Not Your Typical Writing Book: Riting Myth, Mythic Riting by Dennis Patrick Slattery, Ph.D.

2012 Fisher King Press
Print edition: $29.00

This is not your typical writing book. Dennis Patrick Slattery has no interest in telling you how to develop fictional characters, build an interesting and compelling plot, or write the perfect climax scene.

Rather, the goal of Riting Myth, Mythic Riting is to help you uncover your personal myth. Slattery defines myth as the “loom on which we weave the raw materials of daily experience into a coherent story,” and “a mode of perceiving which may be more important to its health and growth than the subjects and objects of perception.”

Drawing heavily on the writings of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, the book’s nine chapters contain exercises for what Slattery calls “Mediations on Writing.” These are not typical writing exercises. You probably don’t want to do these on a computer; they are meant to be free-form, intuitive writing (which I don’t believe most people can do on a computer). They delve deep into the reader/writer’s psyche, with chapters on topics like Riting the Wounded Self, Riting Through the Embodied Self, and Riting the Spiritual Self.

I loved this book. I love the exercises; while I did only a few to try them out, I intend to buy a pretty journal and actually work through the entire book, to see what old wounds I can uncover that may need healing, to see what my Spirit may reveal about itself, to relearn how to write intuitively. (I’ve been so involved in writing The Storyteller’s Bracelet and now beginning work on The Madam of Bodie, I haven’t done any sort of journaling in many years.) I believe I will learn much about myself.

No, this is not your typical writing book. But I believe it is a book that can lead writers—whether you write fiction, poetry, or blog posts—to better understand themselves. And when you have that deep understanding, how can it not make you a better writer?

(The feds now wants books reviewers to reveal where they got their review books. I was given a review copy of Riting Myth, Mythic Writing by the publisher, Fisher King Press. I was not, nor have I ever been, compensated for my reviews.)

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The Sister From Below: When the Muse Gets Her Way

by Naomi Ruth Lowinsky
Fisher King Press 

As a writer, I find myself saying things like, “My muse went on vacation,” (if I’m having a difficult time writing), or “My muse really kept me hopping last week,” (if the words are flowing freely and easily). I’ve heard the same sort of comments from lots of my writer and artist friends, too.

But how many of us have taken the bother to learn who our muse is? Does she have a name? Is she ours exclusively, or does she hop from writer to writer on a whim?

I’m ashamed to say, it’s never crossed my mind to even ask my muse anything about herself. Her name? I have no idea. Her favorite book? Not a clue. Am I her only writer/artist, or one of many? Your guess is as good as mine. I’ve never asked her.

There’s one writer/poet out there who can answer those questions about her muse, because she’s been in a running dialogue with her for years. In her unique and highly entertaining book The Sister From Below: When the Muse Gets Her Way, Naomi Ruth Lowinsky lets the reader listen in on the conversation she’s had with her muse, who has appeared to her in nine distinct manifestations, the last of which is, surprisingly, male.

Lowinsky writes of the Sister from Below, her inner poet who, she writes, has been “trying to get my attention all my life.” She writes with longing about her muse from early childhood, a nursemaid who cared for her during a year her family lived in Florence, Italy.

Then there is Eurydice, who expresses her resentment about being kept from making an appearance until Chapter 4, and once Lowinsky allows her to speak, tells a much different version of the story of Orpheus in the Underworld than we are used to hearing. Lowinsky’s Eurydice doesn’t meekly follow Orpheus when he descends into the Underworld to retrieve her. No, this Eurydice tells a decidedly different story: “Orpheus wants to keep me young and beautiful. He denies my ancient nature. He forgets I am nature … I am the dark part of the creative, the mold of change …”

Perhaps most heartbreaking is the grandmother who speaks to Lowinsky from the afterlife, a grandmother she never knew, a grandmother who died of cancer in Hitler’s concentration camps. A grandmother who insists the author confront the terrors of her childhood, her guilt that she lived when so many died, the terror and intense love felt simultaneously for her brilliant musicologist father. It is in this chapter Lowinsky fully opens her veins and allows her vulnerabilities as well as her abilities to flow from within in her poem, “a grandmother speaks from the other side.”

I had to put the book down and take time to recompose myself before moving on from this chapter, for my tears were flowing freely by this time. I wept not only for Lowinsky and all she lost, but for my own lost grandmothers as well.

Lowinsky talks of the muse that is Old Mother India, a place I have longed to visit. Then, she writes of Sappho, a favorite of mine, at midlife; a poet who lived 2600 years ago whose writings exist only as fragments. But what fragments they are, entwining the sexual and the sacred. “How is it she suddenly fills me with her presence, as though I’ve always known her; as though I can remember my time with her as a young woman on Lesbos: the temple to Aphrodite, the meadows with flowers we maidens wove into one another’s hair, what we sang around the altar in the moonlight; as though Sappho was my teacher, my priestess, my wild older woman crush.” Lowinsky asks, “How can I claim to remember Sappho?”

As a post-menopausal woman writer, I know the answer to her question: Sappho represents awakening kundalini, the awakening spiritual and creative energy that happens when women hit midlife. I just never realized this awakening was Sappho as the muse.

The book continues with chapters on Helena, a root vegetable; and the Naomi of the Bible, for whom the author was named. Like the story of Eurydice, the Naomi who presents herself as muse to the author has quite a different story to tell than the one you’ll read in the Bible—a beautiful tale I prefer to the original. Finally, she writes of the muse in her (his?) male manifestation.

The Sister From Below is an intensely personal, almost analytical exploration of the author’s creative side—not surprising, seeing as Lowinsky is a Jungian analyst. Filled with exquisite, heart-rending prose and poetry, it is a book to be savored, one chapter at a time, not rushed through like the latest Dan Brown suspense novel. It is, in places, highly entertaining, even funny. In other places, it will make you cry.

Most of all, it will send you on a long journey within yourself, searching for your own muse, identifying her, inviting her to not only manifest herself through your creative, artistic side, but as a part of your personality as a whole as well. It will leave you changed.

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Dreams of Joy, by Lisa See

My review policy on Smoky Talks Books has always been to review books published by small presses and written by small press authors. But occasionally, a book comes along that touches me so deeply, that is so compelling, I want to share it with my readers. Lisa See’s Dreams of Joy is one such book.

I had the privilege to meet Ms. See and get to know her a bit when we were both guest speakers at the 2012 Whittier College Book Faire in Whittier, CA, a few months back. She is a beautiful person both inside and out, and it was such a pleasure to talk to her. She seemed more eager to talk about her family, and the impending birth of her grandchild, than about her books, about which she speaks modestly—a refreshing change from some authors I’ve met.

Dreams of Joy opens with eighteen-year-old Joy reeling from the news that the woman she thought was her mother is really her aunt, and her aunt is really her birth mother. The man she thought was her father has committed suicide, and she learns her birth father is a man who still lives in China. The year is 1957, and China is closed.

This doesn’t keep Joy from running away from her Los Angeles home and finding her way to Shanghai to look for her birth father—a man who is surprisingly easy to locate because he is the famous Chinese artist, Z.G. Li, whom both her aunt and mother were once in love with. While surprised to find he has fathered a child, Z.G. takes Joy under his wing, not so much out of love as to share with her what constitutes art under Mao.

Joy throws herself into the idealism of the New Society in Red China. She moves to a commune, marries a man she meets there, and works hard to bring Chairman Mao’s dreams of a perfect communist society to light.

But it doesn’t take long for Joy to realize the Great Leap Forward, as it is called, is having devastating effects on the Chinese people. Encouraged to plant wheat where rice once grew and to plant three seedlings where only one should grow, led to crop failure of such catastrophic proportion famine broke out across China.

Meanwhile, Joy’s mother, Pearl (who is really her aunt), has come to Shanghai to find her daughter. As Joy did before her, Pearl find Z.G. and through him finds Joy. But Joy has no interest at all in reconciling with her mother, of forgiving her for the lies she grew up with, or returning to the United States with her. Pearl is forced to confront old demons of her own as she tries desperately to save her daughter from a bad marriage and, ultimately, from starving to death as the famine grips the land. The story becomes a race against time: can the family get out of China before they all starve to death?

Author Lisa See

As with her previous books, See’s research of her subject matter is meticulous. In her talk at Whittier College the day we met, she recounted her trip to China to research the places she writes about in the book. Of course, she could not go back in time 50 years to the time of the Great Leap Forward. But to be able to see the land, the countryside, where it is estimated as many as 43 million people starved to death during the famine, had to have an emotional affect on her. That emotional affect comes through loud and strong in her prose.

While Ms. See does a great job of filling in back story where it is necessary to understand Joy’s relationship with her aunt and mother, as well as the relationships between her aunt, mother and Z.G., I do wish I had read Shanghai Girls before reading Dreams of Joy. I never got lost or confused for not having read the former before the latter, but I think it would have made Joy’s anger and feeling of betrayal more real to me. That, of course, is no fault of the author—I chose to read the books out of order. But I think if I were recommending this book to another reader, I would suggest they read Shanghai Girls first.

And that is exactly what I am doing—recommending you read Shanghai Girls, then pick up a copy of Dreams of Joy.

This is not the pretty book See’s Peony in Love was. This is a gritty book about a time in history the Chinese government tried desperately to hide from the rest of the world. See brings the truth about Mao’s Great Leap Forward to light not only to Joy, who must learn the hard way that fresh-faced idealism can lead to disaster, but to the reader as well. The book will bring tears to your eyes in places, but they are tears well shed. It is a beautiful read. Even the chapters where the famine has hit hardest and hideous atrocities are happening (which I won’t go into here), See’s love for China and compassion for its people shines through.

It would be hard not to love this book. I’m looking forward to backtracking now and reading Shanghai Girls and filling in the gaps in the stories of these compelling characters.

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Main Street Stories, by Phyllis LaPlante

I have been on hiatus from writing this particular blog for three months. My apologies; I was deep in the throes of finishing my third novel, The Storyteller’s Bracelet, and some things had to be set aside to allow me the time to finish writing my book. I am happy to have that behind me now, and have the time to review some of the books I read during these months when I could write no more.

First up: Main Street Stories, by Phyllis LaPlante (Genoa House, softcover, $20.00).

Reading Main Street Stories is a little bit like moving to a small town from the big city. At first you feel a little disoriented, with too many names, too many people, too many stories to keep straight, just like you’d feel moving to a new town.

It’s 1954 in the town of Massey, Texas, where high school football reigns supreme and gossip is the equivalent of a town newspaper. The characters: Nadine Coulter, the town hairdresser who is carrying on with a younger man while worrying about her teenaged daughter Renee’s bad reputation. Janice Tuttle, who fell into a deep depression when her daughter Laura was born and never recovered. Joe Eliot, who hallucinates enemies and is in and out of an Amarillo psychiatric hospital, who nearly kills his brother-in-law with a shotgun. Then there’s the town’s lesbian couple, Dorothy Harmon and Pat Eliot, who can live openly in Massey because it doesn’t dawn on anyone the couple is gay. Even Pat’s own family turns the other way when they realize the couple share a bedroom. Danny Tomlin and his girlfriend Jeannie live in a small trailer outside of town with their infant daughter, who turns up dead one morning with no obvious bruising or marks on her. Did Danny kill his own daughter? Did Jeannie?

This is only a small handful of the characters whose lives intertwine like a spider’s web in the town of Massey. No wonder the reader can easily become confused.

But slowly, you realize you’ve sorted out who is who, and whose stories are tied to whom. The effect is that of becoming a resident of the town. These characters’ stories become important to you, the reader, because you’ve come to care about them as people. You are, at last, one of them—a small town resident, up on all the latest gossip.

Having once lived in a small Midwestern town, I could easily relate to many of the characters. After her baby’s death, Jeannie just wanted to escape Massey, to go somewhere, anywhere but Massey. Carolyn, the baby’s grandmother, had already made her escape; why would she let a little thing like her granddaughter’s death force her back into her marriage, which to her was like living as a caged animal? Did Janice Tuttle feel the same way about her marriage? Would her life have turned out differently if she’d been given the opportunity to escape Massey instead of doing what everyone did—marry her high school sweetheart and settle down to raise a family, just as her own parents had done, and probably their parents before them?

Massey, like so many small towns, is like a living, breathing organism, with a pathology capable of sweep intelligent, ambitious people over the brink of sanity and into the abyss of dark depression. So many sad people. So many who long to escape. Is anyone truly content in this town, or do they all feel like trapped rats?

Main Street Stories is an excellent examination of small town life during the 1950s, when women were expected to stay home and look pretty for their husbands and husbands were expected to bring home the bacon. It’s the world of Ozzie and Harriet or Leave it to Beaver, only in the case of the book, you will find yourself engrossed in what real life was like during that decade rather than the idealized version transmitted into living rooms everywhere by that wonderful new invention, the television set.

It is not an easy read, true. I wish there were a character list in the front of the book, perhaps with notes of who is related to whom, and how. Had I realized how complex the plot was, how many individuals I would get to know reading it, I would have written out my own character list to keep them all straight.

But in the end, it didn’t matter that I had no such list. Eventually, I got all the characters straightened out in my head. I figured out who to love, who to despise, and who I just wanted to knock some common sense into.

I could not adequately describe what the town of Massey, Texas, looked like, nor could I give precise physical descriptions of most of the characters. But their personalities, what made each character tick? That I could give you in a heartbeat. Perhaps the fact that author Phyllis LaPlante is a Jungian analyst accounts for the heavy emphasis on the inner character and less on their outer appearances. We get to know these characters, and by the end of the book, we know them well. We feel a part of them, one of the group.

And that, I believe, was precisely the point.

Would I have picked up Main Street Stories had I seen it at the library or in a book store? Probably not. Having lived so many years in a small town not unlike every other small town in America, why would I want to read about one?

But I would have missed out on a fascinating read had I passed over this book, for it is a gem, both sad and funny, and a worthwhile summer read.

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Red-Robed Priestess, by Elizabeth Cunningham

Monkfish Publishing, hardcover, $25.95

I’ve put off writing this book review for more than a week. Red-Robed Priestess is the fourth and final book in Elizabeth Cunningham’s Maeve Chronicles, her version of the life of Mary Magdalene, and writing the review means, for me, the story is really, truly over. And I don’t want it to be, because the Maeve Chronicles are among the best books I’ve ever read. The series is the ultimate heroine’s journey, a mixture of history, mythology, and magical realism, and as a reader, I wanted the journey to continue. I was not ready to go home, for the journey to end.

Yet going home is exactly what happens in Red-Robed Priestess , the story of Mary (Maeve) Magdalene’s search for the daughter who was snatched from her arms at birth. Her search takes her back to the Holy Isles of Mona, where her story began four books ago. Traveling with her are her daughter Sarah, who is the daughter of Jesus, and Sarah’s friends Bele and Alyssa, pirates whom Maeve freed from jail in a daring escape in Book Three of the Maeve Chronicles.

Together the four women travel to Mona and Iceni country, where Maeve’s firstborn daughter was fostered out as an infant. Along the way, Maeve encounters a man whom she thinks is Jesus’s ghost. A night of passion follows, and Maeve is now forever entwined with none other than Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, the man sent from Rome to put down the Celtic uprising being led by the Iceni Warrior Queen Boudica, the daughter Maeve lost so many years before.

What follows is written so powerfully I had a knot in my stomach as I read it, yet I could not put the book down. I know the story of Boudica; she is one of my heroines. But knowing her story, knowing what the Roman Empire did to the Iceni and the other Celtic tribes, meant I knew how the story of Boudica would and must end.

Author Elizabeth Cunningham

I wanted Cunningham to have the power to change history. I wanted the story to end with the Druids still firmly ensconced in the Holy Isles and the Celtic tribes in possession of their land. I wanted Rome defeated. But, history is history. For Cunningham to have changed the ending, to have Boudica succeed in routing out the Romans, would have cheapened the story, made it somehow absurd.

So, I settled for her weaving the mythology of Mary Magdalene into the little we know as historical fact about the final battle between Rome and the Celtic tribes. She does this so seamlessly I had to keep reminding myself this book was fiction, that very little is known about Mary Magdalene’s life, that her being the mother of Boudica, the wife of Jesus, and the mother of his only child, is all the creation of Cunninham’s incredibly fertile imagination.

While the four books of the Maeve Chronicles can stand on their own, I strongly suggest reading them in order. Magdalene Rising, the first book in the series, introduces the reader to Maeve and to Esus, a young man she first sees in a vision and later falls in love with when both are students at the Druid School on Mona. To go through the trials and horrors both Maeve and Esus live through in this first book establishes a firm grasp on the personalities and motivation for these characters. Esus–Jesus–has flaws. Maeve makes no excuses for being a whore. Cunningham portrays them as human, not gods or goddesses-to-be.

What Maeve finds on her return to the Holy Isles in Book Four would not have held nearly the power it did for me had I not experienced her exile from Mona, her life as a slave, a whore and a priestess of Isis in Rome, her experiencing the passion of Christ, and her battles with Paul of Tarsus in the books between those that take part in the Holy Isles. As I said earlier, this is a heroine’s journey, and like so many great journeys, the final destination often is the starting point of the journey. To read the books out of order is to break that circle, to jump into the marathon at its midpoint.

Red-Robed Priestess is a beautiful conclusion to the mythology of Mary Magdalene. I want to believe this is how Mary lived her life after the death of Jesus. I want this story to be real, to be true.

And, since we really know no differently, perhaps it is.

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the history of my body, by Sharon Heath

Genoa House, 2011, $19.95 print, $9.99 Kindle


How can you not be captivated by a book whose fourth sentence reads, “Maybe it all would have happened differently if the bird on the front lawn hadn’t given me my idea about my grandfather’s balls”?

Fleur Robins is an awkward child at best, with her obsession with “the void”, religion (or, more precisely, spirituality), and her place in a world where mothers withdraw and fathers abhor their offspring. Between her alcoholic mother, her emotionally and physically absentee father who crusades to save unborn babies from “devil abortionists” yet seems to dislike Fleur and other children, and a string of household helpers that include a gas-riddled ex-nun named Sister Flatulencia who are better parents to Fleur than her biological set, it seems no wonder Fleur has a penchant for pinching herself and flapping her arms when she’s stressed. The only person Fleur feels truly connected to is her grandfather, with whom she spends hours watching birds from the window of his room. But when she finds a baby bird abandoned in her father’s garden and it dies in her care, Fleur sets events in motion that take her to the outer boundaries of what is and is not thought possible.

Is Fleur simply odd, autistic, or a savant genius? When her paid companion and tutor, Adam, discovers Fleur has a mind for science, he introduces her to Stanley H. Fiske, a physics professor at Cal Tech, and Fleur goes from feeling odd and out of place to feeling odd and out of place, but with companions.

Author Sharon Heath

This is a coming of age story like none you’ve ever read before. Heath’s prose is decidedly spiritual, as when Fleur observes, “It occurred to me, then, that when people cover the earth with concrete, they close off its secret workings, making everyone so vulnerable to the void that they have to keep moving quickly.” It took me decades to understand that concept, yet here was Fleur, 13 years old, and already attuned to this basic law of Nature.

Heath’s prose is also poetic. When Fleur says goodbye to a longtime friend, she makes this observation: “I saw our sadness leaking out of us in the form of bubbles floating skywards and watched them pop in a variety of interesting patterns.” I would love to see what sort of poem the author could make from that one line. I would like to see her paint it.

This book made me laugh, especially whenever Sister Flatulencia came into a scene, trailing the odor and noise of farts behind her. It made me cry, never more than when Fleur awkwardly has his first encounter with a boy and begins to learn the heartbreak, hopefulness, and tragedies of teenaged infatuation.

Mostly, this book made me want to savor each page like I was eating a delicate peach, one so delicious I never wanted to finish it. It made me want to sit in my garden and see if I could actually observe a rosebud unfurl, something Fleur mentions she has never observed, though not for lack of wanting to.

As for Fleur’s idea about her grandfather’s balls—well, you’ll have to read that one for yourself. It is one of the most poignant scenes I’ve ever read in a book, in a book so unforgettable it will be difficult to top.

Five stars to Sharon Heath for her stunning debut novel.

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A Year in the Life of Empty, by j.e. glaze

I need to confess up front: poet j.e. glaze is a dear friend of mine. When he approached me and asked me to write a foreword to his new poetry chapbook, A Year in the Life of Empty, I was deeply honored, not because he is my friend, but because he is a poet of such talent he deserves to be heard. I wanted to be sure my words conveyed how beautiful not only his book is, but how beautiful a soul the poet has.

glaze is a humble guy: self-deprecating, perhaps a bit on the shy side. But if you want to talk books, or poetry, or spirituality, or photography, he is your go-to guy.  He is brilliant, thoughtful, terms I doubt you’d ever hear him using if asked to describe himself. These endearing qualities made it easy to write the foreword for his beautiful book. This, then, is what I wrote:

Poets, like other artists, are wanderers, searching for meaning and truth through their words, their work. Ranier Maria Rilke searched for the good, the transcendent, and for emotional truth where a belief in god did not exist. Pablo Neruda had an unquenchable thirst for love and romanticism.

In A Year in the Life of Empty, poet j.e. glaze proves that he is a wanderer like those poets who have paved the roads before him, while at the same time, blazing new pathways not yet explored. glaze seeks truth, seeks Spirit, and finds it in the simplest of things: “God spoke: / the voice of a falling feather / in my mind” (from “Bird”). He finds it in his love of the Earth, of Nature, as expressed in the poems “Fall-Spring” and “somewhere.”

Mostly, glaze joins his predecessors as a romantic, as a sensual poet who aches for a human connection, and who speaks to the reader as if s/he is the only other person on the planet: “never was a time I didn’t love you. even before / you existed, before / your name was, the / atoms sang you” (from “atom song”). We feel his want. And we feel his loss, as expressed in the poem sole.

At times, he is shockingly blunt, as in “the slaughter of meat”: “we don’t pay for meat. we pay / someone else to do our killing for us … a loving couple at dusk, / at the sink, / tear out one another’s throats” I suspect this is because of the way glaze writes. “Once the first draft is done, I would never remove anything because it’s too raw, or too true and revealing, no matter what it is,” he said to me recently. “In this way, I’m always honest and candid with myself, and this helps me grow. Otherwise, I’d be avoiding who and what I really am, and avoiding growth. Once the well is polluted with untruth, then everything that comes out of it would be tainted as well.”

Blunt can be raw, but at least with glaze, it’s honest. “I see truth or messages in everything,” he said. “It’s as if someone/thing gives me a message and I have to interpret it into writing. A leaf speaks to me. A tree. Rocks. The Earth. People.”

By far his best poems are those that can only be described as soul stroking. “now I know you, and the atoms say you / were the wind in the trees outside / my window” (“atom song”). This is the poetry I am most familiar with; this is the j.e.glaze I have known for so many years now. This is the poet who aches to be heard. Turn the page and enter his world. Read, and in the end, be changed.

To purchase A Year in the Life of Empty, click on the book cover image, above, to go directly to the publisher. To order an autographed copy, contact me, and I will put you in touch with the poet. 

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Noah’s Wife, by T. K. Thorne

I’m drawn to stories about women of the Bible. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. Elizabeth Cunningham’s marvelous Maeve Chronicles, a series of books about Mary Magdalene.  I guess it’s because so many biblical women were nothing more than inchoate shadows of their husbands. When an author is brave enough to tackle bringing one of these overlooked women to life, I want to be first in line to read their book.

Noah’s Wife is the story of Na’amah, a woman scarcely mentioned in the Bible. The year is 5500 BCE, and the time of the Goddess is fast fading. In Thorne’s beautifully told story, Na’amah has what we now know as Asperger’s Syndrome. She’d rather spend her time tending sheep in the hills with her good friend, Yanner, who loves her, than hang around the village, practicing “womanly” arts, even after marrying Noah, the boat maker, who loves her too.

But her life and desires mean nothing to her hateful and powerful brother. Only her grandmother, Savta, is her ally. Savta helps keep the Goddess alive in Na’amah, in a village where a much angrier male God is quickly becoming the main deity, and to say otherwise could mean death.

Na’amah is kidnapped by raiders, and must flee for her life. She wanders across Turkey and finds the Goddess Cave, where she is introduced to the Great Mysteries. But Yanner and Noah never are far from her thoughts. The world is about to change, and change forever, and only Na’amah, with her special gifts, knows what tragedy is about to strike. Can she save the men she loves?

I have read this book twice, and both times I devoured its 350 pages in less than a day’s time. Thorne knows how to balance setting description with action. She writes in heartbreaking prose: readers feel Na’amah’s pain, her joy, her fear. The story is fast paced, and by the time the story reaches its climax, you will be filled with terror for these characters whom you have come to love.

Thorne well deserves the awards she has won for this book. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the Goddess, women’s thealogy, and ancient history.


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Shame the Devil, by Debra Brenegan

$16.47 Hardcover (Amazon); $9.99 Kindle Edition

I am a well-read person; I’ve read the classics. I read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott when I was eight; Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë at ten. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe my freshman year in high school, along with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was one of the first poetry collections I ever owned.

These great authors were all contemporaries of one another, yet at the time they lived and wrote, their stars dimmed next to that of another author, Fanny Fern.

So why is it that, until I picked up a copy of Shame the Devil, I had never even heard of Fanny Fern?

Growing up in the early to mid-1800s, young Sara Willis would much rather be barefoot in the garden than inside practicing the “womanly arts.” Her father loves her, but fears for her immortal soul because of her free spirit. He sends her to the school for young ladies run by Catharine Stowe, where Sara befriends not only the school mistress but her younger sister, Harriet, as well.

But school cannot tame Sara (thank goodness, in my mind). Fortunately, she falls in love with Charly, and her father no longer has to worry about her, as she is now a wife and under Charly’s thumb—the only real profession a young lady of that day and age was supposed to aspire to.

Then tragedy strikes, and Sara loses many of the people most dear to her, including Charly. What follows is hunger, near-homelessness, a struggle to raise two daughters, a second, abusive marriage, and a desperation rarely felt by men of the day.

But Sara has a talent: she is a gifted writer. Day after day, she tirelessly pens newspaper columns and drags her youngest daughter from newspaper office to newspaper office, peddling her words. And, slowly, Sara—who has now taken the pen name Fanny Fern—changes her life, and the lives of her children.

This story could almost sound like a fairy tale if not for two things: first, it is based on a true story. Author Debra Brenegan meticulously researched her characters, and while no one knows for certain exactly what took place during intimate dinners with friends like the Beecher sisters, or the exact words during lively conversations with Walt Whitman and other thinkers of the day, the armature of the story is accurate.

Second, despite the wealth Fanny acquires, she never allows her children—or herself—to forget the status (or lack thereof) women on their own hold in society. She pays regular visits to orphanages, and insane asylums for women, hoping her mere presence will prevent abuse of women whose only crime, whose only illness, is that their husbands decided they did not want them anymore. Through her words, she works tirelessly to improve the lot of women, black and white. Fanny is definitely not a fairy tale princess.

Brenegan’s prose is sparse and spot-on. There is little description of setting; one small attic Fanny lives in is described as having a broken pane of glass in its tiny window. Yet this is all the reader needs to envision the horror, the cold, the damp darkness of not only the room, but of Fanny’s mental state, if she allowed that cold darkness in. And there are times when exhaustion, hunger, and desperation almost take her to that dark space. But this woman has Fire with a capital “F”; Spirit with a capital “S”. She does not allow herself to descend into that place.

Yes, I am a well-read person who has enjoyed reading the classics for nearly fifty years. After finishing Brenegan’s fine book last evening, I immediately went to Amazon and downloaded copies of two of Fern’s looks, Ruth Hall and Little Ferns for Fanny’s Little Friends, a book she wrote for children. When I have finished reading them, I will consider myself even a better-read person.

Shame the Devil is a book every woman writer who has ever received a rejection, every woman writer who has every almost given up her dream of writing, every woman writer period should read. Every woman who may have forgotten how a handful of women 150 years ago struggled to make things right for women today need to read this book and remember.

But don’t get me wrong: this is definitely not chick lit. Men, too, need to read this inspiring tale of a woman who would not take no for an answer. I am so tempted to purchase a copy and send it to VS Naipaul, who, last May, so famously stated that no woman was his “literary match.”

Mr. Naipaul, Fanny Fern was your literary match. And I am most grateful to Debra Brenegan for bringing her to life so beautifully.

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Free Vanilla Heart Winter Sampler

A Gift For You…

click A Gift for You above to instantly download your Gift!

In this complimentary sampler, you will find generous samples of novels by our Core Group Authors…along with Book Club and Reader Extras for each title with full color 3D cover, author biography and photo, Book Club Discussion Starters, and printable full color bookmarks.

Each author is available by phone, internet chat, or Skype (in some cases) to join you at a book gathering. Just email our Club Department at for easy access. Please include contact information, preferred gathering dates, and title of your selection.

Also, these authors can send you an autographed cover page through Kindlegraph and if you would like a personalized inscription, please let us know in the Kindlegraph contact information. Each author’s Kindlegraph page is listed at the end of this book.

Thanks for Reading!

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