Review: MR TIMOTHY by Louis Bayard

Over the holiday, I reread a book I’d loved the first time I encountered it: Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard. Originally published in 2003, the book is a literary thriller. If you enjoy a good mystery wrapped in history, poignance, and a great tip of the hat to a well-known piece of literature, Mr. Timothy won’t disappoint.

Bayard breaks your heart with his portrayal of Timothy Cratchit — yes, that Cratchit, Tiny Tim from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Now a young man, Timothy is adrift in life, supported by monthly payments from his “Uncle N,” Ebenezer Scrooge, whose home is now perpetually decorated for Christmas and whose generosity is so well-known that a queue of donation-seeking do-gooders fills his parlor waiting for audiences.

But Scrooge’s munificence colors Timothy’s life in a softly malignant way. Instead of finding his way to great things or even a modest occupation, Timothy suffers from the ennui of the existentially disappointed.

About a third of the way into the novel, Bayard sums up Timothy’s problem with a poignant “letter” from the protagonist to his now-dead father, Bob Cratchit. Timothy writes:

Are you ready for a story, Father?

A young boy — roses blooming in the hollows of his cheeks — is deprived by cruel Fate of the use of one limb. He is clasped in the bosom of a warm, distracted family, who dote upon him but fail to understand his intrinsic worth. For this boy, the reader soon learns, is nothing less than a changeling, a prince of nature, whose birthright was stolen from him in infancy (even as his leg was robbed of its motive force). The infamy might have stood uncorrected were it not for the intervention of a kindly family friend who detects something unusual in the boy, something no one else can see, the boy least of all…And so this kindly old gentleman resolves to restore the changeling to his proper place in the cosmic hierarchy — to raise him up, as it were, to the life for which he was originally destined…

…he sits, still dreaming, still waiting for The Event, which is his private term for the public realization of his destiny. He envisions it as a carriage, a grey brougham pausing at the curb in front of his house, openings its door.

The carriage never comes.

How can you read that and not throb with the heartache of Timothy as a boy, to whom “much was given” and thus “much expected.” He ends up disappointing himself, though, as he waits for that “carriage,” never settling on anything of value to do other than tutoring the madam of a whorehouse, teaching her to read.

164792500But it is near this den of prostitution that he encounters a mystery–the corpse of a young girl whose body has been branded with a stylized “G.” Soon after, he encounters another young girl, aged ten, on the run. And the mystery truly begins — who is she running from, what does the “G” signify, and who in the halls of Scotland Yard and the peerage is involved in a dark and ugly crime?

Timothy solves the puzzle, eventually, but not before experiencing thrilling adventures which involve good policemen and bad, London carriage drivers, a likable (and ill-fated) river dredger, prostitutes, other members of the Cratchit family, a young man on the con, “Uncle N,” and the strong, resolute little girl, Philomela, who started his detective journey. The story winds through life in Victorian London like the snow swirling on Christmas Day, a fitting ending point for this complicated tale that combines pathos with page-turning mystery.

The pathos comes mostly in the form of Timothy’s reflections on his late father. He sees him everywhere, and if you have lost a family member, you will know precisely what he is going through as he sees the body shape, the face, the physical attitude of his father in men he chances upon. But it is in his “letters” to his dad that his grief pours out, his grief at having discovered, too late, just how much he loved the tender man who’d carried him on his shoulders everywhere to spare him walking with a crutch.

I reread Mr. Timothy on my Kindle. I’ll now look for a print copy. This is a book to own as an object as well as a story.

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I sold a “book of my heart”!

Some authors write to the market, others what the spirit moves them to create. I do a little of both. I’ve written books I thought should do well in the marketplace because of their genre (and sometimes been wrong about that) and novels that we writers call “books of the heart.”

I’m proud, excited, pleased, giddy, elated…doing the Snoopy dance of happiness…to announce that a “book of my heart” will be published next fall by Bancroft Press: Fall from Grace. I’ll tell you why it’s a book of my heart in a moment. But, first, here’s a summary of the novel:

Fall from Grace: Eli Baine has sinned. Spectacularly. When he’s caught using a prostitution ring, the news blasts across print and broadcast media: the son of a reality TV evangelical clan, whose Christian lifestyle is showcased regularly in Baine Family Values television episodes, is exposed as a hypocrite. Carted off to rehab, Eli chafes at being lumped in with molesters and serial adulterers. But when he escapes to visit his wife, Ruth, he finds no solace there. She can hardly bear to look at him, let alone admit him back into her life with their infant child. This sets Eli off on a hard journey toward redemption, understanding and reconciliation. His first stop is at a mainline Protestant church that embraces him with tolerance and support, but where he must endure counseling from a “she-priest” and an ultimate betrayal by someone who’d offered a helping hand. Meanwhile, Ruth herself sets out on a healing path, being counseled by a new, young pastor at her parents’ fundamentalist church who offers her more than just spiritual guidance. Both Eli and Ruth wander in the wilderness of heartbreak, distrust and eventual tragedy until they finally transform into different individuals who can see the light of hope and love in their marriage and their lives.

bookclub_bannerThis novel is a perfect fit for a small press like Bancroft. Larger publishers, used to dealing with very specific categories of books, with offices full of editors looking for books in those specific categories, would have a hard time pegging where this book should be, what shelf it should be  placed on at a bookstore. Even though it deals with faith issues, it’s not an inspirational.

Inspirationals are novels that target a mostly conservative Christian audience, with no swearing, sex, or offensive material, no use of faith words except in a respectful, literal manner, novels that pass muster with the Christian Booksellers Association and buyers at stores such as Lifeway.

Fall from Grace strays from the guidelines these booksellers and buyers would likely follow. It does contain some cursing (though hardly any). It does contain some sexual content (though just one or two scenes, and even then action takes place “off screen”).

But because the book contains a lot about faith, editors at big publishing houses wouldn’t really know what to do with it. Novels today are highly secular, with virtually no mention of churchgoing or faith. To include these elements in your books means risking being placed in the inspirational genre…where you have to follow very strict rules, and where the religion involved is a nondenominational brand of evangelical faith. Fall from Grace doesn’t follow those rules.

In fact, Fall from Grace includes some unflattering portraits of people involved in both evangelical and mainstream Protestant churches. But it also includes — and this is so important, and a crucial part of why this is a “book of my heart” — some very loving and inspiring portraits of people in those churches, too. Yes, even evangelical church people.

You see, I’ve worked with evangelicals over the years when I was very involved in the school choice movement. And their more Bible-literal faith might not be my brand of religion, but I had great respect for them. They are beautiful people, those I worked with. They were sweet and loving and kind. And today I know people with a more fundamentalist approach to faith I call friend and family. They, too, are lovely people, living good, Christian lives.

Too often, these religious people are maligned in popular culture, lampooned, caricatured, or worse. And in political punditry, they can often be lumped in with the unsavory characters at the gay-bashing/hating Westboro Baptist Church (which shouldn’t have either Baptist or church in its name), as if that is the only alternative to mainline Protestant or even Roman Catholic faith.

Fall from Grace treats them kindly, or at least…equally. Just as there are mainline Protestant characters in the book who are flawed, yet striving to lead Christian lives, so, too, are there evangelicals on their own similar paths.

Fall from Grace is about finding that path, about answering the question: What is true Christ-like love? As Eli Baine, the protagonist, tries to find his way back to his marriage, he must also find his way back to faith, a faith he took for granted.

And that’s why it’s a “book of my heart.” I took more than a year to write it, penning a first draft, working with a critique partner (thank you, Jerri!), rewriting, polishing, tweaking some more.

I’ll be writing more about this book as publication date nears. Stay tuned!

________

The other part of my pitch to publishers included this material:

Quick bio of author Libby Sternberg: Multi-published author in YA mystery, adult mystery, historical fiction and romantic comedy; Edgar nominee for her first YA mystery; one of her romantic comedies was optioned for film — a brief squib about this project is here . Her Jane Eyre-inspired novel, Sloane Hall, was one of only 14 books the Simon & Schuster “Off the Shelf” blog featured on the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth. She has been published by Bancroft Press, Harlequin, Dorchester, Sourcebooks, Five Star/Cengage and independently. She writes under the names Libby Sternberg and Libby Malin, and is currently a copy editor for a Big Five publisher.

Praise for Libby Sternberg:

For Death Is the Cool Night and Lost to the World (Libby Sternberg):

  • “This volume collects two well-crafted novels by Sternberg… Blending operatic drama, sumptuous description, and noir, Sternberg gracefully puzzles out her tormented characters’ actions and motivations in each book.” Publishers Weekly

For Loves Me, Loves Me Not (Libby Malin):

  • “The love story is charming and will be appreciated by any woman with bad taste in men who somehow inexplicably ends up with Mr. Right.” Washington Post
  • “A whimsical look at the vagaries of dating… an intriguing side plot adds punch and pathos to the story…” Publishers Weekly

For Sloane Hall (Libby Sternberg):

  • “An original story with complex character development…(Sternberg) knows how to tell a story and she does it well….a refreshing tale.” Bronte Studies journal
  • “Libby Sternberg’s intelligent and intriguing Jane Eyre reimagining has achieved two of the most difficult goals in a novel: being a page turner and paying a worthy tribute to Charlotte Brontë’s immortal story.” – The Bronte Blog
  • “Sternberg never loses sight of the story she’s re-telling, but this novel is definitely her own. Readers have things to figure out and look forward to. Her prose flows beautifully with vivid descriptions of people and places, bringing to life a Los Angeles of times gone by. Fans of historical fiction and Jane Eyre in particular will relish this novel, and readers who enjoy a love story should definitely pick this one up.”—Fresh Fiction

 

 

 

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When friends and family read your books

After I finish writing a novel, I’m excited and eager to share it with the world. I have to tamp down this excitement, though, as I go back and revise, edit, polish. Then, once again, as I’m ready to push the “publish” button or, if I’m fortunate enough to land a contract with a traditional publisher, as the release date nears, a strange shyness overcomes me.

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A book I’m proud of.

I become reticent to have friends and family members read the book. I might be all hip-hip-hooray, buy-my-book on social media, wanting the world to read my story. But if I see a friend or family member weigh in with a chipper “I just bought a copy!” I’m clutched with nervousness. I have to stop myself from saying, oh, you don’t need to buy it and read it. Really, you don’t. 

That’s crazy! I know it. And part of me argues with that other Negative Naomi, saying, of course you want them to read it, silly! You’re proud of it!

As I analyze this sentiment, I think there are several reasons for it. First, sometimes I will know, because of how well I know the reader involved, that this particular story is not their cuppa. So while I’m grateful — very, very grateful — for their support, I don’t want them disappointed when they discover that my book isn’t their kind of read.

Second, though, even if my book is to their taste in storytelling, I cringe at the thought of them not liking my particular brand of that storytelling. Unlike with a stranger who buys and reads my book, these relatives or friends are people I will most likely interact with regularly. Will they feel compelled to offer faint praise? (“I enjoyed your book. It was…different.”) Will they say nothing, leading me to absolutely, positively know they hated it? Will they think less of me if they dislike it, think I’m a…fake?

Reading tastes are subjective, I know. Who hasn’t excitedly urged a friend to read a favorite book, only to be crushed with disappointment when said friend gives that book a “meh” rating? Imagine that disappointment if you’re the author of the meh.

The third reason I am nervous when friends and family buy and read my books–What if they find…mistakes in it? Not just editing mistakes  (after all; a copy editor can’t catch everything. I know — I am a copy editor.) But historical mistakes in the case of a historical novel. Or mistakes in logic in the case of a mystery.

Yes, other readers can find those things and point them out to me via email. But again, having someone in your intimate circle point them out makes you feel like a sham. (Ha! So you thought you were a novelist, did you, the inner Negative Naomi cries.)

smartcookie2

Another book I’m proud of.

So, to all my friends and family who support me by buying and reading my books, I say, thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m really happy you support me in this way, and I hope my stories are enjoyable. And I’m grateful if you keep it to yourself if they’re not!

To my fellow authors, I ask: Do you suffer from these same feelings when friends and family say they’re buying and reading your books?

UPDATE: My daughter, Hannah Sternberg, also a novelist, noted that she feels “naked” when friends and family read her books, knowing they might learn very personal things about her through her writing. I completely agree with this observation, and I’m glad she pointed it out.

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Embarrassing Moments in Cooking

In my family, we have an incident we refer to as “The Troubles.”

Let me revise that. We have an incident I insisted my children refer to as “The Troubles,” after relentless teasing (of me) following said incident.

It happened like this: I made a beef stew. It wasn’t very good. There were leftovers. When my husband went to grind them through the garbage disposal, a wrenching whine ensued. The problem? The beef was so tough, the disposal couldn’t break it up.

Thus began months, nay, years of “Remember when…” storytelling from my offspring designed to embarrass me. Finally, I declared we would not speak of this incident again, except to call it “The Troubles.”

“The Troubles” aside, I’m not a bad cook now. I can make a pretty good stew, in fact, and lots of other things. Even things with French names. I can bake a cake (as long as it’s a recipe such as the one on the back of Hershey’s cocoa cans), make biscuits and whip up a decadent chocolate cheese cake from an Ina Garten recipe. Sometimes my kids even ask me for recipes or how to do something in the kitchen.

Back in the day, however, before I became more confident in the culinary world, I had many a cringe-worthy moment. Like the yogurt-marinated chicken cooked on the grill that could have been called Blackened Kabobs. Or the garlic mashed potatoes with raw garlic in them that should have been called Pomme de Terrible.

smartcookie2In my defense, in any mother’s defense, when you have three kids with picky appetites, you’re on a budget, and you’re pressed for time, well, things happen. Bad things. I ended up relying on a lot of ready-made ingredients, everything from the obvious (pasta sauce) to the quick cheat (frozen Asian vegetables in teriyaki sauce).

I’ve learned a lot over the years, and most of it came from watching the Food Network. I’ve watched since Emeril was on almost every night, and now my favorite shows are The Pioneer Woman and The Kitchen.

But I also enjoyed the shows where a team of experts would swoop in and help some feckless eatery owners renovate and refashion their establishments. Who doesn’t love a great turnaround story?

So, that’s the inspiration for my new romantic comedy, Smart Cookie. In it, sweet but clueless Sonja Garrett signs up to have her bakery featured on an “Eats 911” show, a two-day shoot she hopes will turn the tables on her failing establishment. But she’s the one who gets more than she bargained for as her longtime love starts questioning his involvement with her business, and friends, who’d helped her in the past, now share criticisms on-air that, while true, sting. In the end, love’s baked in the cake–but it’s a shock to everyone who gets the sweetest treat.

For a preview of this book, Amazon lets you take a peek at THIS LINK. I hope you enjoy! Get a copy (check if it’s free today)! Recommend to friends! Eat some cake!

Oh, and pen a review at Amazon if you do read it! Just a quick one-sentence review is fine, but the number of reviews on Amazon can help push any book into more recognition.

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LIBBY’S BOOK CLUB: Queen Victoria

Welcome to the first in a series I’ll call “Libby’s Book Club.” (Hence the title of this post.) It will be just like a regular book club except for these things: We won’t get together except online; I will probably do most of the talking; I will occasionally (or even regularly) promote my own books.

But other than those things, it will be precisely like any other book club. 🙂

First up, a question: Is anyone here as excited as I am to see the PBS British import Victoria series? Here’s a trailer and clip:

Doesn’t that look yummy? Costumes! History! More costumes! I can hardly wait. Here in the US of A, the series starts in January.

Anticipating this series sent me scurrying to my bookshelf where I pulled out and started rereading this well-worn tome: Queen Victoria by Cecil Woodham-Smith. It’s an oldie — published in the 1970s — but it’s jammed with historical goodies and covers the queen’s life from birth to the death of Prince Albert.

I’m sure there are other more recent books on Queen Victoria, but I enjoyed the slow, detailed pace of this one, which reports not only on Victoria’s history but on how that history was reported by others–what was false and what was true.

Not being a student of British history, I found the entire tale enlightening. One of the things about this story that surprised and  interested me was how she actually came to the throne–the various family intrigues that led to the daughter of the Duke of Kent becoming the monarch. Spoiler alert: the rest of the family wasn’t producing heirs or the right kind of heirs.

The Duke of Kent, her father, was an odd duck in that he was very kind to some people (his wife and his mistress of 27 years, whom he was forced to abandon in order to marry and produce an heir) and cruel to others (the many military under his command, so many of whom disliked him that he moved around to various posts, avoiding mutinies in some cases). Poor fellow died miserably, at the hands of doctors trying to treat what sounded like a bad cold, pneumonia or bronchitis. So he never saw his daughter rise to the throne, even though he was absolutely sure she would be queen.

I’m fond of this book for reasons unrelated to its content. For several years in the not-too-distant past, I would travel from Vermont (where I used to live) to Maryland to help my sister take care of our father by accompanying him to various doctor visits and the like. My sister had a copy of this book on her shelf, and I’d always pick it up and resume reading it when there, finishing it after many, many such visits. So I associate it with her warm hospitality. Years after I read it, I found a used copy in a little bookshop in Connecticut associated with a local library. I snatched it up.

So, do you have a Victoria biography you’ve enjoyed? If so, leave a comment! I’d like to hear about it!

And, while marveling at what a smart cookie Victoria was, consider trying my new book, Smart Cookie (by Libby Malin), a contemporary sweet romance with laughs as well as love. You can sample it at THIS LINK. (There — that’s the book promotion!)

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I write in a variety of genres. Gasp!

Years ago when I first started writing seriously — that is, trying to get novels published instead of just penning stories to be shoved in a file under the bed — I began with romance. My first published adult novel was in the romance field, a sub genre called chick lit. My agent at the time told me that if I sold that book, I’d have to write chick lit for a while, stay in that lane, in other words. I didn’t.

But first, a few words about why I chose romance. I’ve written/talked about this before, but here’s the tale again: Although I’d been a singer, gotten two degrees in music from a conservatory, no less, I’d always felt called to write. I always wrote, in fact, for my own pleasure (see above). My sister knew this, and she encouraged me to try writing romance as short story after short story of mine was rejected by magazines. I read some romances and thought, yeah, I can do this. And so it began.

Writing romance is hard. Anyone who turns their nose up at the genre doesn’t really know it. Yes, there’s a formula (discussed here), but that makes it a challenge to get right — to tell a story that’s unpredictable while satisfying the expectations of the reader.

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Writing across genres is not new. Evelyn Waugh, author of Brideshead Revisited and satires like Scoop.

While I tried my hand at romance, I also penned a young adult mystery, which I sold to a small press. It went on to become an Edgar nominee. And then, of course, I landed a contract at Harlequin for that first romance/chick lit: Loves Me, Loves Me Not. It received lovely reviews from the Washington Post and Publishers Weekly and was translated into French, as well.

By the time it was published, though, I felt pulled to write a more serious book, a retelling of one of my favorite novels, Jane Eyre. That book, Sloane Hall, took many years to find a publishing home, eventually landing with Five Star/Cengage, a hardcover publisher catering to the library trade. This year, it was one of only 14 books featured on the “Off the Shelf” blog celebrating Charlotte Bronte’s 200th birthday anniversary.

During the years that I tried to get Sloane Hall published, I went through several agents and continued to write. I wrote another three YA mysteries, one a historical. And I wrote more romance/humorous women’s fiction (the term “chick lit” had gone out of fashion). One of those books, Fire Me, snagged a film option.

Over the years, I’ve jumped from serious to light, from genre to literary, from historical to contemporary.

I used to wonder if I was crazy. Or if I had an attention deficit problem. Or if I just didn’t know what the heck I was doing.

Maybe all of those are true. But even if they are, I’ve learned that you can only write the books that call out to you, the stories that won’t let you go, the tales that you really want to tell. Writing long form stories takes a lot of effort, energy and time. You don’t use those resources on creative projects for which you have little creativity to spare.

At this moment, young adult mystery no longer calls to me. Maybe it will in the future. I don’t know. I have two novels that I’ve been tweaking and polishing and shopping around.

One’s a serious book about an evangelical man who sins and tries to redeem all he’s lost by that sin–his wife, his family, his faith.

One’s a romance about a man and woman learning to love again after betrayals. It’s lighter than the evangelical story. But both have common themes: love conquers all.

Maybe that’s the theme that threads through all my books, romance or upmarket, young adult or mystery.

If I had taken my first agent’s advice many years ago, I might be a more successful writer, with readers following me through book after book in one genre. I chose a different path, and I accept the consequences with no rancor. I’m grateful just to be a published author, telling the stories I feel compelled to tell.

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To agent or not to agent

Actually, that headline should be: To have an agent or not to have one. That is the question. Right now, I’m answering…no. Let me share with you my observations on life without a literary agent and how I wish this aspect of the publishing business would change:

I’ve had several literary agents in my brilliant career. They each had their talents, and for some authors, they might have been perfect. But there’s only one I’d recommend out of the bunch. She and I split when I started writing things she wasn’t repping. The others…well, I’m not going to whine about them. I’ve done plenty of that already to friends. Any author who’s had a less-than-stellar relationship with an agent will be able to imagine the reasons for breaking with one.

I went into the agent hunt recently, though, because editors want to deal with agents, not authors. My heart’s not in it, however, so I’ve started querying editors directly. And, yes, I am knocking on a lot of closed doors.

As authors know, virtually all publishing houses are closed to unagented submissions. Editors won’t respond to authors who don’t have agents, won’t read their manuscripts, sometimes won’t even read their queries.

So going without an agent means an awful lot of dead ends, even for a multi published author, who has an Edgar nomination on her resume and a film option in her bank account (that would be me). In other words, when I query editors on my own, a certain amount of doubt in editors’  minds should be removed from the process due to my experience. They don’t have to wonder if I have it in me to revise a novel for publishing or if I know about how to market a book or if I understand the legalities of the business or how to put a plot together.

I also offer another reassurance to skittish editors: I tell them in my query that I use an entertainment lawyer for negotiation (same one who did my film option deal). This is to let them know they won’t have to fret about muddying the editor/author relationship with the haggling that comes over contract details.

Several editors have responded to my recent query about an upmarket commercial fiction novel and requested to see the manuscript. I won’t out them, so don’t ask who they are. I applaud them for thinking for themselves and evaluating whether to say yes to an unagented author, regardless what their imprint’s submission guidelines are.

Back in the day, when I first entered the publishing world mumble-mumble years ago, some of the big houses were still open to unagented submissions. Being unagented meant you’d be waiting a heckuva long time for a read even when an editor said the magic words, “send the manuscript.” But it didn’t automatically mean “no, sorry, won’t even take a look.”

SloaneHallFront

A book I self published after having my rights reverted from the publisher

The turning point in houses closing their doors to unagented submissions came during the anthrax scare, when white powder was being mailed to various places. Then, one by one, the big houses started building walls to keep out unagented authors.

Only a few imprints remain open today to the unagented — mostly “category” romance at Harlequin imprints, or some small publishing houses.

I wish it weren’t so. Maybe because I’ve bounced around this biz for those mumble-mumble years, I’ve become somewhat cynical about the whole submission process. I’ve come to the jaded opinion that there are maybe a dozen (or fewer) agents whose submissions are read quickly, even immediately, because they have a reputation for backing winning horses.

The rest of the agents are clamoring for attention, trying to get editors to read manuscripts after a conversation or just a damned good cover letter. And, lately, from stories I’ve heard, even good agents seem to be having trouble with that, getting timely access for their clients’ works and timely responses to the read.

In today’s world, I can self-publish it if no one bites on my new book. This change in the industry, where big publishing houses have a lower share of the market than self-published and small press-published novels, is part of the digital/Amazon revolution. Amazon recognized that authors are customers, too. Some publishers are catching up to that changed paradigm.

I hope at some point all editors will evaluate for themselves whether to read unagented material.

 

 

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