Music To Write To: Curtis Harding

When I first heard this song I thought that Curtis Harding was a Motown great I'd somehow missed. I heard echoes of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Smokey Robinson in his voice. He is indeed from Michigan and steeped in the musical traditions of gospel and soul, but his latest album came out in 2017.

Here's the title song: "Face Your Fear."

Music To Write To: I Shall Not Be Moved

Most of us know this song as a civil rights anthem, in the form of "We Shall Not Be Moved." It began its life as an African-American spiritual, with its roots in slavery, but was first published as a hymn late in the 19th century, and has been sung both as a hymn and a song of protest ever since.

I like Johnny Cash's version, for the purity of the lyrics, and Mississippi John Hurt's, for the beauty of the arrangement. For anyone who wants to recall the Movement, there is also a 1964 cover by The Seekers.



What I'm Reading: Jo Walton

Even though I read a lot of historical fiction, I like science fiction and fantasy, especially books where the two genres collide. Jo Walton's book Among Others tells an unusual coming-of-age story. The narrator, a fifteen-year-old girl who is an outsider at her English private school, is entranced by science fiction. But she can also see fairies--dark and shadowy ones--and feel the effects of magic, also dark and shadowy.  I was entranced, too--I stayed up too late reading it.

Hidden Figures: Martha Griffith Browne

Martha Griffith Browne BPL.jpg

Martha Griffith Browne is little-known today, but in her day, the 1850s, she was a renowned author who wrote a novel about slavery in the wake of the success of Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Browne's book, The Autobiography of a Female Slave, published in 1856, seemed so realistic to its anti-slavery readers that they assumed it was a slave narrative.

It was not. Browne was from a slave-owning family in Kentucky; once she became an Abolitionist, she freed her slaves and moved North. She wrote another novel in 1859, Madge Vertner, but it did not achieve the success of her first.

Image courtesy of the Boston Public Library Portrait Division.

What I'm Reading: Malla Nunn's Emmanuel Cooper Series

I discovered Malla Nunn's book A Beautiful Place to Die the old-fashioned way, on the library shelf. She was born in Swaziland, and even though she grew up and still lives in Australia, her memories of Africa have informed all of her books. Imagine, if you can, detective Philip Marlowe transplanted to South Africa in the early 1950s, with a racially-tormented conscience in a racially rigid society where cultural mixing is dangerous. Apartheid noir.

There are four books in the series, and I recommend all of them.

Passover Starts Tonight

I've always loved the message of the Seder, and even more, after having written about slavery in the United States for so long. The connection is still alive and well.

M'avdut l'herut--from slavery to freedom! A good Passover to all.

Sister of Mine Wins 2017 Audie Award for Fiction

When my book, Sister of Mine, became a finalist for the 2017 Audie Awards for fiction, I was pretty surprised. The book was in some distinguished company.

And when I learned yesterday that Sister of Mine had been named the winner, I nearly fell off my chair. It's a great honor, and all heartfelt congratulations to my wonderful and talented narrator, Bahni Turpin, the whole production team at Brilliance Publishing, and everyone atLake Union Publishing as well.

A friend kidded me, "Now you'll have to put stickers on all your books!" And I'm laughing, thinking, Where do we put the stickers on the digital audiobooks?

It's great to win!

Discussion Guide for Sister of Mine Now Available

Now that I've received more than one request for a discussion guide, I decided to post it on my website. I'm always very happy when book clubs decide to read my book and share their thoughts an feeling about it. If your book club has chosen the book and would like a few questions, you can find them here. Please feel free to adapt, use, and share them!

For those of you who are reading the earlier edition, Slave and Sister, be reassured that the main changes to the new editon are to the title and the cover. The story is the same.

Sister of Mine a 2017 Audie Award Finalist for Fiction

When I learned that the audiobook version of Sister of Mine had been nominated for the award that the Audio Publishers Association likes to call its "Oscar," I was pleasantly surprised. Yesterday, when my book was shortlisted in the Fiction category, I was stunned and delighted
in equal measure.

Winners will be announced in June, but as with the Oscar, getting onto the short list is an honor in itself. I'm in very distinguished company--Stephen King and Julian Fellowes, among others, are fiction short-listers as well. Thanks and congratulations are in order to the talented Bahni Turpin, who brought the book to life as the narrator.

The audiobook is available on both Amazon and Audible.

A Post-Election Glimmer of Light

When I got up on the morning after the presidential election, I was feeling disheartened. This campaign has been hard to watch, from start to finish, whatever your political affiliation. But I had a pleasanter surprise on that post-election morning.

My second book, Freedom’s Island, ordinarily gets much less attention than my first, Sister of Mine. But on November 8th and 9th, readers found Freedom’s Island, borrowed it, and read it with such intensity that it’s showing a spike in pages read that I’ve never seen before.

Freedom’s Island, set in 1886, is the story of an all-black Mississippi town that stands up to intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan, led by a man who lets go the bitterness of his past. It’s a tale of courage and hope in the face of hatred, and in a shadowed moment in the present, I hope that it can offer readers a glimmer of light.

With that hope in mind, I’m discounting the e-book to $2.99 for the remainder of 2016. Please take a look at it. We need more glimmers of light.

SOM News: Still Time for a Discount

My grandpa, who grew up painfully poor in Poland in the 1890s, relished a bargain for the rest of his life. Well into his ninth decade, he walked blocks in the heat of Miami Beach to save a few cents on oranges or cream soda.

So he'd be pleased to know that my book, Sister of Mine, can be had at a discount. Throughout the month of September, for readers in the U. S., the Kindle version of the book is reduced to $1.99 (regular price $3.99). And for those enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, it's an even better bargain--it's free. My grandpa would kvell to know.

Keep reading!

What I’m Reading: Kristin Levine, The Lions of Little Rock

In keeping with my serendipitous approach to discovering books, I found Kristin Levine’s book, The Lions of Little Rock, in the Little Free Library down the street. I read a fair number of books that I enjoy as a reader, but this one also filled me with admiration as a writer.

The Lions of Little Rock is historical fiction aimed at adolescent readers. It covers the historical moment in the year after Little Rock’s schools were desegregated, under the blaze of publicity and the eye of the nation. The subsequent year was quieter but no less fraught with conflict for the residents of Little Rock, black and white, and no less perilous, either.

The book is the story of an unusual and difficult friendship between a shy white girl and an outgoing black girl, who befriends her. Their friendship unfolds in a context of racism and violence, and while the connection between the two girls is sweet, the events in the wider world are not. Levine doesn’t ignore or sugarcoat the historical record, even though she’s writing about the kind of dangerous and fearful things that many people would consider inappropriate for children to read.

I won’t give away the details of the story—I recommend that anyone who cares about racial justice and overcoming prejudice read the book—but I can say that I read this book with a lump in my throat. Sentiment is out of fashion in grown-up literature in this century, but thankfully kids’ books get a pass. I felt like I needed a hankie at the end of the story, in the best possible way.

As a writer of historical fiction, I was full of admiration for Levine’s deft touch. It isn’t easy to write a story that’s historically true, both in its details and in its atmosphere, and she has done it. And it’s even harder to write in a pitch-perfect adolescent voice, and she’s done that as well. I write for adults, but there are elements in Levine’s writing that inspire me. I hope that my books do as well in reaching readers across the historical divide, and in making them smile and sniffle at the same time.


History: The Minnesota State Fair, 1903

I live in Minnesota, a once-agricultural state where the state fair remains a big deal. Growing up, I assumed that every state held its annual fair in the biggest city, and I committed the ultimate hayseed gaffe at Harvard, asking a Manhattanite if Gotham hosted the event. (I later learned where the New York state fair is—on a cross-country trip, I had the misfortune to look for a hotel room in Syracuse on the day it opened.)

So I was delighted to find a photograph that speaks both to to my interest in African-American history and my pride as a Minnesotan. The photographer, Frances Benjamin Johnston, was best known for her portraits of the day’s celebrities, but she took pictures wherever she went.  In 1903, she toured the western United States (everything west of Ohio was considered west) and stopped at the Minnesota State Fair, where a group of African-American women, visitors to the fair, caught her eye.

To this day, Minnesota’s state fair is a great leveler, and everyone goes there—farmers, urbanites, suburbanites, people who like farm animals, people who like farm machinery, people who like the midway, and people who like music. This year, sadly, the Minnesota State Fair is honoring Prince. I wonder what Frances Benjamin Johnston would make of it.

History: A Cat May Look at a King

In short succession, I read Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Jackie Robinson and saw Ken Burns’ documentary about him. Robinson had greater historical moments, but I was struck by this photograph of Robinson as he left the Dodgers’ clubhouse for the last time. The clubhouse cat sits in the doorway, gazing at the king of baseball. It is the oddest and saddest image—burly Robinson, with his bag jauntily slung over his shoulder, and the cat, so small and quizzical. I’m sentimental about cats and emotional about race, so this photo really got to me.