The world building elements in Patti Callahan Henry’s The Secret Book of Flora Lea are as varied and finely wrought as brush strokes on canvas. In the enchanting story’s two timeframes, the reader is taken into a quaint hamlet outside Oxford; pastoral fields beside the river Thames; a stone cottage with flourishing gardens; the fairy tale setting of Whisperwood; an antiquated bookstore in London’s town center; and, at the heart of the unfolding mystery, a secret between sisters evacuated from WWII London that haunts Hazel Linden well into 1960.
Excited to be taking an upwardly mobile position at Sotheby’s, on her last day of employment at Hogan’s Rare Book Shoppe in Bloomsbury, 25-year-old Hazel receives a shocking delivery from America of a recently published book titled, Whisperwood that dredges up the central wound of her past. The associated guilt Hazel harbors is never far from mind. “The dread. The panic. The jealousy of other people having small children at their side . . . Some days, she’d turn to that loss and acknowledge it, and sometimes, for blessed hours, she would forget, but then the shadow would fall long and fast onto her soul and she’d remember this: She lost her sister.”
Examining the book in hand, Hazel’s thoughts turn to 1940s London and “Operation Pied Piper, “a nursery rhyme name for a horror of an idea” that swept 14-year-old Hazel and her five-year-old sister, Flora, to the countryside during an uncelebrated part of England’s history that saw the children of WWII’s London relocated from harm’s way. “Now in the backroom of the small Rare Book Shoppe, the past overcame her. She’d been searching for her sister for twenty years now, ever since she’d disappeared when she was six years old from the hamlet of Binsey, and now Hazel had a clue, something to grasp on to and she was not letting go.”
Hazel’s devotion to discovering the truth behind the disappearance of her sister drives the story, and at its center is a 1940s fairy tale Hazel made up, intending to distract young Flora from the war-torn reality around them. The story grows in magical increments and begins each time, “Not very long ago and not very far away, there was and still is an invisible place right here with us. And if you are born knowing, you will find your way through the woodlands to the simmering doors that lead to the land made just and exactly for you.” The details of the imagined kingdom Hazel named Whisperwood were kept secret between the displaced sisters. When the book with that title falls into Hazel’s hands, so begins an expertly crafted suspenseful mystery.
The two timeframes in The Secret Book of Flora Lea create high stakes motivation as Hazel endeavors to discover what happened to Flora, while securing her own future. By 1960, Hazel has made a neat life for herself, despite her family’s unhealed backstory. Engaged to a young man from a prominent family and on course as a purveyor of rare books, when the past comes to haunt, questions of life’s priorities come to the fore, tipping the scale to the importance of family.
The supporting characters oscillate with fluid strategy throughout the story, as Hazel Linden, against all odds, refuses to accept the final judgement on her sister’s disappearance. Callahan Henry keeps the reader in character invested suspense. When all characters are brought into surprising alignment, Hazel asks herself, “Is this where hope met despair? Where the past rushed to the present? Where joy replaced the agony of the lost?”
Patti Callahan Henry delivers, yet again, an historically layered, dreamy tale that keeps the anglophile fires burning, on the heels of her acclaimed 2021 release, Once Upon a Wardrobe. Her descriptive detail is cinematic. Fourteen-year-old Hazel Linden, newly re-homed at the Aberdeen’s countryside cottage, gazes out the kitchen window in the hamlet of Binsey: “What a place this was, Hazel thought. All the wide green space to run; the rippling of the sky that touched the horizon of trees unobstructed by a cathedral or tall building. It was as if by taking a simple train ride the world had unfolded, presenting itself in long stretches of rolling hills and heather fields.”
A charming story that weaves fairy tale, mystery, and historical importance with a good dose of romance, The Secret Book of Flora Lea will appeal to all ages, as the author unfurls a fantastic story about “an invisible place right here with us.”
“‘Annie’s Song’ is an open-hearted memoir about a life spent loving the most vulnerable among us. These are stories full of joy and life that keep loved ones close, even after they’ve passed from this world. This poetic writing of untiring advocacy, compassionate witness, and deep love is a gift to the enormous community of writers-yes, those who have felt seen and uplifted by Annie McDonnell over the years, but also those who might be hearing her voice saying ‘you matter’ for the first time. This book is our chance to see how a life of empathy is born.” -Diane Zinna, author of “The All-Night Sun”
My Interview with Author Annie McDonnell:
I’d like to congratulate Annie McDonnell on Annie’s Song: Dandelions, Dreams and Dogs appearing pre-release at #2 Amazon Hot New Releases in Biographies/Memoirs for People with Disabilities and #21 Amazon Hot New Releases in Poetry/Grief, Death and Loss.
Q: In the book description of Annie’s Song: Dandelions, Dreams , and Dogs, it reads: “Annie’s experiential memoir, for which she’s provided QR codes linking to her favorite songs throughout, allows the reader to get a hint of what it’s like living suspended between this earthly existence and the afterlife.”
Can you tell us what it is that makes your memoir experimental?
A: The experiential element of this book is a vital part of my approach. I’d like the reader to have an experience when reading “Annie’s Song.” At the beginning of the book, I invite the reader to experience the book and give them ideas to engage each of the five senses. The first is the visual, and there are design elements throughout the book meant to make you slow down and absorb the essays and poems. I believe if you close your eyes, you might recall part of your own story or maybe that of a friend of yours. These stories can help you gain more empathy and compassion. The next sense will be touch, which will activate when you’re holding the book or Kindle in your hands. The next is scent, which is the most difficult one for me to offer, but a powerful one because certain scents have been proven to be a important trigger for memory. I typically offer it in all of my swag bags. Light a scented candle or some incense. I suggest choosing a scent that you absolutely adore. The next one is taste. Jennifer, who you’ll learn about, gave me a sticker that said, “She loved me more than chocolate itself, so whenever I’m reading a good book, I like to indulge in a piece of chocolate. Lastly, I invite you to enjoy your sense of hearing. I have included QR codes to add music to each essay and poem. Each song is tied to a particular person, event or time in my life, and the music fits what the memory means to me.
Q: How have you developed your career as a writer?
A: Honestly, I’ve wanted to write since third grade. But since I didn’t know how to become an author, I became a book reviewer. I absolutely love being a book reviewer. I had to learn how to be creative and interesting when I wrote the reviews. And then a few years ago, everything was just birthed from love among friends and teachers like Diane Zinna, Jennifer and Gordon, and Lauri Schoenfeld, Lisa C, Kerry Anne King and more. I started reading my essays and poems to some of my closest friends, and I was hooked. After my grief writing class, I’d call Echo Garrett of Lucid House Publishing and read my essays and poetry to her. She told me she would be honored to publish my book. She truly believed that they were wonderful. And my husband said, ”Annie, Echo believes in your work so much, you should let her publish a book she’d be the perfect person.” It’s been an amazing feat to get this book right. I had a lot of requests and then Lucid House editors and the designer had a lot of wonderful ideas.
Q: What gave you the idea to write this book?
A: The whole premise of this book came from my grappling with trying to understand how the various traumas that I have carried through the years may have contributed to my illnesses. Sometimes I do believe I carry them because of survivor’s guilt. Other times I believe what doctors at Mayo Clinic say. They told me that when I broke my neck in a car accident in1989 that spinal fluid got into my bloodstream, which caused an infection, and that’s why I had all these illnesses. I later found that the root of most of my diseases are the genes that I was born with. However, both the accident and other traumas that I carry could certainly contribute to me not healing properly or not going into remission like some people do. My health just always seems to be declining. I’ve been bullied online by plenty of people claiming I’m not sick. Over the years, I have had some doctors misdiagnose me or doubt that I was that sick. At one point, I started doubting myself and thought maybe I was going nuts and there wasn’t really anything wrong with me. But I did not stop fighting for myself, because I knew what I was feeling was real.
My hope for “Annie’s Song” would be that readers will either see themselves or somebody they know in my story. I want my words to wrap around their heart and foster empathy, compassion, and kindness. The world needs a lot more love and understanding. Often, your struggles stem from traumas that others don’t know we have had. I have been told that I let myself be a pincushion. I have also been told that I should be over my traumas. We have to stop blaming someone who is suffering for being sick or having a hard time with a traumatic event. For those of us with invisible wounds and illnesses, such statements only add to our pain.
Q: The idea of providing QR codes to your favorite songs is unique! Can you tell us three songs that are included in your book?
A: The idea to provide the QR codes was because we couldn’t name the artist, the group, or the song but legally we can use QR codes that connect to the performer’s personal YouTube videos. To understand a moment in time, you need to know the music of that era. Music brings it to life, and music is a healer. When I was caring for my stepmother when she had breast cancer, I would put on music and dance with her to get her to the bathroom. She would laugh, and say, “You make dying fun.“ That was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received in my life, and taking care of her was one of my highest honors. A few of the songs included are: “Easy on Me” – Adele, “World Before You” – Lauren Duski, and “Ain’t No Sunshine “ – Bill Withers
Q: What inspired your book’s title?
A: I’m inspired by writing and songs that have a series of beats—where you feel like you can actually hear the heartbeat of the writer or the musician. Writers and musicians have so much in common. We are all storytellers. It was too perfect to name it “Annie’s Song: Dandelions, Dreams and Dogs.” If you listen to the lyrics of John Denver’s song that’s what my book is about: “You fill up my senses,” “Come Let Me love you,” and “Let me die in your arms.” His song perfectly sums up my life.
I’d also like to believe that my book has a beautiful heartbeat, a lot of love between the covers. My hope is that this book will be remembered, the kind of book that you read again and again, just as “Annie’s Song” is still beloved all these decades later.
Q: Can you tell us about your work with dogs?
When we lost our dog Simon, who is on the cover of the book, I had to find a place to put all of his love. His presence was still in the house. I could feel it, so I started what I called #OperationSimon. I started volunteering for One Love Dog Rescue. I started off as a foster. I failed on two of them and wound up adopting them myself. One got adopted. Everything I did, I called #OperationSimon. It made me feel like he was still here. The statement “who rescued who?” is not lost on me. Then I started doing pick-ups in Queens and at JFK airport and then I went to New Jersey. I just had so much fun picking up the dogs as a FREEDOM RIDER. Not many volunteers want to do that job, but I’m in love with picking up these dogs and loving on them. When I got them in my car, I cleaned them up. I would sing to them. I would take them out of their crates. I tried to get them as comfortable as I could before we made the trek out from JFK, Newark or Queens to the eastern end of Long Island. I have some great stories about these pick-ups, and one day I hope to tell them.
I worked every fundraiser for many years. Now, I help with fundraisers when I can. I also love sending thank you cards to donors and adopters. I also help to press releases in all the local papers for events that we’re having, and I hope to God one day I get to be a freedom rider again. That’s the best thing I ever did.
Q: What is the targeted audience for your memoir?
People who have illnesses or are disabled and those who have experienced trauma, grief or loss in the course of their lives. I believe that this book is good for everybody for the simple fact that it promotes compassion and empathy for others and for those of us, who tend to be hardest of all on ourselves.
Q: Where is your book available?
It’s available in print and eBook from independent bookstores, Bookshop.org, all major online retailers, libraries, and has global distribution in major markets around the world. An audiobook will be released at a later date.
You will laugh, cry, and be moved. In this shimmering debut, a cross-genre blend of memoir, auto-fiction, magical realism, and poetry. Annie pours out her dreams, her loves, and her hopes along with grief, medical misdiagnoses, and innumerable losses. Her determination to live a life of love, joy, and meaning despite her great suffering shines throughout her essays and poems.
Meet Annie McDonnell:
A lifelong reader and advocate for writers and books, Annie McDonnell is an Alum of High Point University, Class of 1991.
In 2006, Annie won a contest with Elle and became a book reviewer for the magazine. When Elle stopped running book reviews in print, Annie moved to blogging and The Write Review community was born.
Annie is the author of her debut “Annie’s Song: Dandelions, Dreams & Dogs,” released on 3/14/2023. Writing book reviews, blurbs, articles and beta reading for almost two decades. Annie hosts interviews authors and runs workshops. She enjoys consulting with authors and planning online events. While having fun as a co-admin to the World of the Write Review Book Club, she also runs The Write Review page and blog.
In December 2020, Annie was the recipient of the Doug Marlette Award for a lifetime achievement in book promotion.
Annie lives in Mastic, NY, with her husband, three beautiful dogs and five adorable cats. She also volunteers at One Love Dog Rescue as much as possible. Annie supports both Adult & Children’s Literacy through book drives and Operation Paperback.
A beautiful, timeless, and timely collection of inspirational passages to use as a daily touchstone, Roma Downey’s Be an Angel: Devotions to Inspire and Encourage Love and Light Along the Way makes good on its title. It’s lovely in its optimism, succinct in its knowledge, efficient in its compact arrangement, and wonderfully structured for the reader’s convenience.
That actress, producer, and author, Roma Downey is a household name due to her starring role as an angel in the nine-year run of the fantasy/drama television show, Touched by an Angel, which justifies her hand in writing this book; it is her humility to which we’re attracted. In the book’s introduction, the author states her impetus in writing the book: “Over the years, because of my role on TV, people often mistook me for an actual angel.” Realizing the responsibility of her high-profile position, she explains how she rose to the challenge: “Della taught me that if we’re going to be used by God, we need to let go of our expectations and get out of the way.”
The 52 chapters of Be an Angel encourage the book’s use as a daily devotional to ponder in an incremental manner that, once coalesced, will impress as an overall way of being in the world, “bringing light into darkness.”
The chapters are neat and accessible, each beginning with a recognizable, inspirational quote followed compatibly by a short example of Downey’s personal experience to illustrate her point. Her manner is intimate and confessional. Her concerns are universal. Her tales range from anecdotes to transparent first-person narratives. Her settings range from home and hearth to her presence on social media.: “I recently posted this verse to my social media story one morning just after dawn . . . with the rest of the world, I had been watching a terrible international conflict evolve thousands of miles away.”
There are interesting stories in this well-arranged book, and the reader is given a look behind the curtain of a person leading a fascinating life. Downey shares her acquaintances and accomplishments with awe-struck wonder. She roams out into the world to India and returns to us with a message: “In India I encountered a profound oneness with humanity. We all love and lose. We have families and dreams . . . I
learned that we can understand one another’s pain if we open ourselves to it.”
Covering such subjects as hope, faith, gratitude, forgiveness, and grace, Downey suggests with a light hand that the beginning of enduring change might all start with you: “I started looking at what irks me considering what I’d want changed then doing for someone else what I’d want done.” Downey arrives at a conclusion: “We can’t change everything, but we can work toward peace when we change ourselves . . . if we don’t tend to what’s inside, we simply don’t have the bandwidth to be the change on a grander scale.”
Though anchored in Christian doctrine, Be an Angel transcends principle to embrace a larger concept of God. “It’s so essential in our frenetic world to step aside and be with God in stillness.” The author finds God in nature, “Often, I use the shift between activities to experience His presence in nature . . . I return to being not merely doing one more thing.”
The arrangement of this book is user friendly. Be an Angel is both an owner’s manual and a guide. Beneath each of the 14 general categories, there are three companion stories illustrating Downey’s subject in exemplary form. At the end of each essay is a prompt for the reader’s consideration written as a reflection, and the reader is invited to put what they’ve read into practice.
For dreamers and students, thinkers and searchers, Roma Downey’s Be an Angel is a collection of spellbinding essays that reads like a devotional. Its tone is enlightening and encouraging. It’s a beautiful book you’ll want to keep at your bedside and give to your family and friends.
Claire Fullerton is a staff reviewer at New York Journal of Books.
Roma Burnett OBE is an actress from Derry, Northern Ireland. For nine seasons she played Monica the angel in the CBS television series Touched by an Angel. She produced the mini-series The Bible for the History Channel and also appeared in it as Mary, mother of Jesus. She has performed on stage with the Abbey Theatre, The National Theatre of Ireland, and has appeared both on and off Broadway. She played the leading role of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the Emmy award-winning miniseries A Woman Named Jackie for NBC.
I have long been a fan of Sally Cronin’s writing, so it was with great enthusiasm that I read her November 2022 release, Variety is the Spice of Life, whose title is delightfully appropriate for the assembly of poetry and prose that covers a range of topics.
In Ms. Cronin’s author introduction, she states the essence of her book’s intention, “In this latest collection of poetry and short stories I have attempted to capture the beauty and raw power of nature, and the resilience of humans as they face a modern world of change and disruption.” The author does that and more, and the entirety of this book is a breath of fresh air replete with creative nuance.
The book begins with a series of soul-stirring poems—each short, pithy, and inspirational enough to serve as its own existential meditation. In Expeditions we are encouraged to “ignore those who say it’s foolish to try to reach for the stars,” and in Bear Witness, we are asked to consider the plight of the immigrant, “do not look away, bear witness to tragedy, give deepest respect…do not become complacent.” In Lullaby, Ms. Cronin sings the praises of women, by musing on the different voices used to sooth an infant, “but words that mothers sing to babies all around the world loving.”
#17 in Variety is the Spice of Life reads as a first-person essay, in which the author shares her experience with DNA Ancestral testing. Written in unembellished prose, it’s a beautiful, confessional piece that fittingly precedes the Choka, Origins, in which the author muses on her own genetic line that ends with powerful impact. In another treatise on family, Face in the Mirror, culminates in the realization, “I’ve morphed into my mother.”
Rounding out the poems is a series titled, A Snapshot from My Garden, and those of us who have followed the author for years know well of the celebrated setting. Ireland is captured in The Colour of Life, and in The Robin—Size Doesn’t Matter, a red robin is declared “the garden’s emperor.” A life span is metaphorically depicted in Blossom, and the series closes with an individual look at bees, butterflies, doves, and cats.
Ms. Cronin brings her unique voice to eight delightful short stories. Her craft is economic and straight forward, striking an overall tone in a momentum pairing bright language with broad strokes. Her small-town settings are atmospheric and depict character as place, her subjects are humanistic and appeal to animal lovers, nature lovers, and those who applaud a well-deserved sense of cosmic comeuppance.
In The Neighborhood Watch, a cat has the last word. In The Green Hill an elderly couple’s day out in a windswept, coastal region has a sense of the uncanny, and in On the Run, a frozen foods employee living under an assumed identity sees her turbulent past brought to justice.
Variety is the Spice of Life by Sally Cronin is a well-balanced, uplifting collection of poetry and prose both poignant and entertaining. It’s a thoughtful and satisfying book that casts a light on the best of human nature.
Variety is the Spice of Life is available on Kindle!
The Author, Sally Cronin
Sally Cronin is the author of sixteen books including her memoir Size Matters: Especially when you weigh 330lb first published in 2001. This has been followed by another fifteen books both fiction and non-fiction including multi-genre collections of short stories and poetry.
As an author she understands how important it is to have support in marketing books and offers a number of FREE promotional opportunities on her blog and across her social media. The Smorgasbord Bookshelf My blog is https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com
My Book Review, as it appears in the New York Journal of Books:
Author Deborah Goodrich Royce’s psychological thriller Reef Road hits the high notes of suspense with breathtaking sleight of hand, building as it unfolds in alternating chapters written in two tenses like puzzle pieces that keep the reader on their toes.
The story is one-part true crime detective novel that reads like creative nonfiction concerning a decades’ old unsolved murder, and one-part literary thriller involving a woman enmeshed in a self-created chain of events now careening out of hand. Reef Road seamlessly weaves two storylines while suspensefully delaying their linkage, oscillating with a slow burn between what is perceived at face value and what really happened.
The story opens in media res, under the prologue’s heading The Wife. It is May 2020, in the advent of Covid-19’s lockdown, when two boys find a disembodied hand washed up on Palm Beach, Florida’s sand. When the boys alert the authorities, so begins Reef Road’s harrowing backstory that leads to that severed hand.
An unspecified voice under the heading A Writer’s Thoughts narrates intermittingly throughout Reef Road. The writer researches the 1948 Pittsburg death of 12-year-old Noelle Huber, whose murder to date remains unsolved. Now living abjectly alone in Palm Beach with an aged dog named Cordie, the decidedly peculiar writer has personal interest in the case and reports, “I grew up under the shadow of a dead girl—a girl I had never met, whose family had not heard of me, a family I would not know if I passed them on the street, nor would they, in turn, know me.” The weight of the dead girl’s shadow is due to the writer’s neurotic mother, once a close, childhood friend of Noelle Huber’s, who remained indelibly scarred by her murder in such a way that made her exceedingly nervous and cast a pall on the writer’s childhood.
Investigating decades’ old evidence, the writer’s feelings are complicated by residual resentment associated with the case. In speaking of the damage incurred from growing up with her paranoid mother in a small town on the outskirts of Pittsburg, the writer says, “My mother’s imprint of her friend’s murder was that of the twelve-year-old child she’d been at the time. A large part of her was frozen in 1948.”
In addressing what it was like to grow up with a damaged mother, the writer says, “I didn’t want to have that kind of mother. I did not want to be thatkid. I did not want to come from the family I did, with some string attaching us all to a dead girl.” In explaining what clearly becomes an unhealthy obsession with Noelle Huber’s murder, the writer says, “A single act of violence does not end. Noelle Grace Huber was murdered seventy-two years ago this year, but, for me—for others like me—it never ends.”
Linda Alonzo does not speak Spanish. Married to a prosperous Argentinian named Miguel Alonzo, she is the mother of two young children who grew up in Pittsburgh and now lives in the tony section of Palm Beach’s Reef Road. The marriage is difficult, and with regard to Miguel, “Linda increasingly chafed under the yoke of his control.” Yet the perks of the marriage outweigh the obvious. “Linda and Miguel were walking the edge, all right. The edge of what, precisely, she did not know.”
Diego Alonzo is presumed dead. The elder brother of Miguel, his last known whereabouts was in the mountains of Bolivia decades prior, after he fled another fight with his mother, before all lines of communication went dead. In the dark of night, the mysterious Diego manifests at the Alonzo’s Reef Road front door, and ushers in familial upheaval complicated by the constraints of the Covid-19 pandemic, making his visit protracted, adding chaos to Linda and Miguel’s fragile marriage, and leading to an inciting incident in the tumultuous story: “At eleven a.m. on a Sunday morning, Linda picked up the phone to call the police and report her family missing. Why she had not called the cops, the day it had actually happened was an act of omission that would come back to haunt her.”
The exciting, page-turning intelligence of Reef Road cannot be overstated. The clever story will please lovers of mystery, crime, and thriller genres. Author Deborah Goodrich Royce handles the balance of Reef Road’s off-kilter story with a magnificent, firm grip. The novel is rife with uncanny connections and flawed main characters with hidden agendas. It’s tense with secondary characters, whose impacts are stunning, as events ricochet in a series of strange chain-reactions sprung from perfectly timed twists you’ll never see coming.
Meet the Author: Deborah Goodrich Royce
Deborah Goodrich Royce’s literary thrillers examine puzzles of identity. Finding Mrs. Ford and Ruby Falls will be joined by Reef Road in January 2023.
Deborah began her career as an actress, starring as Silver Kane, sister of the legendary Erica Kane (played by Susan Lucci) on the ABC soap, All My Children. She went on to star in feature films such as April Fool’s Day and Just One of the Guys, TV movies such as Return to Peyton Place and The Deliberate Stranger, and series such as Beverly Hills 90210 and 21 Jump Street.
After the birth of her daughters, she moved with her family to Paris and worked as a reader for le Studio Canal Plus. In the 1990’s, Deborah was the story editor at Miramax Films in New York. There, she oversaw readers, manuscript acquisitions, and script development, editing such notable screenplays as Emma by Doug McGrath, and early versions of Chicago and A Wrinkle in Time.
With writing partner, Mitch Giannunzio, Deborah won a grant from the Massachusetts Arts Council in 2002 to develop and workshop their original screenplay, Susan Taft Has Run Amok.
With her husband, noted small-cap investor, Chuck Royce, Deborah restored the 1939 Avon Theatre in Stamford, CT. Under her leadership, the Avon hosts an ongoing series of film luminaries, most recently, Mira Nair, Richard Gere and Chloe Sevigny. The late Gene Wilder, a longstanding advisory board member of the Avon, was an early advocate for Deborah’s writing.
Deborah and Chuck have restored several hotels (Ocean House, Deer Mountain Inn, Weekapaug Inn, and The Margin Street Inn), a bookstore (The Savoy in Westerly, RI), and numerous other Main Street buildings in Westerly, RI and Tannersville, NY.
Deborah serves on the governing boards of the New York Botanical Garden, the Greenwich Historical Society, and the PRASAD Project and the advisory boards of the American Film Institute, the Greenwich International Film Festival, the Preservation Society of Newport County, and the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach. She is a former trustee of the YWCA of Greenwich and the Garden Conservancy.
“Debut author Bobby Finger wields crisp, bright language in succinct, ample prose to reveal secrets deliberately hidden from the norms of social order. . . . poignant and memorable.”
Sixty-three-year-old Mary Alice Roth doesn’t know how to fill her days. Feeling wronged and slightly humiliated over her compulsory retirement as a high school teacher, she’s deeply invested in her local standing as a local Billington authority figure, though she’s unaware the community reputation she’s earned is equally divided between her abrasive personality, and sympathy for her tragic losses.
Thirty-something Josie Kerr is a fish out of water but intends to embrace it. Born and raised in Manhattan, she’s married to Travis, who grew up in an affluent family that owns a five-hundred-acre compound just north of Billington, Texas, a town “passersby didn’t really see until the fifth or sixth time they drove through it, a blip on a blip that existed mostly in retrospect.”
When news of the death of Travis Kerr’s father arrives, Josie and Travis put their Brooklyn apartment on the market and relocate with their young son to Billington, Texas. Josie’s “New York City friends couldn’t believe how happy she seemed in a town so small it didn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.” The optimistic Josie looks on the bright side. “In Texas she had a house. And she had family nearby. She even got a job at a school where teachers never left unless they were forced out or dead.”
Mary Alice resents the existence of Josie, whom she considers the usurper of her school position, now that Josie is her replacement. Were it not for her best friend Ellie’s advice, the intimidating Mary Alice might get away with her repeated attempts at making Josie Kerr’s life miserable.
Ellie Hall is a divorcee who works in a nearby hospital. She has been Mary Alice’s friend for years since she and her son, Kenny, moved into the house next door. As single mothers with sons the same age who formed an immediate alliance, Ellie and Mary Alice enjoyed a strong friendship, until the common tragedy of each losing their son in the same timeframe set their close friendship adrift for 12 years, until Mary Alice reaches out to Ellie from the isolation of her retirement, and the two begin to reconnect over the habit of sharing morning coffee.
At “dark-thirty,” a knock comes to Mary Alice’s front door, and she opens it to discover a ghost from her past in the form of her sister, Katherine, who lives in Atlanta. Three years younger, the once close sisters haven’t spoken to each other since Katherine’s wedding decades before. It was a fight that caused their estrangement, and “Their lives had expanded in different directions, but when you followed the stories down to their roots, you’d find them joined in a million different ways.”
The attractive, well-to-do Katherine is there in person because Mary Alice doesn’t answer her texts, emails, or phone calls. Katherine tells Mary Alice she’s there on a mission “to fix your mess,” and demands she return with her to Atlanta.
When Katherine reveals the urgency of a call to action, the stunned Mary Alice knows the time has come to address what she’s taken great pains to hide from the Billington townspeople, with regard to what really happened to her son, Michael, who had a bond with Ellie’s son, Kenny, that was more than anyone knew. Wanting to forestall public knowledge of her duplicity, Mary Alice asks Katherine to wait with her for three days, until she’s on the other side of the annual Billington community picnic, of which she’s in charge.
For three days, the sisters revisit the tragedies of the past, which were centered on their family’s rural, multi-generational property known as The Old Place, which had been in their family since the early 19th century. “It was twenty minutes outside of town. Not east, toward Trevino, or north, toward the Hill Country, or west, toward Mexico, but south, toward nothing.” “Getting there required directions, not a map. . . . You felt the trip there as much as much as you saw it.”
Because it factored significantly as the setting of troubling stories involving both her husband and son, Mary Alice fears ever returning to The Old Place. In recalling a particular night in high school, when Katherine talked her into throwing a party at The Old Place while their parents were out of town, Mary Alice has reason to consider The Old Place unlucky grounds in her personal narrative. She considers that high school party “as the prologue of her life . . . the start of everything else. And all of it, absolutely all of it, was Katherine’s fault.”
Debut author Bobby Finger wields crisp, bright language in succinct, ample prose to reveal secrets deliberately hidden from the norms of social order. The backstories of intertwined, multiple characters are brought to a common light, thematically including fear of public opinion in a setting that sings the praise of small-town Texas. The characters are fully realized as each reconciles their part in the story. Their mindsets are understandable, and their dynamic creates a delightful arc of plausible cause and effect to immerse the reader in an experience that’s poignant and memorable.
Claire Fullerton’s most recent novels are Little Tea and multiple award winner, Mourning Dove. Honors include the Independent Book Publishers Book Award Silver Medal for Regional Fiction, the Reader’s Favorite for Southern Fiction Bronze Medal and various other literary awards.
This post is in celebration of the surprising connections made from years of being a writer. I have four books and one novella out in the world, and another–fingers crossed- hopefully, making its way through the labyrinthian path from my computer to bookstores, but that’s another subject!
I’m thinking about the countless, sung and unsung heroes with whom I’ve had the pleasure to align over the years. “Book people” are passionate people committed to staying the course of what can only be described as an incremental growth pattern fueled by perseverance and dedication to the love of reading and writing. I’ve found the two arenas are tightly woven. You simply cannot have one without the other. It’s a particular breed of cat who knows this, and they are the breed who derive great satisfaction and personal fulfillment in centering their days on the written word.
Writers, and, readers, and bloggers, and book promoters breathe the very life force into the existence of a writer. They are the stalwart citizens of the literary world who take a writer’s work and magnify it, launching it into a wider sphere by ripple effect, creating attenuation by virtue of the fact that they have an audience of like-minded fellows. My gratitude for these passionate people is endless. They understand the solitary creation of writing as an art, and their support is humbling, sustaining, and imperative.
It’s fair to say that authors spend just as much time promoting their books as they do writing them. On average, each of my books took two years to produce, and that’s about the same amount of time I’ve dedicated to book promotion. It takes time to get the word out that a book exists in the first place, and getting to readers is not something that happens overnight; it’s a process, a build that feels like an uphill climb with countless stops along the way. One cannot do it alone. It takes a village, and much is furthered when an author takes the time to compare notes with those who have gone before them.
Which brings me back to the connections worth celebrating made from being a writer. I will now combine a radio host, an author, and a particular outfit dedicated to championing the literary arts to illustrate a case in point:
Bobbie Jean Bell has enjoyed a long career as the co-host of The Writers Block show on LA Talk Radio, which you can access from their online website. It has been a high honor, over the years, for me to appear on the show three times. Sadly, Jim Christina, Bobbie Jean’s charismatic, one-of a kind co-host of many years, died this past year. With continued commitment and touching sensitivity, Bobbie Jean Bell took the show into her own hands in honor of Jim, and rebranded the show, Rendezvous with a Writer, which airs every Thursday night on LA Talk-Radio. https://www.latalkradio.com/content/rendezvous-writer
Johnnie Berhard is the author of four gorgeous novels. She currently lives in Mississippi, and maintains a strong rapport with her native Texas. Looking back now, I cannot recall how I first crossed paths with this extraordinary writer, but I can report I met her in person at The Pulpwood Queens Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson, Texas in 2020– or was it 2018? I think it was both, but I digress. Let’s just say the fruits of coming to know Johnnie Bernhard are endless. It has been my pleasure to feature Johnnie’s work here on my blogsite. In a minute, I’ll tell you how Johnnie fits into this, but while I’ve got you, look into Johnnie Here: http://johnniebernhardauthor.com/bio
The Catholic Literary Arts is an outfit that conducts itself in the highest manner. Their mission, as stated on their website ( https://www.catholicliteraryarts.org/) is this: “Catholic Literary Arts exists to provide a welcoming home for people of all faiths and goodwill to learn, to improve writing skills, to meet fellow writers and publishers, and to enjoy spiritual and intellectual formation in the great literary traditions of Western civilization.”
How the aforementioned entities collided with yours truly now delighted to be right in the middle is this: I had the pleasure of watching author Johnnie Bernhard teach a virtual class on the mechanics of writing fiction for The Catholic Literary Arts, and in later talking with her about the endless merits of such an important forum, Johnnie introduced me to Sarah Cortez, in the hope she and I would explore common ground. We did. Our common ground is this: Sarah Cortez is the president and founder of The Catholic Literary Arts, and I have much to say about the art of launching a book! Ms. Cortez took me seriously when I told her it would be my honor to teach a class for her noble organization. I am enthusiastic to report I will do just this on Tuesday, September 27th at 7:00 CST. Here is the link to register: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/363439757097
And because Bobbie Jean Bell invited me to be a guest on Rendezvous with a Writer from 6:00PM to 6:50 PST on Thursday, September 15, to talk about books and writing, we will also be talking about my virtual class on Preparing to Launch a Book!
This is what I meant when I said I celebrate the surprising connections made from years of being a writer. The magical alchemy that results from staying the course is the gift that keeps on giving!
I hope you’ll join me on Rendezvous with a Writer on Thursday, September 15th ( link above) and that you’ll register for the class and tell your friends about my virtual class with The Catholic Literary Arts where I share all I know about preparing to launch a book!~
Fans of Christopher Swann know Susannah Faulkner has baggage. In his wildly popular 2020 thriller, Never Turn Back ( A Faulkner Family Thriller Book 1,) Swann details her backstory: that her parents were murdered before her 10-year-old eyes, that she and her elder brother, Ethan, were raised by their Irish Uncle Gavin who owns an Atlanta bar named Ronan’s that’s probably used as a front, that their shared tragedy caused the siblings to turn out differently, yet their bond remains indelible.
Christopher Swann is a novelist and high school English teacher. A graduate of Woodberry Forest School in Virginia, he earned his Ph.D. in creative writing from Georgia State University. He has been a Townsend Prize finalist, longlisted for the Southern Book Prize, and a winner of the Georgia Author of the Year award. He lives with his wife and two sons in Atlanta, where he is the English department chair at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School.
“Holding Her Breath is a generational story written in descriptive language with steady pacing. . . . an engaging, sensitive story set in Ireland, sure to resonate with readers far and wide.”
A compelling look at coming-of-age concerns beneath the taboo of generational mental illness, Eimear Ryan’s debut novel, Holding Her Breath, is the story of a young Irish woman coming into her own by pursuing the buried truth of family secrets.
It is modern day Dublin, and overwhelmed university freshman, Beth Crowe, has mishandled her sports scholarship. Once lauded a natural athlete in swimming, Beth remembers, “At one point in her adolescence, she realized that the adults in the club were describing her in nearly supernatural terms: unreal, savage, unbelievable.” Possessed of the discipline of devoting her youth to “getting up at dawn for training, slipping into the water again after school; her world became narrow but deep. It was only when she stopped, abruptly, that she realized how tired she was.”
After her self-imposed sabbatical, she returns with her own practice out of love for the sport. Ryan pinpoints Beth’s affinity with water: “It feels illicit somehow, being alone in the water. No coach towering over her at the pool’s edge, saying surely she can do better than that. Now she does as she likes. After a hundred laps she feels calm and rejuvenated, her body pinging with the tremors of exercise.”
Now with a focus on psychology, the taciturn Beth is paired in college housing with the gregarious Sadie, who takes her to a campus book event and introduces her to poet and university professor, Justin Kelleher, a class lecturer on the widely acclaimed poet, Benjamin Crowe, who happens to be Beth’s deceased grandfather.
When a relationship grows between Beth and Justin, Beth is optimistic. She “never thought she could be one of those people to whom things actually happen. Every moment of drama or triumph in her life has taken place in the pool and been rendered less impactful for the hours of repetitive practice that preceded it. She is not used to things happening out of the blue.”
An hour away from campus, Beth’s mother Alice lives with her elderly mother Lydia, the widow of Benjamin Crowe. The fame of Benjamin Crowe is the stuff of legend kept under wraps by Lydia, who won’t part with her husband’s coveted archives, nor reveal what she knows of events leading to his death, a mystery that casts a wide shadow upon Beth and Alice, as well as passionate Crowe scholars.
Because Beth is hesitant to pursue the subject with the formidable Lydia, she asks Justin what he knows of rumor surrounding her grandfather’s death. When Justin mentions a never-published Crowe biography by author Julie Conlon-Hayes, he says, “It’s a story among us Crowe scholars. Now, how much is true, I don’t know. She was friends with your grandparents, so she had great access . . . But then Ben died, and Lydia squashed the project.” Continuing, Justin says, “Because of the nature of his death, we are all the time searching his work for clues and explanations. But perhaps we should consider the poems simply on their own merit.”
When Beth asks her mother what she knows of her famous father’s death, Alice skirts the issue of mental illness. “I was told Dad had an illness that made him confused, which in turn made him fall into the sea. I didn’t connect the dots.” On the tight-lipped comportment of Lydia, Alice says, “Her intent was to preserve, as she called it, the honor of the family. She didn’t want anyone poking around in Dad’s memory, and she never spoke publicly about his death.”
Sensing that the mystery at the center of her family lineage would help Beth better understand herself, Beth visits Sadie at her family’s rural home in Portlaoise, and the girls set out on an adventure to visit the elderly Julie Conlon-Hayes at her home in West Cork, in hopes of learning her side of the story concerning the events that led to Benjamin Crowe’s death, which took place in the area.
Stopping cliffside along the road to Julie Conlon-Hayes’ home, Beth “closes her eyes and tries to put herself in her grandfather’s place over thirty years ago. She pictures him barefoot, his toes gripping the earthy edge of the cliff. Crouching, tucking his chin to his chest, pointing his palms to the water. Except it couldn’t have happened like that.”
Holding Her Breath is a generational story written in descriptive language with steady pacing. Author Eimear Ryan captures youth’s perseverance in the search for one’s place in the world, and weaves in mental illness’s nuances while unravelling long guarded family secrets. It’s an engaging, sensitive story set in Ireland, sure to resonate with readers far and wide.
Her short fiction has appeared in Granta, The Dublin Review, The Stinging Fly, The Long Gaze Back (New Island) and Town & Country (Faber). She is a co-founder and editor of the literary journal Banshee and its publishing imprint, Banshee Press.
She is a sports columnist with the Irish Examiner and has written about women in sport for The42.ie, Image, Stranger’s Guide, Winter Papers and elsewhere. She is currently working on a book about camogie. She lives, writes and plays in Cork city.
I was late to the reading of this novel, having read author James Wade’s extraordinary book, River, Sing Out, first, which made me immediately turn to this compelling debut novel.
All Things Left Wild is the ultimate “Road Trip” story, made all the better for being on horseback through the wilds of 1910 East Texas. It grips the reader from the start, with a sense of building urgency spawned from two horse thieving brothers on the run– one with a conscience; the other a loose cannon verging on sociopathic– who become entangled with disreputable characters hiding questionable agendas, while the erudite, gentleman the boys wronged is completely out of his comfort zone but has something pressing to prove by giving the brothers chase, on what becomes his life-altering, personal odyssey.
A gripping story written from two points of view, in intriguing, thought-provoking language that soars like poetry, and realistic dialogue that keeps you steeped in the moment. The story is set in the raw American West and has it all: cowboys, Indians, thieving, murder, and characters with such heart and soul as to make the whole page-turning story utterly plausible.
An action-packed, character driven, viscerally atmospheric, and stirringly beautiful story, All Things Left Wild seals the deal for me: I’ll be reading all of James Wade’s future books!
An Added Bonus is to tell you that Author James Wade does a weekly video he calls Sunday Sessions, where he reads inspiring sentences from books he admires and breaks the sentences down to discuss precisely why he likes them. Interesting and informative, the videos remain up after they debut, and I recommend you follow James Wade on Instagram and Facebook to see them!