Friday, April 28, 2017

Drowning in the Light

As I mention in the introduction to my interview with Tiffany Reisz, historical novels—and, for that matter, history books and the research that gives rise to them—are a kind of time travel. As readers and writers, we can celebrate the allure of the past, including the thrill of immersing ourselves in situations, once common, that we probably don’t want to give up our modern conveniences to experience firsthand. Authors, too, enjoy certain advantages in writing about the past: plot twists that require serious explanation in the age of cell phones and DNA testing come into their own before the development of police forces, never mind chemistry labs.

But there remains, for authors even more than readers, that nagging question: did we get it right? And for those of us in the “business,” the prospect of answering that question, more than anything else, accounts for the attraction of time travel. To go back to our chosen period of history, to see it for ourselves, hear it and smell it, encounter the full range of possible behavior—but then, we hope, snap back to the present before we have to deal with premodern medicine, derogatory attitudes toward women and minorities, or even unwashed bodies—that is a novelist’s, a historian’s, or a reader’s dream.

The Night Mark raises a slightly different set of questions: What would it take for a twenty-first-century woman to give up the present entirely and choose to live out the rest of her life in the past? What kind of woman would make that choice? What does she lose, what does she gain, and what must she settle in herself before she can decide?

Tiffany Reisz is a self-aware and engaging conversationalist, and she tackles these questions head on. So take a listen—as always, the interviews are free—and ask yourself whether you would make the same choice her heroine does. I’m not sure I would. Love is great, of course, but so are antibiotics and electricity ...

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

So many people hope to find the perfect soul mate, but suppose you do, only to lose the person you love just as your life together is getting off to a beautiful start? Faye Barlow reacts by tumbling into a new marriage with her first husband’s best friend. After all, the bills pile ever higher, and her husband’s unborn child can’t come into the world without health insurance. The best friend is eager to help, but as time goes by, they both realize it takes more than need and a shared but unexpressed grief to make a partnership. Faye leaps at the chance to resume her career as a photographer, and as she travels around South Carolina’s coastal islands, her mourning finds an outlet and hope creeps back into her life.

In the old town of Beaufort, she encounters the legend of a lighthouse keeper’s daughter who drowned as a young woman. Compelled to learn more, Faye finds a photograph in the town archives and discovers that the lighthouse keeper looked just like her first, lost husband. She feels drawn to the lighthouse, and while visiting it at night, she is literally pulled into the past. But the year 1921 poses many challenges to a girl from the future accustomed to buying her food in plastic packages from the supermarket, storing it in a refrigerator, and cooking it on modern appliances. No antibiotics, no traffic laws, no electricity on the island, no equal treatment for women or people of color. Yet there is the lighthouse keeper, with his resemblance to Faye’s lost love. Will she stay? Can she stay? And what difficult tasks must she perform before she has a choice?

In The Night Mark (Mira Books, 2017) Tiffany Reisz has created a beautiful tale of love, loss, and recovery when life seems to offer nothing but shoals—except for that steady, pulsing beam of light in the dark.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Interview with Alyssa Palombo


It’s no accident that Alyssa Palombo’s The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence was my pick for the Five Directions Press Books We Loved post in April (check the link for other great books we found). Due out next Tuesday, the novel came to me for a New Books in Historical Fiction interview, but alas, I had no free space in my schedule this time around. I definitely want to interview Alyssa in the future, but for now, she has graciously agreed to this written exchange of questions and answers. Read right down the end for more information on her, this book, and how to find out more about both.

Your first book was on Vivaldi; this one looks at Botticelli. What draws you to early modern Italian artists?I’m certainly drawn to write about Italy specifically, as it’s a country I love and I find its history, political and artistic alike, so fascinating. As a musician I was inspired to write about Vivaldi at a time when I was experiencing something of a musical Renaissance myself and minoring in music in college. I often say, though, that Vivaldi chose me, as the spark for The Violinist of Venice came from a dream that I had, out of the blue, that became the first chapter of the book. With Botticelli—long one of my favorite painters—I was really struck by the true story of his artistic relationship with Simonetta Vespucci, and the fact that he is buried at her feet. It seemed such a romantic story in all the best ways that I knew I had to tell it. More broadly, as an artist myself, I am always passionately interested in the artistic process, whatever the medium might be.


When did you first hear about Simonetta Cattaneo? What made you decide to tell your story from her point of view?
I first came across her story – that she was the woman in Botticelli’s masterpiece The Birth of Venus—when I visited Florence for the first time, about four years ago now. At the time I was finishing up The Violinist of Venice and getting that ready to send to literary agents, so I filed the story idea about Simonetta and Botticelli away for future reference. When I sold Violinist and got a two-book deal, I thought that maybe it was time to dig out that idea and run with it. I don’t remember consciously making the decision to write from Simonetta’s point of view; it seemed an obvious choice for the idea as I had conceived it, but also as a writer I tend to naturally gravitate toward first person.

Tell us about Simonetta as a character—that is, your Simonetta and how she relates to the historical person. Do we know much about the historical Simonetta?

There is not much information available about the real-life Simonetta, which was at times very frustrating but also freeing from a creative standpoint. I could shape her life in a manner that made sense to me, based on the few facts that we do know, one of which being that she was actually considered the most beautiful woman in Florence in her day. That—and the fact that she was Botticelli’s model for Venus, the goddess of love and beauty—is sort of the core of what we know about her, so as a writer I wanted to explore what such a celebration of physical beauty would be like for a flesh-and-blood woman. My Simonetta is well read and intelligent and wants to be appreciated for that. She doesn’t have any false modesty about her beauty, but she interacts with it in a way that I think is realistic: at times she uses her beauty and its effect on men to her advantage, and at others she is frustrated by that effect. No one is perfect or entirely consistent in their attitudes or feelings from day to day, so that she would do both felt genuine to me.

The man she marries, Marco Vespucci, turns out to be something of a disappointment. What kind of person is he?He is someone else we don’t know too much about historically (though he was a cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer who gave his name to the new world). In my novel, he starts out as someone Simonetta believes that she loves, as she understands love. But he is ambitious and more worldly than she, and wants to use their marriage to his political and social advantage—certainly not unheard of or even necessarily frowned upon in that time and place, but also not what Simonetta thought she was getting. Their relationship changes a great deal over the course of the novel, but I won’t say too much more to avoid spoilers!

And of course, there is Botticelli himself. He and his painting are essential to the story, but in a sense he remains on the outskirts, because we meet him only through Simonetta’s eyes. How do you perceive his role and his character?In the novel, Botticelli is someone who—like the rest of those around her—recognizes and is aware of Simonetta’s beauty, but he sees beyond that as well, in a way that only perhaps one or two other characters do. He doesn’t want her to simply model for him but to truly understand and appreciate his artistic vision. He becomes first a friend to her in a way that none of the other characters are—her friendship with Lorenzo and Clarice de’ Medici, for instance, is rather different—and eventually that friendship develops into something more. I just loved writing the conversations and debates that Sandro and Simonetta have—in seeing him through her eyes it felt just like talking to a friend.

And I can’t let you go without asking about the Medici family, in all its glitter and glory. Do you have a favorite among them? Were they part of the appeal of this tale?I do! They’re all fascinating, but I really love Lucrezia Tornabuoni de’ Medici, the mother of Lorenzo and Giuliano. She was a writer in her own right and wrote plays and poetry; she was also very active in the political life of Florence and would see petitioners and settle disputes. She even went on a diplomatic mission to Rome to arrange Lorenzo’s marriage to Clarice Orsini. It was very unusual at the time for a woman to undertake such a task, which to me is just another reason why she is a very cool historical lady. They are such an interesting family overall, and they don’t appear in historical fiction nearly as often as I think they should, so that was definitely part of the appeal of writing this novel for me.

What are you working on now?My current work-in-progress is also set in Renaissance Italy, but it is very different from The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence in that it is rather dark and political. It is challenging me as a writer for sure and will be a lot of work to get just right, but in spite of and also because of that I am very excited about it!

Thank you, Alyssa, for talking with me today. I wish you all success with your writing and hope you will come back for a podcast interview next time around!

About the Book

A girl as beautiful as Simonetta Cattaneo never wants for marriage proposals in 15th-century Italy, but she jumps at the chance to marry Marco Vespucci. Marco is young, handsome, and well-educated. Not to mention he is one of the powerful Medici family’s favored circle.

Even before her marriage with Marco is set, Simonetta is swept up into Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici’s glittering circle of politicians, poets, artists, and philosophers. The men of Florence—most notably the rakish Giuliano de’ Medici—become enthralled with her beauty. That she is educated and an ardent reader of poetry makes her more desirable and fashionable still. But it is her acquaintance with a young painter, Sandro Botticelli, which strikes her heart most. Botticelli immediately invites Simonetta, newly proclaimed the most beautiful woman in Florence, to pose for him. As Simonetta learns to navigate her marriage, her place in Florentine society, and the politics of beauty and desire, she and Botticelli develop a passionate intimacy, one that leads to her immortalization in his masterpiece The Birth of Venus.

Alyssa Palombo’s The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence vividly captures the dangerous allure of the artist and muse bond with candor and unforgettable passion.

About the Author

ALYSSA PALOMBO is also the author of The Violinist of Venice. She has published short fiction pieces in Black Lantern Magazine and The Great Lakes Review. She is a recent graduate of Canisius College with degrees in English and creative writing, respectively.  A passionate music lover, she is a classically trained musician as well as a big fan of heavy metal. The Violinist of Venice is her first novel. She lives in Buffalo, New York.

Connect with Alyssa Palombo

Website: https://alyssapalombo.com/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/alyssinwnderlnd

Buy Links

http://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250071507

Friday, April 14, 2017

New Jeans

I don’t buy clothes often—books, not shoes, are my luxury of choice. But even someone who works and writes from home has to update the wardrobe occasionally, if in a strictly proletarian fashion. Thus I decided, a couple of weeks ago, to buy a new pair of jeans. After an early success in which I added a sale item or two and placed the order in minutes, the process quickly went south. The normally reliable online retailer, patronized for years, had just upgraded all its computer systems days before a major late-season snowstorm took out the power, and two weeks and three phone calls later, I still don’t have the item I originally went online to buy. But the rest of the order arrived yesterday, so this morning, for the first time in years, I found myself struggling with a new pair of jeans.

Now, on the off chance that you only buy wool trousers and chinos, let me mention that jeans are not like other pants. Those you put on, and they fit or they don’t fit, in which case you keep them or send them back. Jeans ... grow. Each time you wash them, you have to stretch them out again, but that first try-on is brutal. I tugged and pulled. This was the same model and size I had in my closet. Had the manufacturer mislabeled the product? Had I put on that much weight? Should I have ordered a larger size? (Insert wild outbreak of denial here.) Then experience kicked in, and I remembered the drill: squats and bends, wriggles and twists—and behold, the jeans not only buttoned but zipped. A few hours later, they feel almost comfortable, if not yet cozy like the old friends hanging in the closet.

Of course, this post isn’t really about clothes. Book projects are like that, too. Start a new one, even with familiar characters, and it’s like struggling into that new pair of jeans. But do enough wriggling and writhing, twisting and pulling, and the book stops feeling like an alien object and starts to mold itself to your shape.

The Vermilion Bird is just about at that point. With a solid week of writing under my belt, twenty-three chapters (however rough) on the page, and two more sketched out to bring the book to its conclusion, I finally know where it’s going. And on Tuesday, in a flash of inspiration after re-reading the central third of the novel, it came to me what my main character’s inner conflict is all about. Specifically, what has made her so prickly and unlikable throughout the series that I have to convince some of my readers that it’s even worth picking up the new book to find out what makes her tick. (I promise: you will sympathize with her when you find out—and if you don’t, I will have put her in enough hot water that you will feel satisfied at having watched her squirm.)

Yes, I know: we writers are supposed to work on motivation beforehand—and I assure you, I did. But characters are people, too, and what I thought was driving Maria turned out to be only a symptom of her deeper conflict. So with enormous thanks to Ariadne Apostolou and Courtney J. Hall, whose questions and comments kept my virtual nose to the grindstone long enough to discover what my latest story is, I’m poised to finish my rough draft. And that’s when the real fun begins, once I’ve broken in that new pair of jeans.



Image:
Clipart no. 109537280

Friday, April 7, 2017

Catching Fleas

I’ve heard a story—perhaps you’ve heard it too, although it’s probably more an urban legend than reality—that the makers of Oriental carpets weave mistakes into their work, because only God is perfect. Frankly, this story always makes me laugh. Does anyone have to manufacture mistakes? I can make a dozen before breakfast without even trying, especially with a middle-aged memory working on my behalf. Which brings me to today’s topic: proofing.

As some of you know, I handle all the typesetting and proofing, as well as much of the copy editing, for Five Directions Press. I make my living the same way. And like most editors, I am a perfectionist. Show me a poster or an advance review copy, and my eye goes immediately to the extra space, the comma that should be a period or vice versa, the preposition that ends a sentence. I can’t help it. When I’m reading for pleasure, I wish I could turn off that inner voice commenting on faulty grammar or words that break across lines when they should not, never mind spelling and capitalization errors.

So it may come as something of a surprise that of all the parts that go into my job, proofing is the one I dislike most. Editing fiction is usually fun (if nonfiction not always—it depends on the topic), typesetting artistically satisfying, writing pure joy. But proofing demands intense focus on tiny, essentially arbitrary details. Worse, it’s so final. From proofing, a book goes to press, where any mistake that’s missed will remain visible forever. Small things, big impact—a classic prescription for stress.

Proofing is, of course, essential. Work riddled with errors brands an author or a press as unprofessional. But as an activity it is humbling, especially to a perfectionist. Proofing reveals the places where one’s eye skipped over the same mistake a dozen times before. In the novel I’m working on now, I read the file before typesetting, during typesetting, as a printed PDF after typesetting. I created an e-book and checked the formatting, although the error I have in mind would not show up in an e-book. Only when I went to investigate a problem the author identified—which turned out to be caused by her computer, but that’s another story—did I realize that I had assigned the wrong tag to one chapter opener, so that the pretty small caps that set off the first line everywhere else didn’t appear. This after going through the file about eighteen times to check specifically for typesetting errors: things like vertical justification (facing pages ending at the same place) and ladders (same word stacked two or three times at the left or right edge of a paragraph). I saw a thousand trees and missed the giant rock sitting smack where it should not be. That’s proofing.

One thing that helps, I find, is changing formats. Things I can’t see on screen or miss in printouts leap out at me in an e-book or the actual book. CreateSpace lets authors order bound proofs, which look exactly like the final output. I always insist on seeing the bound proof before I sign off on a book, whether it’s mine or someone else’s. In the past, I’ve found incorrect headers, photographs that printed too dark, tables of contents that didn’t match the chapter headings, authors’ names spelled incorrectly, and more—all this in articles and books that three to six people have read, sometimes more than once. We learn to read by recognizing patterns, to see words rather than individual letters. So faced with a page, the mind fills in the blanks, and nothing but kicking it out of its comfort zone lets the proofer see what’s really there or not there in place of what we expect to find. Then there are the errors no one could predict, like the cover that looked perfect on screen but developed a color mismatch or stray lines on export, visible only in the final output or when blown up to 600% in Photoshop.

And that is why I don’t worry about inserting errors in my work. Because hard as I try to root them out, they multiply like fleas, and there are always more to find. But as irritated as I become every time I finally catch sight of that giant rock, I’ve had to learn to chill. Because it’s true: only God is perfect.



Image: Clipart no. 109370633.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Dancing up a Storm

Ask people unfamiliar with dance history where ballet originated, and many will say, “Russia.” Although the wrong answer—ballet originated at the court of Louis XIV, based on formal dance traditions already developed in Italy and brought to France with Catherine de Médicis—the perception reflects the outsized influence of Russian ballet since the arrival of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909. So it probably comes as something of a surprise to learn that ballet in Russia itself almost did not survive the October Revolution of 1917.

The problem was simple: from its debut, ballet existed as an aristocratic art form, supported by courts and, until the early years of the twentieth century, chronicling the adventures of princes and princesses, fauns and fairies, sylphs and spirits of various sorts. Its pirates were romantic corsairs, its peasants and shepherds light-hearted flute players, its Gypsies royalty in disguise or lost at birth. Everyone bathed often, and there was not a worker in sight.





 

Imperial autocracy, as a system, exaggerated these problems. The imperial theaters and their school operated as government departments, intertwined with the tsars’ household in the most intimate fashion. Although the dancers came from lower on the social scale—and often subscribed to liberal politics, especially during and after the revolution of 1905—everything about their daily lives, from the moment they entered the doors of the academy on Rossi Street as children to the guaranteed pensions they received in retirement thirty years later, safeguarded them from the poverty that afflicted the vast majority of Russia’s population and linked them to the rarefied world of the aristocracy.

When the Bolsheviks completed their coup, the former imperial theaters faced numerous problems. Although the lack of state support for sets, costumes, salaries, and pensions had perhaps the most dramatic impact on the lives of individual dancers, perhaps a bigger loss for Russian ballet as a whole was the mass exodus of personnel before and after Great October. Ballet in the Western world took off at this time, precisely because the fleeing dancers brought their expertise and their training with them. But those who remained behind, for whatever reason, found themselves in dire straits. 




Almost half of the dancers in the imperial theaters of St. Petersburg emigrated in the late 1910s and early 1920s, meaning that simply mounting a performance of a classic like Swan Lake, Giselle, or The Nutcracker became next to impossible. Scarce food meant that the skilled dancers who remained performed in workers’ clubs that paid in bread. Scarce fuel left dancers bundled in clothes over their skimpy costumes, stripping off the layers in the wings just before they ran on stage and rushing back to cover up as soon as their divertissement finished. Each morning students broke the ice on the water sprinkled over the wooden floors to prevent skidding.



Perhaps more devastating still was a problem unique to ballet, an art form that from its beginnings until the present day has been passed on by word of mouth from teacher to student. When so many dancers left, they took with them the living memory of steps, how roles were performed, and transferred that oral tradition westward. Those who stayed struggled to preserve what they recalled, even devising the first system of dance notation to record the old ballets.

The art itself suffered from the exodus, because the dancers and choreographers and musicians who left tended to be the ones with the best prospects abroad: stars like Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Michel Fokine. Those left behind were not always second-tier, but they had to train an entire new generation of students to replace those who fled.

Yet as we all know, ballet in the fledgling Soviet Union did not die. The first change came when Anatoly Lunacharsky, people’s commissar of education, convinced Vladimir Lenin that “gentry culture” could have its place in the new Soviet state. Trends already underway toward more modern, less narrative ballets accelerated in the new cultural climate, finding their ultimate expression in the work of George Balanchine (another émigré) and Fedor Lopukhov, who stayed.

The rechristened state theaters continued to struggle, fending off constant accusations of backward-looking tendencies with melodramatic explorations of workers and factories, followed in due course with earnest (but seldom earnest enough) portrayals of national culture. Agrippina Vaganova and Vladimir Ponomarev revitalized the teaching methods at the Choreographic Academy in Leningrad, students such as Galina Ulanova and Marina Semyonova put those methods into practice, and in time the Stalinist government and its successors realized that ballet offered a ready means to impress foreign visitors, including ambassadors.



The old ballets were restaged in new, more ideologically acceptable forms, without the archaic nineteenth-century mime. The Bolshoi and the Kirov troupes, carefully selected for political reliability, received permission to travel abroad, and Russian ballet again became the touchstone of world dance—no longer as an aristocratic art form but as an integral part of a state-sponsored attempt to create a workers’ paradise.

The democratization of Russian ballet—hastened, if not caused, by the Russian Revolution—had ripple effects on the history of ballet in Europe in the twentieth century. Rigid class structures were breaking down, and culture as a whole—poetry, drama, film—reflected these changes, but the exodus caused by the revolution acted as a significant stimulus to the modernization of the sometimes anachronistic art of ballet throughout the world.

Images: Agrippina Vaganova in Esmeralda, St. Petersburg, 1910 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons); Pablo Picasso (in the beret) and scene painters working on set design for Leonid Massine’s Parade, staged by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, 1917 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons); The Bolshoi Ballet School in the 1920s (courtesy of Russia in Photos); The finale of The Flames of Paris, one of the “revolutionary” ballets, staged in 1932 (courtesy of Russia in Photos).

An earlier version of this post appeared on “Culture Matters” on March 20, 2017.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Traveling the World

Fictional characters serve many purposes, but one particularly if not exclusively suited to historical fiction is the chance to insert an invented person into crucial events in the past.

Now, I am the first to admit that this approach often drives professional historians nuts. But in my view, it can’t be worse than the alternative: imagining conversations, thoughts, emotions, and personalities and attributing them to people who actually lived. I much prefer creating characters of my own and throwing them into the midst of this or that long-ago drama, because it seems unlikely to me that readers will believe that my Nasan, for example, changed the course of Russian history. Whereas if I make an assertion about Elizabeth I, a student somewhere may just remember it as “true.” 
I can do my best to correct any misapprehensions in the Historical Note—and I do—but that  assumes that readers will both peruse the note and recall it later. So I still choose, when I can, to keep my characters fictional.

As a result, I appreciate the approach used in the two novels whose author I interviewed this month for New Books in Historical Fiction. Ronald E. Yates—who traveled the world as foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and later taught journalism to others, ending that career as dean of the College of Media at the University of Illinois before moving into fiction—sends his Billy Battles into many of the places he visited as a reporter. Billy observes, and to some extent participates in, events in Dodge City and Tombstone, Saigon and Manila. In the process, he falls in love, marries, has a child, and falls in love again. It’s all tremendous fun but instructive, too, in a light-hearted way—a reminder of how much the world has changed in the last century a half, and in what ways it hasn’t.


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

Journalism, history, biography, memoirs, and historical fiction overlap to some degree. The first two focus on provable facts, but the facts must be arranged to form a coherent story, and that requires an element of interpretation, especially in history. Biography and memoirs demand even more of a story arc, although still devoted to a specific person who once lived or still lives. And historical fiction, although it departs from that fundamental reliance on what can be documented or evidenced, instead inventing characters or putting words into the heads and mouths of real people, nonetheless relies on creating a “you are there” sense of authenticity that cannot exist without considerable research into how people in a given time and place dressed, talked, ate, traveled, and socialized.

Finding Billy Battles and its sequels, The Improbable Journeys of Billy Battles and the forthcoming The Lost Years of Billy Battles (title not set), occupy this space between journalism and fiction. William Fitzroy Raglan Battles, a centenarian in an old soldiers’ home when his reluctant great-grandson makes his acquaintance, turns out to have lived a rich and varied life that has taken him through the American Wild West, the Philippines, late nineteenth-century Saigon, the Spanish-American War, and other places, not to mention many of the tamer regions of the United States. A reporter by inclination and training, Billy typically observes and records, but the areas he visits often draw him into their conflicts, blurring the line between participation and journalism.

Ronald Yates, himself a journalist and professor of journalism who has visited many of the destinations where he sends his main character, brings each of these venues to life in a way that is both vivid and true to the time period. And in Billy Battles, based on a veteran of the Spanish-American War whom Yates interviewed in the same old soldiers’ home where we first meet his hero, Yates has created a multilayered portrait of a man of integrity who just can’t resist a good fight.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Snow Day

I’m sure everyone remembers the wait by the radio—or these days, no doubt, the Internet search—for that magic number that signaled a snow day. As children, we are thrilled to bits by the unexpected (or eagerly anticipated) cancellation of school, the freedom to race about shrieking amid freshly fallen white stuff or huddle over the fire with a favorite book. As parents, the reactions become more complex: plans set aside competing with time spent with the kids; the reduced responsibility of being stuck inside, which brings its own kind of relaxation, versus the need to clear the driveway and the reality of work undone.

In my time, I’ve enjoyed both kinds of snow day. But for decades, I have worked from home. So after the Filial Unit departed for college, snow days became a thing of the past. As a salaried employee, what excuse did I have for skipping work merely because my employer shut down for the day? The stairs from my living room to my office remained clear of ice and blizzard, whatever gale howled outside. Unless the power went out—and with it the heat, which brought other problems—I soldiered on, convinced that was what professionals did.

Enter the change to the Fair Labor Standards Act enacted in 2016. The move to expand overtime led to my transition from salaried to hourly worker, as it did for many other employees at my institution. At first, I hated the change. I had never counted the hours I worked, answering e-mail on weekends or whenever it came in, working longer than usual to get projects ready on time, doing what needed doing when it needed to be done. Now I learned that I would be violating my contract by working more than reported as much as by working less—and, to twist the knife a little more, actual overtime, for various reasons, was unlikely ever to materialize. I grumbled like crazy.

But then, this week, I got a snow day. A Nor’easter barreled into the Eastern Seaboard and dumped snow and sleet from Maine to Virginia. My institution closed, and I received a message that I would be excused from work and paid for my hours. Ecstatic as the kid I used to be, I spent the whole lovely day writing chapter 23 of The Vermilion Bird (Sir Percy, bless his generous heart, took care of the snow, insisting that he needed the exercise). Turns out hourly pay has its advantages after all.

The ides of March have already come and gone, and the prospect of more snow days appears dim—although I don’t mind too much, as I much prefer the brightening sun. Easter break will arrive soon enough, and I plan a whole nine days of writing vacation then. But next year, I’ll be ready, and in the meantime you won’t hear any more complaints from me.



Image: www.clipart.com no. 24665560

Friday, March 10, 2017

(Un)Holy Matrimony

If you’ve read any of my books, you’ll have noticed that most of my main characters are married—many of them to spouses chosen by others or in some way imposed on them. In a world where companionate marriage based on romantic attraction has become the norm, that may seem like an odd choice on my part. Do I have some kind of hang-up?

At the simplest level, I write about these relationships because my characters would have experienced them. The idea of marrying for love appeared only in the early nineteenth century, and only in select parts of the world. Passion, romance, attraction—these have existed since time immemorial, but traditionally they had nothing to do with marriage. Marriage was an economic and political and social contract that bound families, allocated land and other resources, determined inheritance, and in general supported existing social hierarchies—especially among the elite, who had the most to lose. As such, it bore far too much weight to entrust to the passing fancies of the young. Fathers selected spouses, mothers approved them, and children complied. In some parts of the world, those rules still apply.

But historical realism does not explain all of my preference for writing about married couples. Although in college I devoured romance novels, but even then marriage struck me as a more interesting relationship. Romance grows out of hormones and propinquity and need. It gets a relationship going, but it’s essentially an hors d’oeuvre for the main event. The real work begins when it’s no longer easy to leave, when two people who—however compatible—have to reconcile their different assumptions and opinions and experiences, figuring out when to compromise and where to draw the line. Fiction depends on struggle; characters who have neither conflicts nor problems will bore readers to tears. So why wade in the shallows when you can throw your imaginary people into the deep end and watch them thrash about?



Image:
Clipart no. 20483075.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Interview with Lissa Evans

I would absolutely have interviewed Lissa Evans for New Books in Historical Fiction if I had received her book in time, but it showed up on my desk just when I had signed up a couple of other writers. Their Finest is a delightful novel—now a major motion picture, as the book jacket declares—about the UK film industry in the period leading up to and beyond the Battle of Britain in 1940. Do look it up and read it. As the Independent notes, “This is the truest and most enjoyable novel about home-front life I’ve read; it’s touching and hilarious.”

Meanwhile, here are Lissa’s answers to my questions. And don’t forget to check out her website for more information on her and her books, including her social media links.

What drew you to the story that became Their Finest?

Inspiration came from two directions—first, from my abiding interest in the Home Front (everyday life in Britain during the war), which sprang from reading Norman Longmate’s How We Lived Then as a teenager. This chronicled in engaging detail all the difficulties and challenges of the era. What fired my imagination was the idea of ordinary people, trying to live ordinary lives in extraordinary times. Life was tiring, tough, and makeshift, and people had to adapt to the most enormous changes, almost on a day-to-day basis.

The second source was my work behind-the-scenes in television. I was always struck by how important even utterly trivial things seem, when you’re in the sealed environment of a studio. The outside world fades away, and instead you find yourself getting into intense discussions about where, exactly, a bowl of fruit should be placed in a shot or whether the leading man’s tie should be scarlet or maroon.

I had the idea of juxtaposing these two backgrounds; I wondered if, when bombs were actually dropping outside and shrapnel hitting the studio roof, there were still people arguing about whether to remove a comma from a speech, or if a door should open inward or outward. I began to research, and it didn’t take long to find out that the answer was “Yes”! I knew, then, that it was a world that I could write about.

You worked in radio and television. Your main character, Catrin Cole, becomes involved in writing scripts for propaganda films. And let’s just say that the actors cast in these films—magnificent creations one and all, but especially Ambrose Hilliard—are not the blockbuster stars they imagine themselves to be. What was the best part of writing this story?
 

I think the most purely enjoyable part was writing Ambrose, who seemed to flow from my keyboard as bile flows from a ... well, a biliary tract! To write someone so acidic, so critical, so breathtakingly rude, and so utterly self absorbed was a joy, and inevitably, as I wrote him, I grew to love him in all his jaundiced eloquence. And I wasn’t the only one; when I’d nearly finished the book, I was musing over possible titles with my editor. “What about The Redemption of Ambrose Hilliard?” I asked (not entirely seriously); my editor looked horrified—“No, no,” he said. “Don’t redeem him, you mustn’t redeem him.”

Tell us about Catrin, as a character, and why you made her the center of your novel.


In my previous incarnations, as a producer in radio and television comedy, I spent an enormous amount of time working with writers, most of whom were male; I loved the atmosphere of the “writers’ room”—the banter and the fast exchange of ideas—but sometimes it could be quite intimidating, and when I came to write Their Finest I wanted to explore that world from the point of view of someone new to it.

During my research, I came across several references to female film writers working on wartime films, and the one I found most interesting was a young Welsh woman called Diana Morgan. She was initially a playwright, but was called in to the famous Ealing Studios where she was engaged to write “the love interest” in a (dreadful) film called Ships with Wings. She was the only woman writer on the staff and she said that “you had to be tough.” The love-scene dialogue was known as “nausea,” and “they used to say ‘get the Welsh bitch to write the nausea’!” Nevertheless, she stuck it out (and learned to give as good as she got) and went on to work on many excellent films. She became my inspiration for Catrin, who grows over the course of the book from a tentative newcomer, patronized and exploited, to a fully fledged screenwriter, confident in her own abilities

Your book about filmmaking is itself becoming a film. It’s probably safe to say that this is every writer’s dream. Did you have much input into the film, and how closely did the scriptwriters stay to your original story?



I didn’t want to write the screenplay myself, but I had an agreement that I’d be sent every draft of the script, and I quickly realized that changes in the plot were inevitable; the book is quite long, there are four main characters and a huge story arc—it follows a film from conception to screening, along with a host of subplots—and it’s simply not possible to fit all of that into a screenplay. I thought that the writer, Gaby Chiappe, did a brilliant job; she kept the whole spine of the plot, and much of its heart and humor, while slimming the whole thing down to manageable lengths.

Having said that, it was sometimes difficult to watch as characters disappeared, or became younger, older, or more gorgeous than I’d imagined, but then I would remind myself that I’d written a book about the often ludicrous conceits and demands of the film industry, so I could hardly complain when it happened in real life! And the final result is all (and more) that I could have hoped for.

As a Russian specialist, I’m familiar with some of the myths created by the Stalin regime: the partisan Zoia Kosmodemianskaia, the 28 Panfilov Heroes, and so on. I have to admit that, naïve as it seems, it didn’t occur to me that the British government did the same thing. Is the Dunkirk incident that becomes the basis for the film in your book based on a true story?


Dunkirk was one of the most extraordinary events in the Second World War. A British Army Expeditionary Force (together with a French contingent), attempted to halt the German advance across Holland and Belgium but were themselves rapidly beaten back to the French coast, where they camped among the sand dunes, or queued at the port of Dunkirk, waiting for rescue—with the German army only days away and the German air force directly overhead. The shallowness of the coastal waters meant that only small boats could ferry the soldiers from the beach to naval rescue ships, and a call went out from the British government for any and all small boats to make the twenty-mile journey across the English Channel. Fishing vessels, cabin cruisers, Thames barges and tug boats, some commandeered by the navy but many with civilian crews, aided the rescue, and over the course of three days, a third of a million—yes, a third of a million!—British and French soldiers were evacuated to safety. So what might have been viewed as a defeat (at a dark and hopeless period of the war) ended up being seen by the public as a kind of miracle—a morale-boosting victory for courage and initiative. And while the government didn’t directly promote this viewpoint, it certainly did nothing to quash it.

As might be imagined, there were hundreds of extraordinary individual stories of rescue and heroism, but no official account was written at the time, only odd newspaper articles—so although I never came across a story about twin sisters piloting their father’s fishing boat, it might easily have happened!

What are you working on now?

After Their Finest, I wrote another book set during the war. It’s called Crooked Heart and is about an evacuee and his unscrupulous foster-mother, who draws him into a criminal scheme (think Paper Moon, set during the Blitz!). In the prologue of this book, we meet the evacuee, Noel, who at that point is still living with his beloved godmother, Mattie, in London. Mattie is a former suffragette and is bringing up Noel with splendid eccentricity; she is lost to view early in the book, but she stayed in my head. So now I’m writing a novel about Mattie, set in 1928—a whole new era for me!
 

I’ve also just had my third children’s book published; it’s called Wed Wabbit, and it will be out in the USA early next year. I think/hope it’s the funniest thing I’ve written so far…


Lissa, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions, and I wish you all success with both books and film!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Mother Love

One author who did not make the mistake of publishing too soon, as detailed in last week’s post, is Bren McClain, the author of One Good Mama Bone. As she puts it in my most recent interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, she is “a twenty-seven-year overnight success.” In the interview, she talks about her path to publication and the many, many rewrites it entailed, as well as the wonderful people who helped her along the way and the writing decisions she made, one of which involved imagining life from the perspective of a mama cow who still (thanks to her generosity, although she doesn’t put it quite that way) walks the earth at the advanced age of twenty-five.

So stop by and listen to her insightful and often funny answers to my questions about her background, her books, her characters both charming and mean, and above all, how she came to write the COW! It’s free, it’s entertaining, it’s enlightening, and for sure you won’t regret spending fifty minutes with Bren. I know I enjoyed every minute of our conversation—and her book as well.

For more explanation as to why, see this post, repurposed from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Once in a while, a novel comes along that is just extraordinary, in the best sense of that word. Bren McClain’s One Good Mama Bone (Story River Books, 2017) falls into this category. In little more than 250 pages, McClain brings to life in spare but lyrical prose an unforgettable cast of characters struggling with poverty, family, and reputation against the backdrop of the early 1950s rural US South. Perhaps her most remarkable creation is Mama Red, a cow near the end of her “useful” life whose dedication to her calf becomes a symbol of mother love.

In the summer of 1944, Sarah Creamer helps her best friend deliver a child fathered by Sarah’s own husband. Out of fear and shame, her best friend kills herself shortly after the birth, leaving Sarah and her husband to raise the boy, whom they name Emerson Bridge. Over the next seven years Sarah’s husband drinks himself to death, at which point Sarah inherits a farm mortgaged to the hilt and a child she can’t afford to feed and fears that she doesn’t know how to love. Her sole talent is dressmaking, but times are tough throughout rural South Carolina and the bills continue to mount. When she comes across a newspaper article celebrating a local boy who earned $680 for his champion steer, she purchases a calf on credit from a local farmer and enters Emerson Bridge in the next year’s championship.

But the calf belongs to Mama Red, who breaks out of her corral and follows her baby to Sarah’s farm. Watching cow and calf activates the “mama bone” that Sarah’s own mother insisted Sarah did not have. Only then do she and Emerson Bridge discover what happens to the cattle when the championship ends. Love and respect clash with need, and Sarah and Emerson Bridge must decide whether the costs of success are too high.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Publishing Too Soon

Writing is a tough business, especially novel writing. Almost by definition, it takes place in a virtual cave—one would-be author alone against the onslaught of the imagination. Characters talking in your head, moving pictures of setting and plot: isn’t this most people’s definition of insanity? Sure, the writer knows at some level that these are his or her creations, but tell that to a character who has decided that, come hell or high water, she is not embarking on that terribly convenient (for the author) mission that doesn’t happen to fit with her way of looking at the world.

In addition to the intense solitude of fiction writing as an exercise, budding novelists encounter another problem. To be able to write, you must first have learned to read. The vast majority of us learn to read at an early age, and those of us who become writers have often been reading for several decades before we produce finished work as adults. Since we are such accomplished and passionate readers, we tend to assume that we have what it takes as writers, and since we are writing alone, there is often no one to correct that misapprehension.

The third problem magnifies the first two: finishing a story feels fabulous. At the moment of typing “THE END,” almost every author knows this draft represents the greatest work in world literature, a piece of perfection equal to the classics. Every one of the nine hundred pages, now so laboriously completed, shines like the proverbial sun. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the first book or the twenty-first, in that instant of completion the thought of withholding this gift from its unwitting but eager readership seems cruel. And so the first draft gets pushed out into print before it’s ready.

In the olden days, by which I mean a decade ago, that last step was not possible. Vanity presses existed, but few people read the books they published. To reach a market, writers sent out typed, then e-mailed, queries to literary agents who, drat their uncaring souls, failed to recognize the genius. The agents did not reply or, if they did reply, sent standard responses. Writers had to work their way up to requests for full manuscripts, detailed critiques, and personalized rejection letters before they finally secured a contract. In the process, they did a lot of rewriting. And slowly, slowly, authors learned that, however necessary in terms of preparation and training, the mere fact of being avid readers did not mean that they had mastered the craft of novel writing.

Believe me, I know. I’ve been there and done that, as they say. Twenty-plus years ago, I sent queries to agents for novels that these days I can’t bear even to look at. I think of those queries and cringe. What must those agents have thought? But I know the answer: they had seen thousands of submissions just like mine, and within three pages, if not three paragraphs, they thought “here’s someone else who doesn’t know what she’s doing,” tossed my query aside, and sent the standard letter—or nothing.

At the time, I was disappointed, not to say devastated. But now I consider myself fortunate to have had that experience. It took me fifteen years to write a publishable novel, reading craft books and working with more accomplished fellow writers all the way, and in those fifteen years publishing changed. In many ways, it changed for the better, because a highly consolidated market rejected good books as well as those that still needed much more work. But in one respect, authors lost from the change. As I have discovered from hosting New Books in Historical Fiction and from co-founding Five Directions Press, it has become easy to publish a book too soon.

Not only beginners or self-published authors make this mistake. Even mature writers sometimes put out books at a point when they could use another round of editing or error checking, when the plot is still sketchy, when the main characters’ motivations remain cloudy or inconsistent and their developmental arcs unclear. In these cases, the writers are usually seeking to make money with additional titles or have signed a contract they must meet. Sometimes the writer has become such a big name that no one in publishing wants to criticize his/her books. But for whatever reason it happens, the person hurt in the end is the author. The established author at least has his or her early works for readers to enjoy. The new author may never recover from those slow beginnings, inept dialogue, clichéd emotions, and trite descriptions. At Five Directions Press, that’s one of the things we do for one another: we decide as a group when each of us can safely release her book.

So do yourself a favor. Put the first draft away, toast your achievement in champagne, and pat yourself on the back. You’ve earned every drop and chortle. You finished a novel, and that’s amazing. But don’t send the file out (or upload it for publication) just yet. Go back in a week—better, a month—take out the blue pencil, and revise. Read the dialogue aloud and listen to whether it sounds clunky. Show the manuscript to a writer friend you trust. Show it to a few more. Collect their comments and repeat. Get recommendations for books on writing and read them, or if you can, take a course. Hire an editor who specializes in your genre of fiction, who can point out where your specific story goes off the rails or needs further development. Join a critique group and learn while doing. Find a way that works for you. But whatever you do, don’t publish the first draft or even the third. One day, you’ll be glad you waited.



Image from Clipart.com, no. 20413568

Friday, February 10, 2017

Welcome to Claudia Long

As a founding member of Five Directions Press, I was delighted to hear last week that Claudia H. Long had decided to join us. A San Francisco lawyer and, in her own words, “mother of two, wife, and cook,” Claudia is also a talented writer of historical fiction. Her first book, Josefina’s Sin, came out with Atria Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, in 2011. Set in colonial Mexico at the end of the seventeenth century, it tells the story of a young wife whose path to maturity includes a love affair with a bishop that leaves her pregnant.

The Harlot’s Pen, Claudia’s second novel, came out three years later. Its heroine, Violetta, works as a journalist in the tradition-breaking, steamy world of 1920s San Francisco. Extra steamy, in Violetta’s case: her book on working women takes her to a brothel frequented by some of the city’s most powerful men, and the federal agents set on suppressing the trade in vice (and keeping workers in their place) have no use for a Flapper with an attitude. Denise Steele selected it as her “Books We Loved” pick in May 2016.


But it’s The Duel for Consuelo and its impending sequel that brought Claudia to us. Consuelo also came out in 2014, with the now-defunct Booktrope Editions, and it needs a new home. Since our mission at Five Directions Press is to focus on “literary journeys less traveled,” a book set in early eighteenth-century Mexico is a perfect fit for us. So we look forward to republishing Consuelo and, by the end of this year, bringing out Claudia’s next Mexican novel. Currently titled “Chains of Silver,” this new book will be the third in the series that began with Josefina’s Sin. Where The Duel for Consuelo features Josefina’s son, now an adult, and introduces a young woman who must choose between love and her hidden Jewish faith, “Chains of Silver” extends this conflict to a new generation, in the person of a determined fourteen-year-old who must learn to balance the needs of self and family, including her religion.

The addition of Claudia as our eighth member means, among other things, that our cooperative is now about as large as it can get and continue to function effectively. We also have a lovely combination of writers with business, legal, marketing, media, developmental and line editing, artistic, and typesetting expertise. So despite the wisdom of “never say never,” we will not be looking to add anyone else for a while. But stop by our site to see what the eight of us have planned and to sign up for our newsletter (quarterly issues and book announcements only), and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram for quotations and images from our books as well as general news.

And don’t forget to like Claudia’s page on Facebook and follow her on Twitter. You can also check her website, linked above, to find out more about her and her books.

Welcome, Claudia! We can’t wait to start working on your books!



Friday, February 3, 2017

The Roaring Twenties

As I mentioned in one of last year’s posts, “The Fog of War,” there seems to be a renewed interest in fictional exploration of the early twentieth century—perhaps because of the ongoing centennial of World War I. I had intended at the time to give a fuller treatment of one title I mentioned in that post, Beatriz Williams’ A Certain Age, a book I absolutely loved, including a Q&A interview with the author. The interview never came off, but Williams has just published another book set in Jazz Age Manhattan, The Wicked City. She has a third, Cocoa Beach—still in the 1920s but set in Florida—due for release in July, at which point I am scheduled to interview her about all three for New Books in Historical Fiction.

Part of the fun of Williams’ novels is discovering characters and settings that have cropped up before. The hero in A Certain Age, Captain Octavian Rofrano, also made an appearance in Fall of Poppies, an anthology of stories commemorating World War I that I featured in “Remembering the Great War.” The heroine’s youngest son, Billy Marshall, plays a role in The Wicked City, which opens in a Greenwich Village apartment building that once housed a speakeasy called the Christopher Club, also featured in A Certain Age. The modern-day heroine of The Wicked City lives in the same building—I think in the same apartment—once occupied by Geneva (Gin) Kelly, who anchors the 1924 portion of the book. And so it goes, in intertwining patterns.
 

So, what is The Wicked City about? In 1998, Ella leaves her husband after discovering he’s cheated on her. She takes refuge in a tiny apartment on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, only to discover that her building is filled with tenants who defy the laws of New York apartment living by taking a strong interest in their fellow residents. Attempting to do laundry at the crack of dawn, she runs into Hector, who lives on the top floor and gives her a crash course in the apartment culture of 11 Christopher while she drinks him in with her eyes. He also warns her about the basement, with its ghostly noises and vibrating walls.
 

Naturally, Ella has to investigate, and we dive into the other half of the story. The noises and vibrations come from the speakeasy that occupied half the site in 1924. There Gin Kelly, who lives in the apartment next door, spends many an evening drinking and dancing with young Billy Marshall—Princeton man, heir to uptown wealth, and smitten. Until she runs into a revenue agent named Anson who wants her to help him bust up the illegal liquor business run by her stepfather, the very man Gin came to New York to escape.

The two stories take place side by side through a series of five acts: “We Meet,” “We Come to an Understanding,” etc. The writing sparkles, and the vocabulary, the descriptions, and even the reactions of the characters clearly differentiate past from present. More even than in A Certain Age, which combined a story set in 1922 with the solution to a mystery that took place a decade or so earlier, Williams adroitly balances developing romances with darker and more compelling plot lines, and her characters are appealing even when—perhaps especially when—they behave far from admirably. I can hardly wait for the next installment.


P. S. A Certain Age has one of the most gorgeous covers I’ve seen. Bravo to the designers!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Bookshelf, January 2017

It’s been a while since I ran my last  Bookshelf post, so with another lovely writing week taking up much of my time, this seems a good moment for one. Several of these books will eventually become the basis of podcast interviews at New Books in Historical Fiction (NBHF); others relate to the recently renamed (Mostly) Dead Writers’ Society (DWS) on GoodReads or to the developing catalogue at Five Directions Press. Most are by less well-known writers—some traditionally published, others not. Because isn’t that the fun part of reading: discovering a new writer, preferably one who has produced lots of books? So here we go, more or less in order.

 

Anchee Min, Empress Orchid (Mariner Books, 2005)
Just finished this account of the early years that Cixi, the last empress of China, spent in the Forbidden City, between her selection as the fourth concubine of Emperor Xianfeng to his death and her ascension to the role of joint regent for their son. We watch her grow from a naive sixteen-year-old left to her own devices in the imperial palace to the emperor’s favorite companion and adviser to a capable woman who, even in her mid-twenties, defends her own and her son’s interests within a court that insists on underrating her intelligence and her talents. I read this as part of the DWS’s 2017 exploration of revolutions, starting with the Boxer Rebellion, and enjoyed it very much. The Boxer Rebellion doesn’t actually appear until the sequel, The Last Empress, but the earlier Taiping Rebellion forms part of the backdrop here. The same author's Becoming Madame Mao is also a favorite of mine.

 




Bren McClain, One Good Mama Bone (University of South Carolina Press, 2017)
Sarah Creamer, dirt-poor and widowed by an alcoholic who leaves her with a son he had with her best friend, struggles to pay the mortgage on her farm and raise a boy that’s not hers despite her own mother’s scornful comment: “You ain’t got one good mama bone in you, girl.” Salvation appears in the form of a young steer, destined to compete in a 1952 cattle show. But when Sarah discovers what may happen to her steer if he wins the prize, her developing instincts as a mother force her to reconsider where her true loyalties lie. My February interview for NBHF.

 


 



Beatriz Williams, The Wicked City (William Morrow, 2017)
A dual-time novel alternating between a modern-day New Yorker warned to stay out of a haunted basement in modern-day Greenwich Village and a flapper who loves to party in the same building in 1924, when it hosted one of the city’s most notorious speakeasies. By the author of A Certain Age, another Jazz Age story that I loved, this book was sent to me for an NBHF interview, but I was already booked; I plan to interview the author in July, when she will have another new novel, Cocoa Beach.

 





 



Lissa Evans, Their Finest (Harper Perennial, 2017)
This novel, originally published in the UK, has already become a major motion picture. Set in London in 1940, it follows the career of Catrin Cole, who works on propaganda films for the Ministry of Information and ends up producing a largely manufactured “true” story about two sisters at Dunkirk. In the current political climate, and especially as a specialist in Russian history, how could I resist? Another potential NBHF interview that I received too late to fit into my schedule.








Denise Allan Steele, Rewind (Five Directions Press, 2017)
A delightful, hilarious novel set in 1970s/80s Scotland and modern-day California. Karen Anderson at seventeen lives for ABBA, the Hustle, and the attentions of her school's bad boy, until he breaks her heart by taking up with the local tramp. Karen escapes to university, where she meets and falls in love with Jack, a cool guitar-playing student who hates Margaret Thatcher as much as she does. Thirty years later, married to Jack and living in California with two teenagers who barely give her the time of day, Karen falls into the middle-aged trap of wondering about the road not taken. Can you rewind the book of love, and if you can, should you? With a legion of Scots relatives to my name, I find this story irresistible. It’s like a journey home, with laughs.

 


Ronald E. Yates, Finding Billy Battles and The Improbable Journeys of Billy Battles (Xlibris, 2013 and 2016)
These first two books in a planned trilogy weave tales of the author’s family into a semi-fictional account of a nineteenth-century Kansan who travels the world, as rediscovered by his great-grandson a hundred years later. The author’s years of writing and teaching journalism give him an ear for dialogue, a knack for description, and an instinct for the telling anecdote that together make for sharp observations and a compelling style. The books read like a combination of travelogue and diary, with a good deal of history seamlessly tossed into the mix. My March NBHF interview.

 


Tiffany Reisz, The Night Mark (MIRA Books, 2017)
Another dual-time story, but this one involves time travel, like the Outlander series. Faye Barlow, reeling from the death of her beloved husband, takes a job photographing the South Carolina coast. Pulled toward the Bride Island lighthouse during one assignment, she keeps returning, drawn by the legend of a keeper’s daughter who drowned under mysterious circumstances in 1921. One night, a rogue wave drags Faye into the past, where she becomes caught up in a love story that is not her own. As a historian, I often fantasize about visiting the period I study, in reality or through fiction (as in The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel), so I leaped at the chance to interview this author when her book comes out in April.

 



Michelle Cox, A Girl Like You and A Ring of Truth (She Writes Press, 2016 and 2017)
Two mystery novels set in 1930s Chicago, starring Henrietta Von Harmon and Inspector Clive Howard. Henrietta, despite her aristocratic-sounding name, has sole responsibility for her nasty mother and seven siblings since her father committed suicide after the great crash of 1929. She has just established herself in a job at a local dance hall when the floor matron turns up dead. When Inspector Cox recruits her help in solving the crime, love enters the picture. In book 2, buried family secrets threaten Henrietta’s and Clive’s prospects for happiness, even as another crime casts a shadow on their budding romance. What can I say? I love 1930s mystery stories of the Agatha Christie/Dorothy Sayers type, and these two books appear to be in that mode. My May NBHF interview, scheduled for right after the second book’s appearance in April.





Ariadne Apostolou, West End Quartet (Five Directions Press, 2017)
Four young women living in 1980s Manhattan join together to form an urban commune called Group, dedicated to feminist politics, anti-nuclear protests, and various other radical causes. When the Reagan years end, Mallory, Jasmina, Gwen, and Kleio travel along different paths, never quite losing contact but no longer close. Through separate novellas we trace crucial events in the lives of the first three (Kleio has her own book, Seeking Sophia, released in 2013), ending with their reunion in Greece just as Kleio is facing a big decision of her own. A richly realized and often poignant character study of four women who set out to change the world, only to discover that more often the world changes us.

 


That should keep me busy for a while. Check back every so often as the individual posts go up to find out more about what I thought of each individual book.