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.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Book Gush: A Dangerous Legacy by Elizabeth Camden

Honestly, Elizabeth Camden's books are just all the ingredients I love. I truly think she is writing for me! She has a masters in history, so her research is unparalleled, she has an easy, accessible writing style, characters and dialogue that leap off the page and a keen sense of time and verisimilitude. But, I think what I find most impressive, is the ease in which she excavates snippets of history not usually explored  onto which she shines the spotlight of her inimitable narrative style.

I also always identify with her heroines ( something that is hard to do in inspirational fiction ---even for an avid reader in the genre like myself).  Her heroines are smart, resourceful career women who balk at limitations and want to make their marks on the world.  Often in men's professions during times when women were to be angels of the hearth, her heroines are always just a few steps ahead of the world--- and the game.   Fiercely independent, they are not easily won, unless they are able to fit the inevitable romance end of the plot into their working world.

Image result for a dangerous fortune camdenThe overarching plot of this multi-layered story revolves around the Drake fortune and put me immediately in mind of the never-ending Jarndyce and Jarndyce case in Dickens' Bleak House.  Siblings Nick and Lucy Drake are at the center of the case trying to find justice for their family and their late father. Beyond any monetary gain or inheritance, the resolution of the case will hopefully mean the end of their torment by a wealthy rich relative, Thomas Drake, who lives as lord of the manor in nearby Saratoga while the Drake siblings are hard workers scraping by in their Greenwich Village apartment.  Court settlements, a lavish necklace and two brothers who fought over the invention of a brilliant valve during the Civil War times brushes Lucy and Nick's world with a burden to their father's memory as well as the social injustice they see around them.  A plumber, Nick wants to use the ease in which he can work this portal to his family's inheritance to equip tenement houses with running water for a fraction of the cost of the high city fees.

Another layer of this surprisingly intricate plot is the journalistic meeting of Reuters Agency, where Lucy continually runs into aristocrat Colin Beckwith, heir to a crumbling 18th Century estate across the Atlantic, while working as a telegraph operator for the Associate Press.  The history of morse code, telegraphy and homing pigeons is flourished here in exciting detail and I loved hearing about Colin and Lucy's world, the interception of Pacific telegraphs as well as reading cameos by Roosevelt and Taft.

An illegal wire tapped to her desk allows Lucy to transmit messages from her scheming uncle's lawyer and when she overhears a plot for murder, she runs to her uneasy ally ( and source of her burgeoning attraction), Colin, who uses his title and manners to expose the nefarious Drakes in Saratoga once and for all.

A Dangerous Legacy was so much more than an historical novel: it was a treatise on the class system, a look at how entitlement to fortune and revenge can strip one of happiness and a compelling study of New York on the brink of greatness.   Nick's work with valves for fresh water in tenement houses opens up a world underground and the labyrinth of the New York sewer system is painted with the same deft ease in which Camden worked with the Boston subway in From This Moment.  Colin Beckwith's experiences as a journalist in the Boer War allow for the study of PTSD and a look into the primitive psychiatric methods such as shock therapy.   A threat to Lucy is a gateway to a close interior look into mental asylums and the cruelty waged on patients sometimes only committed for incorrigibility.

To summarize the many interweaving plots as Colin and Lucy navigate the intricacies of the Drake fortune is difficult  because Camden excels at being so (albeit accessibly) complex. I  had trouble putting this book down during a research trip to Boston over the weekend ( books are companions when one is traveling and dining alone) and found myself blown away ( as per usual )with the seeming ease with which she creates conflicting worlds.   There is a hunting weekend at a grand estate in upstate New York as well as parties and soirees that hang on Colin's coattails as a reminder of his past and the inheritance that binds him as tightly as the Drake fortune does Lucy and her brother.  Manhattan becomes a character a colourful and nuanced as Washington in Beyond all Dreams  and Boston in From This Moment as Camden uses her natural skill to paint a  canvas brought brilliantly to life.

There is romance, yes, but also a hefty dose of suspense and an intricate mystery I was not anticipating.   This is the best type of savoury read: relatable and fascinating characters, a peek through the curtain of the past, a dashing hero, a resourceful heroine, a race against time. Twists and turns and second guesses,  dubious villains and beautiful heiresses. In short, a deliciously robust read.

Elizabeth Camden is an inspirational writer; but the religious themes in her book are just that---themes.  She writes with a strict and genuine value system and her realistically fallible characters work between the lines of right and wrong often finding their consciences at odds with the world around them.   She is never preachy and the faith elements are presented as sociocultural concept.   I would recommend her highly to readers from or without a faith background.

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