Category Archives: Writing

Did I Win? Some Thoughts on NaNoWriMo 2014

NaNoWriMo 2014 came to a close on 30 November, but I was lucky enough to reach the goal a couple of days before. Although I don’t know if all of them will make the final cut, I managed to write over 50,000 words of the sequel to the Spirit Within Club. I had discussed at the beginning of the month how a great community can take all its members to places they never dreamed possible. I also reflected on how the internet allows an increasing number of people to be part of thousands of communities they would otherwise not even have access to. I also expressed the hope that the online NaNoWriMo community might trigger insights about the working of online communities in general.

Just like with my previous NaNoWriMo experience in 2008, it was quite enjoyable, to say the least. It was nice to have an objective I knew was being shared by so many others, and felt, in the forums, a sense of encouragement and mutual support. Writing blocks were quickly removed, and plot holes neatly filled by an online community of writers who, for the most part, had never met each other in person. I also loved e-meeting new authors. Should I be in a place where there are other NaNoWriMo-ers, I plan on meeting up with them at least once next year.

Winner-2014-Web-BannerI think it is also quite wise that the objective is not to come up necessarily with a last draft publication ready novel, but rather to put your first draft together. I worked on the sequel to the Spirit Within Club. I had prepared an outline prior to November, but realized halfway through the month that while I would be able to write 50,000 words, the book would need a lot of ironing. There are so many concepts packed in the second volume of this series that I found that most of my time taken up by research. How do you deal with the question of justice in the life of an eleven year-old Canadian child? How does a parent discipline one’s son who is misbehaving in a way that is empowering, rather than anger-inducing? How to you deal with an eleven year-old girl’s budding sexuality in a balanced, wise, moderate way? These are some heavy questions that I realized would have to wait a post NaNoWriMo life to answer, because my exponential progress had stalled halfway through the month.

Which brings up the question of how to participate in NaNoWriMo. I know that some fellow participants are most probably not going to make the 50,000 word goal because their writing methodology is not compatible with an initial burst of words that needs editing, sometimes heavy amounts of it. One friend of mine will rework a paragraph until it is perfect before moving on. He has yet to win NaNoWriMo, but he still participates every year and enjoys it very much. I feel he is much wiser than I am, having learned that the journey is much more important than the end result.

At times, I felt that my 2014 experience with NaNoWriMo reflects many lessons that all who have received a higher education have learned.   You have to prepare – the month-long writing is not something you can do in a vacuum. You have to prioritize – write the parts you know a lot about, and they will help you write the parts on the topics you don’t know much about. Working with some buddies who can reflect with you enhances the end result. But ultimately, you need to do what is best for you, engaging at a deep level in every aspect of writing your novel.

This year’s experience was completely different from the one I had six years ago, and each were enlightening in a different way. And with my first Bloggiesta experience earlier this year also quite successful (read about it here and here), it brings to mind that perhaps an online community can provide similar loving support as an “in real life” community.

First published on Sahar’s Blog on 29 November 2014

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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.

Building Coherence: Writing to Contribute to the Betterment of Society

ChadWhen reading about the habits of highly successful people, a couple of things seem universal. Most of them seem to have a rigorous routine. Most of them delegate unimportant tasks. When possible, a large part of them simplify their lives so that they are able to focus on the more important things.

All these things seem to indicate that highly successful people achieve coherence, where all the aspects of their life are streamlined to contribute to a common end goal. When one leads a coherent life, all of one’s energy becomes focused; just like the boat advances fastest when all rowers work together, we advance at the highest velocity when all our energy is focused. When we do not lead a coherent life, our energy is scattered amongst things contributing to different end goals. We end up a little bewildered, confused, dissatisfied, and caught in false dichotomies that can plunge us into crisis.

I decided a long time ago that I wanted my life to be centered on the betterment of society. There are a lot of implications to this decision, including how to focus my passions on this goal. One of my biggest passions is writing; this very blog has been an ongoing experiment on how a blog can contribute to a conversation about the betterment of society. (More on that in my upcoming book, Six Years Later: Midnight Musings of an Overactive Mind).

Alone, of course, one can’t do as much as in the company of others. I have reached a significant milestone thanks to the help of a friend, a milestone which I feel has already begun to change the way I look at my contributions as a writer.

This friend of mine works at the Association for the Cohesive Development of the Amazon (ADCAM), a non-governmental institution which, for over 25 years, has been conducting socio-educational activities in the state of Amazonas in Brazil. The history of the organization is quite inspiring. It was born out of the fruits of a community consultation aimed at diagnosing its challenges as concrete actions to contribute to its physical, human, and spiritual development. The organization is inspired by the principles such as the elimination of extremes of poverty and wealth, the importance of universal education, the elimination of all prejudices, the importance of equal rights and opportunities for men and women, and unity in diversity.

Amongst others, the association contributes to the empowerment of individuals between the ages of 12 and 15 (a.k.a. junior youth) to learn to analyze the forces acting on them. This will empower them to make decisions they deem will best contribute to a coherent life of contributing to transforming their communities (sounds familiar?). The association was looking into materials to add to its curriculum, and my friend suggested my book, Spirit Within Club. After translating the book into Portuguese and developing a study guide, the first contingent of around 150 junior youth started, as of 9 September 2014, reading the book and asking themselves questions encouraging them to reflect on the status quo, identify its weaknesses, and contribute decisively to changing it for the better.

I wish I could be sitting amongst this group of junior youth, and only partly because I would love feedback to pour into the second volume of the Spirit Within Club series; mostly I would like to be there because I feel it’s important to continuously ask ourselves these questions again and again. After all, it’s really easy to lose sight of one’s goals when social forces are encouraging us down a completely different path.

When it comes to writing, current societal standards intimately tie success with sales. Sales in turn are intimately related to certain genres and styles which are themselves influenced by social forces encouraging a life centered on our personal material well-being at the cost of everything else. It’s sometimes tempting to give in and write a few titles in the genres and styles that would sell well, so as to generate a stable income.

This is where mutual support and assistance come in. It can take many forms. Over the years, friends have helped by editing, buying, reviewing, and spreading the word about my writing. I am lucky that one of these friends was able to provide me with a unique forum in which I could share my writing. I have no doubt I will learn a lot from this experience, and hope that the 150 junior youth are able to somehow learn with the help of my book.

Onto writing the rest of this seven book series!

Image credit: Chad Mauger.
First published on Sahar’s Blog on 10 September 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: 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.

Art as Service: The Importance of Leading a Coherent Life

A couple of my artist friends and I, concerned with the well-being of our communities, have been trying to figure out how to balance out a desire to create the kind of art that contributes to building a better world while at the same time making it a financially sustainable career path. In other words, how not to be a sell-out while at the same time making a decent, modest living.

The tendency nowadays seems to be to create art mired in dichotomies. The song “Sweet Sixteen” by Destiny’s Child popped up on a friend’s playlist recently. It discusses the issue of teenage pregnancy, telling sixteen-year-old girls that they should “slow down” because “there’s so much ahead” of them. I completely agree with this message, but the song always rubbed me the wrong way. Because of the 17 tracks on the album it is featured on, The Writing’s On The Wall, eight are promoting sexual behavior of some kind, either through suggestive lyrics (“Confessions”; “Jumpin’ Jumpin’”; “She Can’t Love You”; “Stay”) or through video clips featuring provocative outfits and dance moves (“Bills, Bills, Bills”; “Bug A Boo”; “Get On The Bus”; “Jumpin’ Jumpin’”; “Say My Name”). No wonder, then, that “Sweet Sixteen” bothers me so much. It’s a demonstration of lack of coherence, kind of like a Public Service Announcement about conserving energy recorded by someone who drives a Hummer.

Coherence lends authenticity that makes an artistic creation resonate with so many for long periods of time. One thing my friends and I have come to realise is that our art has to be coherent with the message we are sharing and the life we are leading; if not the message we want to share with the best of intentions will be forever tainted, like a glass of pure water would be with but one drop of poison. In short, would you be able to take a post of mine on the importance of chastity seriously if I wrote an erotic novel?

It’s a lot more difficult to stay on the straight path than the beginning of this post makes it seem. There are so many temptations that shirk the line just a little bit, little enough that it might it wouldn’t hurt to shirk. I know for example that when it comes to writing, my posts on more serious matters such as this one do not attract nearly as much as those on fashion and beauty, nor as those on flying through a tornado. This means that I don’t get as much traffic because of the choice that I made. Which means less possibilities for me to monetize my blog.

And it’s not like I have to completely go to the dark side for the sake of monetization. When it comes to writing for example, it is very tempting to dip into that which will attract readers, even if it doesn’t convey the purpose that first inspired me to put pen to paper. Fashion doesn’t go against my personal values; neither does beauty. So writing about fashion as a form of beauty isn’t at all something that goes against my personal values.

But what door do I open if I start writing about fashion and beauty? There are a lot of readers who would much rather read about fashion and beauty; will I be able to resist the temptation of consistently getting hundreds of hits a post a day if the feedback that I get is “fashion and beauty trumps all”? There are also a lot of opportunities for fashion and beauty bloggers; what is to say that I won’t slowly slip into the fold and wake up one day in 10 years only to realise that my blog has completely morphed from its original purpose?

This might seem like a drastic approach, but I think the forces of society are very strong; we only have to look into research in the effects of violence in the media on our behavior and of the effects of viewing beauty photoshoots on our self-image. It’s all the more important to be careful of these forces as there are so many we don’t understand. Strict avoidance is neither needed nor wise; but careful examination of every step seems to be vital in ensuring that art remains coherent with the rest of an artist’s beliefs. And it is even more vital for consumers of art to support such artists.

Image courtesy of Death to Stock.

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: 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.