Friday, March 23, 2018

The Perils of Podcasting

As I promised back in February 2017, when I welcomed Claudia H. Long as our newest member of Five Directions Press, our group has just published the third in her Tendrils of the Inquisition series, Chains of Silver. So it seemed like the right time to interview her for New Books in Historical Fiction. That, through no fault of NBHF’s or mine (four nor’easters in a row, with accompanying power and Internet outages, bear most of the responsibility), I have so far managed exactly one interview this year just added to the pleasure of the interview.

Alas, my older cat—often featured on this blog and currently shedding like a maniac due to the shifting weather patterns—enlivened the interview not only with his usual yowls announcing his imminent arrival but also by hacking into the microphone throughout one entire answer. Then, when he calmed down after a return downstairs and yet another series of announcement yowls, he expressed his bliss by purring steadily. So I got to spend half of Saturday trying to follow opaque online instructions for Audacity until I finally figured out how to silence the hacking sounds and at least three-quarters of the meows. The joys of podcasting and pet ownership, amplified on this occasion by the knowledge that the cat could just as easily have stayed in Sir Percy’s office.

And no, if you’ve ever lived with a cat, especially a Siamese cat, the solution is not to shut him out. First off, I have a loft office without a door, and second, if I did have a door, I know better than to shut it with the cat on the other side. Announcement yowls don’t begin to match dismayed rejection yowls in volume or intensity.

But yowling animal aside, the interview went well, Claudia was wonderful, and most of the distractions have since been scrubbed from the file. Meanwhile, I have (fingers crossed) another interview tomorrow, a third in early April, and a fourth scheduled for the first or second week in May. Surely by then the nor’easters will have stopped.

So listen to the interview, and if you hear a stray yowl or an odd hum, don’t worry: that’s just purring. Meanwhile, please like the NB Historical Fiction, NB Literature, NB Fantasy, and New Books Network pages on Facebook, together with the pages for any other channels that appeal to you, and share our posts when they go up. (If you’d like my author page, that would help too.) The change in Facebook algorithms has made it more difficult to get the word out even to people who want to receive it, and the ongoing scandals are likely only to make the situation worse. We are not Russian bots, and we don’t collect or save your data; on the contrary, we provide a genuinely free public education service. So please let your friends know that we exist. The more listeners we have, the better our chances of attracting funding that will keep the network on the air.

As always, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

From the fifteenth through the early eighteenth centuries, the Catholic authorities in Spain and its colonies, including Mexico, took a hard line against the Jewish community. Those who would not convert were banished or killed; officially the community did not exist. But in fact, many conversos, as these forced Christians were called, continued to practice their ancient faith in secret. This historical tension between past and prudence forms the background of Claudia H. Long’s Tendrils of the Inquisition series, especially the most recent novel, Chains of Silver (Five Directions Press, 2018).

Marcela Leon belongs to one such Crypto-Jewish family. At fourteen, she sees her parents and grandfather dragged off to face the last gasp of the Inquisition in Mexico. Her relatives survive, but at great cost to their dignity and their fortune. To protect Marcela, her family sends her first to a nearby hacienda, then north into exile, where she becomes the housekeeper to a Catholic priest who sympathizes with her plight but is determined to force her into compliance, including what he perceives as her religious deviance. Through his efforts and those of her wealthy uncle, who lives in the same town, Marcela adjusts to her new situation—until a series of crises force her to reconsider both her heritage and the source of her mother’s strength.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Love on Four Paws

“It began, this journey of many lifetimes, in an ordinary way: he and I went to pick oysters on the shore. He loved them more than any other food, loved the ritual of unlocking abrasive shells to discover a treasured interior, smooth alabaster and incorporeal liquor. And when he feasted on them, they had a transformative effect: his shoulders dropped, his brow unknotted, and his eyes softened, sometimes to tears.”

So begins, too, Damien Dibben’s new novel, Tomorrow. A novel with two prologues, set five years apart, and narrated by a dog. A dog who, as you can see from the above, has a clear vision and an astonishing vocabulary, who has lived for centuries and acquired considerable wisdom and perspective yet remains a hound waiting patiently for his master’s return—for 127 years.

It shouldn’t work, but it does, beautifully. The dog, who until the end we know only by the names his master bestows on him—“my champion,” most often—may grow wiser and develop insight on the oddities of the human species, but he doesn’t cease to be a dog. Odors fascinate him, and he identifies people and other animals by them. He defends his food and space from other dogs. He helps those of his own kind abandoned by their human companions, whether through death or departure, involuntary or—in the case of the delightful Sporco, another dog who insists on joining the narrator’s pack—deliberate. He loves his absent master unconditionally. He delights in and then grieves the loss of Blaise, the female dog who, not being immortal as he is, can spend only a short number of years as his companion. It never occurs to him, until his master briefly returns only to vanish once more, to leave his post. He is loyal and true, like the best canine companions. More than anything else, he is unwavering.

And as you can see from the opening, the writing is gorgeous. Dibben, the author of the YA series The History Keepers, excels in this haunting novel. A pair of alchemists, linked in ways that become clear only near the end, enter into conflict over the refusal of one to save the love of the other by conferring immortality on the lover as well as his own dog. The antagonist, shocked at this refusal, vows to exact a price. The dog senses the danger, but he can’t understand the tortured logic that drives his master’s foe. And when the antagonist’s revenge plays out, the dog, like all dogs, realizes only slowly what has happened. As he progresses from Elsinore in 1602 to the battlefield of Waterloo more than two centuries later, he offers a distinctive perspective on our early modern past—and our present.

I wish I could fit this author into my podcast schedule, but the book releases next week, and I have three interviews in line to close the gap inadvertently opened from mid-January to now for a variety of reasons ranging from stage fright (not mine) to the nor’easter that blew out my power and Internet connection for four days straight. So for the moment, this blog post is the best I can do. But I see that Dibben has another adult novel in the works called The Colorist, set in Renaissance Venice and exploring the vast lengths to which painters would go to secure new shades. So I hope to have another chance for an interview when that book comes out. And if I do, you can bet I’ll also be asking him about Tomorrow.

Because who can resist an immortal dog?

Friday, March 9, 2018

Bookshelf, March 2018

Between the double-barreled nor’easter that knocked out my power last Friday and my Internet and cable connections for the entire weekend (so much for the Oscars) and general overwork, I haven’t spent much time on social media recently—even to alert people to last week’s blog post. I had to reschedule my planned New Books in Historical Fiction (NBHF) interview with John Bell, so I don’t have that to post about, and while a lot of books have come my way, I’ve had little time to read them due to evenings spent going through Song of the Siren and The Shattered Drum. So with heat, light, and Internet restored—at least until the next storm blows through—it seems like the perfect time for a bookshelf post. Here, more or less in order, are a few of the titles on my short list (I have at least twice as many contenders waiting in the wings for a future post).

John Richard Bell, The Circumstantial Enemy (Endeavour Books, 2017)
Technically, I’ve read this one, but until I complete the interview with the author, it’s still front and center in my brain. Tony Babic, a twenty-year-old Croatian pilot whose main goal in life is to get out of the air force after witnessing a tragic accident, is instead pressed into flying for the Luftwaffe against the USSR. Meanwhile, his close friend and the woman they both love become caught up in Tito’s drive to unite Yugoslavia under the communist flag. After a series of adventures, Tony ends up in a US POW camp for German and German-allied prisoners. A very different but equally engrossing take on the Second World War from that adopted by Gwen C. Katz in Among the Red Stars, the subject of my previous NBHF interview.


Claudia H. Long, Chains of Silver (Five Directions Press, 2018)
Since I edited and typeset this book for my own writers’ coop, Five Directions Press, technically I’ve read it too, even though its formal release date is next Thursday, March 15. But my interview with this author, which was supposed to follow the one with John Bell and will now precede it due to the vagaries of weather and electricity, is also still in play; in fact, I need to revisit the book to draw up draft questions this weekend. 

Like two of Claudia Long’s previous novels, Josefina’s Sin and The Duel for Consuelo, this story takes place in colonial Mexico—here among the hidden Jewish community, under pressure from the Catholic Church during the last days of the Inquisition. Marcela Leon, sent to Consuelo’s hacienda for protection after her own parents’ arrest, finds it difficult to understand the danger that faces her. Marcela is, after all, only fourteen years old. Her fiery personality and teenage indiscretion lead to her exile as a housekeeper to a priest in the northern mining region of Zacatecas, where she grows up to become one of the town’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens. But it takes a series of family tragedies before Marcela truly understands the secret of how her parents, especially her mother, endured persecution and finds the strength to make peace with her past. 

Damian Dibben, Tomorrow (Hanover Square Press, 2018)
One of the publicists with whom I’ve worked on setting up interviews sent me this novel unsolicited, and I immediately fell in love with the concept. A dog, known only as “my champion” or “my hero” and from the cover picture a chocolate Labrador (although dog breeds are in fact a later development), lives with his master, an alchemist, in Denmark in 1602. Somehow the dog becomes immortal, as his master and his master’s antagonist also are, but he winds up alone. Like the faithful hound he is, he travels all over Europe for the next two centuries, visiting the canals and palaces of Venice, the court of Louis XIV at Versailles, the battlefields of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, and more. Along the way, he acquires a certain canine wisdom. I’m only about fifty pages in, so I don’t know how the story will develop, but the writing sparkles and the idea is simply irresistible. More about this one in next week’s post. The book is due out March 20.

Adrienne Sharp, The Magnificent Esme Wells (Harper, 2018)
Another novel, this time solicited, from one of the publicists I’ve contacted for NBHF interviews. I’m currently about halfway through and loving this author’s previous book, The True Memoirs of Little K (2010), about the life of the prima ballerina assoluta Mathilde Kschessinska and her (heavily fictionalized—the title is a joke) prolonged affair with the last Russian emperor, Nicholas II. The Magnificent Esme Wells takes place in Hollywood and Las Vegas during the days of Bugsy Siegel. Esme’s mother is a showgirl in the movies, her father a gangster, but they both dream of making it big in their respective realms. In the middle is Esme, trying to make sense of it all. 

Due for release in early April, this book will be the subject of a future NBHF interview. In the meantime, don’t miss the earlier novel, especially if you're a ballet fan or a Russia fan. Mathilde spends most of her time plotting how to get back in the tsar’s good graces and defeat her self-perceived rival, Empress Alexandra (Alix), so you need not be a ballet fan to love the book. But if you are a fan of the Russian Imperial Ballet and enjoy reading about strong-minded women bent on pursuing their interests and defending their children, you absolutely must seek out this book. Besides, is that cover not reason enough to justify purchasing the book?

Friday, March 2, 2018

Home, Sweet Home

There are many things I like about working from home. The commute is great, even in the depths of winter. The wardrobe includes whatever I feel like throwing one—ancient blue jeans, thirty-year-old sweaters, tank tops in summer, the works. Lunch, although not quite free, costs less than the most basic cafeteria. I can fit short ballet barre workouts into my lunch break. The only restriction on my coffee consumption is common sense. And that enormous time waster—meetings—rarely clutters up my day, although e-mail, my primary means of communication with the outside world, does its best to slurp up every available moment.

But as I discovered last Friday, there is one big drawback to working from home. When the heat goes out, there’s no central plant to call. For the last week Sir Percy and I have dodged daily visits by earnest technicians bent on taking our ancient boiler apart and putting it together again while wrestling the cats for access to the space heaters that provide our only source of warm air.

So far, the cats have won. They didn’t put us in this position, after all; we did it, however inadvertently, to them. One cat—the elder statesman depicted above—has developed an entire philosophy of space heaters. He follows them around the house, listening for the fans and when they go on and off. Early in the morning, he doubles up, positioning himself under the overhang of quilts at the end of the bed so he can soak up heat from the bedroom heater while sheltered under layers of fabric. In the evenings he gloms onto the person with the Snugli, then moves to the back room once that heats up.

I can only hope that the situation resolves itself soon: that the next earnest technician, due any moment, installs the crucial part that will restore the boiler to functionality—not forever, because it’s reached the end of its natural life and must be replaced before fall sets in, but for a few more weeks while we figure out how to finance the new one.

But I do know that whether today proves to be the deciding moment or not, the cats are prepared.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Judging a Book by Its Cover

A short post this week, because I’ve been writing like mad on the first novel in my new series while juggling my regular job and a freelance project that, although no doubt worthy and often interesting, seldom rises to the level of scintillating writing. Don’t get me started on tax season, which I have spent the last few weeks denying, even though I know I need to buckle down to 1099s, W-2s, and all those work expenses that require categorization and totaling.

An article dropped into my in box today that gave me pause: an interview with three independent publicists, it included lots of information about rates (high) and dedication (also high) and numbers of clients served (surprisingly low), as well as some tips for those of us who can’t afford the high rates. 

All good, of course, but the article seems to take one crucial point for granted: before you hire a publicist, you need a professional product to sell.

Specifically, you need a great cover, a properly formatted text (print or e-book), and most of all, stellar prose. I can’t tell you how many pitches I get from publicists for New Books in Historical Fiction for books where the cover looks like something drawn by a middle-schooler, the fonts are small and bland, the book description goes on for pages without ever capturing the story, and the writing—assuming I get far enough to research the book online—is as flat as the proverbial pancake. It may sound mean, but these are not authors I want to interview. They shouldn’t sink their funds in publicity but use them to hire a writing coach and a competent book/cover designer.

Because this is a short post, I won’t go into the specifics of what makes a professional cover design. You can find out more, if you’re interested, in JD Smith’s The Importance of Book Cover Design and Formatting (you can also hire JD Smith herself, if she has the time, to produce a cover for you—check out her portfolio).

If she’s too busy or her work is not to your taste, there are many other gifted cover designers out there. You can team up with writers who have the design skills you lack: here at Five Directions Press we have our own cover designer, who is building her portfolio with the occasional freelance job, as well as professional editors, book designers, and typesetters. 

You can also work with a subsidy publisher: She Writes Press selects books for high-quality writing, then contracts for editorial services as well as cover design and typesetting, yielding appealing and well-written novels with minimal errors. Book production companies like Bookbaby include cover design in their packages.

Or you can hire a graphic designer who specializes in book covers. In addition to searching the Internet in the usual way or posting requests for recommendations on social media, one place to check is, which vets editors and cover designers, with whom you can then contract on a one-on-one basis.  

In all these cases you should check the output online to be sure you like the style before you commit yourself to spending several hundred dollars. But unless you know what you’re doing, don’t use free software offered online, including the “cover creators” offered by the various online booksellers. Be wary of sites that advertise book covers on the cheap. Don’t use your own artwork. Don’t design your book or your cover in a word-processing program. And don’t assume your book will sell itself.

To stand out in a crowded market, you need a great cover, a great book description, and most of all, a great book. Even with those three things, your book sales will probably fall far below your hopes; it’s the nature of today’s market. But without those three things, there’s no point in spending a small fortune on a publicist, because the best publicist in the world can’t compensate for the fact that we all judge a book by its cover.

Images sprinkled throughout this post represent good cover design independent sources. No cover appeals to everyone, but each of these examples includes an image that captures the story and the genre of the novel, fonts used creatively and well, and respect for proportions and alignment.