The Marsh King’s Daughter, by Karen Dionne

Marsh book In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a violent murderer, known as the Marsh King for his ability to live undetected in the back marshes for years, has just escaped from the penitentiary by murdering two prison guards. In Karen Dionne’s superbly thrilling novel The Marsh King’s Daughter, there is only one possible destination for the man: the home of his adult daughter Helena, her husband and their two children.  Helena Pelletier knows her father well. She herself is the daughter of a woman he abducted, raped repeatedly, and held hostage for over a decade.

Now, Helena knows her father Jacob is coming to reestablish his marsh family and to take her and her girls with him.

I had the pleasure of meeting Karen Dionne at the Salt Cay Writers Retreat that she established while she was working on The Marsh King’s Daughter. I remember her glee when she reported how pleased her agent was with her progress on this book and now having read it, I can see why. It’s stunning in plot, character, and description.

marigoldI sit up and check my watch. It’s still difficult for me to be somewhere at an exact time. When a person is raised on the land as I was, the land dictates what you do and when. We never kept a clock. There was no reason to. We were as attuned to our environment as the birds, insects, and animals, driven by the same circadian rhythms. My memories are tied to the seasons. I can’t always remember how old I was when a particular event took place, but I know what time of year it happened.

I know now that for most people, the calendar year begins on January 1. But in the marsh there was nothing about January to distinguish it from December or February or March. Our year began in the spring, on the first day the marsh marigolds bloomed. Marsh marigolds are huge bushy plants two feet or more in diameter, each covered with hundreds of inch-wide bright yellow blossoms. Other flowers bloom in the spring, like the blue flag iris and the flowering heads of the grasses, but marsh marigolds are so prolific that nothing compares to that astonishing yellow carpet. Every year my father would pull on his waders and go out into the marsh and dig one up. He’d put it in an old galvanized tub half-filled with water and set it on our back porch, where it glowed like he’d brought us the sun.

I used to wish my name was Marigold. But I’m stuck with Helena, which I often have to explain is pronounced “Hel-LAY-nuh.” Like a lot of things, it was my father’s choice.

No less than Charles Finch, reviewing for the New York Times Book Review, agrees:

Two elements make Dionne’s book so superb. The first is its authenticity. There’s a strain in the contemporary American novel (“Maud’s Line,” by Margaret Verble, and “The Snow Child,” by Eowyn Ivey, are recent examples) defined by a knowledge of nature that feels intimate, real and longitudinal, connected to our country’s past. When Dionne describes the swamp maples that make a cabin invisible from the air, or the way one digs chicory taproots, then washes, dries and grinds them to make a coffee substitute, it seems effortless, plain that her fluency has a deeper source than Wikipedia.

The second is the corresponding authenticity of Helena’s emotions about her father, painfully revisited and refined as she tracks him. She has no doubt whatsoever that he belongs in prison, but she doesn’t hate him — or at least, part of her hatred is love. . . .

In its balance of emotional patience and chapter-by-chapter suspense, “The Marsh King’s Daughter” is about as good as a thriller can be, I think.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/31/books/review/summer-reading-thrillers.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0

Karen’s authentic descriptions were formed in a way that Mr. Finch may not know, though Karen was kind enough to share the information with me in a series of questions and answers.

During the 1970s, my husband and I homesteaded in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with our infant daughter, living in a tent while we built our tiny cabin, carrying water from a nearby stream, and sampling wild foods, and I definitely bequeathed to my narrator, Helena, my love of wild places and my ease with nature.

My living situation wasn’t nearly as extreme as her family’s, so some of the skills she possesses, I do not. Though I can recognize many wild plants and know which parts are safe to eat and how to cook them, I’ve never hunted, or fished, or trapped—our meat came from the grocery store. That said, I can bake a mean batch of biscuits in an iron skillet on top of a wood stove, and I know how to get a lot of mileage out of a single bucket of water. (Step one: use the fresh, clean, hot water to rinse your dishes. Step two: use the still-warm soapy rinse water to wash the floor. Step three: use the dirty mop water to water your houseplants, or the garden.)

My husband I lived in the Upper Peninsula for 30 years. We came back to the Detroit area when our children were nearly grown so they could have better job and education opportunities, and also to be closer to our aging parents.

Throughout The Marsh King’s Daughter, Karen juxtaposes the ordinary chores of Helena’s current life — making and delivering the jams and jellies that help her family survive, parenting the children — with the more severe circumstances under which she was raised. In addition, Karen weaves the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale of the marsh king’s daughter with Helena’s own story to great effect.

SeneyI pick up a news alert: “—escaped prisoner . . . child abductor . . . Marquette . . .”

“Be quiet,” I yell, and turn the volume up.

“Seney National Wildlife Refuge . . . armed and dangerous . . . do not approach.” At first, that’s all I manage to catch.

I need to hear this. The refuge is less than thirty miles from our house. “Mari, stop!”

Mari blinks into silence. The report repeats:

“Once again, state police report that a prisoner serving life without parole for child abduction, rape, and murder has escaped from the maximum security prison in Marquette, Michigan. The prisoner is believed to have killed two guards during a prison transfer and escaped into the Seney National Wildlife Refuge south of M-28. Listeners should consider the prisoner armed and dangerous. Do NOT, repeat, DO NOT approach. If you see anything suspicious, call law enforcement immediately. The prisoner, Jacob Holbrook, was convicted of kidnapping a young girl and keeping her captive for a dozen years in a notorious case that received nationwide attention . . .”

My heart stops. I can’t see. Can’t breathe. Can’t hear anything over the blood rushing in my ears. I slow the truck and pull carefully onto the shoulder. My hand shakes as I reach to turn the radio off.

Jacob Holbrook has escaped from prison. The Marsh King. My father.

Karen’s website, http://www.karen-dionne.com/the-marsh-kings-daughter/, has a raft of great reviews. Here, I add mine. It’s a dynamite read and your book club will love it. Plus there’s some — shall we say very interesting — food.

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chokecherry1Helena makes jams and jellies from the natural abundance surrounding her in the Upper Peninsula. Some of the most interesting choices I found to be her cattail and blueberry jelly. I had no idea they were edible. Karen though shared with me her recipe for Chokecherry Apple Jelly. From Karen:

Blueberries grow profusely all over the Upper Peninsula; in fact, some of the old-timers tell stories of how, during the Great Depression, entire families went out into the plains and camped there for weeks picking blueberries to be sold to restaurants as far south as Chicago to supplement their income, so having my character make her living selling jelly and jam was a natural choice.how-to-draw-a-raccoon-9

I’ve made many kinds of jelly and jam over an open campfire (and had to defend the cooling jars against marauding raccoons!). My favorite was wild-apple chokecherry jelly. Chokecherries are far too sour to eat straight off the tree, but make delicious jelly. Because wild apples are a source of natural pectin, mixing the cherries and apples meant we didn’t have to buy pectin from the store.

Once when I was hiking toward the abandoned orchard behind our cabin, I came upon a pile of bear dung that was so fresh, it was practically steaming. I decided to abandon my apple-picking plans that day, since I couldn’t quite picture myself running from a bear and climbing a tree while carrying my infant daughter on my back!

Here’s my recipe for Chokecherry Apple Jelly

1 pint chokecherries
6 medium tart apples
2 cups water
2 tbsp. lemon juice (optional)
5 cups sugar

Cut up apples (seeds and all), wash and crush cherries, and put in saucepan with water and lemon juice. Bring to a slow boil and simmer about 5 minutes. Put in jelly bag; squeeze out juice. Measure 2 cups into kettle. If necessary, add water to make 2 cups. Put over high heat and stir until mixture comes to a hard boil. At once stir in sugar. Bring to a full rolling boil; then boil hard one minute, stirring. Remove from heat, skim off foam; pour into glasses. Top with 1/8″ paraffin. Makes 8 (6 oz.) glasses.

I had to ask about the cattails and here’s what I learned: “In his book “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” Euell Gibbons calls the common cattail the “supermarket of the swamps,” and details how to gather and enjoy the new shoots, the starchy rhizomes, and even the unripe flower spikes and ripe spikes covered with rich yellow pollen, and we tried them all. Like Helena in my novel, I particularly like eating the young heads boiled in salted water and eaten like corn on the cob. We also enjoyed young milkweed pods.”

So if you’re truly adventurous, head on out and eat you some cattails and milkweed!

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My first thought would be to simply find a nature soundtrack or if you live in a home with summertime insect noises (and screen windows), simply open the window. Karen told me that while writing, “I listen to movie soundtracks  – there are no words, but there is a narrative to the album, and the emotion comes through loud and clear. For The Marsh King’s Daughter, my first choice was the soundtrack for the movie “Inception.” I also listened to a couple tracks from “Jurassic Park” when I needed a particular mood.”

Many thanks to Karen Dionne for participating in my blog today! Karen

Happy Reading!

The Freedom Broker by K.J. Howe

tomb raider       eartha kitt       Athina-Onassis-aristoteles-onassis-34494050-450-340

Thea Paris, the clever, action-packed protagonist of K.J. Howe’s thrill-a-minute debut novel The Freedom Broker, is sort of a cross between Tomb Raider, Catwoman, and Athina Onassis. Her father is a Greek oil magnate, she’s special ops trained and apparently, a vixen in high heels. Her only weakness: she’s diabetic and doesn’t want anyone to know, which can be problematic when you are one globe-trotting, kidnap-victim-rescuing, corporate-negotiating, rock-of-the-family babe.

KJSeriously, nearly every page of The Freedom Broker has some mortal danger on it. K.J.  Howe, a fabulous writer, world-traveler and adventurer in her own right, is the Executive Director of ThrillerFest, an annual gathering of several hundred international thriller writers. It’s not surprising K.J.’s first book is such a great read.

[Thea] tapped her smartphone to call up her glucose reading: 105. Monitor batteries fully charged. Perfect. Nothing could screw up a mission more than low blood sugar. She slipped her phone into her tactical vest beside her glucagon kit. Rif was still watching her as she adjusted her vest, and she wondered if he knew. She’d done her best to keep her condition a secret, but he didn’t miss much. It probably wouldn’t change anything, but she didn’t want anyone on the team thinking she wasn’t up to the job.

The pilot’s voice crackled in her earpiece: “Three minutes to touchdown.”

“Roger that. We’re green here.”

The stormy sky hid the second helicopter from view. Thea wiped her damp palms on her fatigues. Rain rattled on the chopper’s fuselage, and the turbulence unsettled her stomach. Flying had never been her strong suit. The poor visibility would allow them to fly in under the radar, but the cloying humidity and heat could degrade the chopper’s performance. They’d reduced its fuel load to stay as light as possible, but that left only a minimal buffer if they ran into problems.

Rif shifted to face Brown and Johansson. “Okay boys, let’s grab this Oil Eagle.”

Thea and Rif, childhood friends, are part of a private military-style organization that rescues kidnap/hostages when governments do not, cannot, or will not. But after rescuing the oilman in The Freedom Broker’s opening sequence, Thea and her team have to find the one hostage she can barely begin to think about: her father.

I met K.J. at the Salt Cay Writers Retreat a couple of years ago, and I was able to persuade her to answer a few questions for daeandwrite readers.

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There are some fabulous champagne-drenched parties detailed in The Freedom Broker. According to K.J. Howe, Thea Paris’ favorite food is “baklava, but she has to watch her carbs because of her type 1 diabetes.”

I’ve never made baklava, but I’ve tried making some dessert using phyllo dough and I’m going to go to the bakery on this one. I lack Thea’s courage.

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From KJ: “I listened to Gavin DeGraw’s Soldier, as it reminded me of the relationship between Thea and Rif.  In the childhood scenes from Nikos point-of-view, I listened to K’Naan’s Waving Flag.  That song gives me chills.”
My Playlist
Soldier, Gavin DeGraw
Waving Flag, K’Naan
Akon, K’Naan
Ladysmith Black Mambazo
Graceland, Paul Simon
freedom broker
MOVIE CASTING
K.J. shared her ideal cast — here’s hoping you get that sale of The Freedom Broker‘s movie rights, friend!
Mehgan Heaney-Grier is an incredible talent, and I see her as Thea.  Mehgan holds the world record for free diving, 165 feet.  Would love Phillip Winchester as Rif, Rupert Friend (plays Peter Quinn on Homeland, brilliant actor) as Nikos, and Selma Hayek for Gabrielle.
I predict The Freedom Broker will be one of summer’s hottest beach reads. Happy Reading!

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead ✎✎✎✎

handcar

Like a runaway train, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad swept through 2016 on its way to winning the National Book Award for Fiction. You had to read it so that you knew the construct, the fantastical reimagining of a historical event, the simply gut-wrenching language; so that you could keep up with the conversation.

In Whitehead’s imagination the underground railroad, said to have saved over 30,000 people from slave-holding states, is an actual railroad. Engines, conductors, station agents, tunnels carved from the earth by those who would use them to escape.

The tunnel pulled at her. How many hands had it required to make this place? And the tunnels beyond, wherever and how far they led? She thought of the picking, how it raced down the furrows at harvest, the African bodies working as one, as fast as their strength permitted. The vast fields burst with hundreds of thousands of white bolls, strung like stars in the sky on the clearest of clear nights. When the slaves finished, they had stripped the fields of their color. It was a magnificent operation, from seed to bale, but not one of them could be prideful of their labor. It had been stolen from them. Bled from them. The tunnel, the tracks, the desperate souls who found salvation in the coordination of its stations and timetables – this was a marvel to be proud of. She wondered if those who had built this thing had received their proper reward.

. . .Who are you after you finish something this magnificent—in constructing it you have also journeyed through it, to the other side. On one end there was who you were before you went underground, and on the other end a new person steps out into the light. The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath, the miracle you made with your sweat and blood. The secret triumph you keep in your heart.

The reader travels the rails and stops with Cora, a young woman imprisoned in slavery on a

Georgia plantation, an orphan, the victim of a brutal rape. When a fellow slave offers Cora the chance to run, at first she declines, then she hesitates and then, she decides to go. The two make it to what initially seems a haven — another imagining of Whitehead where the town population imports “pilgrims” from slavery for nefarious purposes — from which they must run again to another and another. Yet Cora takes refuge in her mind, seeking out knowledge, learning, literature.

What a world it is, Cora thought, that makes a living prison into your only haven. Was she out of bondage or in its web: how to describe the status of a runaway? Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits. Being free had nothing to do with chains or how much space you had. On the plantation, she was not free, but she moved unrestricted on its acres, tasting the air and tracing the summer stars. The place was big in its smallness. Here, she was free of her master but slunk around a warren so tiny she couldn’t stand.

In Juan Gabriel Vasquez’ review for the New York Times, he says: “In a sense, “The Underground Railroad” is Whitehead’s own attempt at getting things right, not by telling us what we already know but by vindicating the powers of fiction to interpret the world. In its exploration of the foundational sins of America, it is a brave and necessary book.” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/14/books/review/colson-whitehead-underground-railroad.html?_r=0

whitehead-bookThe Underground Railroad is the first work I’ve read by Colson Whitehead, but according to Salon.com,  he is “[a] recipient of the MacArthur (the so-called genius grant) and Guggenheim fellowships, Whitehead is the author of six previous novels, including “John Henry Days,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prizeand The New York Times bestseller “Zone One,” a zombie tale set in New York.” Sounds like there is more good stuff out there waiting for me to get to. The Salon article includes an interview with Whitehead about the inspiration for The Underground Railroad. “The idea of ‘what if the underground railroad was actually real,’ is, in many ways, something we picture in elementary school. Yes, it’s fanciful and childish. But it also had many possibilities and that got me thinking about all of this in an active way.” http://www.salon.com/2016/08/27/why-colson-whitehead-made-the-underground-railroad-real-its-fanciful-and-childish-but-it-also-had-many-possibilities/

The Underground Railroad is a beautiful but frequently-tough read, particularly for those who may be more willing to pretend (as I once heard a neighbor say) “all that ugly stuff is over.” In this particular time, Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad may be just the warning bell we need to stay attuned.

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When Cora reaches Valentine’s place in Indiana, there is a feast day which includes “hogs . . . chopped on the long pine table and covered dipney sauce. Smoky collards, turnips, sweet potato pie.”

I love watching Top Chef, the current season of which is being filmed in Charleston, S.C. On a recent episode, they mentioned Edna Lewis, (April 13, 1916 – February 13, 2006), an African-American chef and author best known for her books on traditional Southern Cuisine. I’ve got two of her publications on order (back-ordered probably due to others having seen the same show) but I did find her recipe for Spicy Collard Greens on FoodandWine.com http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/spicy-collard-greens.

From my research, “dipney” is a sauce that was mopped on the meat while cooking. Here’s a recipe from a very fun website called the Obsessive Compulsive Barbecue: http://ocbarbecue.blogspot.com/2013/06/antebellum-barbecue-mop-recipe.html.

And from my grandmother’s cookbook, a recipe for Southern Sweet Potato Pie.

Wash 3 sweet potatoes and bake for 30 minutes until soft. (Don’t microwave incidentally, you can’t get the same texture.) Peel and mash. You need 2 cups of mashed sweet potatoes.

Preheat oven to 425.

Cream 1 cup butter, 1 1/2 cups sugar together and then mix with the mashed potatoes. Add 4 eggs, one at a time, until blended. Mis in 1/2 cup bourbon, the grated rind and juice of 1/2 orange and 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Pour the filling into the pie crust (my grandmother always used Pet-Ritz) and bake for 10 minutes. Turn the heat down to 350 and bake for another 45 minutes until the filling is set (it doesn’t wiggle) and the crust is brown.

Sift with confectioners sugar when cool or serve with a bourbon-whipped cream.

MUSIC

Spirituals would be ideal. I’ve mentioned the American Spiritual Ensemble before, led by the University of Kentucky’s own Dr. Everett McCorvey, and their music certainly would hold up to a discussion of The Underground Railroad.

Read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Remember its lessons as well as its beauty and power and tragedy. colsonwhitehead-erinpatriceo-brien_sq-7c50afdaaa81e8021d312015cea780f25ff42465-s300-c85.jpg

 

My Reads: Best Books of 2016

Happy New Year! 2016 has come and gone, leaving trail marks, some more scorching than others. But in my own rearview mirror, I have some books that I truly enjoyed — not all of which were published in 2016 — and will relish the thoughts they left behind and the opportunity to re-read them in the future.

shakespeareA special delight of this past reading year for me was the Hogarth Press Shakespeare rewrite project. I enjoyed Anne Tyler‘s Vinegar Girl, a revision of Taming of the Shrew , and Jeannette Winterson‘s take on The Winter’s Tale entitled The Gap of Time. I haven’t reviewed Vinegar Girl yet, but here’s more on The Gap of Timehttps://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/07/27/the-gap-of-time-jeanette-winterson/

austenI enjoyed even more the Harper-Collins “Austen Project” series re-exploring the novels of Jane Austen, particularly Eligible! by Curtis Sittenfield, which is one of my favorite books of the year.  So far, all I have read are Emma by Alexander McCall Smith. I have not yet read Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid or Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope. Here are my more in=depth reviews: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/08/13/emma-a-modern-retelling-by-alexander-mccall-smith/, https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/07/17/eligible-by-curtis-sittenfeld/.

book-drawing-lessons-0005.jpgIn addition to my top five list, which I’m getting to . . ., I also had some very fun book experiences this year. I traveled to New Orleans and sat in the lobby bar of the Pontchartrain Hotel jotting some notes for my own novel and hoping I was channelling the soul of Tennessee Williams, reputed to have written Streetcar Named Desire in the same location. I attended the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning’s Kentucky Literary Hall-of-Fame ceremony and enjoyed seeing Bobbie Ann Mason accept her position as only the second living member of the Hall of Fame. My fellow writing group members and I traveled together to New York for a Pitch Conference with our respective works and met fellow writers from across the country, New York editors and agents. I achieved publication with two short stories! The first in Nowhere Magazine, http://nowheremag.com/2016/10/clearing-out/, and the second in the second edition of AvantAppalachia, avantappalachia.com. 

Back to my top reads of 2016:

metropol-postcardA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Dear Mr. Towles: I love your words. Your elegant view of life. The grace and beauty with which you depict humans and the events surrounding them. I will read anything you write. (You should too.) Full review: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/10/15/a-gentleman-in-moscow-by-amor-towles-✎✎✎✎✎/

Commonwealth by Anne Patchett. There are those writers who can haunt you with an idea. Some who can impress you with a particular sentence or a descriptive image. Anne Patchett launches all the weapons in her impressive arsenal at the reader with every book she writes and leaves the reader with her words, thoughts, ideas, and novels imprinted on their memory. Full review: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/11/17/commonwealth-by-ann-patchett-✎✎✎✎/

sittenfeld_eligible3Eligible! by Curtis Sittenfield. Any writer who can take Jane Austen, Mr. Darcy, Skyline Chili, the Bachelor, and a day trip through Lexington, Kentucky, and combine them into a funny, sexy, skewering romp through American pop culture should be a best-seller. And Ms. Sittenfield deservedly is. I loved Eligible! https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/07/17/eligible-by-curtis-sittenfeld/

brooklyn.jpgThe Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney and Modern Lovers by Emma Straub. I’m cheating a little to include two books as one, but there was something quite similar to me in these two tales of Gen X’ers aging into parenthood, amid family crisis and the havoc of the past. I liked and frequently recommended both. Full reviews for both novels: https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/06/08/modern-lovers-emma-straub/ and https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/05/04/the-nest-by-cynthia-daprix-sweeney/

Finally, I struggled over this but am going to include The Sport of Kings by Kentucky horse-racing-neck-and-neckauthor C.E. Morgan. I feel like I spent the most time with this doorstop of a book this year, as I reviewed it for my mother’s book club and wanted to do as well as possible in approaching the themes and history as possible. I hazarded some guesses as to the notably reticent Morgan’s literary goals, but long and short: it’s quite a masterpiece of Kentucky history and I feel it must be included here.https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/10/22/the-sport-of-kings-c-e-morgan-✎✎✎/

So, there’s my 2016 roundup. I have a few more reviews to add from the end of the year: The Mothers by Brit Bennet, The Nix by Nathan Hill, Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler. And then it’s to my to-be-read stack for 2017: The Underground Railroad, The Guineveres, Tana French’s The Trespasser, Hillbilly Elegy. And then there’s that novel I’m supposed to be writing!

Happy Happy New Year and all the best reading — I hope I can help guide your choices.

toast

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles ✎✎✎✎✎

metropol-postcard

Hotel Metropol

When an author takes the reader in hand, immediately plunging her into a world of scent, sound, touch, sight and taste — a world perhaps familiar but just different enough to intrigue — when a writer can do that and hold your attention through each page, so that you can’t wait to pick the book up again, to reconnect with the author’s time and characters . . . that is as soul-satisfying to me as anything could be.

Thanks to author Amor Towles. He’s accomplished this feat twice, first with The Rules of Civility and now with the recently-released A Gentleman in Moscow. I loved The Rules of Civility so much, I couldn’t wait to read A Gentleman in Moscow, even I couldn’t fathom how a novel set in Moscow during World War II and the Cold War, times and a place that didn’t seem to hold much of fascination, could be riveting. How wrong I was.

It is 1922. The Bolshevik Revolution is holding daily inquisitions into aristocrats and summarily standing them up against a wall and administering a lethal dose of justice via bullet. Count Alexander Rostov finds himself before a tribunal explaining a poem he published years before, which the Bolsheviks consider a call-to-aristocratic-arms. Rostov admits everything and nothing in a genial, good humored, fatalistic manner — a manner the reader will come to know and love over the course of A Gentleman in Moscow.

moscow_vintage_vacation_art_postcard-r4795cd0c2cf24b2295e6a4b035aa300e_vgbaq_8byvr_512

Vintage Travel Poster

Somehow, Count Rostov escapes execution. He is, however, sentenced to life imprisonment within the confines of his current residence, the Hotel Metropol located on Theatre Square in central Moscow. According to A Gentleman in Moscow, and Amor Towles’ website, www.amortowles.com, the Metropol was of the same vintage and standards as New York’s Plaza, London’s Claridge’s, and The Ritz in Paris. But Count Rostov is not escorted to his multi-room, luxury suite. Instead, the Bolsheviks lead him to a 100-square-foot room in the attic where he must make do.

He unpacked some trousers and shirts into the back rights corner of his bureau (to ensure that the three-legged beast wouldn’t topple). Down the hall he dragged his trunk, half of his furniture, and all of his father’s books but one. Thus, within an hour he had reduced his room to its essentials: a desk and chair, a bed and bedside table, a high-back chair for guests, and a ten-foot passage just wide enough for a gentleman to circumambulate in reflection.

But there are worlds within the Count’s world, and he finds them with the help of a precocious young lady named Nina who has somehow procured a pass key to all the rooms of the Metropol and uses it to great effect. But the Count finds not only the Metropol’s wine vault, silver room, and lost and found, he also finds love, friendship, and a life far fuller than one would imagine could be found within the confines of one hotel, however luxurious, for more than thirty years.

I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. You and your book club will love it. And the food and music options excellent.

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amor-towles

The author, Amor Towles

My guess is that Amor Towles is a gastronome (though his on-line bio says only “that Mr. Towles is an ardent fan of early 20th century painting, 1950’s jazz, 1970’s cop shows, rock & roll on vinyl, manifestoes, breakfast pastries, pasta, liquor, snow-days, Tuscany, Provence, Disneyland, Hollywood, the cast of Casablanca, 007, Captain Kirk, Bob Dylan (early, mid, and late phases), the wee hours, card games, cafés, and the cookies made by both of his grandmothers”).

HIs descriptions of food, cooking, dining are among the finest in the book. But perhaps there is no way to even compare passages of such beauty ranging from food to literature to philosophy to love. (An aside: this novel is so divine I am ready to re-read it right now.)

Back to a menu — the Hotel Metropol is awash in champagne, brandy, vodka. Towles’ comments are priceless:

“Now, vodka was not the Count’s preferred spirit. In point of fact, despite his love for his country, he rarely drank it.”

“Anyone who has spent an hour drinking vodka by the glass knows that size has surprisingly little to do with a man’s capacity. There are tiny men for whom the limit is seven and giants for whom it is two.”

Some prominent menus:

Vodka and caviar

Whole bass roasted with black olives, fennel and lemon

Osso bucco (“a dish best preceded by a light and lively appetizer”)

A ten scoop ice cream sundae, each scoop a different flavor

Cucumber soup and rack of lamb with red wine reduction

But the piece de resistance for Chef Emile, the Count and maitre d Andrey, is the night when the three conspire to make bouillabaisse; it  has taken them weeks, months even, to acquire all of the ingredients. The author notes 15 ingredients, I can find reference to eight: fennel, two to three fresh oranges, one and a half ounces of saffron, absinthe, haddock, mussels, celery, tomatoes.  I would speculate that onion, garlic, olive oil are involved and potentially herbs of bay and thyme. That still leaves two for discovery, unless Chef Emile (and Author Towles) include salt and pepper.

bouillabaisseAll told, there were fifteen ingredients. Six of them could be plucked from the pantry of the Boyarsky at any time of the year. Another five were readily available in season. The nut of the problem was that, despite the overall improvement in the general availability of goods, the last four ingredients remained relatively rare.

From the outset, it was agreed that there would be no skimping — no shortcuts or substitutions. It was the symphony of silence. So the Triumvirate would have to be patient and watchful. They would have to be willing to beg, barter, collude and if necessary, resort to chicanery. Three times the dream had been within their grasp, only to be snatched away at the last moment by unforeseen circumstances (once by mishap, once by mold, and once by mice.)

But earlier this week, it seemed that the stars were wheeling into alignment once again. With nine elements already in Emile’s kitchen, four whole haddock and a basket of mussels meant for the National Hotel had been delivered to the Metropol by mistake.

. . . At one in the morning, the conspirators took their seats. On the table before them were a single candle, a loaf of bread, a bottle of rose, and three bowls of bouillabaisse.

. . . How to describe it? One first tastes the broth — that simmered distillation of fish bones, fennel, and tomatoes, with their hearty suggestions of Provence. One then savors the tender flakes of haddock and the briny resilience of the mussels, which have been purchased on the docks from the fisherman. One marvels at the boldness of the oranges arriving from Spain and the absinthe poured in the taverns. And all of these various impressions are somehow collected, composed, and brightened by the saffron — that essence of summer sun which, having been harvested in the hills of Greece and packed by mule to Athens, has been sailed across the Mediterranean in a felucca. In other words, with the very first spoonful one finds oneself transported to the port of Marseille — where the streets teem with sailors, thieves, and madonnas, with sunlight and summer, with languages and life.

MUSIC

There’s a bit of a running joke about the song, Yes, We Have No Bananas a tune first made popular in 1923.

Tchaikovsky is mentioned of course, and the Count’s adopted daughter masters Chopin and a Mozart variation or two.

Amor Towles’ website includes a playlist of classics if you want to go that route: http://www.amortowles.com/gentleman-moscow-amor-towles/gentleman-moscow-music/

But the passages that most caught my attention were those of the band rocking the Hotel’s bar with American jazz during the Cold War when foreign correspondents took turns telling tall tales to try to catch the attention of the KGB. Since Mr. Towles expressed a preference for 1950s jazz, that’s what I would play. It fits the celebratory air of A Gentleman in Moscow as well. Here’s a two hour track you can play: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4N1KlyEbazo

MOVIE CASTING

grant-kelly-2

The Count: Ah, for Cary Grant to be alive to inhabit the shoes of Count Rostov. I can see Michael Fassbender in the role. Eddie Redmaybe. Jude Law. Andrew Garfield maybe?

Anna:  Again, I’m wishing for Rita Hayworth in a non-Rita Hayworth world. Marion Cotillard? Jessica Chastain?

Adult Nina: Emma Watson

The roles are numerous. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Jill had some great casting suggestions that I received via email this morning (1-30-17) and wanted to share: I too have been thinking about the casting for “A Gentleman in Moscow.” What do you think about Alexander (young count) and Stellan (older count) Skarsgård? Also Helen Mirren as the older Anna. I’d love to see the book dramatized as a limited series – like Masterpiece Theater or BBC (are you paying attention, Julian Fellowes?)”

Thanks Jill — great great ideas! I’ll tag Mr. Fellowes, here’s hoping he’s listening.

Thank you for reading. If you’d like to make sure you receive every blog post, please follow daeandwrite.wordpress.com (available on the home page at top left). And if you enjoy, please feel free to share.

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

 

 

Brain Storm, by Elaine Viets

brainstorm

Author Elaine Viets loves mysteries. She’s the author of a series of humorous “Dead End” job mysteries, a slew of cozy mysteries, and even some mystery shopper mysteries (I really want to read one of those!). But when it came to her latest novel, Brain Storm, the mystery began not just in her own mind, but in her own head.

And there’s a Kentucky connection! Dr. Jeb Travis Tritt is the doctor who saves Angela’s life. Born in Kentucky and named for his mother’s favorite country singer.

Elaine Viets was kind enough to visit with daeandwrite and share some of her experiences. I think Elaine’s suggestions will make a great blueprint for your book club and Brain Storm an intriguing choice. Lots of great discussion points: what happens when you can’t be you anymore; how does a small community protect its own; who do you rely on when you can’t trust anyone?

Give a read to the q & a below, then go check out Elaine Viets’ Brain Storm:

DaeandWrite:  I understand you have some things in common with your protagonist Angela Richman, the death investigator who suffers a stroke near the beginning of the novel. Tell us about your experience and how it influenced Brain Storm.

Elaine Viets: In April, 2007, I had a series of blinding headaches, which I thought were migraines. After four days, I had trouble talking and doing everyday tasks, such as tying a bow in my robe belt. I couldn’t figure out how to use a fork to scramble a breakfast egg. If you know my cooking skills, this sounds like a fair description, but I seriously could not figure out that fork. I was determined to ignore these symptoms and drive 40 miles to give a speech, but my husband took away my car keys and called my internist, who sent me to the ER at a hospital that billed itself as one of the “fifty best” in the US. The neurologist on call said I was “too young and fit to have a stroke” and sent me home. I was supposed to report that Wednesday for a PET scan, but Wednesday never happened. Instead, I had six strokes, including a hemorrhagic stroke, and brain surgery. I was in a coma for a week and spent more than three months in the hospital. I used a walker for six months and a cane for two years. I’ve made a nearly complete recovery, but that took more than four years.

DaeandWrite: Viets describes Angela Richman’s mirror experience near the beginning of Brain Storm:

Brainstorm jacket“Better,” she said, though another headache was gathering at the edges of her mind, like a storm on the horizon.

“Would you like coffee?” she asked.

“Brought my own,” he said, holding up his thermos. Angela scrambled an egg, then swallowed another Imitrex.

She fought the headache all day as she struggled with her report on Ben Weymuller’s death investigation. Angela turned it in about four o’clock. At four thirty, Rick poked his head in her study door.

“I’m leaving now,” he said. “this is even more screwed up than I thought. It’s gonna take at least a month.”

“I’ll give you the spare key, in case I’m at work tomorrow,” she said. Like everyone in the Forest, she trusted Rick.

Angela could barely see him through the blinding migraine dazzle, as if he were spotlighted on a brightly lit stage. She was determined to push through this. She was too young and fit to have a stroke. The Forest’s top neurologist had said so.

“Are you feeling better?”

“I’m fine,” she said, forcing a smile. “I’ll lie down until it’s time to go out with Katie.”

Angela crawled into bed for a nap that soft spring night, Thursday, March 10. And woke up nineteen days later.

In Brain Storm, Angela confronts a world that’s radically changed. She’s physically infirm, her appearance has been radically transformed from surgery and medication, her job is at risk, and something funky is going on with the doctor that mistakenly released her. Throughout, Angela complains vocally about the hospital food, a complaint I anticipate began with Elaine.

DaeandWrite: I would guess that during your own hospital stay you became more than frustrated by the hospital food?

Elaine Viets: The food was horrible – and so unhealthy. Red meat with gravy, white bread, fried food, no fresh fruits or vegetables. I still shudder at the thought of canned green beans. Don’t hospital dieticians read the nutrition guidelines?

DaeandWrite: Did you have music you listened to during the writing or editing process? Any particular genre or songs? Do you have songs you associate with any particular character?

elaine headshotElaine Viets: Angela Richman, my death investigator, likes to hit the highway in her black Dodge Charger, and play her favorite songs from her teen years in the 1990s – nice and loud. She likes Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Londonbeat’s “I’ve Been Thinking about You.” She’d be mortified if you knew she also listens to Marky Mark’s “Good Vibration.”

I don’t listen to music while I write or edit, but at the end of the day, I like to kick back to classic rock: the Stones, the Doors, Eric Clapton.

DaeandWrite: Angela and her friend Katie have a favorite Mexican restaurant. Is this based on one of your favorite restaurants? Or do you cook yourself?

Elaine Viets: I’m a terrible cook, but I love Mexican food. There are some good ones in Fort Lauderdale, including Casa Frida’s in Fort Lauderdale. If you’re in the area, I recommend it. It’s a cut above the usual taco joints.

DaeandWrite: Brain Storm was released in 2016. What’s next?

Elaine Viets: The second Angela book, Fire and Ashes, which I’m writing now. It will be

published by Thomas and Mercer in August 2017.

DaeandWrite: Any book signings/events coming up?

Elaine Viets: Yes, I’ll be at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention at the Marriott New Orleans, September 16­18. I have three events at Bcon on Saturday, September 17. From 3:00­3:50 PM, I’m on a panel, “Shake It Off: From Notes and First Draft to Finished Novel.” This is a funny, thought­provoking discussion with mystery writers Harry Hunsicker, LS Hawker, Laura McHugh, Jeffrey Siger and me. Daniel Hale is our moderator. At 4 o’clock, right after the panel, I’ll sign my books, including Brain Storm.

At 2 p.m. that same Saturday, I’ll be signing Blood on the Bayou at Bouchercon. More than 22 writers, from Alison Gaylin to David Morrell, Sheila Connelly to Gary Phillips, have donated stories to this NOLA­themed anthology. New York Times bestseller Heather Graham wrote the introduction. I did a Dead­End Job story. Helen and Margery leave the Coronado for a case in New Orleans in “Good and Dead.” All proceeds from Blood on the Bayou will benefit the New Orleans Public Library. Buy a copy, read your favorite authors, and help the library.

On October 8, I’ll teach a class – “Jump Starting Your Writing” – at Sleuthfest on Saturday, a one­day intensive writing conference sponsored by the Florida Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. This year, SOS is in Venice, Florida. For information, go to https://www.regonline.com/SleuthFest­on­Saturday­2016

On Nov. 12, I’ll be in Vero Beach, Florida, teaching a writing workshop for the Laura (Riding) Jackson Foundation, “Writing Killer Mysteries – The Basics” from 10 AM to 1 PM at the Loft. More information is at

http://www.lauraridingjackson.com/

After the workshop, I’ll sign Brain Storm and my Dead­End Job mysteries at 3 p.m. at the Vero Beach Book Center, 392 21st Street that same day.

(www.verobeachbookcenter.com)

I’m really looking forward to next spring, when I’m the Malice Domestic 29 Guest of Honor from Thursday, April 28 through Sunday, April 30, 2017 at the Hyatt Regency in Bethesda, Maryland. It’s quite a lineup: Marcia Talley is Toastmaster, Charlaine Harris is honored for Lifetime Achievement, the award­winning Martin

Edwards receives the Poirot Award for his contribution to the genre, and Luci Zahray is Fan Guest of Honor. Luci’s no ordinary fan. She’s also the “poison lady” who’s helped writers kill thousands. (www.malicedomestic.org)

DaeandWrite: Where can readers purchase Brain Storm?

Elaine Viets: Brain Storm is a trade paperback, e­book, and audio book. You can buy it here: (amzn.to/2awPsIe). Right now the paperback version is on sale for $9.99. Autographed copies are available at The Mysterious Bookshop, 58 Warren Street, New York City (info@mysteriousbookshop.com) or at Murder on the Beach Bookstore, Delray Beach, Florida, (murdermb@gate.net).

Thanks so much for letting me stop by your blog.

MENU2010_03_roasted_cauliflower-2

So, for this Book Club I’m going to refer to the grilled chicken sandwiches, artichoke salad and chocolate cupcakes Katie brings to Angela in the hospital. But I have to also add:
cauliflower! The original brain food.

My culinary hero Ina Garten has a delicious roasted artichoke salad recipe: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ina-garten/roasted-artichoke-salad-recipe.html.

For the cauliflower, though I definitely will leave one head whole and sliced, I also love to mash it for low-carb mashed potatoes. Put cauliflower in pot with enough water to cover. Cover the pot and turn the heat to medium. Cook the cauliflower for 12-15 minutes or until very tender. 3. Drain and discard all of the water (the drier the cauliflower is, the better) and add the milk, butter, sour cream, salt and pepper and mash with a masher until it looks like mashed potatoes.

There’s also a complete Mexican menu for dinner in Brain Storm: guacamole with thick chunks of ripe avocado, crunchy tortilla chips and hot salsa. Platters of steak fajitas, chicken burritos, and steaming bowls of black beans and rice.

MUSIC

I like Elaine Viets’ list above. If you want to go a different route, here are ten songs Steve Jobs used to train his brain according to Inc. Magazine: http://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/10-songs-steve-jobs-used-to-train-his-brain.html

MOVIE CASTING

Well, this is definitely one of those physically transformative roles that every actress wants to win her Oscar.

Angela Richman:    Anne Hathaway

Katie:                          Kathryn Hahn

Dr. Gravois:              Tony Goldwyn

Dr. Tritt:                    I think he may be a little long in the tooth for the character as written, but I couldn’t help but see Billy Ray Cyrus in the role.

MEDICAL PSA

Let me take a moment and share some information inspired by Brain Storm that might save a life. According to the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association, these are the ways to recognize stroke:

F.A.S.T. is an easy way to remember the sudden signs of stroke. When you can spot the signs, you’ll know that you need to call 9-1-1 for help right away. F.A.S.T. is:

F Face Drooping – Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile. Is the person’s smile uneven?
A Arm Weakness – Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
S Speech Difficulty – Is speech slurred? Is the person unable to speak or hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence, like “The sky is blue.” Is the sentence repeated correctly?
T Time to call 9-1-1 – If someone shows any of these symptoms, even if the symptoms go away, call 9-1-1 and get the person to the hospital immediately. Check the time so you’ll know when the first symptoms appeared.

Thank you so much to Elaine Viets for sharing with daeandwrite.wordpress.com. If you enjoyed this blog post, please follow daeandwrite and share with your friends.

Happy Reading!

 

Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain

The Sky Pilot

Beryl Markham’s extraordinary life in Africa at the outset of the twentieth century is the focus of Paula McLain’s novel Circling the Sun. When your subject is as fascinating as Markham —  a life full of adventure, achievement, challenge, tragedy, and romance — it would be difficult to write a novel that failed. And McLain has not. Circling the Sun is a great read.

Told in Markham’s voice, Circling the Sun begins with a prologue dated September 4, 1936, on the eve of her record-setting solo flight from England to North America. She was the first woman to fly the Atlantic east to west in a solo non-stop flight and and the first person to fly east to west from England to North America non-stop.

The Vega Gull is peacock blue with silver wings, more splendid than any bird I’ve known, and somehow mine to fly. She’s call The Messenger, and has been designed and built with great care and skill to do what should be impossible — cross an ocean in one brave launch, thirty-six hundred miles of black chop and nothingness — and to take me with her.

It’s quite a trick for McLain to choose and so successfully chronicle Markham’s life, in first-person no less. I say this because Markham herself was the author of a classic memoir West With The Night which essentially treads the same ground. I read West With the Night several years ago and remember it for her descriptions of the world below from the vantage point of her cockpit.

Beryl-markham-west-with-the-night-coverLike night, the desert is boundless, comfortless and infinite. Like night, it intrigues the mind and leads it to futility. When you have flown halfway across a desert, you experience the desperation of a sleepless man waiting for dawn which only comes when the importance of it’s coming is lost. You fly forever, weary with an invariable scene, and when you are at last released from its monotony, you remember nothing of it because there was nothing there.

From West With the Night

According to my memory, McLain might dwell a bit more on the romantic entanglements, multiple marriages and love triangle involving Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen who we know better as Robert Redford and Meryl Streep in Out of Africa. In McClain’s novel, Hatton was Markham’s one true love. In Out of Africa, Hatton was Blixen’s one true love. In real life, Robert Redford is . . . oh, never mind. Redford

Paula McLain wrote the wildly-successful book club choice The Paris Wife, about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife Hadley. On McLain’s website, she details how she came to choose to write Circling The Sun and what is different about her novel from Markham’s own book.

The flying stuff is wildly fun to read about in West With the Night, but in the end, I found myself most interested in how she became herself, that daring woman ready to tackle danger and adventure. And then there was the utter mystery of her inner life. In West With the Night, Beryl takes great pains to avoid anything too personal. She never mentions the mother who abandoned her, for instance, or so much as intimates that her father betrayed and disappointed her. She was married three times but doesn’t name a single husband, or speak of her son, Gervase, who she didn’t raise. Karen Blixen never appears, and Finch Hatton is only gently held up as a figure Beryl admires after his death. It was the draw of her enigma, then, of wanting to illuminate the parts of her life she herself avoids that had me fascinated and most activated my imagination. http://paulamclain.com/books/circling-the-sun/a-conversation-with-paula-mclain/

Circling the Sun is full of the scandal of Beryl Markham’s life, the thrill of being an English settler in a wild and exotic country, the challenges of being an adventurous woman at a time when women were not supposed to be. I enjoyed it and found lots of potential book club discussion points. I think you would enjoy it too.

MENUbookcover_circlingsun-200x300

Dinner at Karen Blixen’s house included lightly breaded chicken in cream sauce, roasted vegetables with herbs, corn pudding studded with mushrooms and thyme, ripe cheese, and oranges.

A honeymoon dinner in Paris included escargot, choucroute garnie with springs of fresh rosemary. In Rome, spaghetti with mussels and black squid ink.

Karen’s dinner for visiting British royalty featured ham poached in champagne with tiny jewel-like strawberries and tart, plump pomegranate seeds, a mushroom croustade with truffles and cream. A dessert of browned rum baba.

And every encounter and meal included champagne.

MUSIC

There are dances at the Muthaiga Club for the white settlers and Kikuyu ngoma with drum music falling “in great and rippling crescendos, while male and female dancers flung themselves rhythmically.”

The soundtrack from Out of Africa includes everything from Mozart and Wagner to the Missouri waltz. It would be a good start.

However, the Kenyan music I searched for is really fun and bright and upbeat and would provide a soundtrack so great you might find your book club dancing instead of talking. The following site has links for good Kenyan music:

http://worldmusic.about.com/od/venues/tp/KenyaMusicPlaylist.htm?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=shareurlbuttons via @aboutdotcom

MOVIE

MarkhamBeryl Markham — Tilda Swinton  tilda swinton

 

 

 

denys-finch-hatton-01Denys Finch Hatton — Tom Hiddleston  tom-hiddleston

 

 

 

Happy Reading!

P.S. It made my day to receive a kind note from author Paula McLain about the post on Facebook. I thought I’d share it with you: “How fun is this, Pamela?! Wow. Thanks for featuring the book!!”

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