Books are food for my soul! Pull up a beach chair and stick your toes in the sand as the Jersey surf rolls in and out, now open your book and let your imagination take you away.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Evidence Of Life by Barbara Taylor Sissel (Author Interview / Book Review)

Jersey Girl Book Reviews is pleased to host the virtual release date book event for author Barbara Taylor Sissel's new novel, Evidence Of Life!

Author Interview

Welcome to Jersey Girl Book Reviews, Barbara!

Before we get to the interview, can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself.

I am the author of four novels. Three are indie books available at Amazon and soon to be available through Barnes & Noble, and other venues, too. Evidence Of Life (Harlequin/MIRA) is my national print debut. I also work freelance as a writer and editor and at one time worked as an editor for a small, regional, royalty paying press. I’ve worked a lot of jobs from flight attendant to floor model at a department store to chair side dental assistant, and once lived with my family on the grounds of a first offender prison facility. I’m the mother of two wonderful sons, and I currently live, write and love to garden near Houston, Texas. 

What book is on your nightstand right now?

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

What's the last book that kept you up all night to finish reading it?

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Another was, The Help by Kathryn Stockett.

When did you first consider yourself a writer? 

On one level, I think I believed it when I finished my first manuscript and someone offered to publish it, but on another level, I think it came home to me when I published my indie books and readers began to leave reviews. Then it struck me again, pretty hard, when I signed my contract with MIRA. That was so exciting.

Where's your favorite place to read?

I have three. One is tucked up on my garden bench outside. Another is the corner of the sofa, and the third is at night in my beautiful antique brass and wrought iron bed. I can’t go to sleep unless I read first. 

What books have influenced your life the most?

This is a hard question. I’m influenced by almost every book I read in one way or another. The Secret Garden is one I have reread over and over. I loved Anna Karenina, too, and War and Peace. The Source by James Michener was absorbing. I love everything by the Bronte sisters and W. Somerset Maugham. So many of the classics are my favorites. For contemporary authors, I so admire Pat Conroy’s books. The Prince of Tides, especially. I still think about it. I love contemporary authors, Anita Shreve, A. Manette Ansay, Anna Quindlan, Elizabeth Berg, Barbara Kingsolver and John Hart. Dennis Lehane, Wally Lamb. I could go on … and on. I just love books! 

Who would you cast as your main characters if your book was made into a movie?

Nicole Kidman as Abby. I’m not sure which actor I would choose to play Dennis. In my mind, he’s such a hero. Maybe that’s why I have trouble! 

How long did it take you to publish your first book?

Too many years to talk about! Mine was a long journey accomplished around raising two wonderful sons who were my main focus and, in addition, holding down a series of day jobs! 

What were your favorite books as a child?

The Secret Garden, the Oz books, Anne of Green Gables. So many. All of Kipling: The Just So Stories, Puck of Pook's Hill, Kim, The Jungle Book, The Borrowers, Peter Pan, The Wind and the Willows. All the fairy tales. I read many of the classics too. Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Razor's Edge, all of E.A. Poe and William Faulkner. I was fortunate in that my mother both read to me, my sister and brother (a favorite she often read to us from was A Thousand and One Nights) and encouraged us to read. She also challenged me one summer to read the list of one hundred great books that was put together by Clifton Fadiman, a one-time editor for Simon and Schuster and head of the New York Book Review. I read most everything on the list except the math and science and Thomas Mann’s, Magic Mountain. I could never get through that one. 

What's one item that's always in your refrigerator?


Who is your favorite fictional heroine?

I know there must be many I’ve loved, but the one who comes to mind now is Kitty Garstin, the heroine in W. Somerset Maugham’s, The Painted Veil. She was so flawed and her journey was so difficult. She faced her own demons and in the end found a kind of peace. 

What's the best movie that's based on a book?

Cold Mountain, for one, and the movie version of Memoirs of a Geisha was well done, too, I thought. I loved both the books and the movies. 

What made you want to become a writer?

Living. I think reading and writing are my attempts to make sense of life. 

You're stranded on a desert island and only have three books in your suitcase, what are they? 

Now this is impossible! I would want books that were thick and involved with compelling plots. Michener’s The Source might be a good one, maybe Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom. I’ve been meaning to reread it to see if I can penetrate any more layers of its meaning. Maybe a volume of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays, or a beautifully illustrated book of all the classic fairy tales. It would be very hard to decide. 

If you could date any character from literature who would it be? 

Yuri Andreievich Zhivago from Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago or W.P. Inman from Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. I know I’m prejudiced, but I would go out with Dennis, too, in Evidence Of Life! I love him! 

What does your writing space look like?

It’s the small third bedroom in my home. I love the space because it has windows on both sides and plenty of light and while it is small, it has room for my desk where I work on a desktop computer and two library tables for my reference works, my dictionaries and a thesaurus, and a world atlas. A few years ago I bought an adorable, very tall, glass-doored, antique drop leaf secretary to store some of my oldest books in. I sit there to do non writerly things like pay bills. Having the little old desk makes the business stuff less of a chore. I like to imagine the person to whom it belonged and what their life was like. 

Is there a book you've wished you never read?  

I can’t think of one specifically. I know I’m not a fan of graphic horror or violence, or graphic anything for that matter. I like the author to leave room for my imagination. 

If you could go back in time and give advice to your 12 year old self what would it be?

To trust in myself and my intuition more. To be more true to myself.

What's your favorite city and why? 

Of the ones I’ve visited, I love most, New York, Austin, Fort Worth, San Francisco, and Chicago. Each one of them has a different yet uniquely vibrant atmosphere, each is a different flavor. Even how the wind blows is different. I love walking around on city streets, looking in at the windows and listening to the people talk. But my preference is the quiet and peace of the country. 

Do you have any writing rituals? 

Not other than to show up every day at the same time and do the work. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

I would offer my ritual as a guide. If you show up everyday, at the same time every day, even if you can only manage 15 minutes, and do the work, you’ll have something to show for it. More than if you didn’t. Then I would say don’t ever give up, but, of course, you won’t if you have a fire in your belly. It won’t let you quit. I almost did a number of times, but that desire wouldn’t let me. 

What are your favorite things to do when you're not writing? 

I love to read and to garden. I love to go antiquing and/or junking. I love to be outside on a gorgeous day and have nothing better to do than to listen to the wind. I also cross stitch. I do the really involved patterns. Right now I’m stitching Austrian painter Joseph Nigg’s oil painting titled, Bowl of Flowers in a Landscape. It’s gorgeous or it will be if I ever finish! Here's a link

What inspired you to write your first book? 

An old cemetery that was located behind a house. I used to pass it on my way to have dinner with my brother and his family. It was inside city limits, in this odd little pocket of residential streets, and had maybe fifteen or twenty headstones. Every time I drove by it, a story would begin in my head. Finally one day I wrote down the beginning of one of those stories, and over time, it turned into my first novel, the one that I learned on.

If you could do it over again, would you change anything in your latest book?  

I’m sure my internal editor would find fault with it, but my heart loves the story. I loved writing it. I love that I had a caring and astute editor to help me hone it. I’m thrilled to be sharing it and so hopeful readers will love it, too. 

What's your guiltiest pleasure?

Probably playing hooky, just on a whim taking off and driving out to a favorite garden nursery, or the book store. Or stealing time to tuck up with a gorgeously photographed garden book, leafing through it and feasting my eyes on the pictures. 

Do you have any new projects that you're currently working on? 

Yes, I’m writing another novel that will be coming out from MIRA. The idea for it came from experiences I had while living with my family for a few years on the grounds of a first offender prison. Over the course of time, I met some of the inmates’ family members and got to know the ways in which their lives had been altered in the wake of the arrest, conviction, and incarceration of their sons whom they loved. These people were usually just good people, ordinary people. They could have been neighbors or friends. Since having my own children, I often look back on that experience and compare the difficulty of facing the school principal with what some of those parents had to face. I mean, suppose you were to learn that your adult son or brother had been accused of murder? How could anything prepare you for such a shock? In the story I’m working on now, after the family receives exactly this news, they are left reeling, but while the accused man’s father retreats, the mother and sister marshal themselves and unite in the effort to find the truth, which proves to be shattering in ways that are as shocking as the crimes that launched their journey. Before long the family begins to unravel under the strain, family loyalties are tested beyond endurance, and in the end, it isn’t only the one family member’s life, but all their lives that will hang in the balance, in a way that is both terrifying and unexpected.

Thank you Barbara for visiting Jersey Girl Book Reviews and sharing some things about yourself and your writing career with us!

About The Author

I am an author, a book reviewer, a freelance writer and an editor and the mother of two great sons. I was born in Honolulu, Hawaii and grew up at various locations, mostly in the Midwest. I've always loved stories, the ones my big sister told to me and my younger brother, and the wild tales I invented for anyone who would listen that often left my mother perplexed. She knew they were too crazy to be from true experience the way I claimed and yet they were vivid enough that she couldn't quite label them lies either. Sometimes even I wasn't sure!

Reading and and falling in love with Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte was what got me thinking about becoming an author and the dream stayed with me through marriage, life as the wife of a prison warden and the births of my children there. It wasn't until my youngest was off to school that I finally sat down to write and then what came was influenced by my experience living with my family on the grounds of a prison, a first-offender facility in Kentucky that was located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Justice is a central issue for me. Justice and forgiveness. How far is it to unforgivable? Is it ever too late? These are the themes that resonate with me whether I'm reading or writing. What happens when an ordinary family is impacted by a sudden, extraordinary calamity?


Book Review

Evidence Of Life by Barbara Taylor Sissel
Publisher: Harlequin MIRA
Publication Date: March 26, 2013
Format: Paperback - 320 pages / Kindle - 397 KB / Nook - 308 KB
ISBN: 0778315169
Genre: Mystery Suspense Thriller

BUY THE BOOK: Evidence Of Life

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the author / publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Book Description:

On the last ordinary day of her life, Abby Bennett feels like the luckiest woman alive. But everyone knows that luck doesn't last forever.…

As her husband, Nick, and daughter, Lindsey, embark on a weekend camping trip to the Texas Hill Country, Abby looks forward to having some quiet time to herself. She braids Lindsey's hair, reminds Nick to drive safely and kisses them both goodbye. For a brief moment, Abby thinks she has it all—a perfect marriage, a perfect life—until a devastating storm rips through the region, and her family vanishes without a trace.

When Nick and Lindsey are presumed dead, lost in the raging waters, Abby refuses to give up hope. Consumed by grief and clinging to her belief that her family is still alive, she sets out to find them. But as disturbing clues begin to surface, Abby realizes that the truth may be far more sinister than she imagined. Soon she finds herself caught in a current of lies that threaten to unhinge her and challenge everything she once believed about her marriage and family.

With a voice that resonates with stunning clarity, Barbara Taylor Sissel delivers a taut and chilling mystery about a mother's love, a wife's obsession and the invisible fractures that can shatter a family.

Book Excerpt:

Chapter One

On the last ordinary day of her life before her family went off for the weekend, Abby made a real breakfast, French toast with maple syrup and bacon. It was penance, the least she could do, given how utterly delighted she was at the prospect of being left on her own for two whole days to do as she pleased. It would sicken her later, in the aftermath of what happened, that she could so covet the prospect of solitude, but in that last handful of ordinary hours, she was full of herself, her silly plans. She set a small mixing bowl on the counter, found the wire whisk, and when Nick came in the backdoor, she brandished it, smiling at him.

He frowned. "What are you doing?"

"Cooking breakfast, French toast."

"We don't have time. We're going to hit rush hour traffic as it is."

"It'll be fine," Abby soothed.

He came to the sink still wearing the wisp of bloodstained tissue he'd stuck below his ear where he'd cut himself shaving and the rumpled cargo shorts he'd pulled out of the hamper as if he didn't have a drawer full of clean ones. As if the unwashed pair were the only ones that suited him.

Abby got out a frying pan, aware of his mood, regretful of it. She wished he hadn't bothered with shaving. She wished she'd done the laundry yesterday. Leaving the breakfast makings, she went to him, circled his waist from behind, laid her cheek against his back. "I'm sorry about your shorts." The words were right there, but they caught in her throat when she felt him go still.

"Don't," he said, and she backed away.

She returned to the stove, absorbing herself in the task of separating the strips of bacon and arranging them with care in the bottom of the pan. As if her care made a difference, as if it could keep her family safe when it couldn't. She ought to have known that much at least. She went to the refrigerator and took out the carton of eggs.

Nick washed his hands.

"I wish you'd tell me what's wrong," she said when he shut off the water.

"Why do you always think something's wrong, Abby?"

"I don't."

"You do."

"Fine," she said. She would not stand here squabbling as if they were their children. He hung the kitchen towel over the oven door handle, gave her one of those side-of-themouth kisses. "I'm sorry," he said. "Nothing's wrong. I just want to get on the road."

Abby's jaw tightened. She knew better.

"Wouldn't cereal be easier?" he asked.

She broke the eggs into the bowl. "I'd like us to sit down to breakfast together for once."

"What about the mess? You do realize we can't stay to help you clean up."

"I don't mind."

He went to the foot of the stairs and shouted, "Lindsey? What's taking you so long? I could use some help loading the camping gear."

"Down in a minute, Dad," she shouted back. "I had to get ready in Jake's bathroom because the shower in mine is still leaking."

Nick looked at Abby. "I thought you called the plumber."

"I did. He hasn't—"

Nick left. The screen door clattered shut behind him.

"—called back yet," Abby finished.

She whipped the eggs, fuming. She wished she had taken Nick's advice and served cereal. They'd be gone faster. She wished she had said it was only lately that she assumed something was wrong. Because there was something; she could feel it. Nick was distracted, moodier than usual. Too quiet. That is, when he wasn't biting her head off for no reason. And since when did he push her away? Say no to her touch? It wasn't like him. Abby added powdered sugar and a splash of vanilla to the eggs. She got out a fork and poked at the bacon, aggravated at the sudden stab of her tears, a duller sense of alarm. Whatever it was, she wasn't a mind reader; she couldn't fix it by herself. Why couldn't he see that?

"I can't get my hair to do anything." Lindsey came up beside Abby, her brush and comb in her hand.

Abby composed her face. "Want me to French braid it?"

"Would you?"

Lindsey's hair reached the middle of her back, a thick mane that blended shades of honey blonde with darker shades of reddish brown, colors very similar to those of Miss Havisham, Lindsey's chestnut mare. Lindsey said she'd rather groom Miss Havisham's mane than her own, and she conned Abby into doing it whenever she could. Abby didn't mind; she loved the feel of it through her fingers, like rough silk. Deftly, she parted off three sections and began weaving them together. "Should I call you tomorrow and let you know if Hardys Walk wins tonight?"

"Samantha will."

"Is Scott pitching?"

"I don't know. Who cares anyway? He barely knows I'm alive."

"Oh, honey." Abby squeezed Lindsey's shoulder. Scott Kaplan was her first serious crush, the first boy to truly trouble her heart, and Abby was both exasperated and pained by the experience.

She wished she could say how little Scott would matter in the long run, but she didn't dare. "Did you bring a rubber band?

Lindsey handed it over along with a bit of taffeta ribbon, pink with a narrow green stripe. "I don't see why I have to go on this trip when Jake doesn't."

"He has finals," Abby said.

"Oh, sure," Lindsey scoffed. "Like he'd choose cramming for finals over camping in the Hill Country. Finals aren't until next month anyway."

Abby kept silent.

Lindsey said, "If you ask me he's not going because he doesn't want Dad on his case about law school again."

"Can you blame him?" Abby asked. Lindsey didn't answer. She was as tired of Nick and Jake's continual bickering as Abby was.

Nick was so much harder on Jake than he was on Lindsey. His preference was obvious, hurtful, but if Abby brought it up, Nick denied treating Lindsey differently. "You don't understand about boys," he would say.

"Oh, I think I understand perfectly; he's exactly like you," Abby would say.

Stubborn, she meant. Each one was determined to have it his own way.

"You know I'm right, Mom," Lindsey said.

"At least you won't have to listen to them argue."

"Maybe I'll go to law school."

Abby made a face. Lindsey never passed up an opportunity to remind her parents that she was the better student, the orderly, more agreeable child. "I thought you were going to play pro basketball overseas, travel the world."

"Is there a reason I can't do both?"

"Nope. You, my darling daughter, can do anything you set your mind to, just like your brother."

Abby ran her fingers lightly down the length of Lindsey's braid.

"If only I could stay home like my brother."

"Your daddy has gone to a lot of trouble to plan this trip so he can spend time with you."

"I know. I just wish it wasn't this weekend."

"There are worse sacrifices," Abby answered, blithely.

"I have finals next month, too. And don't say it's not the same."

"Okay, I won't." Abby centered the griddle over the burner. "Will you set the table and call your dad? The French toast'll be done in a minute." She could feel Lindsey considering whether or not to push.

Please, don't. It was a prayer, a wish, yet one more in the sea of mundane moments from that morning that would return to mock her. To ask her: How could you? Because she would remember that Lindsey hadn’t pushed; she’d set the table and left the kitchen without another word.


"What about jackets?" Abby followed her husband and daughter through the back door, onto the driveway. Although it was April, it was still chilly, and it would be colder where they were going.

Colder than home.

"It's supposed to rain," she said. "Maybe you guys should take your boots."

"Dad says it's not going to rain, that the weatherman doesn't know his—"

"Lindsey," Abby warned.

"I wasn't going to say ass, Mom. I was going to say bum or buttocks or what about seater rumpus?"

Abby rolled her eyes.

"He doesn't know his seater rumpus from a hole in the ground," Lindsey finished. She stowed her purse and iPod in the front seat.



"I wish you were going."

"You do? How come?"

"Because that delicious French toast you made for us? It's the last good meal I'll eat till we get home." Abby laughed.

"Very funny." Nick hefted his briefcase and laptop into the back of Abby's Jeep Cherokee, shifting it to fit, muttering what sounded to Abby like, "Who needs this?" Or, "Why am I doing this?"

She said, "Why don't you leave that stuff here? You don't have to work every weekend."

"I gave you the keys to the BMW, didn't I?" he asked as if he hadn't heard her, and maybe he hadn't or didn't want to.

"Oh, my gosh!" Lindsey's eyes were round in mock amazement. "Dad's letting you drive his precious BMW?"

"I know," Abby said. "I'm astonished, too."

He straightened. "Hey, funny girl, maybe I'll let you drive Mom's Jeep."

"For real?" She only had her learner's permit, wouldn't turn sixteen until August.

"Do you think that's wise?" Abby was instantly anxious. "She's never driven on the highway."

"She has to learn sometime."

"But they said it might storm."

"Like they know." Nick dropped his arm around her shoulders. "You worry too much."

"Just promise me you won't let her drive if the weather's bad."

"Jesus, Abby, I'm not stupid."

"No, Nick, I didn't mean—"

But he was stepping away, telling Lindsey to get in the car. He wanted to get to the campsite before dark.

She came over to Abby and hugged her. "Never mind, Mommy. You know how stressed he gets before a road trip. If he lets me drive, I promise I'll be careful."

Abby clung to Lindsey for a moment, breathing in her scent, leftover maple syrup and something citrusy, a faded remnant of little girl, the color pink, a lullaby. She said, "I know you will." She walked with Lindsey to the car.

"We'll be back on Sunday." Lindsey settled into the front seat. "Unless we've starved to death from Daddy's cooking."

"I'll make a big dinner, barbequed chicken and corn on the cob. Chocolate cake for dessert. How's that sound?"

"I just hope I'm not too weak to eat it."

"I think you'll survive," Abby said. She looked at Nick over the hood. "Don't be mad because of what I said about Lindsey driving, okay? I didn't mean anything."

"She has to learn, Abby, and it's best if one of us is with her."

"I'm glad it's you." Abby meant it. Nick's nerves were steadier. She went around to him. "I hope you can relax and have some fun."

"Yeah, me, too."

She wanted his gaze and touched his wrist. "Nick?"

"We should probably talk when I get home."


"Things. Us. You know. Isn't that what you're always saying, that I should be more open with you?"

"Yes, but—" What's wrong? She bit her lip to stop herself from asking.

"Thanks for making the French toast." His eyes on hers were somber.

"Sure, of course. I was glad to. You'll be careful, won't you?"

Instead of answering, he cradled her face in his hands and kissed her, and his kiss was so gentle and tender, and so filled with something she couldn't define. Later she would think it was regret she felt coming from him, maybe even remorse. But then she'd wonder if she’d read too much into it, if her sense of that had been created in hindsight.

He touched her temple, brushed the loose wisps of hair from her forehead. "I don't want you to worry. We'll be fine, okay?" His look was complicated, searching.

"Okay," she said, and she might have questioned him then, but he left her and got into the car too quickly. They reached the end of the driveway, Lindsey waved, and they were gone.

©Barbara Taylor Sissel 

My Book Review:

A wife/mother's worse nightmare ....

When Abby Bennett's husband Nick and fifteen year old daughter Lindsey go on a weekend camping trip to the Texas Hill Country, a devastating flash flood storm occurs, they are missing and presumed drowned but their bodies are not recovered. Devastated and unable to process the loss of her family, Abby refuses to believe they are dead and is obsessively determined to search for them. But when the investigation uncovers unexpected and disturbing information, what Abby discovers about Nick and Lindsey's disappearance will leave her questioning everything about her marriage, family and friends.

Evidence Of Life is an intriguing novel full of mystery, questions and unexpected twists and turns that keeps the reader guessing. Author Barbara Taylor Sissel weaves a compelling and thought provoking tale set in Texas and written in the third person narrative. The reader follows Abby Bennett's quest as she tries to discover the truth about her husband Nick and daughter Lindsey’s disappearance during a massive flash flood.

The author provides the reader with an intricate mystery, leaving clues throughout the story while alternating between Abby's quest, her mindset, and flashbacks to earlier times in her life and marriage, which keeps the reader engaged and turning the pages.

With a realistic cast of characters who have flaws and imperfections; a richly descriptive storyline and setting full of mystery and suspense that engages the reader's imagination; and a psychological and realistic look into the complicated dynamics of relationships; Evidence Of Life is a heart wrenching and riveting thriller!



  1. Thank you so much, Kathleen, for hosting me and EVIDENCE OF LIFE on your blog today and, especially, for your wonderful review. I am in such appreciation for all that you do to help get books in front of readers!!

    1. Hi Barbara! Thank you for the opportunity to readm review and host a virtual book event for Evidence Of Life. This was a wonderful story, it kept me riveted and guessing. I love that we have a lot in common: reading, gardening and cross stitch! Very cool! :)

  2. Every woman's worst nightmare.Just thinking about it is giving me goosebumps. This would sure would find its way to my bookshelf.
    Thanks Barbara for the advice to the aspiring writers and Kathleen great post and interview.

  3. Hi Rubina! Thank you for stopping by and leaving your kind comments. Hope you get to read this riveting book.