Category Archives: Author Spotlight

Author Spotlight: Jackie Nastri Bardenwerper

Jackie Nastri Bardenwerper on Sahar's BlogAs mentioned in my review of the book, I found between the covers of Jackie Nastri Bardenwerper’s Populatti a story that created a safe environment for a conversation on social media’s role in our relationships. The story delves into the increasingly complex maze of interactions that defines high school in the age of social media. The secret social media platform Populatti was created by a high schooler to allow a select, deserving members to plan get-togethers. But although sixteen year-old Livi Stanley co-founded Populatti, her social socially enviable high school years become the very nightmare she had thought to avoid, as rumors started chipping away at the safe pedestal she thought herself on.

Livi’s story underlines how social media platforms are able to affect our lives very positively or very negatively, depending on how they are used. I reached out to Jackie through her wonderful publicist to share her thoughts on the positive and negative effects of social networks on the well-being of those who, like her character, are in their teens, framing the question within my interest in writing as a source of inspiration to readers to refine their choices so as to lead life of positive contributions to the betterment of society. This is what she had to say.

A Look at Social Media – Why It’s So Easy to Love and Hate, by Jackie Nastri Bardenwerper

When I was a teen, I dated a guy with a wide smile and a tendency not to pick up the phone on Friday nights. The first time it happened I was dumbfounded, listening to the phone ring over and over, and ready to call things off right then and there. But then came the excuses, mostly related to his parents turning off the ringer. So I relaxed. Let my naiveté take over. And only learned months later from a friend that all those nights when the phone just rang, he was really out at parties. That I never knew existed.

Ever since diving into Populatti, I have thought of this experience and wondered what would have happened if I’d been a teen in the age of social media. Would I have seen postings as to his whereabouts that would have let me dump him sooner? Or would an even wider circle of “friends” have known about what was happening behind my back? How much greater would the humiliation have been if there’d been online evidence of his betrayal? And how much more support would I have received if all my friends had seen it happen and been there to give me a virtual hug?

Today’s high school landscape is definitely different from the one I navigated almost fifteen years ago. Social media has changed the way teens interact with their peers, family members, and friends in a way I couldn’t imagine back when I was cursing that ringing (landline) phone. And while for the most part this is an amazing thing – I mean, I would have killed to have greater access to my friends for homework questions, gossip sessions, and the occasional venting – there are definitely pitfalls that teens need to be aware of when communicating online.

But first to the good stuff. Social media is an amazing tool that really does allow teens to communicate and grow in ways that were never before available. Sites like my fictional Populatti or Facebook or even SnapChat allow teens to create a strong network of friends where someone is almost always available to talk. This alone can be a lifeline as teens may be less likely to open up to a parent, and hesitant to call up a friend. But being able to scan through a list and see who is available makes it easy to ask for advice.

In addition, social media can help teens combat traits like shyness (I was so shy back then) and allow them to create a wider social network. Texting and posting online can help solidify friendships that might otherwise never have developed in the classroom. Also, those with unique interests can find others who share their tastes, allowing like-minded individuals to build friendships with those with whom that are most compatible – even if from the outside they seem completely different. Outside the social realm, social media can be a huge plus for academics as questions on homework can be discussed with a group of students, or even teachers themselves as more and more schools create media-rich sites with chat capabilities, databases of recorded lectures, and tutorials that can really help develop students’ skills. And that’s not even mentioning how social media can help families stay in touch, as well as friendships separated by multiple towns, states, or time zones.

Social media has the potential to enhance teens’ lives tremendously. So why does it get such a bad rap? Well, like any technology, it’s all in how it’s used. And social media, if not used properly, can definitely lead to a lot of hurt.

Like when teens post pictures from parties where not everyone was included. Or use the feeling of anonymity that comes from hiding behind a screen to post hurtful comments about friends or classmates. I actually know a number of people who have left social networks for these reasons. Because viewing their newsfeeds always made them feel like they didn’t quite belong.

And then there are those problems that come when teens use that 24/7 access to their friends as a replacement for discussions with parents – a slippery slope, especially when friends’ values don’t match your own. Or the problem of teens feeling so imprisoned by these sites that their lives begin to revolve around creating the perfect online image.

Which is why I really hate all that FOMO and YOLO (fear of missing out and you only live once) business. I swear, now that teens can log onto a social network and see what’s happening with their friends, it can seem like they’re always missing out on something or not living life to the “fullest.” This can definitely lead to feelings of depression and loneliness as well as competition as friends compare who has cooler photos and status messages and videos. Talk about unhealthy competition. I mean, who wants to be worrying about getting the perfect concert pic – with cool lighting, a perfect Instagram filter, and awesome background – when your favorite band is playing your favorite song? It takes away from the real-world enjoyment of the event while perpetuating a dangerous cycle where those very friends who “like” your post could actually feel pretty lousy that all they did that night was sit at home.

So what is the solution? I think the first step is to be aware that social media is a tool – not a replacement for real life. And just because something is posted online, does not mean it is true. Most people don’t post when they are upset or depressed so you only see the positives. It’s important for teens to realize that behind those facades, most of their peers probably struggle with the same feelings of insecurity and doubt that they do. This is especially apparent in those derogatory posts targeted at other students. All that lashing out really means one thing – that the ones posting aren’t happy with themselves.

So remember, social media can be great, but so are face-to-face conversations with friends and family. And activities where you leave your computer and phone and tablet behind. My husband and I call this “going off the grid.” It’s not always easy, but after a few days of vacation or hours at a park with our daughter, we both begin to relax a little more. Take in more of our surroundings. And really lose ourselves in the moment. And that’s where the real memories are made. When you’re out living your life. Away from the computer screen, with those you love best.

More information about the author is available on her official website.
Originally published on Sahar’s Blog on 14 November 2014.

Author Spotlight: Bernie Strachan

Under the pen name Claire Sandy, Bernie Strachan wrote a wonderful book I recently had the pleasure of reviewing. What Would Mary Berry Do? is a delightful tale about a happy family trying to live life in a better way, namely by the female head of the household reaching out to her new found touchstone, the book selling homemaker Mary Berry who is to Marie what idols are to so many: a touchstone of sorts to which we turn when in dire straits, helping us take a step forward in resolving various issues.

I had many questions on my mind when I finished the book, and recently reached out to its author with two in particular. I first asked for her thoughts on the role of the kitchen in bringing together the family and the community, something which we saw happen in her book. I then decided to push my luck and ask her why she chose to go in a very different direction with regards to the competitiveness felt by Marie towards her neighbor. Contrary to how we see these situations often portrayed in the media, her character went beyond her insecurities and developed a strong friendship with this woman she used to think of as her nemesis.

I was delighted when the lovely (and funny!) Bernie Strachan responded with a thoughtful email, which forms today’s guest post.

Bernie Strachan on the Kitchen as the Heart of the Family and the Community and on Female Friendships

Writing a book with the title What Would Mary Berry Do? means that a lot of the action necessarily takes place in one kitchen or another. That thought thrilled me; it reflects life. Doesn’t much of the important stuff take place in the kitchen? In parties, that’s where the best conversations are. Families often only come together over their evening meal. And what better way can a lover express their devotion than by spending all day putting together some sumptuous little something for the object of their devotion? Cosmopolitan magazine can rehash their sex tips ad infinitum, but any lady of my acquaintance would be much more impressed by a delicious meal after a long hard day, than a bed strewn with rose petals.

I have an Irish background and eating is one of the foundation stones of Irish family life. We’re not unusual in this; any culture that loses sight of its love of home cooked food is a culture in trouble. I make chicken casseroles now, and Irish stews and roasts, but none of them live up to the memory of my Mother’s dishes. And that’s the way it should be. I’m not suggesting for one moment that we ate dinner every night, listening to each other with patience, advising, encouraging, smiling. God no – that sounds like perfection and no family achieves that. But we did sit down together, tease each other, try to nick each other’s sausages and just be.

Nowadays, when I meet somebody I like and want to get to know better, the first thing I do is invite them over to dinner. And when I put a meal in front of them, I’m laying down my heart as well.

The lead female characters in What Would Mary Berry Do? manage to overcome their preconceptions of each other. Novels have to involve change. Protagonists have to develop or the reader will grow bored. I remember a beach holiday with a gaggle of aunties; one of them suddenly looked up from her paperback and shouted “Why am I reading this?” and threw it over her shoulder. I live in dread of one of my readers doing the same, so I try and keep the action moving along.

Also, it’s just too easy to be jealous and dislike somebody, isn’t it? When you get to know somebody you understand them better, and you realise that beneath all the privilege there’s a real person struggling to get by, just like, well, you.

In What Would Mary Berry Do?, Marie Dunwoody rather enjoys having a nemesis. Lucy Gray, so petite and organised and good at cakes is the perfect rival. Marie construes every word out of Lucy’s mouth as a criticism, every action as a jibe. Only when Lucy helps her out on New Year’s Eve, when Marie is quite literally on the floor, despairing over her baking, does Marie realise that Lucy is kind. Furthermore, she realises that her neighbour is alone on such a festive night; perhaps her luxurious life isn’t all it seems.

Writing their friendship, once it hit its stride after all the misunderstandings, was one of the joys of the book for me. A strong, supportive gal pal who isn’t afraid to tell you when you’re in the wrong but who will celebrate your achievements and steer you gently away from leggings and crop tops, is one of the main bonuses of being a woman.

First published on Sahar’s Blog on 14 October 2014.

Author Spotlight: Sieni A.M.

Sieni and her new novelI am lucky to count author Sieni not only as a friend, but also as one of those with whom I have had many a fantastic chat on the role writing fiction can have on personal and community development, which resulted in many an undone chore.

What can I say – sacrifices must be made.

I had the opportunity to beta read and review her latest book, Scar of the Bamboo Leaf, which took my breath away. There were so many concepts that tugged at my mind and at my heart, but one stood out: that of the confidence Sieni has in the capacity of young adults, even those with behavioural issues like her character Ryler to be noble beings contributing decisively to the well-being of their communities. I asked her to share some thoughts on the matter, and this is what she had to say.

How My Perception of Youth Adults as Noble Beings Inspires my Writing, by Sieni A.M.

I’ve always been drawn to stories where the main character sets out on a journey – whether it be a physically demanding one to the Mountain of Doom, or one of quiet self-discovery; stories in which there’s great difficulty, tribulations, and the main heroine/hero goes through hell to conquer their demons in either a literal or metaphorical sense. That conquering, and the steps taken towards it, that strife and the hope that comes out of it, the qualities that result – sacrifice, pain, revelation, all of it – is what draws me in and inspires my writing. In Scar of the Bamboo Leaf, I wrote about an artist girl with a limp and an outcast boy she befriends. They have scars, both physical and emotional, and they help each other challenge the reasons they acquired them in the first place.

I feel it’s important to have stories that touch on the subjects of adversity, disability, and acceptance, where the characters are not perfect but who are not without human nobility, that despite their youth and the hardships they undergo, they are still hopeful and strive to become more in a purposeful, meaningful way. Scar of the Bamboo Leaf is a coming of age tale that spans about a decade in the life of these characters. It’s as much a coming of age tale as it is a coming-to-life story of two characters that quietly, but powerfully find their place in society.

First posted on Sahar’s Blog on 7 October 2014.

Author Spotlight: Lee Murray’s Return

Community-building is a passion of mine–which makes sense, seeing as how it is one of two major concepts addressed in so many of the various features on this blog!  As a writer, I have been puzzled for quite some time at the perceived dichotomy between the very personal business of writing and leading a social life dedicated to building strong communities.

What seems to be lacking is an understanding that writing is not just about a lonely writer pounding out the words on a computer and pursuing publishing deals.  Quite the contrary, especially with the wonderful communications tools we have in 2016.

In fact, I myself have become involved in a few online writer communities and made some really good friends.  I reached out to one of them, Lee Murray, for her thoughts on a couple of questions:

  • What are some of your personal experiences with regards to building communities of writers that challenge the lonely writer stereotype?
  • How would you say these experiences have helped contribute to creating a stronger community and, at the same time, helped individuals writers become both better writers and better people?

Lee Murray, On Being a Writer and a Community-Builder

It’s a familiar stereotype, isn’t it? The writer, hunched over a desk, in an attic or a darkened back room, living on cups of cold coffee while scratching out words late into the night. There’ll be a waste basket overflowing with rejected pages at his feet; perhaps an ashtray in arm’s reach, several cigarette butts curling in a bed of grey ash. The writer’s clothes, from last season or maybe the season before, are dishevelled, and his hair is matted at the back, as if he has spent the night, or several nights, in the armchair in the corner. Sometimes, the writer pushes back his chair and steps to the window to gaze out the over city rooftops, the light from the streetlamps reflected off his face as he stands half concealed by the curtains. He’s spying on the late night passers-by, people spilling out of bars, heading home after an evening out with the girls, laughing, living their lives. The writer is observer. An archivist of sorts. Impartial. Detached. It’s a handy skill, and one he’s nurtured carefully, already prepared for the moment when the precious manuscript ‒ his life’s work ‒ is complete and he’ll be forced to shop it to hardnosed publishers who don’t want to know.

It’s a long-held stereotype of a lonely writer, and yes, some of it applies to me. My office on the porch is not much bigger than a wheelie bin, discarded drafts litter the floor, and a couple of half empty coffee cups have been pushed to the back of the desk while they wait to be taken out to the kitchen. And yes, there are times when writing is all about being hunched in front of my screen bashing out words ‒ although in reality I have a very nice ergonomic chair. Because that’s what writing’s all about, isn’t it? Logging the words. Pushing out pages. But it doesn’t have to be a lonely enterprise; I’ve found that time that invested in communities can be as important as the time you spend at your desk.

I don’t mean formal writers’ groups, although I’m a member of many: The New Zealand Society of Authors, Bookrapt (children’s writers group), Freelance, SpecFicNZ, Tauranga Writers (New Zealand’s longest standing writers’ group), Horror Writers Association, and the Australian Horror Writers Association, for example. Professional groups certainly have their place, offering their members, mentorships, market advice, contract help, networking, conferences, professional development, and publishing opportunities, but today I want to look at the informal communities, those loosely constructed attachments, which grow out of a common passion.

The first writing community of this nature that I was involved in was an APA (an amateur publishing association). A big thing in the late 1990s, APAs were the forerunner of the modern online blog. Ours was a closed group of twenty writers, based mainly in Madison, Wisconsin, who wrote and published a print magazine called Turbo-zine once a month. Some of the group are established writers now, a couple are well-known literary commentators, but back then my fellow APAs were mostly amateur writers: bigger-than-life folk, warm and intelligent and full of energy, people who would weave riotous stories from everyday events.

I’m not quite sure how I got in. Someone nominated me, I think. However it happened, this amazing community welcomed me and, in the text of those APA magazines, they let me write. Month after month, they let me question the weirdness of American culture: to ask what exactly is a half bath and why Americans blush crimson if you use the word ‘toilet’? We wrote, and wrote back, about the correct way to shovel snow, about Wisconsin building permits, the cultural and nutritional value of the humble corndog, and even the subtleties of pronunciation (apparently New Zealanders pronounce scones the ‘posh’ way). Through that shared writing, the group helped me to assimilate into my new life in the mid-West. And then, when I was starting to feel at home, they encouraged my clumsy efforts to write the first pages of what would eventually become my middle grade novel Battle of the Birds. One of the scenes in A Dash of Reality first appeared in an APA magazine, too (see Ask an Author: Most embarrassing thing to happen to me one summer). It was a safe place to write and invite commentary. That little community let me belong.

Of course, the group has long since disbanded ‒ technology has marched on ‒ but nearly twenty years and half a world away, many of the APA members remain my friends on Facebook. I occasionally get email invitations to The Purple House cook outs, organised by one of my APA friends ‒ invitations which always make me smile. They kindly ask when print copies of Into the Mist are likely to be available in Madison bookstores.

Without that first community, would I be writing now? I’m not sure.

Another of my writing communities involves just four people. We meet in a café once fortnight and over scrambled eggs and pots of tea, we critique 4000 words of each other’s writing. I’m told being part of a constructive, nurturing critique group is one of the most uplifting and rewarding exercises a writer can undertake. The Clark’s group is nothing like that. On the face of it, they are lovely people, but under those sunny facades, they are ruthless serial killers, fearless vigilantes laying waste to my darlings with a single decisive flourish of their red pens. My writing has never been cleaner.

The Refuge Collection is another of my communities centred around a collection of dark, supernatural and terrifying tales set in the mythical town of Refuge, where every house is as different as the people who live there. I joined the Refuge community in November last year after coming across a post by horror writer Steve Dillon on Facebook. Like most people, I’d been following the refugee crisis in the media and agonising about my inability to do anything meaningful to help, and suddenly here was this community of talented writers and artists coalescing out of nothing, all fired up by Steve, and all with the same determination to do something positive. Already eighteen singles have been published, including my story The Thief’s Tale, a finalist in this year’s Sir Julius Vogel Awards. Three Refuge volumes have been released to date with plans for another six as well as an illustrated print compilation.

The energy and enthusiasm of this community has been humbling. Writers like Ramsay Campbell, Paul Kane, and Kaaron Warren, pitching in to make the collection something special, none of them expecting anything in return since all proceeds from the collection are going to sanctuary charities. Writers are very good at building communities around causes. The Baby Teeth group, involving mainly New Zealand writers, was a similar project, raising funds in support of children’s literacy.

One of my teeniest groups involves just one person. We meet on Saturday mornings and we walk the Hutt River Trail for an hour, discussing all things writing. We untangle the plot holes in each other’s stories, discuss tropes and trends, and brainstorm new ideas. And it was on one such walk that this tiny community came up with the idea for my next book.

Lee Murray is a multi-award winning writer and editor. To learn more about Lee and her work, visit her website.

Author Spotlight: Melissa Cistaro

Sahar's Blog 2015 05 07 Author Spotlight on Melissa CistaroI discovered author Melissa Cistaro’s Pieces of Me through NetGalley late last year. Although I posted a review in January, the story remained for quite some time on my mind. I was struck by this story of a growth daughter dealing with the imminent passing of her mother, with whom she has had quite a tumultuous relationship. Having been blessed with a mother about whom I stopped complaining once maturity set in (because really, being lovingly disciplined is what a Mom is supposed to go, ten-year-old Sahar!), I found myself compelled by the love that bound these two women together despite their history. It was, in a way, an homage to the unique relationship between a mother and daughter.

Melissa’s book was particularly noteworthy in how it did not deal with the relationship in the stereotypical angry-daughter-lashing-out-at-Mom way. Rather, she embraced an approach that balanced out her feelings of abandonment with a more rational thought process that sought to understand where her mother was coming from and why she did what she did.

I decided to approach Melissa and ask her thoughts on how she was able to steer away from the angry approach and remain in the more rational one.  How can someone else whose mother left when they were really young, be encouraged to embark on a constructive path like she did?  I understood from the book that some of it has to do with her personality; I also understood that she was further encouraged to pursue this path in light of her own experiences as a mother.  What else helped Melissa stay on this path

On Finding Forgiveness through Writing, by Melissa Cistaro

When I set out to write a book, my intention was simple; to tell my story as best I could. I wanted to understand my mother before she died and what it was that made her capable of leaving her three children. In order to do this, I also had to understand myself and who I was as a mother and daughter. It was a very difficult and long process for me to complete this story (12 years).

I wrote in coffee shops when my children were in school. I wrote during times when I was struggling as a parent. I wrote while my mom was dying. I kept writing because I needed to understand all the complicated pieces of my family history – and I wanted to get the stories and the feelings right.

I think people are interested in this topic of how one writes about painful experiences and ultimately finds forgiveness in the process. I also think that there are people who are resistant (or afraid) to forgive. I have in-laws and close friends who have cut themselves off completely from family members. Daughters and sons who no longer speak to their parents. It’s painful to watch people make these choices. Granted, sometimes the reasons seem justified. But this is not in my nature. Families are flawed, broken and beautiful in their own unique ways.

The last thing I would ever want is to hurt anybody in my family. However, I would not feel right about publishing this book if my mom were still alive. The topic was simply too painful for her. I don’t believe that she was ever able to fully look at her choices and come to peace with them. She locked away her feelings – much in the way that I learned to hide my feelings growing up. It was important for me to break free of this family legacy and complete the book. After my mom died, I sat down with all the letters she had left behind and never sent. I read through my grandmother’s journals. I pulled out all the spiral notebooks of my own writing that I had stashed underneath my desk. I didn’t want to leave these feelings behind. I wanted to find the love, grief and compassion in all the pieces and make them whole. I felt compelled to shift one tiny part of the family history I had come from. I couldn’t change it – but I could write about it, claim it and find the lost beauty in it all. I wrote and rewrote until I was empty and then full – knowing that this was a story that needed to come from a place of compassion.

First published on Sahar’s Blog on 7 May 2015.

Author Spotlight: Anna Staniszewski

Let’s be honest here: I’m turning into quite the Anna Staniszewski fan, what with my review of I’m With Cupid, The Gossip File, and The Prank List, and her two previous appearances on Sahar’s Blog, the first in the form of a guest post centered on The Gossip File and her first appearance in the Author Spotlight feature.

Sahar's Blog 2016 03 31 Author Spotlight on Anna StaniszewskiI reached out to Anna again after reading her latest book, Finders Reapers, which continued the story of Marcus, who is a Cupid, and Lena, who is a Reaper, and their unusual yet surprisingly normal relationship.  I was really impressed by the way Anna continues portraying the age group of her characters, be it Lena, Marcus, or the ones from her other series.  And so, building on our previous exchange on Anna’s view of that particularly group as that of rational, intelligent, well-rounded individuals—which contrasts with the way society often sees them—I asked for her thoughts on romantic relationships amongst individuals of that age group and why she believes that, despite hiccups that even adults have, they can be drama-free (such a refreshing contrast to what we see in most media!)

Seriously, guys—Lena and Marcus have a credible, relatively drama-free hiccup in their relationship navigated by an author who focused on balancing out the lack of experience of their age group with their capacity to be rational and intelligent.

In Writing about Relatively Drama-Free Romance in Relationships between Pre-Teens, by Anna Staniszewski

Romantic relationships certainly do have drama—that’s probably unavoidable at any age—but I try to put aside societal expectations and follow my characters’ lead instead. I’ve found the best way to avoid stereotypical drama is to make into characters’ unique people and to trust that they’ll show me how their stories should play out.

Sahar's Blog 2016 03 31 Author Spotlight on Anna Staniszewski CoverIn Finders Reapers (the second book in the Switched at First Kiss series) Lena is a logical, no-nonsense person. She likes to control things and avoids taking risks. Unfortunately, relationships are full of risks, so she needs break through some of her trust issues if she’s going to figure out how to make things with Marcus work. Since Lena is not only an eighth grade girl but also a soul collector (like a grim reaper but without the hood and pointy thing) she has to deal with all sorts of problems, but resolving those problems ultimately has to stay in line with her personality and her emotional truths.

The same holds true for Marcus who’s the sweet romantic type (and a supernatural matchmaker—like Cupid but without the diaper). He’s someone who would bring a girl flowers to smooth things over and stress about making every date perfect. When problems arise, his first instinct isn’t to give up. Instead, he keeps working at making things right because that’s what the people in his life—especially his grandparents—have modeled for him.

Lena and Marcus might not have a typical drama-filled relationship the way we’d see on TV because they deal with the situation in their own way. Just like in real life, people have different approaches to conflict—my husband and I, for example, both instinctively avoid conflict, so we have to be mindful of talking through issues before they become real problems—and that’s what I strive for in my books. I want to create conflict that keeps readers engaged but not at the cost of forcing characters out of what’s realistic for them.

Just like there are many kinds of young people, there are many kinds of characters. They might all feel things deeply, but they express those feelings in unique ways. That’s what makes writing about them so interesting to me, and that’s why I continue to write stories about and for this age group.

Author Spotlight: Kristyn Kusek Lewis

Sahar's Blog 2015 03 19 Author Spotlight Kristyn Kusek LewisWhile the kind of drama found in reality shows can be appealing, it leaves me dissatisfied, much like junk food does. And so when books like author Kristyn Kusek Lewis’ Save Me come across my desk, I take the time to savour every page. In this case, I particularly liked the study in the subtlety of a wife’s reaction to her husband’s adultery. For while Daphne is heartbroken and angry at his betrayal, she remains true to her kind, strong, caring self without succumbing to self-pity or blind anger, even reaching out to her husband in his time of need.

When my review of her book was posted, I already knew I wanted to feature Kristyn in “Author Spotlight”. But she beat me to the punch by sending me a lovely message thanking me for the review; it comes as little surprise that she was very happy to send me her thoughts on the importance of portraying spousal unfaithfulness quite differently from the way it is often done in mass media.

The Importance of Realistic Portrayals of Marriage, by Kristyn Kusek Lewis

When I begin a writing project, it always starts with a character. I spend a lot of time simply thinking about the character, and then journaling about her, before I start writing; who is this person, what motivates her, who’s in her life, is she honest with the people in her life, is she honest with herself…. In the case of Daphne, the main character in SAVE ME, I was inventing a woman who has always been in control of her circumstances. By chance or by design, her life has always worked out exactly the way that she wanted it to be. When her husband announces in the beginning of the book that he has met somebody else, her carefully planned life begins to unravel.

The truth is that I never set out to write a story about an affair. What I was more interested in was the story of a marriage; a true and honest portrayal of one. I am a big believer in marriage but I am also a person who believes that if you want a successful, lasting relationship, you need to put in the work, and what Daphne and Owen discover during the course of the book is that neither of them were making much of an effort. Daphne, through a series of events, has to decide whether the relationship is worth the effort, and whether the life she’d been living is really the one that’s best for her.

It’s been interesting to see how readers respond to Daphne. She doesn’t react to Owen’s infidelity by immediately ending the relationship, and some readers have said that this strikes them as weakness. To me, it’s quite the opposite. I think that Daphne is an incredibly strong woman because she allows herself her feelings. She is horrified by the thing her husband has done and she makes no secret of it but she loves him, too, despite his mistake and his flaws, and I believe that her ability to dive into the scenario he’s created instead of just casting it off is realistic. He has done a horrible thing, yes, but she’s not perfect either. The story, to me, is ultimately about forgiveness. What does it mean to forgive someone who’s wronged you? What can you overlook? In what ways, big and small, does a marriage (or any relationship) require forgiveness? And when your life doesn’t work out the way you planned, what must you do to forgive yourself?

More information about the author is available her website; the book is available on Amazon.

Author Spotlight: Katarina Bivald

In Katarina Bivald’s book, The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend–which I reviewed last month–a small town is suffering the consequence of a mass exodus of its population.  In the questions and attitudes of its remaining residents one can find the way such a exodus affects them; faced with their pain I found myself wondering how it could be alleviated.

I felt that The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is, in a way, an exploration of what small town life can be like and how it can change an individual like Sara.  A lot has been said about the pros and cons of small town versus large city life.  In particular, one pro to small town life is how tight a community can get, whereas a big city often becomes a place where community-life disappears.  I asked Katarina what she thinks of the big city versus small town debate, and how she hopes her book will contribute to the conversation.

Big city versus Small Town: Thoughts from Author Katarina Bivald

I don’t have any answers at all in the debate, which I think can be a contribution in itself. For me, stories are meant to raise questions rather than provide answers.

Story-wise, I like to write books set in small towns, since it’s an easy way of making sure that people of varying backgrounds and opinions and hang ups and experiences and so forth are forced to meet, whether they like to or not.

Personally, real life-wise, I think the interesting question is how we create open and equal communities – with strong ties not for their own sake, but to be able to help people. And that’s a human challenge, I think, and a human goal. For small towns and big cities alike.

Author Spotlight: Menna van Praag

Sahar's Blog Author Spotlight Meena Van PraagMenna van Praag’s The Dress Shop of Dreams was a great book for me to read and review. I mentioned how I felt that, in a society driven mainly by scientific fact and logical reasoning, it’s nice to believe that perhaps magic does still exist. I was touched by the story this author had weaved, and although I don’t personally believe in magic, I do believe that amazing things happen to people all the time.

I reached out to Menna to ask her how she thinks the kind of magic in her book translates into real life; her answer gives not just insight into how one can move out of the state of constant discontent we are encouraged to live in and into a state of joy, but also into how lovely her book is.

Why We All Need a Little Magic in Our Lives, by Menna van Praag

Real life can be bland, boring and sometimes bleak. Our lives are shaped by routine: get up, eat, go to work, get home, do housework, go to bed. We never open our closets to see a little sprinkling of Narnian snow on the shoulders of shirts. We never meet talking rabbits running late or grinning Cheshire cats. We never find fairies dancing at the bottom of our gardens. But still we want to believe in the possibility of magic, or at least, I do.

Do you remember when you were a child who only saw a tiny slice of the world so everything and anything seemed possible? My favorite book as a little girl was The Water Babies and I held onto my belief that there might, just might, be little being living in every river and stream long into my teenage years. Of course, I never told my friends, who were by then engaged in the important real-life pursuits of putting on makeup and flirting with boys. Had I been growing up in Victorian Britain though, I would have been in fine company, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author of Sherlock Holmes) who believed in fairies so firmly that he wrote a book about it.

Doyle’s life was bleak (five family members died during WWI) so it’s hardly surprising that he’d want to believe in something lovely and light to help lift him up from all that darkness. Beatrix Potter’s fiancée died and perhaps that gave impetus to her magical outlook on life. But, even when life isn’t bleak, when it’s just a little boring or bland, just the very idea of magic is enough to lift our spirits, fill our hearts and bring a secret little smile to our lips.

Miracles happen. Ones that are man-made and ones we can’t explain. And when they do, I rejoice. But they don’t happen often enough for my liking (at least one miracle in the world every day would be lovely) and so I have to make some up. It’s probably why I became a writer, so I could live in magical made-up worlds most of the time. I write to lift my own heart and those of my readers.

Personally, I don’t understand why people urge others to be “realistic” – usually just another word for “pessimistic” – as if expecting the worst will somehow cushion the blow if the worst actually happens. In my experience it’s just the opposite. Optimistic people tend to bounce back from bad things much better than pessimistic ones. They also make friends and find love more easily. And, of course, optimistic people lead much happier lives in general while not worrying and anticipating awful events around every corner.

Real life can be difficult enough, being too realistic will only make you depressed. The best way to deal with reality, in my experience, is to bring as much magic to it as possible!

More information is available on the author’s website.

First published on Sahar’s Blog on 5 March 2015.

Author Spotlight: Elizabeth Bass

Sahar's Blog 2015 02 13 Author Spotlight Elizabeth BassThe main character in Elizabeth Bass’ book, Life is Sweet, is a former teenage star of a hit ‘90s sitcom that decided she had enough of being in the limelight and most to Leeburg, Virginia, a seemingly perfect place to start over and, this time, to lead some sort of a normal life (read more of my thoughts on Bass’ book here). Two things struck me about the main character, Rebecca Hudson.

The first has to do with her contribution to the strengthening the community she moved to, however unintentional it might have been. Striking mental images were evoked by the author in Life is Sweet of a community coming together at Rebecca’s shop, “The Strawberry Cake Shop”. This is especially true at the end of the book, with three of the main secondary characters ingraining themselves at the shop, one bringing her laptop, one working the counter, and the last one playing live music the customers could enjoy.  This must come as no surprise to readers who have been following this blog long enough to know that community building is a topic I frequently write about. I loved the idea of a bakery such as Rebecca’s becoming a centre around which a strong community can either be built or strengthened, and it made me wonder at the many opportunities to build a community we could create through our very livelihood.

The other was the ongoing theme of the child-star-not-gone-bad.  The opposite, negative stereotype is the one that makes the tabloids, and it could be argued that this is one of the reasons stars are encouraged to act in a similar fashion.  But Rebecca is not swept away by the need to remain in the limelight.  Some might state that this is an unusual characteristic, and that most Hollywood stars will do anything to retain any form of fame they can. But perhaps it is yet again a case of not seeing all the positive because we are blinded by the few negatives. I recently had the opportunity to poke Bass’ brain on this question and explore how she came to view Rebecca in such a different light.

Some Thoughts on Child Stars, by Elizabeth Bass

I’ve always been fascinated by child stars. When I was young, of course, I had my favorite shows, and most of them had kids on them. Half-Pint, the Brady kids, the Partridges… I wasn’t envious, exactly, but curious. While the school bus was dragging me off to school each morning, other lucky kids were being dropped off at sound stages, or going on Good Morning, America to plug their shows. How did they manage it? Were they fabulously talented? Was not having to go to PE every day just a matter of being at the right place at the right time?

It wasn’t long before I understood there could be a downside to this life. The first show I remember being addicted to was a creaky 1960s sitcom called Family Affair, about a bachelor who is raising his nephew and two nieces. It was a shock to me later when Anissa Jones, the girl who played Buffy, the youngest kid, ended up dying of an overdose—a horrible end for anyone, but it seemed especially wrong for the sweet little kid I remembered from the show.

In so many ways, it’s a difficult path. Child actors are stamped on our brains as they were when they were at their cutest—and then are occasionally glimpsed as adults and inevitably viewed has-beens who couldn’t “make it” as adults—or else they keep working and have to grow up in front of the camera. It’s no wonder many of them seem to go a little crazy. The rest of us undergo our growing pains in relative privacy. As awful as puberty and being a teenager are, at least we don’t have to deal with acne, embarrassing hair, braces, and rebellious phases on national television. Our mistakes aren’t splashed across gossip magazines and websites. And if we drop the activities we did in our childhoods, we don’t spend the rest of our lives as the subjects of “Whatever Happened to…?” investigations.

A few years ago, I ran across a hilarious book called Notes from the Underwire by Quinn Cummings, who was a child star during the 70s and 80s. She was nominated for an Oscar for her role in The Goodbye Girl, and was a regular on the series Family. In this book of essays, which I can’t recommend enough, she talks about her life growing up in Hollywood and also about other aspects of her world. The book started me wondering how a person would cope if she escaped from Hollywood to make a normal, unglamorous life for herself, and then found herself dragged back into the limelight by necessity.

In my novel Life Is Sweet, Rebecca Hudson is spending the last of her child-star earnings to run a bakery in Leesburg, Virginia. She’s managed to come out of the child-star experience as a basically happy and well-adjusted individual. The only thing that makes her grumpy is being valued solely for the television show she starred in when she was a kid. It’s only when a loved one in dire financial need comes along that she is forced to go on a reality show with fellow former child actors.

I had fun writing the story, but I still wonder what it must be like to trapped in people’s minds as an adolescent, which is probably the time you least want to remember. Much as we envy actors—and there are worse ways to spend childhood than as a Hollywood star—every life has its pitfalls. I wanted to give a child actor, even if it was just a fictional one, a second chance.

More information is available on the author’s website.

First published on Sahar’s Blog on 12 February 2015.