The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson

  • the bookseller (Mar3)Title:  The Bookseller
  • Author:  Cynthia Swanson
  • Genre:  Fiction
  • Published:  March 2015 – Harper
  • Source:  Publisher

My take: The Bookseller is about Kitty, a thirty-something woman in 1960s Denver, CO who owns a book store with her best friend. Lately, Kitty has been having some vivid and strange dreams where she’s living a parallel life that is quite different from her real life. She is called Katharyn and has a husband and three children. In her dream life she finds herself daydreaming about her life as Kitty. She can’t figure out what’s going on until the dreams begin to jog some memories. As confusing as this might sound, I found it easy to follow.

Cynthia Swanson’s dual-storylines kept me turning the pages. It was apparent to me what was going on about midway through but that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the novel. It made me think about the imperfections in life and how they can change our idea of what would make us happy or content. The natural order of life, as well as unexpected circumstances, can make our lives turn on a dime.

The Bookseller is Swanson’s debut novel. I think it would be a good selection for readers looking for something a little different.

Guest Post by Cynthia Swanson, author of The Bookseller

Today I’m pleased to welcome Cynthia Swanson whose debut novel The Bookseller was released last week by Harper. I hope you enjoy Cynthia’s topic as much as I did and if you’re a US reader you’ll be happy to see a Giveaway at the end of the post.


Swanson pic credit, Glenda Cebrian Photography

Tackling Your Creative Dream in Middle Age

By Cynthia Swanson

It was 10 o’clock on a Tuesday morning, and I was at the YMCA. As I pounded away on the StairMaster, I thought about how the only people at the Y at this time of day were like me – mostly moms of young kids, with perhaps the random retiree thrown in the mix.

How did this happen? Not so long ago, I was a childless, single woman in her mid-30s, with a successful freelance writing career and plenty of time to indulge in my passion for writing fiction. I lived alone in an adorable, historic bungalow in a trendy area of Denver. How had I gone from being that woman to being someone I barely recognized – 45 years old, married, and the mother of three? Instead of that cute bungalow, I now lived in a ranch house in a neighborhood chock-full of families. I squeezed in paid writing projects here and there, in a weak attempt to maintain some semblance of a career, while mostly volunteering, taking care of kids, gardening, and running a household.

Writing fiction felt like a thing of the past. Along with time to read, aimless drives just for something to do, last-minute movie dates with friends, and drinks after work, creativity had gone right out the window.

But had it? While the StairMaster took me higher and higher to nowhere, I considered the possibilities. How can life be transformed so quickly? How does one random, life-changing moment convert a woman from the person she thought she was into someone who – some days – she feels she barely knows?

And what are the repercussions if that life-changing moment doesn’t happen?

It was the seed of a story idea. Maybe, I thought, it was the seed of a novel.

***

Pre-kids, writing fiction was an enormous part of my identity. I had been writing stories for as long as I knew how to put pen to paper. In my 20s, I dreamed (who doesn’t, in their 20s?) of being famous for my creative work. I wrote short stories and hammered away at a novel. I high-fived myself when my short fiction was picked up by literary journals; I was ecstatic when one of my stories was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. I had talent and ambition, I told myself – not to mention plenty of time to read, write, and dream. There was no reason I couldn’t make those dreams come true.

But life went on. I moved from Boston to Colorado. I published more stories; I ditched my first novel and began writing a new one. I changed career paths from marketing to technical writing, and eventually I started freelancing, which provided more flexibility for writing fiction.

Around the time I completed that novel and began querying agents, I met my husband-to-be. Before long, we had a bustling household with three kids – and the manuscript of my novel, for which I had received a few encouraging replies from agents (“Nice, but not for us.” “Keep writing! Good luck!”) but no offers to take me on, was tucked into a filing cabinet and rarely considered. There was a nagging part of me that wondered if I’d ever write fiction again.

So that day at the Y, as the StairMaster slowed into cool-down mode and I wiped the sweat from my brow, my excitement grew.

As with most of my fiction, the concept started with a bit of reality that could be transformed using invented circumstances and details. If I want my characters to seem like real people and not mannequins, then the emotion of the story has to be real – it has to be something I’ve experienced, or at the very least understand. On the flip side, to create a compelling narrative, I make up plenty of the finer points and most of the plot.

I reflected on this for few weeks, without writing a word. I just let the ideas stew. But eventually I began to write. I liked the concept of a character caught between a dream life and real life, with the two lives being vastly different because of some small variation in circumstance. I wanted to explore how quickly life can turn into something unexpected, just by the simplest change of conditions. It was, I realized, a Sliding Doors type of story.

But I needed this to happen to a specific person. Although I have never owned a bookstore, I’ve spent plenty of time hanging around in them – especially the independents, from hole-in-the-wall used bookshops in Cambridge, Massachusetts to the multi-leveled Tattered Cover here in Denver. I have a couple of bookselling relatives and friends, and their lifestyles have always fascinated me (and made me a tad envious). Selling books seemed the perfect career for Kitty Miller, my 38-year-old, single-gal protagonist. Thus The Bookseller was born.

I originally set the story in the present day. But because it revolves around this idea of chaos theory – one small incident that cascades into an entirely different outcome – I quickly realized that a 21st-century Kitty would approach the whole situation of living one life while dreaming of another in a completely different manner than would the Kitty of an earlier era. If this happened in the present day, I thought, Kitty would be quick to Google every aspect of her dream life. She’d probably be a bit cynical, and she’d be reluctant to go with the flow – something I needed her to do for the story to progress.

I’ve always had a fascination with the 1960s. When I started writing The Bookseller, I was also doing design and renovation work on our 1958 home, as well as giving suggestions to others who were remodeling their mid-century houses to be more modernized while remaining true to the era. Like writing, design has always been a passion of mine. Setting the story in 1962-63 was the perfect avenue to unite these interests.

With the lifestyle I now had, writing happened 15 minutes at a time. Yep, I wrote the first draft of this book in absurdly miniscule 15-minute increments. I could not write in the evening – my hat’s off to those who can be creative after a long day of obligations, but that’s not me. Instead, writing occurred in stolen daytime moments, sandwiched between other responsibilities. I learned that if I could find 15 minutes to write, I often could carve out 30 – or 60, or sometimes more. The house was messier and the dinners simpler. But it was all good.

Working on that first draft, I did little revising. My older children, twins who were six at the time, were learning to read. I gave them advice that teachers often give struggling new readers – when you come across a word you don’t know and can’t figure out, skip it. Keep going, and go back when you’re ready, because later context often clarifies that which previously stumped you.

The same counsel applies to writing – or any creative activity. If you’re stuck, make a note of the problem and move on. The resolution will be clear when the time is right.

After six months, I had a 50,000-word draft – approximately half the length the manuscript ultimately would be. That first draft was riddled with holes and questions. Much to my satisfaction, in subsequent drafts those holes filled in. Problems resolved themselves – sometimes by eliminating a minor character or side plot, sometimes by creating a new scene or dialogue, sometimes via research.

***

So, great, I finished it. Then what? Well. One of the benefits of being older when you embark on a creative project is that you likely have more resources at your fingertips. You know people – or if not, at least you are confident in your ability to find people.

I re-involved myself with the creative writing scene in Denver – a community I had been active in during my 30s but had become distanced from after having kids. In doing so, I discovered something unexpected, but very welcome: when it comes to writing, “older” does not equal “washed up.” Quite the contrary: attending readings and literary events, I noticed that while there were still hotshot young fiction writers getting lots of attention, most of them seem focused on YA and dystopia fiction. It was the older writers – the thirty- and forty- and even fiftysomething authors – who were putting out books about real, adult life. These were novels that readers bought – and remembered, and discussed in their book groups, and told their friends about.

Older writers – even first-time novelists who were well past their 20s when their first books came out – were garnering respect in the literary world. They were using their experience and wisdom to turn out great fiction.

After I deemed The Bookseller complete, I hired an editor – not for a line-by-line review, but rather to help me determine if the novel was marketable. She gave me great advice, and following on the heels of that, I found an agent and subsequently a publisher.

The Bookseller will hit bookstands on March 3, just a few weeks after my 50th birthday.

It’s not an easy process, nor a speedy one. But there is serenity that comes with creative endeavors at this age. While the outcome is astonishing, so was the process. I’m proud of the result, but I’m equally proud that I took it on in the first place – and that I finished the damn thing.

What I’ve learned is that in creative work – as in life – it’s not a heady, all-encompassing rush of perfection, but rather one step at a time that gets the job done.

BooksellerCover


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Us: A Novel by David Nicholls

  • US  Us coverTitle:  Us: A Novel
  • Author:  David Nicholls
  • Genre:  Fiction
  • Published:  October 2014 – Harper
  • Source:  Publisher

Synopsis:  Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize

David Nicholls brings the wit and intelligence that graced his enormously popular New York Times bestseller, One Day, to a compellingly human, deftly funny new novel about what holds marriages and families together—and what happens, and what we learn about ourselves, when everything threatens to fall apart.

Douglas Petersen may be mild-mannered, but behind his reserve lies a sense of humor that, against all odds, seduces beautiful Connie into a second date . . . and eventually into marriage. Now, almost three decades after their relationship first blossomed in London, they live more or less happily in the suburbs with their moody seventeen year-old son, Albie. Then Connie tells him she thinks she wants a divorce.

The timing couldn’t be worse. Hoping to encourage her son’s artistic interests, Connie has planned a month-long tour of European capitals, a chance to experience the world’s greatest works of art as a family, and she can’t bring herself to cancel. And maybe going ahead with the original plan is for the best anyway? Douglas is privately convinced that this landmark trip will rekindle the romance in the marriage, and might even help him to bond with Albie.

Narrated from Douglas’s endearingly honest, slyly witty, and at times achingly optimistic point of view, Us is the story of a man trying to rescue his relationship with the woman he loves, and learning how to get closer to a son who’s always felt like a stranger. Us is a moving meditation on the demands of marriage and parenthood, the regrets of abandoning youth for middle age, and the intricate relationship between the heart and the head. And in David Nicholls’s gifted hands, Douglas’s odyssey brings Europe—from the streets of Amsterdam to the famed museums of Paris, from the cafés of Venice to the beaches of Barcelona—to vivid life just as he experiences a powerful awakening of his own. Will this summer be his last as a husband, or the moment when he turns his marriage, and maybe even his whole life, around?  (publisher)

My take: Douglas and Connie have been together for almost 25 years. They’re about to go on a European tour with their 17 year-old son when Connie tells Douglas she may want to leave him. This seems to come from nowhere and Douglas isn’t sure what to do. She wants to go on their holiday – making him think he can convince her not to leave him when they return. 

What follows is a road trip that had me laughing, wincing (at the things Douglas says to his wife and son), and feeling quite sad for the three of them as they near the end of the trip. The one I felt the most sympathy was their son, Albie. I won’t spoil by saying why but suffice to say, being the child, he suffered the strongest emotional toll.

Most novels I’ve read about marriage and children have been written by female authors. I was impressed by the emotional tone David Nicholls gave his story. It rang true. The story is told from Douglas’s POV and alternates from when Douglas and Connie first met 25 years ago to present day.

My biggest quibble is the length of the book – 400+ pages.  It seemed to drag a bit in the middle – maybe I’m in the minority on this issue. I’d recommend Us to fans of David Nicholls and novels about marriage and family.

When the Cypress Whispers by Yvette Manessis Corporon

when the cypress whispers (april)

  • Title:  When the Cypress Whispers
  • Author:  Yvette Manessis Corporon
  • Genre:  Women’s Fiction
  • Published:  April 2014 – Harper
  • Source:  Publisher

Synopsis:  The daughter of Greek immigrants, Daphne aspires to the American Dream, yet feels as if she’s been sleepwalking through life. Caught between her family’s old-world traditions and the demands of a modern career, she cannot seem to find her place. 
Only her beloved grandmother on Erikousa, a magical island off the coast of Greece, knows her heart. Daphne’s fondest memories are of times spent in the kitchen with Yia-yia, cooking and learning about the ancient myths. It was the thought of Yia-yia that consoled Daphne in the wake of her husband’s unexpected death.
After years of struggling to raise her child and pay the bills, Daphne now has a successful restaurant, a growing reputation as a chef, and a wealthy fiancé—everything she’s ever wanted. But across the ocean, Yia-yia can see through the storybook perfection of Daphne’s new life— and now she is calling her back to Erikousa. She has secrets about the past to share with her granddaughter— stories from the war, of loyalty and bravery in the face of death. She also has one last lesson to teach her: that security is not love, and that her life can be filled with meaning again.  (publisher)

My take:  This is a lovely novel that mixes mythology and old world tradition with modern success. But what is success for one person is not for another. What makes for a happy life is not necessarily what Daphne thought as she grew up trying to leave the old-fashion ways of her parents and older relatives back in Greece. She decides to be married in Greece so her grandmother can be there. After a few days back Daphne remembers the simple pleasures of summers spent on Erikousa when she was younger. She also sees her young daughter come to life again as she learns the old stories and experiences the wonders the island has to offer.

I loved reading Yvette Manessis Corporon’s book. The characters, setting and story completely engaged me. I’d love to see a film version. There’s no doubt tourism in Greece would increase exponentially! I say if you can’t travel to Greece the next best thing would be to read When the Cypress Whispers.

The Supreme Macaroni Company by Adriana Trigiani

The Supreme Macaroni Company audio

  • Title:  The Supreme Macaroni Company (#3 Valentine series)
  • Author:  Adriana Trigiani
  • Genre:  Contemporary Fiction
  • Narrator:  Cassandra Campbell
  • Published:  November 2013 – Harper; Harper Audio
  • Sources:  Publisher (print copy); I purchased the audio

Synopsis:  For over a hundred years, the Angelini Shoe Company in Greenwich Village has relied on the leather produced by Vechiarelli & Son in Tuscany. This historic business partnership provides the twist of fate for Valentine Roncalli, the school teacher turned shoemaker, to fall in love with Gianluca Vechiarelli, a tanner with a complex past . . . and a secret. 
A piece of surprising news is revealed at The Feast of the Seven Fishes when Valentine and Gianluca join her extended family on a fateful Christmas Eve. Now faced with life altering choices, Valentine remembers the wise words that inspired her in the early days of her beloved Angelini Shoe Company: “A person who can build a pair of shoes can do just about anything.” The proud, passionate Valentine is going to fight for everything she wants and savor all she deserves-the bitter and the sweetness of life itself.
Romantic and poignant, told with humor and warmth, and bursting with a cast of endearing characters, The Supreme Macaroni Company is a sumptuous feast of delights: a portrait of a woman and the man she loves, her passion for craftsmanship, and the sacrifices it takes to build and sustain a family business while keeping love and laughter at the center of everything.  (publisher)

My take:  The Supreme Macaroni Company is the final installment of the Valentine series. I’ve been a fan since I first met Valentine Roncalli in Very Valentine. She’s a modern, sometimes confident, usually headstrong woman who is intent on keeping her family’s shoe company in business.

Val knows what she wants and one of those wants is Gianluca – the love of her life. Where Val is modern, American and in her 30s, Gianluca is a traditional Italian and in his 50s. These two don’t always see eye to eye but they never lose sight of their love for one another. When they marry Valentine must learn to compromise – easier said than done. Gianluca wants to take care of her and sometimes makes decisions without consulting Val. This causes some rocky times in the early days of their marriage.

What Val learns is that a willingness to sacrifice and compromise from a place of love will be a blessing to them both. Adriana Trigiani’s story is emotional and at times had me in tears so have some tissues handy. I’m going to miss the Roncallis and all the rest – maybe in five or ten years we can convince the author to let us know what’s going on in their lives.

Audio:  Cassandra Campbell’s narration is first rate. Her performance of Valentine and the other characters enhanced my enjoyment of the book.

Spotlight on: I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag by Jennifer Gilbert

Jennifer Gilbert’s memoir I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag was recently released in paperback. I reviewed it here in 2012 (review). Today I’ll spotlight it in case you missed it last year. Check out the link to the giveaway (US only) at the end of the spotlight!

goodie bag

  • Title:  I Never Promised You A Goodie Bag
  • Author:  Jennifer Gilbert
  • Genre:  Memoir
  • Published:  April 30, 2013 – Harper Paperbacks
  • Source:  Publisher

Synopsis: (from the Harper website)

When Jennifer Gilbert was just a year out of college, a twenty-two-year-old fresh-faced young woman looking forward to a bright future, someone tried to cut her life short in the most violent way. But she survived, and not wanting this traumatic event to define her life, she buried it deep within and never spoke of it again.

She bravely launched a fabulous career in New York as an event planner, designing lavish parties and fairy-tale weddings. Determined to help others celebrate and enjoy life’s greatest moments, she was convinced she’d never again feel joy herself. Yet it was these weddings, anniversaries, and holiday parties, showered with all her love and attention through those silent, scary years, that slowly brought her back to life.

Always the calm in the event-planning storm—she could fix a ripped wedding dress, solve the problem of an undelivered wedding cake in the nick of time, and move a party with two days’ notice when disaster struck—there was no crisis that she couldn’t turn into a professional triumph. Somewhere along the way, she felt a stirring in her heart and began yearning for more than just standing on the sidelines living vicariously through other people’s lives. She fell in love, had her heart broken a few times, and then one day she found true love in a place so surprising that it literally knocked her out of her chair.

As Gilbert learned over and over again, no one’s entitled to an easy road, and some people’s roads are bumpier than others. But survive each twist and turn she does—sometimes with tears, sometimes with laughter, and often with both.

Warm, wise, alternately painful and funny, I Never Promised You a Goodie Bag is an inspiring memoir of survival, renewal, and transformation. It’s a tale about learning to let go and be happy after years of faking it, proving that while we can’t always control what happens to us, we can control who we become. And instead of anticipating our present in a goodie bag at the end of an event, we realize our presence at every event is the real gift.

Jennifer Gilbert’s website

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Giveaway ends: July 10, 2013 at 6pm EDT