The Hillsborough home of Allen and Sherry Appel contains a secret that was, for many years, thought to be a rumor, or a myth. Known as the Daisy Lynch House, the home was built around the Female School House of the Burwell School.
Allen walks through the central part of the home and points out the two rooms that were the school, drawing attention to inconsistencies in the structure and changes in flooring and elevations. The secret, as it turns out, is no myth. It’s history wrapped in a historic home.
On a screened-in side porch is a table and chairs, three bird cages and one bright yellow canary. Appel sits, drinking espresso from a tiny, blue cup. He is a writer, which is practically a prerequisite for residents of historic Hillsborough.
Appel penned a series of novels that follow the time-traveling adventures of the fictional character Alex Balfour. The first of the books, “Time After Time,” was published in 1985, and the fifth of the series, “The Test of Time,” was published in 2015.
Appel has written other, smaller books, including “From Father to Son: Wisdom for the Next Generation,” and “Old Dog’s Guide for Pups.” He’s co-written several books with his wife, Sherry.
Allen Appel’s name pops up on the cover of more than a dozen books, but much of the writing he is doing now keeps his name hidden from the public. Appel reviews books for Publisher’s Weekly. And he’s reviewed a lot of them.
“I have reviewed now almost 1,100 books for them. Well over 1,000,” Appel says. “And I tried to give almost all books good reviews. There’s always something I can like in a good book. I’m on the side of authors. I’m an author, so I’m not on the publisher side.”
For 10 years, he’s reviewed books for Publisher’s Weekly. He is now considered the military-thriller expert, but in his early days of reviewing, he read romance, book-length poetry, young adult books, and just about anything that was sent his way. He gained a reputation as a person who could bail out other reviewers who were backed up, or stuck with writer’s block.
“You know, I can really break a book, or I can make a book. I think that’s what keeps me doing it. The power,” Appel says with a chuckle. “You know, thinking somebody somewhere is sitting at home and he’s turns to his wife and says, ‘I don’t know, something good just happened. I don’t know what,’ or ‘I feel like someone has walked on my grave.’”
A friend of Appel’s helped get him the job with Publisher’s Weekly. This friend reviewed non-fiction, and described the shortcuts he would take to finish the assignment and turn in his review. Appel found this to be dishonest, but still thought he might skim the books, or skip to the end if the story was particularly boring.
“I have never done it,” he says. “Yeah, I’ve tried a couple of times, but they (editors) often site certain things. Every character’s name has to have what page it appeared on so they can check the spelling. Every time there’s a major scene change or major plot change, you have to indicate it where it occurs, and over how many pages. Any major twists or anything you have to document. You can’t fudge it. You have to you have to read the book.”
Some of that dedication and devotion comes from having his own books reviewed. “I’m an author who has had books reviewed in the New York Times book section. It just seemed to me that I’d feel really bad if the guy who was reviewing my book wasn’t going to read it.”
Reviewers for the New York Times and other newspapers have their names run with their work. Publisher’s Weekly keeps its reviewers’ names anonymous. Appel says he almost always has two books in line for him to read and review. He jokes that when someone asks what’s something good he’s read, he often can’t recall anything about a book he’s finished, saying his memory goes through a sort of reset as he begins his next assignment.
Appel says he sometimes see a snippet of a review on a book’s dust jacket, or a poster, and recognize it as his own. “I’ll read it and it’ll echo in my brain, and I’ll say, ‘Did I do that?’”
Allen and his wife, Sherry, first learned of Hillsborough by chance. Allen was researching for an article he was writing when he ran across a short video with Lee Smith, one of the town’s most well-known writers. In the video, Smith touts the pros of Hillsborough, and mentions its magnetic appeal to writers and authors.
The Appels were approaching retirement, so on their next trip through the south, they paid a visit to Hillsborough.
“We stopped, went to the Wooden Nickel to get a drink the first night. Sherry was sitting next to a guy at the bar and she talks to people routinely. She asked the guy at the bar, you know, ‘what do you do,’ and he says he’s a lawyer in town, and that Hillsborough is the County Seat, and there are a lot of lawyers. And then he says, ‘But what I really do is I raise hogs. And if you have any pork at the Nickel, that’s my hog. That’s what I really like to do is raise pigs.’ And I thought that’s really interesting.”
The couple decided to uproot and move to Hillsborough. It took a couple of years to find the right house, but when they did, they were willing to bust their budget a little to get what they wanted.
“I now live someplace that I think is perfect,” Appel says. “I am happier here than I have ever been anywhere else. I’m happier now than I have ever been happy. Even though I’m 76 years old, I don’t find myself so broken down, that I can’t do anything. I have a garden, I write and make money and all for PW. Sherry enjoys what she’s doing with the garden club and the historical museum. Before we moved here, my real estate agent asked me what I wanted. I said, ‘the one thing I want is to be able to walk to the nearest bar and crawl home afterwards.’”
Appel says he’s not done with writing books, but he admits to having less interest in writing about time travel or mysteries. In fact, he says he is working now on a book that will be unlike any of his previous novels in that he is writing it for himself.
Appel says he was inspired by a paragraph he read in a book about a monastery in the Canary Islands during the 15th century, where monks would gather to sing throughout the day. It was said that wild canaries would fly into the room and sing along with the monks. That image has stuck with Appel.
“I have always written books where I have ideas that I think will sell books,” he says. “But after I read that paragraph, I thought, well, you know, I don’t want to write a mystery about canaries. I just want to write a book that I want to write. I don’t care if anybody reads it. I may not even finish, I may die. You never know. I’m 76, almost 77. I can cork off at any minute. Nobody’s going to say ‘what a tragedy.’ They’re going to say, ‘He lived a long, good life.’ So, that’s what I’m working on now and have been working on.”