Friday, March 28, 2014

Interview with M.J. Neary

Yesterday I reviewed M.J. Neary's wonderful novel of the early 20th century movement for Irish independence, Never Be at Peace. I'm thrilled to share my interview with Neary, so read on to learn more about her and her books.

What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

If you are referring to my first novel-length piece of fiction, that would be "Wynfield's Kingdom: a Tale of the London Slums". I started writing it at the age of 15, and completed it at 31. It was featured on the cover of the First Edition Magazine in the UK (no longer in print, unfortunately) and reviewed favorably in the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal in Wales. The novel opens in 1830s Bermondsey, London's most notorious slum, a land of gang wars, freak shows and every depravity known to man. Dr. Thomas Grant, a disgraced physician, adopts Wynfield, a ten-year old thief savagery battered by the gang leader for insubordination. The boy grows up to be a slender, idealistic opium addict who worships Victor Hugo. By day he steals and resells guns from a weapons factory, and by night he amuses filthy crowds with his adolescent girlfriend - a fragile witch with wolfish eyes. The novel also has a theatrical spinoff under the title "Hugo in London". The spunky English thief becomes the prototype for Hugo's rebel heroes.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

As a working mother I write whenever I can. Sometimes I rehearse dialogues on my way to work, and then at the end of the day I write them down. Writing doesn't necessarily mean sitting down and writing physically. Sometimes I will spend days and weeks tinkering with a scene or a character in my head. I find that I need to let the text ferment inside my head. Eventually the unnecessary pieces will shrivel up and fall off organically.

Was Never Be At Peace the original title of your book?

Interestingly enough, the original title was "Tears of Emer". Emer was the protagonist's stage and pen name which she borrowed from the Irish mythology. In reality she had nothing in common with that mythological heroine. Emer embodied feminine guile and cruelty, and did not cry unless she was trying to manipulate a male in her presence, while Helena was tomboyish, open-hearted, naive and self-sacrificing. Even though Helena is the central figure, the novel is not just about her, so I changed the title to something broader which would apply to an entire generation of Irish freedom-fighters. My husband suggested incorporating a fragment from Pearse's speech. Never be at peace ... The irony is that peace was never in the cards for Ireland, not after a semblance of freedom was achieved. There was still a lot of bloodshed and suffering in store for the newly liberated nation.

As you were writing Never Be At Peace, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

I would not say that any particular character surprised me, since I did a lot of research. Did I come across a few interesting revelations while researching the lives of Irish revolutionaries? Absolutely. Irish history is so full of contradictions. The biggest contradiction is around the role of women. It was mind-boggling how Ireland took a step back into patriarchal theocracy after splitting from Great Britain. While Ireland was still fighting for her freedom, women were expected to fight shoulder to shoulder with their husbands and brothers. As soon as the Irish finally won their freedom, they drove their women back into the kitchen. It's totally bizarre. The Constitution of 1937 explicitly states that the woman's place is at home. It was perfectly legal to fire women automatically as soon as they got married. The understanding was that if a woman was married, she would start having kids one after another (contraception was outlawed), and she would simply have no time to work. Jobs were reserved for men who had families to support and single women who had nobody to count on. Married women were deemed useless in the workforce. Divorce was also outlawed, so if a married woman was not happy with her husband, she had no way out. No birth control, no job prospects. So while the rest of the world was moving forward, Ireland took a huge step backwards.

Read any good books recently?

As matter of fact, I have read several great novels. Most of them were published by small specialty presses. I find that mainstream books published by big NYC based publishers do not move me. If you want something authentic, original, honest, though-provoking, you have to turn to small presses. You are not going to go to Applebee's for a unique meal. It's a little depressing when you go to a chain book store and see 10 young adult books depicting the same girl with dark roots in a tank top with a layer of gloss over her lips. Great. More Twilight knock-offs. Just what the world needs. I don't go to bookstores anymore. I get e-books online. I love learning about other cultures, so one of the books I read recently was "A Year of Starless Nights" about the plight of a child-bride in modern rural India. I tell you, it's a must-read for all Western women who think they are "oppressed".

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My thanks to Ms. Neary for her time and thoughtful answers. You can learn more about Never Be at Peace at the publisher's website.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Never Be At Peace by M.J. Neary

Title: Never Be At Peace
Author: M.J. Neary

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1910s / Ireland / Revolution / Politics / Theater / Historical Figures Fictionalized)
Publisher/Publication Date: Fireship Press (3/8/2014)
Source: The publisher.

Rating: Liked a good deal.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: A novel of early 20th century Irish revolutionary Helena Moloney and the tumultuous circumstances of her life.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I'm ambivalent -- it fits the novel, but isn't what draws me in.

First line: Katie Barrett would sell her soul for a gulp of fresh air, but there wasn't any inside the filthy store on Ship Street where she had been marched along with the handful of the Irish Citizen Army survivors.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy.

Why did I get this book?: It's a fascinating era I haven't seen featured in hist fic before.

Review: Set between 1903 and spanning through to 1940, this rich novel follows Helena Moloney, a Dublin-born woman who became crucial to the Irish movement for independence as well as the labor movement and women's rights.

I was initially intrigued by this book after Evangeline Holland of Edwardian Promenade blurbed it positively; I was deeply curious at the idea of Edwardian Ireland and the wild tumultous mix of passion and politics seen during this time.

Neary plunges the reader into the excitement, opening after the famous 1916 Easter Rising, then moving to 1903 when Helena first entered the movement for Irish independence. For those unfamiliar with early 20th century Irish history, Neary provides enough context and details for readers to understand what is happening. With Helena new to the movement at the story's start, the reader and Helena move together through the ranks and various intrigues in the fight for Irish independence, and within pages, I found myself gripped by the story.

The hook of the novel is Helena: she's smart and committed, both starry-eyed and level-headed. While historically a marvelously grand woman, in Neary's hands her accomplishments feel real and authentic, and I never found myself frustrated with a too-perfect heroine.

Neary makes vibrant the various figures from the movement, and the story reads almost like a soap opera -- from Countess Constance Markievicz's tiara-wearing arrival at an organizing event to her founding of an armed scouting movement or Maud Gonne's revolutionary group for women, Inghinidhe na hÉireann, to her involvement with poet W.B. Yeats -- without becoming cartoonish or silly. Every character is delightfully flawed and portrayed with warm humanity; I was horrified and charmed by Countess Markievicz at various times, for example.

My only complaint is a lack of Author's or Historical Note, which is my favorite part of a historical novel; otherwise, this book is a fantastic saga-ish read of a wonderfully dramatic era in history.

Fireship Press is becoming a new favorite for finding unusual historical fiction and this offering sets a high bar for other historical novels and indie presses.

For those who like early 20th century settings but might be Downton Abbey-ed out or want something different than a straight up World War I narrative, consider this book. Hibernophiles and those who love all things Irish absolutely need to start reading.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Interview with Carol Strickland

Yesterday I reviewed Carol Strickland's fantastic The Eagle and the Swan, a novel of 6th century Byzantium and the infamous Empress Theodora.  It was a wonderful novel full of personality and rich with historical detail.  I'm thrilled to share my interview with the author (who also penned a favorite book of mine on art), so read on to learn more about her, her books, and what she does when she isn't writing.  Be sure to enter the international giveaway, too!

What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

I took a creative writing class in college and wrote some short stories I’d charitably describe as “under-developed,” mainly because at the age of 21, I had little life experience to draw on. My very first piece of fiction was probably an assignment in junior high school to write a myth that would explain some natural phenomenon through supernatural intervention. I imagined a Poseidon-like god who was wrathful at humanity and flooded the land, determined not to recede until he had drowned someone.

I built up the fear as the raging waters approached, focusing on a husband and pregnant wife at risk. But—lo and behold—the flood waters engulfed a life-sized statue of Benjamin Franklin and the flood god, who must have been near-sighted or at least not paying close attention, was satisfied. The waters swept back to sea. This wasn’t enough of a happy ending for me. The wife (who had been prevented from running to higher ground by labor pains) gave birth to a son at that instant. Guess what they named him? Ben. I now prefer ambiguous endings to sappy ones.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

Basically, it’s plop down at my desk and write on the computer, consulting piles of notes that make my office look like the aftermath of a tickertape parade. Before writing my historical novel, I had to do a lot of research in primary and secondary sources on the late Roman/early Byzantine Empire. That part was fun. I admit I’m a scholar-nerd. Each tidbit beyond the facts of what happened, I’d file away in my mind as a means to bring the characters to life when telling their story. It’s amazing how gossipy the letters from Roman historians are, so I could “re-purpose” random details to describe ancient lifestyles. When I was “in the flow” of creating the characters and their trajectories, I didn’t want to stop for lunch or anything. My husband would come home for dinner and I’d still be typing away, oblivious to the passing of time. Then the long slog of revising began, honing down the text, finding the right word, making sure the characters had individual voices and traits. I consulted a lot of Latin dictionaries and consumed a lot of coffee. If I can’t start the day with the New York Times, I get really cranky.

Was The Eagle and the Swan the original title of your book?

Originally, I called it A Distant Dawn, more as a default than committed inspiration. I wanted it to evoke the past and a measure of hope on the horizon. Then I decided something that conjured up my heroine, Empress Theodora who started life as an exotic dancer (OK—a stripper), would be better. So I wanted to call it Something in the Way She Moved. That would evoke not only her sensuous prowess but her unprecedented rise from a low-caste actress to the most powerful woman of her time. I also liked the subtext of Theodora as a proto-feminist who helped women and children advance in terms of human rights. My publisher asked early readers to send in their ideas for a title. The Eagle and the Swan was the result, alluding to the imperial eagle (Justinian, the last Roman Emperor) and the dance that made Theodora infamous, her interpretation of the Leda and the Swan myth. We found a 6th-century mosaic illustrating the myth to use as the cover.

As you were writing The Eagle and the Swan, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

My narrator Fabianus is a scribe and childhood friend of Theodora from her courtesan days. Since he’s the only character I invented out of whole cloth, he’s the one I couldn’t predict. In the earliest draft, he was simply a device to tell the story of actual historical events. But as I progressed with fleshing out the characters beyond what the history books contain, Fabianus kept inserting himself and his views and desires. He’s torn between loyalty to his idolized Theodora and his mission to tell the truth, even if it’s not flattering. Fabianus became much more than a mouthpiece for her but a complex, conflicted individual seeking to present all perspectives. Filtered through his lens, the Golden Age of Byzantium looks more like a prismatic Gilded Age, multi-faceted and glowing, but with just a thin veneer of shine over base metal.

You've written non-fiction about art and architecture before The Eagle and the Swan. What inspired you to write a novel?

My books on art history and the history of architecture inspired my interest in the characters. In researching and writing about early Byzantine art, I was aware that Emperor Justinian was the force behind the design and reconstruction of one of the most stupendous monuments of Antiquity—the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul). A mixture of engineer/philosopher/theologian/dictator, Justinian oversaw every detail of the innovative basilica that went far beyond the technical know-how of that period. I knew Theodora as the subject of one of the most glorious works of Byzantine art, a wall mosaic in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. But when I read that contemporary historians referred to her as “Theodora from the brothel,” that intrigued me. I then read a Secret History written by their court historian Procopius, who obviously had a vendetta against his masters because he smears them with every conceivable calumny. How could these two people who’ve been immortalized in art and architecture—paragons of beauty—also be such demons? That was the spark that ignited my curiosity. And I have to admit, the more I learned, the more I wanted to set the record straight, to let Theodora speak for herself and not be defined for the ages by the misogynist Procopius.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I still do journalism, describing museum exhibitions and cities as cultural destinations, which keeps me current in what’s going on in the art world. I enjoy travel, in the States and international. I’ll soon be in Florence and Rome and look forward to reveling in the art and architecture of both cities. This summer I head off to France. I enjoy photography and adore classes in the Romance languages: French, Italian, and Spanish, which allow me to participate more fully in European cities I visit. And, of course, I love reading, cooking, and gardening, as well as going to the theater and movies. I also like the great long-form dramatic series on television like the costume drama Downton Abbey, or the gritty The Wire and Breaking Bad. Being able to develop characters over 12 episodes for a number of years has distinct advantages when the writing and acting are that good.

Read any good books recently?

I’m a fan of Barbara Kingsolver’s novels. I love how she can stir the pot with a gripping plot while making me think about ethical issues. She’s a real humanist, as in Flight Behavior, which explores family dilemmas as well as climate change. As an example of a superb historical novel, I love Robert Graves’s I, Claudius. One author I’d like to see rediscovered is Harriet Arnow, whose novel The Dollmaker seems particularly relevant now that Detroit has fallen on hard times. Or for a shattering immersion in rural entrapment, her Hunter’s Horn still tugs at your heart.

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My thanks to Ms. Strickland for her time and thoughtful responses. To learn more about her and her books, check out her website. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.


I'm thrilled to be able to offer TWO readers an e-book copy of The Eagle and the Swan. To enter, please fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 4/11.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Eagle and the Swan by Carol Strickland

Title: The Eagle and the Swan
Author: Carol Strickland

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 6th Century / Byzantium / Court Intrigue / Historical Figures Fictionalized / Empress Theodora / Sex Worker)
Publisher/Publication Date: Erudition Digital (11/7/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Loved.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: The story of how two unlikely figures ascended into power and eventually become Emperor and Empress in 6th century Turkey.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I adore it.  It harkens to the title as well as Theodora's infamous performance.

I'm reminded of...: Donna Russo Morin, Mingmei Yip

First line: It's a stronger pull than the tide, but beauty's only part of it.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy.

Why did I get this book?: I'm a huge Theodora fangirl.

Review: I must admit I'm always reluctant to pick up a historical novel about a historical figure if I've already read an amazing book about her or him. In this case, having devoured and adored Stephanie Thornton's novel on the Empress Theodora, I was nervous that this book would pale in comparison.

I need not have worried, for this novel provides a delicious, racy, personality-filled sibling to Thornton's book, and offers another take on this infamous prostitute-turned-empress.

Penned by a monk, Fabianus, who is a childhood friend of Theodora's, the novel is split between covering her life, from circus child to prostitute to consort of the Emperor; and detailing how Justinian, the son of a pig herder from a rural province, became Emperor.

The narrative style is wonderfully playfully: our scribe, Fabianus, shares his apprehensions in doing justice to Theodora's story (and the ways she still affects him); Theodora is brassy and bold and bombastic, always in motion, theatrical.  The cadre of men involved with the Emperor are selfish and weak-willed or clever and grasping.  There's drama in spades, ranging from court intrigue to the various tribulations Theodora faces on her way to becoming Justinian's beloved.

The story shifts from the present -- Theodora telling her story to Fabianus -- to the past, as Fabianus fills in the empty spaces to help the reader along.  Sometimes this can be jarring and disruptive, but in this case, I found the shifts smooth and unobtrusive, and they helped build up tension.

The historical landscape is effectively evoked -- Strickland's experience in writing about art and architecture can be seen in the descriptions of things -- and I loved every grimy, grandiose minute in 6th century Constantinople.

Strickland's Theodora is a different animal than Thornton's, but I loved her as much as I did her other incarnation. Strickland is unabashed in noting Theodora's sex work, and while there's nothing clinical or detailed about how sex is portrayed in this novel, it is very much present. I loved the unapologetic way Theodora talks about herself and her life, and more than once I snorted at one of her snarky digs and comments.

This edition includes some book club questions but is missing my favorite part of any historical novel, an Author's Note or Historical Note, identifying what is fiction and what is fact.

There's an enhanced e-book in the works, according to a publisher's note in this; Part One is available as a free download from the publisher.

On a different note: I didn't know this when I accepted this book for review, but Strickland is also the author of a beloved favorite of mine, The Annotated Mona Lisa.  It was gifted to me when I was 12 or 13, and shaped my passion for art.  I can't rave enough about this book, and if you are curious about art or have a budding art fan in your life, consider gifting it.

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I'm thrilled to be able to offer TWO readers an e-book copy of The Eagle and the Swan. To enter, please fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 4/11.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Napoleon in America by Shannon Selin

Title: Napoleon in America
Author: Shannon Selin

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Speculative / 19th Century / Napoleon Bonaparte / Historical Figure Fictionalized / New Orleans / Mexico)
Publisher/Publication Date: Dry Wall Publishing (1/2014)
Source: The author.

Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: An imagined year when Napoleon escapes his exile and rouses an army in the US, bound for Mexico.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction, What's in a Name?

Do I like the cover?: I adore it. It's reminiscent of the Francois-Joseph Sandmann painting of Napoleon in exile.

I'm reminded of...: James Mace

First line: As sun broke over the black wart in the Atlantic, a banging on the door disturbed the island's governor at his toilet.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy.

Why did I get this book?: I love novels about Napoleon.

Review: This inventive, engrossing novel imagines Napoleon's escape from his exile on the island of St. Helena in 1821 which lands him in America.  Reunited with former army officers and surrounded by sympathetic Americans, Napoleon repeatedly protests of his desire to be a simple citizen -- but the lure of a new kingdom, Mexico, becomes too much to resist. 

I was immediately taken with this novel. Selin's writing style (you can read an excerpt at the author's website) sucked me in from the first page.

The narrative is peppered with diary entries, letters, newspaper articles, and other missives to round out the story as we experience it. (I just died of happy reading the diary entry by John Quincy Adams, then Secretary of State, wrestling with the news of Napoleon's request for asylum.) The feel of the book is slightly 19th century, which I enjoyed; the writing is wordy and philosophical.

While the cast of characters is huge, there's enough context in the story to understand who is who if one doesn't want to flip back to the list of characters included at the end.

More than once, I had to remind myself this was wholly fictional, not a fictionalized account of events that really happened. The strength of this book comes from Selin's ability to keep this story from being ludicrous, despite the outlandish plot. Her Napoleon is slightly delusional and very ambitious, surrounded by supporters and allies who bolster and encourage him.  Every decision made felt realistic and possible, and I read hungrily to see just how things would end. (I found myself kind of rooting for Napoleon to be successful!)

Included are two pages of sources and seven pages of who's who. There's no historical note as the events of the novel are entirely fictional; historically, Napoleon dies in May of 1821, without having escaped from St. Helena, while Selin starts the novel just a few months earlier, in February.

A fantastic read for fans of French history and those who like 'what if' kind of stories; any fan of Napoleon will want to read this, too, and imagine a world where this might have happened.  Those new to speculative fiction should give this a try -- it's dangerously addictive!

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Mapmaker's Daughter by Laurel Corona

Title: The Mapmaker's Daughter
Author: Laurel Corona

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 15th Century / Spain / Judaism / Coming-of-Age / Court Life / Family / Historical Figures Fictionalized)
Publisher/Publication Date: Sourcebooks Landmark (3/4/2014)
Source: NetGalley

Rating: Okay.
Did I finish?: Yes.
One-sentence summary: A young 15th century conversa recounts her life in Spain and Portugal and her search for her spiritual and emotional home.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction, NetGalley & Edelweiss

Do I like the cover?: I adore it -- so bright, eye-catching, and evocative.

First line: I hold my hands up for my mother's inspection.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow.

Why did I get this book?: Corona's novels always get rave reviews and I love the setting and era.

Review: This rich novel, set in 15th century Spain and Portugal, follows the life of Amalia Cresques, a conversa who eventually returns to her Jewish faith at great personal expense.

Born to a famous mapmaker, Abraham Cresques, who eventually went deaf, Amalia's gift for languages allows her to accompany him to court where she assists him with his work. But after his passing, she finds herself a wife in an unhappy marriage and in constant search for the home and community that will allow her to worship openly as a Jew.

I hesitate to describe this as an 'inspirational' novel but it is a rather faith/spirituality heavy book, which I struggled with at times. Despite the title, the story has very little to do with mapmaking; it's really about Amalia's life and her passion for her Jewish faith. There's non-stop action, from the erratic behavior of the various monarchs to the rough hatred for the Jews by Christians and the Inquisition, punctuated by moments of domestic drama or bliss.

I have some complicated feelings toward this book. One critique is that it felt a little too long and exposition-heavy; I found myself skimming pages at times, especially at the end when Amalia's family grows so huge it's hard to tell everyone apart. She lives in an incredibly violent, tumultuous era, so there's non-stop action, and that was occasionally tiresome.

Personally, I was frustrated with Amalia for her choices; her devotion to her faith really cost her in terms of happiness and love, and I found her story ultimately quite depressing, although I don't think that was the author's intention. Still, I enjoyed her voice and found her to be well-written and evocative.

This edition includes a 26-question discussion guide and some book club activities; I was surprised to learn that Amalia's father and her acquaintances were all historical figures, and that the heartbreaking incident at the very end was real.  (Apologies for being vague, but I don't want to spoil anyone!)

For those who like great heroines, sagas of family, and coming-of-age stories, this is your novel. It's a wonderful arm chair escape, too, as Corona evokes 15th century Iberia in vivid detail.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


Sorry for the delay in announcing these winners!

The winner of Girl on the Golden Coin is ... Folliesgirl14!

The winner of Under the Wide and Starry Sky is ... Melanie!

Congrats to the winners! Check out my open giveaways -- as usual, there are more coming!

Friday, March 14, 2014

A Snug Life Somewhere by Jan Shapin

Title: A Snug Life Somewhere
Author: Jan Shapin

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1910s / Pacific Northwest / Union Organizing / Mexico / Chicago / J. Edgar Hoover)
Publisher/Publication Date: Cambridge Books (4/2014)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a good deal.
Did I finish?: I did!
One-sentence summary: A woman in the early 20th century shares her life and experiences with the labor movement, Belshevik revolutionaries, and meeting J. Edgar Hoover.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Mostly -- I'm not wild about the font but I do love the portrait of the woman -- it makes me think a bit of our heroine, forcing herself to pose.

First line: My brother died on November 5, 1916.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy.

Why did I get this book?: I love novels about the labor movement, and erroneously thought this was set in Everett, MA -- I always like local hist fic.

Review: Opening in 1916, this rich novel follows the life of Penny Joe Copper, a young woman from Everett, WA.  Born into a union family of shingle weavers, Penny Joe's life is dominated by the labor movement when first her father, and then her brother, become heroes of the cause. She's swept into the movement herself by accident and the machinations of Gabe Rabinowitz, a ruthless organizer, and finds herself going from being a photo op to revolutionary, almost without being aware of it. But as she grows up and learns to separate the wants of others from her own desires, she finds some measure of happiness and independence.

Everything about this novel was delightfully unexpected.

Shapin's narrative style has character, but doesn't distract from the story. Told in first person, we're plunged into the drama from the first page, but as with distraught narrator, the tale doesn't unfold completely neat and chronological. Penny Joe flashes back to her childhood, then jumps to the present, then shifts to the immediate past. This might sound confusing but in the flow of the story, feels quite natural -- not jumbled precisely, but wonderfully ramble-y -- and the whole of the book has the feel of a colloquial memoir.

Penny Joe's grief is complicated and heavy; it doesn't dissipate easily nor resolve itself within a chapter. She's an appealing heroine who is flawed in the kind of way that makes one want to keep reading; she's silly and brave, passive and active, and wholly realized.  The 'great love' plot thread is surprising and wonderfully unlikely, nothing I've read before, and kept what is often a tiresome trope interesting and fresh.  The secondary characters are deliciously complicated, hard to love and hard to hate in equal part.

I couldn't stop thinking about this book while reading and didn't want to put it down. For those who like novels of American history, especially early 20th century history that isn't focused on the World Wars, this is for you.  Fans of coming-of-age stories might find Penny Joe's long journey intriguing and gripping.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Interview with Nicole Dweck

Earlier this week I reviewed The Debt of Tamar, an exciting debut by Nicole Dweck that spans 400 years, and takes place in Spain, Turkey, and New York City. I'm thrilled to share my interview with her, so read on to learn more about her and her book -- and be sure to enter the giveaway!

What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

Strange as it may seem, The Debt of Tamar was my first piece of fiction.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

If it’s warm out, I’ll grab a cup of coffee, head over to Central Park and work from there. There are so many people walking by from every walk of life. It’s easy to draw inspiration from almost any and all passersby.

If it’s cold out, I’ll head to Joe’s Cafe, where I’ll inevitably bump into other writers pounding away on their laptops while downing their second or third macchiato.

Was The Debt of Tamar the original title of your book?

No it wasn’t. The original title of the book was The Bosphorus Dreams, referring to the Bosphorus river in Istanbul.

A stranger commented that the title sounded as though it were going to explode. As soon as he said it, I had to agree.

What inspired the story in The Debt of Tamar?

No matter how many times I get asked that question, answering never gets any easier. I cannot say that one event inspired the entire storyline. The story grew as I wrote it. It began with a keen interest in the Spanish Inquisition. I had been wondering about my ancestors, refugees themselves who had fled the Iberian Peninsula finding safe haven in the Ottoman Empire. As I continued to research and write, the characters themselves inspired me. They seemed to take on a life of their own. At a certain point, it was as though they were making their own decisions and I was simply there to transcribe the course of events.

As you were writing The Debt of Tamar, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

*** spoiler alert

I think I was surprised at just how right everything felt when Hannah says goodbye. Love is not always easy and it’s not always pretty. Sometimes, truly loving someone means loving them enough to let them go. It was hard writing that scene, but there was never really any other choice for either Hannah or Selim.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I love cooking, experimenting with new recipes, and arranging dinner parties with friends. I’ve perfected several Middle Eastern dishes since penning this novel. When I have free time, I try to head out to the mountains and ski as much as possible. It’s a sport that my husband and I both love. It’s an amazing feeling to be out there in nature, cruising down the mountain at 30 MPH, side by side with the wind at your cheeks. Reading this over, it all sounds very romantic, (which it is) but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that 99% of my free time is spent stacking blocks and playing hide and seek with the littler of the two loves of my life.

Read any good books recently?

A bunch. The ones I really loved this year were Every Day by David Levithan, Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. The very best book I’ve read in the past several years is an unpublished manuscript by the name of Luminous Dark.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Dweck for her time and thoughtful responses. You can learn more about her book at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


I'm thrilled to offer a paperback copy of The Debt of Tamar to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 3/28.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Debt of Tamar by Nicole Dweck

Title: The Debt of Tamar
Author: Nicole Dweck

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 16th Century / Judaism / Turkey / Ottoman Empire / Contemporary / Family Saga / Romance)
Publisher/Publication Date: Devon House Press (2/4/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Okay.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: Two families are connected by loss and love over the centuries.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction, Immigrant Stories, NetGalley & Edelweiss, What's in a Name?

Do I like the cover?: Love it -- it's so striking!

I'm reminded of...: M.L. Malcolm

First line: He may well have been the happiest orphan in the world.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow.

Why did I get this book?: Heard rave reviews from blogger I trust, especially Amy of Passages to the Past, and I was intrigued!

Review: Opening in the 16th century, this novel follows two families separated by culture, but connected by love. The titular Tamar is a young Jewish woman educated in Istanbul after her family escaped Spain during the Inquistion. Tamar has fallen in love with the Sultan's son, Murat, but her father doesn't approve of their match and sends Tamar away. The rending heartbreak Murat suffers is the debt her descendents must repay.

Dweck's novel dips in and out of the centuries to follow each family: Tamar's through Europe during the 20th century and Murat's in contemporary Turkey.  Sweeping across the centuries, this is a novel of family and love, the deep connections between people that can span decades.

This book was high on TBR based on a lot of swoony love from bloggers I like and trust, but sadly, I was underwhelmed. For whatever reason, it just didn't quite hit me right, emotionally: I found the character development to be thin, the moments of collision and interaction between folks rushed. 

Still, there's much I liked in this book.  I was delighted to read a novel featuring a Turkish protagonist and I enjoyed the armchair travel to both historical and contemporary Istanbul, a city I just love.

I found Dweck's writing to have an imaginative, poetic quality at moments, like this passage, on the yellow star stitched onto the clothes of Jewish residents in 1940s Paris: "In every conversation, the star was like a third character, an unwanted interloper hovering dismally over every encounter, lurking suspiciously over seemingly innocent tête-à-têtes." (p298)

For those who enjoy big family-ish sagas, plot lines that encompass centuries, and exotic locales, this book is for you!

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I'm thrilled to offer a paperback copy of The Debt of Tamar to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 3/28.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Interview with Kim Cooper

Earlier in the month I read Kim Cooper's delicious The Kept Girl, a novel of Raymond Chandler, a murderous cult, and a sultry 1929 Los Angeles. I'm thrilled to share my interview with Cooper so read on to learn more about her book and what she does when she's not writing (which is very cool!).

What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

The Kept Girl is actually the first piece of fiction I've written. I've been a professional writer for most of my life, but always nonfiction: music criticism, oral history, true crime. The story of the Great Eleven cult was so compelling, especially when paired with the opportunity to set the young Raymond Chandler on their trail, that I was compelled to make the leap to writing a novel.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

Writing fiction feels very different from nonfiction. I've always done my best writing late at night, but The Kept Girl insisted I attend to her early in the day. I think other parts of the brain get used, and that the proximity to the dream world helped when it came to conjuring up the lost Los Angeles that is the setting of the book.

I also came up with much of the dialogue in the sauna at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, which is Chandler's old club. The slightly hallucinogenic experience of getting really hot in the dark proved the perfect environment for letting the novel's characters come alive.

Was The Kept Girl the original title of your book?

It was. Naming things is one of my favorite mental exercises, but it usually is pretty hard work. This title came very quickly, almost as if it was already there, just waiting to be said out loud. As soon as I did, I knew it was the one. A lot of things just fell into place with this project. It felt quite extraordinary.

Kim Cooper
As you were writing The Kept Girl, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Near the end of the book, when detective Tom James finally meets the cult priestess Ruth Rizzio, his questioning brings out aspects of her philosophy that I didn't see coming. The things that Ruth and her mother did to the followers of their cult are not black and white. What looks demented from the outside can be an act of profound faith to true believers on the inside. I find that chilling.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

You'll find me most Saturdays on the Esotouric bus, giving guided tours of Los Angeles true crime and literary history. I love turning people on to hidden treasures, exploring old buildings, digging for gems in book and thrift stores and chasing down threads of lost urban lore.

Read any good books recently?

I've been enjoying LA.S.D. arson investigator Ed Nordskog's new book about the most memorable firebugs he's busted, Fire Raisers, Freaks and Fiends: Obsessive Arsonists in the California Foothills. The 1920s doesn't have a monopoly on murderous kooks!

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My thanks to Ms. Cooper for her time and answers. Kim Cooper is the creator of 1947project, the crime-a-day time travel blog that spawned Esotouric's popular crime bus tours, including Pasadena Confidential and the Real Black Dahlia. With husband Richard Schave, Kim curates the Salons of LAVA - The Los Angeles Visionaries Association. When the third generation Angeleno isn't combing old newspapers for forgotten scandals, she is a passionate advocate for historic preservation of signage, vernacular architecture and writer's homes. Kim was for many years the editrix of Scram, a journal of unpopular culture. Her books include "Fall in Love For Life," "Bubblegum Music is the Naked Truth," "Lost in the Grooves "and an oral history of the cult band Neutral Milk Hotel. The Kept Girl is her first novel.  You can learn more at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, March 2, 2014


It's a bit of a horror movie in my house this weekend -- my wife and I both got the norovirus, and for one horrifying overlapping day, it was, well, gross!  I'm feeling a little better but my wife is totally flat out, so ... I'm ready for spring.  Anyway, here are this week's giveaway winners!

The winner of The Girl with a Clock for a Heart is ... Vera P.!

The winner of While Beauty Slept is ... Carolyn O.!

Congrats to the winners! Folks have until Wednesday to respond to my email. If you didn't win, be sure to check out my open giveaways -- more coming next week!