The Sunday Salon

cookies_groupHappy Sunday!  I hope everyone had a great week and will have time for reading-n-relaxation today.  I’m not sure if reading is part of the plan for me today but I’m going to try.  My oldest starts confirmation classes at church this morning, which means I’ll drag my lazy butt to church as well.  Then later I have to load up my van with dozens of cases of Girl Scout cookies from a warehouse, bring them home, sort them out by ‘who sold what’, and distribute them to the girls in my troop.  OH, and I have to catch a mouse (or at least figure out how to do that).

Once, years ago, when I lived in a rural area in Michigan, we had a mouse in our house.  I remember my mother putting out traps, then being horrified to hear one go off in the middle of the night, but in the morning-no mouse.  This went on for days until finally we actually caught the helpless creature rotten rodent in the pantry.  I remember my sister and I finding the little thing stuck in the trap the next morning and feeling so sad.  It was also fascinating to look at, in a horrifying way- so much so that we talked our mother into letting us put the mouse in a Mason jar and taking it to school for Show and Tell.  I was maybe 8 years old.

cordless-mouse1But now there is definitely a mouse in my kitchen (hopefully it’s a mouse, and not mice).  I have seen the, ahem, ‘evidence’.  I have heard scampering at night.  And I’m not 8 years old anymore.  I have no loving feelings toward vermin.  If anyone else has ever dealt with this, please tell me what to do- do I buy traps?  Poison?  Get a cat (our dopey golden retriever is no mouser)?  Or call an exterminator?  I’m freaked out by it and want the dirty thing gone NOW.

Ok, on to reading.  This week I finished Sag Harbor for Barnes and Noble’s First Look online book club .  I haven’t written my review yet, but the writing was superb- although nothing much happens.  It will be a tricky review to write.  Sag Harbor’s author, Colson Whitehead, is active on the book club message boards at B&N, and I love having access to the author in that way.  I was able to ask him questions while reading the book, and he answered them immediately- so cool!  

I finished Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay this week too.  I’m still reeling from the story- it was powerful.  My book club will discuss it next Sunday night.  We had hoped to speak with the author by speaker phone, but she lives in Paris and because of the time difference, it isn’t going to work out.  She is, however, going to answer our questions via email, so I’ll post the questions and answers here with my review sometime after the 8th.  She’s also my newest Facebook friend!  

51svuaqeq5l_sl500_aa240_Today I hope to start One True Theory of Love by Laura Fitzgerald, one of my favorite authors.  It looks good and I can’t wait to start it.  My book club spoke to her when we discussed Veil of Roses a couple years back, and she was so warm and funny.  For anyone who enjoyed Veil of Roses, I have exciting news.. Laura is in the process of writing the sequel!  Yes!  We’ll find out what happens to Tami and Ike!  Laura will be guest posting here soon to share what it was like having her own neighborhood book club discuss her new book.  

Well I hope everyone has a great week!  I’m off on a mouse hunt..  all suggestions, advice, sympathy, comments, questions about the cleanliness of my house (it’s clean, I swear!), etc. are welcome and appreciated.

Book Giveaway from Penguin: The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon

roseofsebastopol_finalMatt from Penguin Group USA is graciously offering this beautiful book, The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon, to be given away in my big fat 100K Celebration!  Isn’t that a romantical cover?  I don’t know about you but I am not above choosing a book based on the cover alone.  Come on, you know you do it too.  Leave a comment by Saturday, February 21st,  for a chance to win this lovely book (US and Canada residents only).  It’s coming out in hardcover March 5th but is available for pre-orders now.

Here is the product description from amazon.com.  The first person who can correctly guess why I got a big chuckle out of it gets 5 EXTRA CHANCES TO WIN.

The #1 UK bestseller comes to America— a sweeping historical novel about love, war, betrayal, and discovery.

In 1854, beautiful, adventurous Rosa Barr travels to the Crimean battlefield with Florence Nightingale’s nursing corps. A headstrong idealist, longing to break out of the rigid confines of life as a young lady, Rosa is determined to make a difference in the world.

For Mariella Lingwood, Rosa’s cousin, the war is contained within the pages of her scrapbook, in her London sewing circle, and in the letters she receives from her fiancé, Henry—a celebrated surgeon who has also volunteered to work within the shadow of the guns. When Henry falls ill and is sent to recuperate in Italy, Mariella impulsively decides she must go to him. But upon her arrival at his lodgings, she makes a heartbreaking discovery: Rosa has disappeared without a trace. Following the trail of her elusive cousin, Mariella’s epic journey takes her from the domestic restraint of Victorian London to the ravaged landscape of the Crimea and the tragic city of Sebastopol, where she encounters Rosa’s dashing stepbrother, a reckless cavalry officer whose complex past —and future—is inextricably bound up with her own. As Mariella’s quest leads her deeper into the dark heart of the conflict, her ordered world begins to crumble and she finds she has much to learn about secrecy, faithfulness, and love. 

WHAT MADE ME LAUGH?  IS IT TOO OBVIOUS?  DON’T FORGET:  THE FIRST PERSON TO GUESS CORRECTLY GETS 5 EXTRA CHANCES TO WIN!

Guest Post: Author Robin Maxwell Talks About Book Clubs

It is my pleasure to welcome Robin Maxwell, author of the new historical novel Signora da Vinci, as a guest blogger today!  Robin, a veteran of many book club meetings, shares here how book groups keep her on her toes.

robinmaxwellscan9smThe world of book readership has changed dramatically since I started back in 1997 with Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn.  That was the period of ascendancy of the chains, Borders and Barnes and Noble, and for Diary I went on an old-fashioned national author tour, speaking at more than 100 venues from coast-to-coast.   Now with  my seventh historical novel, Signora da Vinci, I’m on my first “virtual book tour,” reaching out online, with an emphasis on book clubs.  Not only did I sign up for two book clubbing promotions, but my publisher (who had me include a “Readers Guide” in the back of the book) did a third, and very large promotion geared to their list of book clubs.


coversignorafrontEveryone in publishing is well aware of the strength and importance of readings groups.  They are, along with literary blogs, the most vibrant aspect of the book world today. It means so much to me, as an author, that book groups are reading and discussing my novels.  I see the groups as modern-day “salons” that perpetuate culture and ensure that literature continues to survive and thrive in such uncertain times. I’ve done a number of in-person book club events, and a few remote ones — on a speakerphone from the comfort of my own home.  It’s amazing to be able to feel the warmth and excitement of the women exuding through the wires and the cold machinery.

I never feel nervous or intimidated in these situations because, first, I know my subject so well.  By the time I’m sitting down for a chat about a book, I’ve been living with it for at least two years (between research, writing, editing, publishing and promotion).  I know the characters, the period, the politics and the aesthetics like the back of my hand.   And since I’m not afraid to say “I don’t know the answer to that,” it’s rare to be caught with my pants down.  Of course, if I’ve been invited to speak, I can pretty much assume the group liked my book enough to have me there in person.  I can’t imagine getting an invitation from a club that couldn’t stand what they’d read.  I just expect that I’m walking into a sympathetic situation — six to twelve intelligent women who love to read and discuss literature, at ease in a comfortable living room.  And usually there’s a wonderful meal afterwards!

At one event —  it was a mixed group, men and women — a man, in a rather confrontational tone, challenged me to defend the actions of my protagonist, Grace O’Mally, of The Wild Irish.  She was a 16th century Irish pirate, rival to  Elizabeth I, and “Mother of the Irish rebellion” against England.  He demanded to know why, as a writer, I was sympathetic to Grace, even though after her historic meeting with Elizabeth, she had gone back on her word to the queen to fight on England’s behalf against all the world.  Grace had, indeed, agree to help Elizabeth in exchange for the release of her son from an English prison.   

This was a legitimate question, and not a simple one to answer.  I really had to think on my feet, because not only did I not want to look foolish in front of these readers, but I didn’t want to let down one of my favorite heroines of all times.  I offered the thrust of my defense — that Elizabeth was the first to go back on her word — on another crucial promise she had made to Grace.  But the man parried, refusing to back down, calling Grace a liar, and not worthy of the readers’ respect.  I thought to myself “This man may be a raging Anglophile who simply has no sympathy for the Irish, a people who had been invaded, colonized, enslaved and murdered by the English,”  but that was no defense for the question at hand.  So I went for the emotional argument.  I asked him if he was parent.  He said he was.  I asked “If it was your child locked unlawfully in a tyrant’s prison, wouldn’t you say or do anything to secure his release?  Would you make promises to that tyrant?  Would you go so far as to lie?  Grace O’Malley was one of the great patriots of Ireland, but at that moment she was a mother first.”  Maybe it wasn’t a perfect argument, but the man thought about it and backed down.  Thankfully, somebody asked another question and we moved on.

In the last book group I attended face-to-face, while we were having our lunch afterwards, and everyone was at ease, I learned something interesting about how some readers feel about the questions put forward in the “Readers Guides.”  There was quite a bit of complaint that some of the questions were either irrelevant or obtuse, or that they were only answerable by the author.  These women took pride in devising their own questions for discussion if they didn’t like the ones offered in the guide.  I think that’s wise, and if you do find yourself with an author in your living room or on the other end of a phone line, it’s all right to put forth challenging questions.  It keeps us on our toes.  That man’s question challenging Grace O’Malley — it may have been the most difficult one I’ve ever had to face, but it certainly was the most memorable.

To learn more about Signora da Vinci, which is about the mother of Leonardo da Vinci, check out Amy’s review at My Friend Amy, or this terrific review at Passages to the Past.

Robin Maxwell is the author of 7 historical novels, with an 8th on the way!  Her website can be found HERE.

Discussion questions for Signora da Vinci can be found HERE.

Mailbox Monday – January 19, 2008

 What arrived in YOUR mailbox this week? Visit Marcia at today’s post on The Printed Page to leave a link to your post and see what other readers acquired! Here is what arrived at my house:

mailbox

The Midnight Examiner by William Kotzwinkle, which I won from CB James at Ready When You Are, CB.  I can’t find the same cover online that I have in front of me, unfortunately.  It has a big banner across the top with The MIDNIGHT EXAMINER in large block letters on a bright yellow background, with black and white shots of a cat, a man holding an Egyptian figurine, and a blond woman in a bikini top holding an AK-47- quite a trio!  The man and the woman have little bars over their eyes, presumably to protect their identities.  The book is about the world of tabloid publishing:  “Howard and his staff become embroiled with a bloodthirsty crime lord, a voodoo sorceress, an Egyptian tomb robber, and a porn queen in danger, who leads them into an adventure as bizarre as the headlines in the Midnight Examiner.”  It’s supposed to be wildly insane and laugh out loud funny.  We’ll see!

51xfji8rkl_sl500_aa240_I also got a package of 2 books from the awesome Miriam at Hachette:

Galway Bay by Mary Pat Kelly, is a love story set against the backdrop of nineteenth-century Ireland, the Great Famine, and the emigrant experience in America.  Galway Bay will be released in hardcover on February 9th.

The Alexander Cipher by Will Adams is about the excavation of an ancient Egyptian tomb filled with relics that date back to the time of Alexander the Great.  The Alexander Cipher will be released in hardcover on March 19th.

What did you find in your mailbox this week?

Book Club Spring Selections

imagedbcgiAt our book club meeting last night we voted on our spring selections.  I thought I’d list the nominees here along with the books that got voted in for March, April, and May.

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

Look Me in the Eye:  My Life with Asperger’s by John Elder Robison
imagedb-1cgiThe Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson and Anne Born

Getting Stoned with Savages by J. Maarten Troost

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian

And the winners are:

March:  Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay  320 pages  

April:  The Invisible Wall by Harry Bernstein  336 pages  

May:  A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini   432 pages   

What do you think?  Did we do ok?  Did we miss an awesome title that we need to revisit when we vote on our choices for next summer?

We have each member bring their nominees, discuss them, then everyone votes on 3.  The top 3 vote getters are the next three selections.  I’d love to hear how other book clubs choose their books.  

Review: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

a_thousand_splendid_sunsA Thousand Splendid Suns is another remarkable story from Khaled Hosseini.  Like the Kite Runner, this book is set against the backdrop of turbulent times in Afghanistan, but unlike Hosseini’s first novel, ATSS focuses on female relationships; about love and loss and endurance, making it a superb choice for a book club.  

I’m going to try to summarize the book without giving the whole story away, but if you plan to read this anytime soon, you might want to stop here and skip to the last couple paragraphs.

The two main female characters are Mariam and Laila.  The novel begins when Mariam, a harami (illegitimate child), is 15 years old.   After her mother’s suicide she goes to live with her wealthy father, his 3 wives and their 10 children.  Soon she is married off to Rasheed, a much older man. 

Mariam can’t catch a break.  First her mother kills herself, then she’s treated as a second class citizen by her own father, then she’s married off to an old, abusive man who doesn’t allow her to have friends, talk to people, or show her face in public, and who beats her on a regular basis because she is unable to give him a son.  And that is just the tip of the iceberg.  

Laila, a smart and stunning young girl born to one of Mariam and Rasheed’s neighbors shortly after they marry, grows up and falls in love with her childhood friend, Tariq.  When the political situation in Kabul starts heating up, his parents decide it’s time to move to Pakistan.  He begs Laila to come, but she stays behind with her parents.  They have a quick “indiscretion” before he goes, shocking each other with its intensity.  After Tariq’s departure, Laila’s parents decide they, too, should leave Kabul.  As they are packing up, a bomb hits their house, destroying their home, killing her parents and badly injuring Laila. 

Rasheed and Mariam take 14 year old Laila in.  Mariam nurses her back to health.  Soon the disgusting Rasheed decides he’d like to have Laila as his 2nd wife.  Learning Tariq has been killed, Laila, harboring a secret, agrees to marry the old man.  In my head, I was screaming, NO!  He’ll hurt you!  But it was the only way for her to survive after losing everyone she had to count on.  Women had no freedoms, weren’t allowed to work, travel without a male chaperone, etc.  How would she support herself?  So they marry, and then Laila has the audacity to give birth to a female child.  Rasheed loses whatever kind feelings he had for her at that point. But then the two wives, after some initial tension, form an unbreakable, familial bond that will endure huge challenges and obstacles.  

Spanning almost three decades, from about 1975 until just a few years ago, there are a lot of historical events happening throughout the story.  The political unrest worsens as the Taliban take over and women are more oppressed than ever.  I felt huge empathy for these women and their lack of freedom and basic rights.  I related to their maternal sides, their protectiveness toward Laila’s children and toward each other.  

I loved this book.  As brutal and intense as some of it was (particularly in Rasheed’s final scene), it spoke to me on a deep emotional level.  I cared about these characters.  I desperately wanted things to work out for them.  I’m no expert on Afghanistan history or culture, but it’s possible that the portrayal of some of the characters was a bit stereotypical (actually, that would be my only criticism of the book-it’s beautifully written).    

Khaled Hosseini is a brilliant storyteller.  If you love a good story that isn’t all sunshine and roses, this might be the book for you.  It’s number one on my list of Favorite Reads of 2008!  

Reading Group discussion questions can be found HERE.

Khaled Hosseini’s website is HERE.

Review: Peony in Love by Lisa See

Lisa See is a master at exploring ancient Chinese life, particularly the lives of women.  Set in 17th century China, Peony in Love is the story of how a privileged young girl from a wealthy family becomes a lovesick maiden, a hungry ghost, and eventually, an honored ancestor. 

The story opens with 16 year old Peony and her household preparing for a performance of the opera “The Peony Pavilion” which her father has staged and directed at great expense.  Visitors have arrived and there is much excitement.  The opera is performed over the course of several days, and the young unmarried women are permitted to view it only from behind a screen, because it would be improper for a man outside of their immediate families to see them. 

Peony, an only child, is educated and well loved, unlike many ‘useless’ girls of her time.  She is lovely with her tiny bound feet and delicate lily gait.  She has studied the opera, considered a danger by some, and has many opinions and feelings about it.  Through the screen she can see some of the guests and a section of the stage.  She glimpses a handsome young man in the audience and, during a particularly poignant scene, is overcome with emotion and needs to move about.  Quite by accident, she encounters this young man (a sensitive poet who was also moved by the scene) in a courtyard of her home.  Ashamed at being seen yet drawn to him, they have a few moments together boldly speaking about the opera.  

Peony finds a way to meet this young man twice more.  Her mother discovers she has been out, and fearing the appearance of impropriety, banishes the betrothed Peony to her room.  Though she never learns the poet’s name, Peony becomes obsessed with the idea of him.  Her father has already arranged a marriage for her but she is lovesick for her poet, consumed by thoughts of him and wishing to marry him.  Ever the dutiful daughter, she continues to prepare for her marriage but also begins a project based on The Peony Pavilion, obsessively recording her thoughts on love in the margins.  She starts refusing food and ignores the advice of her doctors.  Her mother, alarmed and desperate to make Peony well again, burns every edition of The Peony Pavilion that she can find in a vain attempt to shock Peony back into health.  By the time Peony realizes she has made a horrible mistake about her sensitive poet, she is on her deathbed and it is too late. 

But that is just the beginning of this love story.  Peony learns about yearning and romantic love as a young girl; she later discovers physical love as a hungry ghost, and ‘deep heart’ love as a sister-wife in the afterworld.  She finds a way to make her voice heard and to live on even after death. 

I was anxious to read this book after having read Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, perhaps my favorite book of all time (definitely in my top 3).  It is beautifully written, historically accurate, well researched and artfully constructed.  It’s a very visual book; I could vividly see the scenes in my mind’s eye.  There are so many wonderful cultural details and rich descriptions of traditions, superstitions and ideas about the afterlife, the treatment of ancestors, foot binding (not nearly as intense as Snow Flower, thank goodness), women’s issues, marriage, writing, and everyday life that make this a truly absorbing novel.  I loved it and would recommend Peony in Love to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, or just a really good (tragic romantic asian ghost) story. 

My book club will have the great privilege of talking to Lisa See by speaker phone next Sunday at our meeting.  I’ll be sure to take notes and share the details here!

Sunday Salon

It’s finally SUNDAY!  I think a lot of us bloggers have a BBAW hangover this weekend.  So many posts to read, so many giveaways, so many awards and so much excitement!  It was a great week, put on by the tireless My Friend Amy, who did a phenomenal job putting it all together and keeping track of everything.  A round of applause for AMY!  (clap, clap, clap)

My BBAW giveaways will be ending this week too;  this one on Monday, and this one on Tuesday.  Hurry and enter if you haven’t already!

Fall has arrived here in Southern California. I used to love this time of year growing up in Michigan- back to school, sweater weather, fall colors, apple picking.  The change of seasons is more subtle in So. Cal. but when you’ve lived her awhile you start to notice small things.  We go from hot to warm, green to brown, and dry to not quite as dry, over the course of several months.  It’s still blazing hot right now, but it cools off in the evenings, and it’s chilly in the early morning.  The kids are back in school (and already have tons of homework), and by next weekend we’ll start to see pumpkins and scarecrows on porches to remind us that it’s fall, since the weather doesn’t offer much of a clue.

I’ve got so much reading lined up but it’s a challenge to find time.  My husband is in China on business, so I’ve been a “single mom” for the past week.  Things I’ve had to do without him include:

* going to Back to School night alone

* taking the girls on an overnight campout at their school (I  made the kids put the tent up, so it wasn’t that bad- it was just the carting things back and forth and the sleeping on the ground that sucked!)

* dealing with the emotions (“I miss daddy” sniff sniff)

* hauling the garbage cans to the curb and back (his job)

* feeding the dog and picking up poop (also his job)

* taking my youngest to her golf lesson (always a daddy/daughter thing)  

On the plus side, I’ve only cooked dinner once all week.  A couple nights we had leftovers, a couple nights we went out, and one night we had “breakfast for dinner”.  Oh, and I haven’t shaved my legs.  Ha!

Right now I’m reading Peony in Love by Lisa See.  I’ve wanted to read this since it came out, but was waiting for my book club to vote it in.  So far I LOVE it.  I was already a big fan after reading Snow Flower, now I’m a bigger fan.  Her writing is so lush and evocative- you get such a sense of the surroundings, you can almost smell the jasmine on the breeze.  Lisa is going to join our book club meeting in October by speaker phone and we could not be more excited!  

Next on the TBR pile is Immortal by Traci Slatton for Jennifer’s online book club at Literate Housewives (not to be confused with her regular blog, Literate Housewife). This one is somehow a cross between historical fiction and time travel.  It’s set in Florence in the 14th century, and the back cover says something about a golden boy having to make a choice between immortality and his only chance to find his true love (I’m paraphrasing wildly).  

After that, it’s on to The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff for a TLC Book Tour stop here on October 30th.  It’s about Ann Eliza Young, 19th wife of Brigham Young, prophet and leader of the Mormon church.  There’s also a parallel story about a present day murder in a polygamist family.  I can’t wait to start it.  

And last, but hopefully not least, I’ll be reading Run by Ann Patchett.  The only Patchett I’ve read is Bel Canto, which I intensely disliked, but because my friend Jill at Fizzy Thoughts liked Run so much, and then offered to send me her copy, I’m going to give it a try.  I’m also interested in Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, about her friendship with Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face), so I’m going to give her a second chance, and then possibly a third.  

I’m curious- If you’ve read a book that you didn’t like at all, do you give an author another chance and read more of their work?  Or do you “fire them” forever?  

Happy Sunday!

Sweetsmoke Giveaway and Q & A with David Fuller

Sweetsmoke by David Fuller is the story of Cassius Howard, a slave on a Virginia tobacco plantation during the Civil War.  It’s also a murder mystery, with Cassius using his limited freedoms to track down the killer of his mentor, a freed slave named Emoline Justice.  It’s an extraordinary new novel and it can be yours on Tuesday, August 26th, when it will be released, or you might just win a copy from me!  I’m about halfway through the book but didn’t want to wait to finish it before posting this giveaway  Look for my review in a couple of days.

So how can you win a copy?  A signed copy??  Just leave a comment here by September 1st – But (yes, there’s a but!) you must email me at lisamunleyATcaDOTrrDOTcom with the answer to this question (Do not leave the answer in the comments!!):  

Where did John-Corey Howard die?   

Find out by reading the excerpt HERE

Fuller has a great website with a ton of information.  You can check it out HERE

And finally, here’s a Q & A with David Fuller.  Enjoy!

Q: What brought you to write this novel?

“Sweetsmoke is a story I was driven to tell. That there was an African American slave at its core was simply the factual basis upon which to build the story. Cassius is an outsider to his world, and it was but a small step to tell the story from his perspective, as writers tend to be outsiders to their worlds. Research taught me to understand his environment, to know the hardships he had to endure, but being a fellow human being allowed me to see the world through his eyes. Imagination and empathy are the tools of the writer. I’d like to think that the fact that a writer can empathize with another man in dire circumstances is a small step to understanding and brotherhood. Lest that sound naïve and uplifting, let me just say on a personal note that I had just as much difficulty imagining his courage and strength as I did seeing through his eyes as a slave in the 19th Century.

Good stories on big topics don’t come around very often. There are a few lucky writers who seem to continually come up with them, but for me, they are few and far between. When I initially imagined a slave acting as a ‘detective’, a great landscape opened up inside of me. The story was immediately evident even without the necessary specifics. I was not interested in telling a detective story. I was interested in discovering the world of a slave. I was also curious as to how a man who does not have the personality of a victim survives in an environment where he has no power. But by using a loose detective story structure, I was able to touch on different aspects of a world that intrigued me. I was able to visit the world of slaves spying against the Confederacy; I was able to imagine an important Civil War battle; and I was able to examine the idea of how one seemingly unimportant death, occurring against the enormous canvas of a violent war, can take on great significance. [Back To Top]

 

Q: How did you research the story?

I figured I had at least five years of research ahead of me before I could even write an outline that I would dare show to anyone. I already knew the rough shape of the story, but so much of the novel required historical details that would drive the story forward. I also knew that if I was to tell the story from such a specific point of view, I had damned well better get it right.

 

I wound up doing at least eight years of research on the novel. I attempted at one point to put together a bibliography, and found that I had read at least fifty books on the subjects of slavery, America in the 1800s, the Civil War, particularly Antietam, and other related subjects like tobacco and the currency of the time. To this day I am coming across books I dipped into for some tidbit of information that did not make the list. I traveled to hundreds of Internet sites, and watched countless hours of documentaries and other related programming. I found that children’s books were helpful, as they come with pictures. [Back To Top]

 

Q: What kinds of surprises did you discover during your research?

Since I was a boy, I have heard that Confederate General Turner Ashby is one of my ancestors. My great grandmother, Ida Reid Ashby, wrote a lengthy passage about him in her book Ashbys, Reids and Allied Families. I have recently received information confirming the link via DNA evidence. Turner Ashby was such an interesting and dashing fellow that I knew early on that I wanted to include him in the novel. It was not until I was well under way with the research and outlining of the book that I discovered that he had been a slave owner. I had suspected as much, but it was not confirmed until I found a copy of Thomas A. Ashby’s 1914 biography Life of Turner Ashby.

Many of my ancestors fought in the Civil War, on both sides. Major Gilbert Trusler, my great, great grandfather, was a Major in Company H of the 36th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, and fought at the Battle of Chattanooga under Ulysses S. Grant. Nelson Trusler, my 2nd great grand uncle, brother of Gilbert Trusler, was Colonel in the 84th Indiana Regiment. John Hankinson Ashby, my 2nd great grand uncle, was a corporal in the 9th Kentucky Cavalry, involved with Morgan’s Raid, where he was killed. Henry Thomas Ashby, my 2nd great granduncle was one of the first volunteers from Indiana and was in the 7th Indiana Regiment. He fought at Gettysburg and was later killed in the Battle of the Wilderness of Spotsylvania. He mentions in his letters that his Virginia kindred were fighting on the other side. Leander Bradshaw Ashby, my 2nd great granduncle, was in the 9th Indiana Cavalry of Indiana Volunteers, serving in the Col. Eli Lilly regiment in the Civil War. In a bloody battle near Franklin, TN, “Uncle Lee” was one of the men who carried Lt. Burroughs to the rear in a dying condition just after Uncle Lee’s own horse’s head had been shot off.  The above Ashbys were all brothers of my great great grandfather, James Samuel Ashby.

And then there was Zachariah. Zachariah Ashby enlisted as a private on the first of October, 1864 at the age of 18. He deserted Company K, 15th Iowa Infantry on the 5th of November, 1864. A month in the army was enough for Zachariah.

The above information has been graciously supplied by my uncle, Samuel Ashby Fuller. [Back To Top]

 

Q: How much of the novel is true? Did you base the characters on actual people?

Out of necessity, I have included the names of real people in the novel: Turner Ashby; Robert E. Lee; Peter Longstreet; and Sir Percy Wyndham. But Hugh McClaren and the other soldiers are figments of my imagination, along with everyone else in the novel.

That said, most of the incidents that happen to Cassius did in fact happen to slaves at one time or another. The most surprising to me was that there were slaves who refused to be beaten or whipped. They would stand up to white overseers, and get away with it. There is at least one story told of a slave who would not be beaten, the white man let him be. but told the other whites that he had beaten him terribly in order to save face. I worried that readers would not believe the moment when Cassius faces Otis Bornock in the rain, but that incident is based on fact. [Back To Top]

 

Q: Who were your influences on this book?

One of the important influences on Sweetsmoke was Zhang Yimou (director), Tong Su (novelist), and Zhen Ni’s RAISE THE RED LANTERN. I had been thinking about how to present the ongoing lives of slaves in the quarters, and when I watched that film and saw the wives of a Chinese Master scheme, connive and battle for power, I saw a way in. I wanted to show the slaves as completely human, flawed, irritating, kind, petty, generous and foolish, just as I wanted to show the whites as completely human, flawed, irritating, kind, petty, generous and foolish. It was important to me to show that the whites were as trapped as the blacks in the institution of slavery. Whites created and maintained the trap, but a man like Hoke Howard is also trapped by his heritage. Without the expectations of his family, he might well have been a very different man. Hoke Howard does terrible things, but I hope the reader comes to understand him, and perhaps will share the strange affection that Cassius has for him. Cassius does amazing, clever things, he has learned to use his mind to survive, which was a necessity of survival for slaves, but he is also flawed and can be maddening.

We must all pay a great debt of gratitude to the writers who have come before us. I count as my obvious influences on this particular book Mark Twain and Toni Morrison. In no way do the flaws in this novel reflect back on Ms. Morrison or Mr. Twain, as it is my imperfections alone to be blamed for any and all mediocrity, but I did at times find myself reaching for BELOVED, HUCK FINN and PUDDINHEAD WILSON to hear rhythms in speech and dialogue.

I am also indebted to Patrick O’Brian. Any devotee of his Aubrey/Maturin series will recognize my occasional homage to him, through words and phrases that rang true for me and helped keep me in the 19th Century. While I was unable to physically read Mr. O’Brian when writing Sweetsmoke — he was a brilliant writer, and reading him would drop me into a deep well of envy — I revisited him by listening to audio versions of his books, via the wonderful voice of Patrick Tull. A fellow writer and mentor of mine, Carter Scholz (RADIANCE), spoke of having a writer on your shoulder watching you as you work. O’Brian was the writer on my shoulder. [Back To Top]

 

Q: You also work as a screenwriter?

I had intended to become a painter, but gave it up in college. I hunted for another outlet for my ‘talents’. I enjoyed photography, but once I picked up a super 8 movie camera and made a couple of short movies, I was hooked. I knew the way in to that world was to become a writer, so I put my butt in a chair and wrote. Along the way, I took a job working for a game show company. My work there ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous.

I eventually sold a script, and soon after partnered with Rick Natkin. Rick and I had a long and excellent run. For seven or eight years, I think we sold everything we wrote. We had six projects made, some of which we even put our real names on. Rick once said that his best stuff was gathering dust on the shelf in his office, his okay stuff was sold but not made, and the bad stuff was up on the big screen for everyone to see. Our most commercial script sold for a lot of money, and then was rewritten so that not one word we wrote ended up in the film. But every screenwriter has horror stories, so I will leave it at that. The important thing is that screenwriting is a surprisingly difficult skill and is significantly undervalued. It teaches you structure and pace, and it teaches you to focus your stories. I’ve written over fifty screenplays, and I’m still learning.

Review: The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner

 The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner is the fascinating story of Juana, daughter of Queen Isabel and King Consort Fernando of Spain (if you remember your American history, they were the rulers who sponsored Christopher Columbus’ search for the new world). Juana was the last queen of Spanish blood to inherit the throne.  

There’s tons of royal drama here.  Young Juana worshiped her father, respected her mother, the icy Queen Isabel, and had a fierce loyalty to her beloved Spain.  An arranged marriage was made to strengthen her parents’ political alliances.  She left Spain at sixteen to meet Archduke Phillip “the Fair” of Flanders, her betrothed yet a stranger. 

Phillip and Juana are so immediately taken with each other that they demand to be wed on the spot rather than wait, to the shock and disdain of her women, advisors, and escorts.  Their first few years together were passionate, but then it all quickly went to hell when Juana’s brother, sister, and nephew all die, making her the heir apparent to the Spanish crown.  

Suddenly Juana finds herself in danger.  She is a pawn who can trust no one except the loyal women who attend her.  Queen Isabel is in crisis mode- she detests Phillip and does not want him to rule Spain.  In secret she gets Juana’s assurance that she will do whatever it takes to inherit the throne, paving the way for her as best she can before her death.    

Phillip and his advisors have other plans.  Full of political aspirations, they use Juana’s fiery personality against her and begin whispering about her mental health. Emotional with a jealous temper, the unconventional princesa didn’t always conform, which made the insanity talk more plausible. 

Her husband, constantly strategizing and manipulating Juana, cruelly imprisoned her, beat her, humiliated her, lied to her, cheated on her, impregnated her for a 6th time through marital rape, and made every effort to destroy her.  If that’s not enough to make a girl MAD, I don’t know what is!  But was she insane?  Historians speculate that she was schizophrenic, driven to madness by grief over the loss of her husband (and there is in fact evidence of mental health problems in her family tree), but Gortner brilliantly casts doubt and challenges that theory.  

C.W, Gortner has written a stunning piece of historical fiction in The Last Queen.  Full of historical detail, danger, suspense, betrayal, and complex twists and turns, it is a captivating read.  Juana is colorful, courageous, and absolutely certain of her destiny.  Throughout her struggles I was rooting for her to prevail. 

Unfortunately, Queen Juana la Loca, aka Juana the Mad, ruled Spain from 1506-1509 after her mother’s death, but was then imprisoned for insanity for the rest of her life, in part because of her refusal to abdicate the thrown to her father.  This refusal, however, ensured that her children would later inherit the thrown, shaping history for generations to come.  

I didn’t know anything about the forgotten Queen Juana prior to reading this book- the extent of my knowledge about the 16th century royals was limited to a couple episodes of The Tudors on Showtime and the Philippa Gregory novel, The Other Boleyn Girl (Juana’s sister Catalina was Henry VIII’s wife, Catherine of Aragon). I was entranced by Juana and this extraordinary book and would highly recommend it. 

about the author

C. W. Gortner, half-Spanish by birth, holds an M.F.A. in writing, with an emphasis on historical studies, from the New College of California and has taught university courses on women of power in the Renaissance. He was raised in Málaga, Spain, and now lives in California. 

For more information, please visit www.cwgortner.com.  A special thanks to Pump Up Your Book Promotion for sending this awesome book!