blessed when she read it, and that her story was similar to Daisy’s. And she found herself wanting to re-christen a beautiful wedding gown that she had not yet worn as a bride.

Sarah dress Sarah heart Sarah sewingShe wrote: “My first engagement was much like Daisy’s – we already had the dress, the photographer, the banquet hall, the decorations…and after it ended, I didn’t know what to do with my dress. That’s when my mother Sarah couplesuggested making a blue heart. We made a blue heart for my wedding dress and asked my Uncle (who is a pastor) to bless it. I just recently got married in September and we sewed my blue heart into my dress as it was a dress I had purchased when I had been engaged several years earlier.  Now, after meeting Andrew, I understand that God has a perfect plan for me and that I just needed to wait and trust in Him.”

She sent me these lovely photos and was so sweetly generous to let me post them here. Thank you, Sarah! And congratulations!

It pays to pay attention

RuinsSo I know my short term memory ain’t what it used to be. I walk into a room and have no idea why I am there and I will meet someone new and within a minute of being introduced will have forgotten their name. But today’s was a first.

I figured out I am reading the wrong book for book club next week. Last month I ordered The Light In The Ruins by Chris Bojhalian for my Kindle without bothering to double-check the email from the book club prez, because of course I remembered what this month’s selection was. It was The Light In The Ruins. I started reading it, got interested, and then happened across the aforementioned e-mail.

OceansImagine my surprise when I read that the book I am SUPPOSED to be reading is The Light Between Oceans.  Sheesh. Back I go, via my fingertips, to the Kindle store to get the right book and thank God for cyberspace because two seconds later I had the correct book and still a whole week to read it.

But dangnabbit, now I’m going to have to pick up Ruins right after book club, even though I’ve a ton of other books on the TBR pile, because I just have to find out who killed Francesca. . .

Now if I had just happened to buy the wrong book that is titled the same as another, I wouldn’t feel so dumb. As in the two novels entitled Life After Life, one by Kate Atkinson and the other by Jill McCorkle, both of which  came out at the same time earlier this year (go figure). I’ve not read McCorkle’s yet, although I’ve a signed copy, met her, and heard her speak about this book at a local San Diego event.  It’s on that towering TBR pile of mine! I did read Katetwin lives Atkinson’s, though, and was blown away. It is incredibly clever, haunting, and compelling. It also just won some big awards from GoodReads and Time magazine, so I am not alone in my praise for it.

All that is to say, if you need a book recommendation, I have four. The answer is “E”, all of the above.

And please tell me you have done what I did . . .


Story by notes and posts

BernadetteThe first epistolary novel I read as a young adult, at least that I can remember reading, is C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, a classic book-by-epistle about a demon instructing a junior demon on the many ways to quietly trip up us mere mortals, and a book that will no doubt never cease to be in print. That reading was closely followed, by The Fan, a 1977 thriller-type novel about a Hollywood star slowly terrorized by an off-his-rocker devotee and the entire story is told by letters and telegrams. At least that’s what I think the story’s premise was. That particular book appears to have long been out of print.

I like the epistolary novel.  Love it, actually. My favorite of late, probably a favorite of many of you is The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, which I loved, loved, loved.

It’s an intriguing, challenging and unconventional way to tell a story. And I don’t think it’s an easy feat to pull off. I’ve used that device in my own novels and I know how limiting it can be. In fact, I’ve only ever used it to tell part of the book, not the whole thing. In The Shape of Mercy, I used diary. In A Sound Among the Trees, I used letters a Confederate woman wrote to a Yankee cousin and never sent. I remember thinking as I writing Susannah’s letters to her cousin Eleanor in Maine that she was starting to sound like she was narrating the story, not writing a letter. And I didn’t know what to do about it. Letters have a certain feel that is different from narrative.

All that said, I enjoyed Maria Semple’s epistolary Where’d You Go Bernadette. A lot. It was clever, funny, sassy, at times tender and poignant. And if you don’t look too closely at emails that read like narrative, it’s a seamless read that will seriously have you laughing out loud on modes of public transportation.

The story in a nutshell is this: To Bernadette Fox’s husband,”she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle—and people in general—has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic. To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence—creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.”

Some of my favorite lines are these:

“Maybe that’s what religion is, hurling yourself off a cliff and trusting that something bigger will take care of you and carry you to the right place.”


“I felt so full of love for everything. But at the same time, I felt so hung out to dry there, like nobody could ever understand. I felt so alone in this world, and so loved at the same time.”


“People like you must create. If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society.”

A caveat, though. If you are loyal to Microsoft or you’re Canadian you might feel a tad insulted. I don’t live in Seattle so I am not in the know as to how the average Seattleite looks at the MS techno-giant or the international neighbors to the North. Every novelist has to create a context from which her characters spring, even if it’s a fabricated context or overdrawn from reality. Or right on the money. I wasn’t bothered. But I live in San Diego.

GuernseyIf you’re looking for something very different in a novel, and need some levity mixed with drama, pick it up. It’s unlike the last novel you read, I’m fairly certain of that.

Unless you’ve been shopping from this Wiki list of contemporary epistolary novels

And if you have been, do please share your favorite. Let’s chat.