From One of LHJ’s Own: “Why I Wrote a Historical Thriller” (And a book giveaway!)

January 25, 2012 at 10:52 am , by

First-time novelist and today’s guest blogger Nancy Bilyeau was a features editor at Ladies’ Home Journal for three years. Here, Bilyeau tells the story of how her new novel, The Crown, morphed from a pipe dream into a reality. Plus, find out how to win a copy of her book at the end of the post!

“I want to write a novel set in sixteenth century England.”

That’s what I told the four people sitting in a circle in a small 5th-floor apartment in the West Village seven years ago. In a “What the heck?” spirit, I’d joined a fiction workshop held every Monday night. I wasn’t sure what kind of novel I wanted to write except the century I’d place it in. I’d loved Tudor history since I was 11 years old and saw The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth with my parents. Over the years, I kept coming back to biographies and historical fiction set in the 16th century. I enjoyed the drama of the personalities, the wars and the divorces, the excitement of the Renaissance—even the fashion.

I wanted to write a woman’s story, but I felt that plenty had already been written about the queens and princesses and ladies-in-waiting. I settled on a protagonist, Joanna Stafford, who was a nun. Henry VIII destroyed the monasteries when he broke from Rome and I was drawn to that turmoil.  While most Tudor historical fiction takes the side of the Reformation, I thought it would be more interesting to explore what happened to the nuns, friars and monks whose lives were upended by this sweeping transformation.

My first pages were not good and my writing group, while perfectly polite, let me know. But I kept at it. I decided to make my story a thriller, and loved nothing more than losing myself in research and plotting my story. I read everything I could find on the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the people at its center. My kind of book isn’t researched through Google: I spent hours at the New York Public Library, poring through the collections. I discovered some of the most exciting, little-known facts in books written more than a century ago. In some cases those writers had access to sources lost to us. I also started corresponding through emails with historians and curators in England. It took months for me to find out what a prisoner would eat while imprisoned in the Tower of London, but I did it! When I got a copy of a 16th century daily “meal sheet” (think mutton, mutton and more mutton), I danced around my apartment.

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Book Review: The Magic Room, by Jeffrey Zaslow

January 11, 2012 at 12:11 pm , by

As much as it pains me to admit this, I have become addicted to reality TV—especially wedding shows. And I mean all of ‘em: Say Yes to the Dress, Girl Meets Gown, My Fair Wedding, Bridezillas … the list goes on. They’re always all about the bride (duh), and, of course, the dress. Who will design it? How much will she spend? Will she bond with her mom over a box of tissues like she’s always dreamed?

It’s all so dramatic and that drama, sadly, often overshadows what weddings are really about (or supposed to be)—love. Oh, did all of those reality-show tricks make you forget? Jeffrey Zaslow, author of the bestselling The Girls From Ames, hasn’t forgotten. His new book, The Magic Room (Gotham), tells brides’ tales from the gown-hunting trenches, but from a genuine, warm-hearted angle that underscores the process as a special milestone for mothers and daughters.

The Magic Room chronicles the stories that happen inside Becker’s Bridal, a mom-and-pop boutique in small-town Fowler, Michigan. It’s no Kleinfeld, but its legacy as a bridal destination is just as impressive: Founded in 1934, it’s been owned and operated by nearly four generations of the Becker family.

The Beckers have seen their share of brides and moms visit the store’s “magic room” (the mirrored alcove in which you’ll know if you’ve found the one—the one dress, that is), and Zaslow shares six brides’ unique life stories, including the meet-cutes with their fiancés and why they’re shopping at Becker’s, a store that’s become more than just a place you go to pick out a white dress. It’s where you go—with your mom by your side—to decide what you’ll wear on the day that your life changes forever.

One of my favorite brides was the spunky 40-year-old Meredith, who brings her mother and sister-in-law to Becker’s to her help choose her gown. Though 40 isn’t old, per se, it’s certainly older as brides go, and both Meredith and her mother were beginning to think she was never going to find someone to share her life with (she had even sworn off dating!). But one evening at a Polish social hall, Meredith met Ron, a 42-year-old “friend of a friend of a friend.” Now, she’s in the market for a wedding dress. Which one will it be? You may be surprised.

If you’re looking for a slice of truly homespun Americana that’ll make you say “awwwww” (or, okay, even if you just need something to fill the gap between Four Weddings and Brides of Beverly Hills) you’ll devour The Magic Room. Even I, a self-confessed wedding reality show junkie, appreciated the reminder that the big day should come with more than just glitz and glamour.


December/January Book Club Wrap-Up: The Bird Sisters

January 10, 2012 at 3:10 pm , by

We picked The Bird Sisters for December/January hoping to inspire chatter about sisters and family ties with your own loved ones over the holidays—and many of you did just that! We successfully hosted our first LHJ Book Club author Facebook chat, and tons of you came out to ask Rebbecca Rasmussen your burning questions on her life as a novelist, share your favorite recent reads and declare your love for the book (read some of chat here—and stay tuned for more author chats in the future!). Still haven’t been bitten by The Bird Sisters bug? Read Rebecca’s letter to her readers and thoughts on the novel from the bloggers at Girls In The Stacks to get you started.

And now that February issues are on newsstands, it’s on to the next for the LHJ Book Club! This month we’ll be chatting about The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, by Elizabeth Stuckey-French. Sound like wacky one? It is—sort of. Stuckey-French’s tale of a woman who plots revenge after she’s unwittingly involved in a Cold War-esque government study tackles themes of struggle and sadness, but from a darkly humorous angle that makes Radioactive immediately addicting. Visit our book club page for an introduction! And, as always, stay with us on Facebook, Twitter, and right here on our blog to join the conversation as we chat about the book all month long.

But first, tell us what you thought of The Bird Sisters! Comment here or tweet us at @LHJMagazine with the hashtag #lhjbookclub.

Book News: How to Make Friends

December 28, 2011 at 3:36 pm , by

Do you have friends? And might you, perhaps, be mine?

I know, these are questions I’m not supposed to ask, right? Of course you have friends! You were a Girl Scout, a glee clubber and a sorority sister, so you’re set. You might as well embroider yourself a “No Vacancies” sign to match your massive collection of friendship bracelets.

Right…? Or do I hear some murmurs of dissonance in the audience?

I just moved to New York, and my life-long friends are scattered across the country (sure, I’m proud of my friend who’s off bettering herself in grad school, but did she have to do it 3,000 miles away from me?), so recently I’ve found myself a little lonely and worried that I was, well, weird for craving a few more gal pals in my post-college life. That’s why I devoured Rachel Bertsche’s new book, MWF Seeking BFF (Ballantine), a memoir documenting her search for a new best friend.

It all started when Rachel and her now-husband, Matt, moved to Chicago, a new city for both of them. Even after two years there, she still felt like she was missing some local BFFs.

Her husband, though a great guy, didn’t get it (“I needed girl time; he’s just not going to re-hash a problem of mine for the eighth time”), and her work friends didn’t feel quite right for a last minute text to go to brunch (“We just weren’t there yet!”).

So Rachel made it her mission to meet people, challenging herself to go on one new “friend date” per week for a year, hoping to end up with some new girlfriends—even a best friend—by year’s end. (The introvert in me shudders at the thought, but Rachel thinks one date a month would probably also do the trick—and afford you a more manageable social calendar.)

“There’s this stigma against loneliness,” she says. “And we’re scared to say that we’re looking for new friends; that people will think we’re desperate. But, really, there are so many great women out there looking for people, too!”

Phew! That’s music to my ears, and realizing it helped Rachel truly shed her shell for her quest— MWF’s chapter on her fun and genuine experience online-friending at and her story about renting a friend (!) alone make the book a must-read.

And since she’s done it all—with success!—I had Rachel spill her soundest advice for friend-making (you know you wanna), even after the meet-markets of high school and college are long behind you.

Leave The House
“Say yes to all invitations that come your way, even if it’s something you’re not super excited about. I used to think, ‘Oh she’s just inviting me to be nice; she doesn’t really want me there.’ But really, inviting someone to be nice is a really good reason to do so!”

Be a Joiner
“It might be obvious, but just join something. Research shows joining a group that meets even only once a month can radically improve your happiness. I did an improv class, joined two book clubs and started a cooking club for all of the new women I was meeting—some of them are really close friends now, and even spend holidays like Thanksgiving and New Year’s together.”

Spread the Word
Tell people you’re looking for friends. People assume that you’re set with the friends you have, even if you move to a new city like I did. But people know people in a lot of places! So if you move to San Francisco, tell people you’re looking for friends there, and they’ll be happy to help.”

Assume The Best
“Going into my year-long project, I thought people would think I was weird, that they weren’t open to friendship, that they’re too busy, or that the world is just meaner these days—whatever. But I found that the opposite is true—you should assume people want friends, because they do!”

Photo of Rachel Bertsche by Jennifer Troyer Photography

Steal This Book! (From Your Daughter)

December 22, 2011 at 11:03 am , by

Maybe it started when you read to your kids from their Harry Potter books before bed—and caught yourself reading ahead long after they were asleep. Or maybe you swoon when you hear the name Edward Cullen (no shame in that!). Or maybe you’re more excited for the upcoming Hunger Games movie than your Katniss-loving teenager. In short, young adult books aren’t just for young adults anymore.

We asked our friends at Figment, an online community that lets teens and young adults create, discover and share their own original fiction, to recommend 10 books to snag from your teen’s bookshelf and dive into together—or  separately.

 1.       Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler If your daughter liked Handler’s Series of Unfortunate Events (written under pen name Lemony Snicket) this more grown-up offering—an artsy, intellectual, bittersweet take on teenage heartbreak—is sure to please you both.

2.       How to Save A Life by Sara Zarr When a pregnant teen and a mourning mother-daughter pair collide, they find healing in unexpected ways.

3.       Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos This is a fun read. It’s an unexpected mix of the absolutely true (there are pieces of autobiography scattered throughout) and the absolutely ludicrous, and a great family commentary that’s smart and hilarious enough to appeal to both you and your daughter.

4.       Catching Jordan by Miranda Kenneally If your daughter’s the type of girl who refuses to be relegated to one of the over-simplified, mutually exclusive roles of “girly-girl” or “tomboy,” she’ll love this novel about teenage Jordan Woods, captain and quarterback of her high school’s football team. Also recommended for anyone mourning Friday Night Lights.

5.       You Are My Only by Beth Kephart A little creepy and a lot moving. Told from the alternating perspectives of a mother and her kidnapped daughter, You Are My Only is a story of family, love and finding oneself.

6.       Cleopatra’s Moon by Vicky Alvear Shecter If you’re enjoying Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra in your own book club, this fictional take on one of history’s most fascinating women will make a nice diversion to share with your daughter.

7.       When She Woke by Hillary Jordan A much more fun version of Hawthorne’s classic, The Scarlet Letter—and a fantastic opener for a discussion of reproductive rights with your daughter.

8.       Chime by Franny Billingsley A National Book Award finalist and a beautifully written mystery, this novel about a guilt-ridden teenage witch is especially good for fans of fantasy.

9.       The Fault in Our Stars by John Green NYT bestselling author Green offers a poignant tale of living while dying—meaningful YA fare to share with a teen you love.

10.   Beauty Queens by Libba Bray For any mom worried about the media’s effect on her daughter’s body image—and for any daughter tired of lectures about “realistic standards of beauty”—this is a scathing, laugh-out-loud read.

Making the Most of a Midlife Crisis

November 18, 2011 at 9:37 am , by

In her new memoir Running Away to Home Iowa native Jennifer Wilson, 38, does what many of us only dream of—she breaks from her hum-drum existence in Des Moines, Iowa and embarks with her husband and two kids on a 9-month long adventure to uncover her roots in Mrkopalj, (pronounced MER-koe-pie), Croatia. While Wilson delves into the rich history of the small rural town to find traces of her great-grandparents, all four of them make friends with some quirky but lovable townspeople, devour the local eats, climb mountains, and find out the true meaning of family along the way. We asked the author about her family sabbatical and how running away changed her and her family.

Q. Why did you decide to take a family sabbatical and not just a vacation?

A. Jim and I had dreamed of living overseas together when we were newly married. We’d both traveled internationally, and we’re big believers in travel as the best way to widen our friendship group and learn new things and eat fantastic new foods. But we got busy with the kids and our respective jobs. Midlife malaise had overtaken us. I felt like I was postponing my life “until the kids are older.” When I realized that I was using the kids as an excuse not to challenge myself, I resolved to make a change. From there, the dream of Mrkopalj quickly materialized.

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An Ode To Indies: Why Small Bookstores Need Your Support

November 11, 2011 at 2:29 pm , by

Julia Glass, author of our November book club pick, The Widower’s Tale, has spent a lot of time visiting and reading at the country’s many independent bookstores. It’s safe to say that she’s cultivated quite an admiration for them—and we agree! Here, she explains why you should love them, too (and lets us in on her favorite local bookstores across the US.)


The author (third from left) at Town House Books in St. Charles, IL.

Last Sunday I shared a podium with fellow novelists Leah Hager Cohen and Ha Jin at an 8:00 a.m. “author breakfast” hosted at the Colonial Inn in Concord, Mass., as part of the town’s annual book festival. As I scraped ice off my windshield in the still-dark of that frigid morning, I thought I must have been crazy to accept this invitation. Who in their right minds would leave a cozy bed before sunrise just to listen to a bunch of daydreamers talk about their made-up worlds?

Book lovers, that’s who. Contrary to media doomsayers, they (we) are still legion—as was obvious when I entered the cheerful pandemonium in the inn’s quaintly crooked but spacious dining room. There wasn’t a spare seat to be found.

Standing in that crowded room was doubly affecting to me. First, it happens to be the setting I chose for a climactic scene in The Widower’s Tale. (In my novel, the town I call Ledgely is a twin to Concord, the Ledgely Inn an alias for the Colonial.) Second, the books for sale at the breakfast were supplied by the Concord Bookshop.

The Concord Bookshop was my childhood bookstore from age nine on. I browsed there as often as I could finagle a ride from my mother. An annual ritual was my visit there in early December to choose titles for my Christmas wish list. I picked out art tomes, poetry anthologies, hardbound novels—expensive books I couldn’t afford with the wages I earned as a library page. (I can point to several of those books on my shelves today, their spines faded from the sun permeating various homes over the past forty years.) My mother probably drove back the next day to buy the books I’d held and coveted. There was no Amazon, no Alibris, no eBay, no ready ”discounts” on the price of a book. Imagine my emotions when, at age two or three, on a visit to his grandparents’ house, my first child asked, “Can I go to the Concord Bookshop with Grammy?” He’s 15 now, his little brother 10, and those visits are still a popular request. Heaven knows how much money my mother has spent there over the decades; I’m sure she’d tell you every penny was worth it.

Click “read more ” for Julia’s favorite indie booksellers!

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