For Love of Lists!–Joining #13WLRP, 13 Ways of Looking at The Lifetime Reading Plan

26 Sep

13-ways-challenge-button-final

I’m happy to share news of 13 Ways of Looking at The Lifetime Reading Plan, an ingenious new perpetual reading challenge combining the fabulous and intriguing lists proposed by Jane Smiley in her book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel (List #1) and Clifton Fadiman and John S. Major in The New Lifetime Reading Plan (List #2).  This is the brainchild of Michelle–a perpetual reader herself–who can be found at her sites, True Book Addict, Castle Macabre, Seasons of Reading, to name a few, and now at Gather Together and Read, which is hosting the 13 Ways challenge along with other challenges and readalongs (be sure to check out all the offerings there and sign up!). Michelle promises to have annual challenges to help us focus on some manageable chunks of juicy lifetime reading. I love this–the opportunity to peruse two outstanding, but rather different book lists, and then make some lists of my own.

This challenge will combine very well with existing perpetual reading challenges such as Travel the World in Books and Read the Nobels (hosted by @guiltlessreader).

For example, I would like to read Egilssaga and The Saga of the People of Laxardal, two Icelandic sagas on Jane Smiley’s list, for my own Travel the World in Books goal of readings Scandinavian literature (see my Northern Lights Reading Project). I would also like to reread Kristin Lavransdatter, which is not only on Smiley’s list, but fulfills both #TTWIB and #ReadNobels because its author, Sigrid Undset, won a Nobel in Literature in 1928. Of course, Smiley’s list isn’t just about Scandinavian lit (that’s just my quirk); she lists diverse books in many literary traditions, older works and some by very recent authors (e.g., Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan, Annie Proulx, Jennifer Egan). Fadiman’s list (List #2) has a diverse selection of classics from around the world, including the Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, The Plum in the Golden Vase, The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and more.

You can see what’s on the lists, sign up for the perpetual challenge, and then watch for the 13 Ways annual reading challenge in January 2017. The best thing is reading along with a community of people who are (not only) in love with book lists, but more important, mad about the books themselves.

Review+Interview+Giveaway: “Time and Regret” by M. K. Tod #FranceBT

3 Sep

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My Review

When a plot involves finding an old document, such as an old diary or a set of letters, I feel both an emotional tug and that insistent spark of curiosity–I am soon deeply committed as a reader.  Time and Regret offers such a plot and wastes no time in getting it underway, introducing the intriguing set of diaries in the first chapter.  Mary K. Tod’s heroine, Grace Hansen, is newly divorced; while sifting through her belongings to make a clean start, she finds a “battered tackle box” left in her attic by her grandfather during one of his visits–with no explanation from him at the time. Prying it open, she finds some letters, a photograph, a map, a French magazine, and a set of notebooks tied with a ribbon. These notebooks prove to be her late grandfather’s World War I diaries, and the photograph shows young Martin Devlin and his friends Pete, Bill, and Michel as they were in May 1915. They are so young, as were most of those serving in the “Great War,” and the diaries will tell their story, but above all it relates the particular experiences of Martin.

It is a marvelous way to connect generations in a family, both in real life and in fiction. And this is especially true when the earlier generation lived during a war, a time the younger generation finds hard to imagine but desires to understand better. A diary can give it form and substance.  It also connects people when death separates them, putting them beyond questioning.  And Grace will have many questions as she reads the diaries.  Tod adds the element of mystery to this gift from the past because her grandfather left her an important message, but chose to hide in it in a puzzle only she is likely to solve; solving puzzles was one of their shared pastimes and passions. The brief note he leaves her, saying, “To my dearest Grace, read carefully.  I never should have taken them,” is cryptic indeed.  What could he have taken, she wonders. As she traces his journey through the war years, she finds the stakes of solving this puzzle may be even higher than she anticipated.

Grace’s prickly grandmother is stubbornly reticent about the war years and offers little or no help, so Grace decides to take matters into her own hands with a bold stroke. She will go to France and Belgium to visit the places, one by one, that figure in her grandfather’s account of his war experiences.  After the thorough upheaval of divorce, this change is just what she needs, and it begins to rebuild her confidence.

As she travels from one town or site of a battle to the next, she reads and rereads her grandfather’s words carefully, as he had urged her to do, and a picture of him begins to form in her mind and heart. She also confronts the devastation of the war itself.

Ruins of Ypres, 1919

Ruins of Ypres, Belgium, 1919. Photo by W. L. King. Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZC2-6192

The Belgian town of Ypres, which was the locus of several significant battles, costing hundreds of thousands of lives, was one of her stops. It was also a base from which to visit surrounding villages, such as Passchendaele, where some of the fighting occurred.

Wherever I stopped, I checked Martin’s diaries.  I thought of him as Martin now, not Grandpa, like a character in an unfolding story rather than a man I had known for more than thirty years.  Having read the notebooks three times from beginning to end, I was familiar with the entries, yet I felt the need to honor his service at every opportunity. (p. 25)

The war memorials erected at these sites help Grace in this pledge to herself to honor the service of her grandfather and so many others, and through their sheer size, these monuments, along with their adjacent cemeteries, convey the enormous scope and cataclysmic effects of the war. The Battle of Thiepval Ridge, the first battle of the Somme in September 1916, was marked by an imposing structure 140 feet high with foundations 19 feet thick (a detail Grace learns from her guidebook). Beside it she felt like “a tiny insect.” The Thiepval Memorial was dedicated to the 72,246 British soldiers missing during fighting in the Somme, not only in that initial battle, but in the years 1915 to 1918. It was designed by the renowned British architect Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens. The ingenious fractal structure of its arches, splitting with each new layer into more and more arches (set at right angles), echoes the row upon row of grave markers.

360px-Thiepval_Memorial_to_the_missing

Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. Photo credit: Chris Hartford via Flickr.

In writing Grace’s story, Tod does more than intersperse WWI diary entries in the present-day narrative. Martin’s entries are revelatory in many ways but also terse and constrained by the pain he is feeling. One can imagine that diaries of the time would be a place to unburden troubled minds, yet it might take many years to relinquish certain secrets, even to oneself. Tod’s novel tacitly acknowledges this by providing chapters of third-person narrative fleshing out Martin’s story following each of his diary entries. These paired accounts during wartime are then interspersed with Grace’s life events unfolding in 1991.

This proves to be very effective and necessary. One memorable example for me paired Martin’s diary entry reporting his channel crossing and landing at Le Havre.  From there he will travel to the front. Tod’s narrative tells us what Martin’s first view of the front looked like and hints at how much it shocked him.

Beyond the next rise, the war burst into view, a zigzagging patchwork of Allied trenches facing German lines. The scene looked nothing like Martin had imagined. Instead of deep, carefully constructed trenches designed to protect their men, uneven ditches were connected together in haphazard fashion, with mounds of earth and sandbags marking the lip of every section, and soldiers standing guard at uneven intervals. A sudden breeze carried the smell of mud, sewage, rotting flesh, gunfire, and death.

As far as he could see, the land had been blown to bits, leaving nothing but brown and gray and black, devoid of vegetation except a pocket of shattered tree trunks to the far right. Great rolls of barbed wire and deep craters partially filled with water defined the space between the lines. No-man’s-land. (p. 33)

Martin was certainly not the only character affected by the war, or the only one appearing in his diaries. I appreciated the way we see Grace’s grandmother, Cynthia, as a young woman during the war–when she first met Martin–and then later when Grace is seeking to uncover the family’s past. The intervening years brought many changes to her grandmother’s life but her stubbornness and her determination to secure happiness despite the war proved to be her most enduring traits.

At one point during the war, the weight of grief and responsibility from losing men close to him began to take its toll on Martin, interfering with his performance of duty. His captain ordered a few weeks of medical leave at a facility in England. As a psychologist, I found the therapy sessions between Dr. Berger and Martin especially interesting. These scenes separate Martin from the group setting of trench life with his comrades and mark a turning point for portraying his individual character, his frame of mind, and the underpinning of his choices.

Besides the regrets that many characters harbor, trust becomes a major theme for Grace. The novel begins with broken trust because Grace’s husband Jim suddenly demanded a divorce. Then she discovers that her grandfather has entrusted her with his diaries, and the secret they conceal.  When secrets are involved–family secrets, business secrets–who can Grace really trust?  Can she even trust her grandmother? Someone is following Grace in France–a man wearing a distinctive fedora–and he seems determined to interfere with her apparently innocent plans to discover her family’s story. Could her grandmother be trying to thwart her efforts to uncloak the past?  Finally, she desperately wants to trust in her new feelings for Pierre Auffret, an attractive art curator she meets during her travels, and with whom she joins forces to investigate the path her grandfather took. The romantic frisson between them is spontaneous and exhilarating. Her heart tells her that it is mending, but still, she is not sure whether her trust can keep pace with her hopes for the future.

In her three novels so far, Unravelled, Lies Told in Silence, and now Time and Regret, and on her blog, A Writer of History, M. K. Tod has shown her commitment to deeply researched, intelligently crafted, and beautifully written historical fiction. I have read and reviewed the latter two novels (I want to read Unravelled next!) and I found both of them to be satisfying as fiction, unsettling as history, and tremendously moving in their treatment of people caught in the rough grasp of war, trying to keep on living and loving.

Interview with M.K. Tod

I am delighted to welcome M.K. Tod, who has kindly agreed to share some thoughts on her novel and her approach to writing historical fiction.

Q1. Your previous novel Lies Told in Silence recreated the battle of Vimy Ridge primarily from the point of view of those living nearby, in northern France near the Belgian border, whereas Time and Regret takes us right into the heart of that battle, and others. Through Martin Devlin’s diaries, we can feel the pain of the combatants and the variety of emotions they experience. Can you describe how your own experience writing about World War I differed for these two novels?

Vimy Ridge has been a central battle in all three of my novels—Unravelled, Lies Told in Silence, and Time and Regret. My grandfather fought at Vimy and when I first researched World War One, I spent a lot of time trying to understand what had happened. The battle itself was enormous both in preparation and execution and in that regard it fascinated me. In Lies Told in Silence, Helene Noisette and her brother Jean are observers and so I concentrated on the feelings of horror and awe that an ordinary citizen might feel. However, in Time and Regret and Unravelled, I wanted the reader to feel in the thick of battle, making decisions and reacting to the chaos as a soldier would. Of course, one experience is female and the other male and I had to imagine those different perspectives as well.

Q2. To tell Martin’s story, you use not only his diary entries, but also longer narrative recreations of the events. Was this choice based on the nature of the diaries and accounts you read? What is it like to try to transform a primary source account of a battle or a soldier’s part in it into the storytelling world of a novelist?

The central concept of Time and Regret is Grace’s discovery of her grandfather’s diaries and a puzzle he has left for her to solve. I came up with the idea after reading many soldiers’ diaries during earlier research efforts. While many of the diaries downplay the horror of battle, a few write more honestly about their feelings and experiences and this is what I tried to emulate in Time and Regret. Including the diaries also allowed me to have Martin’s voice in first person so the reader comes closer to what he really thought and felt about the war.

As to the second part of your question, there are many, many accounts of the facts, figures and military details. The challenge for a novelist is to turn those into a compelling story, making sure that such historical details don’t detract from it. It’s a very selective process and I often worry that I haven’t done justice to the true horror and slaughter of WWI. At times I used Martin’s diary entries to position an upcoming battle and then only told a snippet of the battle itself, leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination. Actual battle details are as accurate as I could make them.

Q3. Grace Hansen is your main character in 1991. Her name feels significant to me. When I read about someone named Grace, I expect her to be either the recipient of unusual grace in the course of things or the bestower of grace on others. Or a little of both. Did you pick her name with any such considerations in mind? How do you go about naming your characters?

This answer might be a bit disappointing, however, I picked Grace just because I like the name! As I wrote the story, the thought occurred to me that perhaps Grace should embody the attributes of the word and I hope she does, at least by the end. In general, I don’t go about naming characters with any particular objective in mind. For the most part, a name will pop into my head. I’m sure that doesn’t sound very ‘writerly’. I did choose names for Grace’s grandparents that I thought would suit the era and hence Cynthia and Martin. Pierre’s name immediately suggests someone who is French (my objective) without being too difficult for an English-speaking reader to pronounce. I’ve even found names on grave stones.

Q4. The element of mystery blended very well with the historical side of your fiction. Did you enjoy incorporating a puzzle into the story, and do you plan to write more historical mysteries?

What a lovely compliment! The mystery was my husband’s idea—he loves mysteries—and in fact, he helped me sketch out the initial story concept. Writing a mystery is quite difficult and I enjoyed the process very much. My next novel isn’t a mystery, but you never know, Grace might appear again!

Q5. In your blog, A Writer of History, you generously open a window on your own process and reflect on the craft of historical fiction in general. Now that you have written three novels and have a fourth in the works, what has been the hardest lesson to learn or the most valuable one to pass along?

I’m so pleased you like my blog, Lucy. What a tough question! Beyond learning the craft of writing, I think learning how to incorporate historical detail without weighing down the story is the most difficult challenge. Readers expect to feel immersed in the times of the story, whether that time is ancient Rome or World War One, but they don’t want the facts to obscure the story or slow it down. History needs to serve the story, not the other way around. In terms of the most valuable lesson, I’m reminded of something Hilary Mantel called the dramatic arc of history. Mantel suggests that authors need to find the events that dramatize the time and serve the story. The real answer to your question is that I’m still learning and exploring what makes historical fiction tick!

Q6. Can you tell us a little about your next project, set in Paris during the 1870s?

I don’t have a title for this story yet, so I refer to it by the names of the two main characters, Camille and Mariele, who were introduced in Lies Told in Silence. In that novel, Mariele is Helene Noisette’s grandmother while Camille is her deceased great-aunt. Having written three novels with WWI settings, I wanted to explore a different era, so I chose 1870s Paris: Paris because it’s one of my favorite cities and 1870s because Camille and Mariele would be around twenty at that time. Happily, all sorts of tumult occurred in France at that time including a war with Prussia, the siege of Paris and the Paris Commune. Can you imagine me rubbing my hands with glee when I discovered all that?

Q7. Could you tell us about one of the places you visited in researching Time and Regret, someplace that made a particularly strong impression?

So many places to consider! Vimy Ridge, which I refer to in your first question, remnants of zigzag trenches still visible in the Somme, memorials marking major battles with enormous casualties in northern France, Le Havre where Canadian and British soldiers disembarked on their way to the front lines, Bailleul where many went for training. But let me tell you about a tour my husband and I had in the area around Ypres and Passchendaele. Our guide took us to various places but the event that made a significant impression on me was when he stopped to grab what I thought was a handful of dirt and came up with a handful of shrapnel. Looking at those bits of metal so readily at hand hit me hard as I imagined thousands and thousands of similar pieces flying about during battle. A visceral feeling. It’s a wonder anyone survived.

Many thanks for having me on your blog, Lucy. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about Time and Regret and the writing of historical fiction.

And many thanks to you, Mary! Not only do you craft a compelling story (and a mystery with some subtle clues!), but you reflect on the writing craft with such infectious vitality, such joie de vivre! Your novels convey this too: although your characters are facing some of the most sobering realities that can affect a person’s life, they seem to find their way toward renewal and hidden graces. So, yes, I would say Grace Hansen is aptly named indeed.

***

M. K. Tod

on Tour

September 1-10

with

Time And Regret

Time and Regret

(historical mystery)

Release date: August 16, 2016
on Amazon

ISBN: 978-1503938403
366 pages

Author’s page | Goodreads

SYNOPSIS

When Grace Hansen finds a box belonging to her beloved grandfather, she has no idea it holds the key to his past—and to long-buried family secrets. In the box are his World War I diaries and a cryptic note addressed to her. Determined to solve her grandfather’s puzzle, Grace follows his diary entries across towns and battle sites in northern France, where she becomes increasingly drawn to a charming French man—and suddenly aware that someone is following her…

Through her grandfather’s vivid writing and Grace’s own travels, a picture emerges of a man very unlike the one who raised her: one who watched countless friends and loved ones die horrifically in battle; one who lived a life of regret. But her grandfather wasn’t the only one harboring secrets, and the more Grace learns about her family, the less she thinks she can trust them.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Time And Regret MK TodTime and Regret is M.K. Tod’s third novel.
She began writing in 2005 while living as an expat in Hong Kong. What started as an interest in her grandparents’ lives turned into a full-time occupation writing historical fiction. Her novel Unravelled was awarded Indie Editor’s Choice by the Historical Novel Society. In addition to writing historical novels, she blogs about reading and writing historical fiction at http://www.awriterofhistory.com,
reviews books for the Historical Novel Society
and the Washington Independent Review of Books, and has conducted three highly respected reader surveys.  She lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and is the mother of two adult children.

Please visit her website and her blog A Writer of History.
Subscribe to her mailing list
or contact her at mktod [at] bell [dot] net

Follow her on Facebook and Twitter
on Goodreads and Pinterest

Buy the book (print, ebook, audiobook): Amazon

***

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or on any other book blogs participating in this tour.
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.

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Visit each blogger on the tour:
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[just follow the directions on the entry-form]

Global giveaway open internationally:
5 winners will receive a print copy of this book.

***

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*Note*: I received an advance review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I did not receive any other compensation, and the views expressed in my review are my own opinions.


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Review: “Plots” by Robert L. Belknap

30 Jul

Plots by Robert L Belknap cover

Plots

Robert L. Belknap. Introduction by Robin Feuer Miller

Columbia University Press, May 2016.

200 pages

Available in Hardcover and E-book.

Amazon | Goodreads

I thank Columbia University Press and Netgalley for providing an electronic review copy of this book.

My Review

You may never look at a story the same way again after reading Robert Belknap’s incisively clear and illuminating book, titled simply, Plots. In her very helpful Introduction, Robin Feuer Miller calls Belknap’s achievement “a magnum opus that is particular, profound, original, and short.” I absolutely agree. The first part of the book presents the fundamental dynamic that authors use to create plots: the active arrangement (and re-arrangement) of incidents in the story world to make a narrative for the reader. Belknap’s explanation of the varieties of ways incidents can be linked is indeed particular and profound.  The second part of the book analyzes two test cases, Shakespeare’s King Lear and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. As a Slavic languages expert and scholar of Dostoevsky, Belknap is especially at home writing about the distinctive tools Dostoevsky uses in his novels, but he has insights to offer on numerous authors and genres, which I will mention.

Let’s begin, as Belknap does, with his definition of plot and one very fundamental distinction, which will pry open the toolbox used by storytellers in many different genres. Belknap states his definition of “plot” in several related ways:

“Plots arrange literary experience.” (title of Chapter 1)

“Plots are ways of relating incidents to one another.”

“Plots are purposeful arrangements of experience.”

All of these are true, and each adds a little nuance. I like the third one because of that word “purposeful.” Belknap is particularly astute at uncovering an author’s probable purpose in choosing to arrange incidents one way rather than another.

Now for that key distinction: fabula versus siuzhet. These are Russian words drawn from Russian formalism, an approach to story structure put forward by Vladimir Propp in his 1928 book Morphology of the Folktale and also by Viktor Shklovsky. But we don’t need to go back to these sources to figure out this pair of concepts; just read Belknap’s title for Chapter 3:

The Fabula Arranges the Events in the World the Characters Inhabit; the Siuzhet Arranges the Events in the World the Reader Encounters in the Text

In other words, the fabula is the “true” arrangement of incidents in the story world as they “happened” to the characters. The siuzhet arranges these incidents to present to  readers in the readers’ world. In short fairy tales, these two arrangements usually track each other quite closely. But longer stories often employ big discrepancies between them. Flashbacks or other devices for telling events out of chronological order are familiar ways in which the siuzhet can diverge from the fabula to create the readers’ experience.  The murder mystery Memento (written and directed by Christopher Nolan) is an extreme example since the film systematically separates the narrative order from the “real” order in the world of the main character (played by Guy Pearce). Dr Steve Aprahamian made a graph relating the two different timelines.

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By Dr Steve Aprahamian (Picture of a chart created in Microsoft Excel) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Belknap points out that both the fabula and the siuzhet are arrangements of incidents fabricated in the creation of a work of fiction and, furthermore, they are closely interdependent. How do we as readers discover the fabula, the true order of events? Only by the narration, in whatever order the author chooses to reveal its incidents. Conversely, there can be no narration unless we presume an underlying chronology of events in the fictional world. The narration is only “out of order” with respect to it.

Manipulating incidents in narration then becomes the whole work of storytelling, something that modern narrative technique sometimes takes to new heights of bizarreness in the effort to find original ways of splitting and dissecting that bond between fabula and siuzhet. The fabula is inherently mimetic, a representation of our four-dimensional world (three dimensions of space, one dimension of time), whereas the siuzhet is rhetorical, one-dimensional or linear in the sense that, in the telling, incidents are fed to the reader one at a time (unless she flips back and forth!)–“shaped to make the reader share and participate in the action of the text.”  Belknap notes that detective stories achieve suspense when the fabula outpaces the siuzhet, leaving the reader in ignorance about “who-done-it” until the end when the siuzhet catches up, so to speak, in a revelatory scene. Dramatic irony occurs, he says, “when the siuzhet outpaces the fabula and characters living within the fabula act in ignorance of some fact in their world that the audience already knows.” These are the times that you want to shout at the characters to tell them what is really going on!  Shakespeare used dramatic irony very effectively in his plays. We wish we could tell Romeo that Juliet is not really dead, as she appears, and thereby stop his hasty suicide.  We wish we could disabuse Othello of Iago’s cruel deception and save Desdemona.

Belknap argues that, although much narrative theory has gravitated toward its uses in characterization, narrative manipulation of plot (siuzhet) can be just as fundamental for achieving the goals of a novel, including characterization. He will return to this theme in his analysis of Crime and Punishment and the character of Raskolnikov.

Before he gets there, he offers many more examples of how all this works in practice. He asserts that there are only a small set of ways that one incident can be related to another: chronologically, spatially, causally, associatively, or narratively. These apply somewhat differently in the siuzhet and in the fabula. Belknap carefully explains the many possible variations and their ramifications. I will give just a few highlights.

He notes that Homer’s device of beginning in medias res, in the middle of things, is simply a matter of starting the siuzhet in the middle of the fabula. And then somewhere during the siuzhet, someone will narrate the incidents that came before. In the Odyssey, the epic opens ten years after the Trojan War and Odysseus has already suffered much in his long homecoming voyage; his wife Penelope is besieged by suitors at home and their son Telemachus has grown up. When Odysseus escapes from Calypso, he is shipwrecked and seeks shelter with the Phaiakians, being led to their king by the beautiful princess Nausicaa. Accepting their hospitality, Odysseus eventually reveals who he is and recounts his adventures up to that point. This retrospective narrative, manipulating the chronology of telling, actually serves to reduce the dramatic tension as he describes his encounter with the dangerous Cyclops, Polyphemos, for example. We know he will escape from the one-eyed giant because he is there telling the story!  Why would Homer want to reduce the tension? I think it is because this incident functions as a warrior’s tale, to illustrate a key aspect of Odysseus’ character–his cleverness. The real dramatic climax is ahead, when at last Odysseus returns home and he must face the large band of suitors who have taken over his house.  With his own skill and the help of his son Telemachus, he defeats them, but as readers we won’t know the outcome of this bloody fight until it is shown to us, when the fabula and the siuzhet chronologies have merged again.

Belknap notes that many incidents in Sherlock Holmes stories are organized spatially, contrasting inside (221B Baker Street) with outside (where crimes take place) or subdividing the outside locations into London crimes versus those in the countryside (such as the moors of the Baskervilles). Lewis Carroll’s Alice visits a place that is both chronologically and spatially disconnected from England; Belknap says that she enters “a separate looking-glass time system, and the rabbit hole leaves her not under land but in Wonderland.” The Arabian Nights present a complex set of relations. There is a causal connection in the fabula between Scheherazade’s telling of her stories and her nights spent with the Caliph; her stories, however, are often related narratively to each other, as one story leads to another, often in several layers of embedding.

Allegories like The Pilgrim’s Progress are good examples of associative relations, where two plots are put in some correspondence with each other. But associative relations or parallelism doesn’t have to involve allegory. Tolstoy often relates plots within his novels by means of parallels or anti-parallels, as in Anna Karenina, where Anna’s dysfunctional marriage to Karenin and her affair with Vronsky are both contrasted with Kitty and Levin’s happy marriage. Shakespeare liked to structure his comedies such as A Midsummer Nights Dream or Much Ado About Nothing with parallel couples whose differences create many of the desired effects and moments of recognition. King Lear is Belknap’s chief example of Shakespeare’s effective use of parallels to advance his themes. The virtuous and deceitful daughters of Lear are set off against the good and bad sons of Gloucester. Their paths intersect at various points in the drama, but the careful contrast of incident shows us much of what we need to know about each one’s character.  In this way, Shakespeare breaks away from Aristotle’s “unity of action” and strict determinacy of causation, freeing up his plot to interrupt, embed, and comment on itself.

I will describe one final example of Belknap’s powerful argument that a reader’s experience of a story depends on the author’s inspired control of plot devices. The book is Crime and Punishment and the author, Dostoevsky, is one that Belknap devoted his life to understanding, having written two books on The Brothers Karamazov. Yet with all his knowledge of this author and the society he moved in, he argues for laser focus on the guiding principles of the literary work before him. I love this impassioned statement, which he makes before he dives into his reading of the novel.

A great book is a fearsome thing, and always tempts a reader to talk about something else. I need to know all I can about an author’s health, psyche, readings, interaction with society, and so forth, but my profession demands that I see order in the text, knowing that I may fail, just as doctors seek to prolong lives knowing their patients are mortal….

A literary text can look messy but have an order that is not structural but algorithmic.

One of the algorithms or reproducible rules he finds at work in Dostoevsky is the brilliant incorporation of other genres to suit his novelistic purposes. He is not alone in this, as the European novel developed over time as a response to other fiction and nonfiction genres: epic, picaresque, memoir, biography, collections of letters. The remarkable thing is the skill with which Dostoevsky uses the plotting technique of picaresque–one thing after another in a string of adventures–to draw the reader into Raskolnikov’s world and his mind.

The grinding paradox of “Crime and Punishment”–that we care about the well-being of a calculating, self-absorbed hatchet-murderer–rests in part on the picaresque way the narrative obsessively focuses our attention on him as he rushes from crisis to crisis.

With this insight, Belknap painstakingly shows the steps that Dostoevsky takes to engage the reader in the action of the story. This is the sort of thing that any competent storyteller does, right? But a brilliant storyteller like Dostoevsky takes the reader where he might least like to go.

As Raskolnikov stands in the room with the two bleeding corpses, holding his breath as he listens at the door, inches from his potential discoverers, who may leave or summon the police, we readers hold our breath, exert our will upon him not to give up and confess, and then suddenly realize that we are accessories after the fact,…

This complicity in the crime alternates with the reader’s horror and revulsion at it…. Dostoevsky’s siuzhet manipulates his readers into the fabula of the novel by almost never letting them outside the mind of Raskolnikov. We have mentioned that this intensity of narrative concentration on a single figure implicates the readers in his predicament much as readers willed the escape of picaresque scamps in earlier novels.

Belknap says this first part of the book is like a self-contained novella called “Crime” with a very long sequel called “Punishment.” But our involvement in this long sequel–the protracted journey of guilt and confession–very much depends on the narrative strength of the opening novella. He observes that Dostoevsky’s narration technique becomes embedded, almost disappears, as part of the plot, whereas other strands of the European novel, notably the English novel, made narration function more like a character, with varying degrees of contact with the reader (Austen’s narrator was often indirect in commenting, Thackeray’s could speak directly to the reader, and Dickens used both techniques).

To conclude, I want to mention one aspect of plot that is very relevant to reviewers and book bloggers, to anyone who writes about fiction: the need to write plot summaries. Belknap says that some theorists identify summaries with the plot itself–the synopsis is the plot, and only the full story is therefore the story. However, he notes that writing plot summaries is an art demanding many complex decisions, much like translation; in fact, he deems it another form of translation, and he calls for more research into plot summaries themselves.  His book will surely be a classic for critics and writers to mull over, argue about, and study for clues to the mysteries of plotting a story. I have had so much to say about it, because it packs so many insights into a small, beautifully written text, which I highly recommend! It should be of great interest to anyone who loves literature and is looking for those “a-ha” moments when the art of writing comes into clearer focus.

If you are a book blogger, do you like writing plot summaries?  Do you leave that aspect to the synopsis?

What aspects of plot do you think are crucial to put into a summary?  What do you choose to leave out, and how do you decide?

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For those interested in more history of the distinction in literary theory between fabula and siuzhet, the Wikipedia article (“Fabula and syuzhet”) is very helpful and a good place to start. Vladimir Propp’s book, Morphology of the Folktale is a fascinating document, cataloguing a large array of story structures by giving a grammar of stories, the types of characters that tend to recur, and the “functions” used to create the action of the story. In 1979, I published (with two colleagues) a psychology experiment testing out readers’ subjective arrangement of incidents in simple fairy tales with the structures predicted by some story grammars (Pollard-Gott, L.; McCloskey, M.; and Todres, A. K. Subjective Story Structure, Discourse Processes, 2(4): 251-281, 1979). I found that readers grouped events generally in line with popular story grammars but there were some interesting differences.

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Plots by Robert L Belknap cover

Book Description (From the Publisher)

Robert L. Belknap’s theory of plot illustrates the active and passive roles literature plays in creating its own dynamic reading experience. Literary narrative enchants us through its development of plot, but plot tells its own story about the making of narrative, revealing through its structures, preoccupations, and strategies of representation critical details about how and when a work came into being.

Through a rich reading of Shakespeare’s King Lear and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Belknap explores the spatial, chronological, and causal aspects of plot, its brilliant manipulation of reader frustration and involvement, and its critical cohesion of characters. He considers Shakespeare’s transformation of dramatic plot through parallelism, conflict, resolution, and recognition. He then follows with Dostoevsky’s development of the rhetorical and moral devices of nineteenth-century Russian fiction, along with its epistolary and detective genres, to embed the reader in the murder Raskolnikov commits. Dostoevsky’s reinvention of the psychological plot was profound, and Belknap effectively challenges the idea that the author abused causality to achieve his ideological conclusion. In a final chapter, Belknap argues that plots teach us novelistic rather than poetic justice. Operating according to their own logic, plots provide us with a compelling way to see and order our world.

About the Author

Robert L. Belknap (1929–2014) was professor of Slavic languages and a former dean of Columbia University. He authored two major studies of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov: The Structure of “The Brothers Karamazov” (1989) and Genesis of “The Brothers Karamazov”: The Aesthetics, Ideology, and Psychology of Making a Text (1990).


*Note*: I thank Columbia University Press and NetGalley for providing an advance electronic copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.  I did not receive any other compensation, and the views expressed in my review are my own opinions.

 

My High Summer Read-a-thon Reading Menu #HSReadathon

19 Jul

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Summer truly feels like the time to choose some “reading for pleasure”–those books that we’ve been setting aside for prime reading time. Well, the time is now, thanks to Michelle’s High Summer Read-a-thon this week, hosted at her delightful Seasons of Reading blog, with lively participation on its corresponding Facebook group.  Here are the books on my summer menu for this week.

Defying my prior belief that I didn’t care for Ursula LeGuin, I have become enthralled with her Earthsea books. They are such seminal works for the fantasy genre, quietly but confidently telling the story of winning through trials by virtue and character, as much as by magic. We are reading the first three in our TuesBookTalk Read-Alongs. So far, I have read A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan. I’m now reading The Farthest Shore and I plan to read the fourth book Tehanu as well.

 

For Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge (#TTWIB) in July, I am getting immersed in two different family sagas, The Makioka Sisters and My Brilliant Friend. I hope I can finish them both this summer, but I’d better focus on one of them for this Read-a-thon! Have you ever seen the film The Competition, starring Amy Irving and Richard Dreyfuss? Both are entered in a world-class piano competition, and despite the romantic complications, it was the music and its role in their lives that stayed with me. In the climactic scene, Amy Irving’s character, Heidi, is rattled by a broken piano string and switches her piano concerto at the last moment: from Chopin to a more daring and modern selection, Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major. For me, The Makioka Sisters is like the Chopin, an exquisitely controlled virtuoso novel; My Brilliant Friend is a daring and yet equally virtuoso performance by Elena Ferrante.  In this “high summer” week, I am probably craving more the bare-knuckle glissandos of Prokofiev, and therefore the free-wheeling brilliance of Ferrante.

 

I have one more item on my menu, a new book that arrived in the mail just today. It is M. K. Tod‘s new historical novel Time and Regret.

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Her WWI novel Lies Told in Silence was so excellent that I am really delighted to be reading Time and Regret for an upcoming France Book Tour.  Although I am planning a review, this book definitely qualifies as “reading for pleasure” since I can count on Tod for historical fiction that is splendidly researched and deeply felt.

That’s my reading menu and, as usual, my plate is full. I wish everyone a week of great summer reading!

Family Sagas in July: The Makioka Sisters, The Lowland, or My Brilliant Friend #TTWIB

27 Jun

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During the month of July, we invite you to pick one of three family sagas, which will take you to Japan, India, or Italy, for an absorbing, multi-generational story. In our poll taken at the Travel the World in Books Goodreads group, these three novels were about equally popular:

The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (translated by Edward G. Seidensticker) tells the story of four aristocratic sisters in pre-World War II Osaka, Japan. Two are married, one is still single because her family has rejected several proposals, and one is carrying on a relationship in secret. The book has a good key to its characters at the beginning. I am already excited to follow these sisters and their families in this watershed period for Japanese culture; it’s not only a divide between traditional and modern ways of doing things, but also a time on the brink of the devastating Second World War. This book is described as perhaps the greatest Japanese novel of the 20th century, and it’s the masterpiece of one of Japan’s most important modern writers–a literary journey well worth making.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri is a story about two brothers who grow up in Calcutta, India. They are very close but differ widely in temperament and goals. Udayan will plunge into a dangerous political movement, while Subhash chooses academia and a life of scientific research in America. But Subhash will return to India when his family is rocked by crisis and a terrible loss. Lahiri can be depended upon to create a moving and psychologically penetrating account of this family, and the larger forces of society (both Indian and American) at work in their lives.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein), and her subsequent ‘Neapolitan novels’ in this series, are already such a sensation that I hardly need describe them. Two girls growing up in Naples in the 1950s and 1960s forge an unforgettable friendship (which will truly suffer some ups and downs as the series develops).  I have read some of Book 2, The Story of a New Name, but I need to go back and see how it all began!

Any of these three novels would be excellent company this summer, and I hope you will join us as we read along and share our impressions of these family sagas set in three different countries. I will have two twitter chats, on Wednesday, July 13, 9:00 pm EDT and on Sunday, July 31, 3:00 pm EDT — both using hashtag #TTWIB. You can tweet about what you are reading any time! I will also post Discussion questions at our Goodreads group.  It should be interesting to talk about some of the characteristics of family sagas in general and compare notes on the particular novels we are reading.

Do you like family sagas (about one family, or two contrasting families) as a genre? If so, what have been some of your favorites? Which of the three books above would you most like to read?

Review: “Chasing Chaos” by Katie Rose Guest Pryal

6 Jun

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My Review

I thank Katie Rose Guest Pryal and Velvet Morning Press for the opportunity to review Chasing Chaos.  I also thank Katie for kindly giving me e-copies of the earlier books in this series–Entanglement (2015) and its prequel, Love and Entropy (2015)–so that I could read Chasing Chaos with the full impact of her characters’ histories.

And what a fascinating history it is!  This series tells the story of an epic friendship, how it began, how it was tested, and how it affected the other relationships in the lives of two distinctive young women, Daphne Saito and Greta Donovan.

Entanglement coverIn Entanglement, we learn that their friendship is fed by shared losses, resulting from their acutely painful family backgrounds. We get a remarkably complete portrait of Daphne and Greta, and why they need each other so much, constructing their own sisterhood family to fill the empty places where family love, trust, and stability should have resided in their hearts. Daphne suffered sexual abuse instigated by her father, followed by emotional rejection and denial from her mother and sisters. Greta learned to be tough to cope with her mother’s long battle with leukemia and her father’s infidelity and emotional abandonment.

But those revelations will come later, after these two girls find each other, at poolside on the North Carolina campus where they both attend college.  As Pryal presents it, the start of their friendship is a kind of falling in love, not sexual, but full of attraction, interest, and curiosity about the other.

Daphne is a petite, fashionably dressed girl of Japanese heritage, aware of her exquisite beauty. Greta is tall and athletic, physically graceful but awkwardly self-conscious about her size. Daphne notices the adept “swimming girl” and begins to count the laps she is making across the length of the pool. Her boyfriend Sutton gives us his impression of the girl who has captured Daphne’s attention so completely, “ugly, with a big nose and frizzy hair and a blockish body,” but under Daphne’s discerning gaze, she, and we as readers, see her striking presence and unusual beauty:

But Sutton would be wrong. The girl was not ugly. She was immensely tall, but she was long and lean, with basically zero body fat and well-shaped legs. Her eyes were a remarkable shade of green, and her hair, if conditioned properly, would form delightful curls.

The swimmer finishes her laps and makes her way toward the exit of the pool area, but Daphne corners her at the gate, determined to know this intriguing girl she has seen from a distance on campus. Daphne introduces herself, and Greta, without much choice in the matter, reciprocates, and stops to appraise this enthusiastic new acquaintance.  We see her through Greta’s eyes.

Daphne was wearing a tiny black bikini and enormous sunglasses that covered half her face. Her straight black hair was artfully cut to hang in shaggy pieces to her shoulders. She smiled broadly, her full lips stretching to reveal large, perfect teeth. She was stunning. Daphne’s beauty made Greta  want to flee even more.

But she did not flee. Daphne’s magnetism drew her back to sit by the pool and begin a real conversation. Greta, a physics major who typically spoke unadorned truths, must have wondered what could be brewing in the mind of this fashionable girl who was so anxious to chat. She was surprised by Daphne’s smart responses to simple questions, her original trains of thought:

‘I like swimming in the ocean too,’ Daphne said. ‘You’d think it might get old after living there your whole life, but it doesn’t. Every time, it’s a little bit scary because it’s so big . For me, I think it’s scary because the water connects to everything. Every part of the world is touching the ocean.’ She laughed. ‘You could say that the scope of it is overwhelming. But at the same time, that overwhelmingness is exactly what comforts me.’

Like Daphne, Pryal brings some surprising concepts right into the heart of her story, to reveal crucial aspects of her characters’ emotional experience. First, there is entropy, the physical law that disorder tends to increase in the universe; in life, it suggests those times when everything seems to reel out of control and go seriously awry! Love and Entropy coverHer prequel novella Love and Entropy flashes back to a particularly disturbing incident that happened that first summer when Greta and Daphne knew each other and became inseparable. Second, there is chaos, described by the famous example of the butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil, setting up a minute breeze that gathers force and eventually triggers a hurricane thousands of miles away. In these novels, chaos intrudes when small decisions and actions lead to major consequences down the road, big effects that seemingly could have been avoided. In Chasing Chaos, Daphne will be especially haunted by her own actions and her belief that she is responsible for a chain reaction of disaster and tragedy.

The story’s Prologue finds her in a hospital, on the surgical floor, waiting for news.

It could take hours before she knew whether she’d caused the death of someone close to her.

Whether tonight she’d set in motion the dangerous actions that had put two people in the hospital and one person in an operating room fighting for life.

She couldn’t stand herself. Self-blame nearly suffocated her.

The rest of the novel flashes back to all that led up to this critical moment.

Greta and Daphne are still living in Los Angeles, where they moved after college, both of them wanting to put lots of geography between them and their families. They had each other, and with their talents and a bit of luck, both found opportunities in L. A. that suited them. Daphne worked in a production company, but was still an aspiring screenwriter, working hard on her scripts every evening. Greta put her knowledge of physics and electronics to use as a lighting designer. No one was more surprised than Greta that this job led to romance  with her boss, Timmy.  When Greta fell in love, very cautiously at first, the delicate balance of the friends’ mutual support was upset, and Daphne suffered the worst of it.  Daphne felt seriously displaced, triggering her deepest wounds, and Greta felt torn between two people who each wanted to rank first in her life. Tempers flared, and one rash action led to another, until a crisis came, endangering Greta’s life. That’s where Entanglement left their story.

In Chasing Chaos, it is five years later, and life is advancing on all fronts. Daphne is now a successful screenwriter, and living more comfortably, it seems, setting her own schedule and choosing  her freelance work. She has a boyfriend Dan, with whom she often collaborates, but she is restless and serially unfaithful during their relationship. She decides to break it off with him rather abruptly, and she doubts that she is meant to find real love, or that she even deserves to. Meanwhile, Greta and Timmy have been running their thriving lighting production business and growing closer and stronger in their love. Greta recovered from her brush with death at the home of a friend she met through Daphne, a semi-retired film star of some magnitude, named Sandy. Sandy’s home is a gathering place for his circle of carefully chosen and dependable friends–Greta, Timmy, and Daphne chief among them. So it is natural that, when Timmy proposes marriage (for the umpteenth time?) and Greta startles him by accepting, their wedding should take place at Sandy’s house and Daphne should be in charge of planning it. But she only has five days to do it. Sandy’s handyman, Marlon, who is much more like an adopted son to him, helps Daphne pull off a miracle of last-minute wedding creation.  Daphne and Marlon find themselves drawn to each other on all levels–irresistibly fascinated and also caring deeply for each other–and Daphne dares to hope that love and happiness might be available to her too, in spite of everything. But then chaos starts happening all over again… It will take all the resources of friendship to convince her that she is not at the vortex of every storm. But will it be too late?

I read all three installments in the Entanglement Series in rapid succession, and when I was away from them, I found myself actually worrying about its two heroines, Daphne and Greta. What would happen to them? Would they be okay? Katie Rose Guest Pryal has worked that subtle magic by which we begin to care very much for the fictional lives unfolding word by word.

If you read Pryal’s very impressive bio, you can see that she has tremendous experience teaching writing, but here in her first full-length series of novels, she really delivers with beautiful pacing and structure, and smart, memorable dialogue. I can highly recommend all these books, in which the lives of these characters are seasoned by more than enough dramatic action. Chasing Chaos is Daphne’s story; she faces the longest road back from a chaotic childhood, and must work hardest to find herself. To understand Greta more fully, I also warmly recommend Entanglement, where Daphne and Greta find each other.

Synopsis

CHASING CHAOS takes place 5 years after the end of ENTANGLEMENT.

Daphne Saito, a beautiful and talented Hollywood screenwriter, might look like she has the perfect life, but on the inside she’s lost. She’s wandered from one meaningless relationship to the next—and now, just as she breaks up with her longtime boyfriend, Dan—she finds herself facing someone new, someone she could fall in love with. But Daphne, still traumatized by an accident involving her best friend, Greta, five years earlier, is afraid to love. Harm has always come to those close to her.

Over five life-changing days, Daphne lets her guard down and steps toward this new love. But trouble is never far behind. Dan, angry at Daphne’s departure, has targeted an innocent young woman, someone close to Daphne’s new love, as part of a plan for revenge. And an enigmatic woman from Daphne’s past returns with revenge plans of her own. Danger is on the horizon for all of Daphne’s friends—and for her.

About the Author

(Adapted from her page at Tall Poppy Writers)

Katie Rose Guest Pryal author photoKatie Rose Guest Pryal enjoys her three professions—novelist, freelance journalist, and lawyer—for one reason: her love of the written word. Fiction or nonfiction, Katie thrives on putting thoughts to paper and sharing them with the world. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where the energy of the campus and cafes inspires her writing. She is the author of the Entanglement Series: ENTANGLEMENT  (2015), LOVE AND ENTROPY (2015), and CHASING CHAOS (2016), all published by Velvet Morning Press. She is also a contributor to the anthology CHRISTMAS, ACTUALLY (VMP 2015).

You can grab a free copy of Katie’s novelette, NICE WHEELS, and her writing guide, WRITING ISN’T SEXY, by subscribing to her newsletter.

Katie contributes regularly to QUARTZ, THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION, THE TOAST, DAME MAGAZINE and other national venues, including THE HUFFINGTON POST, where she writes a monthly column on writing. She earned her master’s degree in creative writing from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, where she attended on a fellowship.

Katie has published many books on writing, the most recent with Oxford University Press. A professor of writing for more than a decade, she now works as a writing coach and developmental editor and teaches creative writing at Duke University when she’s not writing her next book.


*Note*: I received an advance electronic copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.  I did not receive any other compensation, and the views expressed in my review are my own opinions.

Review: “I Promise You This” by Patricia Sands #FranceBT

18 May

I Promise You This Banner

My Review

I have now read all three books in Patricia Sands’ Love in Provence series, so I will comment on the third book, I Promise You This, as the culmination of this series.

The first book, The Promise of Provence, introduces Katherine Price, who is expecting to celebrate her 22nd anniversary, but instead finds that her husband James has left her for another woman he met in their cycling club. This devastating news begins a process of grief and recovery for Katherine who wonders how she missed this crevasse opening up in her life just below the surface of apparent happiness. In this book, and those that follow, Katherine will begin to examine her life and herself and ask what the ingredients of a deeper, more dependable happiness might be.

One of the first things she rediscovers is friendship, reconnecting with her childhood friend Molly who still lives nearby in their city of Toronto, Canada. Another is family; Katherine’s mother is in declining health and needs her daughter’s help, just as Katherine needs her mother’s support as a bulwark against despair and fear. After her mother dies, Katherine must hold on to the lessons of strength her mother communicated.  Molly then encourages her to strike out in a new direction and take a chance on a two-week home exchange in the south of France, in the village of Sainte-Mathilde. Katherine had been to France in her youth, and even fallen in love there, so this opportunity seemed to pick up another piece of her life that she had laid aside during her marriage.

Provence opens up her epicurean side with sightseeing, photography, food and wine; new friendships form, including the unexpected possibility of dating again. After some false starts, Katherine begins to build a new relationship with Philippe, a fromager, whose home base and cheese market is in Antibes on the Côte d’Azur.  As Book 1 closes, Katherine decides to arrange a longer stay in Antibes.

 

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Antibes sea coast. Photo: Gilbert Bochenek. Wikimedia.

 

Books 2 and 3 build on the foundation laid out skillfully so far. In Book 2, Promises to Keep, Katherine and Philippe’s romance begins to encounter some real-life challenges, as secrets from Philippe’s past begin to intrude on the fantasy of the present moment. I found it interesting that Katherine was surprised by her feelings at many turns. She had reached her late fifties without much self-awareness, perhaps suppressed by her life with her dominant ex-husband.  Although Philippe was very different from James, she had to face her choice of another man who was capable of withholding important truths about himself. The revelation of his secret and how they cope with it together makes Promises to Keep a very meaty installment in this trilogy.

In the final book, I Promise You This, Katherine and Philippe’s relationship is tested by separation. Katherine’s friend Molly has been seriously injured in an auto accident and Katherine is the closest thing she has to family. Katherine flies back to Toronto, taking up a place at Molly’s bedside and taking on the responsibility for her health decisions, since Molly was placed in a medically induced coma.

Back in Toronto, Katherine experiences a more powerful sense of returning home than she had anticipated.  She is surprised by her deep attachment to the city and to her way of life there. As attractive as life in France had become for her, she feels a tug-of-war beginning in her heart. Can she really leave her old life behind so completely, and recreate herself in a new country, with a new career, and committed to a new man?  While she grapples once more with the pieces of her identity, she must help her friend Molly awaken to life again. And what about Philippe?  Will he wait passively for Katherine to make her decision, or will he take action to keep the woman he loves from slipping away?

Although the series is called Love in Provence, I think the recurring word promises in each book’s title offers the key to appreciating this carefully crafted series. At first, a broken promise–James’s infidelity and sudden departure–propels Katherine in a completely new direction, across the ocean in fact! Energized by the beauty and abundance of Provence, she experiences the promise (in the sense of latent possibility) of embracing a new, independent life. In the second book, Katherine pledges to stay with Philippe even when the secrets from his past threaten their peace and even their safety.  Finally, I Promise You This thrives on the themes of friendship, loyalty, and finding one’s true home. Katherine promises Philippe to return to France but will she be able to fulfill this promise?  Will she ever be able to make a vow to someone again?  First, she must honor the promise implicit in her friendship with Molly, coming to her aid in crisis and seeing it through.  And she has one last meeting with her ex-husband; sadly, she was not ready to forgive him, but I can only wonder if that might change in the future (the author intimates that she might continue these characters’ lives in a future series).

Katherine begins to understand another kind of promise she has made, since she was thrust into life on her own: To live fully and be true to herself. She will need to work out the implications of this promise to herself, before she can move forward. This book raises the question, are we ever truly “on our own” in this life? Do we want to be? Or do we want to choose the promises we make to care for others, the promises to keep for a lifetime. I Promise You This takes a look at such questions from several angles.  Its characters are very human in their strengths and weaknesses, in their virtues and temptations, and consequently felt real to me.

Like the other books in this series, readers hungry for glimpses of daily life in Provence will find much to savor in I Promise You This: meals described in loving detail, the produce of farm and field, the natural beauty of the region, and the excitement of towns and cities. This book can be read on its own, as the author unobtrusively weaves the necessary information from the earlier books into her story. But reading the earlier books does repay the effort to follow the whole arc of this involving series.

 

Patricia Sands

on Tour

May 17-26

with

I Promise You This

I Promise You This

(women’s fiction)

Release date: May 17, 2016
at Lake Union Publishing

ISBN: 978-1503935723
365 pages

Author’s page | Goodreads

SYNOPSIS

Suddenly single after twenty-two years of marriage, the calm of Katherine Price’s midlife has turned upside down. Seeking to find her true self, she took a chance on starting over. A year later, she is certain of this: she’s in love with Philippe and adores his idyllic French homeland, where he wants her to live with him.

But all that feels like a fantasy far removed from Toronto, where she’s helping her friend Molly, hospitalized after a life-threatening accident. Staying in her childhood home full of memories, Katherine wonders: Is she really ready to leave everything behind for an unknown life abroad? And if all her happiness lies with Philippe, will it last? Can she trust in love again?

Searching her heart, Katherine finds the pull of the familiar is stronger than she thought. An unexpected meeting with her ex, the first time since his cruel departure, and a stunning declaration of love from an old flame spur her introspection.

With sunlit backdrops and plot twists as breathtaking as the beaches of Côte d’Azur, author Patricia Sands brings her trilogy about second chances to a provocative and satisfying close that proves that a new life just might be possible—if you’re willing to let your heart lead you home.

BOOK TRAILER

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

I Promise You This Patricia Sands

A confessed travel-addict, best-selling author
Patricia Sands lives in Toronto, Canada, when she isn’t somewhere else, and calls the south of France her second home. I Promise You This, is Book 3 in her award-winning Love in Provence series.
Find Patricia on Facebookon Twitteron Instagramat her Amazon Author Pageor at her website.

Subscribe to her mailing list and get information about new releases.

Buy the book : Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.ca | Amazon.fr | available at Barnes & Noble on May 17

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Global giveaway open internationally:
10 participants will each win a copy of this book, print or digital

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*Note*: I received an advance electronic copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.  I did not receive any other compensation, and the views expressed in my review are my own opinions.

Review: “A Perfumer’s Secret” by Adria J. Cimino

16 May

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I thank Adria J. Cimino and Velvet Morning Press for the opportunity to review this new novel by Adria, who is already familiar to readers as the author of Amazon best-seller  Paris, Rue des Martyrs and Close to Destiny.

My Review

A Perfumer’s Secret is richly evocative of a very special art, the art of composing fragrances, practiced well by only a very few, remarkable people. I’ve never read a story so thoroughly drenched in fragrances–one in which olfactory imagery was not merely added to color and deepen the reality of the fictional world but in which particular scents were themselves central to the plot and keys to character. Scents function as the engine of the plot, and characters are so sensitive to smells of all kinds in their environment that they truly earn the perfumers’ nickname for one of their best: a “nose,” un nez.

Being a nose is a gift, a natural endowment as valuable to their craft as winning the lottery would be to a person deep in debt. And that gift in turn puts them in debt to the world, as they seem to be driven from within to create the most meaningful, memorable scents, which others are then privileged to experience. But to most of us, these nuanced scents and their creators remain a mystery.

The book opens with a haunting prologue:

Zoe Flore’s first creation was the scent of tears. A hot, salty fragrance that she concocted the day her mother died. A perfume built on oak moss, a touch of geranium and the real tears that tumbled into the mix. It was her fifteenth birthday, and from that moment on, she wore the scent as a suit of armor.

Zoe Flore, now 30, is one of these gifted people, a “nose,” who could transform her grief into a living epitaph for her mother, whose memory still infused her consciousness and her creative life. As Zoe works on new fragrance ideas for an important contract, it is her mother’s very particular gift for perfume concoction that occupies her dreams:

she dreamed of her mother composing a fragrance, like the conductor of an orchestra. Barbara Rose sat before the rows of vials, each containing a different basic material. With careful, flowing movements, she went through the routine: selecting vials from the perfume organ, sniffing scent dips that she inserted into one tube and waved delicately over another, then noting each element on a piece of parchment paper. Zoe squinted, but she couldn’t read the words Barbara Rose had printed on the paper.

She awoke in sad frustration.  When Zoe thought of her deepest yearnings, it was not, in fact, romantic love she wanted most but “the thrill, the excitement that came with creating an unusual fragrance of unprecedented complexity.”

Unexpectedly, the death of her great aunt Marie-Odile in France broke open the lingering sadness in her life and sent her on a quest to discover her mother’s secrets and her own identity.  For one thing, she never knew that her mother, Barbara Rose Flore, was really Barbara Rose Flore-Fontaine, daughter to one of the great families of French perfume makers in the commune of Grasse. Her mother had fled this family, moved to America, and hidden this connection. Zoe was summoned to the reading of her great-aunt’s will where she would inherit a letter, something of incomparable value to her. The scent of the envelope itself told her its origin: it still carried the elusive, but unmistakable scent of Barbara Rose’s perfume, a fragrance she always wore and which Zoe would never forget. The enclosed letter detailed this perfume’s secret formula.

Such a secret was valuable to a host of people beside Zoe, and it only took a short time before the letter was stolen from Zoe’s belongings. Yet, it was still possible she could reconstruct it from memory with a little trial and error.

She decided to stay in France, despite the deadline pressure from her New York City office; they wanted her to take the first plane home and turn in some sort of perfume proposal right away in hopes of pulling off a miracle and securing the coveted contract. But Zoe knew her best chance of recreating her mother’s perfume was right there in Grasse, near her family’s home. Furthermore, she felt inspired to try creating something entirely new and uniquely her own.  She rented a picturesque cottage called the Rose of May, frequented by visiting perfumers from around the world. This was her first view of it:

Her eyes drank in the hillsides with their emerald-colored foliage and houses like droplets of rose, violet and mustard. She could almost see through this to the vast flower fields whose perfume drifted delicately into town whenever the wind took hold. How many times had her mother looked out a similar window right here in Grasse?

Grasse is situated at the southeast corner of France on the French Riviera.  The painter Fragonard was born here, and Édith Piaf spent her last days here in her villa.  With its warm coastal climate, sheltered from salty sea air, it is the perfect farmland for flowers in the many hundreds of species. The profusion of flowers and other plants fostered in Grasse made it the “perfume capital of the world” by the 18th century, a magnet for those who wish to combine the essences of its unique botanical treasures.

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Photograph of the Fragonard’s Museum building.

This lush scene is outside the Fragonard Musée du Parfum, adjacent to the Fragonard Perfumerie, one of the few perfumeries that gives public tours.  It gives an idea of the beauty of Grasse and why Zoe wanted to stay! The lovely cover of Adria’s book, with its lavender fields stretching toward the horizon, also conjures up the romance of the place, the sheer abundance of it.

Zoe was not working in a vacuum.  The family she suddenly acquired already had a heap of their own issues and complications. Some of them were very unhappy about her arrival on the scene, and others proved to be surprising allies. They were vying for that same perfume contract, and they desperately wanted to learn her mother’s secrets too. One competitor in particular, Philippe Chevrefeuille, was a particular problem for Zoe because he captivated her romantically in a way she thought she was immune to.  Likewise, he was unnerved by her “scent of tears,” and waivered between wanting to market it as his own and wanting simply to drink it in and discover the reasons behind her sadness.

Besides coping with the confusing distraction of Philippe in her life, Zoe had to figure out who took her mother’s formula! Perhaps a greater mystery, what were the circumstances of her creating it in the first place? Why did she leave her family behind so completely when she seemed perfectly suited to the career she was born to?

I won’t hint at the answers to these mysteries, since Adria discloses the truth so deftly as she spins her tale. I will say that I felt I knew Zoe very well as I was reading. I could predict her reactions. Just one example: When she picked up her key for the Rose of May cottage, she declined to have the rental agent show her around. Although the author didn’t say so, I surmised that Zoe didn’t want anyone else’s scents to mingle with her first impressions of the place, the accumulated traces of those perfumers who had lived and worked there. I can only imagine what it must be like to live so deeply immersed in one’s olfactory sense. Or rather, I can imagine it much better now, for having read A Perfumer’s Secret. For me, the title now has a double meaning: the family secret (or secrets) of various characters in this particular story, and the private world of the extraordinary creative people who make original perfumes.

Synopsis

The quest for a stolen perfume formula awakens passion, rivalry and family secrets in the fragrant flower fields of the South of France… 
Perfumer Zoe Flore travels to Grasse, perfume capital of the world, to collect a formula: her inheritance from the family she never knew existed. The scent matches the one worn by her mother, who passed away when Zoe was a teenager. Zoe, competing to create a new fragrance for a prestigious designer, believes this scent could win the contract—and lead her to the reason her mother fled Grasse for New York City.
Before Zoe can discover the truth, the formula is stolen. And she’s not the only one looking for it. So is Loulou, her rebellious teenage cousin; Philippe, her alluring competitor for the fragrance contract; and a third person who never wanted the formula to slip into the public in the first place.
The pursuit transforms into a journey of self-discovery as each struggles to understand the complexities of love, the force of pride, and the meaning of family.
Contemporary/ Literary fiction, Women’s fiction

Pages: 258 print length

Release date: May 16, 2016

Publisher: Velvet Morning Press

Buy the book: Amazon

 

About the Author

7751480Adria J. Cimino is the author of Amazon Best-Selling novel Paris, Rue des Martyrs and Close to Destiny, as well as The Creepshow (release April 2016) and A Perfumer’s Secret (release May 2016).
She also co-founded boutique publishing house Velvet Morning Press. Prior to jumping into the publishing world full time, she spent more than a decade as a journalist at news organizations including The AP and Bloomberg News. Adria is a member of Tall Poppy Writers, which unites bright authors with smart readers. Adria writes about her real-life adventures at AdriaJCimino.com and on Twitter @Adria_in_Paris.

Twitter | Facebook | Website | Blog

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*Note*: I received an advance electronic copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.  I did not receive any other compensation, and the views expressed in my review are my own opinions.

#TTWIB Travels in May: Reading Russia

15 May

Reading Russia

This month Becca of I’m Lost in Books is hosting a free-choice reading event of books set in Russia. I have a couple of books in mind for this:

Everyday Saints cover (Russia)

Everyday Saints and Other Stories by Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov is rather like a “Chicken Soup for the Russian Orthodox Soul,” to make a homely comparison. The author describes his awakening of faith and entry into the Pskov Caves Monastery in Pechory, near the Estonian border.

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I learned of this book from a review by Emma of Words and Peace.  It was reportedly a bestseller in Russia, with over a million copies sold worldwide.  The personal warmth and frankness of its author have surely been a big part of its success. He tells us that, although he and his friends were reasonably happy young men with promising careers, something strange and wonderful drew them to monastic life: “for each of us, a new world had suddenly opened up, incomparable in its beauty.” He attempts to share this beauty as it manifests in daily life, through his gift for storytelling. Understanding the beauty of this Orthodox way of life is one essential to understanding the foundations of Russian culture, especially relevant since the fall of the Soviet system.

I hope to read Everyday Saints during the remainder of May, but I wanted to mention another Russian book, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate.

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In scope and importance, this World War II novel has been compared to War and Peace. At nearly 900 pages, this will take me a while, but I’d like to make a start on it in May during our Read Russia event.

In a much lighter vein, I’d like to recommend Rosalind Laker’s charming historical novel, To Dream of Snow, in which a Parisian seamstress travels to the court of the Empress Elisabeth to embroider the elaborate gowns of the monarch and her daughter-in-law Catherine–the future Catherine the Great (for more details, see my review).

To Dream of Snow

Finally, if you haven’t read Anna Karenina yet, there are so many good translations available now. I first read the older one by Constance Garnett; it has its critics these days, but it certainly won me over (and it is free on Kindle). I like the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation in the Dover Thrift Edition, and their version was used for the movie tie-in edition to Joe Wright’s brilliant (but underrated) film.

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Another Russian classic is One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhensitsyn (trans. H. T. Willetts). Here’s a recent paperback edition.

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I hope some of these ideas are helpful; likewise, I hope to get some new ideas of mysteries, historicals, and contemporary fiction set in Russia, from other readers!

#BookBuddyAthon this week! What I’m Reading (#TBR Stack)

7 May

I’m so happy to be joining fellow blogger and friend, Sharon, of Faith Hope & Cherrytea (@_eHope) for a #BookBuddyAthon this week (May 7-13).  We are long-distance buddies in miles (or kilometers–she’s Canadian) but close in kindred spirits and many shared interests.  I can always count on FHC for lovely new recommendations of nourishing fiction, faith & inspiration, as well as soul stirring music–all presented with her specially chosen and delightful images. Visit her page for all the particulars on the #BookBuddyAthon, which is being hosted by @robertson_elena and @ColdTeaCrumbs (their Twitter handles) at a special YouTube channel, since they are both BookTubers too! Elena has posted a Giveaway, open internationally, of a gift certificate for the Book Depository. (You can also find the Giveaway at ColdTeaAndCrumbs’ video). Now on to my #TBRs!

As our Buddy Read, FHC and I are reading Anne’s House of Dreams by Lucy Maud Montgomery. (I have to write out the L. M., being another Lucy myself!) The story of Anne and her true love Gilbert Blythe starting off married life in their first home together still beckons readers after nearly 100 years (published in 1919). It still uplifts the heart, even when their move away from Avonlea presents new challenges for Anne and Gilbert.

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The #BookBuddyAthon also asks us to choose a book whose cover displays our buddy’s favorite color (for FHCthat would be purple or periwinkle), and one whose title includes one of her initials. I settled on a book she suggested (a bonus buddy read!), Rules for a Successful Book Club by Victoria Connelly, that fulfills both of these.  From the title, I expected a nonfiction guide to starting your own book club! My literal thinking…  In any case, it looks like a very engaging story about people who happen to be in a book club together. Isn’t this a stylish cover?

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During the week, I hope to polish off a free-choice read called I Promise You This by Patricia Sands. It is the third and final book of her Love in Provence series, and I will be reviewing it later this month for France Book Tours.  I discovered that FHC has also read this one, so clearly  we have caught the true #BookBuddyAthon spirit!  See the rest of her choices, including Stardust by Carla Stewart, whose cover features my favorite color, yellow!

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To see what others are reading, visit the YouTube channel or follow along with hashtag #BookBuddyAthon on Twitter or Instagram. I’m going to start off my reading with Anne’s House of Dreams!

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