What I am Reading – The Dressmaker

It’s a funny thing, but today the Titanic is probably much more – that is people are much more aware of it than they were in 1954, when I was doing my research. Walter Lord, author of A Night to Remember

April 15th is the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. That alone was enough to draw me to Kate Alcott’s, The Dressmaker. I love reading historical fiction set in this period and extending through the 1940’s. I think this is because it provides glimpse into the times that my grandparents and parents lived their lives as young people.

The Dressmaker is historical fiction at its best. Alcott places a fictional character, Tess Collins, a talented seamstress, forced by circumstances into the role of a lady’s maid, into the path of a real Titanic passenger, Lady Lucille Duff-Gordon on the dock in Cherbourg, France waiting to board the ship. The story, fast-paced and laced with actual facts and real people, will keep you reading.

Due to the popularity of the movie most of us saw in 1997, the story of the Titanic’s ill-fated voyage is well known. Lucille Duff-Gordon, the non-fictional character at the heart of the book is not. She was a fashion designer, known as “Lucille” famous for her translucent, floating clothing in the early years of the twentieth century, who dressed royalty, rich women and movie stars. Also making a cameo in the story is her sister the writer, Elinor Glyn. The facts around Duff-Gordon’s escape from the sinking ship in Life Boat Number One and the resulting scandal are well researched and told with the added panache of a fiction writer’s color.

Equally interesting to me, especially in these controversial times, is the hope of the immigrant experience illustrated by the story of the fictional character, Tess Collins. It reminds me once again that so many of us, proud to call ourselves Americans today, are here because a grandparent or great-grandparent (Me – Irish, Italian and Swiss) made that scary crossing in the bottom of some ship.

From the writer’s perspective, The Dressmaker provides an interesting insight into what it takes to successfully sell a novel today. This book is actually the sixth novel written by Patricia O’Brien. Now in her seventies, O’Brien’s agent initially was unable to sell this book. It was only after O’Brien changed the writer’s name to that of a “new” unknown author, Kate Alcott, that she was successful. The Dressmaker written by Kate Alcott sold in three days. The result is a great read that helps to connect us with one of the sea’s most tragic and romantic stories.

The Dressmaker
Step onto the Titanic

I hope you enjoy it.



Enjoy the Unexpected

“Indoors or out, no one relaxes in March, that month of wind and taxes, the wind will presently disappear, the taxes last us all the year.”
– Ogden Nash

March is almost over. This year the month, named for Mars, the Roman god of war, has proved to be even more disquieting than it usually is. Record temperatures were noted in several places. They have ranged from a low of 14° to a high of 84° here in Nashua, New Hampshire leaving me madly scrambling for something to wear. (Need I mention that most things seemed to have shrunk in the attic where I store them?)

Despite the heat (and the grumbling about the heat heard in this house – “too soon, too hot, too much!”) there was a dissenter in my living room apparently more in touch with what the god was up to than the rest of us. Basking in the sunshine, my little white Christmas cactus decided to bloom again. I know this can happen but it is the first time it has here. And I am enjoying it, viewing it as a sort of floral “Ha, ha!”

Christmas Cactus

Watching the cactus flower and then open, resonated with me as I am in the middle of writing my second book, Francesca’s Foundlings. I am often asked if I know what it going to happen. Of course I do. I am the writer, after all. I work from an outline. But sometimes my characters laugh at both the outline and me, basically saying to me, “Watch this.”  If you have read MacCullough’s Women, you know that they are a stubborn bunch. This week when a scene took a turn leaving them in a place it was not supposed to, the cactus reminded me to go with the flow and see where we all end up. And enjoy it. So that’s what I did. Good advice for us all.

The last few days have been cold reminding us all that March does what it wants to. Taxes are done, sent off to the man who will wave his magic wand over them and tell us the good news or bad. It is supposed to snow today. Fortunately, my boots did not make it all the way to the attic when I traded them for flip-flops.

Walking by my surprise cactus, I am reminded to go with the flow and accept that some things are beyond my control.

Christmas Cactus another view
Beautiful no matter when it appears.

The great news is that April, the month that brings the flowers, is just around the corner.

Forsythia in bloom
As promised with more to come

Quiet Courage

Those who can truly be accounted brave are those who best know the meaning of what is sweet in life and what is terrible, and then go out, undeterred, to meet what is to come.” Pericles

My husband is a man of many cousins and this weekend we went to Elmira, New York to say farewell to one of them. The memorial service for Gary O’Connor was one of the most impressive I have ever attended. As a writer, I pay close attention to words. The words the eulogists used were carefully chosen, clearly articulated and spoke of a life both relished and well lived.

Sitting there, watching the widow as she cradled the flag, the word that kept rolling through my head was courage. A latecomer to the family, I was only with Gary once at a family party before he was diagnosed with ALS, more commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease. Since then, I was struck by his ability, any time I was with him, to turn the focus away from his increasingly diminished body to the person he was talking to, so that you forgot that he was sick, as he drew you out about yourself.

We love stories about courage. Usually, the word is bolded and bracketed by gore and glory. The soldier, gun blazing, saving a wounded comrade or the firefighter racing into a burning building to rescue a child are what we love to read or hear about. I am not trying to take anything away from these brave acts, but courage comes in another form, too.  A muted but equally steely resolve to face the unthinkable without complaint, and meet destiny head on without calling attention to yourself. A courage easily overlooked in our busy world. This was the courage that Gary displayed for the last six years. It brings to my mind the following lines, written by the poet, Emily Dickinson:

To fight aloud, is very brave –

But gallanter, I know

Who charge within the bosom

The Cavalry of Woe –

We trust, in plumed procession

For such, the Angels go –

Rank after Rank, with even feet –

And Uniforms of Snow.


I will never read or write the word courage again without thinking first of Gary O’Connor.

Gary fought passionately against this horrific disease, raising thousands of dollars for the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins. His team, Low & Slow, will be running in the Fiesta 5K again this year to raise money for ALS research. I know that personal life experience shapes our charitable giving, but if you are looking for a good cause, please consider helping to eradicate this terrible disease.

Picture Team Low and Slow
Go Team Low & Slow

What I am Reading -Warrior of the Three Moons

The Lords of Elfland are true lords, the only true lords, the kind that do not exist on this earth: their lordship is the outer sign or symbol of real inward greatness. And greatness of soul shows when a man speaks. At least, it does in books. In life we expect lapses. In naturalistic fiction, too, we expect lapses, and laugh at an “over-heroic” hero. But… in fantasy, we need not compromise.”Ursula Le Guin

Like every good English major, I read J.R.R. Tolkien but with that exception I came late to the world of fantasy fiction.

Warrior of the Three Moons, by J. Michael Robertson, the first book of The God Wars of Ithir Series, is the book that opened the door to fantasy for me. I got lost in this story flying from Boston to Boise on a business trip, barely noting when the plane began its decent.

Warrior of the Three Moons is the story of Ciaran, a young Scotti warrior, chosen by the Goddess, Danu, to be her champion in the battle against the forces of Darkness. In order to successfully fulfill his role, against seemingly insurmountable odds, Ciaran must first find the lost Sunspear. What makes this book stand out is the detail the author uses to sketch the richness of the world against which the story unfolds, replete with The Celtae, Ring Lords, Shadow Trolls, Skull Warriors, Shadow Priests, Elves, Faery Folk and Trollhounds. Interlaced at every turn of the plot throughout this story are the women: among others, Kiara, Ciaran’s shield sister, Scathach, the Blademaster, Rillsong, the Faery Princess, and Isengael, the Shadow Druidess. The characters are complex and believable giving depth to the story.

The writing is lyrical, lifting the story above the limitations of the genre. This comes as no surprise, as the author is also a published poet. At the same time,  the battle scenes are taut, written with a career military officer’s insights and expertise.

After finishing reading Warrior of the Three Moons, I went on to read all 11, 000 pages of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series and George R.R. MartinA Song of Ice and Fire series. I enjoyed them both but neither  captivated me the way that Warrior of the Three Moons did. I am eagerly awaiting book two in this series.

If you have never read fantasy, this is a great book to start with. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Picture of Warrior of the Three Moons
My key to the world of fantasy fiction



Spring Again

Spring is God’s way of saying,  ‘One more time!’ “
Robert Orben

Crocus popping up
Surprise! I'm back.

I don’t know about you but I am very reactive to the seasonal transitions. Heading into fall and winter I am purposeful and determined. Armed with lists of goals and good intentions, I drive my family crazy with the insistence that they come up with action plans and to-do lists. Summer makes me lazy. If I could, I would mirror the cat and the dog. I would loll about in the shade doing nothing at all. They pretend to be dead but I would read.

Spring is different. Yesterday, stepping out of my office where I am incarcerated most of my waking hours, into the sunshine, I realized that spring makes me feel young again. Believe me when I say I am old enough to relish that. There is something in the quality of the light and the sharpness of the smells that takes me back to Long Lake in Littleton, MA where I grew up.

These are the things that spring will always remind me of:


Do you remember how the arrival of spring would signal a trip to the shoe store to buy new sneakers? I realize I am dating myself but I grew up in time when kids did not wear sneakers all year. We wore shoes. Serious leather shoes with buckles and laces not Velcro made by companies named Stride Rite and Buster Brown. This was a sure sign that freedom from school and the need to wear our hated uniforms was in sight.


Every spring my sister and I got a new ball. Given that I was (and I still am) the most uncoordinated person on this planet I am not sure why. I suppose because I wanted one. These balls were always rubber, varying between the size of a tennis ball and softball. We bounced them off the walls and on the sidewalks. Some girls (not me!) could perform elaborate moves like bouncing them under a leg and then catching them. The year that I was in the sixth grade, the thing to do was to have your friends write something on the ball with ballpoint pens. In hindsight, I suppose this was an “early cave girl” manifestation of what I see pouring off my news feed from the girls who are my friends on Facebook. And, yes, we had mean girls then, too.


I will be honest with you. I had a love/hate relationship with jump ropes. They both fascinated and repelled me. My parents paid money to send us to Catholic school. Our recreational facilities consisted of a large paved area surrounded by chain link fencing behind the school. There was a line painted down the center. Girls on the left and boys on the right patrolled by nuns who may or may not have had weapons hidden in the folds of their voluminous habits. Only a runaway ball justified crossing the line and that was frowned upon.

Jump ropes were not my friends. I could manage to hop my way through a game of Chinese jump rope but never the traditional game. I was a jump rope disaster. I would stand on the sidelines in awe of my fleeter classmates leaping through the flying ropes of Double Dutch to the chants of “A my name is Alice and my husband’s name is Al…”. The highlight of any recess consisted of successfully cajoling one of the good nuns to play. And boy, could some of those nuns jump.

So what do you think of when spring shines its sunny face in your window?

More glory yet to come








Mahjong on Sunday Afternoon

“Lack of clarity is a writer’s truth” Amy Tan

picture of mahjong tiles
Mahjong tiles in play

The first time that I ever encountered mahjong was in Amy Tan’s wonderful novel, The Joy Luck Club. This is the story of a woman who forms the Joy Luck Club for the purpose of playing the game of mahjong during World War II as a way of coping with the horror surrounding her. She forms a second club with three friends she meets at church after she immigrates to America. If you haven’t read it yet, treat yourself. The story celebrates the complex relationship between mothers and daughters.

Mahjong is a game that originated in China, commonly played by four players. It is played with a set of 136 tiles based on Chinese characters and symbols, although some regional variations use a different number of tiles. In most variations, each player begins by receiving thirteen tiles. There are fairly standard rules about how a piece is drawn, the kinds of melds, and the order of dealing and play.

Last winter, I was thrilled when my neighbor invited me to be part of a group of women she was getting together to play. We use the mahjong set that her mother, who was Japanese, brought with her when she came to this country from Japan. The set, consisting of tiles made from ivory and backed with the smoothest of wood, is old and very lovely. The writer in me can’t help but think of all the women who have touched those tiles since the set was made. I wonder what they talked about as they played. We often mention Mary’s mother even though we never met her.

None of the three women invited had played before. We all love the game and enjoy the feel of the tiles in our hands  and the clacking sound they make as we play.

Yesterday, we met for third time congratulating ourselves that we are definitely getting better. Although I have not yet won a hand, I found myself “waiting” twice which means that I was very close.

Picture of three kongs
Three kongs. Unfortunately, not in my hand

Most women have enjoyed playing cards since they were young girls. I can remember spending hours over the summer as a preteen playing endless games of canasta or gin rummy with my friend Phyllis. We giggled about boys and shared secrets as we played.

Yesterday, our hostess made a delicious chicken curry salad for lunch. We enjoy snacks (calories don’t count) as we play and share laughs and a secret or two even though we are no longer girls. We have a rule that what we discuss around the mahjong table stays there.

Last month we decided to swap unwanted jewelry. Yesterday it was cookbooks. We all went home happy after spending a pleasant afternoon together.

Do you get together with your women friends on a regular basis? What is that you do together?



Did I mention that in celebration of the gorgeous day two of us wore hats?

What I am Reading – Angelina’s Bachelors

The more you read, the more things you will know.” Dr. Seuss

I admit the first thing that caught my attention about Angelina’s Bachelors was the title. I was almost an Angelina myself. Yes, that’s right. Angelina Ferrari. It leaves no question as to my ethnic origins does it? But then, the decision to go with using both my grandmothers’ names instead was made and Angelina was set aside.

I also liked the cover. My mother had an apron almost identical to the one the woman in the picture is wearing. I have a soft spot for aprons, which from what I read, are coming back into style.

Finally, the subtitle:  A novel with food. This sold me the book. I love books with recipes. Twenty-three recipes are sprinkled throughout this book. Mostly Italian, they have names like: Stracotta, (Italian Pot Roast), Aubergine Napoleons, Lasagna Provencal, and Marinated Unagi (Eel!) over aborio rice patties. The recipes are the contribution of author, Brian O’Reilly’s wife, Virginia. I haven’t tried any of them yet but I intend to.

Most women’s fiction is written by women. I found the fact that the author was a man interesting, too. Brian O’Reilly is the creator and executive producer of Food Network’s Dinner: Impossible. There are several men in this story – the bachelors of the title – and he does an excellent job representing the male point of view. In the conversation with the author at the end of the book, he says that his wife provided the women’s perspective.

Set in the Italian neighborhood of South Philly around Passyunk Avenue, Angelina’s Bachelors is the story of a woman whose husband gets out of the bed at two am where he is sleeping next to her and sneaks into the kitchen to steal a forbidden chunk out of her amazing cake (Frangelico Chocolate Dream Cake and yes, the recipe is included). He then proceeds to drop dead.

“Sheer chocolaty pleasure. His last breath was a sigh of pure delight.”

The rest of the story is about how his widow, Angelina D’Angelo, survives his cruel and untimely death. The plot has an interesting twist or two and the Philly scenes combine to create a true sense of place.

This is a curl up with a cup of hot chocolate kind of book.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Picture of book
Angelina's Bachelors by Brian O'Reilly

How many of you like recipes in the books you read? Do you think that they take away from the story?




Southern Hospitality

“Writing is…. being able to take something whole and fiercely alive that exists inside you in some unknowable combination of thought, feeling, physicality, and spirit, and to then store it like a genie in tense, tiny black symbols on a calm white page. If the wrong reader comes across the words, they will remain just words. But for the right readers, your vision blooms off the page and is absorbed into their minds like smoke, where it will re-form, whole and alive, fully adapted to its new environment.”” Mary Gaitskill

I am just back from meeting with a delightful group of women in Estero, Florida. I was invited by my cousin to talk about MacCullough’s Women with her book group. I had a great time and I hope they did as well.

Book Group Picture
Meeting with ladies from the book group in Estero, Florida

Writing is a lonely business. Most writers are racked with insecurity, especially those, like me, just starting out. We thrive on talking with our readers. It is a joy when someone “gets” the book or tells me that they love a certain character. This may surprise you, but I also feel very gratified when a reader tells me that they don’t like a character or are surprised or unhappy with an action that a character has taken. As a writer, I am trying to make my readers care about what they are reading. Their reactions don’t need to be positive to make me feel that I have been successful.

Every time I have talk with my readers, either at a signing or when meeting with a book group, I learn something. I am able to see my characters or an incident in the book in a new light because of what they tell me. The characters in MacCullough’s Women continue their stories in Francesca’s Foundlings, the second book in the Lynton Series. Readers’ insights, comments and suggestions have helped me clarify some of the actions in the next book in the series.

I want to thank the Estero ladies for being so welcoming. I loved southwest Florida. Of course, I had been to Disney World – I am an American mother, after all – but I had never really seen Florida. It was so beautiful. I have to go back again because everyone talked about “her” alligators (Alligators!) One lady told me she had an alligator sunning himself (or herself) in the driveway yesterday morning. All I ever see are some very loud gray squirrels in my icy driveway.

Florida Lilies




Meeting my Readers

“A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”  –  Samuel Johnson

I am posting this blog a day early as tomorrow I am heading down to Florida to meet with a book group. I love meeting my readers because every time I chat with someone about MacCullough’s Women I see the story through a different set of eyes. I am always interested in hearing how readers relate to my characters. The last time I met with a book group, a woman launched into a spirited defense of Drew MacCullough when a member of the group questioned his character. Another reader told me that she despised Desmond Sheerin. I am sure you can imagine that as the person who created these people and sent them off into the world, I love hearing this and find it fascinating.

Hearing from readers either in person or on my author page on Facebook has helped me in shaping my second book. Every writer tries to make the next book better than the last. The way they do that is by listening to what their readers have to say.

Ordinarily, I would not be getting on an airplane to go to a book group but this is a special case. One of the members is my cousin. She has been hugely supportive of my writing and she asked me to come. Spending three days in Florida in March is a treat.

I have been working on a list of discussion questions for book groups to use. I am planning a page for book groups for this website but it is still a work in progress.

Every time I fly, I am reminded of the first time I was on an airplane. I was fifteen years old and flying from Boston to Denver to visit my mother’s sister and her family. I was the first person in my immediate family to fly. My anxious mother pinned fifty dollars to my bra. Fifty dollars was a lot of money then. I am not sure  exactly when she thought I was going to be robbed because in those calmer and gentler times you could be both accompanied to and met at the gate. After securing the money, she handed me a lemon meringue pie to take to her sister. I flew across the country with that pie on my lap. The pie arrived in Colorado intact and everyone enjoyed it. And nobody robbed me on the plane, either.

Tomorrow all of my money will be in my wallet and I will not be bringing a pie just my iPad. I can’t wait to meet some new members of my tribe

Suitcase and books for trip
Ready for my trip to Florida

What I am Reading – Prudence Be Damned

” If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” Stephen King

I was the kid whose father was always telling her, “ Get your nose out of that book and go play.” I didn’t start school  knowing how to read but I caught on pretty fast.

I fell in love with books, immersing myself in the goings on of The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, and The Children of Green Knowe, and children’s classics like Black Beauty, Lad a Dog, The Five Little Peppers and Little Women. By the time I was in the sixth grade, I was racing though adult novels scandalizing my teacher, Sr. Helena Regis, by reading and quoting from Gone with the Wind. Simply put, I read as easily as I breathed and I still do.

I read almost anything: romance, mystery, mainstream, YA, fantasy, and biography. I admit to not being drawn to science fiction or horror. After scaring myself witless reading Salem’s Lot, I no longer read Stephen King. It’s only very recently that I have given myself permission to not finish a book. At this stage of my life, I have come to realize that life is too short to waste time reading books I don’t enjoy.

I am that slightly wacky lover of books that is known as a re-reader. I know this doesn’t make sense to some people but if you are also one of those, then you completely get it. I have a special place in my heart for books that quite simply make me happy. I go back to them when I find myself becoming jaded. Lately, I have read a lot of Young Adult  (YA) books that are about dystopian worlds that tend to be dark and full of peril.

This week I turned once again to an old favorite by a writer whose work I discovered more than thirty years ago, Mary McMullen. She wrote nineteen mysteries that fell into a genre called  “domestic malice”.  They are not long, can be characterized as “light” and are now dated (they are a lot like the television series Mad Men) but her descriptions of people and places are to be relished. McMullen drops you into a world of East Coast privilege centered around New York, Connecticut and Philadelphia. Here is an excerpt from Prudence Be Damned, the book I just finished reading.

Long ago, he had heard Rob complain to Jane, “Why does Ma have to look like a picture in a museum or something? Why doesn’t she look like everybody else?”

“Since when is everybody else what everyone wants?” Jane asked in confused defense

Entering and exiting from the conversation, Devore had said to Rob, “I’m sorry that I failed to provide you with your idea of a mother who’s just folks.”

My idea of comfort


You can find Mary McMullen’s books on Amazon and also in many libraries.  If you like the world you saw on Mad Men, I think you would enjoy them.

Are you a re-reader? Is there a book or books that you return to like an old friend?