Friday, April 17, 2015

Weekend reads and not doing much...

I'm still slowly working my way through Elizabeth Berg's The Dream Lover. It hasn't quite grabbed me, although full disclosure, my brain feels quite cotton-y and stuffed. I thought I was suffering from allergies but I now think I've got a spring cold, and it's a doozy. That, combined with a work retreat and the start of a 10-week writing class, and I feel like I've no time and very little focus.

Since I'd done virtually no work on my novel since having a baby, my wife encouraged me to sign up for a ten-week "novel in progress" class at Grub Street, a local writing center. Excitingly, the instructor is historical novelist Tim Weed, which is such a treat. Although I had been feeling very blue about my novel and thinking I should just quit, I've left each class (two so far) feeling like my writing has great potential and that I might be able to develop my skill as a novelist. As I have the second half of my sabbatical coming up this summer, I'm especially grateful this is kicking me back into a regular writing practice!

What do you have planned for the weekend? What are you reading?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Book Spotlight: Scent of Triumph

Out now, Scent of Triumph, a historical novel set during World War II. Learn more and check out book reviews at France Book Tours -- and be sure to check out the international giveaway below.

Scent of Triumph: A Novel of Perfume And Passion
Jan Moran
St. Martin’s Press, 384 pages
When French perfumer Danielle Bretancourt steps aboard a luxury ocean liner, leaving her son behind in Poland with his grandmother, she has no idea that her life is about to change forever. The year is 1939, and the declaration of war on the European continent soon threatens her beloved family, scattered across many countries. Traveling through London and Paris into occupied Poland, Danielle searches desperately for her the remains of her family, relying on the strength and support of Jonathan Newell-Grey, a young captain. Finally, she is forced to gather the fragments of her impoverished family and flee to America. There she vows to begin life anew, in 1940s Los Angeles.

There, through determination and talent, she rises high from meager jobs in her quest for success as a perfumer and fashion designer to Hollywood elite. Set between privileged lifestyles and gritty realities, Scent of Triumph by commanding newcomer Jan Moran is one woman's story of courage, spirit, and resilience.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Mademoiselle Chanel by C.W. Gortner

Title: Mademoiselle Chanel
Author: C.W. Gortner

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 20th Century / France / Paris / Historical Figure Fictionalized / Fashion / Love Affairs / World War II)
Publisher/Publication Date: William Morrow (3/17/2015)
Source: France Book Tours

Rating: Looooooooooooooooved -- a fav of 2015.
Did I finish?: Yes.
One-sentence summary: Famed fashion designer Coco Chanel tells her story, from her childhood as a seamstress in a convent to her rise as one the world's trend setters, as well as her fall from grace after World War Two.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Eh -- I'm not, but this black and white design is a nod to Chanel's iconic style.

I'm reminded of...: Melanie Benjamin, Margaret George

First line: The herd gathers below.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy!!

Why did I get this book?: Gortner's work is stand out and I wanted to see his take on this legendary, controversial figure.

Review: The luxurious Chanel brand is iconic -- the perfume, the fashion, its founder -- and I'm surprised Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel hasn't been featured in a historical novel before. Her hist fic debut comes from C.W. Gortner, whose sublime The Queen’s Vow humanized Isabella, and this novel has set the high water mark for any future reads that attempt to tackle the notorious Chanel.

Born at the end of the 19th century in abject poverty, Gabrielle Chanel was turned over to a convent where she mastered sewing. Rather than taking vows to become a nun, Gabrielle instead became a seamstress and more daringly, a club singer -- where she earned her nickname Coco. Quickly, through her skill, ambition, and some fortuitous relationships, Chanel managed to project herself to fame over the decades as her once radical designs -- corset-less, trim, daring, modern -- set the standard for chic fashion. Weathering World War I and II, as well as devastating heartbreaks and notorious love affairs, Chanel lived a life that knew deprivation and luxury in equal part.

While the subject of this book is fascinating -- not just Coco herself, but the world she lived in -- the novel is made by Gortner's writing. Occasionally, I eye-roll when biographical novels use the first person viewpoint, as I find it makes the narrative all tell and no show, and allows the author off the hook when it comes to thornier details.

In Gortner's hands, however, Coco articulates her life with the spare, artistic verve of her designs. (He took his hand away. Not with harshness. His fingers just unraveled from mine, like poorly spun threads., p11) Even more delightfully, Coco's voice grows as she does, rather than remaining static throughout the book.

And the clincher: Gortner dealt with the ugly stuff. I was most curious about how Gortner would handle the allegations that Coco was a Nazi collaborator and spy. It's obvious from this sympathetic novel that Gortner admires Chanel, and his suggestion of how the fashion designer became embroiled with the Nazis is sympathetic. But he offers characters who question her motives, her contradictions, allowing the reader to voice their doubts, too -- and like Coco's friends, we have to decide if we believe her. I found Gortner's articulation of Coco so solid that while I clucked at her choices, I understood why she made them.

This makes my second top ten read of 2015. Even if you're not a fan of fashion, consider grabbing this book, as it really is the story of a self-made woman, a visionary who imagined the way women wanted to live that differed from what society said. There are tawdry details brushing shoulders with heavier themes, armchair escape to early 20th century France, and some delicious name dropping that sent me into Wiki rabbit holes. At this point, I want Gortner to tackle every fashion designer -- like Chanel's nemesis, Elsa Schiaparelli -- but regardless of who he tackles next, I'm there.

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.