So is it a Fantasy? – Guest Post by Beverly Swerling, author of Bristol House

Beverly Swirling is the author of Bristol House. For more about Bristol House, see the book description or Nicole’s blurb in April’s Bloggers Recommend newsletter.

The question of genre – what kind of a book is it? – frequently drives new writers crazy. Sometimes it’s not easy to answer even for those of us who have been at this for a while.

Personally, as a reader, once I start a book that draws me in, that hopefully I enjoy, maybe even love, I could care less what label the publisher has chosen, how the book business is marketing the title, or even the genre stamped on the spine if it’s a paperback. But as a writer I admit, the whole business sometimes looms large. Particularly with Bristol House. From the first day I started working on this book – four years ago now – I knew a lot of publishing people and many readers would see it as fantasy. How can it be anything else since it features two ghosts who speak to the present from the past? Nonetheless, that’s not what I intended it to be. Rather, I see it as a speculation.

“Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past.” That’s T.S. Eliot in a poem called Burnt Norton. It was always in my mind that I was writing about the nature of time.

What if the mystery implicit in God’s answer to Moses when Moses asks to be told the divine name – “I am who am.” – is in a way its own solution? The need to label things, to have everything be clear and go in a straight-line progression, maybe that’s all man-made nonsense.

And what about Einstein’s theory of time as a river, with everything present simultaneously, but past and future hidden around bends that lie behind and ahead of us?

What if time is just something we made up, a kind of crutch? Merely a prelude to eternity.

How do we wrap our heads around that?

Some people insist with absolute certainty that such speculation is absurd. There are no ghosts, there is no life after life, time does not bend. None of it can possibly be true. If you can’t see it or touch it or hear it or smell it or taste it, it does not exist. End of story.

Well, that’s not the end of this story. And if that’s what you believe – if you’re absolutely sure that death is death and nothing follows – this is probably not a book for you. But if, like most of us, you go back and forth, sometimes more and sometimes less sure of what you believe, if you live with the fact that your doubts and what you have of belief are all jumbled up together, if you’re interested in how sometimes preposterous-seeming beliefs motivate others to do truly heroic things, I think my story – which touches down on Einstein’s river and attempts to incorporate Eliot’s words charged with meaning – will resonate with you.

This is not, I have to add, a religious book, despite the fact that it features two rabbis, a Dominican priest, a Carthusian monk, and a lot about the pervasive horror of anti-Semitism across the centuries. In the section that takes part in modern London, neither Annie the American, nor Geoff the Englishman is a practicing anything. But both are seekers of truth, and both have a big investment in righting old wrongs.

In the part of the book that takes place in the time of Henry VIII even the monks scheme and lie, and the goldsmith persecuted for simply being a Jew sometimes behaves like a tyrant. Together they sow the seeds of a plot that six hundred years later will threaten the lives of Annie and Geoff and many others. And they also plant the clues for its unraveling. Because, after all, what is time? And can we ever escape the burden of old sins?

Yes, this story says, we can. In the end everything moves toward the light, and forgiveness is always possible as long as we first learn to forgive ourselves.

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February 2013 Reading Wrap-Up

So I read 13 books this month, including 5 audiobooks. This was a total of 2700 pages and about 57 hours of audio. I could have easily finished one more book in print, but I had to stop myself so I could get some work done. I’m hoping March – when I’ll have more day-to-day help with the kids – will mean more work getting done during the day and thus more reading done in the evening.

What I Reviewed:

Audiobooks
The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch, narrated by Dan Bittner
Parlor Games by Maryka Biaggio, narrated by Leslie Carroll
The Good House by Anne Leary, narrated by Mary Beth Hurt

Fiction
The Promise of Stardust by Priscille Sibley
All This Talk of Love by Christopher Castellani
Every Trick in the Book by Lucy Arlington
The Comfort of Lies by Randy Susan Meyers

Historical Fiction
Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell

Nonfiction
Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors by Andrew Shaffer
Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy by Emily Bazelon

Other Posts:
D.E.A.R. (D.E.A.L.) February 2013 – Sound Bytes
D.E.A.R. – February 2013

Pick of the Month:


Other Books Read, Watch for Reviews:

Audiobook
Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World by Matthew Goodman, narrated by Kathe Mazur
Hand Me Down by Melanie Thorne, narrated by Ali Ahn
The Dead Shall Not Rest by Tessa Harris, narrated by Simon Vance
Heft by Liz Moore, narrated by Kirby Heyborne and Keith Szarabajka
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, narrated by Colin Firth

Fiction
The Demonologist by Andrew Pyper
The Crooked Branch by Jeanine Cummins
Above All Things by Tanis Rideout
The Demon Lover by Juliet Dark

Note: Some of these books were provided to me for review.

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Emma Straub, Cookies, and a ‘Best of 2012’ Sneak Peek

In exactly ONE WEEK I will reveal my ‘best of’ list of 2012. Just in case you absolutely can’t wait, I have some details to reveal today. First of all, there are five categories: audiobook, fiction, speculative fiction and mystery/thriller, historical fiction, and nonfiction. Each category has five picks (well, except for audiobooks, where I couldn’t narrow it down from six) and today I’m going to give you a spoiler and tell you that one of my fiction picks is Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.

(UPDATE: That’s not a spoiler anymore, as the list is now up)

As a celebration, and in case you have any holiday parties you still need to bake for, Emma’s here today sharing her famous chocolate chip cookie recipe with us.

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People love to talk about how much I love to bake, but the dirty truth is this: I have exactly two tricks up my sleeve. There are my brownies, which I have written about before, and then there are my chocolate chip cookies. I don’t quite understand the idea of baking if there is no chocolate involved. I cannot claim any responsibility for the recipe below, though I will vouch for it a thousand times over. These are my go-to cookies, and even if you mess up and bake them for a minute or so too long, they will still be delicious. The most important thing to remember is that fancy chocolate and butter are your friends.

(The below recipe is adapted from the excellent cookbook  by David Waltuck and Melicia Phillips)

Oaty Chocolate Chip Cookies

2 sticks of unsalted butter
1 cup light brown sugar
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
2 eggs
2 cups flour
2 cups old fashioned oats (not instant)
2 cups chocolate chips. I like to use fancy chocolate and chop it up myself. Fancy chocolate makes everything better.
Dash of vanilla

1. Preheat oven to 375.

2. Put the butter and sugar (both kinds) in your mixer, or in a bowl, if you have strong arms muscles and won’t give up until the mixture is all creamy.

3. Add the salt and the baking soda. Mix some more.

4. Add the eggs and the vanilla.

5. Add the flour, one cup at a time. Mix thoroughly before adding the second cup.

6. Add the oats, also one cup at a time. This is when the batter starts to get really delicious, I’m just saying.

7. Add all the chocolate. The dough will be super thick and so delicious that you will have to basically muzzle yourself from here on out.

8. Voila! You’re done! Now throw ’em on a baking sheet and bake for about ten or eleven minutes. One batch makes a whole lot of cookies.

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Now, OBVIOUSLY I couldn’t recommend this recipe to you, or let Emma recommend it, anyway, without trying them myself. I made these cookies with regular old chocolate chips because I didn’t have any fancy chocolate, but let me tell you, these cookies make everything better even without it.  You see there in step 7 where Emma says that the dough will be “super thick?” Yeah, the first time I made these I actually SNAPPED a wooden spoon in half while stirring in the chocolate. You know what, though? That spoon was a 100% worthwhile sacrifice. I’m not sure I’ll ever make chocolate chip cookies any other way. I do recommend using a mixer to make them, though, because it will break down the oats a bit, while still leaving some of them whole, which makes for a perfect texture.

Oh, and it wasn’t just me, these cookies were a hit with the whole family. In fact, when Daniel came downstairs before I did one morning he decided to have one for breakfast.

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What Hildegard Means Now – Guest Post and Giveaway from Mary Sharratt, Author of Illuminations

Mary Sharratt is an American author living in England. Her books include Daughters of the Witching Hill and Illuminations. She has previously guest blogged for me on the connection between Catholicism and witchcraft in England.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) was a visionary abbess and polymath. She composed an entire corpus of sacred music and wrote nine books on subjects as diverse as theology, cosmology, botany, medicine, linguistics, and human sexuality, a prodigious intellectual outpouring that was unprecedented for a 12th-century woman. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine.

Pope Benedict XVI canonized Hildegard on May 10, 2012—873 years after her death. In October 2012, she will be elevated to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title reserved for theologians who have significantly impacted Church doctrine.

But what does Hildegard mean for a wider secular audience today?

I believe her legacy remains hugely important for contemporary women.

While writing Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, I kept coming up against the injustice of how women, who are often more devout than men, are condemned to stand at the margins of established religion, even in the 21st century. Women bishops still cause controversy in the Episcopalian Church while the previous Catholic pope, John Paul II, called a moratorium even on the discussion of women priests. Although Pope Benedict XVI is elevating Hildegard to Doctor of the Church, he is suppressing Hildegard’s contemporaries, the sisters and nuns of the Leadership Council of Women Religious, who stand accused of radical feminism.

Modern women have the choice to wash their hands of organized religion altogether. But Hildegard didn’t even get to choose whether to enter monastic life—she was entombed in an anchorage at the age of eight. The Church of her day could not have been more patriarchal and repressive to women. Yet her visions moved her to create a faith that was immanent and life-affirming, one that can inspire us today.

Too often both religion and spirituality have been interpreted by and for men, but when women reveal their spiritual truths, a whole other landscape emerges, one we haven’t seen enough of. Hildegard opens the door to a luminous new world.

The cornerstone of Hildegard’s spirituality was Viriditas, or greening power, her revelation of the animating life force manifest in the natural world that infuses all creation with moisture and vitality. To her, the divine is manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Just as a ray of sunlight is the sun, Hildegard believed that a flower or a stone is God, though not the whole of God. Creation reveals the face of the invisible creator.

“I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows,” the voice of God reveals in Hildegard’s visions, recorded in her book, Liber Divinorum. “I gleam in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon and stars . . . . I awaken everything to life.”

Hildegard’s re-visioning of religion celebrated women and nature, and even perceived God as feminine, as Mother. Her vision of the universe was an egg in the womb of God.

According to Barbara Newman’s book Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine, Hildegard’s Sapientia, or Divine Wisdom, creates the cosmos by existing within it.

O power of wisdom!
You encompassed the cosmos,
Encircling and embracing all in one living orbit
With your three wings:
One soars on high,
One distills the earth’s essence,
And the third hovers everywhere.
Hildegard von Bingen, O virtus sapientia

Hildegard shows how visionary women might transform the most male-dominated faith traditions from within.

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Interview with Kristina Riggle, author of Keepsake

Kristina Riggle is the author of four novels, the most recent of which is Keepsake, which is the story of a hoarder trying to clean up her act and the family who attempts to help her. I previously reviewed Riggle’s other novels: Real Life and Liars, The Life You’ve Imaginedand Things We Didn’t SayI emailed with Riggle recently to talk about Keepsake and her writing career. Please see the end of this post for a giveaway opportunity. 

Jen: How did you choose to write about hoarding? What about it sparked a story for you?

Kristina: Inevitably, I will write about something that fascinates me. Years ago, I saw an episode of Oprah about a compulsive hoarder. Her personal appearance was immaculate, and the exterior of her home was beautiful. By all appearances she was an intelligent, rational, articulate woman. When she opened the door to her home, inside was a horror show of filth and debris. Even more striking was when she showed the producers an empty garbage can. She could not bear to ruin the “perfect” garbage can with trash, though the rest of her house was, in essence, a trash heap. When I was brainstorming new book ideas, it seemed like a natural topic that would be perfect for the type of character-driven story I like to write. It also turned out — not deliberately — to use some of the same themes I covered in an earlier unpublished manuscript, which also featured two sisters with opposite temperaments brought together reluctantly.

Jen: Did you have to do a lot of research about hoarding to write Keepsake?

Kristina: A fair amount. I read books and articles, and watched the currently popular hoarding reality shows, of course. The most interesting thing I did was to fill out a hoarding self-help workbook “in character” as Trish. There are many varieties of hoarder, and this exercise helped me fix her character in my mind. I also worked with a former college roommate who is a clinical psychologist like the Seth character. I already had his character in the works when my friend and I reconnected. That was a great bit of serendipity.

Jen: Your first book, Real Life and Liars, had at its core a physical illness, but your three books since then deal with characters with more psychological diseases: gambling, alcoholism, hoarding. Is there something that attracts you more to characters with problems of the mind, rather than solely of the body?

Kristina: Even Real Life and Liars was a book about the characters’ emotional lives, though a physical illness was the crisis at the center of the book. People fascinate me, especially when they don’t act in rational, logical, sensible ways. We’re all screwed up some way or another, and I don’t think my characters are all that different than people in general. It’s like that old slogan from the Biography TV show. “Every life has a story.”

Jen:  How does it feel releasing your fourth book? Is it much different than releasing your first?

Kristina: It does feel a little more normal, now, going to book events and talking to readers. But I still — and I’m sure always will — get a thrill out of fan mail, and signing books. I’m a little more anxious, too, in some ways. The longer I do this, the longer I want to do it. Forever, if I can. As long as my fingers can type. That’s a tall order in today’s publishing climate. But I’m hopeful for a long career.

Jen: Can you share one piece of advice for aspiring writers?

Kristina: I just heard this quote from the late Ray Bradbury on NPR’s Fresh Air: “By doing things, things get done.” If you want to be a writer, then by all means, write. If you want to publish, then research publishing in whatever form you choose to pursue. The point is, you can’t wish and hope yourself into being a writer anymore than you can anything else.

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I have two copies of Keepsake to give away to a lucky reader anywhere in the world. Please enter on the form below by the 11:59 pm Eastern on Friday, July 20th.

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