Book Review: The Late Bloomer’s Club, by Louise Miller

I was awoken at 3am this morning by my dog barking (from under the covers, it would have been funny if it wasn’t so terrifying), and couldn’t get back to sleep. That’s okay though, because it gave me a chance to finish this charming second novel by Louise Miller!

I JUST read The City Baker’s Guide last month, and was so excited when I finished and found out her new one was coming out that day – I ordered it immediately.

Readers get to revisit the fictional town of Guthrie, which is like the Vermont version of Star’s Hollow. This time through the lens of Nora Huckleberry, owner of the Miss Guthrie diner, after inheriting a house and an enormous, coveted piece of property from her neighbor – Peggy the cake lady. But the property comes with strings – there are several leans against it from the neighbor’s debts, and between Nora’s struggling diner, a mysterious woman whose nursing home expenses the neighbor had always covered, and her sister, Kit, who inherited half the property and wants to cash in to fund her independent film project, Nora may have to put the town at risk by selling the property to a dreaded box store. Oh, and did I mention the corporate liaison for said store is quite handsome, and that he’s trying to help Nora capture Peggy’s dog, who went feral when his owner died?

It sounds like a lot going on, but it was a very pleasant, easy read. It might not keep you up all night turning the pages, but it definitely keeps your interest as you invest in this lovely cast of characters. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted for Nora, mainly because her journey in the book was to figure out what she wanted for herself. I enjoyed the witty batter at the diner and between Nora and Max, Kit’s boyfriend, and I loved the authentic feel of the town meeting scenes. And anyone with a sister can identify with the unique dynamics of two people who see the world through different lenses.

The romantic relationship fell just a LITTLE flat for me, and I think that’s because I thought Elliott was SO nice it was hard to believe, considering he was sent to bring “corporate America” to this little haven of a town. But I think we are so used to this type of person being overly douche-y. Still, I would have liked to see a little more tension between them.

While I am more partial to City Baker’s, I found this book no less charming. We get to check in with some of our favorite Guthrie residents (like our friends over at the Sugar Maple Inn), and relax knowing that everything will end happily and tied up in a neat little bow. It has less actual baking than City Baker’s. And with how poetically Miller describes the baking process – airy, forgot to mention here that Nora and Max temporarily took over Peggy’s cake business – you can be sure I will be trying out that burnt sugar cake recipe!

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How NOT to Blow It When Pitching an Agent

A few weeks ago I attended my third Writers Meet Agents conference hosted by the League of Vermont Writers. If you live anywhere close to Vermont and are looking for an agent, you need to attend this conference. LVW does a fantastic job of getting top agents from around the country who represent many different genres. They sit on panels, some of them give individual talks, and you can sign up for 10-minute pitch sessions. This is terrifying but such an important experience if you are going the agent route. Even if you’re planning to self-publish, it doesn’t hurt to practice your elevator pitch for the endless hours you are going to spent trying to market your book.

This time was a unique experience for me, because with my first book recently published and my agent signed in 2016, it was the first time I wasn’t there to pitch. At my first meeting back in…2010? (12? Who can remember? ), I pitched my first book, THE ROAD UNRAVELED. The agent and I didn’t connect, but even though she said “I mean you can send it to me, if you want,” I somehow computed this into a win, sent her my submission, and never heard from her again. The second time I was pitching FRIENDS AND OTHER LIARS, (at the time called Less to Carry), having shelved The Road Unraveled due to complete failure to obtain representation. Both the agents I pitched thought it was a great concept and asked me to submit. One of them I really didn’t connect with and later did not find very good information about online. The other one I submitted to and was ultimately rejected. So, even though many many many writers with agents have gotten them through in-person pitching, that was not to be my path.

So needless to say, I felt about a billion times more relaxed this time around knowing that I didn’t need to market myself and my book all in about three minutes whilst trying not to sweat through my shirt. But I also felt a little like an intruder. I kept the fact that I’ve published a book quiet until one attendee blatantly asked me why I wasn’t pitching. I kept it under wraps before that because I didn’t want to come across as arrogant, (although, the table told me, I should have been shouting it from the rooftops, I know they all would have wanted to set me on fire had I actually done that. I know because I would have wanted to if I were them).

So I skipped the first few sessions on how to get an agent, but I still knew that just being in a room full of writers is a valuable experience. It’s a little mecca of creativity that keeps me inspired, that reminds me that there is a huge, vibrant community of unique people out there who share my dream. Within 10 minutes of finding my seat (after 10 vulnerable minutes of “Is anybody sitting there?”), I found two women who wanted to form a writing group, and we have a “date” later this month to meet and figure out how to critique each other’s work. If these women become valuable crit partners, the conference just paid for itself. And that’s before the cool workshops I attended that helped me realize a few things I need to tweak in my WIP.

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Agenda for the LVW Writers Meet Agents conference. I attended from 11:45am on and got a lot out of the workshops!

Throughout the day, the big questions everyone was asking each other were 1) Are you pitching/Did you pitch? and 2) Are you nervous/How did it go? Some of the answers to this second question made me cringe, but I didn’t want to crush anyone’s spirits or come across as a know-it-all just because I’ve published a book. So I thought I would write this post for those of you looking to pitch an agent in hopes it can be helpful before the big day.

These are some examples of snippets I overheard and some comments that may help you if you are preparing to pitch:

“They told me I needed to add 10-20,000 words and then they might be interested. But I told them I was an English teacher so my writing is very tight, so I think I’ll send it along as is and they’ll remember that I know what I’m doing.”

So many things wrong with this. First of all, it’s totally cool to include a SHORT bio in your pitch if you have writing cred (an M.F.A., something else that’s been published, experience as a journalist, etc.). Being an English teacher is kinda relevant, but it’s not a dealmaker, especially not if this is your first book and you’ve never been published before. No agent is going to be like “Novels are generally 80-100,000 words, and this woman’s is 60, but hey she’s an English teacher so what do I know?” You might know writing but they know the business. And that’s the partnership you want – you focus on the writing, they focus on the business.

Second, this person used the word “them,” which tells me the person pitched more than one agent and got the same feedback. Now, I’m not saying that every piece of feedback you receive you need to act on. You have to make the right choices for your work, (please please please based on your instincts and not your ego), because it’s not worth getting into the publishing game if you’re not proud of the work you’re putting out there. BUT, if you are getting many people who are experts in their field telling you the same thing…they’re probably right.

Third, no qualification in the world will overcome the defensive and superior attitude this person displayed. Remember that agents are looking for more than your writing; they’re looking at you as a whole package. If you have great writing and qualifications but your attitude is entitled and all around sucky in your first meeting, then how difficult will it be for them to suggest changes to your book that will help it and you be more successful?

No matter what, listen, be humble, and say thank you to any agent who bothers to give you feedback. If you have been querying at all, you know that most agents cannot take the time and respond only with a “not for me” form letter.

“I told them how much my friends liked it.”

Oh geez, just don’t say this. Like, just don’t bother. Even if your friends are total unsupportive bitches and still liked the book, agents do. not. care. if your friends or your mom or your sister liked your book. Even if you know for sure that your readers are being honest with you, even if one of them is a local news reporter or another aspiring author or an English teacher. These peeps are great for reading your book, and may have even provided great feedback, but they are not agents, they are likely not experts in the industry, and they don’t read hundreds of manuscripts a week. All that your friends liking it tells them is that you do, indeed, have friends that like you enough to devote hours to reading your novel.

“I wasn’t quite finished summarizing the plot when they called time, so I didn’t get any feedback, but I think she liked it.”

You should practice your pitch and time yourself many times before you get to the big day. Don’t worry so much about memorizing word for word, but get some bullet points down on paper and time yourself as you talk. Trim, trim, trim. The summary of what your book is about (NOT the entire plot), should only be like 3 minutes. The rest of the time should be a regular ‘ole conversation where they ask you targeted questions and you answer and maybe ask them a question or two that’s been burning on your mind and shows that you are doing your research on the industry (for example: “I’ve always thought of this book as a potential series, do you see that fitting into my genre?” NOT “Will you be my agent?”). You want to leave time for this, because this is where you will (maybe) make an actual connection with your potential agent. And this is where they might give you valuable feedback you can take back to your work and/or your pursuit of representation. And you will smile and stay open and say thank you, RIGHT?

“They told me my book was unpublishable because all my research came from Wikipedia.”

Oh. Just…no. I don’t know the full context of this, but I know for an agent to have said that the book must have been heavily based on the research, and that research was probably wrong. Seriously, my heart broke for the person who said this. Anyone who has written a novel-length work (around 100,000 words) KNOWS how much time goes into a book. To be told it’s unpublishable, whether the person should have put more of that time into research or not, is devastating.

“I went bold and told them I wanted to be the next J.K. Rowling.”

If the agent on the receiving end of this “boldness” didn’t roll their eyes, they deserve a medal. Because first of all, DUH, everyone wants to be the next J.K. Rowling, regardless of the genre they write in. And while you may think it’s cute to say this, and may even demonstrate your level of ambition, agents are not going to think either of those things. All this tells them is that your expectations are unrealistic, that you haven’t done the research on your market, that you might even be a diva! Agents know you want to be as successful as possible, otherwise you wouldn’t be there.

“I didn’t really prepare anything, I just sat down and started asking her what and who she represented.”

Facepalm. This person didn’t just freeze, they just didn’t even bother to prepare. This makes me, a Type A overpreparer, want to scream. But let me calm down to explain: this is your shot to impress someone who could sell your book. To a publisher. For money. Don’t phone it in! Be prepared! Do some research on the agent, find out what they like and if your book is up his/her alley; prepare a few sentences about what your book is about, practice some answers to common questions agents ask, come up with one or two questions you can ask them (NOT what genres do they represent). It’s a pretty nerve-wracking thing you can’t ever be 100% prepared for, but in this day in age there is no excuse for not going in there with your shit together.

 

This post is getting very long, so I won’t go further, but Here’s a great article about all the elements of a pitch, questions you might be asked, etc. Read it. And read many many many other articles a few weeks in advance. Practice your pitch in the mirror, with friends, with your dog, whatever. And when it starts to feel more natural, stop. Practice once or twice the morning of the conference and then relax, trust that you’ve got it down, and breathe.

Good luck!

 

Book Review: The Identicals, by Elin Hilderbrand

Elin Hilderbrand novels are not only essential to vacation, they ARE my vacation. She is one of the few authors I can say whose entire collection I own and have read. (Although I’m always a year behind because I wait for the paperback). Even though many of the storylines are recycled and mixed into something new, there is something about her writing that makes each character and each plot fresh and unique. I guess there’s just something about reading about overprivileged (mostly) white people living on an overpriced (beautiful) island that helps you escape!

The Identicals is about, you guessed it, identical twins Harper and Tabitha Frost, who have been estranged since the death of Tabitha’s young son. Harper lives on Martha’s Vineyard with their father who has just passed away, and Tabitha lives on Nantucket with her daughter and their cold, ultra conservative mother. A series of circumstances causes the twins to switch islands, taking over the others’ responsibilities.

As per Hilderbrand usual, the story is told through each twins’ perspective, as well as from Tabitha’s “troublemaker” teenaged daughter, Ainsley. This time, however, she also occasionally writes through the perspectives of the islands themselves to provide an omniscient view. To be honest, I was a little resistant to the addition of Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve grown so accustomed to reading exclusively about Nantucket – the Chicken Box, the beaches, and buckets of chilled Veuve Cloquot. But I quickly adjusted and found the comparison of the “identical” islands as interesting as the comparison of the identical characters.

As always I enjoyed the book and looked forward to the chunks of time I could spend with it on my vacation (just one more chapter, just one more chapter), but I wouldn’t say this was my favorite. I didn’t find Tabitha a particularly sympathetic character because I don’t tend to like characters who blame all their problems on someone else. One such example was when the twins’ parents divorce and they had to “rock paper scissors” to decide which twin went with which parent. Tabitha was unhappy having to live with her domineering mother and blamed Harper for “winning” their dad…but yet she continued to stay with her mother, even working for her company, decades into adulthood when she could have made other choices for herself. I found her a bit spoiled and immature, and her love story a little like….what?

Harper on the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed. She is unconcerned with other people’s expectations of her, and while flawed with a history of missteps and regrets, still a good person who is grounded in a desire to be a good person. One caveat: she calls her mother Mommy. What’s up with that?

Book Review: The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living, by Louise Miller

I hate to sound smug, but the fact that I, as a native Vermonter, loved this book, is high praise for debut author Louise Miller. It’s the story of Olivia Rawlings, who accidentally starts a fire in the kitchen if the fancy Boston hotel where she works and feels to the fictional town of Guthrie, Vermont, where her best friend scores her a job as the baker at a quaint country inn. The owner is cantankerous, her accommodations are in an old sugar shack, and she has a little trouble adjusting to the small town where rumors flew about her before she’d even been there a week, but she quickly makes friends with the kitchen staff, rediscovers her love of playing the banjo in a proper country band, and is “adopted” by the McCrackens, family friends of the owner, one of whom is a handsome, rugged man named Martin.

Often people born outside Vermont like to “write down” to Vermont and its citizens, as if the lot of us are uneducated and toothless, living simple, peaceful lives revolving entirely around serving the city folk who deign to visit. While Miller DOES play up the simple life aspect of Vermont, very much fitting into the idyllic stereotype of small-town rural community, I still found it more true-to-life than other “flatlander” authors, I found myself pulled deeply into the charm of Livvy, Salty, Margaret, and the McCrackens. Miller’s writing style is effortless, easy-to-read and easy to be pulled in. Although at times I found it difficult to follow the dialogue, and some of the scenes fell a little flat, it still kept me turning the pages and I looked forward to my reading time, and that’s the sign of a book I’ll return to. Both reading the book and doing the baking it put me in the mood for gave me a great sense of peace and contentment.

I’m very excited to have found Miller, and learned as I was finishing this book that her second releases this week. I immediately ordered it and can’t wait to get my hands on it!

Coming Out of a Rough Month #ifeelalittlebad

Hello all,

Anyone watch The Break w/ Michelle Wolf on Netflix? You might know Michelle Wolf as the BAMF who slayed the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (some people said her monologue went too far, to which I roll my eyes. She came correct and awesome. And who the hell booked her who thought she was going to pipe it down?) If you haven’t seen it, here it is. It’s worth 20 minutes of your time.

michelle-wolf-netflix-300x250Anyway, I’m loving the show, although I can only watch one episode at a time because her voice is a BIT much. After the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, she made an important point about how the culture of social media portrays only the good parts of life – our babies doing cute things, our puppies doing cute things, our awesome accomplishments, selfies where we look awesome, awesome vacations, etc. And those are all great, and they should be celebrated, and I do the same thing so I’m not judging you.

I wish I could share the clip where Wolf talks about this, but it’s only on Netflix so far (episode is called Hate it or Love It), so I will quote it for you.

“It’s okay to admit that life is terrifying and we never know what’s going to happen next. I mean, we only know 5% of what’s in the ocean, and most of the earth is ocean. That’s TERRIFYING. There are things called Goblin sharks. SCIENTISTS NAMED THEM THAT…And yet, we’re all just walking around answering the question “How are you?”, with “Good.” No, I’m not good, haven’t you seen the nightmare fish? Also, space goes on for INFINITY!

“Let’s make it okay to admit you’re not doing great, and really listen to other people when they admit they’re not either:

‘How’s it going today?’

‘Well, I’ve been thinking about 9/11 nonstop and both my legs hurt.’

‘Oh, I just cried in my car for 20 minutes thinking about how dogs can’t tell you when they’re sick. Also space goes on for INFINITY!’

‘Cool, so you want to grab a table or sit at the bar?'”

She went on to encourage people to share more of the bad stuff on social media, not only to be real and to get support, but so that other people can scroll through their feeds and recognize themselves in others. She also somewhat seriously asked for people to use the hashtag #ifeelalittlebad.

It’s a good skit, and it has a good point.

Now, I don’t like complaining, I try to keep it positive. I’ve worked for many years to be a more positive person. I realize that my life, when compared to much of the world, is pretty freakin’ awesome. But that doesn’t mean I always feel great. So when people – wonderful, curious, supportive, loving people – ask how my book is going, I often reply “I don’t know, it’s too early to tell.”

I do this because, when I reply “Not so great. It’s only sold about 15% of the copies they printed and I haven’t gotten any new press or reviews on Amazon or Goodreads in a month and my publisher hasn’t outright rejected my next book but their option has passed and they haven’t made an offer and my agent said she was going to send me a submission plan for other publishers which I thought could be good because maybe I’ll get a bigger publisher who can put more into marketing but I haven’t heard back from her in a month after three follow-up emails and I feel invisible and like I’m going to have to start all over again and why does my dream have to be such an uphill slog and I think I’ll probably be an assistant forever,” people tend to feel uncomfortable.

And of course, because people are wonderful and want to make me feel better, they say things like, “It’s still early days,” “You just need to get into Oprah’s book club,” and my personal favorite “At least you published a book.” This latter is the most well-intentioned comment that makes me want to scratch my own eyes out. Because here’s the thing, I didn’t want to just publish a book. Publishing WAS huge, and perhaps I should give it more weight, but that was never where the dream ended. I want to publish several books. I want to be a book-a-year author. I want to write full-time. I want at least one of my books to become a movie. Authors never tell you this is what they want because they feel like it’s boastful, like who am I to think my writing is good enough for that? Sp this comment always makes me feel like not only is my book not as successful as it needs to be to move me to the next stage, but I’m also ungrateful for what I have accomplished.

And this is true! I know it’s true.

This all leads to “It takes time.” And it does. But it’s not like I haven’t been working my ass off for ten years already, enduring 189 rejections and daily self-doubt. A small, admittedly naive, part of me hoped that the hard part was over. At some point, I started having this belief — deep, inexplicable belief, that I could actually feel in my chest — that this book would be huge. I knew the odds were against me, but I believed it anyway. And because of the stress of “unsuccess” and other factors, I haven’t connected to that feeling in a while. I’ve had good days, where I have a sense of humor about it and recite positive mantras and all that, where I really really try to believe again, but I just don’t feel that warmth in my chest. That belief. And I miss it.

I wish I didn’t want the things I want. I wish I wanted simple things, things under my control like, to learn how to speak German, or, to be some hot shot marketing executive, or to make the world’s best cookies. Those things, if you work hard enough, you will likely achieve. Writing, publishing, being one of the big names? I could work my whole life at that and never get it.

And I’m the most impatient person in the world, so, you know, great fit as far as career choices go.

So yes, this post has not been very positive, and I’m sure many of you will find it whiney. I had some great things happen in the beginning of 2018. My first book came out, I did my first TV interview, I did my first readings and had a big party to celebrate. My husband and I built our house, an actual dream house (not financed by my book earnings, by the way, although I giggle when people think that) and moved into it.

It was fun and exciting and stressful, and when it all topped off I CRASHED like Roseanne’s career after her racist tweet. It’s been hard. I’ve been struggling. So I’m sharing this because life is not just book parties and cute babies and sleeping puppies. When the camera turns off, the party is over and everyone is hungover AF, the baby starts crying and keeps you up for 140 hours and you don’t get to shower, the puppy wakes up and shits on your rug. That’s real life. And it’s okay to say #ifeelalittlebad.

 

 

Book Review: You are a Badass, by Jen Sincero

Another audiobook!

This one came to me at the exact right time, as I’ve been in a pretty negative place with super low energy. The book offers a lot of advice, largely focused around the power of positive thinking/the law of attraction, that anyone who’s read pretty much any self help book will recognize. But although there’s nothing earth shatteringly new in here, it still serves as a great reminder of the power your thoughts have on what shows up in your life. And as an added bonus, Sincero delivers a valuable, if not new, message with a little bit of swearing and a lot of humor and common sense. It’s kind of like all the best advice and revelations from every self help book ever written all compiled into one book. One quote that particularly resonated with me and where I am in my life was “The only failure is quitting. The rest is just gathering information.” I really believe that and needed to be reminded!

Book Review: Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi

I have had this on my list to read for awhile and was really looking forward to it, but I think I read too many books about war torn countries lately and had reached my limit. The writing was good and the characters well developed, and Ngozi Adichie certainly achieved her goal of showing the lows people sink to when in the trenches of war, atrocity, and trauma. But, without giving anything away, my favorite character commits a heinous and inexcusable act about 60 pages from the end of the book, and I had to skim the rest after that, being left with the feeling that all was hopeless. I didn’t care very deeply for the other characters, either, which made it more tough to read.

Definitely recommend for someone who loves historical literary fiction and wants to learn more about a tumultuous time in Nigerian history. Made me grateful for never having to witness or experience that kind of adversity.

Book Review: Heartburn, Nora Ephron

I listened to this as an audiobook and I think that highly enhanced the experience of this book. Can you imagine a better narrator than the outrageously talented Meryl Streep?

Heartburn is the story of 7 months pregnant Rachel, who discovers her husband is having an affair. Interwoven with the plot is her full romantic history and the influences of her comic and eccentric family. My favorite part, which will sound sick until you read or listen, is the scene where her mother “dies.” Oh, and she’s a professional chef who also provides some very comfy and simple recipes that tie to the story.

While the main character was perhaps a little vapid, she is still somewhat relatable and highly entertaining. Readers of Marian Keyes, Jane Green, and Elinor Lipman (closest to the latter), or any fan of romantic comedies will enjoy this book. Five stars.

Book Review: Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

One of my favorite books was returned to me today. I first read it 12 years ago as I wrapped up my backpacking trip In Australia. The trip, and this book, was very formative for me.

I remember underlining a ton, and I was worried I would be embarrassed at all the things I found deeply relevant in that “finding myself” phase of my life. But as I look through it now, copying my favorite quotes into a little notebook I keep for that purpose, they all still ring true.

It makes me want to read it again, although with so much in my TBR pile it’s hard to justify a time out to re-read a 1,000 page book. Still, if you haven’t read it, you need to. It’s based on the life of a robber and heroin addict who escapes from prison to establish a free medical clinic in Bombay…and then becomes involved in the Bombay mafia.

It’s more than an adventure, though. It’s a love story, it’s funny, and above all deeply philosophical and spiritual. Five stars.

Book Review: Someday, Someday Maybe by Lauren Graham

You may have noticed I’m starting to post book reviews here…a sad indicator that there is nothing exciting to report on my own book. Oh well, I’m still immersed in the world of books!

Anyway, I’ve been wanting to read this book for some time, but the clincher was finding it on Audible narrated by Lauren Graham herself! While there was nothing particularly surprising about Graham’s first novel, I found it delightful and fun to listen to. There were times that the fast talking and description of every racing thought was a little much, but it was interesting to hear the neuroses inside a struggling aspiring actress’s mind, and to hear some of the process and decisions behind creating a character. It was a little like Lauren Graham narrating what it’s like inside my own head!