Women Writers Reading: Teresa LaBella reads Hannah McKinnon

Backstory can make or break a book. Too little and the reader is lost. Too much and the reader loses interest.

The Summer House by Hannah McKinnon relies on backstory to tell the tale of the Merrill family summoned by matriarch Flossy for a long-postponed, week-long vacation at the Rhode Island beach house owned by the Merrills for three generations. Flossy rounds up her three grown children – Paige, Sam, and Clementine – and sons-in-law David and Evan, granddaughters Emma and Maddy, and grandsons Ned and George to celebrate the 75th birthday of their husband, father, and grandfather, Richard. All arrive with physical, psychological and emotional baggage unpacked in real time and recalled in a painful past.

Overworked and stressed-out, Paige pushes herself to be the best and requires the same of her family. While her veterinary practice is thriving, her unemployed husband, David, struggles to find a teaching position on a college campus. Paige frets after finding alcohol in her teenage son Ned’s closet and worries about the sudden emotional chasm between her and teenage daughter Emma.

Businessman Sam and his spouse Evan, recovering from the elation and devastation of an adoption that didn’t happen when the baby’s mother decided to keep her daughter, wait to hear from the agency about another impending chance at parenthood.

Recently-widowed Clementine battles depression over the accidental death of her husband, Ben, and panic attacks sparked by the fear of losing one or both of her young children.

Anticipation, secrets, and surprises threaten to rip the family fabric. David anxiously awaits word after another interview. Ned warns Paige to worry less about him and more for Emma. Sam loses sleep over an offer he shouldn’t have made to the pregnant mother of the child he and Evan hope to adopt. Clementine feels giddy and guilty about her attraction to the younger man next door. Flossy and Richard are waiting until after Flossy’s meticulously planned birthday bash at week’s end to tell the family they’re going to sell the Summer House.

Inner conflicts and complicated relationships dominate in this slice-of-life novel that’s short on action but steeped in raw emotion. Paige refers to her family as “the vault.” That door opens wide for the reader to enter, pull up a chair at the table, and unfurl a beach towel at their seaside sanctuary.

I looked forward to coming home, snuggling into my comfy space, and leisurely turning the pages. The family became my own. The Summer House satisfies on so many levels. The author let me smell the salt air, hear waves slapping the sand, taste the stuffed oysters, and feel the tension build to happy-for-now resolve. Families aren’t perfect and life goes on, even when endings seem as distant as the ocean horizon.

Photograph of Author Teresa LaBellaTeresa LaBella published her first contemporary romance novel, Reservations, in 2013. The big city story continued in Heartland, set in small-town Iowa. Belonging, the final novel in the New Life in Love trilogy, moved the McKenna family saga to the west coast of Scotland. LaBella’s ebooks include a trio of stories in Tales from Heartland that revisit the charm of Harmony and the lives of neighbors met in book two, and Love Unlikely, the surprising chance for happily-ever-after for Marisa’s sister, Rachel. A freelance writer, marketing coordinator, and consultant, Teresa resides in her Davenport, Iowa, hometown with her filmmaker/indie publisher husband, John, and their two Husky fur babies.

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Melusine’s Footprint now available!

I am beyond thrilled to announce the publication of Melusine’s Footprint: Tracing the Legacy of a Medieval Myth in the Explorations in Medieval Culture series hosted by Brill.

Melusine’s Footprint

This volume of 20 original critical essays by scholars from across the globe brings together an array of interdisciplinary perspectives, combining feminist, gender, queer, and monster theory, visual culture, film, and art history, comparative literature and cultural studies approaches, and new investigations into Melusine’s valence as a political, chivalric, and religious symbol in addition to her roles as etiquette instructor, metaphor, and cultural myth. The range of scholarship and the new approaches bring a fresh and exciting perspective to this oft-told and wildly popular story. The essays look not just at Melusine’s huge reception among French and German-speaking readers but also probes her translations into Spanish, Middle English, and Dutch as well as examining the uses of her myth in Luxembourg and the parallels to snake women of the Far East.

The volume is co-edited by Misty Urban, Deva F. Kemmis, and Melissa Ridley Elmes, with contributions by Anna Casas Aguilar, Jennifer Alberghini, Frederika Bain, Anna-Lisa Baumeister, Albrecht Classen, Chera A. Cole, Zoë Enstone, Stacey L. Hahn, Ana Pairet, Pit Péporté, Simone Pfleger, Caroline Prud’Homme, Renata Schellenberg,  Angela Jane Weisl, Lydia Zeldenrust, and Zifeng Zhao, and a critical afterword by Tania M. Colwell.

Gillian M. E. Alban, author of Melusine the Serpent Goddess in A. S. Byatt’s Possession and in Mythology (2003) and The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction: Petrifying, Maternal and Redemptive (2017), had this to say about Melusine’s Footprint:

Early modern woodcut of a Melusine figure

This magnificent book combines the extensive researches of twenty interdisciplinary scholars who meticulously investigate the eponymous footprint of Melusine from a wide variety of literary as well as artistic approaches. It illustrates how richly this theriomorphic monstrous snake woman has contributed to the culture of so many European countries, including Luxembourg, Germany, and Spain, not to mention France and England. Pairet describes how certain Spanish versions of Melusine’s narrative emphasize her liminality in attempting to silence her sighs and erase “the metonymy of the humanity the flying snake has left behind” (51). Alberghini discusses Coudrette’s The Romans of Partenay as a “quasi-historical/ mythological text” (155), presenting Melusine as an ancestor of Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Edward IV, alongside her son, the Scottish Geoffrey of the Great Tooth, “a daughter of the [British] Isles” (155). Melusine’s parallel in “serpentine metamorphoses” (282) extends as far afield as China, where Zhao presents Madam White as an Eve-like monstrous femme fatale, in opposition to Nü Wa, a “goddess [who] is possibly the earliest combination of woman and snake in Chinese literature…. Nü Wa has a positive and even savior-like image among the Chinese (293). One merely wonders why Zhao prefers to see Mrs White as a Melusine figure, rather than Nü Wa, in the light of considerable research indicating Melusine’s divine force.

Melusine discovered at her bath

Melusine’s footprint reverberates in her romantic love story with her benevolence and Christian piety, despite her being dreaded and feared by patriarchy. She is represented in her powerfully protective motherhood, which continued beyond her enforced parting as a dragon brought about through male betrayal, leaving her distinctive banshee cri du Mélusine as she stamped her foot in painful distress. Insights into German scholarship reverberate in this study, such as Schellenberg’s discussion of Goethe’s Die Neue Melusine as a Kunstmärchen, to which Goethe compulsively returned throughout his life. Goethe shows Melusine as a victim of betrayal and diminution, a Urphänomen or archetype which he saw as “predicated on visibility…and interconnectedness of disparate phenomena in the natural world” (320). Ridley Elmes elaborates how Paracelsus placed Melusine as an archetype within his alchemical wedding as a “half-human hybrid Melusine figure for the human Aphrodite-Venus form” (100), a transformative figure unifying humanity with nature. Kemmis investigates Bachmann’s “Undine Geht,” alongside the German nixie of the Niebelungenlied and Fouqué’s Undine, also in reference to Grendel’s mother in Beowulf. She presents Bachmann’s Undine’s liquid, wave-like elements, as the nymph’s “call of pain evokes Melusine’s…cri du Mélusine” (337) circling the castle with her uncanny utterance: “I will never come again, never say Yes again and You and Yes” (334). Kemmis also reflects on Kafka’s The Silence of the Sirens, showing the “sirens’ silence [to be] more powerful and deadly a weapon than their singing” (342). Classen’s chapter illustrates various Melusine sirens, fairies and nixies, some of them transformed into chandeliers in Germany. Baumeister develops the Kristevan aspect of Melusine as an abject object of the gaze, also as theorized by Mulvey, showing her “under the gaze of a secret spectator, transform[ed] into a monstrous animal” (362).

Melusine’s avatar in the DC universe

Melusine’s parentage and her punishment of her father Elinas, resulting in her mother Pressine’s curse, which affords her a certain power even as it curses, are extensively evaluated here, together with this liminal creature’s desire to humanize herself through marriage into the chivalric, religious order of her age. Bain describes Melusine as a siren bird-woman while also fish-woman (24), connecting her with Sheela-na-gigs, lamias, and even the Ichthus or fish symbol of “Jesus Christ, son of God, savior” (34), uniting such women within the aquatic. Prud’Homme evaluates Thüring von Ringoltingen’s view of Melusine as both a fair and fairy hybrid, while also an uncanny monster, demonstrated in the odd marks on her sons. Pfleger interprets Thüringen in offering a queer analysis of Melusine’s hebdominal transformations. Hahn unusually processes the tale as exemplifying adolescent insubordination, sibling rivalry and generational discord, showing the violence contained in Melusine’s sons’ chivalrous reach, which needed to be socially contained. Cole shows her as a “Humayn Woman” (240) whose status is secured through her social contributions as she nearly, but not quite, achieved her desired humanity. Enstone points out the fay’s connections with Arthurian legend, developing Harf-Lancner’s parallel study of Morgane and Mélusine together with Nymue, while reworking their Otherness into an ultimately more Christian version. Considerable discussion presents Melusine as a metaphor for transgressive feminine prowess, as represented in her powerful snake aspect, here presented as phallic and therefore oddly as entirely male.

A “humayn woman”

This extensive study clearly indicates the continuing fascination of this most enchanting and threatening seducer. Urban determines Melusine’s Othered femininity, the immense power of this “aerially equipped supernatural female figure who can rule, guide, instruct, build, fight wars, and expand kingdoms” (386). While indicating the absence of many English works on Melusine in the past, she picks out Spenser’s Errour and Milton’s Sin (both an inspiration to A.S. Byatt), together with Keats’ dubious “Lamia,” in her discussion. She illustrates how Byatt’s Possession, and Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen, have revived contemporary interest in Melusine, as a figure who clearly continues to escape prescribed boundaries. Weisl discusses Byatt’s presentation of Melusine’s doubleness as suggesting men’s desires and fears, as seen in the terrifying vagina dentate. Overstepping human boundaries, Melusine becomes a “Scylla, Weird Sister, Lilith (“die erste Eva,” “la mère obscure”), Bertha Mason, or a Gorgon (236), functioning as a monstrous Other in the mirror of romance. Urban similarly connects Melusine with Medusa, this composite figure launching into the future through her appearance in recent films. In Beowulf, Grendel’s mother appears like Melusine, as does the dragon in Maleficent, while in The Clash of the Titans the powerful serpent woman Medusa is shown like Melusine. In sum, this enthralling work contributes extensively to Melusinia, offering devotion to the fairy serpentine hybrid monstrous creature or symbolic force who ultimately never remains contained within any boundaries that may attempt to inscribe her. —Gillian M. E. Alban

“Melusine” by Alexandra V. Bach, at DeviantArt.com

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Cozy Mystery Roundup

To celebrate the new Murder on the Orient Express and with great affection for Agatha Christie, who I consider the queen and founder of the cozy mystery genre, femmeliterate offers these three mystery authors to go with your crackling fire, soft socks, snuggly blanket, and hot cocoa laced with whatever kind of spice you most like. All three of the series below feature a clever and business-savvy heroine enmeshed with hilarious and not-always-healthy female relationships as companions in her sleuthing. Cozy up and enjoy!

Bodice of Evidence by Nancy J. Parra

Bodice of Evidence is the second in the Perfect Proposals series by Nancy J. Parra (who also writes as Nancy Coco), and nobody says you have to read anything in order if you don’t want to. Pepper Pomeroy is trying to get her proposal-planning business off the ground, and she’d be doing great if she didn’t have to help her sister, Felicity, plan her own wedding—and then find out who killed the owner of the bridal boutique where they found The Dress. Sneaky assistants, a budding romance, and dark alleys all make Pepper wonder where she can turn and who she can trust. The writing is accomplished, the voice is lively, and the supporting cast of colorful characters are all suspicious enough in their own right to keep things moving right up until the end.

Clouds Over Bishop Hill by Mary Davidsaver

Clouds Over Bishop Hill is a delightful debut by Mary Davidsaver, who builds the incredible history of the real-life historical landmark, Bishop Hill, Illinois, into a story of small-town art-world intrigue. Killer Nashville called it “a bit of an art caper/cozy mystery set against a rich Midwestern background, peppered with interesting historic details.” Shelley Anderson isn’t excited about coming back to her tiny hometown after graduating college, and sees the summer as a jumping-off point to better things. But when her friend Pearl enlists Shelley’s help in locating a lost painting by the town’s most famous resident, Olaf Krans, Shelley wonders if her “help” isn’t going to cause more trouble. Add in an adopted father on the run, an old grade-school nemesis/crush who keeps popping up, and the altogether suspicious staff of the local art museum for a must-read story that will keep you guessing and teach you something along the way. (Olof Krans was a real person, for one.)

Antiques Bizarre by Barbara Allan

Antiques Bizarre is part of the Trash ‘n’ Treasures series coauthored by the married mystery duo of Max Allan and Barbara Collins, writing under the name Barbara Allan.  The story takes place in a town called Serenity, which resembles the town of Muscatine, Iowa, closely enough to tickle readers who live there. While Mr. Collins is best-known for his hard-boiled novels—Dick Tracy, Road to Perdition, and continuing the Hammer series of Mickey Spillane—the Trash ‘n’ Treasures series has the sacred hallmarks of the cozy: a somewhat muddled heroine whom everyone underestimates; a batty mother who inspires both awe and fear; the small town filled with the cast of odd supporting characters; and the requisite small dog. Kirkus Reviews thinks this is the book where the series hit its stride, but given the continuing plot lines, some readers might prefer to read in order. Still, you don’t have to know a thing about antiques to laugh out loud over the hilarious adventures of Brandy Borne, Mother, and Sushi, the blind, diabetic Shih Tzu, or enjoy the tips on antiquing provided along the way.

An Easter egg for readers of Antiques Bizarre. Hint: The first word starts with Faberge.

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Karen Musser Nortman’s Time Traveling Trailers

Read on for reviews of Karen Musser Nortman’s Time Traveling Trailer series, then see below for an interview with the author.

Lynne McBriar is estranged from her husband and growing ever more distant from her 14-year-old daughter, Dinah. Hoping to find a hobby that will give them quality time together, Lynne purchases a vintage camper from her old friend Ben, which he hasn’t used since his wife dies. Lynne spruces it up, talks a reluctant Dinah into a camping trip, takes a test run at a nearby park—and wakes up in the 1960s.

Thus begin Lynne’s adventures with The Time Travel Trailer.

Fortunately, since she runs her own travel agency, Lynne is acquainted with the idea of travel, and she quickly turns into a seasoned time-traveling pro. She figures out fairly quickly what propels the trailer back in time, and also (overcoming the usual sticking point in time-travel stories) figures out how to get back to the present; she’s careful not to change anything to disrupt the time flow; and, as she goes back to an earlier and earlier decade each time, she also proves proficient at managing to prepare for her excursions by having period-appropriate attire, cooking utensils, decor, and even, yes, license plates. She’s a thinker, that Lynne.

A 1935 Covered Wagon, not quite the model in the book

Dinah also, after some initial terror, gets interested in the time travel concept, and starts reading up on the phenomenon through several excursions to her local library, where she meets a helpful college-age guy who gives her a good reading list. The whole time-travel thing is a fun and loopy secret hobby until, one day, Dinah gets taken hostage by an escaped criminal, and Lynne realizes time travel is more dangerous than she thought. So is parenting, as she discovers when Dinah disappears—and only Lynne knows how far Dinah might have run not just geographically speaking but temporally speaking, too.

This first installment in Nortman’s pair of books is is a fun, entertaining, well-paced story where the writing never gets in the way of the action. Nortman is a pro at putting together mysteries thanks to her practice with the Frannie Shoemaker mystery series. She’s a seasoned camper herself, so she knows the details about camping life that make those scenes particularly rich and fun. She also knows her history, so each time Lynne goes back, she sees for herself a cultural moment or attitude in the way it affected real peoples’ attitudes and lives. Those are rewarding scenes for the history buff.

Interior of the Covered Wagon Trailer

The only complaint I had about the book is a mild one in that there seemed to be a few missed opportunities. Nortman takes it fairly easy on her characters, never putting them in danger the reader fears they can’t find their way out of. Lynne knows in advance not to leave her cell phone sitting out on the camper counter when she travels. When her husband insists on coming with her to help find Dinah, he has the foresight to raid his coin collection and bring period-correct change. While these are smart and capable things to do, they also mean missed opportunities in terms of getting the characters into real trouble in their scenes spent out-of-time.

But then again, this is cozy-variety sci-fi. Some of the things I expected as a lover of the time-travel genre didn’t, in fact, happen. For instance, I was sure the mysterious library guy was going to turn out to be a time-traveler himself, with some last minute information that would pull the rug out from under everyone. But nope; he was just a good kid.

There were a few surprises when characters go back in time to meet their own family. It turns out Lynne’s grandmother Lynette, for instance, was quite a hellion in her day. She gets Dinah in a lot of trouble, which keeps the pages turning quickly to the end. Still, there don’t seem to be any time-forward consequences to what happened. Lynette doesn’t turn out to influence the present moment as more than a gentle reminisce. The really poignant mystery is what happened to Ben’s wife, and that too gets a fairly easy (if somewhat confusing) resolution. For all that they’re messing with forces beyond their control, one never gets the sense that the characters are in Real Trouble; Lynne will simply figure everything out. Resourceful, intelligent, and fairly even-keel, Lynne is the kind of person you would want helping you out in a disaster, but you’re also never worried that she won’t think herself out of a problem.

That doesn’t take away at all from the enjoyment of the read, which is lively and fun. Nortman has a wonderful, dry, witty voice and I often found myself grinning at her observations about raising teenagers. I do wish there could have been some more resolution to the unresolved conflicts with her daughter and husband, and more information about what comes next for Ben. But on the whole The Time Travel Trailer is a satisfying read, and will leave you eager for the next installment.

In Trailer on the Fly, Lynne decides to dust off the trailer she thought she’d retire in order to help out a friend who’s paralyzed with grief. Still as competent as ever—though her relationships with her husband and daughter don’t seem to have changed significantly from the first book—Lynne wastes little time worrying about the philosophical paradoxes that might result from messing with the time stream. She’s a woman of action, and she has a problem to fix, and some camping to do.

Dinah isn’t part of this book, and the story lacks some of the pull of the first as a consequence. Lynne has much less invested in what is going on in the not-so-distant past (she only goes 10 years back this time) and isn’t as attached to the people. True, she’s the only one who knows of an impending natural disaster, but one never gets the sense that Lynne herself is at risk. Her husband, Kurt, is also harder to like in this version, and while he presents the appropriate obstacles to Lynne’s achieving what she wants, it doesn’t really feel like they’re working toward resolution, either.

The best part of the second in the series is, again, the camping, which this time entails a wonderfully described kayak trip down the river and Lynne’s being adopted by a gang of gregarious women campers calling themselves the Sisters on the Fly. The relationships among the sisters, a few dangerous escapades, and the mortal danger looming over them keep this portion of the book moving along, though once again the stakes seem fairly low; Lynne knows how to get back to her own time whenever she needs to. Altruism wins out, but then she returns home to find that messing with past events has somehow tampered with her own life—at least in so far as the progress she thought she was making in “working things out” with her husband never happened. So now Lynne has to fix her own life, in the present, with only the resources to hand.

Altogether, the books are an amusing concept, and they don’t present too much mind-twisting with the whole idea of time travel. They’re fun reads that you can share with friends, and once you’ve read them, treat yourself to Nortman’s Frannie Shoemaker cozy mystery series for more camping fun.

Karen Musser Nortman spent 22 years as a secondary social studies teacher and 18 years as a test developer for ACT. Now that she’s retired, she gets to have fun writing books. She and her husband, Butch, are diehard campers, and her books so far all center around camping. They have three children, eight grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter.

FL: Tell us the story behind the stories. What made you start writing novels? What drew you to writing mysteries in particular?

KMN: I have always loved mysteries of all types, but especially cozy mysteries. Camping offers lots of material in the form of interesting characters, both funny and serious mishaps, and unexpected events from nature. When you are camping, you get brief glimpses into people’s lives. Those glimpses could be explained by nefarious deeds—perfect material for mysteries.

FL: What was the inspiration for the time-traveling trailer?

KMN: I became interested in the current popularity of vintage campers and combined with my interest in history, the idea of a vintage camper that is a time portal intrigued me. But I didn’t want to do something where the main character goes back several centuries or alters major events. I have always been fascinated by the part common people play in history.

Many women today are especially interested in restoring vintage campers and planning events with like-minded women. Some are single, divorced, or widowed; others have husbands who are not interested in camping or have jobs that prevent their participation. One woman I know works during the school year but her husband is a greenskeeper and therefore busy all summer. These kinds of events have been very empowering for women.

FL: What made you want to write the second book?

KMN: I didn’t plan on it, but one of my readers demanded a second and even sent me a plot idea! She is a member of the Sisters on the Fly, who organize outdoor adventures for women, many of who have vintage trailers.

FL: Why did you choose the time periods you did?

In the first book, I wanted the main character to be able to meet and observe her own grandmother as a young girl. Although there are few hard and fast rules for time travel, it seemed logical that a trailer should not go back any farther than the year it was built. So I searched for a camper that was being built in the 1930s. One of those was the Covered Wagon brand. The story line involves the gradual rehab of the trailer to its original condition, and each removal of later remodels sends it back to a previous time period.

FL: What kind of research did you do?

KMN: From teaching history, I knew about the major events of the time period, but I did extra research on the popular culture and slang of the time.

FL: Time travel is a tricky subject. How did you manage some of the paradoxes?

KMN: I’m not sure I did. Working with time travel is sort of like picking up mercury. You try picking something up and it skitters all over the place. But in the first book, Lynne and her daughter never go back in their own lifetimes. When Lynne does in the second book, we are left to wonder if there is another ‘her’ somewhere. Time travel really requires a willing suspension of disbelief. One of the reviewers on Amazon liked the book, but said it was “pretty far-fetched.” Well….yeah.

FL: What do you most hope readers will take away from your books?

KMN: The time travel books started because I of course only knew my grandparents in their 50s and 60s as community leaders and fairly stern individuals, but there were hints of less acceptable behavior in their youth. Unfortunately, I didn’t ask them about that when I could have and have always wished I could have been a mouse in the corner to see them in their terrible twos or as rebellious teenagers. I think the message in those books is that what we see in the present is only the tip of the iceberg.

My campground mysteries are meant to be exactly what camping is meant to be—a relaxing escape.

FL: What’s your next project?

KMN: I’m working on a third time travel book, Trailer, Get Your Kicks! Lynne and her family take the trailer on “the Mother Road”—Route 66 in the 50s.

FL: Tell us something about your process for writing books – preparation, research, drafts, beta reads, editing, time to publication, those sorts of things. You don’t have to give away any secrets if you don’t want to.

KMN: I don’t have any secrets. Often a germ of a plot comes to me from an actual event or something someone says. Sometimes I have a general outline in mind, but mostly I’m a pantser, writing it as it develops. I do a lot of rewriting and tweaking as later events change things in the plot and research as I go along. My characters are very important to me and sometimes I write backstory about them that will never be in the book but affects how well I know them. Generally a book takes me about six months. I have three regular beta readers: another cozy mystery writer, my ex-boss who is also a camper and a stickler for details, and a good friend who is a retired librarian. My husband also gives me feedback on technical aspects.

FL: What’s your advice for writers who would like to write mysteries of their own?

KMN: Keep asking “what if?” Most basic plot ideas require a lot more added complication. I read once that if things seem to be slowing down, throw another body on the doorstep. That doesn’t have to be literal, but adding another stumbling block adds interest.

FL: How can readers get in touch with you?

KMN: My website has links to my email, Facebook page, and Twitter accounts. I also have a blog on there about our camping adventures and news about my books.

Covered Wagon vintage trailer

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Almost Missed You: How Character Becomes Plot

Almost Missed You, by Jessica Strawser. St. Martin’s Press, 2017

I subscribe to Writer’s Digest, so as a would-be debut novelist myself, I paid attention to what editor-at-large Jessica Strawser had to say in those pages about her journey in writing, selling, and marketing her debut novel, Almost Missed You, which is a combination of women’s fiction and domestic suspense, a kind of Gone Girl without fangs. I was very curious to read the book if for no other reason than to see what someone who deals everyday with instructing others in the craft of writing would write on her own time.

The book was about what I expected in terms of depth, craft, and ambition, but in no way a disappointment. This is a solid debut and will create plenty of readers eager to read Strawser’s next.

The book, somewhat on the premise of David Nicholls’ One Day, happens all in the month of August, but Augusts spanning the years 2010 to 2017. The opening chapter gives us the hook, which is, as the jacket copy tells us, that during their family vacation to a Florida beach named Sunny Isles, Violet returns to her hotel room to find her husband has disappeared with their 3-year-old son, leaving no note, no motive, and no trace. The second chapter takes us back to the very first meeting on that very same beach between Violet and Finn, where their meet-cute is interrupted by a stranger’s medical emergency and a distressed child. Their story of near-misses thereafter is said to be so marvelously one of those ‘meant-to-be/twists of Fate’ tales that people can’t stop asking them to tell the story, until they themselves almost can’t believe how meant to be they are.

Sunny Isles Beach, Florida. Photo by Online Image Arcade

Which turns out, of course, to be a big fat lie. The novel isn’t interested, thankfully, in fate, romance, or what ‘meant-to-be’ even means. It is more interested in the kinds of wounds we carry, the secrets we bring even to our relationships, and the ways we hurt and betray the people we most love. All excellent fodder for fiction, which should make this an excellent book.

I stumbled over two qualities, however, in the characterization and the storytelling. We never actually *see* how or why Finn and Violet are so marvelously suited or ‘meant to be.’ We never see them telling their story to friends or strangers who coo and stare. We’re simply reminded frequently by the author that this is the case. I occasionally had the sense while reading that certain plot points or situations were invented to fulfill this interesting premise, rather than the organic and inevitable and rather shocking choices made by characters driven with powerful needs, fears, and internal motivations. In short, several moments in the Violet-Finns storyline felt contrived, not organic, the characters conforming to the story, rather than running it.

The mysteries keep coming, which is one strong point in the story’s favor. The main mystery of where Finn went with Bear is answered by chapter 3, when he shows up to blackmail/torture/extort his so-called best friend, Caitlin, but there are plenty more secrets to surface and wrong turns taken after that. It’s easy to keep reading, for no other reason than to find out how Violet is going to get Bear back.

Fountain Square, Cincinnati.

Yet even as a desperate and bereaved mother, Violet, I have to say, never captured me as a character. She has no depth, no secrets, no urgent motivations, and no point to her existence other than to be the perfect mother to Bear. Since I fail daily to be even an adequate mother to my children in real life, I resent these perfect characters in life and fiction. The plot leaves Violet with little to do other than cry, get drunk, wonder what happened, and—when she does show any energy or action—be mean to the people who are trying to help her. This last makes her a bit easier to relate to, but her ongoing righteousness didn’t win me over at all.

She’s so good as to be uninteresting, and frankly I wished that Violet had a little more inner darkness. Her scenes, which are mostly her being bereaved (at least in the present August of the story, 2016), would have been more interesting if Violet had done some soul-searching and found moments she wasn’t, in fact, the perfect wife and mother. If she sometimes ignored or got impatient with Finn. If she sometimes were petulant or demanding. If she occasionally just got exhausted with her 3-year-old, as some mothers do, and locked herself in the bathroom while he cried himself to sleep. Even if she had only done this once, but it came back to torment her in the question of ‘did I deserve to have my son taken away? Am I a bad wife/person/mother?’ I would have found her much more fascinating. I like internal darkness, I admit.

The Finn sections have the same trouble as the Violet sections. I had the same difficulty feeling Finn’s pain, though we do learn his motivations, as well as his secrets. But again, instead of having traces of bad, his only real flaw is that he is emotionally stunted by grief and acting like a wounded animal rather than a responsible adult. This is a little more interesting as a character, but as he spends most of his time in the present moment of the story feeling bad about his moral choices, there isn’t, again, a lot for him to *do*.

Asheville, North Carolina. Photo by The Reserve at Lake Keowee

But Caitlin, for me, was a different matter altogether. I admit, when Chapter 3 began, I wondered why we needed her. I had already failed to really care about either of the two main characters, even though I am a mother of young children whose perfect nightmare involves some harm to them, and so should have identified strongly. But once Finn comes on stage, taking her off guard, we learn Caitlin has a secret. Caitlin is forced to an impossible choice. Caitlin did something wrong that Finn knows about, and he could destroy her whole family and devastate her, just as he’s destroyed his own family and devastated his wife.

NOW, I thought, things are interesting. We have a character with internal and external obstacles, a character whose motivations are clear and relatable, a character who is again and again going to act in ways she thinks make sense and will solve the problem, and are just going to get her into more and more trouble. Everything that happens to Caitlin is somehow a catastrophe related to a choice she made.

And THAT, friends, is how character becomes plot.

I noticed that, in Violet and Finn sections, I very often skipped paragraphs, or forgot the paragraphs I just read. They simply didn’t stick with me. With Caitlin’s chapters, I was glued to every line. What was going to happen next? What would she do? I both could and could not see it coming, which is the sweet spot of suspense that you want your reader to be in.

LumenoCity at Music Hall, Cincinnati

With Violet and Finn, I very often felt that their responses answered some question a beta reader or editor had flagged in the text: “Would Finn really—? Wouldn’t Violet just—?” And then, in an act of dutiful revision, came the statement or declaration of motives that would exactly answer the question in the reader’s mind. Caitlin did none of this. Caitlin kept us guessing. And by the end of the story, when everything is in the biggest stew possible—as it should be, at this stage in the plot—Caitlin’s husband George stepped in with a big reveal of his own and stole the scene, the story, and my heart.

By the end of the book (spoiler alert) I didn’t even care about the final confrontation between Violet and Finn. I didn’t see that there was anything to resolve. The only real question was how long Finn would be in jail for parental kidnapping. But I was desperate to know what was happening between Caitlin and George, now that both of their big secrets had blown open, their lies to one another exposed, their bad choices out on the table for everyone to see. They went off stage and disappeared.

This was the final piece of evidence that suggested to me that, while the book is structurally sound and competently written and carefully plotted and edited and revised, with a marketable premise in place, the part I engaged with was not what the author thought was the most important part of her story. This book, for me, is not about Finn’s escapade and Violet’s being blindsided or even about a wife whose perfect marriage falls apart. This book is about grief, secrets, relationships, how we talk to one another, how we figure out what we want, how we bear to keep going, and how we respond when the people we love are in danger or hurt. Caitlin and George’s story is about all those things even more urgently and compellingly than Violet and Finn’s, and yet the book closes on Violet and Finn’s story—even going to far as to append an epilogue that I felt in no way matched the emotional arc that any of the characters had undergone—without realizing that the real story isn’t complete without seeing what happens to Caitlin and George.

These aren’t small flaws, and there’s an additional hindrance in the book’s readability in that there are large chunks of exposition—the author telling us what the characters did and felt—that could have been better communicated in scene. Those were the parts I would have flagged as an editor, anyway.

All this said, it’s still a readable story, and the book deserves all the praise given it. I look forward to reading Strawser’s next (possibly a study in how a sophomore novel compares to a debut?) and in the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy her columns in Writer’s Digest. And continue to apply what I learn from that magazine and what I learned from this novel in trying to sell books of my own creation.

St. Augustine, Florida

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Women Writers Reading: Teresa LaBella reads Jean Grainger

Shadow of a Century by Jean Grainger

The premise of Jean Grainger‘s Shadow of a Century: An Irish Love Story intrigued me. The story of Ireland’s struggle for independence from British rule told by Volunteers who lived through the Rising and their descendants re-living the history 100 years later became the lesson I wish my Irish grandmother and I would have shared during her lifetime.

Scarlett O’Hara resents the name her mother gave her and the dismal childhood with an alcoholic father that Lorena O’Hara, by enduring the beatings and abuse, refused to save herself and her daughter from. She responds as an adult in classic overachieving behavior. The small town journalist climbs to big city reporter prominence only to lose it all in a blaze of bad PR over an affair with a married politician who covers his indiscretion by blaming her for seducing him away from the devoted family he values. She accepts the only job offered, a freelance assignment from her former boss, and meets Eileen, an elderly woman living alone, devastated by the break-in that violated her home and desperate to find a flag wrapped in linen brought to America by her mother who was forced by revolutionary violence to leave her husband and Irish homeland. The flag leads Scarlett, Lorena and Eileen on a journey back to Dublin to discover the past, resolve the present, and cherish their divergent paths to future peace and potential happiness.

Chapters woven between the contemporary story trace the events leading up to and after the Easter Uprising in April 1916. Mary Doyle leaves the only home she’s ever known, an orphanage run by nuns, and goes to live and work in service for a wealthy family in Dublin. Her involvement with the freedom-seekers begins with the mistress of the house, Angeline Grant, whose fierce political stance opposes the opinions and threatens the pride and livelihood of her pro-British husband. Mary’s friendship with Eileen O’Dwyer, maid to another nearby household and sister to Rory O’Dwyer who is destined to become IRA leader Michael Collins’ right hand man, puts Mary in the epicenter of danger and a lifelong passionate love for Rory and a free Ireland.

The rather abrupt ending rubbed a bit of the shine from an otherwise polished novel. But the characters and their story remain with me. That, in my humble opinion, is a good read I highly recommend.

Photograph of Author Teresa LaBellaTeresa LaBella published her first contemporary romance novel, Reservations, in 2013. The big city story continued in Heartland, set in small-town Iowa. Belonging, the final novel in the New Life in Love trilogy, moved the McKenna family saga to the west coast of Scotland. LaBella’s ebooks include a trio of stories in Tales from Heartland that revisit the charm of Harmony and the lives of neighbors met in book two, and Love Unlikely, the surprising chance for happily-ever-after for Marisa’s sister, Rachel. A freelance writer, marketing coordinator, and consultant, Teresa resides in her Davenport, Iowa, hometown with her filmmaker/indie publisher husband, John, and their three rescued Huskies.

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