Book Talk


It is such a pleasure to have my daughter Mary join me for this month's book talk.  Mary is a life-long lover of books, so much so that she decided to go into publishing upon graduating from college.  I am always looking to her for good read suggestions.  Grab a cup of coffee and settle in for this month's chat!


What books are currently on your nightstand?

For a long time, the only books on my nightstand were The Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny. I started the series in January 2017 and the wonderful village of Three Pines captivated me through May 2018. I teared up as I finished the final book out both because of how emotionally invested I was in the conclusion of Glass Houses and because I had no idea what I could possibly pick up next that would satisfy my heart, mind, and soul in the same way.

Luckily, I’ve found my way back to The Soul of an Octopus, Sy Montgomery’s bestselling non fiction novel that explores the consciousness of an octopus.

What book first got you hooked on reading as a child?

This one is easy and will come as no surprise to my mother, the curator of this whimsical blog. I count myself as extremely lucky to have been born as part of the Harry Potter Generation. When I was ten years old, my mom brought home Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and my life was changed forever. That might sound like an exaggeration, but never before had I devoured a book as I did this one. Now, I am a children’s book publicist and many of the authors I work with remind young readers during events that it just takes one book to get you hooked for life. Well, J.K. Rowling hooked an entire generation of readers for life on a series that encourages, compassion, ambition, and kindness in equal measure, and I think we’re all better for it.

How do you choose what to read?

Most of what I read is for my job. As a book publicist, I am assigned a number of titles to work on each year, booking media and events to help draw readers to the book. I’m lucky enough to read books by authors like Katherine Applegate, Ann M. Martin, Marissa Meyer, and Jennifer Mathieu before they reach shelves and also have the true delight of reading manuscripts by debut authors. There is nothing quite like introducing a promising debut author to booksellers, librarians, teachers, and young readers.

Which genres are you drawn to and which do you avoid?

Growing up, my favorite genre was Fantasy, but lately I’ve been on a bit of a Mystery and True Crime kick, thanks in large part to Louise Penny and the podcast My Favorite Murder.  There really aren't any genres that I avoid, I'm interested in all of them!

Do you reread books?  Which ones and why?

I reread Harry Potter whenever I have a chance. The books help me reconnect with my childhood, a time when I didn’t impose any limits on what I thought was possible. I had no trouble believing that three eleven year olds could defeat a cave troll together and then grow up to defeat the most evil wizard of the age. We could all stand to remember how much we’re capable of, and there’s nothing better than children’s literature to help me remember that most of what I think I cannot accomplish is simply because I’ve forgotten the courage that comes naturally with youth.


If you could be a literary character, who would it be?

I would either choose Anne of Green Gables or Ginny Weasley. Anne because it is a gift to have imagination and Ginny because she is as fierce as they come. Besides, they are also both redheads, just like me.  : )

Are there any authors whose work you have read completely?  What about their writing appeals to you?

While I can’t claim to have read everything J. R. R. Tolkien has written, I can claim what I think is a very impressive collection of Lord of the Rings. My older sister, Kate, brings me back the series from every country she visits (and where she can find the books!) My last count was twelve languages! It’s so much fun to see how different countries design the cover and interior. Beyond satisfying my insatiable need for as many Tolkien editions as I can get my hands on, it has also always been fun to picture my sister picking the books out for me during her travels near and far. I’m sure most will agree that books make for the best collections, especially when the collection is built by friends and family. 

Most recently, I read the entirety of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series and recommend it to everyone I meet. Her books make me feel more tender toward the world, even while they describe brutal murders! Quite a feat.

Which three authors (living or dead) would you invite to join you for dinner and why?

Louise Penny, J.K. Rowling, and J.R.R. Tolkien because they all helped shape who I am today.

Is there a book that you often recommend to others?

Well, I already recommended Louise Penny several times, so this time I’ll choose Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi. Entertainment Weekly called her “the new J.K. Rowling.”

What book or books would you recommend to a parent whose child is a reluctant reader?

Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton’s Treehouse Series is perfect for reluctant readers. The book is heavily illustrated, completely hilarious, and subtly educational. The New York Times profiled Andy earlier this year and captured his brilliant humor beautifully.


Mary Van Akin is a lifelong reader, thanks to Harry Potter.  Now, she is the Associate Director, Publicity at Macmillan Children's Publishing Group where she's lucky enough to spend her days bringing readers to great books.  For lots of book recommendations and cat pictures, follow her on Twitter at @mvanakin.  Mary lives in Brooklyn, New York.



Thank you for joining me for this week's book talk.  Next month I will be featuring the lovely author and musician, Nancy McMillan.  If you have any questions you would like me to ask Nancy, please let me know in the comments below.  In addition, if there is someone you would like to see me profile in our monthly Book Talk, I would love to know!  



Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light.

–Vera Nazarian

Nature Through an Abstract Lens

"Photography is an art of observation.  It has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them."  ~ Elliot Erwitt


I have become intrigued by abstract photography.  This surprises me, as I am a very literal person.  I love the idea of distorting an image, so that you are left with only a hint of what it is.  I began first with flowers,  either distorting the image by slowing down the shutter speed on my DSLR camera or by using the app Slow Shutter Cam on my iPhone.

“My objective is not so much to portray a literal representation but rather depict my feelings evoked by the landscape. I try to find something extraordinary in the mundane”.  ~Valda Bailey

Morning Walk.JPG

What I love most about the three landscapes above is how much they resemble paintings.  As a matter of fact, a number of my friends mistook the first two for original artwork and were surprised to learn that they were photographs.  More than anything, I love the mood each evoke.

A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know” ~ Diane Arbus

After the Rain.jpg

More to come.  I love the endless possibilities this style of photography offers.  

I was recently asked to sell my original artwork and prints at The Giving Gallery, a free online platform that raises money for mental health nonprofits through art.  Proceeds from every art sale are split between the artist and a partnered mental health nonprofit of the buyer’s choice.  Mental health education has always been a passion of mine as I feel that conditions such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder have long been misunderstood in our society.  I hope you stop by their site and visit.  

Book Talk

Welcome to the May edition of Book Talk!  Many of you who are on Instagram are already familiar with this month's guest, Corinne Noel Cunningham.  Corinne's writing has been published in magazines such as Kindred and Mamalode and featured on numerous blogs.  She is currently working on her first novel and sharing her progress on her website.  Welcome, Corinne!  


1.  What books are currently on your nightstand?   

At the moment there’s quite a few!  American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers by Nancy Jo Sales, Honey from Stone by Chet Raymo, Caroline: Little House, Revisited by Sarah Miller, The Cows by Dawn O’Porter, and Eat Up by Ruby Tandoh.  I love having a stack of books at the ready.  Often times I’ll pick up different ones depending on my mood and the time of day.

2.  What’s the last really good book you read?

         The last book I read, actually!  Louisiana Catch by Sweta Srivastava Vikram.  I read the first half over the course of two days, and then when I tried to put it down and go to sleep on that second night, I had to sit up and finish the whole thing!  I didn’t get to sleep until well after midnight, but I had to know how it ended.  Louisiana Catch is an ambitious book, full of complex characters and timely sub plots.  I absolutely recommend it.

3.  How do you choose what to read?

         If I have anything out from the library, I automatically read that first, but otherwise it depends on my mood.  Sometimes I want a good novel, other times a nonfiction title fits the bill. That being said, I love a good new release and that, combined with the fact that I’m not terribly patient or good at waiting, if a novel I’ve pre-ordered shows up on my doorstep or on my Kindle, I’ll toss everything else aside and dive in!

4.  Do you finish every book that you start?  If you don’t, how do you decide when to stop reading?

         No, I don’t.  There’s too many books out there, and we’re only here for a finite amount of time.  Generally I know within the first quarter of a book if I’m going to stick it out or not.  And if not… I’ll peek at the last few chapters so I know what happened.  The red flags for me are if I’m rolling my eyes at the quality of writing (which has to be really bad, because I appreciate most efforts, being a writer myself and knowing how much work it takes to write a book), or if there’s too much gratuitous violence, or if it’s just way too suspenseful.


5.   Are there any authors whose work you have read completely?

There’s a few: JoJo Moyes, Sarah Addison Allen, Susanna Kearsley, Anne Lamott, and Kelly Corrigan. 

6.  Do you remember the first ‘grown-up’ book you read?  

         I don’t remember a specific one, but I do remember reading a lot of Agatha Christie novels as a pre-teen, as well as The Cat Who series by Lilian Jackson Braun.  They seemed very grown up at the time, and I remember feeling so sophisticated while reading them, and then discussing them with my crime novel loving grandmother! 

7.  Are there any books from your childhood that you introduced to your own children?  

Loads!  Charlotte’s Web, The BFG, Stuart Little, Make Way for Ducklings, Blueberries for Sal, Madeline, A Light in the Attic, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and The Random House Book of Poetry for Children are only the first bunch that come to mind.  It’s been one of the great joys of my life to share written words with my children and to foster a love of books and reading. 

8.  If you could hang out with a literary character for the day, who would it be?

It’s a toss up between Anne of Green Gables and Nancy Drew.  I’d love to hang out with Anne to explore and take in Prince Edward Island and to bask in the glow of her imagination… and Nancy Drew was not only fashionable, but smart as a whip and had all sorts of adventures, so I’d love a little of that to rub off on me after spending time with her.


9.  Which three authors (living or dead) would you invite to join you for dinner and why?

I’d invite Kate DiCamillo, Anne Lamott, and JoJo Moyes because the combination the of these three power house writers, who write with such humanity, grace, and humor, would make for an unforgettable dinner.

10.  When you are working on a novel is there a writer whose work you turn to for inspiration?  Any books on writing that you would recommend to other aspiring novelists?

I’d have to say, having JoJo Moyes and Sarah Addison Allen’s books on hand to turn to when I forgot how to write (which does happen… some days you sit down at the computer and poof, all of your knowledge about writing disappears!) was a huge help.  Not that I wanted to write exactly like either of them, but their books remind me what I love about novels, how a writer can bring the reader into a story effortlessly and immediately, and how they carry a story along.  As for books on writing, I’ve read more than my share!  Favorites are Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, How to Make a Literary Life by Caroline See, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, Stop Worrying Start Writing by Sarah Painter, and last but not least, If You Want to Write by Brenda Uleand.  For novelists in particular, I found Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland to be insightful, posed the right questions for a novelist to ask of his or her work in progress, and just the thing I needed to read at just the right time - which is half the battle when it comes to books on writing. 

Corinne Cunningham is a homeschooling mother, writer, knitter, avid reader and beach enthusiast.  She is currently in the process of completing her first novel, and looks forward to the road ahead to publication.  Corinne lives on the coast of Massachusetts with her husband and two children. 


Thank you, Corinne, for being this month's special guest!  I know I am not the only one jotting down all of your book recommendations!  I have a special guest lined up for next month, someone dear to my heart.  My daughter, Mary Van Akin, Assistant Director of Publicity for MacMillan Kids, will be sharing her thoughts on books and living a readerly life.  Stay tuned! 

The Piano Lesson

"Failure in the creative life is not only a risk, a possibility to be avoided, but an eventuality to be embraced.  Worrying we might fail leads to fear and paralysis; it leads to making 'safe' decisions instead of the ones demanded by our art, our longings." ~ David DuChemin, A Beautiful Anarchy


Three days until my first recital and I am playing my pieces for my teacher.  She sits quietly behind me, eyes closed as she listens.  As I finish each piece she offers praise, suggestions and advice.

She looks at me intently.  "Don't be discouraged if you make a mistake on Saturday," she comments.  "Everyone makes mistakes and it is okay.  Just play through the mistakes and most people won't even notice."

I am a little taken aback.  Is she telling me this because she knows from what she has heard today that I am destined to err on Saturday? I continue to listen to her critique and realize that I'm wrong;  it isn't because of my performance that she has given me this advice, but rather because during this past year she has come to know me well.  

She knows I am a perfectionist and can be very hard on myself.  It's true, I don't like to fail.

I cannot pinpoint when or how I became this way but at some point in my early years I began comparing myself to others and found myself lacking.  I cannot blame my parents or teachers; they were always supportive and encouraging.  Instead it seems as if it was a character trait born out of a sense of insecurity, of not being good enough.  I have always had a fear of failure that at times has kept me from doing what I love.


"Nothing is perfect the first time.  Or ever." ~ David DuChemin, A Beautiful Anarchy

It's funny; I am very good at setting aside time to practice piano daily and yet I don't do the same for my art.  Perhaps it is because with my piano lessons I am being held accountable by my teacher, but I think it is also because I know I won't improve if I don't practice.  I dream of sitting down and just choosing a piece of music to play and I willingly work towards that goal.  

So why don't I do that with my art?  Is it because I am only being held accountable to myself?  It seems that everyday I am able to create a list of things that need to be done before I sit down and create.  Popeye needs a walk.  The clothes need to be folded.  The email must be answered.  It has become second nature to me to just put it off for another day.  I know that to improve as an artist I need to dedicate time to my craft, to set aside fears of failure and push the envelope.  I am always asking my piano teacher to give me challenging pieces but as soon as I feel challenged in art?  I freeze, afraid to move forward.  


"The real failure is to rob this world of the contribution that only you can make."  David Duchemin, A Beautiful Anarchy

When I am wrestling with thoughts such as these I am often surprised by the messages I receive  from the Universe.  Last night I posted the montage above on Instagram to participate in a project circulating with the hashtag #artvsartist.  The basic idea is to find similarities between the photograph of the artist and the work he or she creates.  When I went on Instagram today I found an invitation to join The Giving Gallery, a new online gallery that supports mental health nonprofits.  It felt as if the Universe was giving me a giant nudge, an affirmation that I should not give up on my art, that I should value my work and, more importantly, value myself.

As for the recital, I am happy to report that yes, I did make a few mistakes, but you know what?  I kept calm and played on.  We all did and each of our songs sounded beautiful.  It was such a learning moment for me, to see that even the most accomplished pianists in our little group still were capable of making mistakes.  It was a lovely afternoon spent celebrating our collective love of music and fellowship and I look forward to our next recital.  

Book Talk

Chatting with Karen of Pumpkin Sunrise

Welcome to the April edition of Book Talk, an ongoing series where I talk with creative kinfolk about their reading lives.  This month's guest is knitter and writer Karen A., who shares her love of knitting, reading and homelife on her blog Pumpkin Sunrise.

 Photo courtesy of Karen A.

Photo courtesy of Karen A.

What books are currently on your nightstand?

Currently I’m reading Home by Marilynne Robinson, I love her writing style and the extensive character development that slowly evolves. Sadly, I’m not reading as fast as I would like, so this book has been lingering around. I also started the sixth Inspector Gamache novel Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny. Oh, how I love the long story arch amongst her books and the quick murder mysteries within each book. This book is on my Kindle, which allows me to knit and read at the same time. That’s when I feel like an epic multi-task master. 

What's the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

I learn a lot from cookbooks by getting different ideas for some new recipes to add to my menu plan rotation . Whenever I have meal planning ennui, I search my bookshelf in the kitchen to remedy the situation. Heidi Swanson’s cookbooks have many interesting recipes. 

Is there an author you admire whose writing particularly resonates with you?

Oh, how to choose? Lately, I’ve been sinking into Margaret Atwood’s books. I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace. She can weave her words into magic over the simplest daily tasks. She inspires me to write more often and with purpose. Anne Lamott is another author whose writing is funny, personable and readable. 

 Photograph courtesy of Karen A.

Photograph courtesy of Karen A.

Which genres are you drawn to and which do you avoid?

Originally, I would have said literary fiction and historical fiction are my go to genres. However, I’ve found out that I do love dystopian fiction immensely and young adult fiction. I avoid true crime murder and thriller genres (except Stephen King), I am highly sensitive and I do not like explicit violent scenes or disturbing ideas. 

Are there any books that people would be surprised to learn that you own?

I read (and own) The Once and Future King that my daughter recommended when I mentioned I wanted to read a fantasy book. The fantasy genre isn’t one I dabble in either, however I thoroughly enjoyed being in Camelot and reading adventures. I used to read historical romance when the kids were little but now that they’ve grown up I like to read literary fiction. 

What was your favorite book as a child?  Is there a particular book or author that had an impact on you as a young reader?

I loved: Anne of Green Gables, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, A Lantern in her Hand, Little Women, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

When I was 11 years old, we moved from the city to the suburbs and I attended a new grade school for seventh grade. I wasn’t a reader at the time nor did my mother take me to the library. In fact, I hated to read! However, I remember going to the library and on a whim borrowed out Little Women and I was transported and decided then and there that I was going to be a famous author like Jo. That was the beginning of my relationship with libraries, with reading and escaping into a novel. I spent that first summer on the front porch swing with a glass of iced tea and a book. I also kept a log of what I read that has since gone missing, but I remember nearly all the books from that magical summer. During our early marriage years, I’ve lived in Ohio, Texas, Michigan and then back to Pennsylvania, we would rate how liveable our towns were by the libraries. 

 Photograph courtesy of Karen A.

Photograph courtesy of Karen A.

Are there any books from your childhood that you introduced to your own children?

When the children were little, we read together The Steadfast Tin Soldier and The Velveteen Rabbit. I introduced Anne of Green Gables to my daughter when she was eight years old and she also read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn . 

Are there any books or authors that your children have gotten you hooked on?

My son is fantastic at recommending books to me. I read over the summer The Hate U Give on his urging and loved it. Both of my children encouraged me to read the Hunger Game Trilogy which was brilliant. I’ve read The Harry Potter books twice through because of their love and enthusiasm for J. K. Rowling’s novels. 

Which three authors (living or dead) would you invite to join you for dinner and why?

- Margaret Atwood - because she seems like she would be funny and she’s an advocate for the environment so the dinner would be informative and enlightening.

- Stephen King - because he is hilarious to follow on Twitter. He would keep all the dinner guests on the toes which his quippy responses and observations. Maybe I could get some personal writing tips from him.

- Fredrik Backman - because he is a newer author who has a brilliant way of weaving a story with relatable characters who remind you of people you’ve met or a little of yourself. I would enjoy a conversation with him and find out how he starts crafting a novel. 

 Photograph courtesy of Karen A.

Photograph courtesy of Karen A.

If a beginning knitter asked you to recommend a book about knitting what would you suggest?

Any book written by Elizabeth Zimmermann who was a genius before her time. I’ve read all of her books and she can expand your understanding and give you some simple guidance at following directions and experimenting with designing your own knitwear. She has a delightful sense of humor. 

What are you planning to read next?

My pile of books is vast. I have all the Gamache books on my Kindle bought when they were each on sale (sign up for the Kindle daily deals to be delivered to your inbox). I have Ron Chernow’s book Washington: A Life on my shelf, I read Hamilton and enjoyed the journey while learning so much. I recently picked up the paperback of Beartown by Fredrik Backman while toodling about in Barnes and Noble. 



Karen A writes on her personal blog,, where she shares current knitting projects, thoughts of ordinary life and recent antics of her pets. Karen documents her love of family and living an authentic life while chasing creative pursuits through her stories and her photography. She can also be found on Instagram and Twitter (@pumpkinsunrise). 



Many thanks again to Karen for sharing her reading life with us!  If you have a chance I recommend you click on the link to her blog and pay a visit; I know you will be charmed by her lovely posts and beautiful knitting projects.  If there are any questions you would like me to ask my next guest please share them in the comments section.  Next month I will be talking with author and blogger Corinne Noel Cunningham.  Cheers!