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Showing posts from October, 2007

Who’s cooler than Jana DeLeon? (Apparently, no one.)

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Jana DeLeon is touring the Girlfriend Cyber Circuit this week with her sophomore novel Unlucky. Her debut, Rumble on the Bayou, enjoyed brisk sales and plenty of review love. A tough act to follow. But with a fresh spin on a unique setting, Unlucky buzz is building. We caught up with Jana for a few minutes of conversation with an author whose lousy luck might turn into her big break.

First things first. Tell us about the book and where it came from.
Unlucky is about a woman with luck so bad it’s a statistical improbability. She’s using her bad luck to her favor by working as a “cooler” at her uncle’s casino during a private poker tournament of criminals. (A cooler is a person so unlucky that casinos hire them to sit at a hot table and shut the other players down.) The inspiration for my heroine was easy – she’s me. I have absolutely, positively no luck at cards. In fact, it’s so bad that if I sit down at a table to play, not only do I lose, but everyone at the table does also.

My husband…

Face Plants and the Definition of Success

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"Show me a guy who's afraid to look bad, and I'll show you a guy you can beat every time."

- Rene Auberjonois

If a writer doesn't take risks, doesn't chance looking like a fool from time to time, the work becomes derivative, a pale imitation of the work of others. By taking the safe course, one can achieve modest successes, but only by forging ahead of the curve can an author -- or any artist or businessperson -- have a shot at breaking out into uncharted territory.

Barbara Dawson Smith, an award-winning, NYT bestselling novelist I very much respect, once said (and I'm paraphrasing because my memory isn't perfect): "My goal isn't to have my books picked up by people browsing the bookstore looking for another historical romance. I want them to go looking for a Barbara Dawson Smith book in particular. I want mine to be the novel picked up by those readers who only purchase two to three books a year."

It's a worthy goal, and one I share (…

GCC Presents Jana DeLeon's UNLUCKY

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Although hard work, talent, business smarts, and perseverance are all key factors in a successful writing career, a body can't underestimate the importance of luck. Which is why I find it so interesting that fellow Dorchester romantic suspense author Jana DeLeon has scored with the release of a brand-spanking-new novel about the unluckiest chick imaginable. According to the blurb:

Her luck’s so bad it’s a crime.

Everyone in Royal Flush, Louisiana, knows Mallory Devereaux is a walking disaster. At least now she’s found a way to take advantage of her chronic bad luck: by “cooling” cards on her uncle’s casino boat. As long as the crooks invited to his special poker tournament don’t win their money back, she’ll get a cut of the profit.

But Mal isn’t the only one working some major mojo. There’s a dark-eyed dealer sending her looks steamier than the bayou in August. Turns out he’s an undercover agent named Jake Randoll, and for a Yank, he’s pretty darn smart. Smart enough to enlist …

No whine before it's time: Orson Welles reveals the hideous glory of hard times

"In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed—they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!"
It's said that this bit of dialogue was vamped by Orson Welles during filming of The Third Man and was kept because -- well, because he bloody well wanted it kept. He was a great artist, after all. A genius.

Discovering me in the depths of despair in my office one day, my son made me view these two videos. I have them bookmarked just in case I ever take myself too seriously or wax too melancholy about the vagaries of artistic endeavor or forget the refining fire that is hard times.



I especially love the part where he finally begs, "What is you you want? What? In the depths of your ignorance?" as cast and crew struggle through this radio commercial for frozen peas.

If you want to hear the writing gods laugh...

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If you want to hear the writing gods laugh, tell them your plans. Or better yet, tell your agent or editor your plans, in the form of the synopsis submitted with your proposal. Assuming that all goes well and you sell the thing, there with still be plenty of pages left to write. Pages in which your mind will run amok.

This happens to me frequently. I'll have a great idea all mapped out. Something simple and elegant that doesn't too badly strain my abilities. But after the sale, as I get to writing the novel, I start having better ideas. More convoluted ideas, for certain, which will be much more challenging to pull off but suddenly seem so much more interesting.

According to my editor (who is often surprised by my book's endings, which bear so little resemblance to the ones in the synopses), this is very common. So long as the marketing hook and premise remain unchanged and everything hangs together, no one in the publishing house gets upset about this. In point of fact, the…

Lucy's elbow: Joni's writing parable du jour

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Gary pried me loose from my desk for a few hours yesterday and took me to the Houston Museum of Natural Science to see Lucy's Legacy, an international exhibition organized in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Exhibition Coordinating Committee. After strolling through a beautiful but de rigueur display of artifacts and art, we stood mesmerized for a full hour in front of Lucy -- "stones, not bones," Gary reminded me -- the fossilized remains of a by-God upright walking, tool-whacking Australopithecus female, who lived approximately 3.8 million years ago.

As we scrutinized Lucy's bits and pieces, comparing the laid out real deal with the fully fleshed forensic model that surveys the crowd with a benignly wry expression, we listened to the story of how Lucy was found by Donald Johanson and Tom Gray in 1974 at a dig near Hadar. They'd gone out early that morning to map another spot …

Never Tell Me the Odds

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I am not a numbers person. Instead, I turn my mind to words and scenes, to characters and -- as Joni calls them -- plot bombs.

Maybe that's why I can't stand it when people talk about the odds. The odds against a given individual finishing a novel, finding a decent agent for it, selling it to a major publishing house, getting noticed once it's "out there." They talk about the unlikelihood of said given individual still being in the business after the release of two novels, of four, or of making a real living instead of being the family white elephant.

I am not "any given individual," I'm a writer. A novelist, in my case, which means I have to have the hide of a rhino and, in some respects, the myopia as well. So don't tell me, show me, or rub my nose in all the reasons "no one" can make it in this business. Just get the hell out of my way while I'm charging toward a story.

So what about you? Are you daunted by the odds against you? O…

Leon Hale with a few things you might not want to hear about publishing

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I knew I was in for something good when I heard Gary laughing out loud at Starbucks this morning as he read Leon Hale's column in today's Houston Chronicle.

The rumor I'm hearing is that you're writing a book. Is that true?

Well, why not? Half the planet's population seems to be writing books, and the other half is probably threatening to do it...

...since you've already decided to go through with this iffy enterprise, let's say you do finish your manuscript, and it's published, and you get a couple of favorable reviews from critics who have actually read more than the text on the dust-jacket flap.

Now you're faced with going onto the battlefield to promote your creation. You stop being a writer and become a salesman.

You may say, "I don't want to be a salesman. I'm an artist. I want my work to live or die on its merit. Look at Cormac McCarthy. He doesn't promote his books, and they sell by the tens of thousands."

Trust me on this — …

It's Not Easy Being Mean

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I feel like such a creep. I just wasted a character I've really grown to love, a character I have no doubt that readers will adore, too. I'd planned this character's demise from the outset, written it into the synopsis and plotted a good deal of the book around it, from events that propel the story forward to the character arc that will bring the protagonist to full fruition.

I still want to take it back. I thought about it long and hard, but no other event would equal this death's impact. You can't just march in a stranger, snuff 'im, and expect the reader to experience any real emotion. Instead, you have to develop the "victim" as you would any other character. Otherwise you end up with a Star Trek-style Red Shirt, one everyone can guess is doomed from the outset.

Writers don't (or shouldn't) randomly wax characters just because things are feeling a bit boring. We put a lot of thought, a lot of love (believe it or not) into the decision. We do…

The writer down the block: Lydia Davis on an author's place in the community

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Scanning interviews with this year's National Book Award noms, I found comments by Lydia Davis (nominated for her story collection Varieties of Disturbance) particularly refreshing and down to earth.

Asked about the role of the writer "in a country such as ours, where reading is in such a state of crisis", Davis responded evenly:

I don't want to say how discouraging I find the decline of reading. I suppose as a fiction writer all one can do is be a friendly, positive "representative" of writers and writing among the larger public that doesn't read much--and hope at least to remind people that writers exist and have recognizable human form. In both my former and my present neighborhoods I have been glad to be one of the local writers, the writer down the block, organizing a reading series at the local library, or meeting with the girl scout troop to talk about what they read, etc.--and my neighbors in turn have enjoyed talking to me about writing and books…

The second worst book signing ever?

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Having read Colleen's post below, I know what I did wrong at this event. I should have showed up with a hundred grand to give away. I am still thinking big, however, and harboring hopes of kicking ass.

The Worst Best Book Signing Ever

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Forget what you've seen on TV. Book signings are rarely anything more than quiet affairs. A few bookish friends show, a handful of dedicated fans (if you're lucky), and whatever strangers are drawn to the type of book you're signing or the quaint idea of meeting a "real, live author." Aside from that, you meet the odd person wanting directions to the restrooms or to know where the latest issue of Skin Art Quarterly is shelved. A lot of working-class authors (huge superstars excluded) feel a successful two-hour signing is one where 20, 15, 10, or even 5 signed books are sold.

Unless you've been on TV. Or you're giving away money.

That's right. Paying cash. To people willing to stand in line for your book signing, as The Learning Annex has with Donald's Trump's new book (written with Bill Zanker), Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life. A hundred bucks a pop for the first hundred folks in line (many of whom took off after pocketing their loot…

"Every crooked pot has a crooked cover." (A conversation with Renee Rosen)

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Earlier this week, Colleen introduced us to Every Crooked Pot, a lovely coming of age story by Renee Rosen, who's making the rounds on the Girlfriends Cyber Circtuit this week. It took me a couple days to catch up with her for our traditional latte and cyber chat.

Renee, I’m intrigued by the title Every Crooked Pot. Where did it come from?
The title references an old Yiddish expression that 'Every crooked pot has a crooked cover.' In other words, there's someone for everyone and that we love people not just in spite of their flaws but because of them. This title was a gift from a dear friend of mine. Her mother used to tell her that expression and I just loved it.
I dedicated the book to my family and the memory of my father. Though the Rosen clan is very different from the Goldman's, I grew up in a household full of love and laughter (and sometimes tears). My father was an amazing man who provided me with a lifetime of material. The most lovable aspects of Artie can …

Celebrating Some Good News

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I've received some lovely news regarding my upcoming romantic suspense novel, THE SALT MAIDEN (Leisure Books, Dec. 2007). Romantic Times BookClub Magazine has named it a Top Pick. Here's what the (brilliant, much-appreciated) reviewer, Marilyn Weigel, had to say:

"Poetic use of language, intricate plotting and a wealth of fascinating details make Thompson's latest novel a masterful work of suspense. Readers will come for the action and stay for the three-dimensional characters and well-crafted narrative. This is a fabulous read!"

See how perceptive she is? LOL.

Barbara Vey also e-mailed to let me know that THE SALT MAIDEN got a nice mention in her Publisher's Weekly Blog, Beyond Her Book. Thanks, Barbara, and thanks to Jan, who called the book a "couldn't put down until I knew whodunit" read.

GCC Presents Renee Rosen's Every Crooked Pot

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This week on the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit, I'm taking a look at author Renee Rosen'sEvery Crooked Pot (St. Martins, Minotaur, July 2007). Written in the form of a memoir, this coming of age story draws on Rosen's own background, since like the book's narrator, Nina, she was born with a birthmark popularly known as a "port wine stain" and grew up in Akron, Ohio. Though the story is a novel, the emotions feel rich and authentic, and anyone who's every had self-image issues (shyly raising my hand here) or struggled to fit in (waving hand frantically) will relate to Nina's journey.

The critics have seriously been digging on this one. Here are a few of the highlights:
"In a debut novel that could easily have been published as an adult memoir, Rosen looks back at the life of Nina Goldman, whose growing up is tied to two pillars: a port-wine stain around her eye and her inimitable father, Artie... There's real power in the writing as well as a subtle…

Reconnecting with Life

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Don't get me wrong. Focus is essential to the writer. But too much focus can be stifling. When we live solely in our heads, we miss out on so many great stories, stories that can only come to us through other people, other places, different realities.

I met some amazing women this past week in Montana. All of them have narratives and settings, dreams and disappointments. Hopes.

Had I remained in my cave, chipping away at my deadline, I would have missed the opportunity to connect with them, an act which, for all I know, may have planted the seeds for my next crop of fiction. Because writers process life that way, and this trip has given me so much to ponder.

For example: Why do I live in the Houston area, where it's 90 and humid in the middle of October? And why does Joni Rodgers (left) have steam coming out of her head in the middle photo? I'm really not that annoying on a road trip.

Am I?

The best worst book signing ever

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Bopping around my old stomping grounds in Helena today, I passed my old self on Last Chance Gulch, saw a younger Joni reflected in the window of Rock's Western Bar and the No Sweat Cafe, and bumped into the disc jockey me on my way into Montana Book Company. One of my favorite bookstores anywhere and scene of the best worst book signing ever.

Back in the day, before I was (or even knew I wanted to be) a writer, I went to Montana Book Company to get A.B. Guthrie's autograph on Gary's dog-eared first edition copy of The Big Sky. I hiked down the Gulch, thinking I'd be standing in line for at least an hour, but when I got to the book store, there was only a kindly old guy sitting in a rocking chair, reading a fly-fishing guide. I sat on the floor and chatted with Mr. Guthrie for almost two hours. He seemed glad for the company.

Yeah. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Sat there talking to some chippie kid about fly fishing and forest fires and books for two hours while nobody…

Mending in the mountains

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Taking a moment to check in from Montana. Colleen and I are both huffing and puffing up here in the rarified air of Big Sky, but we both feel energized by the natural magnificence of the place, the amazing generosity of our hosts (the Wellness Community), and the vibrant, wide-open hearts and minds of the women who came here for "Mending in the Mountains."

This extraordinary event brings sixty women cancer survivors together for a weekend at the stunning Lone Mountain Ranch near Big Sky, Montana. There's a harpist playing during the healthy breakfast, local massage therapists and cosmetologists and others have donated services for "spa time", guided spirited walks teach us to cherish every breath. Every detail of the weekend has been orchestrated to nurture, comfort, and shelter the participants.

What's different about this event from every other even I've ever spoke for is the focus on wellness instead of cancer. Usually, I'm the opening act for a b…

And yes, the sky really IS bigger!

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This is my brain:


This is my brain on Montana:


Any questions?

Filling the Well

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In her brilliant book The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron teaches us that creativity is not an inexhaustible resource. But it is, thank goodness, renewable. She uses the term "filling the well" to describe the process of replenishing our store of images and experiences so we'll have more to draw upon when we return to our work.

Cameron's not the first to speak of this. In her classic Gift from the Sea Anne Morrow Lindbergh speaks of the importance of nurturing ourselves by taking time to contemplate, meditate, and enjoy those quiet, beautiful places the world offers.

It's in this spirit that I'm stealing a few days from the manuscript in progress and making my first trip to Montana, thanks to BtO cohort Joni Rodgers. There are lots of things I'd like to do and see, but mostly, I just hope to live fully in each moment and listen to the quiet trickling of my well as it refills.

Outward bound: Andrew Beierle on tour

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A while back, I posted about the freakishly fascinating First Person Plural by Andrew W. M. Beierle, which is getting lots of critic love (“astonishing,” “a wholly original, wildly imaginative achievement,” that sort of thing). Last month, a review in Outsmart, Houston's GLBT magazine chimed in:
Author Andrew W.M. Beierle deals with issues around coming out, family, identity, and self-determination, which makes First Person Plural not only a magnificent story, but a morality tale about tolerance, love, and loyalty.
Andrew checked into let us know he's about to set out on an eight-city national book tour.
4 PM Saturday, Oct. 20
Webster's Bookstore Cafe
128 South Allen St.
State College, PA 16801

7:30 PM Wednesday, Oct. 24
A Different Light Bookstore
489 Castro St.
San Francisco, CA 94114

7:30 PM Tuesday, October 30
A Different Light Bookstore
8853 Santa Monica Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA 90069

8 PM, Friday, Nov. 2
Outwrite Bookstore & Coffeehouse
991 Piedmont Ave.
Atlanta, GA 30309

7 PM, T…

Some Days, This Work Is Just Plain Cool

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I had one of those rare days yesterday where I'm really deep into the story, lighting like a butterfly on various tweaks here and there, making solid forward progress with a respectable number of pages. The focus was all there, but near day's end, when I took a moment to come up for air, I had one of those moments of awareness that this *is* happiness for me.

Of course, someone else put it more eloquently:


"Nothing contributes so much to tranquilizing the mind as a steady purpose - a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye."

- Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

I hope today you'll let reviews, rejection, and reality fall by the wayside and take a moment to simply be happy in the work.

A Poem for all Writers

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While we're on the subject of poetry, here's one that's stuck with me since I first made its acquaintance back in Nineteen(mumble-mumble) in some review of American literature. Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan colonist is considered the first American female poet, but her early publication is a strange tale. Apparently, her brother-in-law took her work -- without her knowledge or permission -- to England, where it was successfully published in the collection: The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, By a Gentlewoman of Those Parts. The brother-in-law, I'm sure, felt he was doing Anne a favor, and in that paternalistic society, she had little choice but to go along to get along. But in her most famous poem, below, she describes a mixture of pride and mortification that I think every writer can relate to.

The Author To Her Book

by Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth did's…

A silky Sunday trifle

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My high school teacher, Gale Peterson, was a horrible little gimlet. The best way I can explain what I mean is...if Bilbo Baggins and Anne Coulter had a baby together, Petey would be the unholy fruit of that union. But I sort of fell in love with him one day during my senior year.

Of the five people taking Advanced British Lit, I was the only one who'd enrolled in the class voluntarily. The others were draftees and mostly unconscious, so if there was reading aloud to be done, I was almost always it. During a unit on the Cavalier Poets, he commanded me to read a piece by Robert Herrick, which I did out of fear for my immortal soul, and when I ended and looked up, expecting to be excoriated for one reason or another, Petey sat stricken, unable to speak, his eyes welling. In the moment was all the unrequited love of his life -- for some woman, for his students, for poetry he could never write, only long to hear read in the voice of a kindred spirit who loved the language almost as dea…

The Synopsis Is Your Friend. Yeah, Really.

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During my quest to become a published author, there were few hurdles so fearful as the completion of a synopsis (known to some as the plot outline). I so badly hated the idea of boiling down my gi-normous tome that I put it off until completing the manuscript. Then, sure enough, the boiling-down process was as painful and laborious as I'd imagined.

All that changed in the wake of my first sale, after which my agent told me I didn't have to complete my half-finished second historical romance (what I was writing at the time) to sell it. All I had to do was polish up the first three chapters and send them along with a synopsis. This idea (the book being sold *before* completion)was powerfully tantalizing, but the thought of writing the synopsis ahead of time scared the heck out of me. Since I always thought of myself as a seat-of-the-pants writer, how could I know ahead of time what I would be writing? And later, if it sold, what if I grew bored with the book since I already knew …

F()@# Censorship! It's Banned Books Week

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A few years back, I was at a trade event where I shared a signing table with Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. She's a very sweet, diminutive lady who reminds me a lot of my sweet, diminutive mother. She is funny. She is kind. She is smart. And she is not, I feel safe assuring you, about to bring about the ruin of Western Civilization. I am frankly befuddled about why she consistently shows up on the American Library Association's yearly list of most banned and/or challenged books. In fact, the whole idea of banning books leaves me pretty befuddled, and you are invited to join me and millions of befuddled others in the celebration of Banned Books Week.

Bake a cake. Light a candle. Drop a few F-bombs. (Or click here to search for Banned Books Week Read Outs and other events in your area.) Whatever fits into your belief system. Just think about it. That's all the American Library Association is really asking us to do. The problem is, it's a hard thing to think about. When we suppo…

Boundaries

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Every writer -- every human being, for that matter -- must have boundaries. If we didn't, people would walk all over us. Most of the time, they wouldn't mean to hurt us, but in looking out for their own needs, they'd simply forget that we had a set of our own. And it's not up to others to remember we need the time and space and support to be creative. If it's not important enough for us to politely but firmly insist upon, why should it be important to anybody else?

I like to keep my boundaries clear and visible but permeable, not a razor-wire security fence, but something permeable and friendly, more of a visible reminder than a real deterrent. I want to be able to reach through or over, to offer a helping hand when I so choose. But I don't want to feel encroached upon or obligated.

So what can you do to make writing boundaries work for you?
1. Carve out a given number of hours, pages, or words to produce nearly every day for writing. Insist upon the sanctity of t…

"And then what?": Judy Larsen speculates on fear, forgiveness, and story

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Judy Larsen is touring the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit this week, talking about her debut novel All the Numbers, published last summer by Ballantine. Judy's got one of those "how I became an overnight success in only twenty years" stories. The beginning we all recognize. The fairy tale ending (which is a very fine beginning) kinda makes us cry ourselves to sleep. We had to start by asking her about it.

Okay, Girlfriend. We promise not to hate you. How did this first novel happen?
I've wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl, and I even took creative writing classes when I was in college. But, I got practical for a little while and got a degree in English and Education--so I taught high school for 15 years, all the while thinking I needed to find time to write a novel. Finally, the summer before I turned 40 (my self-imposed deadline), I wrote a first draft of All the Numbers. I then spent the next 5 years revising and collecting rejection letters from agents. …

Sometimes, It's All About the Angst

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Sometimes, you just need a book to rip your heart out. There’s something cathartic in a beautifully-written book that expresses our darkest parental nightmares, something that teaches us that people can survive the worst and heal and live again. For me, such books as At Risk, by Alice Hoffman, The Deep End of the Ocean, by Jacquelyn Mitchard, and Ordinary People, by Judith Guest, filled such a need. And now fellow Girlfriends Cyber Circuit member Judy Merrill Larsen has come along with a devastating but beautiful debut called All the Numbers, with promises to break our hearts anew.

A high school English teacher with five children of her own, Larsen brings an authenticity to parental loss. Target hailed the book as its “Breakout Debut” in September 2006. Booklist calls it “compelling” and adds: “Larsen depicts a mother’s year of grief and recovery with a sure and honest voice.” But it’s Hillary Williams of Bookloons who really says it all: “Keep a box of tissues nearby while reading All…