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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

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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.

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

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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

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

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.

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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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***

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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.

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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.

 

Review: “Chasing Chaos” by Katie Rose Guest Pryal

6 Jun

Chasing Chaos cover

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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*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.

#ReadNobels and #TTWIB join forces in April!: Week 2

17 Apr

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Under the spirited #ReadNobels leadership of Aloi of Guiltless Reading, and in conjunction with Travel the World in Books (#TTWIB;  co-hosted by Aloi, Tanya of Mom’s Small Victories, Becca of I’m Lost in Books, Savvy Working Gal, and me), the April combined challenge is rolling along–it’s the end of Week 2! Guiltless Reader has provided us with questions each week to get the discussion going and prompt our own thinking about the great wealth of Nobel-recognized literature, which is out there, just waiting to be sampled.

This week the focus is on making a list of authors and their works we have read, from among those on the list of Nobel prizes awarded in Literature. This was an illuminating exercise, because it became apparent which authors had become dear favorites and which were merely respected acquaintances. When I was doing research (over quite a few years) for my book The Fictional 100, I tried to read a wide range of notable authors around the world, so I encountered many of these distinguished authors (though surely not everyone I might have read!). In Week 3, I will offer a list, as Guiltless Reader suggests, of Nobel-prize-winning authors and books on my wish list for future reading!

Week 2 question: Which Literature Nobelists have you read (at least something of theirs)?

Rudyard Kipling (1907)

Just So Stories

Rabindranath Tagore (1913):

Gitanjali (poetry)

William Butler Yeats (1923):

“The Wild Swans of Coole,” other poems

Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish

George Bernard Shaw (1925):

Man and Superman

Sigrid Undset (1928):

Kristin Lavransdatter

Gunnar’s Daughter

Thomas Mann (1929):

Buddenbrooks

Death in Venice

Joseph and His Brothers (Parts I and II)

Sinclair Lewis (1930):

Main Street

Babbitt

Dodsworth

John Galsworthy (1932):

The Forsyte Saga

Luigi Pirandello (1934):

“Six  Characters in Search of an Author”

Eugene O’Neill (1936):

Mourning Becomes Electra

Hermann Hesse (1946):

Siddhartha

The Glass Bead Game

T. S. Eliot (1948):

The Waste Land

“Four Quartets”

William Faulkner (1949):

The Sound and the Fury

Absalom, Absalom!

Ernest Hemingway (1954):

The Old Man and the Sea

Halldór Laxness (1955):

The Great Weaver from Kashmir (excellent, his first important novel)

Albert Camus (1957):

The Stranger

Boris Pasternak (1958):

Doctor Zhivago

John Steinbeck (1962):

Of Mice and Men

The Grapes of Wrath

The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn (1970):

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Eugenio Montale (1975)

Selected Poems (still working on these!)

Gabriel García Márquez (1982):

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Love in the Time of Cholera

Wole Soyinka (1986):

“Madmen and Specialists”

“The Trials of Brother Jero”

“A Dance of the Forests”

Nadine Gordimer (1991)

Burger’s Daughter

Derek Walcott (1992):

Omeros

Toni Morrison (1993):

Beloved

Song of Solomon

Jazz

The Bluest Eye

José Saramago (1998):

Journey Through Portugal

V. S. Naipaul (2001):

A Bend in the River

A House for Mr. Biswas

India: A Million Mutinies Now

Orhan Pamuk (2006):

The Museum of Innocence

Other Colours (Essays)

Istanbul

Doris Lessing (2007):

The Golden Notebook

Canopus in Argos: Archives (sci-fi!)

Briefing for a Descent into Hell

Memoirs of a Survivor

Mario Vargas Llosa (2010):

The Perpetual Orgy (literary criticism, Madame Bovary)

The Temptation of the Impossible (literary criticism, Les Misérables)

*****

Looking over these works, they were all distinctly memorable reading experiences, and associated with obsessive bursts of enthusiasm. I remember when I was reading Doris Lessing with a passion, then I moved on to other authors. I would like to revisit her (Week 3!)  I love Mario Vargas Llosa’s literary criticism and found it influential in my own thinking. I used a quote from The Perpetual Orgy to open the Introduction to my own book. But his fiction has not grabbed me so far. Beloved still stands out to me, as unique and beautiful and heart-wrenching. I recalled being so thrilled when Toni Morrison won the prize! Sigrid Undset’s writing has long been deeply meaningful to me, and I still wonder why I didn’t include Kristin Lavransdatter in my top 100 characters. I want to recommend this book, a medieval saga written by a modern author, one which reads like a glorious triple-decker novel of family, love, loss, and redemption, a masterpiece in the greatest traditions of storytelling.

*****

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Review: “The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction” by M. A. Orthofer

9 Apr

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction

My Review

For those of us attempting to cast a wider net in contemporary world fiction, The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is no less than a godsend. I could not imagine designing a more useful reference tool for readers, bloggers, and reviewers wishing to discover authors of distinction from around the world. This book grew out of the Complete Review website, founded by M. A. Orthofer in 1999 to provide timely information on book reviews of international fiction, along with publishing and translation information for readers.  This website is phenomenal, but I am delighted to have a guide in book form that digs deep into the literary scene for nearly all the countries of the world and offers a rich treasure trove of contemporary fiction to consider.

What is considered contemporary? The Guide focuses on fiction after 1945, but rest assurred, earlier fiction is discussed to provide context for the relevant country or national literature.  A fascinating Introduction describes the selection process and some of the issues involved in classifying the works.  The author has done internet detective work ever since founding the Complete Review website, trawling newspapers worldwide, online reviews and forums, and a host of professional websites, including publishers’ foreign rights pages, international literary agencies, and national organizations that promote the exchange of book information and news about contemporary fiction. An extensive appendix of Supplemental Resources shares many of the available sources with the reader.  The very scope of information available online, as the author notes, creates the need for an overview, country by country, as a helpful “entry point” for readers seeking to delve into a nation’s literature.

Here are some of the considerations that went into making the Guide:

  • How to classify an author who has written in more than one language? Nabokov, for one, wrote in Russian and then in English, and this is not an uncommon situation because authors tend to move around both geographically and linguistically. Today, for example, Indian-American novelist Jhumpa Lahiri,  has just relocated to Rome and made the transition from writing in English to writing exclusively in Italian, and one can anticipate future works of fiction in her new chosen language.
  • How to classify authors geographically when their country itself has undergone transitions? This comes into play in Europe in the comparatively recent reunification of Germany, and in the breakup of the Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia. The Guide gives separate consideration to contemporary fiction originating in the Federal Republic of Germany (West), the German Democratic Republic (East), and then a reunified Germany. In Central Africa, fiction produced in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (known formerly as Belgian Congo and then Zaïre), in which the difficult political situation has largely inhibited any flourishing of book culture (with exceptions that are noted), is contrasted with that from Congo-Brazzaville (Republic of the Congo), which has produced several well-known writers. Although the guide is organized by continent and then by region, you will find detailed treatment down to individual countries, as they are currently constituted.
  • How to classify writers who have relocated in adulthood?  This issue overlaps to some extent with the issue of language but also depends on the writer’s predominant subject matter. Chinua Achebe moved between Nigeria and the United States, finally settling in the U.S. after 1990 to teach at Bard College. His novels are revelatory of Nigerian traditional life under the twin impacts of colonial rule and modernity, so they are classified in his native country.

Orthofer summarizes the guiding criteria for classification:

“In The Complete Review Guide,  authors are assigned to specific locales according to–in order of significance–the language in which they write, their domicile (previous or original as well as current), the subject matter of their fiction, and their reputation.” (p. 4)

Regardless of classification decisions, cross-cultural connections are carefully treated wherever an author and that author’s works are discussed.

The problem for those of us who want to read international fiction (as Ann Morgan will attest from her year of reading the world) is finding good translations into the language one reads (English, in this case).  Realistically, this is the only way most of us have access to some level of appreciation of an author’s achievement and fictional worldview.  This guide is “emphatically a reader’s guide for an English-speaking audience.” American publishers have been slower to introduce translated works, and the translation market has been dominated by fiction translated from French or Spanish, enjoying sustained interest in America, and a selection of Nobel laureates. This is changing gradually. The translation boom in European crime fiction, especially from Scandinavia, has meant that crime fiction has gotten special attention from translators across many languages, and this is reflected in the Guide, which often devotes a special section to crime fiction in a given country. Orthofer traces the recent history of globalization in literature and how it is affecting the translation and dissemination of fiction.

As a reader, I am most excited to ask, what’s out there?  And, how will I know where to begin? Fortunately, each country’s entry includes a mini-overview of its most prominent authors, summary and evaluation of major works, and boxes of other notable writers to “keep in mind.” Every title mentioned (always in English) has an original publication date and the translation date (if different). I will share a few random discoveries that caught my eye:

  • The greatest modern writer in Catalan is considered to be Mercè Rodoreda (1908-1983); her most important works are The Pigeon Girl (1962, English 1967) and A Broken Mirror (1974, English 2006).  This is very typical of this guide–“Spanish” writers in Basque, Catalan, and Galician receive separate notice, in addition to Castilian writers.
  • Manuel Rivas (b. 1957) is the leading Galician writer (The Carpenter’s Pencil, 1999; English 2001).
23089

Jonathan Dunne, trans.

 

  • Heðin Brú (1901-1987) published an important novel in Faroese, the language of the Faroë Islands, in 1940. The English translation, The Old Man and His Sons, was published in 1970 and is readily available. Although most of the authors discussed in the chapter on Scandinavia were familiar to me, Heðin Brú was new; I already have my copy, ready to read on Kindle and include on my Northern Lights Reading Project.

 

7456138

John F. West, trans.

 

  • Aleksis Kivi (1834-1872) wrote a Finnish classic, still important today, called Seven Brothers (1870, English 1929, 1991). This is a good example of the way the Guide anchors the overview for each country with key works that pre-date the main corpus of post-war fiction being catalogued.
  • Nervous Conditions (1988) by Tsitsi Dangarembga (b. 1959) is an autobiographical novel, and the first novel by a Zimbabwean woman.

828469

  • The first novel from Malawi is No Easy Task (1966) by Aubrey Kachingwe (b. 1926).
  • Wizard of the Crow (2004-2006, English 2006) by Kenyan Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (b. 1938; also known as James Ngugi) is a satire set in a fictional African republic. This epic work has won numerous literary prizes.
57485

Trans. by author

  • Evening Is the Whole Day (2008) by Preeta Samarasan (b. 1976) is a popular family saga about Indians living in Malaysia.

2154433

  • Goh Poh Seng (1936-2010) wrote If We Dream Too Long (1972), deemed the first true Singaporean novel.

11199208

I invite you to explore The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction for yourself. It manages to include just the right amount of information about authors and their works to engage one’s interest and lead to further exploration. One can only be grateful to the translators who undertook to share these works of international fiction with English-speaking readers, and I am surely grateful to M. A. Orthofer, for the dedication that it took to offer this comprehensive guide. Be sure to visit the Complete Review website as well to find links to full-length reviews of many titles. You are sure to find something amazing.

 

*******

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction

The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary

World Fiction

(Literary Criticism/ Reference/ World Literature/ Literary Studies)

Columbia University Press

Released April 5, 2016

496 pages

Available in Paperback, Hardcover, and e-book (from the publisher)

AmazonComplete Review Website | Publisher’s page | Goodreads

Description

For more than a decade, the Complete Review has been an essential site for readers interested in learning about new books in translation and developments in global literature. Expanding upon the site’s content, this wide-ranging yet user-friendly resource is the perfect guide for English-language readers eager to explore fiction from around the world. Profiling hundreds of titles and authors from 1945 to today, with an emphasis on fiction published in the past two decades, this reference provides a fascinating portal into the styles, trends, and genres of the world’s literatures, from Scandinavian crime thrillers and cutting-edge works in China to Latin American narco-fiction and award-winning French novels.

What sets this guide apart is its critical selection of titles that define the arc of a nation’s literary development, paired with lively summaries that convey both the enjoyment and significance of each work. Arranged by region, country, and language, entries illuminate the fiction of individual nations, cultures, and peoples, while concise biographies sketch the careers of noteworthy authors. Compiled by M. A. Orthofer, an avid book reviewer and founder of the Complete Review, this reference will benefit from an actively maintained companion site featuring additional links and resources and new reviews as contemporary works are published. The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction is perfect for readers who wish to expand their reading choices and knowledge of contemporary world fiction.

About the Author

M. A. Orthofer is the founder, managing editor, and lead contributor to the Complete Review and its blog The Literary Saloon. Launched in 1999, the Complete Review has been praised by the Times Literary Supplement, Wired, and the New York Times Book Review, which called the site “one of the best literary destinations on the Web.” Orthofer has also served as judge for the Best Translated Book Award and the Austrian Cultural Forum’s ACF Translation Prize, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

*******

*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.

*******

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Image courtesy of potowizard at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

 

Review: “Letters for Scarlet” by Julie C. Gardner

2 Apr

Letters for Scarlet cover

I thank Julie C. Gardner and Velvet Morning Press for the opportunity to review this fine debut novel.

My Review

Epistolary novels–novels in which the narrative is entrusted to letters between characters–have long fascinated me. Ever since I read Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (or parts of it–it is very long), I have thought of this 18th-century masterpiece as the quintessential example of the form.  Despite its length, it is exquisitely suspenseful because the author has such ingenious control over disclosure of the facts and the secrets, little by little.  This feature should make the form attractive to authors of any era, but how does one go about writing an epistolary novel today? How does one craft a story through letters that feels both contemporary and natural?

In her new novel, Letters for Scarlet, Julie C. Gardner has figured out how do this beautifully by adopting a hybrid technique. The story unfolds through narrative and dialogue that we expect to find in a novel, but the main revelations that bind the story together and illuminate its characters’ motives occur in the abundant letters inserted throughout. Gardner handles both ways of telling her story with sureness of purpose and a very genuine voice. Or, should I say, “voices,” because the letters require her to speak in many voices.  But nearly all the letters are intended for the same recipient, Scarlet Hinden, one of the novel’s two pivotal characters. Most of the letters are from her friend Corie Harper.

Both Corie and Scarlet are 28. Corie is an English teacher and aspiring writer, married to Tuck Slater. They would like to have children but so far have been frustrated by trying, something that deeply wounds Corie who already has some nagging doubts about her marriage. Scarlet is a busy attorney and in a relationship with Gavin; she is expecting a baby but struggling with paralyzing fears about being a mother; she is skeptical of ever finding happiness and holding on to it.  What is the connection between these two couples, and how is it influencing their pain in the present moment?

Corie and Scarlet were inseparable friends in high school, and along with Tuck, they were a solid trio until something happened that destroyed the women’s friendship and upended all their lives. We know that the trio turned into a triangle when Corie and Tuck became a couple, but clearly much more must have transpired to cause the kind of unbridgeable rift they are suffering.  It doesn’t seem like anything will change their situation, until Corie receives a letter from the past: the letter she wrote 10 years ago to her future self. It was an assignment in her senior English class (and a very clever mechanism to introduce the first letters into the story). Since she wrote it before her friendship with Scarlet fell apart, Corie feels the loss even more acutely, the aching absence of something that was once unquestionable.  Corie begins to write a series of letters to Scarlet, ones she thinks she’ll never dare send, but which allow her to open her heart to the friend she still needs so desperately. Here are a few bits of her first letter:

Did you get your ten-year letter  from Mr. Roosevelt? Until Tuck handed me that envelope, I had completely forgotten about the assignment. But since I read those words from the past, I’ve been prompted by a desire (more like a need) to say a few things to you. Some old. Some new. All of them true. For what it’s worth. …

I’m sorry we didn’t tell you about us sooner. I suppose the secrets we keep can be as dangerous as the ones we share. Maybe more so.

Sometimes I wonder how different our lives would be if the three of us had loved each other less….

In a surprising move, Scarlet’s mother visits Corie and entrusts her with Scarlet’s 10-year letter.  Corie wants to deliver this powderkeg letter but she hesitates, since Scarlet has refused all contact since high school.

I read the last two thirds of this novel in one long sitting–it was that compelling and I didn’t want to stop until I discovered what tragedy drove these friends apart and how–or whether–they could move on from it. This fine debut novel convincingly explores the ties of love and friendship at the breaking point.

Synopsis

Pain can take a lifetime to heal, but hope lasts even longer…

Corie Harper is twenty-eight years old when she is first visited by a ghost—in the form of a graduation letter she forgot she wrote. Although she spent a decade burying that desperate girl and her regrets, each page resurrects the past, dragging Corie back to a time when all she craved was Scarlet Hinden’s friendship and Tuck Slater’s heart. But she couldn’t keep them both and keep her word.

Scarlet is haunted in her own way, by memories of Corie and of a night that left her wishing she were dead. But Scarlet is not only alive, she’s carrying new life: a baby she never wanted and is terrified to have. Convinced she would be a disastrous mother, she questions whether or not she deserves the love of any man. Especially the father of her child.

Letters for Scarlet traces one friendship from deep roots to branches torn by broken promises and loss.

Release date: April 4, 2016

Publisher: Velvet Morning Press

Buy the book: Amazon

About Julie C. Gardner

Julie C Gardner, author photoI’m a former English teacher and lapsed marathon runner who traded in the classroom for a writing nook. I am the co-author of You Have Lipstick on Your Teeth, and a contributor to the upcoming anthology So Glad They Told Me; my essays have appeared in BlogHerVoices of the Year: 2012 and Precipice Literary Anthology. I live in Southern California with my husband, two children, and three dogs.

Twitter | Instagram | Facebook | Website | Blog

 

 

*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.

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