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January 2013

Behind the Black Curtain

Guest post by A.R. Kahler author of The Immortal Circus.

Immortal circusIt's 2008 during a particularly snowy Michigan winter and I've just come back from three weeks on the road—three weeks of driving from Iowa to Michigan to Florida to Georgia to Tennessee and back to Michigan again. I've taught trapeze to thespians and performed as a gargoyle in the Hilton, wrangled a circus show out of fifty kids in Florida, and had my feet blessed at a gig where our host spoke in tongues. And after all of that, after all the travel and practice, glitter and costumes and musical montages, I learned the truth the circus world does its best to hide: Nothing is inherently glamorous. You have to make it so.

When I started writing The Immortal Circus, I wanted these words to ring through the glitz of the spectacle. I wanted to create a gorgeous show filled with dark intrigue and delectable characters, yes. But most of all, I wanted to share a side to circus that not many people see. I wanted the reader to get a feeling—however slight—of just how much work actually goes into a travelling show. On the road, your home and your job stay with you. You practice every hour of every day. You work and play, breathe and sleep, with the same group of people day in and day out. Not much changes.

Obviously, this creates a rather delicate set of constraints.

In The Immortal Circus, Vivienne is confronted with the murder of one of their star contortionists. And due to a very...unique...contract, the murder should be impossible. In the days that follow, Viv and her friends find themselves at the heart of a murder plot involving more than just their troupe, one devised by the Faerie Queen and King of legend. But even while trying to find the killer and save her friends, she's faced by the reality of circus life: she still has to practice, she still has to carry her own weight. In the face of adversity, life still goes on behind the scenes much as it had before.

Because if there's one other rule of showbiz, it's this: The show goes on.

No matter how gritty the reality, no matter what's going on in your personal life, the show continues. And in Viv's case, that reality may very well be the death of her. -- A.R. Kahler

Guest Blogger: James Sheehan, author of "The Lawyer's Lawyer"

The Lawyer's LawyerJames Sheehan is an author, trial attorney and teacher, and is currently the Director of the Tampa Law Institute at Stetson University College of Law in Tampa, Florida.

When I first started writing fiction many years ago the stuff I was writing was awful. It wasn’t that I didn’t have good ideas, I just didn’t know how to write fiction. I had plenty of experience writing because, as a lawyer, I had written hundreds of legal briefs. The process of taking an abstract or complex idea or series of ideas and putting them on paper in a logical, orderly fashion was something I was very good at. Naturally, I assumed that because I had experience getting ideas from my head onto paper that fiction would be a breeze. Boy, was I wrong.

Now, I have to confess that I had no formal training in creative writing. I just thought--I have a good story, I’ve been writing for years--case closed. Not so fast. The first time I sat down to write my story, my book, I was finished in ten pages. My legal briefs were around twenty-five pages, why did my “book” end in ten? I described the characters very well, I thought, and  I used nice descriptive words since I had a fairly extensive vocabulary. But I was done in ten pages! And frankly, it was boring, terribly boring. So I did something that I don’t ordinarily do--I asked for help.

Lucky for me, and I mean very lucky for me, my sister was a literary editor working for a major publishing company at the time. I sent her my ten page story and asked her if she could give me some advice. I can tell you, I was not prepared for her very frank and honest assessment. This story stinks! She told me. It reads like an essay or one of your legal briefs. This isn’t the way you write a story. You don’t “tell” a story, you invite the reader “into” a story.

At the time, I had no idea what she was talking about. I learned though, and it didn’t come overnight. It was a trial and error process and it took a lot of patience, more on my sister’s part than on mine. Eventually, the worm started to turn, and I started to learn how to write.

What did I learn to do differently under my sister’s patient tutelage? The first thing I learned was to stop thinking about the words and start thinking about the picture or, even better, the pictures. What pictures? The pictures I had in my head of a scene and the characters in that scene. I had to get those pictures onto the paper. You’re probably asking yourself as you read this--What the hell is he talking about? You are right where I was when my sister gave me my first lesson. Let me see if I can give you a little taste of what I mean.

I remember a movie when I was a child where the star saw a beautiful pastoral scene in a painting and then magically (because it was the movies) he was able to step into the picture and become part of that scene. That’s what happens with a good work of fiction! That’s what I have to do--have you, the reader, step into the story and be part of it. If you are concentrating on the  nice descriptive words and reading the essay and not ducking from the bullets or wringing your hands, palms sweating, as you sit on the witness chair waiting for counsel’s next question, then you are not into the story and I have not done my job.

So how do I do that? How do I get you to step into the picture? The short answer is that it takes time. I have to build each scene so you can visualize it and I have to create characters and give them backgrounds so that you will identify with them and care about them and see them. I also know that I have to bring you into the story immediately. How many times have you heard people say about a book--”I just couldn’t get into it.”? Or “If it doesn’t grab me in the first three pages I’m done.” James Michener could get away with giving the reader a hundred pages of history before getting started but most of us can’t pull that off. I might want to start off with an action scene, or an emotional scene--something to get you connected to the characters and want to find out more--but I don’t have to.

A lot of mystery writers start out with a murder--the old whodunit. I did that in my first two books, The Mayor of Lexington Avenue  and The Law of Second Chances but since they were not mysteries per se but legal thrillers, you, the reader, knew from the outset who the murderer was or, at least, you thought you did. Isn’t this fun? In my third book, The Lawyer’s Lawyer, I start out with three old friends tending bar. Nothing happens although one friend, Ronnie, says to Jack Tobin, my main character in all three books--you’ll be back here someday, Jack, either for a case or a woman or both. And there it is, the hook. It’s only partially set, though. You have to connect with the characters for that hook to be truly set. How do I get you to do that? Well, dialogue helps. In the opening scene of The Lawyer’s Lawyer, the three friends, who have been tending bar all night, sit down, exhausted, and start ribbing each other as old friends do. This is a scene about three men, but all of us, men and women, have been at that table in our own lives and, if the scene has been set up right, the characters have been described well enough for you to see them, and the dialogue is genuine--then you are there, enjoying the feeling of old friends sparring with each other. You can feel their exhaustion. You can taste the beer. And that will make you turn the next page to find out what Jack is coming back for--a case, or a woman, or both.

That’s just a snippet of the process, but I hope that from this brief discussion you, at least, have a sense of what it’s about and why, at the outset, we all need a little help from our friends--and relatives!

--James Sheehan

Guest Blogger: Carl Honoré, author of "The Slow Fix"

The Slow FixAfter studying history and Italian at Edinburgh University, Carl Honoré worked with street children in Brazil. This later inspired him to take up journalism and since 1991 he has written from all over Europe and South America, spending three years in Buenos Aires along the way. He is the author of In Praise of Slowness and The Slow Fix

How are your New Year’s resolutions coming along?

Still hitting the gym every day? Eating more healthily? Putting your finances in order?

Thought so.

Most of us struggle to last a week on a new regime before sliding back into bad old habits. We lack the willpower to make deep and lasting changes in our lives. What we really want when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve is a quick fix.

Shortcut solutions to life’s problems are not new. Two thousand years ago, Plutarch denounced the army of quacks peddling miracle cures to the citizens of Ancient Rome.

But in today’s on-demand, just-add-water culture, the quick fix has become our default setting in every walk of life. And that is taking a toll.

Why? Because quick fixes seldom deliver on their seductive promise of maximum return for minimum effort. Whether it’s mending a failing company, tackling poverty, treating an illness, or rebuilding a broken relationship, the hardest problems are too complex for band-aid cures. Newsflash: there is no such thing as “One Tip to a Flat Stomach.”

The good news is there is now an alternative to the quick fix. It’s called, not surprisingly, the Slow Fix.

You may have heard of the Slow Movement, which challenges the canard that faster is always better. You don’t have to ditch your career, toss the iPhone, or join a commune to take part. Living “Slow” just means doing everything at the right speed—quickly, slowly, or at whatever pace delivers the best results.

In other words, fast fixes are sometimes just what the doctor ordered. For certain problems, you have to channel MacGyver, reach for the duct tape, and cobble together whatever solution works right now. Think patching up a wounded soldier on the battlefield or saving someone from choking on a morsel of food by administering the Heimlich manoeuvre.

But when faced with more complex problems, the best policy is usually to apply a Slow Fix.

That means taking the time to: admit and learn from mistakes; work out the root causes of the problem; sweat the small stuff; think long and connect the dots to build holistic solutions; seek ideas from everywhere; work with others and share the credit; build up expertise while remaining skeptical of experts; think alone and together; tap emotions; enlist an inspiring leader; consult and even recruit those closest to the problem; turn the search for a fix into a game; have fun, follow hunches, adapt, use trial and error, and embrace uncertainty.

All of this takes time, and in our impatient world that can seem like an indulgence or a luxury. But the Slow Fix is neither. It’s actually a smart and essential investment in the future. Put in the time, effort, and resources to start tackling a problem thoroughly today, and reap the benefits tomorrow.

Around the world, you see more and more examples of the Slow Fix in action: Couples rebooting damaged relationships. Families ending feuds. Children resolving playground conflicts. People finding lasting ways to lose weight and boost their health. By applying a Slow Fix, I am finally conquering a back problem that has bothered me for more than twenty years.

Slow Fixes are also making inroads on problems that go way beyond the personal sphere: Reformers rescuing a failing school in Los Angeles. Norway and Singapore slashing recidivism rates among criminals. Spain transforming its organ transplant system into the envy of the world. A project lifting children out of poverty in New York. Costa Rican coffee farmers freeing themselves from the vagaries of the international commodity market. Formula One engineers fine-tuning the fastest cars on the planet. Doctors making fewer mistakes. Companies boosting sales and productivity. Designers building better stuff. Scientists making surprising breakthroughs. Developing nations rolling back tropical diseases.

Everywhere you look, from the personal to the collective, the problems we face are more complex and more pressing than ever before. Quick fixes are not the answer.

The time has come to resist the siren call of half-baked solutions and short-term palliatives and start fixing things properly.

The time has come to learn the art of the Slow Fix.

--Carl Honoré

Guest Blogger: Hallie Rubenhold, author of "Mistress of My Fate"

Mistress of My FateHallie Rubenhold is an historian and broadcaster and an authority on British eighteenth-century social history.

I find it ironic that sometimes a true experience can only be told in the form of fiction.  This was the case with my new novel, Mistress of My Fate.

For many years, I’ve found it difficult to reconcile our common understanding of what it meant to be a woman in the eighteenth century, with what I had learned about it through my work as a historian.  Unfortunately, the media hasn’t helped much. These days, we’re more likely to get our concepts of another era from sumptuous film and television adaptations of works of literature; Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, in particular. Worse still, the gap between the stories shown to us, and the realities of how life was actually lived is often enormous.

The strangeness of this situation really struck me when I began the research on my first book, The Covent Garden Ladies.  This was a work of nonfiction book about an infamous set of guidebooks to London prostitutes published in the second half of the eighteenth century. The Harris’s Lists, as they were called, provided names and short biographical stories of women who found themselves ‘upon the town.’  Each story was fascinating in its own right. Some were filled with harrowing descriptions of abandonment, betrayal, violence, alcoholism, abortion, and imprisonment, while others offered tales of hope and perseverance. The most heart-wrenching aspect of all of their stories was that these women had been victims of circumstance, whether they had run away from boarding school or been widowed.  As the law recognised women as the property of men, and not as individuals, any adversity could leave them completely unprotected. They had few options in life, and a fall from the path of rectitude and virtue could be a long and painful one. More intriguing still, the further I investigated, the more these narratives and experiences could be cross referenced in other documentary material; in court records, in parish records, in letters, publications, diaries, and memoirs.  History seemed to be full of the stories and voices of women who no one had wanted to hear.

I think my inspiration occurred one evening when I turned on the TV and sat down in front of yet another Austen adaptation. But certainly, certainly, I found myself thinking, there’s more to the late Georgian era than beautiful dresses and elaborate courtship.  Why do we never see the grim realities and instead indulge in images of the well-laid tea table? I thought of the story of the young woman I had read about that day. She had lived in the year that Austen had written First Impressions, the book that would later go on to be Pride and Prejudice. Much like Lydia Bennet, this young woman had fallen in love with a solider and followed him to London on a promise of marriage. However, this unfortunate runaway didn’t have a family to look after her interests. She ended up in prostitution, having to eek out a living between brothels and the ‘generosity’ of male ‘protectors.’

It was experiences like this that made me want to allow the true voices of these forgotten women to be heard. 

In keeping with the traditions of many women of her profession, Henrietta Lightfoot’s story is told in the form of a memoir.   However, unlike many of the Kiss and Tell versions of courtesans’ lives, Henrietta’s aim is not to titillate the male reader, but to inform the innocent female of the hazards that await her out in the world. She spares no blushes and documents all of the unpleasantness of being an eighteenth century woman, from makeshift birth control to the horrors of childbirth, while also instructing the fair sex on what it is they must do in order to gain some degree of control over their lives. Her advice, though absolutely historically accurate, would have been certain to have raised eyebrows in her own day. Elizabeth Bennett would have been scandalized to be sure.

--Hallie Rubenhold

"Elimination Night" by Anonymous

AnonymousWe have answers to five questions readers are dying to ask Anonymous, the author of Elimination Night—a deliciously outrageous novel inspired by American Idol and other top TV talent competitions.

Q: In Elimination Night, the world's most-watched TV competition suffers a disastrous season premiere and begins to implode, starting with the judges—exactly what seems to be happening to American Idol. Are you some kind of clairvoyant?

Anonymous: It doesn't take a clairvoyant to see that this has been coming for a long time. Idol has been our generation's Ed Sullivan Show—pretty much owning prime-time ratings and making billions of dollars. But nothing lasts forever. And when an empire of that size starts to crumble, things are going to get ugly. At the same time, this is still a singing competition we're talking about, so the whole American Idol saga is kind of comical and absurd. That's what inspired Elimination Night. The title actually refers to the fate of the show itself, rather than that of the contestants.

Q: You worked for the show, right? And you're remaining anonymous to protect your career?

A: Let's just say I have very deep access to that world, including behind-the-scenes knowledge of a popular TV singing competition. I'm not Ryan Seacrest, though, as some journalists seem to think.

Q: The tabloids have speculated that the host in Elimination Night is such an over-the-top villain that it could be a double bluff, indicating who the real author might be. The judges are equally crazy, though. Is everyone in reality TV an unstable egomaniac?

A: Well, reality-show judges have their flaws. But the book is about understanding what makes them act the way they do. It might look easy to say "You're going to Hollywood," but the judges are under a thousand times more scrutiny and pressure than most of us. Also, I'd say 99% of the characters in the book have redeeming features. The rock-star judge, Joey Lovecraft, is a very lovable, funny guy. We're rooting for him in the end.

Q: The diva on the panel is Bibi Vasquez. Even when she has an on-air meltdown, it's premeditated. Is that usually the case, like when Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj feud?

A: I think it's often a mixture of things that viewers at home don't fully understand. With Bibi, she's genuinely upset about voting off one very tragic contestant, but she's also furious that she wasn't able to overrule the decision. So it's as much a tantrum as it is genuine sadness. That said, I don't think it's any big secret that some of these judges really do despise each other, or at least feel very threatened and jealous. When people say the meltdowns are all fake—honestly, they don't know what they're talking about. I wish they could spend just 10 seconds backstage.

Q: Are the judges really so petty that they fight over who gets more candy in the dressing rooms?

A: Trust me: They're obsessed with the tiniest details. For example, when the judges walk onstage at the beginning of the show, how is that presented? These things are hugely important from a branding point of view. Does the least important judge just walk on, while the most important one arrives on a giant mechanical arm? Does one get to endorse her product line? Does the other get to play his music video? Millions of dollars are at stake for the celebrities—they're not just doing this for fun. And when something goes wrong, usually the lowest-level producer ends up getting the blame. In Elimination Night, of course, that's me.

David Lender on the Historical Genesis of His New Thriller "Arab Summer"

Guest post by author David Lender whose new title Arab Summer released on January 22, 2013. Explore the entire Sasha Del Mira series and learn more about David Lender

Arab SummerMy new thriller, Arab Summer, is about an Arab Spring uprising in Saudi Arabia led by fundamentalist Shiite Muslims whose goal is to topple the Sunni Saudi regime and use its oil riches to hold the West hostage. It's the next in the Sasha Del Mira series. Sasha, the heroine of Trojan Horse, is a former concubine to the Saudi royal family who was recruited by the CIA as an informant, and later as an assassin.

The uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt that brought down Ben Ali, Qaddafi and Mubarak—dictators who brutally persecuted, repressed and murdered their citizens—started Arab Spring in 2011. Since then, over a dozen other Arab states have witnessed at least some level of civil unrest challenging their governments, including the ongoing civil war in Syria between the al-Assad regime and opposition forces.

The darker side of the Arab Spring movement has recently surfaced in the form of murderous acts by Islamic fundamentalists, not against repressive governments, but against innocents. Islamic militants now control approximately one-third of Mali and are aggressively moving to take the entire country. Armed Islamic fundamentalists recently organized the takeover of an international oil and gas facility in Algeria that resulted in the deaths of over 35 hostages, including Americans and Europeans.

Saudi Arabia is considered one of the most stable regimes in the Arab states, but the notion of an Arab Spring uprising there isn't so far-fetched. Protests, some with 70,000 participants, over anti-Shiite discrimination, labor rights, release of prisoners held without charge or trial, and for equal representation in key government offices began in Saudi Arabia in 2011 and continue today.

Imagine this: a group of disaffected Shiite Muslim extremists seizes the Grand Mosque in Mecca—Islam’s holiest site—during the final days of the Hajj, the annual Muslim holy pilgrimage, and take thousands of hostages. Their leader says that among them is the Mahdi, the prophesied “Redeemer of Islam” who will drive out all infidels from holy Saudi soil and lead Muslims into a new era. They broadcast their demands from loudspeakers on the mosque’s minarets, including ceasing oil exports to the US and the expulsion of foreign civilians and military personnel from Saudi Arabia. Saudi forces try unsuccessfully for weeks to retake the mosque, sustaining heavy casualties. The Saudis ultimately enlist the help of foreign military forces to drive out the militants.

That actually happened in 1979.

In Arab Summer, something like that does again. Saif Ibn Mohammed al-Aziz, a ruthless terrorist, leads a Muslim fundamentalist group bent on a bloody coup of the Saudi Arabian government via an Arab Spring uprising. As a prelude to his plan, he has Sasha Del Mira’s husband, Daniel, murdered. Sasha comes out of retirement to avenge Daniel’s death and to help Tom Goddard, her old mentor at the CIA, stop the plot, putting her face to face with Saif, her former ally—and lover.

Guest Blogger: April Lindner on Writing a Literary Retelling

CatherineIn Catherine, April Lindner has written a forbidden romance, a modern mystery--Wuthering Heights as you've never seen it before.

As someone with a nearly bottomless appetite for retellings of classic literature, I used to fantasize about writing one myself someday. There’s nothing like being immersed in a novel, turning the pages as quickly as you can, only to get to the end too soon—and when a book is good, the end always comes too soon. Of course, a reader can flip back to page one and start over, and the best books are complex enough to yield new pleasures with each rereading. But sometimes that reader wants more—to find out what comes after the book’s ending or before its beginning. Or she wants to see what would happen if Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennet or Hamlet walked among us in the twenty-first century. That’s where retellings come in.

The impulse to not only steep myself in a beloved fictional world but to go even further—to interact with the characters, to play with them, to plunk them down in the twenty-first century and answer the eternal question: What Would Jane Do?—is what made me write Jane, a modernization of my favorite novel of all time, Jane Eyre. And when I had finished the multiple rewritings that go into making a book the best it can be, I wasn’t ready to quit. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to turn to Wuthering Heights—my other favorite novel of all time—and write Catherine.

This might sound a little nutty, but to write fiction is to live in an invented world with a set of imaginary friends. And to write a retelling is to spend many hours in your own version of a setting someone else created, with characters somebody else first breathed into being. It’s kind of a big responsibility, one I want to get exactly right. To do justice to the novel I’m retelling, I wallow in its mood and the voices of its characters. For me, just rereading the original isn’t enough. I obsessively watch film adaptations and listen to the audiobook while I drive around town. While I was working on Catherine, I even loaded Wuthering Heights onto my iPod and listened to it each night as I fell asleep.

Setting out to write Catherine gave me an excuse to indulge in my longtime fascination with Wuthering Heights, a novel that inspires strong reactions in practically everyone who reads it. The over-the-top intensity of the love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff is compelling and more than a little frightening. When that love is thwarted, readers can feel Heathcliff’s pain and understand his lust for vengeance, even as they are horrified by it.

I set out to capture some of the brutality of Brontë’s novel, but an author’s personality inevitably seeps into her material. Since I’m basically a pretty sunny person, I found that I couldn’t help but make Catherine’s world—the post-post-punk music scene of Manhattan’s Lower East Side—less bleak than the Yorkshire moors of Wuthering Heights. My Catherine, the pampered daughter of a nightclub owner, is a bit self-centered, but not as ruthless as Brontë’s Catherine. And Hence, my Heathcliff character, a punk rocker who lands on the doorstep of the nightclub looking for work, has anger issues, but he’s not necessarily cruel. I had to like my main characters in order to spend that much time with them. And though I root for Brontë’s Catherine and feel for her Heathcliff, I don’t always like them.

But then, the trick of writing a retelling is finding the balance between being true to the source material and making it your own, doing something new with it. There were aspects of Wuthering Heights that I was dead set on capturing. The most important one of these was Catherine’s daughter. Film adaptations of Brontë’s novel usually focus on Catherine and Heathcliff, completely leaving out the story of the second generation. In doing so, I think they lose sight of what the novel is really saying. In Wuthering Heights, the thwarted love between Catherine and Heathcliff casts a shadow on the lives of her daughter and his son. But Catherine’s daughter manages to struggle out from that shadow, to learn what it means to love.

I wanted the story of Catherine’s daughter—Chelsea, in my retelling—to be an important part of the story, which is why I interwove Chelsea’s story with Catherine’s. Having two narrators and a plotline that unfolds over two generations is my way of gesturing toward the multiple narrators and multigenerational sweep of Brontë’s novel. As I wrote Catherine, I grew particularly fond of Chelsea, who sets out to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance and learns a little something about love in the process. When I finished writing, I found I missed her as though she were someone I knew in real life.

I guess that’s the irony of writing a retelling—I started doing it so I could spend a little more time hanging out with Catherine and Heathcliff, and by the time I was done I had a whole new set of characters to miss.

--April Lindner

Dr. Diana Kirschner's Six Simple Steps to Finding Love

KirschnerDr. Diana Kirschner, the "Love Mentor," is the best-selling author of six books, including Love in 90 Days. In her latest book, Find Your Soulmate Online in Six Simple Steps, Dr. Diana describes methods for finding your true soulmate, dating quality men, and navigating online dating.

Q: Do you really believe everyone has a soulmate?

Dr. Diana Kirschner: Yes. But not when I started dating! I was caught in a web of dead-end patterns. I wanted the guys who didn’t want me, partied and tried too hard, settled for crumbs, got dumped in humiliating ways, and hid out with pints of Häagen-Dazs coffee ice cream. So starting in graduate school, I studied happy couples (hard to find, but I did) and apprenticed with Eastern and Western mentors to learn the lessons that would allow me to live in a state of love. And I was surprised—shocked, actually—to be able to find and marry my real soulmate, Sam, with whom I’ve shared more than 25 years. And I've helped thousands of others find their own soulmate love.

Q: Many people say that love "just happens" or comes when you’re not looking. But you believe that single women should make finding love a priority.

DK: The idea that love will "just happen" is the biggest myth! In what other area of your life would you think that way? Would you ever say, "If I were meant to be fit, it would just happen?" or "If I were meant to learn French, it would just happen?" To be great at finding soulmate love, you have to create the intention to give yourself a just-right-for-you partner, learn how to date quality guys, and devote time and energy to the relationship.

Q: Women often complain that they can’t even find one good guy to date. How should they look for great men?

DK: It’s easy to find great guys online. In my book, I identify the best sites for you to join. First, you become a paid subscriber to one of the larger, well-publicized sites and a boutique or specialized one that caters to your interests or background. Then I show you how to optimize your profile so that men see you first when they search—which means you will have a lot more guys connecting with you. After that, it is just a matter of weeding out the DUDs (Definitely Unworkable Dudes) from the STUDs (Seriously Terrific, Utterly Devoted Dudes).

Q: What special dating tips do you offer in your new book?

DK: I show you exactly how to attract alpha males or more sensitive, spiritual, or religious men, depending on the kind of soulmate you want. Mastering how to attract and date a great guy who is just right for you is actually not that hard. It’s kind of like learning to ride a bike. There are only six simple principles, and they are all laid out for you in the book.

Guest Blogger: Nicholas Montemarano, author of "The Book of Why"

  The Book of WhyBecause my new novel, The Book of Why, asks big questions (the title contains the word why, after all, perhaps the most compelling and complicated interrogative), is it all right if I ask you a few questions?

All novels that expect to be read must raise questions, don’t they? And they must delay the answers to these questions for as long as possible, right? Why did Eric Newborn, the narrator of The Book of Why, stop writing self-help books, renounce everything he’d ever written, and become a semi-recluse on Martha’s Vineyard with his dog, Ralph? Why does Ralph, a female dog, have a male name? What happened to Eric’s wife? What were the circumstances surrounding her death, and why does Eric feel not only grief-stricken but responsible? How does one of Eric’s biggest fans find him, and what does she want from him? Why does she insist that they search for someone named Gloria Foster, and what does Gloria Foster have to do with Eric’s late-wife? Once they find Gloria Foster, what will happen then? Why does she seem to know things about Eric’s wife that no one but he or his wife could ever know? And what secret is Eric’s fan keeping from him?

Those are the plot questions, but we couldn’t have a compelling novel without bigger questions, could we? Are there meanings in signs? Does everything happen for a reason? Can we control our lives through positive thinking? Do the law of attraction and the power of intention—two of Eric’s core beliefs—actually work? Or is this way of thinking dangerous? Is it better simply to accept whatever happens—our fate? Are there things about life we simply can’t control? If so, why do these things—often painful things—happen? To what end? Is the universe a friendly or unfriendly place? Can every story we know be reduced, in the end, to “hello, goodbye”? Or can love survive anything—even death?

The first sentence of The Book of Why is “This is a self-help book,” but didn’t I already tell you that it’s a novel? So what does Eric Newborn mean when he says this? Does he mean that he’s telling his story in an effort to help himself—something he hasn’t been able to do lately? Does he mean that his story might actually help you? Does he mean that he may not have all the answers but that for once he’s asking the right questions?

--Nicholas Montemarano


Guest Blogger: Lucretia Grindle on "Villa Triste"

Villa TristeFlorence, 1943. Two sisters, Isabella and Caterina Cammaccio, find themselves surrounded by terror and death; and with Italy trapped under the heel of a brutal Nazi occupation, bands of Partisans rise up.

Soon Isabella and Caterina will test their wits and deepest beliefs as never before. As the winter grinds on, they will be forced to make the most important decisions of their lives. Their choices will reverberate for decades.

Here, Lucretia Grindle gives us the background on her novel, Villa Triste.

The background for Villa Triste is Italy during World War II. Italy's role in the war is confusing, in particular after 1943 when, having signed an armistice with the Allies, she was occupied by the Germans and also faced an internal struggle with Fascism.

Italian Partisans were crucial to their country's struggle, fighting the Nazis with one hand and the Fascists with the other. I knew nothing about them until, while living in Florence, I began to notice plaques, often small and engraved with only a few words and date, mounted into the walls of the city.

Once I noticed one or two, I saw them everywhere. On closer examination, I realized they were almost all dedicated to the Partisans and that they were a kind of shorthand:  that those few stone words were a guide to the struggle and sacrifice embodied in Italy's fight for freedom. In a city full of history, here was a history of ordinary people who, living in extraordinary times, had again and again faced down terror, deprivation, and loss with extraordinary dignity and almost unbelievable courage.

Soon, I began to look differently at the old lady who ran my green grocer's, at the old man who fed the cats on the steps of my favorite church, at the caretaker of my flat, at the flower seller and his wife. All in their eighties, they had been alive in 1943 and 1944. Many probably fought through the terrible winter that became known as The Terror. Given that more than 1 in 4 of the Italian Partisans were women, I began to suspect that these sweet old ladies, as well as sweet old men, might have very unexpected pasts.

While Villa Triste is a work of fiction, everything, down to the dates and locations of  Allied bombings, is based on fact. The sisters at the center of the story are figments of my imagination.  Caterina and Isabella did not exist. But they are based on several very real women, and their family is based on a real family. There was a radio circuit. It had a different name, but its fate was the same as the one in Villa Triste. Even the little red book is based on another tiny book hidden in the hem of a dress. The modern section of my novel is supposition; my answer to the mystery hidden in a real sequence of events that took place in the terrible closing months of a terrible war.

I feel that Villa Triste has a special and unexpected resonance just now. Three quarters of a century later, our own country is mired in depression, war, and hardship. Many ordinary people have yet again been thrust into extraordinary circumstances not of their own making or choosing--whether due to devastating weather, the deaths of family and friends fighting overseas, the loss of jobs, or most recently, the horror of shootings such as those at Newtown.

Time and again, right now, these calamities are faced by ordinary Americans with the same extraordinary courage and dignity that ordinary Italians found in themselves so long ago. So, to me, Villa Triste is a human story, demonstrating yet again that what divides and hurts us is powerful, but that the courage and love we find to overcome that division and hurt is more powerful still.

With best wishes for 2013,