Fancy or Plain? Which Would You Choose?

Happy New Year, friends and followers! Welcome back! Here’s to the first post of 2015. (#370 since I started this blogging gig!) May the new year be peaceful, blessed and prosperous for us all. (FYI, I’m keeping my ‘Christmas décor’ up here a little longer, just like I’m doing at home.)

Not sure where I wanted to start this year, but I did just finish a little gem of a book during the Christmas break from school. This sweet, switched-at-birth story by author Cynthia Keller touched me, and I thought I’d share my thoughts on it with all of you. (Disclaimer: I borrowed the book from my church’s library. In no way was I compensated for this write up.)

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The title, A Plain and Fancy Christmas, was a bit of a misnomer. The story doesn’t revolve around Christmas at all, which makes it a perfect weekend read at any time of the year.

The title does, however, suggest the backgrounds and backstories of its lead characters, 30-year-olds Ellie Lawrence and Rachel King Yoder. (I’m always good for stories involving an Amish backdrop.)

Ellie holds an executive position in a high-profile, New York City public relations corporate firm. Despite underlying dissatisfaction with her job and and her sort-of romantic relationship with Jason, she has slipped into a content-enough routine with the family she believes to be hers and the overall trappings of her life. (If I had to choose a protagonist, I’m thinking she’s Ellie.)

Rachel was raised Amish. Widowed three years ago and unable to manage the farm she and her husband owned, she and her 10-year-old daughter are back in her parents’ home. Although she often finds herself feeling at odds with her mother, this is the only life Rachel has ever known.

Respect, and the rules and ways that go along with having chosen to be baptized into the Amish faith and culture, keep Rachel from delving too deeply into her emotions. She has always felt dissatisfaction too, especially after having lived among “the English” during rumspringa, the period of exploration and/or rebellion Amish teens are allowed. Rachel returned to her faith, mostly because she’d fallen in love with Jacob Yoder, and couldn’t imagine her life without him.  

Long story short, Ellie and Rachel each receive a letter explaining the circumstances that led to the switch. Rachel buries hers in a drawer, but Ellie sets into play a series of events that will impact both these ladies’ futures. (Of course, y’all knew that, or there would be no story and nothing for me to write about! 😉 )

This story is nicely written, told from the points-of-view of its leading ladies, with one exception: a chapter told from the perspective of the nurse who was involved in the switch. I was readily transported to Rachel’s Amish farm in Pennsylvania and related easily to the go-go-go associated with life in NYC. My only beef is how the author provides backstory, in several-page-long flashbacks (?) of exposition. Mrs. Keller did this more often at the beginning, which made getting into the story a bit of a challenge–for me, anyway. Liking the premise, the Amish part of the setting–and the characters early on—kept me reading.)

I  to easily to Ellie’s intrigue with a simpler way of life; it reminded me how much I love spending time at my cottage. I could easily adopt—and adapt to—the choices she made as the story and her character’s journey developed. What Rachel learned about herself describes me too, but I don’t want to give anything away.

Finally, the story explored the themes of family, nature, nurture and what might have been had the switch not occurred. I kept wondering what kind of a resolution could possibly be reached–particularly for Rachel–as the tale approached its close.

I now turn the blog-mike over to you! Any books you’ve recently read you’d like to share about? How did you spend New Year’s Eve? (We wound up at a neighbor’s big family get together—unexpected and just a few houses down the street, so no driving necessary on a night I much prefer to NOT be in a motorized vehicle.)

I’m not big on resolutions but have a few (besides the standard lose-ten-pounds): to read books on a regular basis (and simultaneously redevelop my attention span); to launch a speaker business based on several workshops I’ve developed these past few years. Once the latter is in play, I hope to get back into writing fiction, which has really gone the wayside because of other projects. Do you have any resolutions? Would you rather live a plain (Amish) or a fancy (English) life? Could you find a balance between the two?

Have a wonderful day and week,

Joanna

 

This One’s Trouble! Cheesecake too!

Okay, I had to do it. Wasting delicious food is a no-no, right? Especially when it’s cheesecake related?

I’m blaming my online quick-cooking-from-scratch guru Stephanie (modernchristianwoman.com) for this one. She posted this awesome and ridiculously easy no-bake individual blueberry cheesecake recipe. Of course I tried it and had to play with it. (The recipe did lose out a tiny bit on the ‘from scratch’ end–but there are easy ways around that with a little creativity, depending on the ingredients you have on hand.)

First: I did the math and came up with a 9-inch pie version: two blocks of softened Neuftachel (makes for a firmer pie since this is a no-bake); 3/4 cup of sugar; vanilla and a squeeze of lemon/orange/lime–your choice–to taste. Mix on medium speed until creamy and well-blended, about 5 minutes. Spread it in a 9-inch prepared graham crust–or one easily made from scratch from 1-1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs, 1/3 cup melted butter and 1/4 cup sugar. (Toss together then spread in a glass pie pan.) Top with fresh fruit and/or chocolate chips, chill for a few hours and you’re good to go. (I suppose you can freeze it too.) Positively perfect for a super-quick and elegant dessert in a pinch!

Second: Here’s what I did with the leftover cream cheese mixture. I spread it on store-bought oatmeal cookies and topped each with half a fresh strawberry. Done! Like I said, you can’t waste it! BTW, I’m sure homemade oatmeal, chocolate chip or sugar cookies would work as a base, as would graham crackers.

So, special thanks to Stephanie for inspiring me in more ways than one! And to my iPhone-touting son who takes photos for his mom and emails them to me on the spot. (Even though I took the top photo, lol.)

Look for another super-quick recipe next Friday–perfect for back-to-school breakfast!

Have a great weekend. Please feel free to SHARE! Thanks!

Joanna

When Stories Come My Way…

Sometimes, I have to tell about them!

Happy weekend, friends. I suppose I should be Christmas shopping or at least finishing up an evaluation. Had to share this, though I’m not sure I’m considering this write up a review. I just wanted to post my thoughts on some writing and stories that really impressed me—much more intricate and interwoven than I seem to be able to manage at this point in my own scribe’s journey.

I’ve said this before: it’s a rare occasion I search for a book to read. Most find me.

That’s pretty much how I wound up with The Three Miss Margarets and The Ladies of Garrison Gardens and introduced to screenwriter, actor and author Louise Shaffer. (At present I’m reading her most recent release, Looking for a Love Story. The book literally landed in my hand when someone asked me to pass it to a coworker, who often exchanges books with a recently retired coworker. See what I mean?)

Anyway, as a proclaimed writer of romance you know that title caught my attention, and I asked Retired Coworker if I could borrow Love Story. Retired Coworker has always had a knack for directing the cruise ship’s activities, shall we say? She brought me Margarets instead, deciding I’d like that best. Because, as I stated above, books find me and the back cover blurb was interesting enough, I followed Retired Coworker’s lead.

I’ll start by saying both were very well developed stories. If you’re into backstory being told via a series of flashbacks interlaced with the present story unfolding, Ms. Shaffer is your go-to author. How she put together The Three Miss Margarets and managed to keep track of everything that went on and every character involved is beyond me. Each Margaret’s story was highly detailed and well-told; characters that impacted each Margaret’s life abounded. But, between backstory and present story, there were times I found myself a bit confounded.

    

The Ladies of Garrison Gardens was the follow-up to The Three Miss Margarets. I was told by Retired Coworker that she didn’t enjoy it as much as its prequel. The more I read, the more I happily disagreed. I found Ladies to be much more focused and easier to follow. The only point of view (POV) revisited was Laurel McCready’s. (Laurel was just a cool character. Her POV got a laugh out of me almost every time.) The other POV I loved, especially when Ms. Shaffer told that backstory through that character’s flashbacks.  (You’ll have to read for yourself, lest I wind up spoiling the story.) BTW, if you’re into Vaudeville, Louise is also your author. She brings those roaring times to life.

Both books had me turning pages. Each was seriously hard to put down as stories and subplots unfolded, characters faced their challenges and each impacted the others’ lives in ways that made a whole lot of sense in the end. Descriptions were fresh, vivid, colorful. (My favorite, so far, is from Looking, p. 76: “The man was kind of funny looking—as if someone had decided to make a human being out of spare parts and none of them quite fit together.” Loved it!)

My beef about both: endings. I get why the author went the route she did, but my writer’s heart would have enjoyed going in a little deeper and maybe following the expected route a bit more—almost as a springboard for another story, which Ladies could easily have been, had she decided to enlighten her characters the way I think I would have. (But what do I know? Wasn’t my story to write.)

Having shared that, I’m already enmeshed in Love Story and liking this author’s style and versatility. Ms. Shaffer has this witty way of writing contemporary yet being able to glide effortlessly in and out of the past and its associated time. Places she nails, whether it’s segregated Georgia or modern day Manhattan. I’m just wondering how she’ll handle this ending. And yes, for those who are interested I’ll share what I thought about it when I’m done.

So how do you find books? Do they find you? Any one in particular makes you want to tell about it at length? What kind of book would make you do so? (I’d love to read those thoughts here! :))

A great day and a great weekend to all, folks!

Joanna

Writer’s Life Unexpected

Hi everyone! Life is busy, so I try to make it a game to keep up! (Somehow, the game is always ahead of me, lol.) I remember first seeing Shobhan when she held up the stunning artwork for one of her books at NJ Romance Writers several years ago. Since then, her backlist has grown and the cross-cultural topics of her books continue to intrigue me.  Today she talks about the career that came at a time when she very least expected it!

Shobhan Bantwal calls her writing Bollywood in a Book, commercial fiction about India, women’s issues & socio-political topics, with romantic & cultural elements. Her articles & stories have appeared in The WriterRomantic TimesIndia Abroad, Little India, Desi Journal, New Woman & India Currents. Her short fiction has won honors/awards in contests by Writer’s Digest, New York Stories &New Woman magazines. Her debut book, THE DOWRY BRIDE, won the 2008 Golden Leaf Award. Visit her website:www.shobhanbantwal.com or her Facebook page.

Welcome, Shobhan. That’s quite an impressive platform given your relatively recent entry to the world of wordsmithing. What got you started? My writing career is a “menopausal epiphany.” At the age of 50, menopause struck me like a loaded truck, with the worst hot flashes and insomnia I could imagine. Insomnia had my mind on overdrive night after night, so I decided to channel those swirling thoughts into creative writing. What started as purely a hobby to keep myself constructively occupied suddenly exploded into a second full-time career.

What keeps you writing? The desire to tell a story keeps me writing. The need to share my thoughts with a larger audience beyond my circle of family and friends is compelling. I can’t imagine my immediate network of people wanting to listen to me ramble about this and that, but when I squeeze all that material into an interesting story, they are willing to take me more seriously. A published author has more credibility than just a woman who talks incessantly about her ideas. (Never thought this way—how very interesting and true, too!)

How has your writing impacted –or significantly changed—other aspects of your life? My life has completely changed since I became a published writer. With tight deadlines, promotion campaigns, ideas for the next book and the ones after, and oodles of money, time and effort going into all of the above, my lifestyle is a whirlwind. My full-time day job also became four times more demanding and complicated just as my writing career took off (something I had not anticipated at the time). Trying to balance both is a constant challenge. I am up at four o’clock each morning and I don’t sleep until eleven o’clock. And the dreaded insomnia is still very much a menace. Bottom line: I survive on very little sleep and my social life has been cut back significantly. (Again, very interesting points, Shohban. I find social life almost changes forms. Being on the computer and online almost shifts that circle of friends—and I do miss getting out for coffee with people. We talk about it constantly, then everyone—especially the writer friends, myself included—is too busy to make/keep a date.)

Where do you get story and character ideas? My own life and upbringing, along with daily news events and stories I hear from friends, coworkers, and neighbors provide plenty of fodder for story and character ideas. At times reality is more bizarre than fiction, but there is always a good scene or two to be mined from that as well.

For those who write across cultural lines, how do you market or generate a mainstream, typical reader’s interest in your books? I believe most readers are curious and want to know and learn. I try to tap into that inquisitive part of the reader’s brain to generate interest. Topics like arranged marriage, dowry, female-fetus abortion in a male obsessed society, caste system, and the cultural elements of daily living in a foreign and exotic culture are of interest to a certain segment of readers. Of course, it is painstaking work to chip away at the mainstream public and get them to look at something different, but once they are hooked, they make a loyal audience. However, my readership is very small yet, mainly because South Asian writers are stereotyped as serious literary writers while mine is mainstream fiction with romantic elements, something unexpected and unfamiliar to readers.

Please share the three ways you find most effective to promote your work! This is a tough question for me, but I will try to answer it anyway. My main promotional efforts are: Book Clubs and Libraries: With their unusual cultural slant, social themes, and at times hot-button women’s issues, my books are well suited for book clubs and reading groups, therefore I often get invited to book discussions, library groups, and readers’ forums. I would say they are my best promotional tool. I enjoy face-to-face contact immensely and my audiences connect well with me most of the time. Online Promotion: I spend a large amount of money and time on online campaigns like virtual tours, book trailers, Fresh Fiction, ads in the Romance Writers Report (RWR) and some ethnic Indian publications. I use them consistently because I have faith in online promoting and some limited print advertising. Social Networking: I have pages on Facebook and MySpace, but I do that out of necessity.  I find social networking rather stressful and time-consuming. I have never owned a blog and I don’t use Twitter or any other type of networking tools, mainly because I don’t enjoy them much. However, as modern promotional avenues, I cannot afford to ignore them entirely either.

I’ve felt—and often feel—that way, too, especially when online and networking time seem to get in the way of my actual writing. (When I’m stuck though, writing a post is a great way to shift those creative juices in another direction—before I know it I’ve ‘written’ something else, lol.) And the wonderful feedback I receive from my own small—yet growing—number of blog readers keeps me inspired, grateful and fueled to keep at it, to deliver more of what my readers seem to like. I also enjoy watching how this particular avenue seems to have taken on a life of its own, evolving and changing a little at a time—almost like a manuscript in first-draft stage.

Thank you for a very interesting interview. I enjoyed doing it!

And I thoroughly enjoyed reading and presenting it—thanks so much, Shobhan. Hope to see you here again soon!

For more information on Shobhan’s books, as well as excerpts, contests, trailer videos, photos, buylinks, etc, visit Shobhan’s website: www.shobhanbantwal.com

As always, thanks to all of you for stopping in! A blog is nothing without its readers and supporters!

Until next time,

Joanna