Thursday, August 18, 2016

Review of "Connected Underneath" - a modern Jean Valjean & Cosette tale

Not long ago I interviewed Linda Legters, a creative writing instructor and author of a highly literary psychological thriller Connected Underneath. It is published by a press that specializes in GLBT fiction, although I must say, that element is not very prominent in the novel. It's not a piece of GLBT advocacy per se. The focus is on mystic/cosmic ties that connect the inhabitants of a sleepy small town in upstate NY.

Madena, upstate New York. Like any other small town, everybody keeps an eye on everybody else's business without recognizing the secrets that connect them. The wheelchair-bound Celeste conjures up lives from what she sees and thinks she sees while peering through binoculars from her kitchen fan vent. Fifteen-year old Persephone trades sex for tattoo sessions that get her high and help her forget her girlfriend doesn't love her. Theo was the high-school bad boy who couldn't have the respectable girl he adored from afar, but now, sitting behind the counter of the last video store in town, worries wretchedly about the restless daughter he never understood. Natalie, trying to grasp the last shreds of respectability, would do anything to forget the baby she gave up long ago, including betray her husband and son. Celeste, longing to connect, combines truth with fantasy, intervenes and interferes, finally understanding that things have gone terribly wrong and that she stands at the heart of disaster.Connected Underneath is a lyrical, scalpel-keen dissection of the ties that bind and of those that dissolve.

My thoughts:
This highly literary and complex novel is accessible to general audiences, but those readers with a solid foundation in the classics, especially William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf and Victor Hugo will get so much more out of it. Despite being less than 150 pages, this novel is not an easy-breezy read. You have to be able to digest the long sentences, follow the shifts in point of view and third versus first person narrative. There are many references to ancient Greek mythology and some creative usage of archetypes. What blew me away is the dichotomy of the inner voice versus spoken voice. The characters engage in lengthy, eloquent internal monologues, and when they open their mouths in real life, short, choppy sentences come out. That reminds us that people can be crude and rough and unbending on the outside and be very vulnerable and conflicted on the inside.

Now, I am not someone who absolutely needs a hero to root for in order to enjoy a work of fiction. I do not need to latch onto that nipple of fake positive energy. In fact, I am much more likely to attach myself to a grotesque character, and track his/her downfall. Theo and Persephone "Seph" are a father-daughter team that in a strange way remind me of Jean Valjean and Cosette. I must be in the .001% of the population who did not sympathize with that duo from "Les Miserables". That's the kind of heartless monster I am. But that's the beside the point. Just like Jean Valjean, Theo is an outcast - self-loathing, socially awkward and sexually repressed, looking towards his adopted daughter as an opportunity for redemption. And that's a really risky thing to do, putting your spiritual redemption into the hands of another person, especially a troubled teenage girl.

Which brings me to the character of Seph. I will not go as far as criticizing the author for creating an over-the-top character, but sometimes Seph comes across as a composite character instead of a credible, tangible person. It's almost as if the author had taken part in a contest: let's see who can create a most dysfunctional teenage female character. Let's see how much black hair dye and eyeliner we can slap onto her. Let's cover her up in tattoos. Let's make her addicted to pain and cutting. Let's make her a lesbian, but one who is willing to have sex with her adult male tattoo artist, which also puts her into the child prostitute category. I guess, there is a reason for that. Underneath all those dysfunctions and alterations, there is a human being that has a potential for being balanced and functional, who is capable of building healthy human relationships. We see a glimpse of that person. Unfortunately, Seph discovers that a little too late. She cannot find her real self underneath all that ink and scar tissue.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Jean Reinhardt - author of Irish Family Saga

Morning, commies! 
Today's guest is Jean Reinhardt, a bestselling Irish author specializing in family sagas. Irish history and family sagas are my two weaknesses. Combine the two? I'm there, smacking my lips! Today she joins us to talk about her pet peeves pertaining to Irish stereotypes in literature and the historical Irish-Spanish connection. 
MJN: Some of your book covers feature smiling children in contrast to the bittersweet content of your books (A Pocket Full of Shells and A Year of Broken Promises). Is that contrast deliberate?

JR: It wasn't deliberate for the first book. I used a photograph of my mother and her brother for the cover of A Pocket Full ofShells. They had given me the genealogical records that inspired the book and I have always loved that image of my mother with such a cheeky smile on her face.

My granddaughter posed for the next book and I wanted the cover to convey a sense of innocence and trust, which are compromised in A Year of Broken Promises.
For the third book I used a photo I took of my youngest grandson on a local beach as the tide was on its way in - making it a fitting image for the title, A Turningof the Tide.
I love the guarded look on my other grandson's face in the photograph I used for the fourth book, A Legacy of Secrets, it was just perfect for the title.

I've used an old photograph of my father as a young child, sitting next to his mother for Book 5: A Prodigal Return as this image relates very well to the story line.

MJN: You spent several years in Spain. Historically, Spain and Ireland have been allies on and off, with England being a mutual adversary. The most notable instance that comes to mind is Hugh O'Neil and Rory O'Donnell taking refuge in Spain after the famous Flight of the Earls. Did the people you met while in Spain bring up the question of Spanish-Irish camaraderie?

JR: Some people did remark on the way the Spanish and Irish tend to mix well. I think a lot of this is due to similarities in culture, rather than historical connections. The Spanish laid back way of doing things (or not doing them, lol) is something that Irish people are used to, so it doesn't irritate us to the same extent as it does other nationalities - like the German and Swiss residents in Spain, who are usually very strict timekeepers.

MJN: Tell me a bit about the state of publishing industry in Ireland. I heard that Liberties Press in Dublin has fallen on some hard times. Do you find that publishing independently gives you certain artistic latitude? Clearly, your books are very well received by your readers. 

JR: Irish publishers are beginning to take a chance on new authors because of the international success of writers like Eimear McBride and Donal Ryan, which is great. I think the independent publishers in Ireland are holding their own and thanks to them, we are seeing the work of some very talented new writers being made available. Some of these authors eventually get noticed by the big publishing houses because of the chance given them by smaller publishers. There are also quite a number of women now involved in publishing in Ireland, which is a good thing - of course I'm a little biased, being female.

I really like the freedom of choice that I have as an independently published writer, particularly where cover design and book format are concerned. As most of my sales are directly through Amazon and Createspace, I get a good percentage of the royalties, but this would not be the case if I had to share them with an agent and publisher.

MJN: I ask every Irish author this question. When dealing with American and global audiences, do you find yourself hedging against certain Irish stereotypes and preconceptions? What annoys you about non-Irish authors trying to write Irish themed fiction? As a Russian American, I get annoyed with matryoshka, Kremlin, vodka and balalaika images being slapped on book covers to give them that "air of authenticity", as you, I'm sure, get annoyed when you see covers splattered with shamrocks.

JR: It's the leprechauns that make me cringe but not too many authors add them to their Irish themed fiction covers - thankfully. I also roll my eyes when a character comes out with 'Begorrah' in a book or in a movie - Darby O'Gill and the Little People comes to mind. The impression of a land full of good Catholics and endless cups of tea no longer holds true (well, maybe the tea still does).

MJN: With the recent 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, I'm sure there has been many commemorative events. Unfortunately, I was not able to be in Ireland for this momentous occasion. I really wanted to, but my work and my family obligations did not allow for it. Did the commemorative activities live up to your expectation? 

JR: I think for the most part it did. I was impressed by how well music and art was used in commemorating the Rising. The documentaries were excellent, too. One thing that stood out for me was the way in which the public at the time were affected, in particular the deaths of 40 children, something I'm sad to say I wasn't aware of until this centenary anniversary.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Coloring Book for Grown-Ups - a review of Tatyana Yankovskaya's anthology

Dear commies and Russian speakers,
For your entertainment and enrichment, I am posting a review of an anthology by Tatyana Yankovskaya, Coloring Book for Grown-Ups. If you have any Russian speaking friends or family members, please consider getting this marvelous book as a gift.
I became acquainted with Tatyana Yankovskaya's literary works through an American speculative fiction e-zine Bewildering Stories. One of the editions featured an English translation of her short story "If She Had Not Learned How to Knit." The story resonated with me, so I started following the author's publications in various Russian venues. Every story is a skilfully crafted appetizer, with salt, sugar and spices in perfect balance. You do not walk away feeling stuffed or weighed down. You crave more. Naturally, when those appetizers are served on the same platter, they interact and harmonize with each other, leading to unforgettable multi-sensory experiences. You get the impression that the author's taste buds are hyperactive, able to capture the hints, tastes and aromas that are not accessible to a regular reader-taster. Her eye picks up every subtle detail. A gifted author should be in control not only of his/her words but senses as well.

Sometimes Yankovskaya leaves me feeling pangs of white envy because she was fortunate to witness the things I've only seen in passing, in a distorted form - the pomposity of the American pop culture of the 1980s. Yankovskaya got to experience the Reagan era, fascinating from every perspective - political, social and cultural. She had the opportunity to see those iconic action flicks on big screen. Those movies eventually made their way into the late-Soviet cinema houses, censored and badly dubbed. To me, an 80s kid, Reagan's America was the Holy Grail of western culture. I have a feeling that Yankovskaya's esthetic sensibilities were formed under the influence of American pop culture. Yankovskaya does not strike me as someone who likes to encapsulate her nostalgia, playing Pugacheva's hits over and over again. She expresses herself as a fully bilingual individual, as someone who integrated into the American mainstream successfully and harmoniously. Make no mistake, she still remembers the Brezhnev era. Those days are depicted quite vividly in her prose. The novella "Deja Vu" (not included in this particular collection - you can find it in her anthology "M&M") is a gem of corporate comedy. It takes a lot of skill to describe the political and sexual tempest within a research facility. The antics of the female protagonist will leave you laughing and gagging. The novella "A Would-Be Romance", written at the end of the 1990s, would win the approval of James Joyce - if this Irish genius understood Russian. 

Her writing is marked by sarcasm, so characteristic for an introspective, inquisitive person with an analytical mindset, but that that sarcasm is very humane, without a vindictive element. I've read enough immigrant fiction, and much of it is laced with one-sided bitterness and hostility towards "stupid America" with her "cardboard bread and watery, tasteless vegetables that don't come near to the ones growing on my summer property outside Chernigov." Then there is another extreme. You have people shuddering and foaming at the mouth while describing their horrible childhood/youth in "that bloody Soviet gulag." I am not saying that that angry immigrant recitative is entirely bereft of artistic value. Not at all. They have a right to exist and be read as examples of literature generated by the Russian diaspora. It is totally possible that they resonate with some readers. I must warn you though: you won't find anything of that sort in Yankovsakaya's anthology. She can describe the ugliest things with gusto, warmth and humor. You can taste her passion for life, yet she does not shove it down the reader's throat. She doesn't scream, "Life is beautiful!" but respects your right to pessimism. Heck, she managed to touch the heart of a hardened misanthrope like myself. And of course, her self-deprecation is very endearing. She refers to her short literary sketches, the equivalent of "flash" in English, as "half-formed embryos." But it's not uncommon for a mother to refer to her offspring in such disparaging terms. Russian mothers do tend to call their children as "slackers". 

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A Kindled Winter - Rachel Demeter's exploration of phobias and fetishes

A week before Christmas, Jeseca Reed sets off for rustic Blue River, Oregon—her childhood home and a vault of tender memories. However, fate takes an unexpected turn when she’s left stranded in the mountains’ vast, untamed wilderness. Desperate and alone, she seeks shelter at a cottage and finds herself in the arms of a mysterious stranger.
Dr. David Drake was once a renowned cardiovascular surgeon. But a devastating tragedy has left him scarred both inside and out, unable to use his hands to operate again. For the past five years, his Blue River cottage has been his sole escape—a safe haven where he can shut out the world, bury himself in his grief, and reunite with his son’s memory.

Together they are summer and winter. Fire and ice. And yet a poignant connection forms between them. Jeseca awakens David and thaws his heart with a romance hot enough to melt snow. But before David and Jeseca can fully embrace each other, they must wade through darkness and confront the ghosts of their pasts…

Equal parts steamy and heartfelt, A Kindled Winter brings the spirit of the holidays to life with a passionate story of second chances and healing love.  

My thoughts:
I have to give this young and intense author kudos for admitting that she has a deformity fetish and working it into a cozy holiday romance. A Kindled Winter is a second novel featuring a male protagonist sporting some horrific and mystifying injuries that, thankfully, do not affect his libido. Another must-read is her Gothic historical romance Finding Gabriel. I think the reason so many girls find the Beauty and the Beast story so compelling is because it's in our psyche to be fascinated by deformity and the juxtaposition of the grotesque and the sublime. Many young girls fantasize about tending to a wounded soldier. Rachel Demeter's protagonists did not acquire their respective deformities in a battle but rather a moment of weakness and/or forgetfulness. That adds poignancy and tragedy. A disfigured hero who got his injuries in a line of duty would be a little too polarizing and redundant - chocolate cake with chocolate sauce. To her credit, she shows how one careless act in one split second can wreck her entire life, what an unfairly high price one must pay for a relatively minor transgression. I also see a pattern of her vocalizing her phobias and fears. Both of her novels touch upon the subject of losing one's child. As far as I know, she is not a mother yet - hopefully will be in the near future - but I can tell that she had tried to imagine what it would be like to lose one's child to unnatural causes. As a writer, you need to have that universal empathy and imagine what it would be like to experience certain emotions you haven't experienced - and hopefully never will - in real life. I said this before, and I will say this again. I hope this author unfolds her wings and sores above the constraints of the romance genre, beyond what the predominantly female readership expects. There is a lot more latitude and room for maneuver with rape, battle and disaster scenes than with candlelit foreplay.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Sacrifice redefined - interview with Michelle Cox, author of A Girl Like You

Greetings, commies, libbies, femmies and book lovers! 
Today's guest is a fellow historical novelist, Michelle Cox, author of an acclaimed romantic mystery A Girl Like You. I have been following her blog featuring extraordinary stories of ordinary Chicago people, immigrants, day laborers, aspiring entrepreneurs. Today she joins us for a thorough and candid discussion about her book and the definition of self-sacrifice and gender roles during the Great Depression. She also opens up about her experience with her publisher She Writes.

MJN: Your blog, which I have been following religiously, features stories of sacrifice, sometimes eager and sometimes begrudging. Here is the recurring scenario: a girl leaves school to get a job to support her family; then she gets married and leaves the workforce to care for her husband and kids, sometimes stepkids. To a 21st century woman that sounds absurd. 

MC: You are re so right—to a 21st century woman, it does sound absurd, but that is definitely what happened back then.  What I find amazing is that most of the women I’ve featured in my blog (besides one or two exceptions) did not feel fulfilled until they took on the role of housewife.  Even if you don’t bring motherhood into it, they all seemed to feel that if they weren’t actively making a home for a husband, they were somehow a failure, no matter what their job or career was.  So when they did marry, they were often very willing to give up a job because being a housewife was the number one achievement.  Perhaps that concept existed because as a housewife, they might have at least a little bit of control over the running of a household; the alternative was to remain a spinster, living with her parents under their rules with very few social outlets (no weekend affairs or casual boyfriends!) and eventually becoming their caretaker.

MJN: The background scenario in your novel A Girl Like You also revolves around the theme of sacrifice. Your protagonist Henrietta is stuck caring for her bitter mother and younger siblings after her father commits suicide following the stock market crash. When Henrietta gets involved in a murder investigation, I imagine, for her it's a welcome reprieve from the routine of catering to her toxic family's needs. Henrietta is vulnerable, because she is looking for an emotional outlet, for that adrenaline rush. It's a miracle that she doesn't fall into a trap. 

MC: Yes, Henrietta does shoulder a lot of responsibility, knowing that she’s the breadwinner of the family.  At heart she is very pure, though she’s seen a lot of the seedier side of life, and, yes, she is quite vulnerable.  She wishes to be a “good” girl, but unfortunately, because of her extreme beauty, mixed with her poverty, risqué jobs seem to find their way to her.  Fortunately, as in all fairy/folk tale fiction, Henrietta has several “protectors” along the way.  These would be Stanley, the love-struck neighborhood boy that follows her around; Mr. Hennessey, her pseudo-father figure; and Lucy and the lesbian gang at the Marlowe who take Henrietta under their wing.  And the, of course, we have the inspector himself who starts out as her ultimate protector but becomes emotionally entangled, thereby making him the very person she perhaps needs protecting from the most.  It makes her decision about what to do with him the real test of her virtue, not what happens between her and the killer.  So she does sort of fall into a trap, just not the one the reader is expecting.

MJN: Every large city has an "underbelly" and an underground world that many respectable citizens know little about - or pretend they know little about. There are some parts that reputable young ladies just don't go into. You can sit in your ivory tower and be totally oblivious to the sewer running right beneath it. 

MC: Yes, Henrietta, for all her experience, is still a bit naïve to the true grimness of the city around her.  Her poverty has forced her to live in this underbelly, and yet in true fairy/folk tradition, she remains untouched by it.  There’s a little bit of Dickens here, if I might be so bold as to make that comparison.  Henrietta is a Little Dorrit-type, who, as I said in the previous question, has many protectors to help shield her.  In fact, Stanley is a bit reminiscent of John Chivery, the turnkey’s son, and of course, Inspector Clive Howard has a flavor of Arthur Clennam to him—disinterested kindness that perhaps turns to love? 

MJN: Your novel contains the elements of mystery, social criticism and romance. Does any of the elements prevail to put the novel in a particular genre? Is it a romantic mystery or a detective romance? 

MC: Well, that seems to be the million dollar question!  I’d like to say that it’s historical fiction with a mystery and romance aspect.  A Girl Like You is the most “mystery” of the books in this series.   The next two in the series I’m calling Romantic Suspense, but who knows how the fourth will come out?  I guess there’s a little bit of genre-blending going on, which is why it’s safer to just call them historical fiction!

MJN: Tell us about your experience with She Writes and the benefits / challenges of going with the model known as "curated self-publishing". Based on the number of positive reviews, it sounds like the publisher helped you with editing and marketing.

MC: Wow!  Big question.  She Writes Press is a hybrid publisher, which is something relatively new on the publishing landscape.  They operate very much like a traditional publisher in that they vet and distribute traditionally through Ingram Publishing Services.  Those two things are huge! The difference is that you pay an upfront fee, but that includes your cover, editing, proofing, interior design, managing your metadata, uploading across all online channels and distribution.  You also have to pay for your print run, which can be either POD or off-set, depending.  But besides all these services, you maintain complete control of your project (which is huge when compared to traditional publishing); receive a higher percentage of the royalties (60%); and maintain all rights, including film, foreign and audio.  It’s a great set-up, really.  It’s all about the author and the publisher truly being partners in getting your book out there.  It’s a model that is growing and is expected to take over more and more of the publishing space because the Big 5 is operating on an out-dated model they can no longer sustain.  Self-publishing has its limitations as well, the biggest one being selling into the marketplace.  Hybrids offer a unique third way.

In terms of marketing, all authors are on their own, really.  Even most of the authors signed by the Big 5 have to come up with their own marketing plan.  It’s ironic that most of the marketing budget at the Big 5 goes to the giants, as if they need any more PR!  So, yes, as a hybrid author, I’m responsible for my own marketing.  Besides working with other She Writes writers on a private forum in which we trade ideas, network, and offer suggestions and support, I have hired a publicity firm, Booksparks, which has handled my campaign very well, I think.  They’ve gotten me some great reviews in the trades and a lot of great press.  

About the author:

Michelle Cox holds a B.A. in English literature from Mundelein College, Chicago, and is the author of the award-winning, A Girl Like You, the first in the Henrietta and Inspector Howard series. She is known for her wildly popular blog, “How to Get Your Book Published in 7,000 Easy Steps—A Practical Guide” as well as her charming “Novel Notes of Local Lore,” a blog dedicated to Chicago’s forgotten residents. Michelle lives with her husband and three children in the Chicago suburbs. 

A Girl Like You has received two starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist and placed as a Finalist in Romance in the 2016 Next Gen Awards. It has also been listed as a top spring read by Your Tango, Popsugar, Culturist, and Buzzfeed and is currently enjoying its second print run. Book two of the series, A Ring Of Truth, will be released April 2017.