Wednesday, April 29, 2015

SCHISM - a young adult chiller by Laura Maisano

I am pleased to welcome Laura Maisano, a fellow writer, mother, cat lover.  An MA in Technical Writing, she serves as Senior Editor for Anajah Press for their YA/NA Christian fiction. Today she talks about SCHISM, her young adult chiller and also Book One in the Illirin Series.
Art therapy hasn’t done squat for Gabe Jones. A thousand sketches of his fiancée can’t bring his memory, or her, back to him. Nothing on Earth can. His past lies in another dimension, a world just out of sight.

Another student on campus, Lea Huckley, unknowingly shares Gabe’s obsession with the fourth dimension. The monsters from the other side attacked her parents and fled, getting her folks locked up in the loony bin. Proving this other world exists is the only way to free them. Lea and Gabe strike a deal to help each other, and together they manage to open a door to the world of Gabe’s true origin. She’d use him for proof—if she didn’t already care too much.
While Gabe tries to reconcile his feelings for Lea and his rediscovered memories of his fiancée, a much more sinister plot unravels. He uncovers his history just in time to become the unwilling lynchpin in a conspiracy to start a war. His memory holds the secret to the final riddle the would-be conqueror needs to get the upper hand. Gabe must protect the riddle at all costs, even if that means leaving Earth, and Lea, behind forever.


Lea packed light. Other than her phone’s GPS and a flashlight, she kept a small notepad, her lucky pencil, and the thermometer in her cargo pocket. She didn’t need to find data, now she needed proof.
She led the way down the alley where skyscrapers blocked the glowing moon and the lamps from the highway. Yellowed fixtures above each back entrance threw faint cones of light onto the cement, like holes in Swiss cheese.

Lea checked the coordinates on her phone while she walked, and the little red arrow crept closer to the flag icon she placed to mark the interaction point.

Gabe spent his time surveying the area for anything that might be a danger. He kept fidgeting behind her and turning around every few seconds, a twitchy meerkat on patrol.

“We’re only between buildings. It’s not the end of the world.” Lea checked her phone again to make sure they were headed in the right direction.

He glanced over his shoulder. “I still don’t like it. It’s night, people do get mugged, you know.”

“The statistics of that are so low. We’re really not in any danger, considering the population and how many times that sorta thing happens.”

He shifted uneasily behind her. “Whatever, we’re raising the chances by being out here at night.”

Lea rolled her eyes. “I’m not missing this opportunity.”

“I know that. Neither am I.”


They came to a cross section behind two major offices where the loading docks and dumpsters sat for both of them. A stream of water trickled down the concave cement into the large sewer grate. Old garbage left a fume hanging around, and the humidity only made it worse.

Lea double- and triple-checked her coordinates, cross-checking with her notes. “This is it. Within I’d say, a fifteen foot diameter, low to the ground.” She shoved the phone in her cargo pocket. “Perfect.”

“How long?”

“Roughly ten minutes.”

Ten minutes may as well have been six hours. She paced back and forth, her sneakers scuffing the gritty pavement.

Gabe continued to keep a watchful eye out for muggers or vagrants. What a dork.

She snickered quietly. For someone who didn’t know his own experiences, he sure seemed paranoid. She watched him standing straight, darting his eyes to the entrance and even up to the windows above them. Watch out bad guys, Gabe’s on to you. She smiled and turned to see what looked like heat waves rising from the cold cement. Crap. The interaction had already started.

“Gabe…” She waved him over next to the loading dock.

This interaction provided no shining lights or obvious movement. Not much stood out visually, except maybe the air glistening like summer heat waves if she squinted hard enough, but her digital thermometer found the coldest point.

“Here,” she whispered, not wanting anyone or anything on the other side to hear. She stretched her arms forward, and Gabe did likewise.

“On the count of three.” She waited for him to nod. “One…two…three.”

They both reached through the interaction point and grabbed at the thicker air. Nothing. They tried again, pulling, grasping, and making any sort of motion to trigger a rip. Finally, Gabe leaned in and pulled out at just the right angle, because the light tore across like a jagged line. Lea grabbed the edge of it and tugged, opening the tear wider until they both fell through.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Six Weeks to Yehidah - a transformative bestseller by Melissa Studdard

I am thrilled to welcome Melissa Studdard, a fellow All Things That Matter author, mother, editor and cat lover.  In 2011 her YA novel Six Weeks to Yehidah became a bestseller. Since then it has won several awards. In spite of her success, she has remained most kind and supportive of other people's talent. Today she opens up about her live beyond her sensational bestseller.

MJN: Several years ago you wrote a bestselling novel, Six Weeks to Yehidah.  I had the privilege of reading and reviewing it before it became a smashing hit.  It started as a series of short stories and then evolved into an episodic novel.  At what point did you decide to tie the stories into one novel-length piece?

MS: What a great honor to have you among my early readers and reviewers, MJ! Yes—it’s true that I intended for Six Weeks to Yehidah to be a short story when I began, but by about page 10, I realized I was writing a first chapter rather than a story—so the process was actually the reverse of what you may have thought: I made a conscious decision at that point to make the novel episodic. I’d learned to write in 7-15 page bursts from writing short stories, so I knew episodic chapters would be a great transition to writing longer works. Also, I wanted the novel to be full of adventure, so creating new worlds every few chapters turned out to be the perfect format.

MJN: One of your jobs is teaching at a college. Are you candid with your students about the challenges and rewards of being in the literary field?  How many of them expect to follow in the footsteps of Professor Studdard and write award-winning bestsellers?

MS: I’m candid with my students in general. We have a great time in class, and I tell them the truth about writing, the literary field, and what I know of life. I’m not sure how often I think to mention that my book was a bestseller or that I’ve won awards, so I’m not sure if they hope to follow in my footsteps, but I do get the sense that many of them are Googling me and reading my works online. They seem to know a lot about me. Much more than I tell them.

But, back to the other part of your question, because it’s important: Writing is a passionate endeavor, a love-hate relationship with the mind and heart and soul, as you know. In this sense, the real reward is writing itself. You remind me that I need to make sure my students know this and are prepared for the fact that the business aspects of writing can be demoralizing and even leave the creative spirit feeling a bit depleted. Thank you.

MJN: Your recently had a collection of poems I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast released via Saint Julian Press. Currently what is the market for poetry?  I heard that it's really hard to market an anthology, and that you are more likely to receive proper attention by being published in various literary journals.

MS: The really cool thing about poetry is that you can publish individual poems in journals and magazines and anthologies and then collect them together as a book. The same poems that are in I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast are published in many other places, as well. When people see a poem they like in a magazine or anthology, they look for the collection that contains it because they want more work by that poet—and that sells books. I never thought I would make money off a poetry collection or concerned myself with the market, so the fact that people are finding the book this way makes me really happy. I mean, we write and publish because we want to share, so I’m glad my work is finding readers.

MJN: I know how much pride you take in your daughter, who is a very motivated and talented young lady. You find that you two have a lot in common?  Do you wish that her fate unfolds similarly to yours?  

MS: My daughter has been an incredible blessing, and we are both deeply in love with literature. That was not by my design, either. Her father and I divorced when she was two, and taking care of her and supporting her financially became all-consuming for me. I quit writing and threw myself into motherhood and teaching. It was only when she got older, and it became clear to me that she loved reading and writing as much as I did, that I began to write again. I realized literature was something we could share, not something that would take me away from her. Now I feel fairly certain that she will also become a writer and professor. She is the editor-in-chief of her high school’s literary magazine, and she excels in creative writing and journalism. I’m so proud of her!

MJN: As a mother, do you find that certain trends in pop culture are toxic to the psychology of a young woman? Being a woman in the 21st century comes with certain unprecedented opportunities as well as drawbacks.  When you open a magazine targeted a young adults, you get many conflicting messages.  On one page you get tips on how to lose 20 lbs in a week, and on the next page you find a long sanctimonious article on how you should "accept yourself the way you are."  As an extremely accomplished single mother, how do you coach your daughter to navigate this minefield of young adulthood?

MS: Fortunately, my daughter is not interested in such magazines. She would find the “accept yourself the way you are” article to be hokey and inauthentic, and she would not give a damn about losing 20 lbs. in a week. She is a powerful feminist and activist and the president of her school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. She is all about breaking down gender stereotypes and fighting media and corporate indoctrination. I wish I could take credit for all of this, but it’s just who she is. I got lucky.

I think the point you’re making is excellent, though. Conflicting societal messages are designed to encourage us to crave products that will make us feel accepted and good about ourselves. Teaching children critical thinking skills at a young age is a good way to help them see that these advertisements pretending to be articles really have little to offer. As well, showing our children that we love them exactly as they are is a good way to encourage them to develop the inner resources for self-affirmation rather than needing an excessive amount of external affirmation from articles and peers.

No parent is perfect, and no child is perfect, but in an ideal situation, rather than over-consuming popular culture, a child will become a productive, positive force, helping to better shape the world instead of becoming indoctrinated by its ills.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Dogs, hormones and books - a guest essay by Anna Belfrage

One of my New Year resolutions is to become more open-minded and feature people whose views are radically different from my own.  Not long ago I interviewed Anna Belfrage, the author of the Graham Saga.  In addition to being an outstanding historical novelist, Anna Belfrage has another passion - dogs. As a confirmed crazy cat lady, I find it therapeutic for my soul to feature a dog lover.
Okay, so now there is scientific proof: dogs are good for you. Not, I hasten to add, as comestibles, but because their undemanding love does things to our hormones. Us dog people have known that for ages. The cat ladies and men of this world remain, I imagine, doubtful. But, as stated right at the beginning, now there is proof.

A Japanese scientific study has measured levels of oxytocin in people who look deeply and recurrently into the adoring eyes of their hounds. Turns out, the levels increase substantially, and as this hormone regulates such things as orgasms, maternal bonding, pair bonding and anxiety levels (lowers them), high levels are good for you, leaving you with a slightly goofy smile and a sensation of well-being, while low levels have you chewing your nails while asking, over and over again, “Why am I here?”

Obviously, cat people will smile aloofly at the above. They are rarely given to the nail-chewing thing, being somewhat more contained than us wildly tail-wagging dog people.

Whether cat or dog, I think all people who have pets can testify to the importance these (mostly) four-legged creatures play in our lives. An animal requires little and gives a lot, and the feel of warm fur under your hand gives us comfort, harkening back to times in the distant past when the pets – and here I’d argue this is mostly valid for dogs as neither cats nor rabbits have all that much of a protective streak – played a fundamental role in keeping us alive.

In my books, animals figure prominently. First and foremost, I have a number of horses I am very fond of, with names such as Samson and Ham, Moses and Aaron. Big and reliable, they carry my hero from one adventure to the other, but while Matthew Graham loves his horses and spends a lot of time currying and taking care of them, they don’t exactly sleep in his bed, or follow him around with big trusting eyes.

“No animal sleeps in our bed,” Alex Graham points out. It is far too much work to keep the bedlinen clean for her to allow a potentially dirty dog into their bedchamber. In compensation, she sneaks the dogs little treats, ensuring Daffodil and Narcissus, Viggo and Lovell Our Dog, regard her with bright eyes – the kind of look that stimulates her oxytocin levels mentioned above.
To write about dogs requires that you know something about them. A dog is not only a pile of fur with four legs and a tail attached – most dogs I know are distinct personalities, ranging from the very lazy that rarely does more than thump his tail against the floor when you enter, to the enthusiastic “oh-I-love-you-so-much-where-have-you-been-all-my-life” welcome that entails a lot of jumping about as the dog barrels into you the moment you step over the threshold. It might be you just left for five minutes to take the garbage outside, or maybe you’ve been gone all day – the welcome is as exuberant. This, of course, reflects on the dog’s average intelligence. They can’t tell time, people. But they love you no matter how dumb they are.  
I’m not sure cats love us just as unconditionally. As my dear hostess has expressed she is a cat lady, it is with some concern I must come clean and admit I have no personal relationship with a cat, nor are there cats in The Graham Saga. Well, there are cats, but only in the sense that there would be cats in a rural setting, but they remain nameless and anonymous. From my experience with cats, they don’t mind all that much about living their lives on the edge – they seem to view their humans as their pets, not the other way around. However, in my WIP, a cat has suddenly made it out of the blanket in which it was bundled, a green-eyes little thing named Kublai Khan. I am a tad worried about Kublai: he seems to have taken all that nine lives nonsense seriously, and any moment now I fear he might have stretched his luck too far. Please keep your fingers crossed for him.
The dogs in The Graham Saga are all of them working dogs. They fill the purpose of guarding the homestead, of scaring of intruders and coming along when Matthew and his sons go hunting. One of the dogs assigns himself the role of bodyguard to one of the Graham daughters – Viggo adores his little mistress and gladly risks his life for her. By all accounts, he should have died as a consequence, but I was too fond of Viggo for that to happen.
Daffodil is there to support Alex in a time of urgent need, Narcissus dies in the defence of his master, and Lovell Our Dog is a black and white hair-ball that enthusiastically takes on the job of First Guard dog. All of them play crucial roles in my story, a natural part of the cast of characters. And while they are banned from the beds, they are loved and fed and fussed over – happy dogs, most of the time.

Dogs are simple creatures. They need to feel utile, they need to feel part of the pack. Modern day pets are as loved and pampered as their forebears – sometimes even more – but in many cases they’ve been reduced to decorative elements in our lives, warm breathing reminders of a time when man and dog were far more joined at the hip than is possible today. I don’t think our dogs mind. In fact, they love us anyway. After all, that’s what dogs do best: they love us as we are. No wonder that adoring look in their dark eyes has the oxytocin levels spiking!


Anna Belfrage combines an exciting day-job as the CEO of a multinational listed group with her writing endeavours. When she isn’t writing a novel, she is probably working on a post or catching up on her reading. Other than work and writing, Anna finds time to bake (awesome carrot-cake) and drink copious amounts of tea, preferably with a chocolaty nibble on the side. And yes, now and then she is known to visit a gym as a consequence…

For more info about Anna, visit her website or her Amazon page. You can also find her on her blog.  

LINKS, in case the embedded ones fall off….

Anna’s website:

Friday, April 24, 2015

Diana Cosby - international bestselling novelist, Navy veteran, philanthropist

Yes, one person can accomplish that much in her lifetime! A retired Navy Chief, Diana Cosby is an international bestselling author of Scottish medieval romantic suspense. Books in her award-winning MacGruder Brothers series are translated in five languages. Diana has spoken at the Library of Congress, Lady Jane’s Salon in NYC, and appeared in Woman’s Day, on USA Today’s romance blog, “Happy Ever After,”, Atlantic County Women Magazine, and Texoma Living Magazine.

After her career in the Navy, Diana dove into her passion – writing romance novels. With 34 moves behind her, she was anxious to create characters who reflected the amazing cultures and people she’s met throughout the world. With the release of her 1st book in her new Scottish medieval The Oath Trilogy, An Oath Taken, which hit bestseller lists in Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as the release of the e Box Set of the MacGruder Brothers series, she’s now preparing for the last two books in The Oath trilogy, An Oath Broken – 22 June, and, An Oath Sworn – 23 December, 2015!

Diana looks forward to the years of writing ahead and meeting the amazing people who will share this journey.

MJN: You have a fascinating professional history. Before becoming a novelist, you were a Navy Chief who worked as a Meteorologist/ Oceanographer. Did your professional adventures affect how you perceive the world?

DC: I am fortunate to have visited so many countries, and I am honored to have served in the Navy. My time in the military gave me the opportunity to experience numerous cultures, which allows me a better understanding of people around the world.

MJN: You attribute your passion for Scotland and the Middle Ages to the movie Braveheart. Have you thought about writing a piece featuring an ensemble cast from that era, pulling all the major players from the British Isles as well as the continent?

DC: Wow what a fun idea. I’ve written an article on Andrew de Moray, which I’m planning to submit to some magazines, but otherwise, I use my time to write novels.

MJN: The books in your Oath trilogy are published by different publishers. You work with both Kensington Publishing Corporation and Lyrical Press. Did you shop your books as a series or separately?

DC: Kensington Publishing Corp. owns Lyrical Press, which is an e-book house. After writing the MacGruder Brothers series, several of those books under the Zebra imprint, I sold The Oath Trilogy, which Kensington Publishing Corp. released under the Lyrical Press imprint.

MJN: Let's talk about the cover of An Oath Taken. It shows a fair amount of muscle mass, and the gentleman's face is fully shown. On many historical novels, the heads of the central figures are cut off. The artist for An Oath Broken at Lyrical Press took the "headless" approach. Do you favor any particular style?

DC: I think a good cover is defined by a photo and/or graphics that have a huge visual impact. In regards to the Scottish medieval genre, for me a riveting cover has a well-muscled man, something visual to ‘show’ strength such as a castle, sword, or something of that ilk, and a fierce attitude.

MJN: You have a strong philanthropic streak and support several charities. There are so many great causes to support. How do you choose which one to dedicate your time and resources to?

DC: I’m humbled to be able to be a part of and help several charities, with my current fundraiser, “Diana Cosby’s Romance Readers Build A Habitat For Humanity Home.” Giving back is one of the priorities in my life, and I choose charities that touch my heart.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

One Man Guy - a multicultural YA gay romance by Michael Barakiva

Today I have a very special guest, Michael Barakiva. I met him through a mutual friend Daniel Shebses whose work I featured not long ago.  Michael has a fascinating background that surely sets him apart.  An Armenian/Israeli theater director and writer who lives in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan with his husband, Rafael, Michael is a sarcastic and eloquent voice in GLBT fiction. He was born in Haifa, Israel and grew up in the suburbs of Central New Jersey, which were much scarier. He attended Vassar College, where he double majored in Drama and English, after which he attended the Juilliard School's Drama Division as an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Directing. He has been living in New York City since. Today he discusses his young adult gay romance One Man Guy exploring the issues of sexual and ethnic identity.

MJN: Congratulations on your novel, first of all. It's hip on so many levels.  Not only is it a gay love story, it's also a cross-ethnic gay love story, with a grim historical undertone (the Amernian holocaust). Armenians are not a particularly vocal group in this country. I applaud your agent and your publisher for tackling something off the beaten path. It's wonderful that so many reviewers recommend it as middle-school reading material.  GLBT is integrating into school curriculum. 

MB: Thanks, Marina.  My editor and I talked a lot about how to keep the book on the middle-school reading level because it was important for me that it found its way into young readers' hands.  Some times that meant pulling back from vocabulary, but I was really happy with how we were able to keep the material honest, especially about the LGBTQ and Armenian themes.

MJN: I find that Americans (those born in this country) resent immigrants who do not live up to the standards dictated by various ethnic stereotypes.  By acting "normal" you deprive Americans of entertainment. I was 13 when I came to the US from Belarus.  My classmates at Cloonan Middle School were disappointed to see that I did not ride a tank, waving a Kalashnikov and I did not have a vodka-drinking pet bear. They were kind of bummed that I did not embody the Cold War fantasy. Would you agree with that observation to some extent?

MB: Well, I think I find that to be true across the world, not just in this country.  In my travels abroad, I feel like I have disappointed many an internationals but not owning a gun, because apparently, as an American, that's their stereotype of us (and give then horrid state of gun control in this country, I guess I'm not surprised).  But still, the idea is clearly that every American owns a piece and keeps it on his or her body.

I actually feel most American when I'm abroad.  Here, in this country, I feel quite other: an Israeli/Armenian who was born in Haifa and spent the first six years of his live there.  But when I'm abroad, I think it's disingenuous to introduce myself as anything other than American.  And given that I've lost my Hebrew and only have a smattering of German and Spanish, basically being a monoglot abroad makes me feel more American than anything else does.

MJN: Armenians were among the first ethnic groups to embrace Christianity in its Orthodox form.  The presence of rather vocal Muslim neighbors makes their sense of religious identity even stronger. I am always wary of something as personal as spirituality becoming a national emblem. I strongly believe in separating ethnic identity from religion - although, in many cases the two go hand in hand.  For instance, I flip when someone assumes I am Russian Orthodox.  I choose to practice mainstream Protestantism, which in this country is associated with the Anglo-Saxon stock. 

MB: This is a fascinating point, Marina, especially because on my other half I'm Israeli, so people assume that I'm Jewish all the time.  In those people's defense, of course, I have a deeply self-deprecating sense of humor, I live in New York, and I worked for Wendy Wasserstein for five years, so I guess it's not the most brazen assumption.  But since my mother is Armenian and Judaism is passed through the maternal line, I'm not Jewish at all.  My mother converted to Lutheran when we came to this country, and I did two years of confirmation class before declaring myself agnostic at age 16.

But I love your imagination of what the world would be like if we could separate the double helix of ethnic identity from religion, especially because the two have been intertwined for so long.  Culture brings us together, so much more than religion, which unfortunately drives people apart. 

MJN: You graduated from Julliard and now direct theatrical productions in New York.  Many aspiring actors, writers and directors think of it as the ultimate Mecca. How do you break the news to all those community theater veterans from small towns in CT, NJ and NY that Manhattan is already swarming with home-grown talent?

MB: Well, the truth is that New York is not the city it used to be.  Just this morning, I was volunteering at a rooftop garden at a church in Hell's Kitchen, with a bunch of other die-hard Hells Kitchen-ites.  We tried to count the amount of businesses still running since I moved to New York in 1997, and couldn't get to ten.  That's pretty depressing, isn't it?  Much of One Man Guy is a love letter to New York, and I think that much of Two Man Guy will be a criticism of what the city has become - the proliferation of banks and pharmacies, the obliteration of small businesses.  The middle and bohemian class has been consumed by the hikes in real estate, and the city's heart is being ripped out and eaten by big business.  I'm not even sure why tourists still come (with the exception of theater, of course), when the city feels like so much of a museum version of itself.

MJN: What is your next literary and theatrical move?  What do you do to keep yourself occupied between artistic gigs?

MB: Well, I've been working on another book with two friends, Suzanne Agins and Rosemary Andress, entitled The Aether Wild, a post-apocalyptic/science fiction/fantasy epic type thing.  We've been writing it for around four years, and we're finally getting to the point that we think we'll be able to send the first draft to my agent.  This gives me enormous joy.

I'm also trying to write Two Man Guy, and I think I'm finally starting to make some good headway on that, but it's been tough.

In terms of theater, I've written a play, The Nature of Things, about Lucretius writing the Ancient Roman poem, De Rerum Natura.  I've also written the book to a musical with Michael Hicks, who wrote the lyrics and music, entitled Don't Listen To The Lyrics.  

I also run a theater company, The Upstart Creatures, who present meals and plays together.  You can check us out at

For the first time, I'm also starting a scene study class with some wonderful actors.  The first class is tomorrow!

And in the fall, I'll start rehearsals for an off-Broadway play.

It's taken years to learn how to keep myself occupied between rehearsal structures and still, as I'm sure you can imagine the money is miserable and one day I dream about making enough that I'm not constantly worrying about it.  But the discipline to wake up and have nothing to do for the month and create a schedule for yourself was a long time coming.  And still, the battle to fight the sirens of facebook and boardgames online wages on.  But more and more, I'm trying to give myself permission to create the work that I believe in and the work I want to be creating.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Daughters of Hastings - Medieval novel series by Carol McGrath

I am pleased to welcome a Belfast-born author Carol McGrath whom I met through Unusual Historicals.  In addition to being an author, she's also an avid traveler and photographer. Please say hello to Carol as she talks about her Normal Conquest series The Daughters of Hastings.

MJN: I am fascinated by the history of Northern Ireland and have used it as a setting for several historical novels. You have your PhD from the University of London.  At that level of scholarly and artistic achievement, are people still aware of the cultural differences between Northern Ireland and England?

CM: There is an exchange of ideas between Universities. There are, of course, specialisms and at Royal Holloway there were Joyce experts, Yeats experts and so on. Though some might regard this as Anglo-Irish literature. I suspect that in History Departments you will find experts on all kinds of Scottish, Welsh, Irish and English Cultural differences. My own conversations concerned my areas of interest such as Anglo Saxon and Anglo Norman Literature. On my MA from Queens Belfast there were representatives of Irish Culture and also many many visiting English writers such as Sarah Waters. My MA outside examiners were Paul Muldoon and Andrew Motion. One was Irish, the other English. I must insist here that whilst the past informs the present it is time to look forward and embrace the best of European Culture and literature. This is of relevance for all English and Irish Universities. It broadens understanding.

MJN: You have a glossary in the beginning of your novel, which I find very useful, as well as the family tree.  How much background knowledge do you think your readers have on the subject?  I suppose, if you read well-researched historical novels set during the Middle Ages, you learn to recognize certain terminology.

CM: At first I did not include a glossary or a family tree in The HandfastedWife , assuming readers would work out the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary either by using a dictionary or by context. I was wrong. I had many requests for both. As a consequence the second edition of The Handfasted Wife has both. There is also an audio version of The Handfasted Wife now. This will have neither . I despair because I am not impressed by the reading of the prose parts of the novel. It is expressionless and line breaks are ignored. The dialogue is much better. Those who listen may not even know what to look up as pronunciations are often incorrect. On the balance I think a glossary is useful but it should, I feel, be short. I think family trees fascinating myself. We are always learning. These characters, most of them, did exist and the family tree shows relationships at a glance.

I have no idea how much background readers have but it does appear to vary according to the reviews of the books that I have read. I think going for a compromise is helpful. I would never want to underestimate my readers' intelligence or knowledge nor would I want to take that for granted either.

MJN: As far as portraying the Middle Ages accurately, there appear to be two schools of thought, two extremes. Some authors focus on the art, architecture, music, theology, while downplaying the less pleasant elements of the era. And some authors go to the opposite extreme and focus on the filth, the brutality, the epidemics. For a while it was fashionable to focus on the gritty.  In reality, the ugly and the sublime have always co-existed side by side. Where does an author find that balance?

CM: The stories are informed fiction. I research background thoroughly but I think the story is most important. I write about women. Their day to day lives interest me. I also write mainly about noble women.  It could be grittier, but I think I probably incline more towards the art and culture aspect of the Middle Ages. I do give hints of the harshness of war but then isn't war ever that? This is not a unique feature of The Middle Ages. I hope I strike a balance. I think the juxtaposition of the ugly and the sublime a fact of life and a very interesting aspect of historical fiction.

MJN: There seem to be some confusion regarding the beauty standards of the High Middle Ages.  Some sources claim that poets and artists admired the "tall and slender" form.  And some authors will depict a female character stressing out over being "too thin" at a time when a full figure was associated with health and fertility. 

CM: The virgin is the norm for female beauty in this period. She is usually tall and slender. She does look the epitome of perfect womanhood. She is never plump nor is she overly thin.

MJN: The covers for your two novels in The Daughters of Hastings series are very different.  The first one depicts a scene from a Medieval script, and the second one looks more timeless with two swans. What is the science behind the cover art?

CM: The covers relate to the context of the novels. The Handfasted Wife was inspired by The vignette of The Burning House on The Bayeux Tapestry. Some Tapestry historians have posited that this could represent Harold's Handfasted wife and their youngest son fleeing from Crowhurst Estate near Hastings just before the battle. There are only three women depicted on the Tapestry and the other two are thought to be noble. It may be that this indeed is Harold's lady. The second cover reflects the romantic element of a The Swan-Daughter. This novel, whilst inspired by a recorded event, the elopement from Wilton Abbey of Gunnhild , Harold's younger daughter, with Alan of Richmond, William of Normandy's Breton cousin , and her eventual relationship with his brother, is a conceit on medieval romance. The Author's notes in both novels explain the historical aspects and those imagined. I chose the cover for The Swan-Daughter thinking of swans and how they mate forever. That, of course, is a little satirical but without spoiling the story there is an element of truth there also.  I loved the painting which is, in fact, from the early 20th C.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Looking for Charlotte - a thriller set in the Highlands by Jennifer Young

When I read the premise of the Looking for Charlotte, it made me think of the Medea myth, in which the mother kills her children, cooks them and serves them in a pie at dinner time to punish their adulterous father. The premise retains its shock value, because humanity still puts motherhood on the pedestal. The mother is always expected to sacrifice her own pride for the benefit of her children. Although, there are many women who use their children as tools of vengeance in more subtle ways. A modern mother may not kill her child and feed the flesh to the father, but she can still try to turn the child against the father, or compare the child to the father in a negative light. Still, most betrayed wives on the brink of divorce will try to shield their children from the moral and physical anguish. That's what our society based on Judeo-Christian morality expects from a woman.

In "Looking for Charlotte" it's the father who does the dirty deed. Alastair Anderson, a mentally disturbed father, kills his toddler daughter Charlotte and writes a cryptic note to the girl's mother. The cultural bias is that such atrocious deeds are somehow more understandable when committed by a man, because men are viewed as predators and abusers. You hear about men raping their daughters in the news.

In comes Flora, a lonely divorcee. Even though her own three children are grown and not in danger of being strangled by their natural father Danny, who is far from being a monster, she becomes imbued with a keen sense of solidarity with the dead girl's mother. Giving her closure becomes an apostolic mission. Still, her motives are not 100% altruistic. There is "something in it" for her - a much-needed adrenaline rush.

Flora's obsession with the investigation makes sense from the standpoint of psychological authenticity. When we are down on our luck, we always seek comfort in knowing that "someone has it worse" and "there are worse things in life than being middle-aged and divorced." I am guilty of that. Whenever I catch myself whining about my "dull existence", I surf the internet for horror stories, just to make myself snap out of my gloom. I suspect, many people do the same, though few would admit to it. Indeed, in the western world, about 50% of marriages fall apart. Divorce is something mundane. Child-killing is still shocking. So it's no wonder that a woman who is processing the dull ache of something as routine as divorce would grasp at the chance to jump-start her own nervous system by immersing herself into investigating such a grisly murder case.

The moors of Scottish Highlands make for a perfect setting for this brooding thriller. My main complaint is that the cover does not reflect the content of the book. It's too light, too sunny. The red coat looks out of place. A woman on a murder investigation mission would not be wearing something so conspicuous. Without knowing the content, I would've guessed it was a girl-power piece about a middle-aged woman defeating breast cancer and finding love in the arms of a fitness instructor.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Journey Through an Arid Land - a controversial novel by Gayle Davies Jandrey

Let me begin by admitting that I am not the world's most tolerant or compassionate person. While I do have a soft spot for the underdog, not all underdogs are created equal. Yes, I can be very harsh and judgmental towards groups who in my mind claim victim status frivolously.  At the same time, I don't believe in limiting my dialogue to only those people who share my point of view.  Reading Journey Through an Arid Land and interviewing the author Gayle Davies Jandrey whose political views are drastically different from mine was an interesting experience. As a first-generation American, who came to this country in the early 1990s and had to jump through all the hoops, I cannot help but resent those who attempt to bypass the traditional channels. Whenever I see illegal immigrants portrayed in a quasi-sympathetic light, something inside me snaps, and my blood starts boiling. I confess, was a challenge reading this book on the emotional level. Several times I had to subdue waves of anger. I'm sorry, but my heart doesn't swell with compassion when I hear about "people seeking a better life".  Well, gosh, aren't we all?  If you're looking for a better life, go to your nearest US Embassy and apply for a refugee visa. That's what my family did. But, I'm going to put my own indignation aside for a moment, because Gayle Davies Jandrey clearly has written a compelling novel. 

MJN: I realize you've worked in a school in Tucson where you had many "undocumented" children. How did this word "undocumented" arise? Was that supposed to be a euphemism? I would also be curious to see if the "undocumented" children mingled with the "documented" children of the same ethnic background. I imagine, some children whose families came to the US legally would not want to mingle with those children whose families ... bypassed the traditional channels.

GJ: From my point of view, the term undocumented migrant is not a euphemism, but a description.  These men, women and children mostly from Mexico and Central America, migrate to the United States without documents, i.e. visas, therefore they are undocumented migrants.

After 28 years, I retired from teaching in 1999 because my mother became ill and I needed to spend more time with her.  That said, back in the day, many of the kids newly arrived to the U.S., whom we called Mexican Nationals at the time, documented or undocumented, did tend to stick together.  Partly this was the self-defensiveness of teens, I believe, and partly it was language. First generation migrants speak mostly their native language.  The second generation is bi-lingual.  Unless there is a conscientious effort on the part of parents and grandparents, the third generation knows only the names for their ethnic foods and now to swear in their native language.  At least, this is my observation.

MJN: Are your students aware of your literary track? Many authors prefer to keep their teaching and writing track separate.

GJ: If they were paying attention, my students did know that I was a writer as well as a teacher.  They found it astonishing that someone who spelled so poorly could be a writer.  I used to give them extra credit if they found one of my spelling errors on the chalk board.

MJN: What fascinates me is that some immigrants - not all - want to take full advantage of the privileges and opportunities life in the US has to offer while retaining their prejudices and even certain hostility against the mainstream American values. Regardless of how you entered the country, legally or illegally, you are going to encounter some misunderstanding and rejection from the people who have lived here for generations. So do you think it's the initial rejection that makes an immigrant hostile, or is the hostile attitude of the immigrant that makes the native-born Americans more guarded? I imagine, it's hard to warm up to someone whose first words are "This is NOT how we do it in my home country."

GJ: I really don't know how to respond to this question.  I've not seen the kind of hostility to mainstream American values that you mention.  Perhaps there is some hostility from U.S. citizens, but certainly not from recent immigrants.

MJN: Your female protagonist's name is Wiona. A bit unusual. At first I kept reading Winona. Then I wondered if it was a variation of Fiona. What's in the name?

GJ: You're not the first person to mistake Wiona for Winona, the famous country singer.  The name Wiona is something of a hybrid.
My great grandfather and great uncle were rancher/doctors in California from the mid 19th century, into the 20th century.  They came up with some pretty interesting names for their children, among them Ione and Aruna.  My middle name is Aruna, after my grandmother, but I always liked Ione.  I put Ione and Aruna together, scrapped the R and slapped a W on it.

MJN: You were lucky to go to the Tucson book fair. I am on the East Coast, and couldn't attend. Around here, book fairs are not always very well attended, because there are so many other alternatives for entertainment. What does an author/publisher do to get noticed in the ocean of books at an event like that?

GJ: I was lucky to be invited to the Tucson Festival of Books.  Over 100,000 people attend our two day festival and there is so much to see and do, it's hard for a mostly unknown writer to draw attention.  When I attended the first festival as an author back in 2008, it was just a matter of sending in my book, A Garden of Aloes, and they put me on a panel with other writers whose setting was Tucson.  In the case of the 2015 festival, I had a friend who introduced me to someone who was already on a panel, Women Who Broke the Mold, which she had proposed.  As it turned out, one of her authors backed out and she needed a third woman. Wiona, fit the bill, and I was invited to join that panel.  All of the panelists used social media to get the word out.  The venue held 100 people and all seats were filled.  Bear in mind that the big guns draw hundreds.  People have to get a free advanced ticket to get in to those venues.