The Writer's Life
Sarah Morgan: Asking 'What If'
Three-time RITA Award-winning author Sarah Morgan writes contemporary romance filled with laughter, love and a realness that resonates with readers. Her novel
|photo: Rosanna Hancock Photography
The Christmas Sisters (reviewed below) finds Suzanne McBride dreaming of the perfect family Christmas in the snowy Scottish Highlands. But her three adopted daughters have other plans. Morgan lives in London with her family.
The descriptions of the Scottish Highland village, the McBride home and the surrounding mountains are vivid and quite wonderful. Did you base this setting on an actual place in Scotland?
I love Scotland. I spent my honeymoon there, so it's a very special place for me. It's the perfect setting for a winter-themed book, but although many of the Scottish elements are based on reality, the village in the book is the product of my imagination. I like to be able to create a place that fits my story perfectly and that hopefully readers will fall in love with. I have more flexibility to do that if I don’t use a real place.
The descriptions of the thrills and dangers of mountain climbing are intriguing. Why did you, a British author, choose Mount Rainier in Washington State for the location of the story's pivotal tragic accident?
I have no personal connection with Mount Rainier, but I have always loved mountains and I'm a keen hiker--I'm as likely to be reading a climbing book as I am fiction. While researching and plotting The Christmas Sisters, I had to build a background for Suzanne and her friends, who were climbers and mountain guides. Where would they have climbed? What type of climbing would have interested them? I needed a mountain that could produce the type of conditions that contributed to the accident, and Rainier provided that. I couldn't pick a mountain further afield, for example in the Himalayas, because that pivotal scene needed to be a short trip that friends could do without leaving their children for more than a couple of days.
The details of mountain climbing felt very realistic. Did you research the action scenes through personal experience?
It was mostly research, but my knowledge is sufficient that the research was easier than some I've done for other titles. Back in the early stages of my career, I wrote a number of medical romances with a mountain rescue theme. The research that I did for those books definitely helped with this story.
In the book, a family born of circumstance struggles with finding ways to retain and strengthen their bonds. What drew you to this theme of family created by adoption versus family of blood ties?
The idea came from a feature I read about a woman who had adopted her friend's children. Writers always ask themselves the "what if" question, and it started me thinking about the unique pressures that would come with raising the children of a friend.
Suzanne is desperate to have a magical family Christmas, but her reasons for wanting and needing that are deeper than they are for most people.
Suzanne is the glue that's held the family together since the accident that killed her daughters' parents. She's determined to keep them intrinsically tied, and that isn't always easy as all three women have different issues. The pressure to be a happy family intensifies at Christmas and, for Suzanne, the burden is even greater because she feels such a responsibility toward the sisters. If they're not happy, has she failed?
Suzanne McBride's love for her hobbies--knitting, baking, decorating for Christmas--is infectious. Did you base any of her interests on a real person? What aspects of Suzanne's character do you feel her hobbies demonstrate?
My mother is a fabulous cook and for years made her own clothes. When I'm writing in the depths of winter, I still snuggle down in a gorgeous wool sweater she knitted. The obsession with decorating comes more from me! Nothing says festive to me like a real tree and lots of fairy lights. I confess I'm a fairy light addict. Suzanne's hobbies reflect her love of home and family. Her marriage and her three adopted daughters are the most important things in her life, and she does everything she can to make their Christmas gathering as perfect as possible.
You've published a long list of romance titles. Can you tell us a bit about why you decided to include more women's fiction aspects in your novels, including The Christmas Sisters?
Female friendship is something that has interested me for a long time, and even within my romances I always have a strong theme of friendship. I enjoy exploring love in its broadest sense. Few of us experience romance in isolation--our lives are a web of different relationships and I love the complexity that comes with including friends and family members within a story. --Lois Dyer
, reviewer and writer
Your Duck Is My Duck: Stories
Deborah Eisenberg (Twilight of the Superheroes) is a writer who constantly pushes the form in intellectually dazzling directions. Your Duck Is My Duck begins with the titular story, in which a young painter is whisked off to an exotic island retreat, courtesy of a wealthy patron couple. The premises are swarming with accountants, hinting at business troubles for the couple. Meanwhile, the painter meets a genius puppeteer who stages revolution in his productions, not unlike the political tumult consuming the real-life island. In this way, the reader enters Eisenberg's quasi-farcical worlds, where biting satire meets heartbreaking pathos. She writes with an indirect, veiled structure, never revealing too much, letting readers piece together the catastrophes that always seem to be looming on the horizon.
Some stories revolve around family and other inextricable relationships. In "Taj Mahal," the grandson of a famous film director writes a biography of his grandfather and in doing so upsets a tight cadre of aged actors, who routinely meet to reminisce about better days, "waiting with patience and humility to be issued new roles." In "Cross Off and Move On," a woman tries to escape the negativity of her mother, finding some measure of independence. While Eisenberg can be caustic at times--her humor dark--these stories alight on something tender: the weird way people try to remember and love each other.
Eisenberg pulls off her uncanny narrative structures with panache. Rarely do short stories feel so full. Your Duck Is My Duck
is both quirky and profound, brimming with the dangers and wonders of life. --Scott Neuffer
, writer, poet, editor of trampset
Discover: Deborah Eisenberg pushes the short story to new heights in this weirdly affecting collection.
$26.99, hardcover, 240p., 9780062688774
In São Paulo-born American author Samuel Park's posthumous second novel, a Brazilian immigrant looks back on her childhood with her charismatic mother.
In the early 1990s, 26-year-old Mara Alencar shares a small apartment in Bel Air, Calif., with two fellow Brazilian immigrants. An undocumented worker, she earns her living looking after Kathryn, a 44-year-old American divorcée with stomach cancer. Kathryn responds to Mara's compassionate care by trying to make their relationship more personal, promising to leave Mara her house and offering herself as a stand-in for Mara's mother. The attention makes Mara uncomfortable, as does her front-row seat to Kathryn's complicated relationship with her ex-husband, who no longer loves her but still sleeps with her out of pity. Nevertheless, Kathryn's spirit and suffering remind Mara of her mother, Ana, who had a stint as an accessory to political rebellion at a critical point in Brazil's history.
Like Kathryn, Park (This Burns My Heart
) suffered from stomach cancer, which took his life at age 41. Some of his most powerful passages meditate on the horror of cancer, which Mara compares to torture: "Both changed the meaning of the body. No longer the purveyor of pleasure, but instead a battleground." The book's backmatter includes Park's frank essay "I Had a 9 Percent Chance. Plus Hope," in which he discusses his fight with cancer. While not an uplifting read, Park's final novel hums with quiet importance and thwarted promise. --Jaclyn Fulwood
, blogger at Infinite Reads
Discover: Shortly before dying of stomach cancer at 41, Samuel Park finished this quiet, heartfelt story of an undocumented Brazilian immigrant's tumultuous early years with her charismatic mother.
Simon & Schuster,
$26, hardcover, 288p., 9781501178771
Whiskey When We're Dry
When Jess Harney explains "the house was left to us women" near the end of Whiskey When We're Dry, it's jarring. John Larison's character is so convincing as a man, it's hard to remember that Jess was Jessilyn before disguising herself at 17 and riding her beloved mare in search of her brother, a notorious outlaw and the only family she has.
Her mother died in childbirth, leaving newborn Jessilyn with her father and five-year-old Noah in their remote cabin. A rough homesteader who fled west during the Civil War, Pa is inept at both parenting and ranching. Disgusted and headstrong, teenage Noah leaves home and a distraught Jessilyn. After Pa dies, she considers her options and heads out.
Jess and Noah were childhood sharpshooters. Noah's wanted posters confirm his skills, so Jess knows she needs to aim true to survive. As a small young man, her talent draws the attention of the narcissistic governor of the territory, who takes Jess in, planning to bet on the unassuming young gunslinger. Life in the governor's mansion brings her face to face with brutal frontier justice, racism, political skullduggery and her emerging sense of self. Always good at heart and loyal, Jess's unwavering goal is to find Noah.
Whiskey When We're Dry
is historical fiction, but locales are unnamed and geography and boundaries significant only as they affect Jess, Noah and the people in their lives, who represent the diversity of the western expansion. For any setting, Jessilyn Harney's story is a great adventure. --Cheryl Krocker McKeon
, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco
Discover: An orphaned teen disguises herself as a boy and attempts to find her brother, a notorious outlaw in the wild West.
$26, hardcover, 400p., 9780735220447
The Christmas Sisters
The snow-covered peaks of the Scottish Highlands serve as the stunning setting for The Christmas Sisters by Sarah Morgan. Suzanne McBride, owner of a café and inn in Glensay, loves the trappings of Christmas. This year, her three adopted daughters will be home for the holidays, and Suzanne is determined to make each day absolutely perfect. An avalanche 25 years earlier resulted in her adoption of Hannah, Beth and Posy, and Suzanne knows the tragedy has had an enduring emotional impact on all of them. But she couldn't have foreseen how very much her grown daughters need the support of their family this holiday, nor how fate has conspired to force all of them to confront their fears, dreams and desires. This unforgettable Christmas gathering has the potential to draw the McBrides closer or tear them apart, compelling them to consider whether the strength of bonds formed due to tragic circumstances are strong enough to hold a family together forever.
The dangers of rescuing lost mountain climbers stand in stark, thrilling contrast to the cozier scenes of familial interaction and each sister's romantic entanglement. Morgan has created thoroughly likable characters, adding humor and emotional depth to a strong plot with a surprising twist. The result is a warm, inviting story that is both engaging and heartfelt. --Lois Dyer
, freelance book reviewer
Discover: The blended McBride tribe gathers in Scotland for the Christmas holidays and rediscovers the importance of family.
$15.99, paperback, 416p., 9781335946478
Praise Song for the Butterflies
In Praise Song for the Butterflies, Bernice McFadden turns her keen eye to the subject of ritualistic slavery in West Africa.
Abeo Kata is nine years, seven months and three days old when her father takes her to a remote village in Ukemby and leaves her in the arms of strangers. "You should be honored to be here," she is told, "to become trokosi, to become wife of the gods." Abeo lives at the shrine for 15 years, witnessing unspeakable horrors and surviving horrific conditions before she is rescued.
McFadden (The Book of Harlan; Gathering of Waters) weaves past and present times to build Abeo's story, including the stories of her ancestors, which are crucial to understanding her father's actions. McFadden's writing is strongest in these moments, building a complicated and nuanced web of tales that reveal religious customs and cultural beliefs of a time and place that is both modern and yet rooted in the traditions of its past. As the novel evolves, more characters and plot threads are introduced--including that of Taylor, an American woman who is called to help the trokosi--and these can at times feel flat and cluttering. In the moments of brilliance, it is Abeo who emerges most fully on the pages: a fierce, vibrant and complicated woman whose survival shapes not only her life, but the lives of those around her.
At once a heartbreaking tale of violence and oppression and an uplifting story of hope and redemption, Praise Song of the Butterflies
sheds light on the lasting legacy of ritual servitude in West Africa in way that is not easy to forget. --Kerry McHugh
, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm
Discover: A contemporary novel sheds light on the lasting legacy of ritual servitude in West Africa and the endurance of one woman offered to be a "wife of the gods" by her family.
$15.95, paperback, 224p., 9781617756269
Mystery & Thriller
In an unusual side trip after 25 years covering art for the New York Times, San Antonio-born Randy Kennedy (Subwayland) delivers a first-rate debut novel set in the llanos of West Texas. At its heart, Presidio is a road trip story. Two long-estranged brothers set out to retrieve an inheritance from their father stolen by the con artist Bettie, who bedded one brother and married the other. Troy, the elder, is a professional lone wolf thief, serially stealing cars and clothing from random motel occupants while rambling across the plains. Harlan remains rooted in their hometown, living in a tweaker shack beneath an abandoned radio tower.
When they boost a car to go after Bettie in the border town of Presidio, they find the plucky 10-year-old Mennonite Martha hiding in the backseat. After settlement elders "shunned" him, Martha's father escaped with her to the Mexican Mennonite colony of Cuauhtémoc City. Ostracized there also, he's now in a Juárez jail for kidnapping, and Martha is determined to reunite with him when he's released into El Paso.
With this rabble of characters, country twang humor and apt descriptions of the pumpjack, cocklebur and turpentine weed landscape, Presidio
is a tale of the hard luck life in a place "so far out in the sticks there aren't any sticks." Kennedy paints as powerful a picture as those of the artists he once covered. --Bruce Jacobs
, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.
Discover: Art journalist Randy Kennedy's inspired first novel is a story of two tough-luck brothers on a West Texas road trip that goes awry.
$26, hardcover, 320p., 9781501153860
Biography & Memoir
Whiskey in a Teacup: What Growing Up in the South Taught Me About Life, Love, and Baking Biscuits
Oscar-winning actress and Emmy-winning producer Reese Witherspoon already leads a popular book club on Instagram, so it seems a natural next step for her to write a book. The title, Whiskey in a Teacup, refers to Witherspoon's grandmother's description of Southern women: "delicate and ornamental on the outside... but inside we're strong and fiery."
The book is a pleasant collection of lifestyle and decorating tips, personal anecdotes and recipes of Southern staples like fried chicken and cornbread chili pie that are simple enough for even novice cooks. Witherspoon shares her pride for her roots and love for her Nashville childhood traditions (midnight barn parties!), some of which she has adapted for her adult life. She goes Christmas caroling--in Los Angeles. She transforms her home into a pumpkin patch for Halloween--with 47 pumpkins in the front yard. She reveals she's a highly competitive bowler and, as a child, ran two successful businesses (selling lemonade and personalized barrettes) and wanted to be president of the United States.
Some of her most interesting stories are about her grandmother Dorothea, a civil rights supporter and schoolteacher with a master's degree, who always wore dresses, even while gardening, and looked like a movie star. Dorothea bought books for young Reesey and read them aloud in different voices, striking a spark that became Witherspoon's love of performing. Witherspoon's voice in Whiskey
is conversational, with elements of her perky onscreen characters, and when she writes "Y'all come back and visit sometime, ya hear?" fans will want to accept the invitation. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis
, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd
Discover: Reese Witherspoon shares stories, recipes and tips on how to create a Southern lifestyle anywhere.
$35, hardcover, 304p., 9781501166273
Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth
The election of Donald Trump helped expose the fault lines separating Americans who inhabit different regions and economic strata. But long before class was a subject of newspaper columns, it was fundamental to Sarah Smarsh's life. Smarsh, a fifth-generation Kansas farm girl who comes from a long line of teenage moms, explores her family's experience and her struggle both to honor and escape her roots in her first memoir, Heartland.
Now a journalist, Smarsh delves into the many factors affecting the United States' rural-urban divide: the "Reaganomics" policies of the 1980s, the rise of industrialized agriculture, the decline or disappearance of many industries that had long sustained Midwestern communities. She examines the challenges of being both poor and female through the histories of the strong women who raised her: her mother, Jeannie, and her grandmothers, Betty and Teresa. Each of them, including Smarsh, was frequently ignored, undervalued or shamed by systems that permeated American life. In taut, lyrical prose, Smarsh blends personal and economic perspectives to show the challenges faced by the heartland and to insist on the region's dignity and worth.
Americans, Smarsh notes, are often defined by how they move: "along highways across big stretches of earth, to the place we think will do right by us, the place we hope we might belong." Her explorations have taken her to the East Coast, but she has returned to Kansas, at least for now. "Most essential to my well-being was the unobstructed freedom of a flat, wide horizon," she writes. "If there was something to get out of, some place or class, in many ways I am still there and perhaps always will be."
Searing, timely and blazingly eloquent, Heartland
challenges readers to look beyond tired stereotypes of the rural Midwest and is a testament to the value (on many levels) of "flyover country." --Katie Noah Gibson
, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Discover: Sarah Smarsh's searingly eloquent memoir explores the challenges and dignity of her rural Midwestern home.
$26, hardcover, 304p., 9781501133091
Psychology & Self-Help
The Science of Sin: Why We Do the Things We Know We Shouldn't
In The Science of Sin: Why We Do the Things We Know We Shouldn't, neurobiologist and self-professed atheist Jack Lewis takes a close look at sinful behavior to explore the brain circuitry behind some of our most extreme actions.
Lewis defines sin as conduct that might be fine in small quantities but crosses over into antisocial behavior if indulged in too much. For example, a healthy dose of envy, or "benevolent" envy, can be an excellent motivator for self-improvement, whereas in extremity it can lead to destructive or criminal behavior.
The chapter on lust is where things get really interesting. While necessary for procreation, natural lust can morph into vice if it involves adultery, porn addiction or worse. Lewis explores the neurological processes that lead perfectly responsible people to succumb to temptation despite their better judgment. As part of his analysis of deviant sexual behavior, Lewis describes the neurological anomalies present in the brain of a pedophile, both in structure and function, that explain but do not excuse the behavior. In fact, Lewis doesn't let anyone off the hook with the excuse "my brain made me do it." Instead he cautions those with a biological propensity to "sin" to be extra vigilant, work harder on self-control and exercise proven strategies for more thoughtful engagement with the world.
Whether one believes in Dante's vision of hell or prefers to understand sin in a philosophical context, the fascinating insights into human behavior gleaned from The Science of Sin
are sure to impress friends and family at one's next social gathering. --Shahina Piyarali
, writer and reviewer
Discover: A neurobiologist's entertaining foray into human behavior as it relates to the seven deadly sins.
$28, hardcover, 304p., 9781472936141
Health & Medicine
Heart: A History
When Sandeep Jauhar (Doctored
), director of the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, discovers coronary plaque has partially obstructed his arteries, he gets "a glimpse of how I was probably going to die." Cardiovascular disease affects two-thirds of Americans; a third will die from it. It killed both of his grandfathers.
In Heart, Jauhar takes a journey through the organ--"muscular, constantly toiling, and yet so vulnerable at the same time"--which retains its mystery despite significant advances in the 20th century. Medical pioneers C. Walton Lillehei and John Heysham Gibbon made discoveries in cross-circulation, leading to the heart-lung machine that paved the way for open-heart surgery. It shocked the medical establishment when Werner Forssmann risked his own life by inserting a catheter in a vein in his arm and entering his heart; thanks to cardiac catheterization, angioplasty soon followed, saving countless lives. The nature of early experiments on animals (and occasionally humans) meant that death was a not-uncommon result. And the famous Framingham Heart Study, though flawed, revealed that chronic heart disease "is inextricably linked to the state of our neighborhoods, jobs, and families."
Jauhar's history of advances in treating heart disease is accentuated by his experiences with patients and his own family. His reflections are intimate and candid; he contemplates patients he lost and regrets the warning signs he missed among family members in distress. Heart
shows that, even for a cardiologist, caring for the heart means treating the whole person. --Frank Brasile
Discover: This physical and metaphorical history of the heart highlights achievements in treating and repairing the fabled organ.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
$27, hardcover, 288p., 9780374168650
Children's & Young Adult
Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground
Growing up in 1903 Eatonville, Fla., is idyllic for 12-year-old Zora Neale Hurston and her friend Carrie Brown. Since Eatonville was incorporated as America's first "all-colored" town a few years before they were born, the girls have never known a different life. But their peace is abruptly shattered on the night their friend Mr. Polk, the "town mute," is mysteriously attacked. Suddenly, Eatonville's history begins catching up with its present.
Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground is told in two alternating voices: Carrie's 1903 viewpoint and that of Lucia, a young girl in 1855 who is taken from the Caribbean to Florida, where she is forced into slavery. The two narratives gradually come together, culminating in an explosive scene that exposes Carrie and Zora to the ugliness of slavery's recent history and the racism that still exists all around them. The narrator, adult Carrie, remembers that moment and how they awaited a lynch mob coming to take land from a black landowner: "This was the moment when our color became our curse."
This stunning sequel to Zora and Me
is a fictionalized mystery based on Zora Neale Hurston's childhood and includes a biography of Hurston as well as a timeline of her life. T.R. Simon's writing does elegant justice to the grownup Hurston's genius as a writer as well as to the character she apparently was as a child. Readers should be profoundly moved by Carrie and Zora's coming-of-age revelations: "No matter how long I lived," Carrie says, "the hate white folks could have toward us would never make sense to me." And, as the "town conjure woman" says, "Slavery is over, but tonight you saw how it still haunts us." --Emilie Coulter
, freelance writer and editor
Discover: In the sequel to Zora and Me, a fictionalized mystery based on Zora Neale Hurston, young Zora and her friend Carrie learn that their relative freedom as black girls in 1903 Florida is tenuous at best.
$16.99, hardcover, 272p., ages 10-14, 9780763643010
Inside the Villains
Evil figures in childhood stories--the Wolf, the Giant, the Witch--disclose their secrets in this French import. Through cunning paper-engineering techniques (using flaps, levers and strings), skillfully rendered images, traditional stories and personal dossiers, each villain's history unfolds in the creamy thick pages of this oversized volume. Inside the Villains by Clotilde Perrin is a handsome literary and visual package that invites exploration with the fingers, the eyes and the imagination.
Each of the three sections opens with a first-person narrative by the villain. The wolf starts, "Yes, it's true that I sometimes happen to eat (okay, devour) lost children, little pink piglets, grandmothers and occasionally even baby goats." A gatefold then reveals "More About Me," including "My Strengths," "My Weaknesses," "Games I Like" and "My Library," listing the Wolf's various starring roles. The story of "The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats" appears next, in a three-column layout with generous white space, and then--the pièce de résistance--a full-page hairy wolf shape opens to expose grandma's embroidered nightgown and valentine socks over hairy feet. Other flaps open to show the wolf's stitched-up stomach, his brain with dastardly thoughts labeled "brilliant ideas" and his long snout with pointed teeth, closing around baby goats.
The Giant and the Witch get the same treatment with the stories "Jack and the Beanstalk" and, unexpectedly, "Alyoskha and Baba Yaga," where a Russian witch tries to roast a boy. The witch's attributes come from tales listed in her library section: a dress embellished with lollipops, an apple, a cat hidden in her pocket and a boy in a small cage on her inner skirt. Open the skirt again for further surprises. This is a book that children will likely ask for eagerly (and repeatedly) to continue discovering its mysteries. --Melinda Greenblatt
, freelance book reviewer
Discover: Not a beginner's fairy tale book, the beautifully designed Inside the Villains provides shivery delights for children.
$21.99, hardcover, 12p., ages 5-9, 9781776571987