Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Interview with David Morrell

I'm not reading much since having a baby, but thankfully the books I am reading are just fab. I'd been breathlessly waiting for Inspector of the Dead, the second novel by David Morrell to feature Thomas DeQuincy, and I just loved it. (The heroine, Emily, is so fabulous, I love her so.)

I'm delighted to share my interview with Mr Morrell -- read on to learn more about this book, the 19th century setting, and the inspiration -- Thomas DeQuincy, the Opium-Eater. Be sure to enter the giveaway, too!

David Morrell
Was Inspector of the Dead the original title of your book?

Sometimes a title insists on being chosen. During my Victorian research, I came across the expression “inspector of the dead.” It applied to the official who examined corpses when they were brought to what we call a morgue but what the Victorians called a death house. The many levels appealed to me. Inspector of the Dead is a mystery/thriller, after all. One of its characters is a Scotland Yard detective inspector, so the title applies to him, but it also applies to the villain’s motive for selecting his victims. And most important, it applies to my main character, Thomas De Quincey, who was the first author to write about drug addiction (Confessions of an English Opium-Eater). In De Quincey’s nightmares, the ghosts of his dead sisters, children, and wife haunted him. I saw the title as a metaphor for his sorrows and regrets.

As you were writing Inspector of the Dead, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Just about all of Victorian society surprises me. Novels that were written in the mid-1800s seem to describe a recognizable world. But the truth is that authors of the time took for granted a vast number of details that are strange and surprising to us.

Can you give us an example?

Early in Inspector of the Dead, there’s a murder during a church service. It happens in plain view of the congregation, and yet no one sees it. This is possible because the seating arrangement in churches was different back then. While we assume that church seats are in bench-like rows that stretch from aisle to aisle, the seats in mid-Victorian churches were in self-contained boxes that not only had benches but also a table, carpet, and cushions—perhaps even a charcoal brazier for heat. Some had curtains. They resembled a small living room. Families rented them, and to make sure that no one else used them, the box pews had doors with locks that only the church’s pew opener could unlock. Victorian novelists took this arrangement for granted and didn’t bother to describe it during a church scene, but a modern reader is at a disadvantage and can’t fully understand a church scene without this information.

Do you have any other examples?

We put surgeons on a higher social level that we do physicians, but in the Victorian world, surgeons were held in low repute because they dealt with blood and gore whereas a physician never laid hands on his patients but only listened to their complaints. Surgeons were paid by their clients and were thus “in trade” whereas physicians were paid indirectly through pharmacists and thus were seemingly above money. For this reason, a surgeon could not be presented to the queen, but a physician could. When a surgeon is mentioned in a Victorian novel, a modern reader might think that the reference is to a socially respected character, but in fact, the author is describing someone whom Victorians hardly respected at all. A Victorian novelist didn’t need to explain this. Everyone knew it. One of my tasks in writing Inspector of the Dead was to learn what the Victorian characters in my novel would truly have thought rather than what a modern reader would assume—for the most part wrongly—that they thought. In addition to what I hope is an exciting plot, the novel is filled with Victorian details of this sort.

According to your website, before starting a project, you ask yourself "Why is this book worth a year of my life?" Can you share your answer for this book?

Partly because of my research, I take at least a year to write a novel and sometimes more. Inspector of the Dead is a two-year novel, for example. There needs to be something about the theme, the research, and the way the book is written that’ll make me feel I’ve grown when I finish a project. With Inspector of the Dead, I had always been interested in the Victorians, but it wasn’t until recently that my disenchantment with the modern world persuaded me to go back there. There’s a film called Somewhere in Time that’s based on a Richard Matheson novel, Bid Time Return. In the film, a character portrayed by Christopher Reeve concentrates so hard that he transports himself back to a more interesting era. I wanted to do something similar and convince myself that I was in 1855 London. More than that, I wanted to convince readers that they too were truly on those intriguing, fogbound streets.

Do you have any associations -- food, drink, music, scents -- with the writing of Inspector of the Dead?

In the novel, I describe a dinner with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Buckingham Palace. I provide a typical menu for that kind of occasion. One of the eighteen items is Filet de Boeuf with Spanish Sauce. That sounded tasty, so I looked into what Spanish Sauce amounted to. It turned out that it was beef or chicken broth that was cooked with sautéed chunks of celery and Spanish onion. Not exactly mouth watering. Most of the recipes of the time were similarly bland. As for drink, a lot of the water wasn’t safe, so if you were in the middle or upper class, brandy mixed with soda water was popular, as was sherry, port and claret. But if you were a laborer, gin would be your drink, although as I describe in Inspector of the Dead, the tavern owner would probably have mixed sulfuric acid, sugar, and juniper berries into the gin to make it go farther. The major piece of music in the novel is a hymn that was popular during the Crimean War (being fought at the time of my novel): The Son of God goes forth to war/A kingly crown to gain. The primary scents of London would have been the odor from the Thames and the smoke in the air. London had a half million chimneys. Its notorious fogs—which were known as particulars—were basically more smoke than fog and had a brown color, which Londoners compared to the color of pea soup

What inspired you to write about Thomas De Quincey?

When I was in college, my 1800s literature professor mentioned De Quincey briefly and dismissed him as a footnote, because after all how important could someone be who wrote something with a title like Confessions of an English Opium-Eater? Years later, I came across a movie called Creation, which is about Charles Darwin’s nervous breakdown after his favorite daughter died. In a pre-Freudian world, physicians couldn’t find a physical explanation for his headaches, heart palpitations, and stomach problems. At the film’s turning point, a character says to Darwin, “You know, Charles. There are people like Thomas De Quincey who believe that we can be controlled by thoughts and emotions we don’t know we have.”

Sounds like Freud.

Exactly, but the film takes place in the 1850s, and Freud didn’t publish until the 1890s. Curious, I started reading De Quincey and discovered how wrong my long-ago professor was. De Quincey invented the word “subconscious” and anticipated Freud’s psychoanalytic theories by more than half a century. He invented the modern true-crime genre when he wrote the third installment of “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” recreating the first media-sensation mass murders in England, the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811. He inspired Edgar Allan Poe, who in turn inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to create Sherlock Holmes. He helped establish the reputations of Wordsworth and Coleridge when their poetry was dismissed by contemporary critics. The more I learned about him, the more I became fascinated until I couldn’t resist putting him at the start of the detective tradition.

Read any good books recently?

Most of my reading continues to be about the Victorians. I admire Dickens, of course, especially Bleak House, which was published only a few years before the events in my novels. I’ve become a big fan of Trollope’s work, especially The Way We Live Now and The Prime Minister. I’m also fond of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White and The Moonstone. Collins even explicitly uses De Quincey and his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater to solve part of the mystery in The Moonstone. Mary Elizabeth Braddon is another of my favorites. Her Lady Audley’s Secret helped start the sensation-novel craze, which Inspector of the Dead continues.

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My thanks to Mr Morrell for his time and thoughtful answers. You can learn more about him and his books on his website, and connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Inspector of the Dead to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 4/3. See my Giveaway Policy for complete rules.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Inspector of the Dead by David Morrell

Title: Inspector of the Dead
Author: David Morrell

Genre: Fiction (19th Century / London / Murder Mystery / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Victoriana / Drug Use / Parent-Child Relationships)
Publisher/Publication Date: Mulholland Books (3/24/2015)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Loved.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: A series of high profile and gruesome murders terrify Londoners and notorious author Thomas DeQuincy must assist police and politicians with solving the crimes.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it matches the cover of the previous novel, and I like that it's not typical of the genre. P.S. I want those gloves.

I'm reminded of...: Matthew Pearl, Matt Rees, Dan Simmons

First line: Except for excursions to a theater or a gentleman's club, most respectable inhabitants of the largest city on earth took care to be at home before the sun finished setting, which on this cold Saturday evening, the third of February, occurred at six minutes to five.

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

Why did I get this book?: I uh-dored the first one.

Review: I've been on pins-and-needles for this book, the second historical mystery featuring notorious Victorian author/drug user Thomas DeQuincy, his daughter Emily, and their friends in Scotland Yard. The first book, Murder as a Fine Art, made my Top Ten of 2013.

My impatience was well rewarded; this book has everything I love in a great historical novel: a plot that drives one into Wiki rabbit holes, an intriguing heroine who is unconventional - but grounded in the era - and historical details that are evocative without being overwhelming.

Set in 1855, just weeks after the end of the first novel, notorious author and opium addict Thomas DeQuincy and his charming bluestocking daughter Emily are being shuffled home to Scotland when a gruesome murder at St. James' Church requires their assistance. It soon emerges that there's a plot to assassinate the queen as a series of grotesque and dramatic murders strike fear in London. (I will say, as someone who is a puss about gross things, the murders were icky but not put-the-book-down disgusting. Just the right side of scary for my tastes!)

The calamitous results of the Crimean war complicate the political stage in London, too, and running parallel to the murder mystery is a storyline of privilege, heroism in war, and class background (which I found more fascinating than the murders, frankly!).

As with the previous novel, Morrell emulates Victorian literature in the narrative style: the novel switches between the point of view of our murderer and our heroes as well as various secondary characters, interspersed with excerpts from Emily's diary, resulting in a rich, dramatic narrative reminiscent of my favorite 19th century thrillers. There's a big cast but Morrell makes everyone vibrant and distinct, and I loved the secondary characters as much as the primary ones.

And while this is a second in a series, it stands well for those unfamiliar with the first book: Morrell provides enough background to make new readers (or those of us, like myself, who forgot a few details) comfortable with the main players and their relationships without spoiling the first book.

Of the characters, Emily once more won my heart; she numbers among my favorite heroines for her mix of sensitivity, moxie, and grace. But I love that Morrell tackles drug use and addiction through DeQuincy -- a topic I rarely see in historical fiction -- and DeQuincy is a sympathetic character, struggling with his demons.

There's a nine-page Afterward as fascinating as the novel and spells out what is based on history and what is Morrell's invention. To my surprise, more was historical than I expected!

It should go without saying that I can't wait for the next book in the series, should there be one. A detail-laden delight for those who dig the Victorian era, murder mysteries, or heroines who rock bloomers.

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I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Inspector of the Dead to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 4/3. See my Giveaway Policy for complete rules.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Weekend reads and falling behind...

I'm so wildly behind on this blog, it's not even funny (and is starting, honestly, to be a little stressful!).

I've managed to read a few books since the start of the year, but trying to review them feels impossibly hard. Partially I'm not motivated to make the time -- when I have free time, I want to read, or see my wife, or clean our apartment -- and partially I feel sort of mush brained, still, and unable to write a decent review.

Perhaps this weekend...!

My weekend read is Mistress Firebrand by Donna Thorland, which I'll have to sneak in when Little Reader is sleeping (which, these days, is almost never!).

What are you reading this weekend?

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Interview with Heather Webb

Earlier this week I reviewed Rodin's Lover by Heather Webb, a fabulous historical novel about the gifted sculptor Camille Claudel. I'm thrilled to share my interview with Ms. Webb about this book.

Heather Webb
Was Rodin’s Lover the original title of your book?

No! Actually it was The Eternal Idol, a piece by Rodin that I thought perfectly summed up Camille and Auguste's relationship together, but it wasn't "marketable" enough so we went with my second choice, sadly. I really preferred the other.

As you were writing Rodin’s Lover, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

A scene popped up which I hadn't plotted originally was the one in which Camille and Rodin go to Le Chat Noir, a famous night club in Montmartre. What a fun scene that was to write! I had a ball researching it as well. In fact, I got lost in the details of the era in Montmartre and had to reign myself in from the rabbit hole of research.

You have a foodie section of your blog, so what food or drink do you associate with Rodin's Lover?

I would have to say absinthe because there's a scene in the book when Camille and her brother Paul drink some. Or possibly a little cherry brandy.

What lead you to Camille Claudel's story?

I fell in love with Camille while in my French film class in college. The film, simply called Camille Claudel, was multiple award-winning in Europe and the U.S. with stars Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu playing the roles of Camille and Rodin. Their tragic love story gripped me and I swooned at the beauty they created both together and separately. After the film, I became rather obsessed with sculpture in general. Many years later, I had not forgotten Camille, and knew I wanted to delve more into her life. It has been an incredible experience spending time exploring her brilliant mind, and ultimately sharing her story.

What is your favorite of Camille's work?

The Waltz is my favorite because it's sensuous and breathtaking--the lovers look enraptured by their love but also melancholy, forlorn as if they know a secret that torments them that no one else knows.

Read any good books recently?

I'm always reading good books. :) All the Light We Cannot See was excellent! Brilliant! I'm currently reading The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig and House Broken by Sonja Yoerg.

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My thanks to Ms. Webb for her time and her thoughtful answers. To learn more about her and her books, check out her website and connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Rodin’s Lover by Heather Webb

Title: Rodin’s Lover
Author: Heather Webb

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / France / Paris / Artists / Love Affair / Mental Illness)
Publisher/Publication Date: Plume (1/27/2015)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: In late 19th century Paris, a young sculptor accepts tutelage with a famous sculptor, and both are inspired by love.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: I do, very much -- I believe the image is of Camille (or inspired by her portrait) and it's so striking in person!

I'm reminded of...: Melanie Benjamin, Lynn Cullen, Erika Robuck

First line: Camille dropped to her knees in the mud.

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

Why did I get this book?: I'm a huge fan of Webb and was so intrigued by the subject of this one.

Review: Webb's second novel focuses on a less well known figure, French Belle Époque sculptor Camille Claudel, and this novel surpasses her first (which was pretty fabulous!).

Camille is a bit of a savant, a self-taught sculptor with immense talent and a matching ego. Driven to pursue her art, she receives tutoring in Paris from one of France's preeminent sculptors, but her family is split in their support of her passion. Camille's father supports her while her mother rages against the unorthodox behavior of her daughter. While her mother tries to arrange a marriage, Camille is instead drawn to her newest tutor, the much lauded Auguste Rodin.

Lest you fear this is just another hist fic focusing on a lady with a famous lover, let me reassure you this is a far more complicated, rich, and eventful story. Camille is a hard heroine to love: prickly, confident to the point of obnoxious, and single-minded. In Webb's  hands, she isn't softened nor does she turn flat the moment she falls into her lover's arms.

In fact, Webb's emotional sensitivity is something I've come to admire in her books as the dramatic events unfold without veering into melodrama.  Webb doesn't shy from the hard, heartbreaking parts of Camille's life (I'm being vague about these parts for those unfamiliar with Camille's story, but there's nothing fluffy here!) and intense moments are touched with humor, bittersweet sadness, or irony, making it impossible for this reader to shake Camille's story.

I sometimes find books about artists tricky; it can be hard to render into compelling narrative endeavors that depend on other senses. But Webb managed to evoke the tactile experience of sculpting as well as describing the various sculptures and pieces of art without sounding like a text book. I "saw" the works even without having to google them (although google I did!). I have to give a particular shout out to Joshua DeLillo, who sketched three of Camille's works for use in this novel. They look like photographs, they're so finely rendered, and were a welcome addition to the story.

This is the second novel I read since having my baby (and the second for 2015), and it was a knockout -- well worth stealing time to read. It's a fabulous read for those who enjoy biographical novels; I'm particularly reminded of Melanie Benjamin, who I also think takes shocking, notorious lives and renders them realistically, tenderly, and with empathy. Enjoy this one with espresso or cocoa over a snowy weekend.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Joy Street by Laura Foley

Title: Joy Street
Author: Laura Foley

Genre: Poetry (Relationships / LGBTQ / Motherhood / Parents / On Writing)
Publisher/Publication Date: Headmistress Press (7/8/2014)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: More than thirty brief, but powerful, poems on love, life, everyday joy and everyday loss.

Do I like the cover?: I'm not sure -- it captures some of the feel of the volume, but just isn't a favorite of mine.

I'm reminded of...: Kathryn Kirkpatrick, Yuko Taniguchi

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

Why did I get this book?: I like poetry now and then, and poetry is good for me right now.

Review: This slender collection of poems -- about 33 -- is a deceptively quick read, but Foley's pieces invite rereading and ruminating. In plain, straightforward language, Foley shares the joy of partnership and everyday bliss, the bite of remembered pain, the anxiety of social situations.

I have complicated feelings about poetry: I like the idea of liking poetry, but honestly, sometimes I feel like I'm struggling to "get" a poem. Sometimes, despite loving the sashay of language, I get tired of the tumble of verse. But I enjoy contemporary poets like Foley who remind me that poetry is more than meter and rhyme.

This collection, like the volumes of short stories I've been devouring, was perfect for my life right now, when I don't have lots of free time to read. Instead, I could dip in and pluck out a poem to read, quick, when I had a free moment.

Foley articulated moments both familiar and alien in neat, compact sentences:
I've been pretending I'm my quiet musician son, thinking/deep thoughts, but feeling bored and awkward, a pained smile/cracking my face. (from 'Dinner Party')
My father not humming the/whole of four winters, or to my knowledge, since. (from 'Not Humming')
and her 'Fruedian Quips', which humorously describes the maddening hilarity of conference calls, is familiar to anyone who has sat through one. (I was reminded of this comedy video, which is oh-too-true.)

Other pieces merge the mundane with the more artistic: 'Gelato', a piece in which her partner eats the treat purchased for her, has the cadence and echo of William Carlos Williams' 'This Is Just To Say' while 'Maternal Semiotics' makes lyrical the act of breastfeeding (a piece that particularly resonated with me right now!).

Fans of narrative-style poetry will want to get this one; those who are new to poetry might enjoy this unvarnished and clear collection. Those who like LGBTQ literature will want this one, as Foley writes about her partner, coming out as queer, and facing commentary from those who don't understand her identity.

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I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Joy Street to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US/Canadian readers, ends 1/23. See my Giveaway Policy for complete rules.

Monday, January 12, 2015

From the Fifteenth District by Mavis Gallant

Title: From the Fifteenth District
Author: Mavis Gallant

Genre: Fiction (Short Stories / Europe / World War II / Italy / France / Marriage / Ex-Pats)
Publisher/Publication Date:
Source: France Book Tours

Rating: Liked a good deal.
Did I finish?: Yes.
One-sentence summary: Nine short stories of individuals outside of their own communities -- due to war, love, work, or health -- who find their identities challenged

Do I like the cover?: I do --I'm a sucker for this kind of styling.

I'm reminded of...: A.S. Byatt, Tessa Hadley, Katherine Mansfield

First line: In the south of France, in the business room of a hotel quite near ot the house where Katherine Mansfield (whom no one in this hotel had ever heard of) was writing "The Daughters of the Late Colonel," Netta Asher's father announced that there would never be a man-made catastrophe in Europe again., from 'The Moslem Wife'

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

Why did I get this book?: I'm a big Gallant fan.

Review: This collection is a reissue of Gallant's well received collection of moody, smart, and emotionally restrained short stories. A wonderful introduction for those new to master writer Mavis Gallant, this volume has some of Gallant's best works, including her delicious 'The Moslem Wife', first published in the New Yorker in the '70s. (Michael Ondaatje once said "'The Moslem Wife' has more going on in it than five novels", and it's true!)

Set in Europe ahead of, and after, World War II, her stories focus on ex-pats and the displaced, those who cling to an identity that might not exist anymore, or perhaps never existed at all: an English hotelier in the South of France; an Italian girl in another part of the country, working for an English family at odds in their own English community; a young German POW who returns with an idea of his mother in mind and finds a different woman.

Short stories have been a perfect way for me to get back into reading now that I have a baby and I loved this collection. Gallant has marvelous narrative style: she manages to pack background, judgment, descriptive details, sense of place, and lyrical loveliness into every sentence.
The time was early in the reign of the new Elizabeth, and people were still doing this -- migrating with no other purpose than the hope of a merciful sky., from 'The Remission' (p44)
For a time her letters were like the trail of a child going ever deeper into the woods. He could not decide whether or not to follow; while he was still deciding, and not deciding, the trail stopped and the path became overgrown behind her., from 'Baum, Gabriel, 1935-()' (p82)
While most of the stories touch upon some aspect of World War II, they're not war stories per se, nor do they read like historical fiction. They're lightly literary but very readable, deep without feeling obtuse. Gallant is a writer's writer, too: for those who admire the craft of storytelling, these pieces are delightful to admire and dissect (as I have been doing).

Strongly recommended, especially for fans of A.S. Byatt, Tessa Hadley, and Katherine Mansfield.