A Few Thoughts On Faith And Fiction

Today’s post by Laura Benedict | @LauraBenedict

Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict

I get a lot of questions about why a perfectly normal-looking woman like me writes dark, gothic stories in which very bad things happen. Sure, I look like someone’s idea of a soccer mom, and I am an unapologetic Christian, but I don’t see much of a contradiction. My work is my work, and have I mentioned that I write fiction?

Like every writer, I first had to give myself permission to write the stories that presented themselves to me. For that’s how it works: A story shows up in the form of an image, or a single idea, and I uncover the rest. Some writers who start very young aren’t conscious of giving themselves permission. They simply write without question. I only began writing in my mid-twenties, and I was a timid writer at first, alarmed by the rather grim direction in which my writing thoughts wandered. My stories were usually about teenagers doing things they weren’t supposed to be doing, often at the behest of someone older, and much more devious. I mined my own life indirectly, and felt a distressing sense of shame. I’ve always imagined that sense of shame was a leftover from my Roman Catholic girlhood, but I think it came from a number of places.

I wrestled with this shame. I worried about what my parents would think, what my in-laws would think. What the people at church would think. I assumed that they would think I was a bad person because of the disturbing subject matter of my stories. And there were, indeed, people who told me they thought my work was harmful. It made writing difficult, to say the least. I had a vision of what my work might be, but I was afraid of it.

Each time I prayed for help with my work, I was terrified that the response would be, “I’ll help you, but you need to be writing things that are uplifting. Take a look at the shelves at the Perfect Christian Book Store, and write something that might work there. There’s enough creepy stuff in the world, and we don’t want to contribute to that vibe. Be a good person.” I was asking for help, but didn’t want to get in a wrangle about what I should be writing. If you have any sort of formal relationship with God yourself, you probably know that this sort of bargaining isn’t the way things work. I’ve heard people say that God isn’t like a gumball machine—You don’t put your quarter/prayer in, and get an immediate gumball/result. But I think that prayer is exactly like a gumball machine. You put your quarter in, hoping, hoping, praying for a blue gumball, but you’re just as likely to get pink, white, or green one. And the green one tastes weird, but you’re stuck with it.

If my petitions and expectations sound incredibly immature and juvenile, it’s probably because they were. I didn’t understand that I don’t have much choice in what I’m given to write. We don’t get to choose the gifts we are given, and God doesn’t always give us clear directions. (See free will.). I was trying to bargain, but God wasn’t playing. He’d known what I needed long before I asked.

I write stories of escape. Escape into fictional worlds. Safe excursions into scary places that are easy to leave behind once the sun comes up, or the tv comes on, or the toddler mashes a handful of peas in her hair. It’s all make-believe. Sure, there are some plausible parts, and some disturbing parts—but that’s what makes them stories, yes?

Mine is an unusual gift, and not one appreciated by everyone. Do I believe in evil? You bet. You won’t find me getting near a Ouija board. Again. Do I think my stories–which are for adults, by the way–could tempt someone away from their faith? No way. (See free will and faith.)


Laura Benedict is the author of several novels of dark suspense, including Charlotte’s Story: A Bliss House Novel and Bliss House. Visit her at laurabenedict.com


Charlotte's StoryStep back into Bliss House, the yellow-brick Virginia mansion with a disreputable, dangerous past, that even the sheen of 1950’s domesticity cannot hide…

The fall of 1957 in southern Virginia was a seemingly idyllic, even prosperous time. A young housewife, Charlotte Bliss, lives with her husband, Hasbrouck Preston “Press” Bliss, and their two young children, Eva Grace and Michael, in the gorgeous Bliss family home. On the surface, theirs seems a calm, picturesque life, but soon tragedy befalls them: four tragic deaths, with apparently simple explanations.

But nothing is simple if Bliss House is involved. How far will Charlotte go to discover the truth? And how far will she get without knowing who her real enemy is? Though Bliss House may promise to give its inhabitants what they want, it never gives them exactly what they expect.

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November YA Book Review

Today’s post by our YA book reviewer, Melissa Carpenter | @MelissaCarp

the fill in boyfriendI read a lot of YA, and while I like to branch out and read different genres and new authors, there are also some writers whose work I have on auto-purchase. Kasie West’s contemporary romance titles fall firmly into that category; I have loved every single one of them. They’re like great rom-com movies – without fail, they make me smile, chuckle, and swoon. Her most recent, THE FILL-IN BOYFRIEND, features a sweet, light-hearted romance with great messages about friendship and self-discovery as well.

THE FILL-IN BOYFRIEND starts off with Gia, a popular girl, getting dumped by her boyfriend in the parking lot just before going in for her high school prom. Afraid of what her friends will think if she shows up dateless (especially when they hadn’t even gotten to meet her cool college boyfriend yet), Gia convinces another guy, who just happened to be there to drop his sister off, to pose as her now ex-boyfriend for the night. The problem? She has a great night with the fill-in boyfriend but doesn’t even know his real name, and he’s the one she’s still thinking about and missing in the days following the prom… not her actual ex-boyfriend. Gia enlists the help of his less-popular sister, finds the guy, and learns a whole lot about herself and her relationships in the process.

There’s a lot to love about this book – it’s witty and smart and charming and flirty – but even more than that it’s a great opportunity to see a teenage girl’s transformation from an A-list, in-crowd girl who is self-conscious, sometimes mean, and puts up with being treated like crap by her “friends” to a self-assured, really cool girl you’d be happy to hang out with. I think it makes for a great message for teenagers, and a great reminder even for us as adults. It might just lead to greater compassion and understanding of our daughters, too!

If you like THE FILL-IN BOYFRIEND, you’ll have to check out Kasie’s other titles, too. They feature equally strong, relatable female leads with sweet, romantic story lines. I just can’t say enough good things about them. Enjoy!

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Author to Author Interview: Annie England Noblin and Nicole Galland, Part Two

Today’s post by Nicole Galland and Annie England Noblin | @NicoleGalland and @AENoblin

We’re delighted to have Nicole Galland and Annie England Noblin return for part two of their interview. If you missed part one, you can read it here.

Dog Collage

Annie: You’ve written historical fiction previously, before Stepdog. Why did you decide to switch gears and write this story? Why now?

Nicole: Here’s the reason I usually give (which is honest but not the whole story): historical fiction requires a kind of immersive research phase, in which I lose myself either in library stacks or European ruins for long stretches of time, and due to external circumstances I suddenly could not do that. My life became too itinerant and unsettled – for good reasons, but still, it got in the way of my usual writing process. I had to find a story that was so close to hand that I could write it while being immersed in my own life. Then I suddenly realized that my own life was a story, or at least the blueprint for one. I was almost cornered by circumstances into writing the story because it was not practical to write anything else.

Here’s another true answer to this question, that I don’t usually include: I wanted to shake my creative muse up a little. I wanted a change. Not permanently – I didn’t want to divorce myself from historical fiction but I craved a little something “on the side” just for variety. So I was incredibly grateful when Jennifer Brehl, my long–time editor at Harper Collins, said yes to this project.

Annie: I really didn’t want to like Rory when I began reading the story, because I already knew he didn’t like Cody, the dog. But of course, once I started reading, I was laughing out loud at Rory’s hilarious little quips. One of my favorites was from the first time Rory takes Cody out for a walk. He says, “She reminded me a bit of myself the one and only time I’d done coke. I had not been on a leash then, but maybe I should have been.” Later, he has trouble acknowledging in the dog park that Cody isn’t just Sara’s dog anymore. Was it difficult to create a character that has such disdain for dogs, yet is utterly lovable anyway?

Nicole: First, let me say I’m delighted you find him “utterly lovable” – he’s based on my husband! I like writing characters whose values and priorities differ from mine. It’s a terrific antidote to complacency. In this particular case, there was genuine tension between my husband and me about my relationship to my dog, and we needed to understand what it was like to be in the other one’s shoes. Since I was already making that effort in real life, it was actually quite easy to apply the fruits of my labor to fiction.

By the way, I love that you quoted that particular line – at readings I usually read from that section, and that line is a great gauge of the audience’s mood. (I’m glad to say it usually gets a big laugh.)

Annie: What exactly is a tarty-dog pose? And how do I get my dogs to do it?

Nicole: I love this question! Tarty-dog pose is a common submissive position: the dog lies on its back, belly totally exposed, hind legs splayed wide apart. If you anthropomorphize a female dog in this pose, it looks like she’s saying, “Hey, fellas, c’mere, take a look at the goods.” Rory, being a sometimes crass Irish guy, calls it “tarty” because a woman presenting herself in public like that would be a tart. (For the record, my Irish husband does not like the term and would have preferred I use something classier.)

I have no idea how to train a dog to do this; my dog Leuco is very submissive and has spontaneously done it ALL THE TIME since she was a puppy. Her life motto is “when in doubt, fall onto your back and offer your belly.” I’ve brought her with me to a number of Stepdog readings, and without exception she demonstrates tarty-dog pose at some point during the event – once as if on cue, when I was in the middle of reading a passage that refers to it.

Annie: I know you’ve got an Irish husband, and I know that played a part in the creation of this book. How much of Rory’s character is based on him? How much of Sara’s character is based on you?

Nicole: There are definitely similarities, especially with Rory and Billy. Like Rory, Billy is a charming, quick-witted soccer fan who grew up in a working class part of Dublin, and in many ways is a grown-up Peter Pan. Like Sara, I am the one who plans and organizes and deals with practical matters yet talks baby-talk to my dog (although I’m not nearly as grounded as Sara is). Obviously there are many elements of each of us that aren’t in either character – there’s more depth, and grit, and complexity to real people.

I got a kick one night recently at a dinner party: a friend of ours referred to some Irish Americans who self–identified as “Irish,” and then added, “Well, Billy of course strongly disapproves of that.” Billy looked at her in confusion, which made her look back at him in confusion, until I said, “Mm, that wasn’t Billy, Geraldine, that was Rory,” and we all laughed.

Annie: Adding on to that last question, what was it like writing from a male Irishman’s perspective? (I read a review from a fellow Irishman who said that you’d done a lovely job!)

Nicole: Oh, I’m glad to hear that, thanks. I could not have done it without Billy. He was my in-house Irish expert. I made him read several drafts so that he could catch Americanisms, add Irishicisms, and just generally Irish-ize it (or Irish-eyes it, as he liked to say). He was also very good at catching moments that did not sound authentically male. He’s quite exacting in his assessment of things, and early on neither of us was sure that I could pass muster. It was so satisfying, when we first got a copy of the book, that he read it and said, “Wow, this reads like the real thing. If my mates back home read this, and didn’t know who wrote it, they’d never suspect it was written by an American female.” That will always be the single greatest compliment I will ever receive for writing this book.

Annie: What has been the biggest difference between writing historical fiction and commercial fiction?

Nicole: First of all, as I suggested above: there’s less research! The corollary to that is: there’s more freedom! I don’t have to worry about anachronisms, or factual inaccuracies, nor do I have to worry about genre expectations. My tone is generally a bit modern and archly humorous compared to conventional historical fiction, and I’m always conscious of that – it’s deliberate, it makes for good reading, but it’s not what people expect when they pick up an historical novel, so I feel ever-so-slighlty like a Genre Outlaw. But in contemporary fiction there’s no expectation about tone. I can just write my story. The expectations inherent in genre fiction are suspended, and I’ve found that liberating.

Annie: Do you have a favorite breed of dog? If so, what kind?

Nicole: Well obviously I have to say Portuguese Water Dog, because that’s what my dog is, and she’s the best dog in the world. Even other dog-owners say that about my dog. Even people who say they are “not a dog person” say that about my dog. But the most beautiful dogs I’ve met are generally mutts. Sometimes the best qualities of two or more breeds all show up in a single dog, who is therefore two or three times more beautiful than any purebred could be. Also, rescue dogs (mutts or otherwise) often exude a joyful gratitude that makes me fall in love with them. As I write this, I’m dog-sitting for a rescue mutt, whose eyes are so constantly happy and grateful that whenever I am looking at him, he becomes my favorite dog (sh, don’t tell my dog!).

Annie: What are you working on right now, if you feel ready to share?

Nicole: I don’t feel ready to say much, except that I’m back in a mostly-historical vein. Having had my flirtation with contemporary material, it’s fun to put on the old History Geek hat again.


StepdogFrom the author of The Fool’s Tale and I, Iago comes a disarmingly charming and warm-hearted “romcom” about a woman, her dog, and the man who has to prove that he is good enough for both of them.

Sara Renault fired Rory O’Connor from his part-time job at a Boston art museum, and in response, Rory—an Irish actor secretly nursing a crush on his beautiful boss—threw caution to the wind, leaned over, and kissed her. Now Sara and Rory are madly in love.

When Rory’s visa runs out on the cusp of his big Hollywood break, Sara insists that he marry her to get a green card. In a matter of weeks they’ve gone from being friendly work colleagues to a live-in couple, and it’s all grand . . . except for Sara’s dog, Cody, who had been a gift from Sara’s sociopath ex-boyfriend. Sara’s over-attachment to her dog is the only thing she and Rory fight about.

When Rory scores both his green card and the lead role in an upcoming TV pilot, he and Sara (and Cody) prepare to move to Los Angeles. But just before their departure, Cody is kidnapped by Sara’s ex—and it is entirely Rory’s fault. Sara is furious and broken-hearted. Desperate to get back into Sara’s good graces, Rory takes off and tracks Cody and the dog-napper to North Carolina. Can Rory rescue Cody and convince Sara that they belong together—with Cody—as a family? First they’ll need to survive a madcap adventure that takes them all across the heartland of America.

Stepdog is a refreshing and hilarious romantic comedy that asks: How far would you go for the one you love?

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Matthew Dicks on The Perfect Comback of Caroline Jacobs

Today’s post by Matthew Dicks | @MatthewDicks

Matthew DicksI’m so thrilled that SHE READS has chosen my new novel The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs as one of its Fall Book Club Selections.

This book began its life six years ago when my wife, Elysha, and I were lying in bed, chatting in the dark before falling asleep. We are both elementary school teachers and were talking about an incident of bullying at our school that day. I asked Elysha if she’d ever been the victim of bullying.

She told me that during a sleepover, a friend once said, “Emily Kaplan’s bathroom is bigger than your whole bedroom.”

She claimed it wasn’t a big deal, and compared to most bullying incidents, it’s not. But she remembered it more than 20 years later, so it meant something to her, even if she tries to minimize it today.

I said, “Wouldn’t it be great if you could find that girl and tell her what you wished you had said when you were a kid?”

She wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea, but when I suggested that it might also make a great premise for a novel, she agreed. So I added it to my list:

“A woman decides to find her high school bully decades later and say the thing she’s always wanted to say.”

When it comes time to choose the subject of my next book, I send my list of ideas – which is thankfully long – to my wife (sitting across the table) and my agent, Taryn (in Washington). They discuss and tell me what to write next.

I’ve learned that if I listen to what women tell me to do, things almost always turn out well.

Six years after that conversation in the dark, Taryn and Elysha chose the idea that eventually became The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs.

Once again, listening to women has paid off.


The Perfect Comeback of Carlone JacobsCaroline Jacobs is a wimp, someone who specializes in the suffering of tiny indignities in silence. And the big ones, too. But when the twinset wearing president of the local Parent Teacher Organization steps out of line one too many times, Caroline musters the courage to assert herself. With a four-letter word, no less.

Caroline’s outburst has awakened something in her. Not just gumption, but a realization that the roots of her tirade can be traced back to something that happened to her as a teenager, when her best friend very publicly betrayed her. So, with a little bit of bravery, Caroline decides to go back to her home town and tell off her childhood friend. She busts her daughter out of school, and the two set off to deliver the perfect comeback . . . some twenty-five years later. But nothing goes as planned. Long buried secrets rise to the surface, and Caroline finds she has to face much more than one old, bad best friend.

THE PERFECT COMEBACK OF CAROLINE JACOBS is an enchanting novel about the ways in which our childhood experiences reverberate through our lives. It’s the story of a woman looking to fix her life through an act of bravery, and of a mother and daughter learning to understand one another. Deceptively simple and highly engaging, this latest novel by Matthew Dicks is perfect for those of us who were last to be picked at sports, and for everyone who is thrilled not to be in high school any more.

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Author to Author Interview: Annie England Noblin and Nicole Galland

Today’s post by Nicole Galland and Annie England Noblin | @NicoleGalland and @AENoblin

Our Author to Author interviews have turned into one of our all-time favorite series. And up today we have Nicole Galland and Annie England Noblin talking about a subject dear to their hearts: the love of a good dog. Both Marybeth and I have dogs that have brought immense joy and comfort into our lives so we couldn’t resists visiting with these two. Up first, Nicole interviews Annie about her debut novel, SIT! STAY! SPEAK! Make sure you stop by again on Thursday for part two of this interview.

Dog Collage

Nicole: One of my favorite things about Sit! Stay! Speak! is how very richly you create the world of the story, this small town of Eunice – the culture, the food, the weather, the local history, everyone’s relationship to everyone else. You also do a very good job of showing it to us from the perspective of a relative outsider… Tell me a little about what inspired this setting, and your relationship to it.

Annie: I was born in Jackson, Mississippi, which is sort of the heart of the South, so I’ve always felt a deep connection with the South, but for the most part, I grew up in the Missouri Ozarks. In 2008, I took a job teaching for the University of Arkansas just south of Memphis into the Delta. For all practical purposes, I was an outsider. I fell in love with the area, and I drew upon the experiences I had there to write the book. I also did quite a bit of research, because I didn’t want people living in the Delta to be reading the book and say, “Wait, that’s not how it works here!”

Nicole: Speaking of verisimilitude, are any of the characters based on real people? I’m particularly interested in hearing about Augustus Smoot!

Annie: The majority of the characters aren’t based on real people, but they are a mishmash of the people I met down there and of people I already knew. Augustus Smoot isn’t based on anyone, although I truly wish I knew someone like him!

Nicole: Another thing I really responded to was what a friend calls “edutainment” – being entertained by something that is also educational. Because of the Michael Vick scandal a few years back, America has a vague awareness of dog fighting, but your book was such an eye opener and I came away from it feeling informed. What kind of research did you do?

Annie: Researching dog fighting was probably the hardest part of writing this book. I already had some knowledge since I’d been working in rescue for quite a while. Dog fighting was a serious issue down in the Delta, and many of the dogs we rescued had been used for breeding or bait. One of the dogs in the book is based on a female Pit Bull I helped rescue while living down there. I also spoke to friends working in rescue, specifically Pit Bull rescue. I read stories and court records and tried to find out as much as I could so that what I wrote was authentic. Unfortunately, there isn’t an abundance of information about the subject, and it seems like abused Pit Bulls make the news nearly every day in our country.

Nicole: What do you most want to tell the world about what you learned in that research? What would your call-to-arms be?

Annie: I want for people to know that Pit Bulls are no more likely to be vicious and mean than any other dog out there. They are basically sweet dogs and so much of a dog’s temperament is based upon the environment in which they live. I also want people to be horrified by dog fighting and animal abuse in general. Yes, this book is fiction, but it’s closer to real life than many realize.

Nicole: I loved that Addie was a furniture restorer. Why did you pick that profession?

Annie: Honestly, I’m not really sure. There was just something about it that seemed to fit her as a character. Maybe I’d just been browsing Pinterest too much that day!

Nicole: You have four (five?) rescued bulldogs – I’m guessing that had some influence on your writing this novel. What was the process by which you went from being a rescuer-of-bulldogs to a writer-of-a-novel-about-bulldogs?

Annie: Right now, I just have three. However, I’ve had as many as 6 dogs (some of them fosters) at my house. It seemed logical to me to write about dogs, especially since they’re such a huge part of my life. My dogs have been there for me when I was down and out, much like the way Addie is in the book. I guess in some way, I wanted to pay tribute to them. Dogs are just great!

Nicole: What’s your favorite thing about bulldogs?

Annie: I just love their personalities. They’re such clowns! I also love that they’re mostly inside dogs and don’t require a lot of exercise or outside time. Although our Boston Terrier loves to be outside and run around the yard with my son, my bulldogs like to sit on the porch and watch—I’m the same way! Plus, what other animal do you know of that can snore and fart at the same time??

Nicole: This is your first published novel – what other kind of writing have you done?

Annie: I’ve been writing poetry since I was about 8, and is truthfully my first love. I also like to write humor non-fiction, which is mostly what I wrote while in graduate school. A decade ago, I would have laughed if anyone suggested I might write fiction!

Nicole: Do you have another novel in the works? Are you willing to talk about it? (Some authors hate this question so it’s fine not to answer it) 

Annie: Yes! I just finished my second and have begun work on my third. Both the second and third novels are set in the Missouri Ozarks (where I live). That’s all I’ll say for now!


Sit Stay SpeakEchoing the novels of Mary Alice Monroe, Allie Larkin, and Holly Robinson, this charming debut novel tells the unforgettable story of a rescue dog that helps a struggling young outsider make peace with the past.

Addie Andrews is living a life interrupted.  Tragedy sent her fleeing from Chicago to the shelter of an unexpected inheritance—her beloved aunt’s somewhat dilapidated home in Eunice, Arkansas, population very tiny.  There she reconnects with some of her most cherished childhood memories.  If only they didn’t make her feel so much!

People say nothing happens in small towns, but Addie quickly learns better. She’s got an elderly next door neighbor who perplexingly dances outside in his underwear, a house needing more work than she has money, a best friend whose son uncannily predicts the weather, and a local drug dealer holding a massive grudge against her.

Most surprising of all, she’s got a dog. But not any dog, but a bedraggled puppy she discovered abandoned, lost, and in desperate need of love. Kind of like Addie herself. She’d come to Eunice hoping to hide from the world, but soon she discovers that perhaps she’s finding the way back—to living, laughing, and loving once more.

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“But When” The Moment That Changes Everything

Today’s post by Deb Caletti | @DebCaletti

Pay attention and you’ll notice something. It’s a phrase, often used in book descriptions or back cover copy: “But When.” It sounds simple enough but it changes everything. “But when an old friend comes to visit…” Or, “But when her son goes missing…” That single phrase is the beginning of everything going wrong for a character (and, let’s face it, for us as well). When we really began to pay attention to this phrase we thought it was time to begin a new series. So we have invited Deb Caletti to share a bit about her latest novel, THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS in the latest installment of “But When.” You can read the first post here

Deb Caletti

Deb Caletti

Like most novels, the But When moment in The Secrets She Keeps happens immediately: Callie McBride is having a regular Saturday afternoon when her husband, Thomas, washes his wallet by accident after leaving it in pocket of his jeans. As he sorts through the sodden mess, he suspiciously hides a business card. He’s having an affair, Callie is sure, especially after the recent struggles in their long-time marriage. Later that day, when Callie and Thomas take their youngest daughter to the airport for a post-graduation trip, the ground under her feet shifts yet again as the looming next chapter of their lives hits hard: “Amy looked back at us and gave a last wave,” Callie says, “and for a moment it was like my heart had just walked off and I was left with a vacant body. For a second, I wasn’t sure what to do. I was at a total loss. Thomas and I just stood there together like we were college freshman just dropped off by their parents and assigned to room together.”

That night, Thomas denies any wrongdoing, but the next morning, Callie finds the card. “Mary Evans, it read. Eastside P That was all. No clue what came after the P, and much of the phone number was missing. The lost alphabet letters were likely trapped in the suffocating hell of dryer vent fuzz, and good luck to them.” Suddenly, it all catches up—Mary P, Thomas’ recent moods, their daughters growing up, the dog dying—and in a flash Callie makes a life-changing move. She screeches out of their suburban driveway, flees to her Aunt Nash’s old divorce ranch. In the 1930s to 1950s, women would gather at such ranches for six weeks of sisterhood and transformative experiences (often involving, um, cowboys), in order to establish Nevada residency and obtain divorces that were impossible to get elsewhere.

But when Callie arrives at the ranch, past and present collide. Her ailing, aged Aunt Nash is on some secret, passionate mission. Her sister appears, bringing along her own marital issues as well as sisterly love, humor, rivalry, and nostalgia. A cowboy in the form of Kit Covey from the Bureau of Land Management is on the scene, directing a nearby mustang gather. And clues are gathering up, clues about the summer of 1951, when Nash’s own But When moment occurred, when a certain woman arrived at the ranch, and terrible events occurred, and when Nash herself had to flee from the desert with her true love by her side.

Nothing is quite as it seems, though. Not Mary P., not the identity of Nash’s “true love,” not even marriage itself.

Told in alternating time periods (one summer at the present-day ranch and the summer of 1951, in the era of Mad-Men-esque glamour and Hollywood intrigue set in a majestic desert locale), The Secrets She Keeps is a story about the power of female friendships and sisterhood, about self-discovery and resilience. Even more, it’s a story about love—its timeless troubles, and its stubborn, enduring joys.


The SecFrom bestselling author Deb Caletti comes a beautiful and profound novel of three women coming to terms with love and marriage—sure to move and delight fans of Kristin Hannah, Liane Moriarty, and Anna Quindlen.
“You don’t grow up on a divorce ranch and not learn to take a vow seriously.”

When Callie McBride finds a woman’s phone number written on a scrap of paper her husband has thrown away, she thinks that her marriage is over. Callie flees to Nevada and her Aunt Nash’s Tamarosa Ranch, where she’s shocked to see that the place of so many happy childhood memories is in disrepair. Worse, Aunt Nash is acting bizarrely—hoarding stacks of old photographs, burying a book in the yard, and railing against Kit Covey, a handsome government park ranger who piques Callie’s interest.

But Aunt Nash may prove to be saner than she seems once Callie pulls back the curtain on Tamarosa’s heyday—the 1940s and ’50s, when high-society and Hollywood women ventured to the ranch for quickie divorces and found a unique sisterhood—and uncovers a secret promise Nash made to her true love. Callie will come to see is that no life is ever ordinary. No story of love is, either.

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Would You Keep Reading? Black-Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin

Today’s post by yours truly | @ArielLawhon

Confession: Marybeth and I get more novels through the door than we can ever read. And we’ve learned to quickly identify the books that most appeal to us. One of the ways we sort through the daily UPS delivery is by reading the first page of the many novels that come our way. So often that page is an immediate indication of whether or not we will love a book. There’s just something about the tone and the cadence and feel of a good book right off the bat. So we thought it would be fun to do a series where we introduce you to a novel by it’s first page. And we can’t think of a better book than Julia Heaberlin’s new novel, BLACK-EYED SUSANS. We’d love you to chime in by taking a look at the excerpt below and letting us know whether you would keep reading. (Spoiler: we were hooked.)

Thirty two hours of my life are missing.

My best friend, Lydia, tells me to imagine those hours like old clothes in the back of a dark closet. Shut my eyes. Open the door. Move things around. Search.

The things I do remember, I’d rather not. Four freckles. Eyes that aren’t black but blue, wide open, two inches from mine. Insects gnawing into a smooth, soft cheek. The grit of the earth in my teeth. Those parts, I remember.

It’s my seventeenth birthday, and the candles on my cake are burning.

The little flames are waving at me to hurry up. I’m thinking about the Black-Eyed Susans, lying in the freezing metal drawers. How I scrub and scrub but can’t wash away their smell no matter how many showers I take.

Be happy.

Make a wish.

I paste on a smile, and focus. Everyone in this room loves me and wants me home.

Hopefully for the same old Tessie.

Never let me remember.

I close my eyes and blow.

So…would you keep reading?


Black Eyed SusansFor fans of Laura Lippman and Gillian Flynn comes an electrifying novel of stunning psychological suspense.

I am the star of screaming headlines and campfire ghost stories. I am one of the four Black-Eyed Susans. The lucky one.

As a sixteen-year-old, Tessa Cartwright was found in a Texas field, barely alive amid a scattering of bones, with only fragments of memory as to how she got there. Ever since, the press has pursued her as the lone surviving “Black-Eyed Susan,” the nickname given to the murder victims because of the yellow carpet of wildflowers that flourished above their shared grave. Tessa’s testimony about those tragic hours put a man on death row.

Now, almost two decades later, Tessa is an artist and single mother. In the desolate cold of February, she is shocked to discover a freshly planted patch of black-eyed susans—a summertime bloom—just outside her bedroom window. Terrified at the implications—that she sent the wrong man to prison and the real killer remains at large—Tessa turns to the lawyers working to exonerate the man awaiting execution. But the flowers alone are not proof enough, and the forensic investigation of the still-unidentified bones is progressing too slowly. An innocent life hangs in the balance. The legal team appeals to Tessa to undergo hypnosis to retrieve lost memories—and to share the drawings she produced as part of an experimental therapy shortly after her rescue.

What they don’t know is that Tessa and the scared, fragile girl she was have built a  fortress of secrets. As the clock ticks toward the execution, Tessa fears for her sanity, but even more for the safety of her teenaged daughter. Is a serial killer still roaming free, taunting Tessa with a trail of clues? She has no choice but to confront old ghosts and lingering nightmares to finally discover what really happened that night.

Shocking, intense, and utterly original, Black-Eyed Susans is a dazzling psychological thriller, seamlessly weaving past and present in a searing tale of a young woman whose harrowing memories remain in a field of flowers—as a killer makes a chilling return to his garden.

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Author to Author Interview: Barbara Claypole White and Nina de Gramont, Part Two

Today’s post by Barbara Claypole White and Nina de Gramont | @bclaypolewhite and @NinadeGramont

We’re delighted to be back with Nina de Gramont and Barbara Claypole White today for part two of their interview. If you missed part one you can read it here. And if you haven’t already, make sure to pick up copies of THE LAST SEPTEMBER and THE PERFECT SON.

Illness Collage

Nina: And now my turn! As you can already tell, I just loved reading The Perfect Son. It’s a wonderfully involving novel, but as I was absorbed in the Fitzwilliam’s struggle – and anxious to see how everything would turn out – I was also learning a lot. I’ve never known anyone with Tourette’s, and the external and internal view on Harry is fascinating. I also learned so much about heart disease, ADHD, and OCPD. Your first novel, The Unfinished Garden, has a character with OCD. And I see that you’re working on a novel with a character who has bipolar disorder. You blend personality and facts so seamlessly, but I imagined it’s more difficult than it appears on the page. How do you manage to research so meticulously, and then spin that research into such uniquely human characters?

Barbara: This is such a great question, and something I struggle with endlessly. I work hard to educate myself about a particular invisible disability, but then I put the clinical research aside to find the character’s voice. It’s so tempting to disappear down the rabbit hole of research, but I spend as much time excavating the character’s backstory and personality as examining his or her mental state.

I also rely heavily on one-on-one interviews to find my characters. I like to chat with people who battle the particular illness I’m researching and/or their family members. I keep my interviews vague with a simple, “Tell me your story.” Again, this helps me think outside the box of labels and find individuals’ unique life experiences. And I always come back to a sign my son taped to his bedroom wall when he was in a dark place with OCD: “I am not my disorder.” I can never lose sight of that mantra because I’m writing about highly individualized mental and neurological disorders. Hopefully I’m creating characters, not stereotypes.

Nina: Felix is my favorite character in the novel. I love him, I feel for him, I root for him. Yet, if I could separate his dialogue and actions from his perspective – particularly in the first two thirds of the novel – I don’t think I’d like him at all. He’s an absent father. He’s irritable, exacting, insensitive, and sometimes flat out mean. I’m interested in the work that went into creating this character and making him not just likeable, but loveable. And at the same time, how did you make sure that none of his dialogue and few of his actions reveal the very good person he is underneath? For me loving Felix wasn’t a process that evolved over the arc of the plot. From the first few sentences in his point of view, I just adored him, even though he’s precisely the kind of person who would infuriate me in real life.

Barbara: Thank you. I love Felix too. I heard his voice from the beginning, but he presented a huge problem because he’s intensely judgmental and not always sympathetic. (A former editor had told me characters could never be judgmental, but Felix is. It’s part of his personality.) I needed to show him struggling to be a good parent but at the same time reveal that he genuinely could not understand his son.

I used different techniques to flesh him out and hoped I’d dropped enough breadcrumbs that readers would be intrigued, not turned off. Ella’s best friend, for example, refers to him as an anti-hero; a flashback scene allows us to glimpse his father’s cruelty; and yes, I got Felix stoned.

Going back to the previous question, I found my initial research into OCPD—obsessive-compulsive personality disorder—incredibly disheartening, until I realized that most of my online sources were disgruntled ex-spouses! I did interview someone with OCPD, but the real turning point came when I posted a paragraph on Felix in a workshop and another writer popped up to say, “Oh, my boyfriend has OCPD. We should talk.” We did and she handed me all these anecdotes that helped unravel the mystery of why Ella had fallen in love with Felix.

Nina: Harry has this great burden in the form of Tourette’s and ADHD, and he’s also very gifted. He is academically brilliant and physically very beautiful. The temptation is to say yet he’s very gifted, but as his story unfolds we see that these traits stand side by side, rather than in opposition. The idea of inheritance is very important in the novel, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about unavoidable inheritances – the ones like Tourette’s, that show up in our DNA – and avoidable ones like cruelty and distance.

Barbara: I’m so happy you brought this up because it was a conscious decision on my part to give Harry neurological and mental handicaps—he also has anxiety issues—and allow him to be beautiful and academically gifted. I wanted to show the contradiction between the assumption of perfection—his SAT scores and Botticelli face—and the perception that he is in some way damaged because he cannot control his body in socially acceptable ways. I think his extreme good looks are part of his burden—the fact that he can snag the attention of the popular girls but loses it the moment he starts being Harry. So much about being a successful teen comes down to blending in, to not being different. I think that’s often true for adults, too. And therein lies Felix’s problem: he’s completely rigid. He can’t adapt.

One of the themes of The Perfect Son revolves around how we perceive others through their appearance or through one aspect of their personality. Another theme is that you can’t escape genetics, which is interesting because my new manuscript flips that idea with a family that has no blood ties.

I have a deep fascination with control and inheritance, in other words, DNA. For example, I have genetic heart issues, and my son has a genetic anxiety disorder. I guess it’s the scientific version of predestination! In her wonderful study of manic-depression and the artistic temperament, Touched with Fire, Kay Redfied Jamison devotes an entire chapter to genealogies and draws family trees of mental illness. (Poor Lord Bryon never stood a chance!)

I often wonder, too, how much control we exert over generations of learned behavior. In my mind, Felix’s family has a long tradition of cold, ruthless fathers. Again, the challenge is breaking out—as Tom did—and not following established patterns of behavior.

Nina: Tom is a character who never appears in the real time of the narrative, yet he is inarguably one of the most important in the novel. How did he come to you? What are your thoughts on how Tom’s presence in his life shaped Felix?

Barbara: Tom’s original appearance was a mystery to me. While I was bashing out my first draft, he kept popping up in Felix’s backstory and giving his baby brother life lessons—whether it was about confronting bullies or interpreting plant folklore. I knew only that they were six years apart and that Tom was intensely protective. And he certainly represented the best of the Fitzwilliam bloodline. Tom showed Felix how to love, how to be loyal, and how to let in creative magic.

I’m also seeing a parallel with Charlie and Eli’s relationship in The Last September. Tom and Felix’s bond was certainly forged out of necessity since they had emotionally absent parents, but I think their mutual devotion went further than need. It certainly brought out the best in each of them, and Felix’s attachment to Tom continues years after Tom’s death.

At the core of their relationship is my desire to explore men’s emotional lives. (I’m far more intrigued by male family relationships than female ones). Which means that on some level Tom’s creation was definitely part of my desire to make a difficult character—Felix—likeable. In the same way that you wanted to show readers the potential of Eli before schizophrenia claimed him, I wanted to show Felix’s capacity for love.

Nina: The header on your website reads, “Hopeful Family Drama with a Healthy Dose of Mental Illness.” Obviously this is something that resonates with readers – you have literally thousands of rave reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. What can you tell us about your relationship with your fans? Do you think it’s closer than the average author and reader because of your subject matter? I imagine a novel like this would prompt many letters from families who are affected by Tourette’s and ADHD, not to mention childhood abuse and heart disease. I would love to hear about interactions with readers that were particularly meaningful to you.

Barbara: I have some pretty amazing readers—fans, I guess—who’ve shared family secrets and become online friends. I think if someone has taken the time to reach out and say, “I’ve never told anyone this before, but …” then you have an obligation to answer and engage. That happens to me all the time, and my book club visits tend to become open therapy sessions, which I love. Living in the trenches with mental illness is my world, and I enjoy connecting with others who share similar experiences. Information is power for all of us!

One of my favorite reader emails said, “You’ve helped me feel less alone. Thank you.” I remember that sense of isolation as a young parent dealing with OCD—trying to educate myself while also juggling a need to protect the family’s privacy with a determination to punch down stigma and shout, “There is no shame!” If my dark, quirky fiction makes just one person feel less alone, then I’m thrilled. Fiction does matter; it can make a difference.


The Perfect SonFrom a distance, Felix Fitzwilliam, the son of an old English family, is a good husband and father. But, obsessed with order and routine, he’s a prisoner to perfection. Disengaged from the emotional life of his North Carolina family, Felix has let his wife, Ella, deal with their special-needs son by herself.

A talented jewelry designer turned full-time mother, Ella is the family rock…until her heart attack shatters their carefully structured existence. Now Harry, a gifted teen grappling with the chaos of Tourette’s, confronts a world outside his parents’ control, one that tests his desire for independence.

As Harry searches for his future, and Ella adapts to the limits of her failing health, Felix struggles with his past and present roles. To prevent the family from being ripped apart, they must each bend with the inevitability of change and reinforce the ties that bind.

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A Room Of Her Own: The Writing Space of Meg Mitchell Moore

Today’s post by Meg Mitchell Moore | @MegMitchMoore


This past March I started renting an office in the beautiful historic center of my small town on the northern coast of Massachusetts. I’ve written three novels without such an office, but this year it became both necessary and possible. In his current role, my husband either travels or works from home, and as much as I love my husband, I like to be alone when I work, especially when three kids (12, 10, 8) are frequently chirping requests in my ear the other hours of the day. In addition, anyone who balances running a home with working from that home will appreciate that it’s hard to ignore the Siren call of the laundry (if laundry were beautiful, which it is not), the ready-to-be-unloaded dishwasher, the plants crying out for water, and all of the other necessary tasks that make up daily life. To step out of that morass for a few hours every day is a blessing and has made me more productive. My office is sparse because it’s a rented space that I haven’t put much into yet; the shades are cheap because they came with the office; my IKEA chair is about as far from ergonomic as you can get. And I love all of it.

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Author to Author Interview: Barbara Claypole White and Nina de Gramont

Today’s post by Barbara Claypole White and Nina de Gramont | @bclaypolewhite and @NinadeGramont

Mental illness is an evergreen topic in fiction. And for good reason: it gives an honest and fascinating glimpse into the human mind. So today we’ve invited Nina de Gramont (one of our featured authors this fall) and Barbara Claypole White to discuss their latest novels. Up first Barbara interview Nina about THE LAST SEPTEMBER. And we’ll return on Thursday with part two where Nina and Barbara discuss THE PERFECT SON.

Illness Collage

Barbara: There are so many elements to this beautiful novel: Kirkus Reviews calls it “a moody murder mystery;” Booklist refers to it as “a layered portrait of love and marriage;” and, of course, it’s an emotionally gripping family drama about mental illness. I’m curious as to how you found the story—or maybe it found you. Did you start with one element, one idea, one seed? How did The Last September evolve?

Nina: Thank you, Barbara! It doesn’t give anything away to say that my narrator’s marriage ends when her husband is murdered – we learn that in the novel’s first paragraph. The story originally came to me through that murder. It was the first scene I wrote more than ten years ago, when I originally conceived of the story. For years my husband and I lived on Cape Cod year round. Our neighborhood was comprised almost entirely of summer houses, which meant that most of our neighbors were gone nine months out of the year. I loved those months that we had the beach to ourselves, but there was also an end of the world feeling, that we were the last ones left. The idea that someone could sweep in and do harm with nobody there to witness or rescue was something that came into my mind more than once – especially on dark and stormy winter evenings.

Barbara: I loved that we had a change to meet Eli before his illness claimed him. My aunt was schizophrenic and I think that most people fear this particular mental illness more than others. I applaud you for giving schizophrenia a humane face, and Eli is an incredible character. Where did he come from?

Nina: Like you, I have a family member who suffers from schizophrenia. It’s a devastating illness, and certainly worth being frightened of. But too often people twist that around into being frightened of the sufferer, the person, rather than the disease itself. A person with schizophrenia is far more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the perpetrator.

I’ve seen the havoc this kind of illness can wreak within a family. Even more heartbreaking is what it can do to an individual, and his or her future. I really wanted to give the reader a strong sense of what Eli could have been if he hadn’t had that schizophrenic break – as well as who he still was, at his core, beneath all the noise of the disease.

Barbara: “The noise of the disease” is such an apt description, and I cheered when I read: “People grow weary of mental illness. The way it rises, again and again. The way it never gets cured, never goes away.” Amen! Charlie redeems himself by being a devoted brother. How did you flesh out the idea of two brothers trapped in this journey together? It’s quite a burden for a sibling.

Nina: I recently learned that psychiatrists have a term for this – compassion fatigue. Charlie is a very flawed character. But he loves his family, and takes his responsibility to them seriously, particularly his brother. He is extraordinarily good at keeping his compassion active.

I have to bring in your wonderful novel here. Compassion fatigue is such a huge theme in The Perfect Son. Felix and Ella – as well as their friends – suffer from it, and then find ways to reclaim their compassion, often by taking moments to care for themselves. It’s also so interesting how Felix works tirelessly to define himself in opposition to his father. Reading your book, I wondered if my character Charlie is trying to do the same on a less conscious level. His own father is unable to face his son’s illness and copes by absenting himself. Unlike Felix, Charlie is lucky enough to have a good role model in his mother. He seems to fashion himself after her, which of course becomes difficult when he has a family of his own. While Charlie manages to continually rise above compassion fatigue, at the beginning of the novel Brett has entirely succumbed to it. Who then should Charlie put first, his ailing brother or healthy wife and child? It’s an impossible choice, and naturally would weigh very heavily.

Barbara: “The secret to marriage did not lie in compatibility, or even commitment, but the willingness to endure heartbreak.” That might be my favorite line in the book. For me this is really a portrait of a marriage. What do you think would have happened if Charlie hadn’t died?

Nina: I’m so glad you asked this question! Readers are hard on Charlie, and I certainly understand why. Some have even said they’re glad that he gets killed. He’s a careless person in many ways, and certainly an unfaithful husband invites a certain kind of ire. My attitude toward Charlie is a little bit more tender. I believe that for all his flaws he does love Brett and their daughter very deeply. Both Charlie and Brett still have a good deal of growing up to do, and it happens that the stretch of marriage that really tests them comes right before Charlie’s death.

Which of course is part of Brett’s agony and guilt. But can you imagine her ever leaving him? I think if she were capable of leaving him, she would have done so already. She loves him desperately. And I don’t think he would leave her, either. For all his foibles Charlie is really quite steady in his feelings. As he writes to her in the closest he can get to a love letter, “I’d rather be with Brett.” My sense is that simple sentiment would have carried them through.

Barbara: I know that you’re working on a YA novel next. Do you have any plans to write about mental illness again, or is Eli a one-off? (He is pretty special!)

Nina: My next novel is finished – and it is a YA novel, called The Distance from Me to You. I wrote it under the pen name Marina Gessner, and it comes out October 20th with Penguin Putnam.

I don’t plan to write about mental illness, but I’m sure it will crop up to one degree or another. And as of now I feel like Eli won’t appear in another book, though I can never say for sure.

One of the many things I love about your novel is the subtle ways you indicate we are all somewhere on a spectrum. In my first collection of short stories, somewhere I have a character say, “The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well.” Your Harry takes this one step further when he says, “Normal people are boring.” You can’t very well write a novel about boring people! It’s clear in your book that Ella has raised Harry to accept himself, and see his challenges as a kind of gift. I love that Harry finds ways to pass on this self-acceptance to his father. To some degree any good novel should illustrate that mental health is a daily struggle for all of us. Understanding this heightens our empathy and understanding, of everyone. As James Baldwin said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.”


The Last SeptemberSet against the desolate autumn beauty of Cape Cod, The Last September is a riveting emotional puzzle that takes readers inside the psyche of a woman facing the meaning of love and loyalty.

Brett has been in love with Charlie ever since he took her skiing on a lovely Colorado night fourteen years ago. And now, living in a seaside cottage on Cape Cod with their young daughter, it looks as if they have settled into the life they desired. However, Brett and Charlie’s marriage has been tenuous for quite some time. When Charlie’s unstable younger brother plans to move in with them, the tension simmering under the surface of their marriage boils over.

But what happened to Charlie next was unfathomable. Charlie was the golden boy so charismatic that he charmed everyone who crossed his path; who never shied away from a challenge; who saw life as one big adventure; who could always rescue his troubled brother, no matter how unpredictable the situation.

So who is to blame for the tragic turn of events? And why does Brett feel responsible?

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