Throwback Thursday: Avenue of Spies: a true story of terror, espionage, and one American family’s heroic resistance in Nazi-occupied France by Alex Kershaw (2015)

This text is from the review I wrote in 2015.  Even MORE books about WWII have come out of the woodwork since then.

The past few years of major anniversaries for important events of World War II coupled with the passing of so many of the heroes and villains of that time have brought forth a plethora of interesting and lesser known stories from the war.  Avenue of Spies tells of the occupation of Paris and the French Resistance from the perspective of an American doctor who lived in Paris and worked at the American hospital there in alternating chapters with the point of view of the Nazi and SS officers who took over most of the residences on the Avenue Foch, where Doctor Sumner Jackson also lived.  The tale includes heroic deeds, nasty Nazis, and slimy collaborators, many of whom were able to thrive after the war when others whose crimes were arguably less egregious, but whose influence and social standing were not as great, were imprisoned or executed.  The Germans are portrayed almost completely unsympathetically, as subhuman sadists, which is unfortunate.  A more balanced portrayal might have given the book more depth.  Though there were several gripping passages, as a whole, it is not of the caliber of Ben Macintyre’s work in Double Cross, or Operation Mincemeat.  The material is all there, but somehow, the narrative doesn’t gel.  The reader keeps waiting for the story to get off the starting blocks and it never does.  This is for readers who will read ANYTHING about WWII.  If you are more selective, there are plenty of other options.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

If you, like me, have been putting off reading this, stop, pick it up right now and start reading it!

Sometimes I put off reading a book because of the hype.  Sometimes I put it off because it has won a lot of awards and that intimidates me.  Sometimes I put it off because I think I know what it is about and I’m just not in the mood.  I am not sure why I put off reading Hamnet for so long. I remember thinking when it first came out it sounded like just my kind of book and I added it to my TBR list, but anyone who knows me knows that my TBR list is pretty long and sometimes a really good book ends up forgotten or pushed to near the bottom of my list.  It’s kind of like your email inbox.  You leave a message in it because you want to remember to do something, but then the new messages keep piling up and pretty soon that thing you wanted to remember is way down on the second or third page of your inbox and you forget about it.  Well folks, if Hamnet was that way for you, as it was for me, I am telling you to get the book right now and read it.  It is that good.

It is beautifully written and emotionally engaging, right from the beginning.  You’ll have a hard time putting it down, even though the PB version clocks in at 367 pages and if you read the author’s note (and you should, you really should) it is a little bit longer yet. I am not exaggerating when I write that this novel took my breath away.  It made me sit and think afterwards for long minutes, and even over the next several days, I kept thinking about it.  It is affecting, it is lovely, it brings history near, it makes you feel close to people who lived over 400 years ago. It tells the stories of what may have been, what could have been the life of people we know very little about in actuality. If you can’t decide what to read next and you haven’t read this, please pick it up.  If your book club is unsure where to go next, try it.  I guarantee the discussion will be rich and full, just like this book.

Toward that end, here are some discussion questions:

  1. Given what happens to Hamnet, why do you think O’Farrell chose his name as her title?
  2. What about this book was unexpected for you? Why?
  3. When O’Farrell writes that Hamnet was the thing that held them all together, what do you think she means?
  4. In the author’s note, O’Farrell writes that she was afraid that agents or editors would want to take the passages telling the story of how the Plague germs got to Stratford out, but was very happy they were left in the finished book.  What did you think about those sections in the book?
  5. Some scholars have made jokes at Anne/Agnes’s expense about Shakespeare leaving her his “second best bed.”  What did you think of how O’Farrell chose to frame this?
  6. What did Anne/Agnes’s house mean to her?  To the family?
  7. Which image from the book stayed with you the longest?  Why do you think that is?

Plotting Your Cozy Mystery

Did you know that Agatha Christie is the BEST SELLING NOVEL WRITER OF ALL TIME?  Only the Bible and Shakespeare have outsold her.  It’s true, people love murder.  Cozies are a particular brand of murder, though.  For those of you who aren’t regular cozy readers or fans of Agatha (no way!), here are the genre conventions in a nutshell:

Image from Wikimedia Commons
  • The first murder happens pretty quickly.
  • There is a limited pool of suspects; think a country village, a club, a team, etc.
  • There is not a lot of foul language, sex happens off page, and there is a distinct lack of gore.  Cozy murders are somewhat sterile and bloodless, or at least the blood is not discussed much on the page.
  • There will be several good suspects all of whom have a secret.
  • There will be red herrings.
  • The murder is like a puzzle and the sleuth is usually an amateur, though there can be law enforcement involved.

NOTE:  this is not an exhaustive list, nor will EVERY cozy conform to every convention on this list.

I have recently read two superb examples of this genre, which I found immensely satisfying and gripping reads.  The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman and The Appeal by Janice Hallett.  You can see reviews of each elsewhere on  Both of these are examples of playfulness within the genre.  Each of them breaks at least one of the above genre conventions, but they are still squarely in the Cozy genre due to the limited pool of suspects and the amateur sleuthing.  If you are a cozy writer, both of these titles represent aspirational works of quality writing, plotting, and character development.  The Appeal deserves extra points for doing so in an epistolary format, which is a very difficult structure to maintain and to write well.  Brava.

If you are thinking of writing your own cozy, I can recommend Nancy J. Cohen’s very excellent work, Writing the Cozy Mystery.  I read the second expanded edition and found it very useful for thinking about how to write in this genre and do it well.   I created a handout based on some of the advice in her book, available below.  The handout helps you decide on a victim and a pool of suspects, so you can get started writing your own Cozy Mystery!

Throwback Thursday: The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace by Lynn Povich (2016)

In 1970, a group of women, mostly employed as researchers and fact checkers at Newsweek magazine, filed a lawsuit against the publication for gender discrimination on the same day Newsweek ran a cover story entitled, “Women in Revolt.”  The Good Girls Revolt tells the story of the brave women who risked their futures to make the workplace fairer.  The Newsweek suit was the first class-action suit brought by women, it was also the first by women journalists;  the Newsweek suit would be followed by others at Time, The New York Times, and Reader’s Digest.  

Results were good for some of the women, and less so for others, but many of them recall this as a defining moment in their lives.  They stood up for themselves and the fact that they were being institutionally discriminated against because they were women.  They had the same Ivy League educations and the same writing credentials as the men, and yet they were never going to advance beyond researcher at Newsweek.  In some cases they were told this in no uncertain terms.  Often, women of the sixties accepted this type of treatment as “just the way things were.”  But after the civil rights act was passed including a provision which outlawed sex discrimination, Judy Gingold started attending a conscientious raising group, where she had an “aha” moment that would make all the difference.  

These were not angry, man-hating, bra-burning, feminists.  They were nice girls who had labored under the illusion that hard work and achievement would get them where they wanted to go.  Once they realized those things would never be enough, they decided to do something to change the system.  

I wish every woman under thirty would read this book for two big reasons.  First, they would realize the debt they owe to the women who came before them.  Sometimes, it is tempting to think that the way things are is the way they have always been.  Reading about the real women who put their real reputations on the line to help others might give a little perspective to modern young women.  Second, young women might be less inclined towards apathy.  Women have yet to attain real equality.  It is true that great strides have been made, but as long as women are undervalued and over-sexualized, there is no equality.

Book Review: Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

I’ll admit it, the bookstore window got me on this one.  I walked past the window on several occasions and this book looked very intriguing.  When I read the blurb, I decided to go for it. And I am not sorry!

Amanda and her family are on the way to their Airbnb in the wilds of Long Island.  She and Clay have the requisite two children, a boy and a girl, and Amanda worries about all the normal things a privileged white woman of our time worries about.  Is it sexist that Clay always drives, does she care? Do her kids fit in, are they going to be successful, is she successful, does she like her job as much as she is supposed to? The list goes on.  The opening of the novel is a little jarring.  In the style of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, the brand names are intentionally dizzying in frequency, which serves to ground the reader in Amanda’s material and materialistic world.  There is also a little head hopping, which while sometimes unsettling, contributes to the frantic tone and builds the humming anxiety that drives the characters.

Soon, things take a turn toward the dark side. First, the owners of the Airbnb show up asking to stay in the house with Amanda and Clay, because of a mysterious power outage in the city. From there, stuff just gets weirder.  What if all the things we count on in the modern world just stopped working? What if something happened, but there was no news about what it was or who had done it, or how long it would last? What if our phones no longer brought us alerts and information? 

I am not going to lie, the answers to these questions are not in the book;  that’s not the point. The point is to raise questions about society: how does it function and why? Are the things we spend our time on really important? What if things suddenly changed, would the same things be important or would we change our priorities? What does it mean to be a good person?

This book would be a great one to discuss in a book group, because it raises a lot of questions and answers none.  The answers will be in the discussions about the book, or rather, attempts at answers.

Discussion Questions

  1. Do you think Amanda is a likeable character?  Why or why not?
  2. Did you believe the Washingtons when they first showed up at the door?  What did you think of the situation at that point?
  3. What do you think happened?
  4. What do you think they should do?
  5. What would you do?

After reading this book, may I suggest a comforting Peach Pound Cake with your tea?

Throwback Thursday: Panic by Lauren Oliver (2014)

In honor of the new Amazon Prime series based on this book…

High school graduates in Carp, New York have an unusual tradition.  Each summer the recently matriculated seniors have the opportunity to participate in a Fear Factor style “game” in which the winner (and there can be only one) takes home a pot of cash collected from students throughout the year.  The game is run by judges selected secretly, who are also paid highly from the pot.  But Panic is not all fun and eating gross stuff.  Dangerous challenges are the norm and unlike Fear Factor, there are no harnesses or ambulances standing by in case of an emergency;  more than one person has met his end during the yearly festivities.  Heather, Dodge, Bishop, and Nathalie are all involved in this year’s Panic for various reasons.  Dodge is playing for revenge—his sister is paralyzed from a car crash during the final round (named “Joust”) of Panic.  Nathalie and Heather want to get out of Carp, and Bishop wants to keep Heather from getting hurt.  As teens are eliminated, the challenges escalate in the run up to the Joust.  Meanwhile, Heather’s home life with her drug addicted mother is falling apart.  Who will win?  Will our heroine survive?  Will she finally realize that she is in love with Bishop?  For the answers to these and other questions, read Panic.

This title will work for fans of reality TV or realistic fiction.  The main characters are flawed, but sympathetic, and there is the suspense of the game to keep the reader turning or swiping pages.  I would not recommend this to students under grade 9, due to subject matter.  The novel is very entertaining and there is some character growth.  Mostly, the adults are absent, but there are actually some nice, caring ones sort of on the periphery of the story.  This would make an interesting discussion for a teen reading group.  Several themes would bear talking about:  reality shows and what they have done/are doing to society; what people are willing to do (have always been—150 years ago teens might have been involved in a duel) for the sake of money and/or respect;  what substance abuse does to families—what are some appropriate responses if you suspect someone needs help;  what does it mean to love someone—is it a “feeling”  or is it an action?  I could go on, but you get it.

Old Friends and New Fancies an Imaginary Sequel to the Novels of Jane Austen by Sybil G. Brinton

This 1913 title lays claim to being the first Austen fan fiction. Brinton wrote no other novels and this one attempts to continue the stories of many characters from Austen novels all in one book, with Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park as the most well represented, though the other four also populate her story.

There are instances of real wit and cleverness, but ultimately the work is uneven, too stuffed with character names, and perhaps a little too fully Victorian in tone to really succeed as a sequel to Austen’s work.  Brinton seems on a mission to get everyone married and the number of couples she has to get paired up before the end of the novel lend a rushed quality to it that makes it less than satisfying.  For this reader, the main interest of Brinton’s work is as an artifact of Jane Austen fandom. Brinton claims to have used Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of his aunt as well as Austen’s own letters as inspiration for her continuation and she does marry Kitty to a clergyman.  However, some of the characters, Mary Crawford for example, seem to stray widely from their roots in Austen. 

Overall, the book is enjoyable as a window into Austen’s appeal almost 100 years after her death and to her growing fandom.  The very fact that Brinton felt the desire to write a continuation of Austen’s novels and the joy she found in reading Austen as remarked in her introduction to the work, are glimpses of reader reception in the pre-WWI period. My favorite depiction by Brinton is Georgiana Darcy, who comes off favorably and reasonably in Old Friends and New Fancies. If you are interested in the history of Austen reception or just want to see the first fan fiction rendering of her characters, give this one a go. 

You can get it for free on your kindle app or read it on Project Gutenberg here:

The Last Bookaneer by Matthew Pearl

Matthew Pearl’s debut novel, The Dante Club, was a huge bestseller and proof that literary doesn’t have to mean boring.  This gem is perhaps less well known, but the storyline is just as fascinating.  The premise is that as the copyright loophole which allowed for pirating the works of foreign writers residing in other nations was about to close because of The International Copyright Act of 1891, a small group of book pirates and adventurers are on one last mission in the South Seas to steal a novel being written by a dying Robert Louis Stevenson.  As usual, Pearl combines fact and fiction in a cocktail which will entertain and edify readers, while also giving them a healthy dose of swashbuckling adventure. His prose is tight and the characters are just mysterious enough without crossing into the ridiculous category.  Give this one a go if you like fan fiction based on classics. 

Pearl may be challenging, but he is never boring.  Who knew that copyright could be so exciting?

Finding the Gap and using Outliers as models when writing Historical Fiction

This is part 2 of a series about writing compelling characters in Historical Fiction. You can find the first part here.

According to James C. Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance, part of the difficulty in dealing with the history of a subordinate group is that there is a public transcript of events and a hidden transcript, which the dominant group neither knows about nor may access.   Further, the hidden transcript is not necessarily a part of the written record, or if it is written, it may exist in sources outside the norm, such as rumors, gossip, songs, rituals, euphemisms, or jokes.  Actions may also be a part of the hidden transcript.   A quotation from page 14 bears exact reproduction:

“Tactical prudence ensures that subordinate groups rarely blurt out their hidden transcripts directly.  But, taking advantage of the anonymity of a crowd or of an ambiguous accident, they manage in a thousand artful ways to imply that they are grudging conscripts to the performance.”

The performance he refers to is the dominant group’s version of reality.  Add to this the now accepted view that history is written by the victors and the astute writer of historical fiction will see room for characters who neither assent nor conform inwardly to the dominant group’s conception of reality. They may even occasionally find ways to express their non-assent, although their expressions may be covert.  It would be ridiculous to assume that marginalized groups were satisfied with the status quo and never sought to upend it, even if their resistance was in small acts.  In her 1989 article, “The Return of the Repressed in Women’s Narrative,” Susan Stanford Friedman argues that women’s writing may be read as a form of disguised record of the forbidden. That women’s public writing had to disguise what they wanted to say more than their private writing.  Women were protesting or “writing against the grain” from the beginning, and if they were writing against the grain, what else might they have done? In “History to the Defeated: Women Writers and the Historical Novel in the Thirties,” Diana Wallace points out that one of the many factors contributing to a boom in female authored and centered historical fiction during the 1930s was the renewed interest and demand for information about the lives of women in history.   In addition, a surfeit of women who graduated from University after studying History, but who were denied entrance to other occupations, took up writing historical fiction.   All of this brings to mind Catherine Morland, who observes somewhat dryly, in Northanger Abbey

“I read it [history] a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all—it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. “

Exactly–a great deal of it IS invention, by the victors.  Indeed, if women (and others) are not part of the public transcript, with the exception of outliers, what might the hidden transcript reveal about them, if only we had it complete? 

HAMILTON Shirt BROADWAY Musical Shirt BURR 1800 Shirt image 0

Another way of looking for characters who were forward thinking is to model them on famous outliers.  One of my favorite historical outliers is Aaron Burr.  I know you may think him a villain, but that is because he has been used as a scapegoat for the founders’ shortcomings for WAY too long.  In her very excellent biography of Burr, Fallen Founder, Nancy Isenberg argues successfully that Burr was a man of his time with regard to politics, but  ahead of his time with regard to women’s rights–an avowed reader and respecter of Mary Wollstonecraft, who educated his daughter to the same standard others of his time would have educated a son. She also argues that his roles in the 1800 election and the 1804 duel with Hamilton have largely been misconstrued both by the popular press and by the other founders, who were willing to paint Burr as a traitor in order to further their own political ambitions–Hamilton and Jefferson seem to be the most culpable, Madison less so.  She further asserts that Burr’s lack of care over his own legacy in contrast to the other founders’ near obsession with theirs, contributed mightily to the oversimplification of Burr’s role in the early Republic.  In the forward to the 1836 edition of his memoirs, written and published posthumously by Matthew Davis, the author admits freely to destroying a large quantity of Burr’s correspondence, because it would have been “injurious” to the reputations of some families.  Burr was quite the ladies’ man, and morality was thought of differently in the late eighteenth century than it was in the Victorian era, which Davis was butting up against.  It is a shame, really, that so much was lost.  He also admits to not telling everything Burr told him about some of the other founders–some of which may have been biased, but may also have given us a fuller picture of the founders and taken some of the veil of villainy away from Burr.  Alas, we’ll never know for sure–but this gap, like so many others in history and the outlier sensibilities of Burr could be exploited, and have been, to write some pretty wonderful historical fiction.

You cannot make a Burr, a Christine de Pizan, or an Eleanor of Aquitaine the average character in your book, but you can definitely make them the focus of the book. Look for where there is something missing–and use your historically informed imagination to fill in the gap.