Review+Interview+Giveaway–“A Curious Collection of Dates: Through the Year with Sherlock Holmes” by Leah Guinn and Jaime N. Mahoney

14 Jan

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My Review

Anyone who has come anywhere near the world of the illustrious Sherlock Holmes knows that, especially for his many admirers, it is a world both deep and wide: deep, because of the riches that may be uncovered by paying close attention, digging beneath the surface of the Canon (the 56 stories and 4 novels penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle–with the help of Dr. John Watson); and wide, because of the breadth of Holmes’s active career, which has stretched from his home base in 221B Baker Street to the mountains of Tibet, and has created enormous, unflagging interest, worldwide, from the 1890s to the present. If anything, the fascination with Holmes has grown over the years. The places and situations where his services as consulting detective are needed have multiplied beyond counting in the industry of creative pastiches. To paraphrase Shakespeare (something Holmes himself did on occasion*), “Banish Sherlock Holmes, and banish all the world.”**

I cannot think of two more ardent or astute admirers of Holmes and his world than Leah Guinn and Jaime N. Mahoney, who are known for their impeccable research and attention to craft, not to mention their wit and warmth, at their blogs, The Well-Read Sherlockian (Guinn) and Better Holmes & Gardens (Mahoney). In their remarkable Sherlockian book of days, A Curious Collection of Dates, they have delivered something notable to read about for each day of the year. In fact, their knowledge is itself so deep and so wide that many times they provide two, three, four, or even more events (March 24 has six!) that fall on a particular date. One need go no farther than January 1 to discover: “that fateful meeting” of Holmes and Watson, recorded in “A Study in Scarlet” [STUD]; the founding of the paper that would become the Times of London, so essential to Holmes in his work; and the premiere of “A Scandal in Belgravia,” to open Season 2 of the BBC’s popular series, Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as the inseparable colleagues in detection. This last entry signals that one need not blow the dust off this very engaging collection–while its display of learning among the Victorians is breathtaking, A Curious Collection of Dates brings the noteworthy Holmesian people, facts, and events right up to the present.

I heartily recommend exploring this fascinating book for yourself, but I cannot resist sharing a selection of some of the types of entries you will find when you do.

As befitting a book of days, there are many birthdays. These include actors who have played key characters in the adaptations of the stories, for stage, film, radio, and television. You can be sure to discover the birthdays of Jeremy Brett (November 3); Basil Rathbone (June 13), who shares a birthday with mystery writer and devoted Sherlockian Dorothy Sayers; and Benedict Cumberbatch (July 19), who shares a birthday with Russian actor Vasily Livanov, whose portrayal of Holmes in Russian productions earned him the Order of the British Empire in 2006 and a statue near the British embassy in Moscow (we learn all this from his entry). The legion of actors taking on the character of Holmes makes for numerous enlightening instances during the year. For example, of Peter Cushing (b. May 26, 1933), we learn:

Peter Cushing once famously proclaimed that “…he would rather sweep Paddington station for a living than go through the experience [of being Sherlock Holmes] again.” More than anyone, Cushing had certainly had enough turns at the characters to know whereof he spoke. Starring as the Great Detective on three separate occasions, Cushing appeared in the 1959 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles by Hammer Films,  the BBC’s 1968 Sherlock Holmes series, and in 1984, the made-for-television movie Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death.

Cushing was not always so antagonistic towards the Great Detective, and had been, in fact, a fan of Sherlock Holmes since his childhood: “I love all the stories. It’s the atmosphere I love so much, and they’ve all got that. I love the way they start: it is always foggy and there were those equinoctial gales.”

I love the way the entries are seasoned with personal quotes such as these, revealing so much about the personalities involved. One can also enjoy the host of photographs and period illustrations that enhance the text. It is especially helpful to see the photos of the variety of actors who have remade themselves, for a time, into a living image of Holmes.

Of course, acting is only one occupation held by people relevant to the Holmesian canon. Besides such indispensable figures as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and many other writers, one finds the collector Richard Lancelyn Green; the naturalist Charles Darwin; the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus; the scientist, Sir Francis Galton; the American detective, Charles Pinkerton; the inventor of one style of shorthand, Sir Isaac Pitman; the magician, Harry Houdini; the violin virtuoso and composer, Pablo de Sarasate; the engineer and architect, Isambard Kingdom Brunel; the psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud; and many, many more–all with their connection to the world of Sherlock Holmes explained and documented in compelling fashion.

Many of the people profiled would be classed by some as “fictional” (I use this term cautiously). For example, we find birthdays for Mary Russell (January 2, 1900; wife of Holmes in his retirement, as reported by Laurie R. King, her literary agent), Mycroft Holmes (February 12, 1847; elder brother), and of course, Sherlock Holmes himself, whose actual birthday is believed to be January 6, 1854.

Anniversaries, such as the first publication of particular stories and the premieres of adaptations, are another kind of birthday. The book includes helpful appendices for the publication of the stories in The Strand or in Collier’s. Many entries make excellent use of such anniversaries to offer insightful commentary.

Historical events, such as the Queen’s (i.e., Victoria’s) Diamond Jubilee (June 22), the Battle of Marengo (June 14, 1800), and the Indian Mutiny (May 10, 1857), merit inclusion because of story references, but probably the most intriguing historical entries are those that date events originating within the story world. Some of these are given in Watson’s own account, as in “The Scandal of Bohemia” where Watson chances to meet the King of Bohemia who is consulting Holmes about a very delicate personal matter; the date given is “the twentieth of March, 1888” but it is pointed out by the authors that this apparently straightforward date poses some chronology conumdrums for careful observers of the canon. In other cases, Watson may give indications of the timing without a precise date, or include very little information to fix a date. Then it is the happy task of intrepid scholars to reason from the evidence to deduce the correct date, usually with much debate ensuing. Entries such as “‘The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge’ Begins” (March 24) and “‘The Adventure of the Three Gables’ Begins” (May 26) show the results of such scholarly efforts and the chief arguments backing them up. Some events originating in the story world–I’m thinking of Holmes’s plunge over the Reichenbach Falls on May 4, 1891–were so profoundly significant that they spurred an outcry in the world at large, and led to his return to both the story world and the waiting reading public.

I could easily cite a further torrent of examples. In fact, the more I attempted to list and classify the entries in this book, the more I realized that they defy any simple classification–they seem to share Holmes’s “infinite variety.”  A Curious Collection of Dates gathers informative and entertaining accounts, in one place, that touch on formative events and influential people for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, for Sherlock Holmes, or for both of them. It also pays tribute to famous Sherlockians such as William Gillette, Christopher Morley, William S. Baring-Gould, and Vincent Starrett. Above all, it records milestones in the life of Sherlock Holmes, a towering figure who continues to draw us from our world into his.***

♦♦♦♦

My Interview with

Leah Guinn and Jaime N. Mahoney

I am delighted to welcome Leah Guinn and Jaime N. Mahoney, who have kindly agreed to disclose some of their methods and reflect on a life led with Sherlock Holmes never far from view.

Q1. When did you first encounter Sherlock Holmes? Can you recall the first story you read? When did the urge to become a student of all things Holmes first take hold?

Leah: Because Sherlock Holmes has become so ubiquitous, I’m not sure that I was ever completely unaware of him. But we “met” a few times before things “took.” In 2nd grade, for instance, I bought Eve Titus’ Basil and the Pygmy Cats  at the book fair. I loved it, but basically I was more about the talking mice. Later, in 4th grade (again at a book fair), I bought a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. The very first one was The Sign of Four,  and I was absolutely shocked at the fact that Sherlock Holmes took cocaine! Obviously this was not a book or a hero for me! I put it away and didn’t bother with Holmes again until sometime in college, where I tried The Hound of the Baskervilles. Again, I was disappointed, because there was (I thought) far too much Watson and not enough Holmes—which is why I don’t recommend it for one’s first Holmes story.

Finally…I had just come off a major reading binge—Preston and Child’s Pendergast series, and was absolutely lost. I read online that their hero, Agent Pendergast, was inspired, in part, by Sherlock Holmes, so I thought I’d give him (yet another) try. I first read two pastiches—Edward Hanna’s The Whitechapel Horror, then Lyndsay Faye’s Dust and Shadow. I then moved on to the Canon itself and it was all over. I don’t think I read anything non-Holmesian for the entirety of 2011.

Jaime: The first time I ever encountered Sherlock Holmes was through a pastiche, even though I wasn’t familiar with the term at the time. When I was twelve-years-old, my mother gave me a copy of The Canary Trainer by Nicholas Meyer because I had developed an interest in opera and singing, and I think she was hoping I would develop an interest in something… not so loud. My singing voice has always been a bit… shrill. She had The Canary Trainer on her shelf because she was writing a novel about King Arthur, and her writing group had suggested Meyer as an author who had successfully captured an iconic figure. I certainly think they were right.

As for the first canonical story I read – is it terrible that I don’t remember? Deduction tells me that it was probably either A Study in Scarlet or – ironically, to those who know me best – “A Scandal in Bohemia,” simply because those stories tend to come first in collections and I was a somewhat orderly child. I think I’ve wanted to be a student of all things Holmes since I first read The Canary Trainer (if you aren’t familiar with the Canon, it’s a pretty confusing book and I spent a lot of time in the library looking things up when I was done with it), but it was around 2009 that I first realized that there were other people like me. People who wrote things, and analyzed, and researched, and devoted their time to this very specific topic – it was a tremendous relief!

Q2. If you are willing to reveal your methods, I am very interested in your process. With such a wealth of possible material, how did you select the types of events you wanted to include?

Leah: We decided that we would each play to our strengths. I am a history person. In the end, I want to know “what really happened.”  Jaime is much more literary, and far better at understanding the artistry in film and other media. We put everything we could think of on a spreadsheet, and went from there, trimming as we went—and as time grew short!

Jaime: At first, we weren’t very particular at all. Everything was going to get included (we thought, naively)! Every birthday, death, the original premiere date of every movie and television episode, every historical figure and significant event, every canonical moment. We soon realized that if we did that, the book would be unending. It would never be finished. Eventually we decided to just be consistent: every birthday was included, but only the deaths of significant figures. We included the premiere of every movie, but only the pilot episodes of television shows. Even then, some dates were overwhelmed with material (there is so much going on in May, it borders on ridiculous) and still had empty spots in others.

I can honestly say we clashed over very little, except for Louise Brealey (the actress who plays Molly Hooper in the BBC series). Leah was adamant that she be included, and I was equally adamant that she shouldn’t be. Molly Hooper isn’t canon, I argued! Not because I didn’t like Molly Hooper (I do, very much), but because I saw the door opening on writing a bunch of entries for other non-canonical characters. Suddenly I was metaphorically standing on top of St. Bart’s screaming that the book was never going to get done. I forget how we compromised on this one, but Ms. Brealey is in the book (March 27).

Q3. As you began mapping out events and dates, how did you go about filling gaps? How did you do research for specific dates, since, apart from birthdays, dates are not always that readily available?

Leah: We started out with the [William S.] Baring-Gould chronology. Even though it has some issues, it’s the one most people are familiar with, and it’s also very easy to find online. I would then back that up with Zeisler (whom I often like better), or use Dakin’s A Sherlock Holmes Commentary, in which he plays referee between chronologists. Another good source for that is Brad Keefauver’s online “Sherlock Holmes Timeline,” where you can see what the major players think in one place.

After that, I went through [Leslie S.] Klinger’s Annotated, page by page, to make a list of Canon events, historical events, people, works of art, places, crimes, actors, etc. Some of them had dates already—the Battle of Maiwand, for example. Others took some more digging. My favorite resources were online newspaper archives, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and Ancestry.com. You would not believe what you can get out of Ancestry if you think creatively and are willing to do hours of sorting. Towards the very end, we still had some dates without entries, and for those I turned to Chris Redmond, who was able to very quickly find Sherlockian connections for each one. When you do work like this, you should never think that you are all-sufficient. Sometimes you need fresh eyes, and fresh minds, and the Sherlockian community is full of people who are willing and eager to offer both.

Jaime: Hope, prayer and Leah’s exceptional research skills. When we finished our initial calendar, I remember there being only a small handful of dates that had nothing to mark them. In some ways, those dates became very easy to fill, as they were a very specific and narrow target. We were able to think in terms of just that date, instead of mapping out a specific group of material (actors or premiere dates, for example) in its entirety. Sometimes we had to think outside the Sherlockian box for material (events that weren’t necessarily tied directly to Sherlock Holmes, but had interesting links instead).

In the end, I’d say there is still one date in the entire book where the entry is only somewhat tenuously Sherlockian. It was a tough date (but I won’t say which one, in case you haven’t spotted it). [I haven’t!~LPG]

Q4. Can you talk about some of your favorite discoveries? Some a-ha moments that might have sent Holmes leaping over his couch or waking up Watson in the middle of the night?

Leah: My very favorites were dates that took a good deal of detective work. For example, I found Herbert Greenhough Smith’s birthday on Ancestry, in an online record of Cambridge alumni. Another was Daniel Rudge, one of the inventors of the Rudge-Whitworth bicycle which left those famous tire tracks in “The Adventure of the Priory School.” He was very elusive, but I finally managed to track him down, and obtain his vital records via mail.

Jaime: Ah, waking Watson up in the middle of the night – there’s a fine Sherlockian tradition! I’m not sure this revelation is worth waking up someone in the middle of the night (I rarely think things are – like Watson, I treasure my sleep), but I was astounded at how often Sherlockian actors crossover, and how their lives overlap. There are Watsons who have played the character two, three, four times or more – to different actors playing the Great Detective! Or an actor would play Holmes in one series and Watson (or Moriarty) in another.

Most of all, I enjoyed learning how the actors’ personal lives would intersect. Not just that Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke were friends off-screen, but that Jeremy Brett and Robert Stephens knew each other before they had even heard of Sherlock Holmes. Or that Brett’s former brother-in-law, Daniel Massey, appeared in Granada’s adaptation of “The Problem of Thor Bridge.” Or that his former father-in-law, Raymond Massey, also once played Sherlock Holmes.

I think a lot about Jeremy Brett, obviously.

Q5. I know that Leah marks the year’s end with her annual Twelfth Night Giveaway, and I suspect that, like me, Jaime does not let November 3 go by without a grateful nod to the memory of Jeremy Brett. Are there other dates that you personally celebrate, as devoted Sherlockians?

Leah: I love doing this, because it gives me a chance to share Holmes with my kids. We celebrate Holmes’ birthday, “Reichenbach Day,” Conan Doyle’s Birthday, and “Watson’s Birthday,” always with cake, and sometimes with action figures and movies.

Jaime: The Master’s birthday – January 6 – of course! The perfect occasion to raise a glass to Sherlock Holmes, for all he has done and for all those whom he has saved. My non-Sherlockian friends are baffled that I take the time to celebrate Holmes’s birthday. They want to know if I celebrate the birthdays of Harry Potter, Bilbo Baggins, or Hamlet. I tell them, “Of course not. They weren’t real.”

Of course, in addition to Jeremy Brett’s birthday, we included the day of his death [September 12, 1995] in the book. I adore Jeremy Brett, and this was a particularly difficult entry to write. When it was done, I remember I told Leah, “You’d be proud of me. I only cried a little bit.”

Q6. Given the immortal partnership of Holmes and Watson, it seems wonderful that you chose to write this book as a team. As friends and colleagues, could you each say a few words about what the other brought to the project? Any stories you would like to share?

Leah: Not only did Jaime bring her superior literary and media skills, she also brought a sense of balance and proportion to the whole thing. I don’t know how to stop, pretty much. Without Jaime, the entries would be longer, there would be about one hundred more of them, and the book might not be done!  Plus, Jaime is such a wonderful person and so great to talk to. I think that working on (and occasionally suffering through) this book cemented our friendship.

Jaime: If I had walked into a shop and asked for a co-author custom built to my specifications, I still wouldn’t have received a better co-author than Leah. She is a tireless researcher, a gifted writer, and really just one of my very best friends. I was always astounded when she would look at a topic and see a 3,000 word essay, where I had only seen a 150 word entry. She has a way of cutting right to the heart of things, which I’ll never be able to do in all my days.

About a month after Wessex Press accepted our book for publication, I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. I was worried about telling Leah. I thought for sure that she would be annoyed, worried about the future of the book, and concerned about working with a pregnant co-author. I shouldn’t have been concerned. Outside of my husband and me, Leah was probably the most excited for Morrigan’s arrival. This story shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows her, but I’ll always remember how grateful I was to her.

My deepest thanks to Leah and Jaime for their marvelous responses to my questions. Their joy in the subject of Sherlock Holmes, in all its myriad facets, is only matched by their very evident dedication to careful research and thoughtful writing. They have given us a sublime book of days to stimulate the mind and imagination throughout the year. Such excellence of craft can touch the heart as well, something expressed so movingly in the closing scene of “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons.” Inspired by the words of Inspector Lestrade, I would like to say thank you to these authors–there is not a Sherlockian among us, from the oldest to the youngest, who wouldn’t be glad to shake you both by the hand.

♦♦♦♦

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Buy the Book

The Well-Read Sherlockian  ♦   Leah on Twitter  ♦  Leah on Facebook

Better Holmes & Gardens  ♦  Jaime on Twitter  ♦  Jaime on Facebook

♦♦♦♦

Giveaway!

I am very pleased to offer 2 paperback copies of A Curious Collection of Dates: Through the Year with Sherlock Holmes which will go to two lucky winners of the giveaway linked below. The winners will be chosen at random from the total entries. Follow the instructions to increase your number of entries.  The giveaway will be open for about one week and will end at 11:59 pm on Sunday, January 22, 2017. Open to residents of the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., 18 years of age and older.

Entry-Form

I will notify the winners by email. If you are chosen as a winner, please reply with your physical mailing address within 48 hours. If I can’t reach you by email, the prize will go to another entrant.

Good luck, and thank you for participating!


*Following the lead of author Leah Guinn’s practice at The Well-Read Sherlockian, I shall provide footnotes. In “The Adventure of the Empty House” [EMPT], Holmes paraphrased a line from Antony and Cleopatra (“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety,” Act II, scene 2) when he said, “I trust that age doth not wither nor custom stale my infinite variety.” Scott Monty (I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere) chose this quote to title his birthday post in 2008, and Jaime N. Mahoney used it to delightful effect, while musing on EMPT and the difficulty of Holmes’ return, to cap off her own return from hiatus in January 2015 .

**See Henry IV, Part 1, Act II, scene 4: “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

***In The Fictional 100, I emphasized how fluidly Sherlock Holmes has migrated beyond the page to engage with us in our everyday world. This book reminds me that it is a two-way street: that he continually calls on us to pay him a visit and immerse ourselves in his world, the way he saw it. Sherlock Holmes ranks 9th on the Fictional 100.

13 Ways of Looking at the Lifetime Reading Plan: My List for 2017

9 Jan

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The pleasure of choosing books for this 2017 challenge comes from perusing two different long lists of excellent books, Jane Smiley’s list and Clifton Fadiman’s list. These lists include classics and moderns, from many genres, fiction and nonfiction, all with a wide geographic and cultural range. Together these lists constitute a rich universe of choices for Michelle Stockard Miller’s inventive perpetual challenge, 13 Ways of Looking at the Lifetime Reading Plan (#13WLRP).

For this year, I’m making these picks:

  1. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
  2. Egilssaga – Snorri Sturluson
  3. The Saga of the People of Laxardal – Author unknown

Vanity Fair is a reread for me, however, I read it a long time ago, and this novel in particular is notorious for improving with age (my age, that is). Pick a random sample of reader reviews online and you will likely find many people saying something like, ‘I didn’t like this book at all the first time I read it, but the second time around, it is SO brilliant.’ I did happen to like it the first time, but I’m hoping to appreciate it in new ways this time, to see more of what my youthful self might have overlooked. I’ll be reading the Norton Critical Edition, which has all of Thackeray’s original drawings, which are brilliant in themselves.  Vanity Fair is on both Smiley’s and Fadiman’s reading lists.

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Thackeray’s famous closing illustration, showing two little girls putting dolls (the characters) back in the toy box

From Smiley’s list, I am also picking two Icelandic sagas. As the author of The Greenlanders, Smiley clearly immersed herself in the saga world, reproducing its tone and drama so effectively. Egilssaga and The Saga of the People of Laxardal are two of the most important sagas, and I look forward to giving them a good close read and reviewing them over at my Northern Lights Reading Project, devoted to Scandinavian and Icelandic literature and culture.

Sign-ups for the 2017 #13WLRP Challenge are at Gather Together and Read. Join us!

Read Your (Book) Shelf Challenge: The Oz Series by L. Frank Baum

8 Jan

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For dedicated readers, and the book bloggers among us, it is quite literally a challenge to put away the library card, refrain from browsing online or in one’s favorite bookshop, and simply read what we have already collected over the years.  But often the question is, where to begin? Michelle of the True Book Addict and Gather Together and Read offers us a neat and easy method for choosing what to read next.

In her Read Your (Book) Shelf Challenge, she asks that we

  • pick one of our shelves (presumably bulging with books yet to be read)
  • pick one book from that shelf (or pile)
  • start from that book and continue along the shelf until you have picked out a total of 12 books, one to read each month in the coming year.
  • the order of reading is up to you–read in order, or pick at random
  • check her challenge post for more details and sign-ups

Here is what I came up with. I picked a pile with these appealing books.

 

But, you say, there are only three books, not twelve! Not to worry, these are omnibus editions (published by Fall River Press) collecting all 15 of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. I have wanted to read them in order and this challenge presents a lovely framework for doing so. Although I have read some of these beyond The Wizard of Oz, most will be new to me, and reading them in order certainly will be.

I watched the premiere of Emerald City on NBC last Friday, and I will probably keep watching its Game of Thrones-style take on Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Glinda, and the other “cardinal” witches. So far it mixes story elements from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and from its sequel, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), which features the gender-switching Tip and the old witch Mombi who had kept him/her a prisoner. I will read this book in January, and then continue my adventures through the whole series, meeting Baum’s imaginative cast of characters inhabiting the Land of Oz.

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Map of Oz, from Baum’s  Tik-Tok of Oz (1914), illus. John R. Neill.

Travel the World in Books 2017: My Wintry Read #TTWIB

8 Jan

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We just had our first substantial snowfall of the season, no mere dusting or coating, but one that called for snow plows and shovels, and it was much the same, or more so, for a broad swathe of the US. Therefore, the task of picking a very wintry read from Tanya’s Ultimate Winter Reading List seems appropriate indeed. This is our first event of the year for Travel the World in Books 2017. Tanya of Mom’s Small Victories, Aloi of Guiltless Reading, and I are looking forward to bringing you books on a variety of themes all year that will invite you to visit many places around the world as you read.

For my wintry read, I am choosing Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah, which will take me not only across the globe but back in time to WWII Leningrad, in the memory of Anya, who alluded to her painful past only in the veiled form of a Russian fairy tale told to her daughters when they were little girls. Now, as adult women, the sisters will learn their mother’s full story. I want to know more about this family, and I am bracing for scenes of the cold and desperate hunger suffered by those in besieged Leningrad. This sounds like an important story and it will be the first book by Kristin Hannah I am reading.

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Choose your own wintry read from the Ultimate Winter Reading List, and then join us for a Twitter chat on Thursday, February 2, at 9 pm EST, using the hashtag #TTWIB. Hope to see you then!

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Review + Giveaway: “Fa-La-Llama-La” by Stephanie Dagg #FranceBT

5 Dec

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My Review

In a good romantic comedy, the love between the couple often grows almost unawares in the medium of another love: love for a child in need; love for animals; love for a place, such as a small town, a farm, vineyard, or homestead; love for family and the need to recover or restore relationships. Love nurtured for these things tends to overflow, and a couple fortunate enough to share a common purpose begins to see each other in it. If it is a comedy, they laugh over the mishaps, confusions, and very human stumbles along the way.  If it is Christmas, well, all the better.

In Fa-La-Llama-La, many of these charming ingredients come together with much delight!  We meet the aptly named Noelle, who is living with her parents temporarily (she hopes), after the triple whammy of a broken engagement, the loss of her job, and the death of a dearly loved grandmother–seemingly, the recipe for a Christmas spent licking her wounds. Yet, with so much abruptly snatched away from her, it turns out she has a deep reservoir of love left to give. But llamas? Not at all what she’d imagined for her holidays, until her cousin Joe called with the offer of a last minute pet-sitting job in France, specifically at a farm six hours drive south of Paris, in Creuse, a départment in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region. Creuse was known in its rich medieval past as La Marche.

Noelle arrives at her job in a major snowstorm and is pretty shocked to find an empty, unheated house, no electricity, and the erstwhile owners’ twelve llamas out in the thickly snow-covered field.  She manages to camp in the house with her supplies, making sure that the llamas have some food and an open barn to shelter in (if they wish–these are creatures from the Andes mountains). When she finally falls into a shivery sleep, she is confronted by another surprise: the new (rugged, good-looking) owner of the house has arrived unexpectedly to claim his domain. His name is Nick, he’s Australian and a famous novelist, and she wonders what he is doing buying a house in rural France! She has consternation over the lack of electricity and furniture; he has consternation over being swindled during the house transaction by the previous owner (who made off with all the furniture and left the llamas). He is also fuming that both the llamas and their pet-sitter are apparently staying for the duration of the holiday. Their shared frustration slowly turns to amusement and joint problem solving. But before that lovely transformation can happen, they both need coffee and food, and they quite literally trudge to town, but not exactly together.

I’d imagined we have a companionable chat as we walked-cum-waded to the village, I was soon disabused. Nick strode on ahead leaving me to follow in his wake. It made me feel like King Wenceslas’s page, only the king in our case didn’t have the philanthropic intentions of the original. …

I took my mind off my annoyance with Nick and the physical effort of the journey by singing Christmas carols to myself, changing the words of some of them to make them more apt. The chorus of ‘Deck The Halls’ became “Fa-la-llama-la, la-llama-la,” and the first verse of ‘We Three Kings’ became “We three Kings of Les Veragnes are / Taking your furniture off in our car / Leaving you llamas and plenty of dramas / We’ll be spending your cash in a bar.”

When they return, Noelle and Nick have a more pressing crisis than their own comfort. One of the llamas, Gabrielle, is very pregnant and has decided to deliver early. Noelle discovers her lying down in the stable with two little hoofs already emerging! But something seems to be wrong. The rest of the baby is not emerging along with them and the delivery seems to be taking too long, causing Gabrielle more distress. Good thing that Noelle read up on the care and feeding of llamas before she left her home in the UK. Midwifing a llama, however, was going into new uncharted territory. Thankfully, Nick was willing to assist this time, and the result was a spindly llama cria (what llama babies are called), which they named Sir Winter. This whole episode is tense and fascinating and so engenders vicarious llama love–even in someone like me, who has no pets–that I recommend not missing it.

Another challenge for Noelle and Nick arises when they find out that the former owners of the house had promised that one of the llamas, Holly, would appear in the nearby town’s church Christmas pageant. Noelle is determined to make good on this promise and Nick is increasingly determined to stay close to Noelle. But first, which one is Holly? And how does one convince a llama to take a long, nocturnal walk to church? Even if these mysteries can be solved, they know that nothing is really “nearby” in thickly blanketed snow, and this episode has many ankle-twisting turns. Fa-La-Lhama-La really breaks out in the “comedy” part of romantic comedy, when Holly does her star turn in the nativity scene. The fictional audience was laughing, and I heard myself laughing too!

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Lulin (alias Holly) in all her beauty, suitable indeed for Christmas pageant stardom. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Dagg.

Throughout the story, Nick has seemed like the kind who bottles up emotions, but his real reasons for coming to France show otherwise. Apparently, under that rough exterior, there is a lot of love waiting to come out for a family he never knew, for the right woman–even for llamas! This story was hugely enjoyable, perfect for Christmas reading, and a treasure trove of appealing llama lore.

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Photo courtesy of Stephanie Dagg.

******

Stephanie Dagg

on Tour

December 5-16

with

fa-la-llama-la

Fa-La-Llama-La

(Christmas romantic comedy)

Release date: October 21, 2016
Self-published

ASIN: B01MF7F813
165 pages

SYNOPSIS

It’s very nearly Christmas and, temporarily jobless and homeless, Noelle is back at home with her parents. However, a phone call from her cousin Joe, who runs a house-and-pet-sitting service, saves her from a festive season of Whist, boredom, and overindulging. So Noelle is off to France to mind a dozen South American mammals. She arrives amidst a blizzard and quickly discovers that something is definitely wrong at the farm. The animals are there all right, but pretty much nothing else – no power, no furniture and, disastrously, no fee. Add to that a short-tempered intruder in the middle of the night, a premature delivery, long-lost relatives and participation in a living crèche, and this is shaping up to be a noel that Noelle will never forget.
Fa-La-Llama-La is a feel-good, festive, and fun romcom with a resourceful heroine, a hero who’s a bit of a handful, and some right woolly charmers.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

fa-la-llama-la-stephanie-dagg

Hi, I’m Stephanie Dagg. I’m an English expat living in France, having moved here with my family in 2006 after fourteen years as an expat in Ireland. I now consider myself a European rather than ‘belonging’ to any particular country. The last ten years have been interesting, to put it mildly. Taking on seventy-five acres with three lakes, two hovels and one  cathedral-sized barn, not to mention an ever increasing menagerie, makes for exciting times.

The current array of animals includes alpacas, llamas, huarizos (alpaca-llama crossbreds, unintended in our case and all of them thanks to one very determined alpaca male), sheep, goats, pigs, ducks, geese, chickens and turkeys, not forgetting our pets of dogs, cats, zebra finches, budgies and Chinese quail. Before we came to France we had was a dog and two chickens, so it’s been a steep learning curve. I’m married to Chris and we have three bilingual TCKs (third culture kids) who are resilient and resourceful and generally wonderful. I’m a traditionally-published author of many children’s books, and and am now self-publishing too. I have worked part-time as a freelance editor for many years after starting out as a desk editor for Hodder & Stoughton. The rest of the time I’m running carp fishing lakes with Chris and inevitably cleaning up some or other animal’s poop.

Visit her website. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter

Buy the book: Amazon.com | Amazon.fr | Amazon.co.uk

***

You can enter the global giveaway here
or on any other book blogs participating in this tour.
Be sure to follow each participant on Twitter/Facebook;
they are listed in the entry form below
.

Enter here

Visit each blogger on the tour:
tweeting about the giveaway everyday
of the Tour will give you 5 extra entries each time!
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Global giveaway – international:
1 winner will receive a $10 Amazon gift card

***

CLICK ON THE BANNER
TO READ REVIEWS AND AN EXCERPT

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*Note:*  I received this book free of charge from the author.

Christmas Spirit Reading, or, “We Need a Little Christmas…”

26 Nov

As I start to write this, the Jerry Herman song “We Need a Little Christmas” from the musical Mame popped into my head.  For this year’s Christmas Spirit Readathon and 2016 Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge, both kindly hosted by Michelle (our favorite True Book Addict), I have song lyrics on my mind, probably because the title of my first Christmas-themed novel is a clever reworking of “Deck the Halls” and its famous chorus. Fa-La-Llama-La by Stephanie Dagg is a clever romantic comedy about a young woman named Noelle, who takes a last-minute pet-sitting job in France, a few days before Christmas, and the pets are twelve llamas!

fa-la-llama-la-cover

The romantic mix-up part comes in when she arrives at her job in a major snowstorm and must share an empty, unheated house with the new (rugged, good-looking) owner of same house, who arrives unexpectedly. His name is Nick and he’s Australian, and she wonders what he is doing buying a house in rural France. She has consternation over the lack of electricity and furniture; he has consternation over being swindled during the house transaction by the previous owner (who made off with all the furniture and left the llamas). He is also fuming that both the llamas and their pet-sitter are apparently staying for the duration of the holiday.  Their shared frustration slowly turns to amusement and shared problem solving, and then….well, you know  what comes next–this is a rom-com!  At least I think so, because I haven’t finished it yet. I will post my full review (with more about the llamas!) in December for Stephanie Dagg’s virtual tour with France Book Tours.

I am also reading A Curious Collection of Dates: Through the Year with Sherlock Holmes by Leah Guinn and Jaime N. Mahoney, who also write beautifully researched, wittily delivered pieces at their blogs, The Well-Read Sherlockian (Guinn) and Better Holmes and Gardens (Mahoney).

a-curious-collection-of-dates-cover

They have found something notable to write about for each day of the year, whether it be the publication of a story from the Conan Doyle canon, the premiere of a memorable adaptation for stage or screen, the birthday of a beloved actor who has portrayed Sherlock Holmes, or some event in the real world or the fictional world that bears on the life and times of the world’s most famous consulting detective. December 27 is devoted to “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” in which a valuable gem turns up unexpectedly in a Christmas goose on the table of one of Mr. Holmes’ many London friends. Finding out how it got there is a holiday mystery indeed. I watched the Granada adaptation of this story every year at Christmas on my VHS player until I no longer watched VHS tapes anymore! I will have more to say about this fantastic book later on, but let me suggest that it is a perfect gift for anyone who relishes the ‘infinite variety’ of Sherlock Holmes.

For young readers and adults too, The Nativity, with gorgeous illustrations by artist Ruth Sanderson is a treat for reading, or re-reading, the Christmas story, drawing from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  I’m planning to leave this book open during the Christmas season and savor Sanderson’s paintings slowly day by day.

the-nativity-ruth-sanderson

Although the Readathon is nearly over, ending on Sunday night, the Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge runs through January 6, so I will probably add some more holiday-themed books and watch even more Hallmark Channel holiday movies by then. What I love about these events hosted by Michelle–who loves Christmas and fosters the spirit so well–is the chance to (a) learn more about varied holiday customs around the world (check out her blog on her beautiful Christmas Spirit website!) and (b) discover more Christmas fiction from other readers. If you have favorite Christmas novels or authors to recommend, please suggest them in the comments!

Finally, let’s hear Angela Lansbury in the 1966 original Broadway cast of Mame, singing that song I mentioned:

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

Time And Regret Banner

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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Enter here

Visit each blogger on the tour:
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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.

640px-memento_timeline

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.

*********

 

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

high2bsummer2bread-a-thon

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!

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