This holiday season, our Penguin authors can help you find the best book for everyone on your list.

View more holiday recommendations on the Random House Tumblr.

Charlaine Harris is a New York Times bestselling author for both her Sookie Stackhouse fantasy/mystery series and her Harper Connelly Prime Crime mystery series. She has lived in the South her entire life.

I am particularly smitten with a novel when I think the writer has raised the bar on world-building. Luckily, I read several books this year that were really amazing in that respect; books that transported me to another place where the rules are different.

Written in Red by Anne Bishop was fascinating from start to finish. In her world, humans and “others” do interact — but very, very, carefully. Her heroine, caught in the middle and running from trouble, is totally engaging. Benedict Jacka’s Chosen, a continuation of the adventures of mage Alex Verus, exposes the lead character (warts and all) in a milieu where magic is hidden in plain view and survival is never a given.

I’m still thinking about E.E. Knight’s Appalachian Overthrow, the latest entry in the really superior Vampire Earth series. Overthrow has a different protagonist, a Golden One, but his part of the revolution trying to reclaim America is just as compelling as Knight’s usual human protagonist, David Valentine. I’m not an enthusiast over military science fiction, but these books are enthralling.

Ben Aaronovitch’s Broken Homes is part of his modern London series about a policeman who finds he has magic powers. Every book in this series is a winner, and Broken Homes is no exception. The only “magic” in Leigh Perry’s A Skeleton in the Family is that Perry’s protagonist, an adjunct professor named Georgia Thackeray, has a best friend named Sid . . . who is a skeleton who can walk and talk. It’s delightful, and I found Sid as credible a character as the humans around him.

Read an excerpt from Written in Red, by Anne Bishop »

Read an excerpt from Appalachian Overthrow, by E.E. Knight »

This holiday season, our Penguin authors can help you find the best book for everyone on your list.

View more holiday recommendations on the Random House Tumblr.

My first three recommendations for the holiday gift-giving season are, oddly enough, all sequels to earlier novels.  John Grisham, in Sycamore Row, Stephen King, in Doctor Sleep, and Scott Turow in Innocent have elected to pick up narratives from A Time to Kill, The Shining, and Presumed Innocent, respectively.  Since the span of years between these novels is substantial, it’s been fascinating to watch how each handles the passing of time.  For avid fans, it would be interesting to pair the new novel with the original.

The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty 

This novel would more rightly be classified as psychological suspense, beautifully rendered, with a structure that sustains and builds interest from beginning to end.

Read an excerpt »

Storm Front, by John Sandford 

I’ve become a recent convert to the Virgil Flowers series by this always entertaining author.  Flowers is the kind of low-key hero I look forward to following with each new installment.

Read an excerpt »

The Lock Artist, by Steve Hamilton 

While this novel was published in 2011, the tone and subject matter are still fresh and original today.

The Innocent, by David Baldacci

Will Robie, though a professional hit man, is someone whose perilous adventures I look forward to following from novel to novel.

All over the world writers are celebrating the end of National Novel Writing Month 2013, aka NaNoWriMo.

Well, maybe celebrating is not quite the right word. Some of us, certainly, are feeling jubilant that it’s over. Those who met the 50,000 word goal are doing a victory dance, for sure. Others of us, those who didn’t “win” (including yours truly, with 27, 000 words written), are feeling glad to have participated but perhaps a little consternated by their word count coming up short.

No matter where you fall on this continuum, take this short multiple choice quiz to figure out what to do next now that NaNoWriMo is over.

It’s December 3rd and you’ve got a big chunk of a novel (if not a full draft of a novel…go, you!) saved on your hard drive. (By the way, we really hope you’re also saving another copy somewhere. Check out these horror stories if you need a reminder about the importance of backing up your work!)

The very next thing you do is:

  1. Read. It’s pretty difficult squeezing in a good book while writing 1667 words a day. You’re about to go on a full-on book binge in your favorite genres.
  2. Write. You might have 10K words. You might have 100K words. All you know is you’ve gotten into a writing routine like never before, and you’re going to keep it up while you can.
  3. Get feedback. All throughout NaNoWriMo you were dying to ask fellow writers what was working in your book and what wasn’t. Now that you’ve got some serious prose to work with, you’re dying to show it off.
  4. Revise. The whole “no-editing during NaNoWriMo” thing? That was driving you nuts. Now that you’re officially off the clock, you’re itching to go back through and replot, reword, rewrite.

Which of these should you do? The answer is, of course, all of the above.

One online space where you can do all four options above is on Book Country, the online writing and publishing community where I work as the Community and Engagement Manager. Book Country is a proud sponsor of NaNoWriMo 2013 because our missions are so beautifully aligned: NaNoWriMo emboldens writers to write more than they ever thought possible, and Book Country is the most supportive online writing and publishing community on the web, helping writers in over sixty literary categories to write their best books. Book country is the perfect next step for the post-NaNoWriMo writer: there you can read books written by other writers in your genre, you can post chapters of your Nano WIP as you write, you can get feedback on your work via our peer review feedback system, and you can use that feedback to revise your book, preparing it for traditional publishing queries or for self-publishing.  As a Book Country member you can connect with writers from around the world for year-round support, and use our discussion boards and blog to learn more about the craft of writing and the business of publishing.

Curious about how to get involved on book country? Join here and send me an email: Lucy at bookcountry dot com. I’ll show you around.

Let’s celebrate the end of NaNoWriMo together!

Lucy Silag is the Community and Engagement Manager for Book Country, Penguin’s online writing and publishing community.

Undressing Mr. Darcy, Karen Doornebos

Hello from the steps of the Jane Austen Centre!

Welcome to the tour! As an ice-breaker to each leg of the Blog Tour, I’m taking you along for a ride to England, where I traveled during the summer of 2012 to do some research for Undressing Mr. Darcy. Where am I on this stop? The gorgeous Regency city of Bath…on the steps of The Jane Austen Centre with a statue of Elizabeth Bennet and Martin, the costumed greeter, well known in Bath. I enjoyed the museum and gift shop, but especially loved taking a picture with the oil painting of Colin Firth in the tea room! More photos of England to come as we tour along…

Undressing Mr. Darcy, Karen Doornebos

Let the Undressing begin…

Undressing Mr. Darcy, Karen Doornebos

As author of the just-released Undressing Mr. Darcy and my first novel Definitely Not Mr. Darcy, it’s a thrill for me to be writing here on the Penguin USA blog. Thank you for having me. And what a pleasure to be a published by Penguin, publisher of…

Jane Austen’s novels! How cool is that? An Austen fangirl couldn’t ask for more—but wait, there is more—

Undressing Mr. Darcy releases this week, during Austen’s birthday month of December and in this 200th anniversary year of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. Let me pour you a glass of cyber champagne and toast to Austen herself! Here’s to Austen, still relevant, and, two centuries later, one of the most popular authors on social media, in film, literature, and merchandising. (Have you seen all of the Austen paraphernalia? Everything from Austen action figures and band-aids to tea and umbrellas?)

Undressing Mr. Darcy, Karen Doornebos

Hats off to Austen, and speaking of hats off, I invite you to the coming-out party of my latest book celebrating all things Austen in our modern world: Undressing Mr. Darcy. Join my Blog Tour and all the fun and giveaways on the pea-graveled road through the English countryside ahead…

So, what’s up with the Undressing?

Or, how did it occur to me to write something called Undressing Mr. Darcy? Full disclosure: back when I was still rewriting and researching my first novel in 2009, I would find myself, late into the night, Googling and searching for cravats, waistcoats and Regency drawers. You know, the typical late night fare of a Regency-inspired author, right? One night I stumbled across an English website on the Internet called “The History Wardrobe” and hit upon one of their shows called “Undressing Mr. Darcy.”


That gets the mind clicking right along doesn’t it? The website didn’t offer much of an explanation other than a certain “Mr. Darcy” would give an historical discussion of each article of clothing as he proceeded to take it off—down to his drawers. (Despite learning that titles aren’t protected by copyright, I did ask permission to use the title of their show, and they granted it, but sadly they no longer do the Undressing show. A few other shows have popped up, such as “Dressing Mr. Darcy” that takes place here in the states at the Louisville Jane Austen Society of North America Jane Austen Festival. But I digress…)

My first thought was: What? A Mr. Darcy striptease act?

The show only took place in England and I thought to myself, why not here in the states? Then, just as quickly, my brain flitted to: what if a “Mr. Darcy” did travel to the states?

* Smirk *

I remember writing down Undressing Mr. Darcy in a notebook I keep for book ideas. By July of 2011, before publication of my first book, I had a sketchy outline.

Because of course, he would be old-fashioned and English. And she would be modern, hooked on her social media, and American.

How about a piece of that?

Here’s a quick excerpt from the book:

… But the young woman and Aunt Ella weren’t looking at her. They were beaming at a tall, dangerously good-looking man on the other side of the rope wearing a formfitting Regency tailcoat, cravat, buff breeches, and black riding boots. He had an antique, leather-bound book tucked under his arm and didn’t carry suitcases but toted old leather trunks—leather trunks on a wheeled cart? A tumble of black hair spilled onto his forehead.

How could he look so much better in person than in his author photo? She made a mental note to update that shot—it would increase their crowds. Pleased with his looks (for marketing purposes, of course), Vanessa cleared her throat, as if to clear her mind.

He wore his Mr. Darcy garb on the plane? Then she found herself trying not to notice the slight tug of his breeches, the snug way they fit him—

Huh? He was a client, after all, regardless of whether he was paying her or not.

Even if he had been a prospect, she preferred a man in a well-tailored Italian suit or blue jeans and a button-down shirt, didn’t she? What woman, at thirty-five years old, with a condo, her own business, family ties, and a thing for modern American amenities, would consider a man from another continent—not to mention the nineteenth century? She didn’t understand it.

And, let’s face it, Mr. Darcy’s skill set—chiefly, diving into a pond in his shirtsleeves—would get him nowhere in today’s job market.

“Miss Ella Morgan and Miss Vanessa Roberts, I presume?” he asked in a bass-range voice that needed no emoticons to get attention. Then he bowed.

He was none other than a very official-looking Mr. Darcy. On the big-screen TV above him, a bomb exploded on the news, and when Vanessa tucked her long brown hair behind her ear, her earbud popped right out.

-End of excerpt-

You can read more about Undressing Mr. Darcy here!

Thanks once again to The Penguin blog for hosting me here. It’s been great. Did you know…

Mr. Darcy’s Stripping Off…

His beaver hat. At each blog stop Mr. Darcy will strip off another piece of clothing. Keep track of each item in chronological order and at then end of the tour you can enter to win a GRAND PRIZE of a book, “DO NOT DISTURB I’m Undressing Mr. Darcy” door hangers for you and your friends, tea and a bottle of wine (assuming I can legally ship it to your state). US entries only, please.

Undressing Mr. Darcy, Karen Doornebos

Karen Doornebos is the author of Undressing Mr. Darcy published by Berkley, Penguin and available here or at your favorite bookstore. Her first novel, Definitely Not Mr. Darcy, has been published in three countries and was granted a starred review by Publisher’s Weekly. Karen lived and worked in London for a short time, but is now happy just being a lifelong member of the Jane Austen Society of North America and living in the Chicagoland area with her husband, two teenagers and various pets—including a bird. Speaking of birds, follow her on Twitter and Facebook! She hopes to see you there, on her website and her group blog Austen Authors.


12/2: The Penguin Blog

Launch! 12/3: Austenprose

12/4 Laura’s Review Bookshelf & JaneBlog

12/5 Chick Lit Plus (Review)

12/6 Austen Authors

12/9 Fresh Fiction

12/10 Writings & Ramblings

12/11 Brant Flakes & Skipping Midnight

12/12 Risky Regencies (Q&A)

12/13 Books by Banister

Jane Austen’s 238th Birthday! 12/16 Jane Austen in Vermont, My Jane Austen Book Club & Author Exposure (Q&A)

12/17 Literally Jen

12/18 Savvy Verse & Wit (Review)

12/19 Kritters Ramblings

12/20 Booking with Manic (Review)

12/23 BookNAround

12/26 My 5 Monkeys (Review)

12/27 All Grown Up (Review)

12/30 Silver’s Reviews

1/2 Dew on the Kudzu

This holiday season, our Penguin authors can help you find the best book for everyone on your list.

View more holiday recommendations on the Random House Tumblr.

The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert Elizabeth Gilbert began her writing journey with two acclaimed works of fiction—the short story collection Pilgrims and the novel Stern Men. Both were New York Times Notable Books. Her nonfiction work, The Last American Man, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her two memoirs (Eat, Pray, Love and Committed) were both number one New York Times bestsellers. In 2008, Time magazine named her one of the one hundred most influential people in the world. Her journalism has been published in Harper’s Bazaar, Spin, and The New York Times Magazine, and her stories have appeared in Esquire, Story, and the Paris Review.

Want Not, by Jonathan Miles

Every generation or so an American novel appears that holds up a mirror to our lives and shows us exactly who we are right at this moment. Want Not is that book right now — a searing but compassionate look at modern Americans and their STUFF. A book about garbage and consumption and accumulation and disposal…but most of all about humanity. Simply put, the best book of the year.

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

They didn’t give her the Booker Prize for nothing, guys. The best contemporary novel about the 16th century you’ll ever read, with the most powerful and muscular antihero (Thomas Cromwell) of recent memory.

Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

I’ve been an admirer of Pessl’s since her splendid debut, Special Topics in Calamity Physics and her latest novel rocked my world — a bold, dark, complex, universe of fear and art and obsession.

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

This is a novel I’ve purchased for several members of my family, and those copies have been lovingly passed around. A novel about baseball (but not really about baseball), it has been enjoyed by everyone from my serious seventeen year old nephew to my nostalgic seventy-two year old dad.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë

To my shame, I realized this year that I’d never read this classic. I THOUGHT I had read it, but I think I’d just semi-absorbed it thorough osmosis over the decades. But now I have read it, and it dazzles. It is also, with all apologies to contemporary erotica, the frankly sexiest (even kinkiest) bit of writing around.



art_of_doingThis coming week Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield will be presenting an Illustrated Art of Doing Book Talk at the New York Public Library, Mid-Manhattan Library, 6th floor December 4th, 2013.

So what is it about success? Why do some people succeed? And others don’t? From Dale Carnegie to Malcolm Gladwell authors have tried to answer these questions. Philosophers, economists and neuroscientists have taken their shots at the success conundrum. Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band even offers advice on the subject in their song Express Yourself: “Whatever you do, un-huh, do it good. Whatever you do, do, do, Lord, Lord, do it good, oh yeah.”

We are a writer (Camille) and an artist (Josh) and out of our great (you could say insatiable) curiosity, we got this idea: Why don’t we go to go straight to highly successful people and simply ask them, “How do you do what you do?

And the next idea was to turn the concept into a book, The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well. So then we asked ourselves, “Who do we want to include?” We wanted people who were good, but good wasn’t good enough. We wanted people who not only excelled in his or her field, but transformed it into an art form. We were looking for the Picassos and Warhols of their fields.

We wanted the book to be like a fabulous dinner party. We wanted a mix of people from every sort of human endeavor including someone from business such as Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, elite athletes like Yogi Berra, innovative entertainers like OK Go and funk master George Clinton, scientists like astronomer Jill Tarter, a great actor like Laura Linney, a best-selling author like Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics and dozens more. (A full list of participants can be found here.)

At first our goal was to find out what was unique about each one of the dozens of superachievers we interviewed: What was it that vaulted them above others in their field? But during the hundreds of hours of conversations, we were often surprised to discover how much a tennis champion, for instance, and a rock band think alike, or how a racecar driver and an extraterrestrial hunter share similar traits. Our pattern recognition systems were fully activated. Our participants’ vocations, goals, philosophical perspectives and personalities could not have been more different, but as their responses to our questions accumulated, we realized that these extraordinary people, no matter what they did—whether it was an opera diva, a war photographer or a CEO—shared many core principles and practices that had led to their great successes.

Some of these principles were what you may imagine such as perseverance and focus. But we also found that these superachievers had thought deeply about how to achieve success, inspiring them to employ many counterintuitive practices—listening, patience, managing emotions, and more.

So what is it about success? Of course, talent is required—but it’s just the beginning. We discovered that it’s what you do with your talent that matters. And that’s really a profound idea, because it means success is up to you.

As Thanksgiving 2010 was approaching, I was living in Iowa City, Iowa, where I was an MFA student in the Fiction program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I had ached ardently to go to the Workshop, and when I’d been accepted I’d shrieked with joy. Now, trudging through brown snow to my classes; eating lumpy, bland Chinese takeout as I researched my thesis—I knew that I was in so many ways very lucky. But wasn’t I actively thankful anymore. This was just my real life.

That same fall, a friend and classmate of mine had been typing his novel so fast and for so many hours a day that he lost use of both wrists, and he had to complete his own thesis using clunky voice recognition software. His experience didn’t make me grateful for my own uninjured wrists. Instead I was scared that was going to happen to me, too.

That winter was particularly dreary one in Iowa City, with frequent blizzards that made it dangerous to even go outside.  I gave myself over to writerly brooding. But the writing wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped, and when I turned in a chunk of my thesis for a class workshop, another writer in my class told me that my treatment of the subject matter was extremely shallow. Another writer commented that I’d spent way too much time describing how and what my characters were knitting. By the time I turned the thesis into the Graduate College, I’d gone completely off it. I’d been given this time at the Workshop to write something really great, and felt like I’d squandered the chance. I’d wanted to go to the workshop, and now that I was there I wanted everyone to praise my work, too. I wanted to write something that felt  worthy of this famed place. So much wanting.

Roxanne Gay wrote in Salon a couple years ago: “What most writers have in common is desire. We want and want and want and want.”  It’s what keeps writers ambitious.

But what if we don’t get what we want? And if we do, will we ever feel fulfilled, and grateful?

Ever since I came to work at Book Country, Penguin Group’s online writing and publishing community, that yucky feeling of ingratitude has dissipated, leaving in its place something much more heartening. Book Country is a community of writers both published and unpublished. These writers come from all over the world to participate in a wide-ranging conversation about writing books of all types, from Erotica to Middle Grade Fiction to Epic Fantasy to Horror. We talk to each other on the Discussion Boards, trading tips about the craft of writing and the business of publishing, and we Tweet at each other to share our congrats on successes and our musings on pop culture. And because Book Country is a sponsor of NaNoWriMo 2013, this engagement with other writers has extended into the even wider Nano community of writers, who reflect that same positive encouragement at one another, too.

In hindsight I can see by the end of the Workshop, I was just in a bad writing funk, and that there was work I needed to do on my thesis that was hard and uncomfortable that I was petulant about doing—this made me feel both ungrateful and unambitious, a loathsome combination. In the years since we graduated, my gratitude for having gone to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with my particular cohort has swelled, so much so that this Thanksgiving I’m waxing nostalgic about that brown snow and bland Chinese food. I miss my friends from the program, and the way we trusted each other enough to say it when we thought someone’s manuscript felt shallow or boring.

I no longer think that writers are an ungrateful lot, doomed to a forever of only wanting. Open to the acknowledgments section of any Penguin book, and you’ll see a grateful writer taking a long and wonderful moment to thank their editor, their agent, their publicist, their writing teachers, their friends, their spouses, and their children. And then they move on to writing another, even more ambitious book.

This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for my community of writers (both from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and on Book Country), for the experience of NaNoWriMo and how it’s energized my writing routine in a way that feels almost athletic, but also for that wanting that Roxanne Gay wrote about, that feeling that my work can and should get better. The balance of these is a wonderful place from which to write.

Lucy Silag is the Community and Engagement Manager for Book Country, an online writing and publishing community, and the author of the Beautiful Americans novels for young adults.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin HamidYou’re a big reader, always have been. Maybe you were an English major, worked at a bookstore, scored a job in publishing. Point is, you read a lot of books. And while you love to read, while you in fact love it more than ever, the sheer amount of books you consume can sometimes have an unintended effect: you can forget how powerful one individual book can be. Then you read Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

At first, you think, “Ugh, second person?” Seems a bit gimmicky. Same goes for the business / self-help conceit. But you keep reading. You start to admire how skillfully assembled it all is. How the sentences, which appear technical and cold, actually surprise you with their warmth and depth. How it’s somehow both universal and ultra-specific. And how all of the careful construction starts to collapse towards the end, beautifully.

You’re a literary snob, there’s no denying it. Point of view, voice, form: those are always the first things that catch your eye. But here you also get swept up in the story and the characters. As the protagonist moves from his impoverished roots in a rural town to becoming a rich man in a bustling metropolis, you’re right there with him. As he pines for the woman he loves, wondering where she is and knowing how impossible it is that he’ll ever find her again, well, you can’t help it: you get a little dust in your eye…

Finally, you finish it. And as you sit there on your couch, you think about doing something you’ve never done, something that you’ve heard people say but never believed they really did. Because why would they? There are so many books out there and not nearly enough time to read them all. But you’re thinking about doing it anyway. And then you do. You slowly turn back to the first page and start again.

- Matt Boyd, Publishing Manager and Manager of Special Marketing Initiatives

This holiday season, our Penguin authors can help you find the best book for everyone on your list.

View more holiday recommendations on the Random House Tumblr.
Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Help, Thanks, Wow; Some Assembly Required; Grace (Eventually); Plan B; and Traveling Mercies, as well as several novels, including Imperfect Birds and Rosie. A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

Tattoos on the Heart, by Father Greg Boyle

Gorgeous memoir of a priest who works with ex-gang members in LA.

Stations of the Heart, by Richard Lischer

Brilliant, sad, illuminating story of a deeply spiritual father losing his grown son while the son and wife are expecting.

Read an excerpt »

Half Baked, by Alexa Stevenson

The funniest, most wonderful memoir of a woman and her preemie in the Pediatric ICU.

What I Thought I Knew, by Alice Eve Cohen

View the Reading Group Guide »

Another lovely, laugh-out-loud story of a woman with an incredibly challenging birth.

After Mandela, by Douglas Foster

The best book on South Africa after the revolution in years. The subtitle is “The Search for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa.”

Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes

A very funny and harrowing novel about a young woman who becomes a caregiver for a handsome quadriplegic man.

Read an Excerpt »
View the Reading Group Guide »
Listen to a playlist »

Is This Tomorrow, by Caroline Leavitt

I enjoy everything she writes. This is right up there with her Pictures of You.

The Wrong Dog Dream, by Jane Vandenburgh

A love story by the great novelist and memorist about her cherished husband and dog.

What’s the Matter with White People, by Joan Walsh

Brilliant commentary on how and why the US has ended up in such political misery.

Gypsy Boy, by Mikey Walsh

An exciting voice from England, Walsh writes a boy about growing up in a violent gypsy family and discovering he is gay.

Helen in Love, Rosie SultanIt was a cold day in February and I was stalled. The writing of my novel, Helen In Love—which fictionalizes the story of Helen Keller’s secret love affair—wasn’t working. I’d done years of research: files littered my desk, photographs of Keller hung on my study walls, newspaper clippings from 1916—the year of the novel—blared their headlines of how Keller spoke out against the United States entering into World War I.

I had so many letters, photos, and books about my subject that I should have been able to write the novel in—what? A month? Two at most?

Well, it wasn’t happening. My characters felt stiff on the page—bloodless. I pushed them around like cardboard cutouts and after more time than I want to say—okay, after four years of writing—I finally did what any novelist worth her salt does in moments of frustration. I quit.

The next day, during a blustery snowstorm, I walked into my study. Instead of opening my computer, I left it shut. Then I ran my eyes over the bookshelves lining my walls. Please, I prayed to the writing Gods. Let me find a book to jump-start my writing.

And then I saw it. Way down on the bottom shelf, a flare of red caught my eye. The red cover of a novel I’d picked up years earlier but had never read now grabbed me. No, that cover didn’t grab me: it dragged me in. Blood red, this cover, with a Klimt-like female figure in a red dress, her black hair flowing, her dress enfolding her like a shroud.

And who was this figure on the book’s cover?

Madame Mao.

I moved to the couch in my study and opened the pages of Anchee Min’s mesmerizing novel, Becoming Madame Mao (Mariner Books).

All that week I walked in to my study at noon and stayed on the corner couch with Min’s novel until the sun went down. I was completely engrossed in the story of Madame Mao: her early years of desperation, then her love affairs, and a kind of heat rose up off of the page as I read. Min’s portrait of a woman I’d only known as the wife of Mao Tse-tung, Former Chairman of Communist Party of China, defied all of my expectations.

Gone was my image of Madame Mao as the tiny, grey-clad figure I’d seen on TV when she and her cohorts were charged with being the “Gang of Four.” No, this Madame Mao, told with Min’s careful shifts from first and third person, sizzled with life, lust, desperation, and greed.

She was human. She was fierce. She was very flawed.

And loved her.

When I finished the book later that week, I knew that fiery, flawed Madame Mao had freed my writing.

I flipped open my computer ready to do something different. The story I wrote, of another icon, might do something similar. Helen Keller, too, was not just her public image: a demure, school-teacherish, icon–preachy and dull. Rather, she was a suffragette, a supporter of civil rights as early as 1916, a firebrand socialist whose outspoken opinions offended many. And she was a woman who craved love.

As I wrote I felt—no, I was—alive to the story of the real Helen Keller. The one who wanted to “wear high heels and drink gin.” The woman who, despite worldwide fame and good works, said with great bitterness at her life’s end, “Had I been sighted, I would have married first of all.”

Several months later my novel was finished. The red copy of Anchee Min’s book was creased and worn on my desk. But my characters were alive.

And so I say thank you to the person I least expected would renew my writing.

Thank you, Madame Mao.