Two Lovely Berries (New Adult Fiction): “Character-driven, Compelling, Beautifully Written”

Two Lovely BerriesToday, Monika from Lovely Bookshelf included my New Adult novel, Two Lovely Berries, as one of her Ten Favorite Underrated Books. She wrote:

“A. M. Blair from The Misfortune of Knowing self-published this New Adult novel about two twin sisters and their struggle for individuality. Character-driven, compelling, beautifully written– this book brought me out of a huge reading slump!”

It’s wonderful to hear how much she enjoyed it. Thank you, Monika!



C’mon, Don’t You Recognize Your Own Soulmate?

Mariana Cover and Excerpt from the Oxford English Dictionary
It’s only an ordinary English farmhouse, an old one that is “large and square and solid, set back some distance from the road with a few unkempt trees dotted around for privacy,” but Julia Beckett, the main character of Susanna Kearsley’s Mariana, is drawn to it. It’s her house, as she declares when she is only five-years-old.

She buys the house twenty-five years later. Soon after moving in, she realizes that her connection to the home predates her lifetime. On the property, she finds herself transported to the seventeenth century and transformed into an earlier version of herself: a young woman named Mariana, a former occupant of the home.

“We were all somebody, once,” a “supernaturally wise” woman, one of the few who has any inkling of what’s going on, tells her.

It’s a confusing time for Julia, complicated by her attraction to a man she hopes is the reincarnation of Richard, Mariana’s former lover. The contemporary guy is affable, educated, wealthy, and handsome, but is he the one?

Nope. That much becomes clear pretty early on, but alternative contenders for the reincarnated beau are few and far between.

The true soulmate’s identity bewildered me as much as it ultimately bewildered Julia. I thought he was adorable, but not necessarily “the one” for her (for me, on the other hand… 😉 )

Just to make sure I didn’t miss something, I re-read every single mention of the guy who ended up being the soulmate (I love being able to search e-books!). He’s dreamy, but definitely not “the one.”

Then, turning to the Internet, I found that I wasn’t the only one confused by the match.

Melanie of The Indextrious Reader (one of my favorite book blogs) said way back in 2007:

“In order to promote the red herring, Kearsley does not give enough spark to the relationship between Julia and the real reincarnation of 1665’s Richard; at the conclusion, it seems to come out of nowhere, and simply because he identifies himself as ‘Richard’ she swoons.”

And a reviewer on Amazon wrote:

“As far as the storyline goes, the overriding theme is ‘The soul sees what truly matters.’ But it’s almost as if Julia’s soul was forever blind and needed to be clubbed with the truth in the last 5 paragraphs of the book.”

Yeah, the soulmate is more like Julia’s brother than her eternal love.

People often complain about an ending being too obvious, but there’s also such a thing as being too subtle.


*Mariana was originally published in the mid-1990s. The 20th Century portions of the novel feel contemporary, even without any references to the Internet or cell phones. I’ve focused on a perplexing aspect of this book here, but I actually enjoyed the story overall for its atmosphere and characters.

**Image: Mariana‘s cover & an excerpt from the OED.

The Fate of an American “Treasure House”

LynneW_Misfortune of Knowing
“The days of America’s privately-owned treasure houses are over. They are gone with the wind as inevitably as the great southern plantations of before the Civil War.”

P. A. B. Widener II wrote these words in his autobiography, Without Drums, published in 1940.* In 1942, the large private art collection once housed at Lynnewood Hall, his family’s 110-room residence in suburban Philadelphia, went on public display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. In 1944, the Wideners sold Lynnewood Hall and auctioned off the rest of the estate.

Today, the 115-year-old mansion still stands on about 34 acres of property, but it’s little more than a ruin in need of a $50 million renovation. It was last sold in 1996 to a church, which has been looking for a new owner in recent years.

The original owner of the property, P. A. B. Widener I, died exactly 100 years ago today, November 6th.

According to his obituary in The New York Times, Widener was a “capitalist and philanthropist, art collector and lover of children” who died at Lynnewood Hall at the age of 80, having been in poor health exacerbated by the loss of his son and grandson in the Titanic a few years prior. The obituary describes Widener’s vast art collection, stating: “Apart from the art galleries, Mr. Widener’s marble mansion at Elkins Park is full of art treasures. The ceiling of the library is a painting by Tiepolo, from an Italian palace.”

His Lynnewood Hall — and its slow decline — was one of the inspirations for the unimaginatively named Woodlynne Hall, the home of the wealthy Elkins family in Amelia Elkins Elkins (my modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion).**

In Amelia Elkins Elkins, the owners of Woodlynne Hall — much like the owners of Kellynch Hall in Persuasion — face financial trouble after the loss of the prudent matriarch. With the silly patriarch in charge, the Elkins family home has fallen into disrepair:

Walter Refused To Fix The Rusted-Open Gate

Amelia Elkins, a modern Anne Elliot, hopes to save her family’s home from the fate of the real-life “Treasure House” on which it is partially based.


*Quoted in Esmée Quodbach, “The Last of the American Versailles”: The Widener Collection at Lynnewood Hall, 29 Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 42 (2002).

**The Wideners were affiliated with a real-life Elkins family. They lived across the street from Lynnewood Hall.

***The top picture, taken last week, is Lynnewood Hall.

****To follow-up on my last Amelia post, the ginkgo leaves in my backyard have finally turned yellow!


A Problem That Can’t Be Solved With Cake

Cake Therapist Image

In The Cake Therapist, by Judith Fertig, pastry chef Claire “Neely” O’Neil makes sense of the world through its flavors. To her, “every flavor… [is] a shortcut to a feeling. Sorrow. Joy. Anticipation. Fear. And every feeling [is] the heart of a story.”

With this gustatory gift, Neely leaves behind her failing marriage in New York to open a bakery in her hometown in Ohio. There, she creates culinary masterpieces with the flavors best suited for her customer’s emotional needs. She understands the therapeutic power of food, recognizing that “such a little thing–a sugar cookie–can be an unexpected kindness.”

Some problems, however, can’t be solved with cookies or cake. At one point in the story, Neely finds herself at a loss about what to do to help an employee whose abusive ex-boyfriend is stalking her:

I needed her to come in [to the bakery] today, but at the same time, I hated to ask. She had been beaten up last night, emotionally and physically. And who knew what her home life was like? Could she tell her mother? I didn’t want to make things worse by her boss–that was me–adding even more stress by pressuring her. But she was a young girl in trouble and I wanted to help. So what to do? I sighed.

It’s interesting to see a fictional small business owner grapple with the effects of domestic violence in the workplace.

In the United States, more than one in three women and one in four men have experienced intimate partner-perpetrated physical violence, rape, and/or stalking. Domestic violence often happens behind closed doors, in the privacy of people’s homes, but its effects do not stay there.

It impacts every aspect of a survivor’s life, including, in many cases, his or her ability to work. At times, the workplace even becomes the site of the abuser’s controlling tactics and violence. One study, for example, found that half of stalking victims reported being stalked at work. Domestic violence also often causes absences from work as survivors seek medical attention, attend court appearances, meet with police, or relocate. Far too many survivors end up losing their jobs–or fear that they will–as a result of the abuse, forcing them to remain economically dependent on their abusers.

Obstacles victims face in the American workplace include (1) the fact that most employees are employed “at will,”–which means they can be fired for any reason that doesn’t violate an anti-discrimination law –and (2) many employers are not legally obligated to give their workers sick leave, vacation time, or any right to return to work after a leave of absence.

Still, some survivors may find protection under a patchwork of federal, state, and local laws. A victim’s rights will vary based on where she works, what needs she has, what type of employer she works for, and how long she’s been working there.

The federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides certain employees of larger employers with twelve weeks of unpaid leave, may help victims with serious health conditions arising from the violence. However, it will not help an individual who needs to take a leave for non-medical reasons, such as obtaining a protection order or relocating. Some states and localities have gone further than the federal law by enacting legislation that provides victims with job-protected time off from work or that prohibits employers from discriminating or retaliating against a worker because she has experienced domestic or sexual violence.

Under Pennsylvania law (18 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 4957), a crime victim, a family member of a crime victim, or a witness may take unpaid leave from work solely for the purpose of attending court (there are other states that provide more). That same employee has more rights, however, if she works in Philadelphia, where there is both (1) an unpaid domestic violence leave ordinance that allows victims and their family members to take leave to address a wide variety of domestic violence-related needs and (2) a newly enacted paid sick leave law that permits employees to take accrued leave to address various needs related to domestic abuse, sexual assault or stalking (PDF). Philadelphia also has a local law prohibiting employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of their “domestic or sexual violence victim status.” (Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance, PDF).

There should be a more comprehensive legal approach to addressing the workplace effects of domestic violence. All victims should have the right to take job-protected time off to address the violence in their lives–ultimately increasing productivity and job retention in the workplace–no matter where in the country they work or what type of job they have. That leave should also be paid. No one should be forced to stay with an abuser because they could not afford to take a day off from work.


*October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

**For more information on domestic violence and employment rights across the United States, see here (PDF).

Why Jane Austen Appeals to Girls (and Boys) Who Don’t “Just Want a Boyfriend”

Pride and Prejudice Three Covers (2)It is the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and I could think of no better way of marking the occasion than by devoting my 100th post to Ms. Austen’s classic work. Over the last two centuries, this novel has received both praise and ridicule, and this anniversary has emboldened its detractors to wonder publicly, “Does [Austen’s] message actually translate into the 21st century world?,” with one journalist on the Huffington Post insinuating naively that the only person who could relate to Austen’s novels is “a girl who just wants a boyfriend.”

No book will appeal to everyone, but anyone who dismisses Pride and Prejudice as irrelevant and silly (and suggests that its fans are equally silly) either lacks reading comprehension skills or has never actually read the novel.

Yes, the novel is a love story at its core, but its historical context, multi-dimensional characters, and commentary on social hierarchy and human nature add weight to the “girl meets boy” plot.

The setting is late 18th/early 19th Century England, complete with pleasant countryside estates, balls with half-hour long dances, and courtship rituals based on family connections and social status. This world may feel long gone to some, but for those of us from cultures in which arranged marriages are common (often a relaxed form of it), it is easy to identify with Elizabeth and her sisters.

Pride and Prejudice features the Bennet sisters, who are on the fringe of the landed gentry and for whom marriage may be the only way to secure their economic futures. The novel assesses the merits of marriage, stating, “it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want.” The star is Elizabeth Bennet, a witty young woman who has little interest in marrying (“If I were determined to get a rich husband, or any husband…”). Her preference is to follow her heart, rather than to seek “worldly advantage,” and so she refuses economically advantageous marriage proposals and rushes to judgment too soon on matters, a trait she learns to regret. She is an imperfect heroine whose wit, wisdom, missteps and subsequent personal growth endear her to readers. Many of us continue to identify with her, even after 200 years.

To say that this story is merely for “boy crazy” girls not only ignores the complexities of the novel, but also overlooks the many men who count themselves among Jane Austen’s fans. Two of Austen’s early fans included Chief Justice John Marshall (1755-1835) and Justice Joseph Story (1779-1845), two of the most highly esteemed figures in American legal history (Story was quoted by the United States Supreme Court in three separate cases last year).  In a 1826 letter, Marshall congratulated Story on a speech before Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa society and offered a bit of criticism for the omission of Jane Austen:

‘I was a little mortified, however, to find that you had not admitted the name of Miss Austen into your list of favorites. I had just finished reading her novels when I received your discourse, and was so much pleased with them that I looked in it for her name, and was rather disappointed at not finding it.’ The chief justice then proceeded to defend his favorite: ‘Her flights are not lofty, she does not soar on eagle’s wings, but she is pleasing, interesting, equable, and yet amusing.’ (See Alison L. LaCroix’s The Lawyer’s Library in the Early American Republic).

Story’s response did not survive history, but he, too, was a fan of Austen. Story’s son confirmed his father’s love of Austen’s work, saying that his father “fully recognized the admirable genius of Miss Austen. Scarcely a year passed that he did not read more than one of them, and with an interest which never flagged.”

I, too, recognize “the admirable genius of Miss Austen,” and I recommend that anyone who doubts the significance of Pride and Prejudice give it another chance. First impressions are often misleading.

A Light Read For A Gloomy Day: Libby Mercer’s Fashioning a Romance

I chose Libby Mercer’s light Chick Lit Novel, Fashioning a Romance, to distract me from Hurricane Sandy’s incessant rain* (you can see how we prepared for this storm here).

Mercer’s novel is the love story of Caitlyn Taylor, a 28-year-old American seamstress and fashion designer, and John Harrington, a 34-year-old wealthy Brit. It’s a modern fairy tale in which a deserving, beautiful woman gets the man of her dreams, but — unlike most fairy tales — the female protagonist is strong-willed and independent.  Plus, there are no evil step-sisters, although Caitlyn does have several step-siblings, ex-step-siblings, and half-siblings through her father, a man whose womanizing ways have left his level-headed daughter wary of relationships.  The way Caitlyn and John overcome this obstacle and other challenges was fun to witness as a reader.

The only part of this book that gnawed at me is its portrayal of love at first sight, which is essentially what happens to Caitlyn and John, though, to Mercer’s credit, both characters question the authenticity of their feelings initially.  John tried “to determine whether his feelings were genuine or simply fanciful, romantic notions brought on by the chase.  But try as he might to clarify his emotions, he just wasn’t sure.”  For Caitlyn, sorting her feelings is even more complicated, but she quickly realizes that she “was falling desperately in love with John.”  It’s sweet, but I rolled my eyes at the thought of a solid relationship developing out of such infatuation.

Maybe I have too narrow a view of lasting love, though.  A study of 329 individuals who answered anonymous surveys suggests that couples who fell in love quickly were equally likely to feel satisfied in their relationships (even over the long-term) as individuals who fell in love gradually.  However, this study surveyed only couples who were either married or co-habitating, thus excluding couples whose relationships fell apart before they were serious enough to unite legally or live together (the study also notes that it did not include divorced couples). I wonder if couples who fall in love at first sight, based primarily on looks, are less likely to stay together. So, while love at first sight happens for some, I remain unconvinced that it results in everlasting love to the same extent as love that blossoms over a longer period of time.  Of course, this is an area of psychology** I know little about (apart from a quick search on PsycINFO).  My beliefs come mostly from my own experiences and observations.

In the end, my personal feelings about love at first sight did not detract much from my enjoyment of Mercer’s fluffy, amusing novel, a different reaction to the one I had to Jodi Picoult and Samantha Van Leer’s portrayal of sudden love (infatuation, really) in their “tween” novel, Between the Lines (Here is my review).  As I have said before, I have a higher bar for literature aimed at impressionable youth than I do for literature aimed at the 17+ crowd (which is most likely to pick up Mercer’s novel).  I would want my children to understand that worthwhile romantic relationships are best built on more than immediate infatuation, despite the fact that such infatuation is what literature often substitutes for love.

Mercer’s Caitlyn and John redeem themselves, though, and build a mutually beneficial relationship worth having (not a spoiler in this genre; we expect this result and rightly so).  It was a pleasure to watch it unfold.  Fashioning a Romance is a good option for those looking for a very light, fun read to get them through a rainy day or a low-grade hurricane, either figuratively or literally.

*The rain started late afternoon with heavier rain and high winds expected tomorrow (at which point I expect we’ll lose power as we usually do).  I have several other books loaded on my Kindle to get me through the rest of this.

**Anyone interested in the psychology of falling in love should check out BroadBlogs, which has several relevant posts.  Here are two: Who Falls in Love Faster? & Passionate Love: Like a Drug or Mental Illness?

***Be sure to check out my GIVEAWAY (see details on the linked post), part of the Literary Blog Hop (October 27-31, 2012).

Domestic Violence Is NOT Romantic (Traditional Publishing Doesn’t Seem To Know That)

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a time when I hope people whose lives are not affected directly by violence think about those whose lives are.  Maybe calling attention to domestic violence with purple ribbons, 5K walks, and blog posts this month will result in increased sympathy for survivors of abuse and increased funding for domestic violence services year round, not only during the month of October.  It may sound cliché to say that our goal is to “break the cycle,” but it’s true: much of the point is to raise awareness to reduce the level of violence that carries through to the next generation.

To acknowledge Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I decided to revisit Anita Shreve’s novel Strange Fits of Passion, which I discussed in a previous post, Do We Throw “The Book” At Battered Women Who Kill Their Abusers?  In that post, I provide background on how the American justice system has treated women* who have killed their abusers in self-defense.  It receives several visits per week through various search engines, and the search terms that lead people to my blog suggest that my readers range from people who are curious about this topic to women who may be survivors of abuse themselves (if you’re looking for resources, see NNEDV).

Shreve’s novel is a gripping fictional account of a woman’s escape from her abusive partner and of what she ultimately feels forced to do to save her life.  Each chapter of the novel is an interview of a witness, each with a different perspective on “the truth” that ultimately results in an article about the events and an interview with her child, grown up, years later.  It is a fascinating and horrifying story with twists and turns that will keep readers engaged from the beginning to the end.

While I appreciate this novel’s nuanced look at domestic violence and its attempt to show change in attitudes between the early 1970s and the early 1990s, there are two aspects of the paperback book I purchased over the summer that make me uncomfortable: the title and the cover.

The title, Strange Fits of Passion, comes from Wordsworth, and it is unclear whether readers should interpret “passion” the way it would have been interpreted in Wordsworth’s time (grief) or the way it is interpreted now (ardent love).  Coupled with the intimate cover on a recent edition of the book*, it would be easy to equate “passion” with “love,” which would be incongruous with the brutal portrayal of abuse and its consequences in the novel.  There is also an ambiguity over what the “strange fits” are (the abuse or the homicide).  I balk at equating abuse with “strange fits of passion.”  Abuse is not about passion; it is a pattern of intimidation and control, not a sudden “fit.” To see it as such may bolster myths that wrongly suggest that abuse can be excused as a temporary loss of control caused by strong romantic feelings.

The cover, designed by Kimberly Glyder (and on the left below), further supports domestic violence myths with the wife’s “come hither” smile and the portrayal of intimacy that suggests that this is a romantic relationship as opposed to an abusive one.  This cover belongs on a romance novel, not on an emotionally harrowing book about abuse.  There were better covers in previous editions of this book, like the one pictured on the right below, which clearly shows the control element of intimate partner violence:

Adding to the misleading design is a ridiculous misquote from a Cosmopolitan review of the book on the cover of the recent edition: “Superbly rendered… both touching and romantic.”  When I read that, I was flabbergasted — did Cosmopolitan really call this story about domestic violence and death “romantic”?  Of course not, and that fact becomes clear when you see the excerpts from reviews on the first page of the same edition (see comparison below; click on the image to see it more clearly).  This is the actual quote: “Superbly rendered… both touching and troubling.”  “Troubling” is a much more appropriate description of the themes in this novel.  Replacing “troubling” with “romantic” is an egregious error in this context, and I hope people remember that the next time they say that only Indie books contain these kinds of errors.

The publisher, Harcourt, Inc. (which is now called Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), did a poor job with this cover, which almost deterred me from buying the book.  As I have explained in a previous post, Cover Art: What Does It Say About The Book?, I try not to judge books by their covers alone, and I am glad I gave Shreve’s novel a chance.  It is well-worth reading. If you purchase it, as opposed to checking it out of the library, I recommend the ebook, which would allow you to avoid the cover completely as you read.  If only the ebook ($9.99) weren’t more expensive than the bargain paperback ($5.98) on Amazon.

* Men are also victims of domestic violence; however, women are disproportionately victims of intimate partner violence based on coercive control.

*There are many covers for this book.  This one still seems to be available as a bargain book through Amazon.