Friday, March 16, 2018

One of the Best Books I have Ever Read: The Traitor Prince

Image resultLast week, I devoured The Wish Granter by CJ Redwine after a recommendation from my friend Ruth. I loved it to death. Sebastian was a Rachel catnip hero and the dark Rumpelstiltskin world was immensely readable.   First off, because I will make you buy this book--- Though the book is the third in the Ravenspire series: they are standalone novels set in a similar world. okay?

Let's dig in, kittens!


Fear out, Courage in.

I craved more, so immediately downloaded The Traitor Prince which blew me away in the best way possible.  I am not hyperbolic in saying it is one of the best books I have ever read; because I am not just carrying the hangover of emotion and well-crafted world.  I am stating that as someone who loves to watch technique, who catches and revels in nuance, who stops and notices the slow, unfurling threads of allegorical substance, who is alighted by the pursuit of a hero's journey resplendent with heartbreaking themes of sacrifice and grace.

Javan Najafai is the true prince of Akram. He has lived at the prestigious Milisatria Academy for Nobility for ten years, excelling at everything and becoming well rounded enough that he will eventually be able to step into the crown.
He is kind and studious, forsaking the revelry and hobbies of his friends for prayer and reflection and to become the kind of king that his father, the King, will be proud of.  He is a devoted servant of his god, Yl' Haliq and relies on his wisdom and guidance as he prepares himself for the arduous and magnanimous task of eventual ascension to the throne.

Since his mother's dying wish that he earn the most honours of any prince educated at the academy, Javan has centered his sights on granting her this honour: furthered by his desire for his father's pride and respect when he graduates at the head of his class and presents the coveted red sash that marks his accomplishment.  The guidance from his headmaster and the support of his friend Kallen have seen him to the days leading up to final examinations and graduation.


Now he had to pick up his beliefs, one by one, and examine them the flaws that surely ran through them.


Elsewhere, Rahim, who bears a striking resemblance to Javan  and has a threadbare connection to the throne, works with a plot to supplant Prince Javan on the throne after his return to Akram.  The true king slowly poisoned, Rahim's estranged father--and the king's closest relative---has wielded his unlikely power to mold the kingdom into place of bleak poverty and despair. While the nobility gets richer, they do so on the backs of the outcasts and impoverished and any clemency the true King might have shown to their plight is squandered under his tyranny.


What follows is a plot that weaves a tapestry reminiscent of The Prince and the Pauper, The Count of Monte Cristo and the book's lesser known eponymous fairy tale.


A swath of grace ( one of many --often undeserved and unexpected) finds Javan escaping the death plot set against him though at tragic cost.   Sparing his life, someone who recognizes him for who he says he is, throws him into Maqbara Prison: where if he can survive and win a gruesome gladiator-like champion, he will be granted an audience with the king and a boon of his choosing.

In order to fight for his rightful claim to the throne, Javan will risk his life daily while his faith dwindles and enemies surround, using the skill set he learned at Milistaria not to lead, rather to survive.


The world of the prison --where 80 percent of the novel takes place-- is unbelievably painted in grim and creaky palette.  The warden is a fearsome enemy,  food is scarce and blood is shed.  And yet, Redwine consistently offers smatters of light and hope.    One of Javan's allies is Tarek, an old prisoner with a heart of gold and stable countenance who will put readers in mind of Abbe Faria in The Count of Monte Cristo. Tarek's role in the story affected me deeply.  Another--and far more reticent connection--- is Sajda.  Enslaved at a young age by the warden, she is kept in cuffs and forced to keep the prisoners and the ever-changing range of magical beasts for the circus arena combat in check.


The prisoners --many arrested and confined for minimal disturbance--and often unjustly--- spend their days cleaning the arena that will lead to many of their deaths as well as training (however inexperienced) for the next games day.

Spectators attend lavishly bloodthirsty productions where terrible beasts are thrown in with prisoners--some armed-- some not.   Points are assigned for the killing of each creature and the top competitor will be granted the king's ear.    It is not, Javan soon realizes, that different than ascending the ranks of the academy as his mother wished. 



Javan is a true hero. His heart is splendid. His humility is inspiring. His journey is heartbreaking.   Readers of this blog know that I keep one foot in the Inspirational Fiction world and I can safely say the faith message in this story--- integral to Javan's journey--- and written in a subtle, almost-allegorical way, is 80 times more potent than many of the books I have read intentionally published for faith readers in the past year.   And yet it is in his doubt and tragedy and moments of hopelessness that he becomes a beacon to lean on. He is not perfect. He takes a wrong step. But at heart---at his core--- is everything that the story needs him to be.  He is at times a martyr but only to lead to his destiny.

This book ripped my heart to shreds. I was anxious about finishing it.  Anxious to be leaving the way it alighted my world and spirit.  And even though I carefully rationed it over the past few days, lingering over its poetically sensory experience, I am so glad that I was finally able to encounter the punch-to-your-stomach poignancy of its climax.  This book instills in me the strength to believe, to hope, to endure.  Javan is a hero whose faith in god and his eventual restoration for the sake of his people puts him with the greats.   He is timeless. He is the hero we return to.  He is reminiscent of Dantes, yes, but also of Homer. And, for those of us approaching Easter, his entreaty of Yl' Haliq to intercept his grim fate will put readers in mind of the Greatest Hero of All.


I was profoundly moved by this story.  I was broken and sobbing by the end.   I was touched so deeply by Javan's goodness, by Tarek's selflessness, by Sajdan's vulnerability. Indeed, I can count a few reading moments previously that have left me so wrung:  Jessica Dotta's Price of Privilege trilogy, for one. Stephanie Landsem's The Thief  as another.  Sometimes I just cried because the storytelling was so perfect and the language so beautiful, its consonance tripping of my tongue as I read phrases aloud, the languorous legato of several lines in their perfect magic order...

But lest you think this is all about presenting a theological tenet or speaking to the balance of visceral darkness and staggering light of humanity, it is so much more than that.  This book is a beautifully told story of survival and each competition---ascending in importance --kept my heart in my throat and my pulse pounding.  This, readers, is exceptionally written adventure fiction.   Javan's strategy to make loose connections with prisoners who would see him dead and to balance his immediate penchant for mercy and assistance in a gruesome ring while cognizant of the greater significance of his survival and restoration, is why we read books.  There is a classic sensibility to this piece.

To add, it is a beautifully woven love story between two lonely souls who find each other in the midst of squalor.  Sajdan realizes that Javan is who he says he is because of his actions. It goes beyond his noble manner of speech and the way he commands himself, his erect shoulders and his unending knowledge of all of the kingdoms in their world.  Javan is princely to his core. A true prince who puts the lives of his people before his own.

Initially, he enlists her help by promising her his knowledge.  She is determined to one day shake off her shackles and step into freedom.  She wants to learn about the stars--- the galaxy that she climbs to amidst crates and crackles high into the rafters of Maqbara, like an architect plotting to build a steeple that will pierce close to heaven.

Being her friend was like taking a ride on a half wild stallion with nothing but your wits and your courage between you and a long, dangerous fall.



But as for one of the greatest books I have ever read, it comes in the execution of the plot and the pieces falling into perfect place.    In the subtle moments where the quest shifts from Javan's survival to his recognition that he must win for the goodness of humanity, that there is a far greater weight. It comes in his recognition that Yl' Haliq has presented him with a path of suffering for a greater purpose than all of his prayers for restoration and redemption could ever have imagined.

Yl' Haliq was with him, whether Javan could feel him or not. The sacred texts were clear. 

It comes in the way that Redwine understands the keen sensibility of the reader--- in the meted metrics of intensity--- in her shifting of perspective during arena sequences. Indeed, I nearly gasped at the brilliance of her shifting the point of view to that of the villain  (there is more than one villain in this piece, all brilliantly realized and dimensional).

It is in her perusal of nightmares--living and imagined--- in the power that Sajda hides and then wields with abandon when the life of another is on the line.


And in the stillness of his mind, an idea formed, crystallizing before he realized what was happening. He clenched his folded hands as hope, soft and fragile, unfurled in his chest and took root. He was right where he was supposed to be He was meant to hurt the way his epople hurt. To see the truth of Akram from their eyes. Their grief was his to bear. Their injustices his to make right He was destined to lose what he'd thought was his so that he could gain something even more important---wisdom. 

It is in the blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment when slight narrative intrusion turns our minds: no longer is she referring to Javan by his name but slowly, achingly, she begins to speak to the Prince of Akram.  It is when his world crumbles around him, that the authorial voice restores his rightful place.

It is in the heart and humanity and hope whose resonance spans far beyond a made-up sphere set years and years ago and surged with magic.


Authors use tropes and tales to tell their truth. Redwine inhabits a fairytale like atmosphere to speak to weave a treatise of faith and doubt and unbelievable sacrifice.  This book will strengthen you.

And, at the end of the day, it is just a damned joy to read.


"I kept praying for deliverance. For escape. I was so consumed with the wrong done to me that I failed to stop  and listen. To learn. But I've been listening, Sajda. And I know that I was always meant to be in Maqbara. I was meant to understand the corruption my uncle brought to Akram, the pain it causes my people and the horrors that take place here in the name of sport.... And I was destined to meet you. I wouldn't take back a second my own pain if it meant that you and I would be strangers. But my pain isn't the most important thing to me. Yours is. I would do anything to take backk the heartbreak you feel. Even if it meant I'd never get to be your friend in the first place."



 Like, guys, for the love of cookies.  It is the most lusciously romantic, heart stopping, action packed ,gruesome, alive and wonderful and wisdom-filled and faith-surged piece of fiction in the freakin' land. This author is a genius, her pen is inspired and every word will rumble in your chest and every theme will light your eyes like a bulb and can we please just make her write more in this ilk forever? and ever?

amen.


Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Travels with Rachel

I realize I have neglected this blog and I am sorry. But I have been spending my non day job hours doing some pretty cool things: mainly traveling and writing. 


First, Love in Three Quarter Time has been out in the world since Valentine's Day and its reception has inspired me to write two more Viennese themed novellas.  

I am at work on the second installation of the Van Buren and DeLuca series where Reggie and Hamish adventure in all things romantic and deductive.

A recent trip to Brussels a few weeks ago borne by love of Charlotte Bronte's Villette and her time there as a teacher ended up inspiring a new novel I am working on.  I honestly had no idea when I went to Belgium I would be so creatively inspired.

I also encourage you to follow my Goodreads where I am pretty up to date on logging what I am reading and loving.


In December, I went to Prague which inspired me so much I infused it into an integral scene between my hero and heroine in Love in Three Quarter Time


Here are some pics!
gorgeous Brussels 

I took Villette to all of the places in the novel!

Bruges!

kinda fell in love w Brussels 

The Charles Bridge, Prague, on the shortest night of the year in December 

Prague from the Mala Strana side 

Prague

Ghent

Monday, February 05, 2018

Book Gush: The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson

I don't know how I missed this one. Because I have read a lot of Eva Ibbotson.  But I missed it and that is lucky for me because I have found it and now I have another book for my keeper shelf and what a book.

This book is hilariously sharp.  And while a lot of us read Ibbotson when we were younger because she had just been released as YA and her fairy tales were just the aching sort of thing we would fall into as uber romantic teens who wanted older cultured men and european locales (with the right fringe of war-time danger), adult Rachel is SO happy she read Morning Gift now because double-entendres are my thing and whipsmart innuendo is my thing and this book proves Ibbotson a master at both. 

See, Ibbotson never intended for her books to be categorized as YA and I think this is largely in part of YA not existing when she published the way it does now.  So, this is very much an adult romance with a charmingly youthful and beguiling heroine.


There is something SO refreshing about Ruth. She is so inquisitive and smart ---but never precocious-- and she sees the world in such a delightful way.    She is the perfect counterpart to academic Quin Sommerville who navigates a world of fossil and bone and tries to shrug out of his heritage like a sweater....

....but I get ahead of myself. Because the characters inhabiting this treasure trove of a laugh out loud confectionary are worthy of the brilliant world Ibbotson creates. 

First, we sink into the green depths of opulent Vienna at the brink of Hitler. Even the shadows of the Anschluss cannot stop the beaming sun from highlighting Strauss in the Statdpark or the night time world of the Natural History Museum in Maria-Theresien-Platz, where Ruth, whose partly Jewish parents have already escaped and being left hopelessly alone, has taking up residence.



As in every last Ibbotson book, the author knows her fairytales are only perfectly woven if done so with music, myth and magic to mete what she is embroidering.  And so, the luscious world she describes is matched with Ibbotson's over-turned passion for art, for music, for Vienna. For Mozart.

Oh yes, the Mozart.


‘It’s Mozart, isn’t it?’ she said, sighing, for she knew already that there was everything in Mozart; that if you stuck to him you couldn't go wrong."


Quin shook his head, but he was amazed, for she had pushed back her hair and smiled at him – and in an instant the beleaguered captive in her tower vanished and it was summertime on an alp with cows.



The humour in this book draws the reader out of the encroaching pathos and even while Ibbotson's personal experience with refugees and exiles due to her family's own evacuation from Austria during the war. And as in all books, the theme of outsider is most expressly viewed in the delicious personality of her winsome, elvish heroines.  And Ruth is no exception.


Too late, Ruth realized where she was heading and looked with horror at her empty glass, experiencing the painful moment when it becomes clear that what has been drunk cannot be undrunk. It had been so lovely, the wine, like drinking fermented hope or happiness, and now she was babbling and being indiscreet and would end up in the gutter, a confirmed absinthe drinker destined for a pauper’s grave. 


I also love the Ibbotson take on the Chekhov's gun motif: meaning if she mentions a rucksack in chapter two, say, you better bet that it will come full circle in a moment of love hundreds of pages later.  If Ruth languidly spending her last hours in Vienna before exile at the Danube, speaks to her uncle's romance borne of a message in a bottle, then the theme of rivers will stream through the slow-moving love story of our heroine


So Quin the academic with a title and a grand estate, late of Britain, rescues his old professor's daughter and marries her in paper only to get her out of the country.  He tells her the story of a Morganic marriage: where it is unconsummated and sometimes followed by an act of a gift the morning after the wedding night where the bridegroom gives an expensive gift to his bride, severing the marriage forever. Ruth's imaginative goblet spills over and she is just so in love with the romanticism of this idea and she culls a million momentous references to myths and legends and is so darling about the whole thing.


So Quin and Ruth marry, steal away from Austria to England and her awaiting already- fled family aboard the Orient Express and seem to be rid of each other until their annulment papers can be sent.



Ha!

Turns out Ruth is pursuing a british education and Quin is her professor and it gets even more fun!

There are several Goodreads reviews that cite this as a poor example of "instalove" where the hero and heroine find happiness within the latter third of the book and it is not developed.  I DISAGREE!!!!!!!! (a million exclamation marks).  The careful reader will see the knowing winks from the author pairing them together.   We have figured out their love, they are just catching up and it is slow and agonizing and dotted with misunderstandings and stupidity (as is love in general) and the clumsy waltz they take around each other from the classroom to Quin's family summer home in Bowmont is achingly funny and wonderful and heart-wrenching.



Ruth is so charming. Her worry over not having her post-coital tristesse  ( she has read too many dirty french novels), her propensity to talk to sheep.

Quin is so determined not to be in love that its web around him is just the most deliciously wonderful thing. I snorted. I giggled. I chortled. 


The more he tries not to actively notice her, the more she becomes a part of him:

Nevertheless, Nature had not shaped Ruth for nonexistence....Ruth leaning over the parapet to feed the ducks was not nonexistent, nor encountered in the library  behind a pile of books, a piece of grass between her teeth. She was not nonexistent as she sat under the walnut tree coaching Pilly, nor emerging, drunk with music, from rehearsals of the choir. In general, Quin, without conceit, would have said he was a man with excellent nerves, but a week of Ruth’s anonymity was definitely taking its toll. 


In turn, Ruth's tide is pulled in by Quin but she is so engaged in the new experiences around her that she doesn't have the same slow recognition of his effect.   She also, because she is young and impressionably romantic, believes she is destined for Heini, her stupid cousin who is an insufferable archetype of every insufferable suffer-for-my-art musician to ever live.  And this roundabout dance of two people who thought they would never see each other again always, always within feet of each other as their attraction grows, is just the sweetest thing on the planet.    Quin made a sacrifice rescuing her, giving her his name, but we just do not see how tantamount that is until we see a Quin reconciling with the fact that she might not ever truly be his.

And Ruth.... oh darling Ruth!  ---is naive enough to think that Quin will reject her.   The Morganic marriage motif comes to a shattering conclusion and I cried through Ruth's mistaken heartbreak.






Quin, encountering that rare phenomenon, a person who read footnotes, was ready to be impressed.


Ruth’s eyes glowed with the ardour of those who swear mighty oaths.


Ruth and Quin are two of the most delightfully funny and decadent and unique and esoteric and quirky and challenging characters I have encountered in a book in AGES! I love them! I love their blind love for each other and how they frustrate each other and how they are so passionate about each other even as they mask it by quoting classics at inopportune times.  I love that his heart wrenches when she almost drowns rescuing a puppy so he yells at her something fierce and I love that she runs to him after a botched night with Heini so they can finally get around to consummating their own love. I love that while the shadow of Hitler falls in pitch-perfect research it never detracts from the life and passion around! Life!    It makes me think of a photography exhibit that my friend and I went to a few years ago. Photographs from the Lodz Ghetto: tragic circumstances but captured humanity: women getting married, children playing.   We sometimes have the propensity to see the Second World War through a grainy sepia film of docudrama.  We need books that show what thrived even as it crept like its Leviathan and Ibbotson infuses her personal experiences into a book about love.

Love for music, for love itself, for romance and Mozart and Vienna. 

When the angels sing for God they sing Bach, but when they sing for pleasure they sing Mozart, and God eavesdrops.



Quin and Ruth are an unlikely pairing in an unlikely magic moment of a book that begs to be read within an inch of its life. The humour is to die for! The love story just the right amount of melodrama to whisk you away and remind you that hot cocoa and blankets pair well with things that are imagined and need not accompany realism.

I friggin LOVE this book. And will read it to infinity ....





Friday, January 19, 2018

COMING SOON from YOURS TRULY: A Valentine's Day Romance Novella

My birthday is on Valentine's Day ---the most romantic day of the year ( apt for this romantic) so I thought I would share one of the great romances of my life, Vienna, with you for a Valentine's Day treat:



A romantic waltz through a city filled with music, passion and coffee.


Evelyn Watt fell in love with Austrian marketing director Rudy Moser the moment he stepped into their Boston firm. With his ice blue eyes and chocolate-melting accent, he is as refined as she imagines his home country to be. When Evelyn finds herself unexpectedly unemployed right before Christmas, she is left with an unknown future until Rudy steps in with a job appraising, assessing and cataloging heirlooms, lending her American vernacular to the translated descriptions to give each item international appeal. Evelyn will live in Vienna for the months leading up to a grand auction at a party held in conjunction with the Opera Ball—on Valentine’s Day.

Vienna is a magical blend of waltzing, antiques, and bottomless cups of Einspanner coffee at the Café Mozart. When a secret from Rudy's family's past blows in with the winter chill, Evelyn is forced to confront how well she knows the object of her affection. Her café tablemate, the gruff and enigmatic Klaus Bauner might be the only person who holds the key to Rudy’s past. But could that key also unlock her future? In the days leading up to the Opera Ball, Evelyn finds herself in the middle of the greatest romance of her life…as long as she doesn’t trip over her two left feet.


See some of my inspiration on my Pinterest board: https://www.pinterest.ca/rachkmc/love-in-three-quarter-time/



Love in Three Quarter Time: A Viennese Valentine by [McMillan, Rachel]

You can pre-order Love in Three Quarter Time  for KOBO and KINDLE 

It releases on Feb 14! 





Thursday, January 18, 2018

Book Gush: Intermediate Thermodynamics by Susannah Nix

It is so hard to get me to fall for a contemporary Romance.  It is not often my genre of choice and as readers we all know that we get in moods and rhythms and we need certain books to meet our cravings at certain times.  


Intermediate Thermodynamics might be one of the best Contemporary Romances I have ever read. It is certainly one of the smartest. Definitely one of the best-written and it is the only contemporary romance that has ever made me ugly cry. 


I LOOOOOOOOVE THIS BOOK 

I LOOOOOOOOOVE how it features a freakin' smart as all get out heroine whom the hero is never ONCE intimidated by. Indeed, her brains are what attract him to her! UGH! SO GOOD! FOREVER I LOVE THIS! 



We have a typical romcom set up here: neighbour finds neighbour annoying. He doesn't understand the basic courtesy rules of the laundry room.   Jonathan smokes on his balcony and it wafts into  Esther's  apartment. His wind chimes keep her up at night.  

We have the bargain trope: she'll look at annoying neighbour's sci fi manuscript (he's a screen writer! Well, it is set in L.A) through her aerospace engineer eyes and he will take her best friend Jinny out on three dates to keep Jinny from getting back together with her dbag ex-boyfriend.

Jonathan and Esther start working on manuscripts and slowly ease into each other's lives like a comfy sweater and...well... the rest isn't rocket science. 

Intermediate Thermodynamics: A Romantic Comedy (Chemistry Lessons Book 2) by [Nix, Susannah]"Objectively, she supposed he might be considered attractive--so long as he didn't open his mouth and start talking" 

See, even a revisited trope or plot (as Northrop Frye says, there are only like three different stories in western literature), can become something entirely new when a fresh voice is at the helm.   Nix excels at embroidering a tapestry of likeable and relatably flawed characters, a world that is fascinating and merges science fiction, with, well, sciency-science, blurt-your-tea-out laughter and a starkly honest look at two people recognizing that their Social Anxiety is what has kept them from crossing their respective thresholds.

It is also a treatise on love and attraction borne out of an endearing friendship. In short, it is an intricate study of human nature wrapped up in a sparkly rom com bow and it is oh so fun to read!

"Then she would go back twenty four hours and punch herself in the face for making this stupid bargain" 

And beyond the friendship that turns into something deeper in Jonathan and Esther's court, we have a study in female friendship and work friendship --- all cogs in the wheel that allow us to understand Esther (prickly and scared and closed off) in her journey toward authentic vulnerability.

Vulnerability and honesty, the book asserts, is the sacrifice that can lead to restored friendship, love and, at the forefront, personal fulfillment. 


"She'd pygmalion the s**t outta him"

Esther is so concerned at seeing the limitations of and propensity for change in others that she spends most of the novel failing to invest in her own self improvement.  The counterbalance she finds in Jonathan and his friendship complementing her as well as stretching her in ways she wouldn't have imagined possible, is at the core of the book.


Esther learns and in the softest timbre.   For example, the first time she gives Jonathan feedback on a manuscript it is thoroughly critical and less constructive. The second time, she makes a small nudge toward  framing her comments in a more palatable way.  


"It was one of those aimless indie dramas about two people who meet by chance and change each other's lives forever blah blah blah...."



And when Esther's perspective of Jonathan changes, so does her ability to stretch and shift and see the world through a different, enriched lens.  

Esther never thought she needed to be in love .Love meant hurt. Love meant confronting the unresolved issues with her family: a father that left, a mother that is in constant need and rarely self sufficient. Absence and suffocation with no middle ground. Yet, this book delves into intricate and deep places without turning in to a "subject" piece.   A lesser writer and this would be an issue book or wade into women's issues that make you want to skip it all and watch Hallmark.  The buoyant tone, the attention to every detail, the perfect world building in the sphere of Esther's apartment life with Jonathan to her knitting group to her super sciency day job ---are all expertly explored. There is not one wasted scene.


"She wasn't waiting for a man to come along and complete her." 


Sometimes the truth through fiction stings. Sometimes watching Esther's choices forces you to confront your own anxiety, your own sift through feelings of rejection.   "If you never let yourself care about people," Esther has taught herself, "it didn't hurt as much when they didn't care back." 


When Esther lets herself give into attraction, it has been a slow build borne of chemistry-- and not the boring dime-a-dozen physical kind, the kind that comes from learning someone is the other puzzle piece missing.  

What was with her? Drooling over a glimpse of calf like a sex-starved Victorian duke in a romance novel!"


And when it reaches an inevitable boiling pot and Esther accepts that she is going to have to take a step to reach the strides he is taking, it is painful to watch ---but still interspersed with heartmelting acts of friendship and love.   The boring indy romance screenplay has been rewritten --like Esther's life and view of the world-- and somehow she is able to meet it in the middle with her new perspective and its new timbre and it is something achingly winsome.  "It was almost like reading a diary of their friendship." 




What Intermediate Thermodynamics resoundingly excels at is providing a thesis of change.   We are talking deep and subtle tics and beats that layer the book like a freakin' cake.  And then some. 


We fall for Jonathan before Esther can catch up.  We want to shake her and hold her all while so deeply identifying with her fear of love and rejection that we want to hold her in a vulnerable ball while confronting our own limitations. We recognize that, as Nix writes "The point is to do something that's hard for you because it's meaningful for someone else."

It is a book about sacrifice and evaluation, of letting people love you, of believing yourself deserving of ownership of one's personal and professional strengths and weaknesses. 

Indeed, to take a deep look at the finer tenets of Jonathan and Esther's relationship (to wit, even Jinny and Yemi's relationship with Esther) is to hold a mirror up to our weaknesses and Esther's gradual and realistic inch toward triumph echoes with an acceptance that brings the reader-author relationship full circle.  



Intermediate Thermodynamics is a layered and subtle and magnificent look at modern relationships through a perfectly constructed lens of timeless themes. It is funny and smart and aching and beautiful and will make your heart grow three times. You will laugh aloud, you will cry, you will revisit your weakest moments and find yourself stronger for the confrontation and ultimately you will want to find yourself falling mind-numblingly, friendship-inducingly, marshmallow-gooingly in love 

(pending that, at least finding the next in Susannah Nix's library) 


Thursday, January 11, 2018

IN WHICH THE LACEMAKER is THE BEST THING TO EVER HAPPEN TO THE WORLD

GUYS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


For the love of freakin' turtles. 

What do we even do with a book like this?  Apparently, I can only just slosh a bunch of thoughts together with little cohesion, so settle in.

What I want to do is have the words at my disposal to give it douse it with the lauds and laurels it deserves. But it was such a whizbang of a finger-tip-tingling-exuberant experience that I don't know if I should try or just GUSH the HECK OUTTA IT !


So basically, here's the thing: EVERY TIME I READ A LAURA FRANTZ BOOK I AM LIKE: "THIS! THIS IS THE BEST LAURA FRANTZ BOOK IN THE HISTORY OF FRANTZ"


and then another one comes along--

The Lacemaker shows up and is all "hold my beer" (or in this case tepid Revolutionary cider in a pewter mug)


There is just so much that this book gets RIGHT!

Image result for the lacemaker frantzIt's almost like you never realized the limitations of other historical fiction until you read a book that is pretty much perfection. AND. THERE. ARE. FREAKIN. SPIES

spies. SPIES!

It's almost like you sing odes to the history of pen and paper and computers that allowed this to reach you.  Thank you, Gutenburg!  THANK YOU CAVEMEN WHO SCRAWLED IN CAVES...



Elisabeth "Liberty" Lawson is daughter to a Tory authoritarian just as rebels and revolutionaries are boiling under the surface and Williamsburg is a barrel of gunpowder that with the slightest flick of a wick could explode.     When the pot boils over, Elisabeth is left abandoned by her father, her friends, the few Tory supporters remaining and even her would-be fiancee Miles.

It is Miles' cousin, Noble ( in any other book this would be an on-the-nose name, but I am giving it to Frantz because yah! take it! run with it into the sunset! more on Noble later ) who steps in (not for the first time) to prove stoically heroic and install Lady Elisabeth and her maid into his own estate.


Noble embodies the gift of hospitality. Go back to your Fruits of the Spirit in Sunday School. Look upward at that felt board with literal fruit with attributes in bold black marker--I bet, like in my class, Long Suffering IS ALWAYS the banana--- this is Noble.  He is a hero of quiet strength whose sister's recent death left him even more bereft of his home and nationality.  Ty Mawr, it seems, and the late Enid's care for it, embroider a lush picture of home: the first he truly had since emigrating from his beloved Wales. Noble's care for Elisabeth--beyond the realm of political affiliation and borne of pure Christian charity--- places him at odds with the kettle-boiling-over  political world around him.   His gentle tenacity to do the right thing, even for the enemy, will play out time and again throughout the mounting tension of the book until its gut-wrenching climax.

Now in historical romances, we often fall for the typified alpha guy!  He is a cowboy! he is a gunslinger! he can wield a rifle and force those rapscallion Redcoats into their holes!  But Frantz wants to provide the reader with a more intricate view of the many nuanced tenets of character. There is no witty banter, he is not out to be redeemed, he does not challenge the heroine ---he only surprises her with his unthinkable acts of hospitality: which benefit not only Liberty but her servants and family-- people on the other side of America's mounting conflict.

When is the last time we actually celebrated a romantic hero whose finest trait is in feeding and sheltering? When the latter part of the book arrives and Noble is thrust into a battle (both in the military arena and beyond), we are able to appreciate its effected counterbalance more.  We have seen his true heart and now we can comprehend how a man of quiet conviction would take such drastic action.  Frantz's delicate thesis is justified because she brings us clearly from point A of Noble's Awesomeness to Point B of Noble's awesomeness.


His heart and goodness and tiny smudges of grace--- escorting a lady home--- attending to her well being at a dance--- doesn't mean Noble can't lift a musket to his broad shoulder and fight alongside his comrades. That is not to say he doesn't frequent the Raleigh tavern and sound his conviction over pints  with well-known historical figures (Wash and Jeff and John Laurens--- here's looking at you, Hamilton--play well at fitting into the pulse of the story without drawing attention from the central characters and conflict. Acting, instead, as pieces of the historical puzzle which deftly contribute to this elaborate world).


There is a lot of talk in the blogger and publisher world that divides heroes into two types: alpha (think  Rhett Butler ) or Beta (think Peeta), Noble is the completely well-rounded male character that never once sifts into a category. He is, as most people are, at the intersection of a Venn diagram.


To add, Liberty is a strong woman whose strength often asserts itself in being intelligent enough to see beyond her own determination for agency to accept help.   Her strength is her femininity. Her agency is found in an ultra feminine profession (lacemaking) and she is winsomely smart enough to recognize that the skill she fostered in a high social standing will find itself measured differently in a topsy turvy new world.   Liberty is a passionate woman who is forced to stand on her own two feet, yes, but grateful for the help of others. She stumbles, she picks herself up, she navigates a new world but never with a boisterous or reckless spirit. Her calculated decisions are borne of a book's slowly mounting tension and realized with fabulous aplomb. 

ANNNNDDDDD we need to talk about the fact that THANK ALL COOKIES IN THE JAR Frantz addresses the problematic tendency to confuse infatuation with love. 

Liberty and Noble differentiate their growing attraction with love. Indeed, love only peeks up out of its gopher shell in true abiding form at a pivotal point of the story ( the gut wrenching you will DIE A THOUSAND DEATHS part)



This book is as exceptionally well-researched as every Frantz book and the plot spins at a beautiful pace, threaded with Frantz's lyrical description.  Indeed, it put me in mind of the same heart-tug I felt reading the Mark of the King. Its faith threads are subtle and socio-cultural and very apt for the time--they are also explored through deft symbol and sacrifice. 



And a rant, kittens, most of the time written dialect makes me scrunch up my nose and want to throw things.  The insertion of "och aye bairn" unnerves me. There is a way to paint the accent instead in descriptors. But, Frantz, she can do it all.  Trust her.  Be it French, Welsh or Scotch, you are going to fall into the carefully meted timbre of dialogue.     You know what, kitty cats, there is something about dialogue that suggests if you take ANY of it out of context and place it on stage, it would set a dimensional scene. That is the level of talent Frantz has--- she is just--- in a league of her own.





I also feel we need to thank Colonial Williamsburg because whomever has helped Frantz with her research has helped give the reader the fine-tuned extraordinarily detailed experience we have wandering through this world.  Immersing yourself in The Lacemaker is as intricate a tour through Williamsburg during the Revolutionary wars as a youtube video mechanized to show us through the streets would be.   If I didn't know Laura Frantz was alive and well and pinteresting her way through her beautiful life, I would swear this book was written years and years ago.

The best historical fiction takes time not only to narrate the past; but to inspire the reader to fall overwhelmingly into it.  Verisimilitude. Dialogue intentions. Aura. World-building.  Sight and scent and canvas.  There is an ornate and startling poetry to the caresses her pen takes to a period she knows obviously as well as the one we live in.



The patriotism instilled in this book is one that is accessible beyond America.  It is not all Mel-Gibson-Waving-a-Flag in The Patriot. This subtle humility toward better understanding of a still-flawed and frayed world-- as navigated by Liberty and Noble ( see the names? their every person representation as two of the pinnacles of any successful experiment--including the American one)   stretches beyond  run- of- the -mill jingoism, this instills the universal desire and need for fairness and equality.



Sometimes a talent is so arresting that you are so blessed that it exists. Sometimes art is so enriching that it makes you happy to be well and alive so that you can experience it.  The Lacemaker is one such gift.  It is a journey, a love letter, a tapestry. It is a book of resounding beauty at once still and shattering.   It will move you to tears as a warm glow for the good of human nature and the advocacy of the best parts of humanity eke through you.


So I underlined a billion trillion lines in this book.  A BILLION TRILLION! #nohyperbole --- but I have made the conscious decision to let this be part of the surprise and romance of unwrapping this word-gift. Let this be the slow moving peel back of startling words in perfect order.


Find yourself in this book, friends, and return to it again. It will enrich you as a reader, its goodness and heart shining through with a smartly lit radiance, slow burning with an ending SWOOSH of a boom.


LA! THIS BOOK IS THE BOMB, yo!

read it FOREVER


with gratitude forever and ever to Revell for making me stay up so late at night I was walking red-eyed zombie at work.

With gratitude forever to the makers of my favourite sauvignon blanc which helped me drown my BEST KIND OF DELICIOUS SORROW when this book ripped me apart.


Buy the Lacemaker NOW 

Find Laura Frantz online 




Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Book Gush: OLIVIA TWIST by LORIE LANGDON

There are a million and one reasons why OLIVIA TWIST is everything I hang my bookish hat on.

“That small inner voice that most women ignore because they’re too concerned with living the life others expect."

“With Jack’s presence, the room brightened as if several more candelabras followed him into that room. A smile that seemed to originate deep in Olivia’s chest stretched her lips without her consent.”


It is everything a book experience SHOULD BE.  It is everything LIFE should be. It is a gaslit Victorian carousel of pickpockets and villains, rickety pubs, railing danger and clandestine meetings with handbrushes that send tingles to your toes and harrowing meetings on London Bridge.  Olivia Twist marries a well known trope while finding footing in a dazzling new world.   Though not fantastical as it is rooted deep in perfectly-researched Victorian London, the heart-pounding feeling you get as the curtain is pulled back on its colourful universe makes you feel you are stepping into another world.   It is my favourite type of read.

Image result for olivia twistIt takes you into a place of nostalgia while offering a unique tug into a world at once familiar and surprising.  It elicits all manner of giggles and gasps and blanket-gripping tension as you think you know how it will end, but you are not quite sure. It reminds you why you love reading in the first place.

Olivia Twist finds a brilliant balance between source material  novel and famous adaptation and adds another layer to this delicious cake.   Cameos from the book like Monks and Fagin are paired with the sheer heart behind the musical that introduced many of us to Dickens (the musical, it should be said, is a gateway drug). And while the book is gifted with subtle lovely nods to red roses and mornings whose sunshine you want to buy and bottle, it springboards into its own realm of adventure. 

Basically, if you love Oliver Twist—in any form---you have come to the right party.  If you love Dickens, you have come to the right party. If you love cross-dressing female heroines, you have come to the right party.

If you love ROMANCE that will strangle you breath and pulse your heart into a gallop from the first unexpected meeting between two people who used to know each other ( one knowing a little more about one than the other), then you have found a virtual literary rager.


A heroine of agency and heart who reminded me a lot of Wonder Woman for some reason ( weird contemporary link, I know ); but like WW, Olivia has a kind heart, even if you never want to run into a bout of fisticuffs with her.  Like WW, Olivia would see a baby and melt, taste ice cream and melt, care of her elderly guardian by day playing the winsome socialite while sneaking out be-wigged to help a band of orphans at night.

It is this perfect balance of scrappy and sophisticated that pairs a wonderful example of the complexity of women. To be strong, Langdon asserts, does not mean shrugging out of femininity. Likewise, to enjoy finesse and have a caring maternal view does not undermine strength.    

“She blinked up at him and he was Dodger again. The rough-and-tumble street kid with the heart of gold.”

Then there’s Dodger who is at once sweet cinnamon roll of vulnerability and savvy, scrappy pickpocket late of Fagin’s influence.  He is our guide to the underworld while, like Olivia, balancing a life of high social standing and finding it a bit like a sweater with sleeves too long for him.

While I was delightfully on the edge of my seat to reacquaint myself with well known characters against a well known canvas in a new backdrop, I think the most surprising aspect of the novel for me was its amazing portrayal of sacrifice: something I was not expecting.  It is here that the subtle and deft touch of faith is interwoven within a compelling world at large.   If your soul is not strangled in breath-gulps by the end ---by either the beautiful writing or the sob inducing choice one is willing to make in the spirit of true love—then go sit in a corner with a lump of black coal.


Oh! And the writing?  See, the writing.  Friends, sometimes a book springboards to life because its sizzles and sparks with the author’s heart.  You can feel the author’s passion through the page. This is one of those books. Reading this I felt I had found new fictional friends, yes, but also a kindred spirit in the pen behind the page.  In OLIVIA TWIST, Langdon’s obvious love for this world of story plays fast and loose to win us completely. It’s her gift. It’s an act of sharing.  This passion is a portal for gorgeously lyrical writing that at turns grips and surprises.

“Haze draped the skyline of the city like the oozing, yellow center of a stale egg” (I mean, come on! It whiffs of Dickens but with an originality of its own)

“Peels of fog slithered and curled over the cobbles.” ( COME ON!)


“Their skirts sweeping against the cobblestones like a thousand whispers” (because consonance is the spice of life.  Like Dickens before her, Langdon’s prose begs to be read aloud) 


With all the thanks to Blink YA for the review copy of an anticipated book that shattered my expectations and winnowed its way to my FOREVER READ SHELF 


Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Litfuse Tour: CHRISTY by Catherine Marshall 50th Anniversary Celebration






“A Christian has no business being satisfied with mediocrity. He's supposed to reach for the stars. Why not? He's not on his own anymore. He has God's help now.”

Our art should be as the landscape of a garden, the  crafted spires of a cathedral, the dissonant and eerie chord that strikes the prelude of a symphony. And, of course, our words.  Catherine Marshall's literary offering is beautiful and challenging--- a sermon on page.

I believe that love is the most creative force in the world, says Neil MacNeill and Marshall herself must have backed up her fictional theology, using the finely wrought tale of a well-sculpted Appalachian world to speak her Gospel and truth in love...

oh yes, Truth! Truth and doubt and fighting and depression and anxiety and disbelief.  Candor,  the book reminds us, is as essential to approaching God's throne as reciting scripture perfectly or, in my childhood, speaking in Holy Tongues (stop, Rachel, your Pentecostal background is showing ;) ) 


“Some of what I wrote bordered on blasphemy....If there was a God, He would have to be truth. And in that case, candor--however impertinent--would be more pleasing to Him than posturing.”

There are few books in the world that have shaped my faith perspective and worldview the way Christy has.  I didn't read it in childhood, rather in the summer between high school and university.

I would be leaving home.  I would be leaving my small town and the congregation my dad had pastored at for years. I would leave the soft cocoon of safety in theological tenets and evangelism.  I was a girl finally confronted with the prospect of having to figure out my beliefs beyond the traditions and trajectory of my role as a small town pastor's daughter.   I was moving to the big city-- to Toronto-- I had to figure out, once and for all, what I believed.


Christy reached me at this integral moment in my life.  Indeed,  I credit Catherine Marshall, Dorothy L. Sayers and Lynn Austin for saving my faith at its weakest moments.  When I could not find God in the traditional Church sphere, I sought him in words.    And Christy herself mentions this great gift of being able to approach uninhibited.


As a reader and a romantic,  Christy shaped my ideal man: Neil MacNeill helps Christy sharpen her own convictions and find her voice. His faith in her inspires her to find a deeper and stronger faith of her own.  While David stumbles around with his own limitations, agnostic Neil MacNeill believes Christy has a fire and a worth beyond her recitations of Quaker Alice Henderson, to whom she holds great regard.    MacNeill is a man of science who cares deeply for his mountain home and its people in the same reckless way in which Christ bestows His love for us--- the parallels--- and Marshall's brilliance in grafting the world of grace and logic is one of the many layers of this intricate world.

David Grantland, on the other hand, the seemingly perfect and perfunctory Preacher is forced to reconcile the pulpit with the heart and hands an impoverished ( and sometimes feuding) community needs.

(Also, it's darn funny.  Find other books that so brilliantly describe a stupid donkey named Theo or pigs or moonshine, or the first time Christy attends a backwoods wedding and the consummation to be witnessed by the entire Cutter Gap community.


On and on, the CBA community rails against the purity of CBA fiction and how we need grittier subject matters and realism addressed. Ironically, it is one of the first books thus labeled ( so influential the highest award lauded in the CBA community is named for the book), that digs deep---into premarital sex, into a woman led astray by a man who is supposed to be a spiritual crux, of a mountain community where the birds and the bees are a part of life.    There is nothing about Christy that is hoisted on platitudes. She is a real woman with a real soul and questions...


oh my heavens! The questions.   If ever I felt that my faith had to be infallible. If ever the construct of my childhood inspired me to keep any doubts to myself, Christy Huddleston voices them and then some... I learned that to falter was to trip closed to God.  I learned that God wants us to doubt and rail and seek so that we will find Him greater still.

But, here I am talking about it on and on from my Christian worldview when it is one of the rare books that will equally appeal to nonbelievers. For all of Christy's wondering as to the Gospel, her world is intercut with normal flesh and blood people to whom grace is extended but little deserved.  These are not the types of characters one would hold on a platform: one of Christy's greatest life lessons is learning that Alice Henderson is just human. It is only God who is perfect, we must find our own limitations to recognize and stretch the depth of His grace.


Christy should be a springboard to seek the mind and heart of Catherine Marshall on a deeper level.  She is a portal through which we can find the questions that so often shape our minds as we navigated this Through -a  -Glass- Dimly world of complex faith.      I encourage readers of faith to seek out all of her non fiction. Beyond Our  Selves, especially, found me at a crisis moment and was more than a balm.


When people ask about my favourite books, I have dozens and dozens to list -- for many different reasons --- but Christy is a slice of my heart. It was a pivotal book that met its reader at a pivotal moment.


And now a superficial note:

Christy has long been plagued with awful covers.  It sounds trite, but honestly!  Thank heavens that Evergreen Publishing has honoured the momentous anniversary of this classic ( and I do not use that term lightly), in a bound hardcover you will not be embarrassed to be caught reading on the subway.



This Christmas give yourself a treat, fall into the poetic world of Christy: it resonates with pitch-perfect vernacular, its Appalachian verisimilitude is as deftly layered as the music of its language and its central love story has shaped my romantic conceptions throughout my life.






With thanks to Litfuse the review. Learn more here:


About the book:

New edition of Catherine Marshall's inspirational classic! 
The train taking nineteen-year-old teacher Christy Huddleston from her home in Asheville, North Carolina, might as well be transporting her to another world. The Smoky Mountain community of Cutter Gap feels suspended in time, trapped by poverty, superstitions, and century-old traditions.
But as Christy struggles to find acceptance in her new home, some see her - and her one-room school - as a threat to their way of life. Her faith is challenged and her heart is torn between two strong men with conflicting views about how to care for the families of the Cove.
Yearning to make a difference, will Christy's determination and devotion be enough?
About the author:
Catherine Marshall (1914-1983), The New York Times best-selling author of 30 books, is best known for her novel Christy. Based on the life of her mother, Christy captured the hearts of millions and became a popular CBS television series. Around the kitchen table at Evergreen Farm, as her mother reminisced, Catherine probed for details and insights into the rugged lives of these Appalachian highlanders. Catherine shared the story of her husband, Dr. Peter Marshall, Chaplain of the United States Senate, in A Man Called Peter. A decade after Dr. Marshall's untimely death, Catherine married Leonard LeSourd, Executive Editor of Guideposts, forging a dynamic writer-editor partnership. A beloved inspirational writer and speaker, Catherine's enduring career spanned four decades and reached over 30 million readers.
Find out more about Catherine at http://gileadpublishing.com/christy/.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Christmas: A Biography by Judith Flanders


An exceptional look at Christmas --- traditions ancient and modern and a surprisingly indepth view of cultural norms across the world. From a bird's eye view of Christmas at large, to a zoom in on the eclectic, dark and downright absurd, Flanders uses her accessible voice to extol the most magical time of year.


"Each of us is a storehouse of Christmases," she writes, "A repository of all the happiness and sometimes sadness of seasons past."

From mummers to wassail to Passion plays to Puritans, Christmas is an all-encompassing, dazzling and addictive look at masks and music, food and patronage, parades and pomp. From Martin Luther to Pepys--- Jefferson to Washington to Dickens to Henry VIII --- Christmas is highlighted at times political, sometimes moral, sometimes amoral and eventually a stick of velcro to which a hodgepodge of religious traditions stuck and stayed. Theological tenets inspired beautiful Christmas carols while 20th Century Commercialism placed Santa on floats and in malls. Food was constant, Massachusetts outlawed the holiday, sometimes it was fashionable, sometimes it was not... Scotland didn't recognize Christmas as a holiday until the 1950s.

"The holiday seduced the population to drunkenness, gluttony, unlawful gaming, wantonness, uncleanness, lasciviousness, cursing, swearing and all to idleness."


There is just so much in this festive tapestry. From American slave traditions to the immigrant colonial influence on the hodgepodge of traditions, Christmas is a pot to which an almost universal recipe has been added. 



And then there is the modernity "Dickens showed the world that modernity and Christmas are eminently suited to each other" Several chapters on the influence on the Victorians on our contemporary practices was a perfect side piece to The Man Who Invented Christmas. Christmas presents were wrapped because coal and suit were the constant bane of Victorian households. "Your packages reflect your personality", thus became an easy way to capitalize on festive ornamentation.

As a Torontonian, I was excited to learn that the first Christmas department store parade ( and the one that inspired Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade) took place at Eatons in the early 20th Century. Likewise, Eatons eventually televised the parade--- inspiring, again, Macy's in the States --- a tradition that is known to this day.

No matter your race, religion or creed. No matter if you prefer real trees to fake .... from Hanukkah to Kwanzaa, Christmas will challenge you to think about how Christmas fits into the fabric of your family. It is also a treatise on nostalgia: noting how when so many spoke of olden days they were merely thinking of times before Christmas was as we know it now.


I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is engrossing, exceptionally well-researched and a hole in which you will easily fall down, excavating one wonderland after another.... It even takes a gendered approach to the holiday, carefully examining the role of men and women in the Christmas preparations and advertisements. Christmas becomes a time for us to reflect on the "idealized version of ourselves" armed with a Christian infusion borne of a need to dispel the wantonness and debauchery of a roman Pagan festival. Then, it became a balm. "Christmas has assimilated traditions from half a dozen cultures and countries and therefore appears endlessly flexible."

While Flanders shows us that rules and regulations for the holiday have changed immensely over the centuries, she believes, as I do that at the centre and crux is a spirit of the best of humanity. So take your symbols, transpose traditions, transform Christmas from your descendants into a resurrected and refurbished season of its own. "Part of the meaning of Christmas", she writes" is repetition." We are all easy portals for the Christmases that have filled us. And whatever it means to you is valid and wonderful--- but knowing HOW we got here is the buoyant joy of a wonderful book.



With thanks to Netgalley for the review copy. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Book Gush: Series Alert --- Amory Ames series by Ashley Weaver




This series is total Rachel Catnip!!! England in the 1930s, a glamorous playboy and his smart amateur detective wife, glittering scenes, a love story that is my favourite type full of misunderstandings and stolen gazes and two people who love each other deeply but JUST ARE NOT COMMUNICATING and it is all very Percy and Marguerite!



I am sorry I didn't gush about them one by one but time slips by! 


I really very much devoured the books in this series and I am so sorry it took me so long to get to talking about them with you.  They have all the deep characterization and POV remnant of Maisie Dobbs.  Amory is a very pragmatic character in her internal workings and I love seeing the world and the people she encounters first-hand.   I also don’t let myself fall into the trap of guessing the murderer because I am too busy in the moment: reveling in the sights and smells of a perfectly illustrated masquerade,  visiting the seaside in an Agatha Christie-esque getaway of murder and a myriad of well-developed suspects.  I want to fall into the world and see it slowly... ruminatively as Amory does. I want to see every interaction through her eyes and experience the slow build , the mysteries, the inevitable mayhem.   Inasmuch as a reader wants to slip into the world and setting --- it is integral that they have the most winsome guide through which to appropriate perspective. Amory is very much the type of first person protagonist I want to spend time with.  

As for Milo, playboy about town who has the scandalous habit of tripping into the flash of a photo lens at the wrong time, I spent the first few books trying to cast out ideas of him like a line to water--- wanting him to be more than he is in hopes to justify his behaviour.  Then, I realized that I didn’t need to impress my own ideas onto a character who is just enough with his mishaps. It doesn’t need to be toward a greater purpose on a larger stage of adventure.  Part of Amory’s development is in her understanding of Milo and the shifts in their relationship.  While the obvious Nick and Nora Charles comparison is inevitable, I liken Amory and Milo more to Harriet and Peter in ways--- for Weaver takes more time to examine the heart of their relationship beyond the (and it is delightful!) banter. 


So what we have here to stir in our pot is every ingredient of the golden age of mystery: dazzling setting, continental adventure, clothes and capers and suspects and murders-to-solve – but what differentiates it is (something I often find when reading contemporary published books set in the golden age) keen, beguiling characterization.  Each character---forefront and in periphery--- are carefully developed.   And Amory and Milo –from flirting around their passion and love for each other, to playing at amateur sleuths, to trying to figure out the best way to hold onto what makes them complete as a couple is the deftest, most lovely study ever.   I root for this couple --- as a reader I love the happy sigh when they cross a hurdle large or small – as much as I love the excruciatingly slow moments ticking through their latest misunderstanding.





If you like Rhys Bowen or Vivian Conroy, Sayers or Christie, or Deanna Raybourn, then this is the series for you. 






Tuesday, October 10, 2017

What's Your Favourite Herringford and Watts story?



I was in Grand Rapids on the weekend and met a bunch of fun readers and signed some books and a question I often get asked is “What is your favourite of the Herringford and Watts books?”

All authors know this is a tough question--- as there is a lot of me in each of the three novels and three novellas and there are reasons I love each and every one of them.  But, when it comes to a personal favourite, I have to say Lesson in Love and Murder.  I really enjoyed writing the book and researching it ( what is more fun than spending some time in historic Chicago?).  Chicago is a city in which I have had some amazing times with friends, seen some amazing theatre ( Hamilton!) and stumbled upon amazing moments of history.   As a stand in for the usual character of Toronto, it was so much fun to play with Edwardian Chicago …. A city that is probably most like Toronto.  


I loved the history and weaving in historical figures like Emma Goldman and Theodore Roosevelt.  Spending hours reading the transcripts of Roosevelt’s words to the convention at the Coliseum as well as learning the ins and outs of this long ago building were just so exciting to me.  I loved having the idea of anarchy and submission underscore the mystery and adventure Jem, Merinda, Jasper and Ray find themselves in.


I was able to draw on a lot of my family history for this book.  My dad is a chaplain with the RCMP (then, the Royal Northwest Mounted Police) and mounties—thanks to my dad – and his cousin Jonathan (Johnny) who died in the line of duty --- were a major influence on the story. As was dad’s stories from the Icelandic settlement in Riverton, spending time with his grandmother and grandpa at the farm.  Tying in my Icelandic heritage was a lot of fun----

The epigraphs:  I wrote all of the epigraphs and footnotes for the Herringford and Watts series and while I loved creating the guidebooks penned by fictional M C Wheaton and Flora Merriweather, etc.,. there was something about creating Benny and Jonathan’s Guide to the Canadian Wilderness which made me laugh and was a cross between Due South, an actual Mountie handbook from 1909, memoirs from a new Mountie recruit and Robert Service.   I had a lot of fun penning these.

The characters:  Jem, Merinda, Jasper and Ray remain some of my dearest friends even as I take a break from their world to pursue Hamish DeLuca’s story in 1930s Boston.  I loved the interaction between all of them here--- and throwing Benny Citrone in the mix as the perfect counterpart to Merinda—and to keep Jasper on his toes.   The main quartet is faced with trauma and uncertainty that ripples for years and years after  and each deepens a little.   I love the look at the early days of Jem and Ray’s marriage--- after their whirlwind courtship and their reckless idea to get married so soon.   There is a lot of romance in their story and as a hopeless romantic, I love any scenes with Jem and Ray.    It is the time when we see Jem’s role changing most pronouncedly:  learning she is to become a mother, losing her one strand of independence as a shopgirl at Spenser’s --- she is once and for all transposed into the domestic sphere no matter how she wants to break away and run off from Merinda.  At one moment, she runs off from Merinda for Ray and that was a challenging shift in their central relationship.

Image result for lesson in love and murderJasper and Merinda also experience some friction. They quarrel and Merinda is forced to –more than before—decide what her relationship with Jasper is meant to be.

Benny Citrone—first off, I love the close brotherly relationship between Benny and Jonathan --- it is a story of sacrifice and loyalty and I really enjoyed working it out---   But then Benny and Merinda! They’re perfect for each other in one way but from two totally different worlds. You can love something and let it go…


Finally, Ray and Viola.  Viola is Ray’s homeland--- the DeLuca siblings stayed so close together due to the loss they experienced re-routing their lives from Italy to Canada and Viola is very much Ray’s north star.   A tragedy at the end of Lesson in Love and Murder not only shifts the relationship between the two siblings but has a long after-effect--- an effect so long cast out that it influences the generation after --- Luca Valari ( Ray’s nephew ) and Hamish (Ray and Jem’s son) still feel the brunt of this action and tragedy in their stories decades later.





 There are a million and one reasons why I loved writing the Herringford and Watts series--- some of the most fun I have  ever had--- but Lesson in Love is just that extra special mélange of every ingredient that I so loved about playing in this world. 

Monday, October 09, 2017

We need to talk about "The Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck" by Bethany Turner



I LOVE THIS AUTHOR and I WILL READ ANYTHING SHE WRITES FOREVER --- fyi. And she deserves a space in the Inspy writing and publishing world and she will continue to teach us about ourselves and encourage us to hold up a lens and look inside...

I read this book basically in one sitting (well two sittings on two different flights and over a layover) en route to Michigan to speak and sign and speak.   ( best weekend ever).


And I should preface by saying this is not Rachel catnip material --- at least when it comes to love story--- but it IS Rachel catnip material in that the author is a brilliantly competent one I can learn things from.  Reading as a writer is essential and there was so much that Turner can teach writers in any genre on plotting, pacing and interweaving backstory.


But, it wasn't a Rachel catnip book and isn't that wonderful and awesome!?? Because what may not be my cup of tea is EXACTLY WHAT YOU LOOK FOR IN STORIES AND ROMANTIC TROPES and that is why I think it is important for me to write about---- what I spell out may be your very favourite devices starring your very favourite kinds of romances and that is wonderful and that is why reading is diverse and taste is diverse and preference is diverse and that is the way it should be.

Also, I am being critical of these aspects from MY PERSONAL TASTE PROFILE --- so I cannot really say anything negative about them OTHER than from my personal preference.  The joy of individuality.

I am not at a position of any type of expertise --other than a long time reader. And what I find might be limiting in the book for non Christian readers; you might think could act as a gateway.  So we need to talk about this book.  It is a great stepping point for a lot of dialogue --especially for readers of inspirational fiction. And it is the best type of book to talk about because it was penned by a dizzyingly talented writer.


I also have faith based and non faith based readers and 60 % of my life is in a non-faith-based world, so I have to point a few things about this book as a general heads' up.  I personally feel this book is best enjoyed by people within a church setting or background because of its intense peer into Christian culture and the rules and restrictions therein.   Without ill-intention, I can see how the rules meted out by the heroine's friend Piper and Sarah's new church community might be seen as a point of judgment to readers though my personal opinion is that the author did not intend this.  This story, its publisher, its author are products of an environment where this is the norm.   I also point out that the word "butch" is used in a derogatory way and I was surprised that the editors of the novel didn't catch and edit that word which is becoming (thank heavens) quickly obsolete.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I also have to mention that in Sarah's journey, the conversion to Christianity finds her on the receiving end of advice that motivates her to reassess her writing in the secular romance world.   While reading, I thought of my many many many romance writing friends on the other side of the Christianese fence and the many romance books I love and the many authors I follow and found this could be read as polarizing.  The usual abstinence talks and alcohol free living talks followed and poor Piper almost made me roll my eyes with her initial holier than thou moments ushering the searching Sarah into the fold.  But Piper is a plot device and a portal and so I cannot quite fault her for being the mouthpiece for the more conservative sect of Christian culture in which this book dwells.  I also found that some of the issues in the novel might ostracize non-Christian readers beyond some of the rules and metrics laid out (and very very prevalent in many churches--- ). One ostracizing moment comes in the vernacular of tithing.  It is cute and funny and winsome that Turner explores the smutty novelist tithing her smutty novel's royalties; and beyond Ben's judgmental response ( throw something at him, women), I thought this was one instance of the rhetoric of one world that might not be accessible to all readers.


All right, disclosure time over, let's dive in!

To begin, I loved the heroine ---- I really didn't like the romance. It isn't my type at all.  But, as I mention later, it is integral to the construct of Turner's larger perspective and it works really well for the story she is trying to tell.  And while I didn't like the romance, I loved the romantic world and construct--- I loved the clash of secular and Christian romance and the open-eyed Sarah choosing to read CBA romance and pen her own.  This is the world so many of us read in and publish in and it is a safe space for me and I loved reading about it ( But, I also love chugging cab sauv and reading Tessa Dare and Elizabeth Hoyt so ...SO not the target reader of this book )

I hate insta love tropes and I never felt once I got to know Ben DeLaney--- but I did through his appearance get to know Sarah and  sacrificing his dimension gave me more time with her---she was my love of this book. Her voice, her perspective, her passion to find a way to patch up her life. Her terrible poetry. Her stream of consciousness. Even though we view the world differently. Another non-Rachel-catnip thing (and yes I know it is scriptural, bring it up to me as the Marriage Supper of the Lamb), is the obsession of a wedding and children.   Ben and Sarah just want insta family like their instalove.  In what is the first ever usage of this term I have ever seen in a lifetime of reading Inspy romances he wants to "knock her up" and they'll have a ton of kids..... For a lot of readers, that is going to be the happy ever after, and of course, it is an easy and safe way for an inspy romance writer to bring sex into the conversation. For a reader like me it is all: WHAT? but you have money and live in Chicago and are a great writer and .... ugh! you can still have sex without kids! Again, PERSONAL PREFERENCE--- my feminism radar was tingling. .... but then it was just MY radar that was tingling. I don't want to spend my life cleaning up after eight rug rats ---  But isn't feminism about choice? And shouldn't  a woman decide that this is her preference? Reader and Sarah alike? She wants a passel of rugrats and to ascribe to the more traditional approach to life with Ben and I am all for that because she wants it!  Choice, people. Choice!


I didn't ever feel like I got to know Ben at all: beyond "hot pastor who likes to kiss in the parking lot" (Which, FYI, is tantamount to scandal in the Christian sphere). And I sure as heck don't want a wedding where Song of Solomon is the theme du jour but that is me having a strong reaction to the world I grew up in where this is part and parcel of the game.  What Turner does well is finally shine the spotlight on the woman.   In church culture, women are physically the stumbling blocks.  The tight shirts, the yoga pants (insert eye roll and cursing here), the purity culture holds the woman to such a high platform. If a man stumbles it is nature,  if a woman stumbles it is a reflection of her character.  Sarah slices through this prevalent double standard by having a healthy sexual appetite even as she tweaks its perimeters to fit into her new Christian world.  And yes, when Ben and Sarah write out a list of rules about kissing and dating and time together ( we Christians have a lot of rules-- some Biblical-- most just ours ), I was saddened but also understanding.  This is the culture. This is a look at a very real culture. Sarah's experience clashes with the instinctive norm of the culture because she very legitimately wants as many sexy times as he does ( of course post -marriage...let's not get too crazy here ;) )
 

What I found on a deeper level is that the Secret Life of Sarah Hollenbeck shows how susceptible a messed up person can be when looking for a quick fix.  Her insta conversion pairs with her insta love and her beguiled look at Christianity leaves room for the author to show that nothing is perfect on either side of the stained glass.   Indeed, by the end of the novel, a smart twist gives the reader a peek into the Secret Life of Ben Delaney: with its own secrets and fallacies, the first time we truly see him is human and imperfect and not just the hot pastor with the pretty eyes.

And the motif of platform and visibility and congregational judgment is one that will resonate with anyone who has been in the public eye: either at the front of the pulpit or as a writer. The double standards, the insta judgment .... how we hurt each other intentionally or not -- all in the name of Christ.

Its treatise on passion comes with a price as lust and sparks don't give us a chance to ever see Ben and Sarah falling on any deep or complex level. For a reader who loves the gradual build and friction of chemistry borne of something stronger than just physical heat, I felt I was deprived a beautiful love story.   By the end, I still never saw connection between them beyond their passion and desire for a Von Trapp passel of children.   But as a reader and lover of the inspirational market, I must point out how deeply I enjoyed a contemporary-set romance that really worked in the thesis of physical love within the meted restrictions of the church's purity culture.   And while we can easily cite Deanne Gist and Julie Lessman in the historical sphere for pursuing the metrics of physical passion as far as they would go within the context of the inspirational trope,  I enjoy that Turner broadened these lines.

I had  the best strong reactions to this book:  on one level it took me back into my formative years as a pastor's kid learning all of the rules and regulations of the evangelical world -- -"that sex leads to drinking" (I was Pentecostal, yo!)  that romance is a stumbling block and sets unrealistic expectations ( it might be a stumbling block for you---each reader has their own journey and I don't believe in one prescriptive for all believers in many of these ( get it?) hot (snicker) topics). And I had a strong reaction to Piper who reminded me so much of the girl we ALL tried to be --doling out scriptural advice as we tugged people into the fold.  Having a strong, visceral reaction ( she leaves the room) when someone we like is caught doing something we don't feel fits into our Christian world. Luckily for Sarah, she moves beyond the Piper and navigates Christianity on her own.   And one of the major draws to the church is a man-- Ben--- with all of the tingles and stolen looks.  This is real life and why wouldn't a woman whose heart has been broken by a man of the world not fall immediately for a man of the cloth? As mentioned earlier, Ben is a symbol for the road Sarah is trying to cross however imperfect it is on the other side.



To add, I love that she married two distinctive publishing spheres and how they clash.  For those in the Inspirational industry, a constant conversation is about blurring lines, crossing over, finding secular readers ---- this book made me step outside the world and traditions I know well and really think beyond the veil of my time in a stricter Evangelical setting.   What would my usual readers think? What might they perceive as judgmental? What am I feeling about connecting far more with the Sarah pre-conversion then nothing at all with the Sarah post-conversion?  Maybe that is the point of the book...this book with the fresh, surprising, one-of-a-kind voice, with a ton of awesome possum Thorn Birds references....


I loved thinking about this book. How irked I was by it.  How incensed I was by it. No...not it--- the world it reflects. How it forced me to take a step back and really revisit the world I tried to leave. For while I remain a Christian, I happily sneak into the back of an Anglican church and am nowhere near a service that sings bottomless Chris Tomlin songs. Where I recognize that I cannot be responsible for being a man's stumbling block, where a healthy curiousity about sex and intimacy should not force a woman to cringe and blush until she blends into her pew. 

And it left me confused and riled and surged--- surged as a writer with the appreciation of voice and structure.  This story may not be my jam but the author IS--- isn't that the best experience?   And for those of you looking for this type of romantic comedy, you will just hit A + after A + across the board, because Turner has an inimitable voice.  Turner has a brilliant sense of humour and a knack at peeling back the layers of the world and peering at the vulnerable places therein in a poignant shroud of grace and talent. Turner does backstory and perspective and deep POV like a pro.  Turner should be used as an example of how to write first person that wraps around the reader and holds them close.  She is an expert. She is one of the strongest debut voices I have ever encountered and the strongest most original voice I have seen in the CBA (inspirational publishing world) in years.

And whether intentional or not, Secret Life exposes the fallacies, the contradictions, the parts of the inspirational world and culture we are still trying to patch up and sew.....

Maybe the confusion and the inability to find answers allows us to find ourselves in the mess with two imperfect people meeting in an imperfect world stretching for perfect---the church--what should be a hospital but is seen as a cloistered and often judgmental space. 

And maybe the confusion is in the funny.  There is nothing more Christian-y than a church wedding with a basement reception where Song of Solomon is quoted. Circle of hell for me, the dream for so many--- neither of us is wrong --- like Sarah, we just have to carve out a place to belong.