Friday, February 28, 2020

Elemental Magic

The line between historical fiction and historical fantasy at times seems rather slim. I consider my own novels straight historical fiction—admittedly with a large dollop of romance, but the romance is never the whole point of the story. Yet the world of the sixteenth century, in any part of the world, was saturated with religion and spiritual forces and flat-out magic.

My characters believe in all of it, none more so than Grusha in Song of the Shaman, who doesn’t quite subscribe to the idea that she actually ventures into realms beyond our own but who nonetheless behaves in every respect as if otherworldly spirits exist and she can contact them. The people she interacts with believe it too; their faith, more than anything else, is the source of her healing power.

Let’s move now to the wholly fictional world of Gabrielle Mathieu’s new Berona’s Quest trilogy, which forms the subject of my most recent interview on the New Books Network. Gabrielle is, in addition to a fellow member of Five Directions Press, the host of New Books in Fantasy and Adventure. So her channel is the main location of her interview, but it is cross-posted to mine.

And that seems appropriate. It’s true that at no time in our world have we seen a vicious Water Demon, mother of all life on earth but mad as hell after spending six hundred years in a cage under the ocean after her last attempt to wipe out her human creations. Nor do we have to flee the destructive (or are they constructive?) efforts of massive ogre-like creatures called Elementals. We are like the residents of Mathieu’s Vendrisi, scholars and scientists and traders.

Yet the land of Berona’s birth, Trea, has definite parallels to medieval Europe, although its priest cult serves a goddess rather than a god. Trea, the magical heartland, hosts scattered communities of farmers and vineyard keepers, lords and ladies, merchants and townsfolk. They all use swords and plowshares, keep their women under wraps and their men in positions of authority, and dole out education, privileges, and luxuries according to accidents of birth. The politics are as vicious and self-serving, the capacity for treachery as great, the pleasures of love as delicious, and the pains of loss as devastating as in the world we know—despite the presence of an occasional dwarf, magician, or elfin Elder.

So even if you like your fiction without a dose of spells and sorcery, you may well enjoy Girl of Fire, the first novel starring Berona and her comrades. Or just listen to the interview, summarized below.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Fantasy and Adventure.

In the fantasy medieval land of Trea—a conservative society that despite its worship of the goddess Amur respects her human daughters only as wives and mothers—eighteen-year-old Berona has limited expectations for her future. Securing a handsome husband who will win her heart and teach her to dance seems like enough of a challenge, given that her father keeps presenting her with candidates who can neither appeal to nor appreciate her fiery nature. But Berona remains hopeful until a nighttime encounter at the stream that runs near her house brings her face-to-face with humanity’s ancient enemy, the Water Demon, desperate for revenge after six hundred years locked deep in the world’s oceans.

The Demon threatens Berona and her family, and to protect her parents and younger sister, Berona accepts help from a magician, member of an outlawed sect with a philosophy of life very different from that of the Intercessors of Trea. The magician has been searching for the Girl of Fire, who according to ancient prophecy is the only person who can defeat the Water Demon, and he becomes convinced that Berona is the one he seeks.

But Berona is untrained, and the Demon already on the move. As the Elemental forces of Nature awaken and treachery splits those committed to help her, Berona struggles to reconcile her own essential strengths, the demands placed on her, and the lessons she must master against a foe who destroys from within, by manipulating her victims’ deepest fears and appealing to their hidden desires.

Gabrielle Mathieu, the author of the Falcon Trilogy and host of New Books in Fantasy and Adventure, kicks off her new series, Berona’s Quest, with Girl of Fire, a deeply researched and endlessly inventive exploration of a world in which disrespecting the environment can, quite literally, get you killed.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Broken Dreams

Climate change, colonialism, imperialism, industrialization: these intertwined issues have deep roots extending back into the eighteenth century, if not longer. One gift of fiction, in my view, is the author’s ability to take these vast sweeping trends—the results of which are often disputed or poorly understood—and bring them down to the individual level where we as humans naturally live. This is part of what Joan Schweighardt and I discuss in my most recent interview for New Books in Historical Fiction.

In the first book in this trilogy, Before We Died, Joan approaches the story of the Amazon rubber-tapping industry and its devastating effects on the local population and ecology by imagining two Irish brothers, Jack and Baxter Hopper, who take ship from their home town of Hoboken, NJ, in the belief they will make their fortune in a year and return home.

Life doesn’t quite work out as they expect. In a novel, that’s hardly a surprise, but the specifics of what they encounter are compelling. In one scene after another, Jack and Baxter experience the damage and dangers firsthand. And their adventures pull us into a world that headlines about the rain forest burning don’t even begin to capture. Through our empathy for Jack and Baxter, we see the piranha in the waters; feel their dread of a tarantula in a hammock; experience their awe at the jaguar emerging from the jungle, lit only by the moon, or their despair as they realize they may not, in the end, make it home. 

The story continues in Gifts for the Dead, the main topic of our interview. Here many of the incidents reflected in the lives of Jack Hopper and Nora Sweeney, the woman once engaged to Baxter, come from the history books: World War I, the women’s suffrage movement, the Spanish flu. But here, too, the story eventually finds it way back to the Amazon River and the ongoing destruction of the natural world.

To find out more about Gifts for the Dead, listen to the interview or read the rest of this post, which comes from New Books in Historical Fiction:

Last summer, massive fires in the Amazon rain forest provoked environmental concerns around the world. But the history of exploitation—of the natural world of the rain forest and the people living in it—goes back at least to the rubber boom of the early twentieth century. This setting forms the backdrop for Joan Schweighardt’s compelling and well-written Rivers trilogy, which starts with Before We Died and continues with Gifts for the Dead nd the forthcoming River Aria.

As Gifts for the Dead opens, it is 1911 and the heroine, Nora Sweeney, is waiting for bad news in Hoboken, NJ. A fortuneteller has prophesied that any day two dock workers will appear on the doorstep to report that both the man Nora loves, Baxter Hopper, and his brother, Jack, have died during their work as rubber tappers in Brazil. But when the dock workers arrive, it’s to deliver the comatose body of Jack, on the brink of death.

Nora and Jack’s mother, Maggie, nurse him back to health, and life goes on. With help from Maggie, Nora and Jack restore the family that was broken when the brothers left on their grand adventure. Through World War I, the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, and the Roaring Twenties, the trio perseveres. Everyone assumes Baxter died in the rain forest. Only Jack knows that his brother’s fate is less certain than he’s given the women reason to believe. And that one day he must go and find out the truth.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Interview with Philip Cioffari

And here, just in time for Valentine’s Day, we have a post about the joys and sorrows of first love.

When Philip Cioffari’s publicist first sent me an advance copy of his latest novel, If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues, the title caught my attention immediately. Who could ignore such a catchy title? 

Learning that the book begins in the Bronx in 1960—when I was already on the planet—was a little alarming, simply because I don’t like to think about my life as historical fiction. But nonetheless I dove into the story of eighteen-year-old Joey Hunter, his hopes, his friends, and his family. 

To find out more about Philip Cioffari’s latest book and his plans for it, just read on.


That’s a wonderful title. Where does it come from, and what does it tell us about the novel?

The title comes from an African-American folktale about two mythical lovers, Betty and Dupree. Betty wants a diamond engagement ring, so Dupree, who is very much in love with her and has no money, goes into town and steals one, in the process shooting the store clerk. At his sentencing, he explains he was done in by the heartbreaking blues. In my novel, I wanted the title to reflect the young main character’s struggle to find true love. I wanted it to convey, in a mostly comic and ironic way, the blues he suffers on that journey, as well as the more general and inevitable blues of adolescence.

 The Bronx in the 1960s: what made you want to set a story there?

For one thing, it is a period I know well, having lived through it. More importantly, though, I think of the year 1960 as the beginning of a decade that served as a turning point in American culture. The postwar cultural mores were beginning to slip away, being replaced by newer customs and more progressive values. The conformity of the 50s was giving way to a more personalized, individualistic kind of freedom. Especially for the young, it was a time of bright hope and anticipation that one’s destiny was less a prefabricated mold and more a malleable substance that could be shaped according to one’s need.

Tell us about your protagonist, Joey Hunter, better known as Hunt. Where is he in his life at the opening of the novel?

Hunt, on this his eighteenth birthday and senior prom night, is on the cusp of manhood. He is experiencing for the first time what he thinks of as love. We would call it infatuation, but he doesn’t yet know the difference. He also longs for independence. The one thing he asks for on his birthday, and is given it, is the right to stay out all night. This night he takes important steps in becoming a man. He moves from infatuation to a deeper sense of what love really is. He understands the ways, despite his own struggles, he can be a support and comfort to others.

And how would you describe his personality?

His personality is basically upbeat and optimistic, though he suffers through bouts of what he calls the Deep Blues—the result of his insecurities and uncertainties—that cause him to feel disconnected and alone.

Hunt, when we meet him, is anticipating his first date with a girl named Debby Ann Murphy. What can you tell us about her—particularly in terms of how Hunt sees her and what she means to him?

He’s infatuated with her: her looks, her clothes, her blossoming womanhood. The reality is, though, that she’s absolutely the wrong mate for him. They share none of the same values. He wants to be a writer and thinker, and she has little tolerance for school or things intellectual. He has a creative mind and wants to live, in all ways, an adventurous life, while she sticks to the basics. She sees her life as already planned out for her: marriage, pregnancy, motherhood. None of these things deters him, however. All love might be blind, but certainly first love is. He pursues her till she shuts the door.

Hunt also has two pals, Augie and Johnnie Jay. Who are they, and how do they help him handle the various mishaps that he endures in the course of this story?

Johnnie Jay is the best friend of his teenage years. They share the same love of adventure, the same intellectual pursuits, the same desire for girls who, in one way or another, are beyond their reach. But Johnnie Jay’s more carefree approach to life and love lightens Hunt’s more serious personality. If a girl refuses Hunt’s invitation to dance, he’s crushed; Johnnie Jay, on the other hand, takes a “no” as a challenge to try harder. They complement one another, a fact that has made them such close friends.

Ten year-old Augie is Hunt’s sidekick. He is the only African-American kid in the neighborhood, the smartest student in the fifth grade, who in his free time is either playing his harmonica or reading his pocket dictionary. Because Augie’s parents leave him mostly on his own, Hunt “adopts” him. Augie serves, in some ways, as a substitute for the younger brother Hunt has lost. He is a cunning, street-smart boy who helps Hunt survive a number of difficult situations, some funny, some quite serious. 

You already have one independent film to your credit, Love in the Age of Dion. Would you consider turning this book into a film? Why or why not?

I would certainly consider doing another movie, and I’d love to do this one. The main obstacle, of course, is the cost of making a film. It’s one thing to have a character perform an action on the page—it merely takes a few sentences to describe. To render that same action in real life on film, takes considerable effort and financial resources. So I guess the short answer is that it’s more economical to sit at my desk and write novels and stories.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!


Philip Cioffari grew up in the Bronx. He is the author of the novels Catholic Boys, Dark Road, Dead End, Jesusville, and The Bronx Kill, as well as the story collection A History of Things Lost or Broken, which won the Tartt First Fiction Prize and the D. H. Lawrence Award. His stories have appeared widely in anthologies, literary journals, and commercial magazines. He wrote and directed the independent feature film Love in the Age of Dion, which won a number of film festival awards, including Best Picture at the Long Island International Film Expo and Best Director at the NY Film and Video Festival. He is professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey. Find him online at

Friday, February 7, 2020

Divided Loyalties

A year ago, I discovered the detective Ian Rutledge and his mother/son duo of creators, who publish under the name Charles Todd. You can find that first post here on this blog, “The Black Ascot,” and more information about Charles Todd and the fictional context of Rutledge’s world in my New Books in Historical Fiction interview from last year.

In short, I was hooked, and for an avid reader like myself few things are more fun than discovering a series that already has twenty books in it—especially when the mysteries are as complex yet ultimately satisfying, the writing as good, and the characters as fascinating and full of human frailty as these.

I wanted to dive in right away, but other interviews and books demanded my time, so it wasn’t until a lucky sale brought the first two Rutledge novels to my e-reader, I found another readily available on Overdrive, and the latest landed in my mailbox as an advance review copy that I was able to follow up. So my main goal here is to report on the latest book, A Divided Loyalty, which came out just this last Tuesday (February 4, 2020). But to me the development of the series is also interesting, and I’ll mention a few words about that in passing.

A Divided Loyalty is clearly the work of an experienced and accomplished team. As someone just beginning a collaboration with another author, I’m in awe at the sophisticated communication that must drive the planning and execution of thirty-five or more novels. In this one, the suspicious death that incites the plot is that of a young woman discovered at Avebury—then (1921) considered a kind of lesser Stonehenge without the popularity of the better-known site.

The local police want nothing to do with the case, and Scotland Yard is called in. But the first detective sent to handle the investigation is not Rutledge, and he insists that he can’t find any evidence that points to a killer or even an identification of the victim. The case rests, but murder cases never close, and in due course the chief superintendent sends Rutledge to revisit the scene of the crime and review the earlier investigation—never a comfortable position to occupy when the man being reviewed stands higher in the department than the one doing the reviewing.

It’s a delightful puzzle, in itself a reason to read this compelling series. But as always in Rutledge’s world there are wheels within wheels: office politics, conflict caused by differences in class and education, city/village confrontations, and always the lingering effects of the Great War—on society as a whole and on its individual members, including Rutledge himself.

This last element—the scars that Rutledge carries from his military service, the sacrifices he made and the decisions he regrets having to make—carries throughout the series and gives it a special edge. It’s already visible in the first book, A Test of Wills, which is itself a fine mystery story and character study although still maturing compared to the later entries in the series. And it pushes the action forward here as well. Or, as Hamish—the inescapable voice in Rutledge’s shell-shocked mind—might put it: “Ye just might learn something from yon policeman.”

And don’t miss my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview with Joan Schweighardt about her novels Before We Died and Gifts for the Dead, set along the Amazon and Hudson rivers during the first third of the twentieth century. I’ll post about the books in more depth in a couple of weeks.

And if you’d like to learn more about me and how I came to write the fiction I do, check out this interview on Occhi Magazine. Wouldn't you love to see The Golden Lynx turned into a film? I would! And while it may never happen, feel free to leave casting suggestions in the comments. One day, I’ll reveal my picks for Nasan and Daniil.