Archive | Historical Fiction

Tell Me Something True: A Visit With Jeffrey Stepakoff

Today’s post by author Jeffrey Stepakoff | @JeffStepakoff

Jeffrey Stepakoff

Jeffrey Stepakoff

When I grew up in Atlanta, I had a dear friend named Elaine who lived on this wonderful street where a lot of the kids all knew each other.   It was one of those lovely tree-lined neighborhoods where the parents were all friends with each other and their kids grew up together.   I lived further out in the suburbs and, as I got older, I would often drive to this upscale neighborhood, joining my friends who lived there, and others who lived nearby.   Sometimes we’d hang out by the neighborhood pool, swapping stories and plans for college, and listening to late ’70s rock on the open doors of our cars in summer.   And sometimes when it was colder, we would spend time in Elaine’s basement.   You may remember these basements, with the wood paneling, and drop ceilings, and the record player, and the bookcases filled to overflowing with hardbacks of all kinds.   This was a basement that many of us knew well.

Cut to:   twenty-five years later.   After spending the majority of my adult life in Los Angeles, I moved, along with my wife and our young children, back to Atlanta.   And one of the first things we did was to reconnect with old friends, including my buddy, Michael, who had purchased Elaine’s old house.

Michael had grown up in the house literally across the street from Elaine.   His parents and her parents were best friends.

My wife, our girls, and I went to Michael’s new home in Elaine’s old house for dinner, joining him, his wife, and their kids.   Michael showed us around, pointing out all the amazing and gorgeous upgrades he had made to the rambling thirty-five year old property, finally leading us down to the basement, where, I noted to Michael, nothing had changed.

He smiled and said, “Have you seen the bomb shelter? ”

Bomb shelter? ”

With a wave of his hand, Michael pointed across the room where one of the floor-to-ceiling book cases had been pulled away from the wall and, sure enough, there was an opening.

We followed Michael in, down a fifteen-foot metal ladder, across a thirty-foot low corridor, to a large concrete capsule.   We walked through its open steel blast-door.

Inside were all the accoutrements and accessories a family of four would need to survive the end of the world.   From the food stocks to the medical supplies to the water purification kits, it was all there, and then some.

I was blown away.

Michael explained that he learned about the bomb shelter the day he closed on the house.   Apparently, no one knew about it — not even Elaine.   She had learned about when she was an adult, the same day Michael did.

How many times had I looked at that basement bookcase and never known what was behind it?   What would drive a man to feel that he needed to prepare for the end of the world in such a way?

These are questions that I deal with in my new novel, The Melody of Secrets.   A bomb shelter plays a part in the new book.   And Elaine’s basement was the inspiration.

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The Melody of Secrets (1)The Melody of Secrets is an epic love story set against the 1960s U.S. space program, when deeply-buried secrets could threaten not just a marriage, but a country.

Maria was barely eighteen as WWII was coming to its explosive end. A brilliant violinist, she tried to comfort herself with the Sibelius Concerto as American bombs rained down. James Cooper wasn’t much older. A roguish fighter pilot stationed in London, he was shot down during a daring night raid and sought shelter in Maria’s cottage.

Fifteen years later, in Huntsville, Alabama, Maria is married to a German rocket scientist who works for the burgeoning U.S. space program. Her life in the South is at peace, purposefully distanced from her past. Everything is as it should be—until James Cooper walks back into it.

Pulled from the desert airfield where he was testing planes no sane Air Force pilot would touch, and drinking a bit too much, Cooper is offered the chance to work for the government, and move himself to the front of the line for the astronaut program. He soon realizes that his job is to report not only on the rocket engines but also on the scientists developing them. Then Cooper learns secrets that could shatter Maria’s world…

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Tell Me Something True: A Visit With Jojo Moyes

Today’s post by this month’s featured author, Jojo Moyes | @JojoMoyes

Don’t forget that today is the last day to enter this months giveaway. See this post for details on how to win all three of Jojo Moyes’ novels.

Jojo Moyes

Jojo Moyes

I grew up surrounded by art. My parents were artists (they met at art school) and my father later ran a business storing and transporting art, so my earliest memories were spent wandering his warehouse, gazing at the priceless paintings and sculptures through the stretchers and cases. While art was treated reverently, it was also unremarkable, and as a child, having sat under his desk copying the Jackson Pollocks, or Francis Bacons, I would ask why my art wasn’t as valuable as the paintings in the high security area.

It is a question that still preoccupies me. What separates two works that look the same, that just happen to be by two different people?

In my book The Girl You Left Behind, a once-worthless painting becomes the subject of a multi-million pound lawsuit after the artist who paints it becomes fashionable. In the 1900s the painting has huge emotional significance to its subject, as it represents a time when her husband painted her and she was joyously happy.

Unfortunately, it has significance too to the German Kommandant who takes over her hotel, and sees remnants of his life before the war — as well as a woman he finds increasingly compelling.

And decades later, for Liv Halston, its owner, it speaks to her of her late husband and the happiness they shared. Each of these people suffers, and fights to claim this painting as their own.

Sometimes I look at the items in my home that have value to me: a carved figure, a picture by my daughter. What would have value in future years? More importantly, what would I do to keep them? There is no value, except the value that we place on them. To me, the lock of my child’s hair, or their first painting is as important as a Jackson Pollock. I just hope nobody ever offers me the chance to swap.

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The Girl You Left BehindFrom the  New York Times—bestselling author of  Me Before You, a spellbinding love story of two women separated by a century but united in their determination to fight for what they love most

Jojo Moyes’s bestseller,  Me Before You, catapulted her to wide critical acclaim and has struck a chord with readers everywhere. “Hopelessly and hopefully romantic ” (Chicago Tribune), Moyes returns with another irresistible heartbreaker that asks, “Whatever happened to the girl you left behind? ”

France, 1916:   Artist Edouard Lefevre leaves his young wife, Sophie, to fight at the front. When their small town falls to the Germans in the midst of World War I, Edouard’s portrait of Sophie draws the eye of the new Kommandant. As the officer’s dangerous obsession deepens, Sophie will risk everything—her family, her reputation, and her life—to see her husband again.

Almost a century later, Sophie’s portrait is given to Liv Halston by her young husband shortly before his sudden death. A chance encounter reveals the painting’s true worth, and a battle begins for who its legitimate owner is—putting Liv’s belief in what is right to the ultimate test.

Like Sarah Blake’s  The Postmistress  and Tatiana de Rosnay’s  Sarah’s Key,  The Girl You Left Behind  is a breathtaking story of love, loss, and sacrifice told with Moyes’s signature ability to capture our hearts with every turn of the page.

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Tell Me Something True: A Visit With Jennifer Chiaverini

Today’s post by New York Times bestselling author, Jennifer Chiaverini | @jchiaverini

We’ve got a copy of Jennifer’s latest novel, THE SPYMISTRESS, up for grabs today. Enter by using the form below.

Jennifer Chiaverini

Jennifer Chiaverini

Miss Elizabeth Van Lew—a spinster of independent means, a Richmond native, and a proud Virginian—was an unlikely heroine of the Civil War, and yet she was celebrated by Northern generals as “a true Union woman as true as steel ” for risking everything to care for Union prisoners of war and to smuggle crucial Confederate military secrets to the North.

I first discovered the remarkable heroine of my most recent novel, The Spymistress, years ago while researching another Civil War tale. One of my characters, a regimental surgeon in the Union army, was captured at Gettysburg, and when I investigated where he likely would have been taken, all paths led to Richmond’s infamous Libby Prison. Nearly every account I read of that notorious place mentioned Elizabeth Van Lew and the astonishing, audacious risks she took on behalf of the Union captives there. She made such an impression on me that I immediately wrote her into a chapter of that earlier novel, but even as I did, I was convinced that she was so unexpectedly daring, courageous, and clever that she deserved an entire book of her own.

To uncover the truth about Elizabeth Van Lew, I relied upon memoirs and diaries written by Richmond civilians and Union prisoners of war, as well as newspaper reports and official documents from the National Archives. My first and best resource, however, was Elizabeth’s “Occasional Journal, ” an intermittent diary and scrapbook she kept of her wartime experiences. It was really more of a collection of loose papers than a complete, polished memoir, but I was fortunate that any account existed at all, as it was incredibly dangerous for a spy to keep detailed records of her illicit activities. During the war, Elizabeth would hide most of her journal, but she kept certain incriminating pages by her bedside so she could hastily burn them if the house was raided in the night.

After the war, Elizabeth declined an offer to publish a memoir, believing with good reason that doing so would further provoke the anger of her Richmond neighbors, many of whom still resented her for her wartime support of the Union even decades after peace was declared. Instead she hid the manuscript away for many years, revealing its location only upon her deathbed in September 1900. When the box was brought to her from its hiding place, she examined the manuscript and exclaimed, “Why, there is nearly twice as much more. What has become of it? ”

The missing pages, if they truly existed, have never been found, but what remains provides a fascinating if incomplete glimpse into Elizabeth Van Lew’s remarkable wartime adventures—and offered me the inspiration for The Spymistress, a tribute to a Civil War heroine whose name should not be forgotten.

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The SpymistressBorn to slave-holding aristocracy in Richmond, Virginia, and educated by Northern Quakers, Elizabeth Van Lew was a paradox of her time. When her native state seceded in April 1861, Van Lew’s convictions compelled her to defy the new Confederate regime. Pledging her loyalty to the Lincoln White House, her courage would never waver, even as her wartime actions threatened not only her reputation, but also her life.

Van Lew’s skills in gathering military intelligence were unparalleled. She helped to construct the Richmond Underground and orchestrated escapes from the infamous Confederate Libby Prison under the guise of humanitarian aid. Her spy ring’s reach was vast, from clerks in the Confederate War and Navy Departments to the very home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Although Van Lew was inducted posthumously into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, the astonishing scope of her achievements has never been widely known. In Chiaverini’s riveting tale of high-stakes espionage, a great heroine of the Civil War finally gets her due.

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Jojo Moyes on Writing and Worries

Today’s post by international best-selling author, Jojo Moyes |  @JojoMoyes

What’s that? You’ve not read a Jojo Moyes novel yet? We’ve got the cure for that! You are officially invited to read this month’s book club selection, THE GIRL YOU LEFT BEHIND, with us this month.

Jojo MoyesI’m not one of those authors who can write the same sort of book every time, although I have a huge respect for those who can (Jack Reacher novels are my current burly comfort read). For a long time this lack of consistency worked against me; it made my novels difficult to market in the UK, where a lot of book retailing is done through supermarkets, and buyers, apparently, require a product as uniform as a tin of beans.

But eleven books in, I can only ever write the book that is humming away like an engine at the front of my head, and that might be a 1946 love story set around war brides on an aircraft carrier, or a mystery set in a community of modern-day whale watchers in South Australia.

After the global success of Me Before You, I worried for a while that readers would want the same thing again. Worried because the story that was resolutely taking shape in my head was as far removed from that book as it could get, an epic love story, spanning a century, that revolved around art stolen in wartime, and the effect that it had on two couples many decades apart. Different characters, different themes, different tone.

But as The Girl You Left Behind launched, and the first reviews came in, I began to relax, and I realized that there was more of a consistency than I had realized. My books may be set decades, and continents apart, they may be issue-based and small scale, or sprawling and intricately plotted, but what they all contain (hopefully!) is a big, emotional read, a plot that will draw the reader in and haul them along through a new landscape.

What they all contain — and this is, I hope, what keeps the readers with me – is love.

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Tell Me Something True: A Visit With Lee Smith

Today’s post by award-winning author, Lee Smith  | Lee on Facebook

Lee’s latest novel, GUESTS ON EARTH, will be published on October 15th. Our own Kimberly Brock has this to say about the book and the author: “Did you ever pick up a book and from the first sentence, you feel that you’ve met up with an old friend, someone so familiar it’s impossible that a stranger some place in the world has written the words? Better yet, have you ever turned a page and encountered a voice that could very well be your own, the best and the worst of you? For me, this is the genius of author Lee Smith. I swear, half the time I feel like she has somehow peeped into my childhood, growing up in the Georgia foothills, that she’s telling my stories, remembering my relatives and neighbors, sometimes more clearly than I remember them, myself. And so, to have the pleasure of introducing her here is an honor for me as both a reader and a writer. Believe me, no one on earth will tell you something true like she will.”

Lee Smith

Lee Smith

“Everything That Rises Must Converge.”

This quotation from Flannery O’Connor comes to mind whenever I think about writing my new novel “Guests on Earth “……or any novel, really.   For me, each novel comes from deep within my whole life as I have lived it up until that point—-there will always be some idea, some image or emotion or experience that just won’t   go away, that rises to the top rather than receding in memory as the years pass….and then there will come that point when it finds its time.  So it was with “Guests on Earth, ” though the visual image which started it all was perhaps the most dramatic I have ever witnessed.

Let me start by saying that (like so many other girls in other small towns all across boring small town America) I have always been in love with that golden couple, the Fitzgeralds. I was in love with both of them, the brilliant novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and his glamorous, flamboyant wife Zelda.   I read   “The Great Gatsby ” over and over again. I also read everything else I could find about them, our first truly American celebrity couple, quivering at Zelda’s declaration: “I want to love first, and live incidentally. ”   Well, me too! I was fascinated By Zelda’s zaniness, her Southern-ness, her frank sexuality and utter disregard of custom and rules as they lived uproariously in hotels and rented rooms  in several countries.

Their gilded life turned dark, then darker, as alcoholism, infidelity and mental illness took their toll.   Though schizophrenia forced Zelda to give up her long-cherished dream of becoming a professional ballerina, she published her poetic novel “Save Me the Waltz ” in 1932, two years after her first hospitalization. She continued to write, dance, choreograph, and paint, becoming an incredible visual artist, through many hospital stays, ending up at Asheville, N.C.’s famous Highland Hospital in 1936.

She died here twelve years later in the tragic and mysterious fire of March 9, 1948, one of nine women patients who burned to death in a locked ward on the top floor of the hospital’s Central Building where they had been placed for their own safety because they had undergone shock treatments earlier that day. Zelda’s body was identified only by her charred ballet slipper.

This is where Zelda’s story and mine converge.    It turned out that both my parents suffered from mental illness, and my father was a patient at Highland in the 1950s.   Decades later, my son Josh spent several helpful years there in the 1980s, in both inpatient and outpatient situations, as he battled schizophrenia. Though I had always loved Zelda, as I have told you, it was during these years—my many visits to see Josh in Asheville—that I became fascinated by her art and her life within that institution, and by the unsolved mystery of her awful death.

I remember the exact moment when I realized that I was going to write this book.

My son and I were walking up Zillicoa Avenue toward the mountaintop hospital during a particularly brilliant winter sunset.   The entire arc of the sky shone red behind the crenellated battlements of castle-like Homewood, one of Highland’s most interesting older buildings. Of course this reminded me of the dreadful fire.

But I had just been reading a collection of the Fitzgeralds’ letters, and some of Scott’s words came back to haunt me, too: “I used to wonder why they kept Princesses in towers, ” the romantic young officer had written to his Alabama beauty Zelda Sayre, repeating the image he was obsessed with, wanting to keep her all for himself.   She had replied, “Scott, I get so damned tired of being told that—you’ve written that verbatim, in your last six letters! ”

So the notion of the imprisoned Southern princess became a part of the dramatic image of the red sunset, the fire.    Okay, I thought at the time–I’m going to write this novel–whenever I can stand it.  

Here it is, finally, ten years after my son’s death, and 65 years after Zelda’s.  In it I propose a solution to the mystery of the fire, with a series of plausible events leading up to the tragedy, and a cast of characters both imagined and real.   Is it true?   Well, strictly speaking, no—–but in another, deeper way, yes.  I have always found that I can tell the truth better in fiction than in nonfiction, and this novel is as true as I can make it, containing everything I know about madness, art, and love.

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Guests On EarthIt’s 1936 when orphaned thirteen-year-old Evalina Toussaint is admitted to Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, a mental institution known for its innovative treatments for nervous disorders and addictions. Taken under the wing of the hospital’s most notable patient, Zelda Fitzgerald, Evalina witnesses the cascading events leading up to the tragic fire of 1948 that killed nine women in a locked ward, Zelda among them.

Author Lee Smith has created, through her artful blending of fiction and fact, a mesmerizing novel about a world apart—a time and a place where creativity and passion, theory and medicine, tragedy and transformation, are luminously intertwined.

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Tell Me Something True: A Visit With Yangsze Choo

Today’s post by debut novelist Yangsze Choo | @YangszeChoo

Two genres that I have a particular soft spot for are historical fiction and magical realism. And today’s guest author has managed to combine the two in a novel that has become one of this years hottest titles. So we’re thrilled to give away a copy of THE GHOST BRIDE to one lucky winner today. Just leave a comment on this post and you’ll be entered to win.

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Yangsze Choo

Yangsze Choo

Update: we’re thrilled to announce that the winner of this book is Doireann. Thanks to all who entered! And don’t forget to check back soon. We have lots of great giveaways lined up for the rest of this year.

When I was a little girl, my grandmother lived in a small town in Malaysia opposite a cinema which showed scary Chinese movies. We children were not allowed to go and watch them, although from the front window we could see people lining up to buy tickets. Instead, we could only gaze at the vivid, hand-painted cinema billboards and ask my grandmother to explain what the illustrations were about. In retrospect, her ghost stories were probably more terrifying and enigmatic than the actual Hong Kong movies that were showing! This was probably my first introduction to the peculiar Chinese practice of arranged marriages with the dead.

Years later, I was digging around in the archives of our local Malaysian newspaper to research another book that I was trying to write (a disastrous novel about an elephant detective), when I came across a sentence in an old newspaper article that offhandedly referred to the decline in Chinese spirit marriages. I was so intrigued by this that I ended up putting aside my first book to write THE GHOST BRIDE instead.

The folk superstition of marriages to ghosts, or between the dead, usually occurred in order to placate spirits or repair familial relations. Matches were sometimes made between two deceased persons, with the families on both sides recognizing it as a tie between them. In fact, it still occurs today. Sometimes two sweethearts might be married after death, or a family member might be told in a dream that a deceased relative wanted to get married. A formal marriage ceremony would then be performed, complete with food, preparations, and the burning of paper offerings such as money, houses, and servants, which were believed to become tangible assets in the afterlife. More rarely, the living were married to the dead. This is the case for Li Lan, the main character in my book.

There’s actually a long Chinese literary tradition of strange tales set in the blurred borderline between spirits and humans, where beautiful women turn out to be shape-shifting foxes, and the afterlife is run like a monstrous parody of Imperial Chinese bureaucracy. Most of the classic Chinese stories about ghosts are actually about young men, usually scholars, to whom all these strange things happen. The archetype would be “Once, there was a poor scholar, who was studying alone at night when there was a knock on the door… ” Of course, he opens it to find a beautiful girl who turns out to be either a ghost, a fox, or a flower spirit. All sorts of trials ensue, usually with the not-so-subtle warning that you shouldn’t be tempted away from your studies by licentious women!

In my case, I wanted to tell a story from the point of view of a girl, and to marry two of my favourite genres – historical fiction and magical realism. It was a fascinating topic to explore, particularly the second half of the book, which takes place in the terrifying, beautiful shadowlands of the Chinese afterlife, filled with ghosts and monsters. In some ways, I was able to put into it all the fantastic stories of my childhood that I couldn’t see in a movie theater but could only imagine through old tales and comic books. It’s a rich and curious mythology that I’d love to introduce to readers!

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The Ghost Bride “One evening, my father asked me if I would like to become a ghost bride… “

Li Lan, a young Chinese woman, lives in 1890s colonial Malaya with her quietly ruined father, who returns one evening with a proposition — the fabulously wealthy Lim family want Li Lan to marry their son. The only problem is, he’s dead.

After a fateful visit to the opulent Lim mansion, Li Lan finds herself haunted not only by her ghostly would-be suitor, but also by her desire for the Lim’s handsome new heir, Tian Bai. Night after night, she is drawn into the shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, with its ghost cities, paper funeral offerings, vengeful spirits and monstrous bureaucracy. Li Lan must uncover the Lim family’s darkest secrets, before she is trapped in this ghostly world forever.

An Book of the Week, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick, and Indie Next List, THE GHOST BRIDE is Malaysian writer Yangsze Choo’s debut novel. Yangsze eats and reads too much and can often be found doing both at her blog (


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Scent and Memory – Guest Post by Kathleen Tessaro

Today’s post by this month’s featured author, Kathleen Tessaro | @KathleenTessaro

Don’t forget that our online book club discussion of THE PERFUME COLLECTOR runs all this week. We’d love you to stop in and share your thoughts on the book!

Kathleen Tessaro

Kathleen Tessaro

Have you ever been stopped in your tracks by a half-forgotten but hauntingly familiar smell? Transported to another time and place by the whiff of a passing stranger’s perfume? Or perhaps been besieged by memories by the sudden contact with a loved one’s favorite fragrance?

Certainly I can recall being thrust into a state of vividly self-conscious pre-teen angst by an unintentional sniff of Love’s Baby Soft or enjoying the same golden inner sheen of optimistic freedom that was the hallmark of my years wearing Chanel’s Christalle.  

However, perhaps the most unsettling experiences come from the scents that other people wore; the eau de toilette of a ex-lover or the lavender soap our recently deceased grandmother favored can often hold unexpectedly vivid feelings.

Our olfactory sense is the most instantaneous and potent link we have with sensory memory. It connects us to our past in the most immediate, emotionally transparent way possible. And it’s this kind of invisible, ephemeral relationship that lies at the heart of my fifth novel, The Perfume Collector.  

In The Perfume Collector, we follow the fortunes of a young newlywed in 1950’s London, who receives an inheritance from a complete stranger in Paris. The stranger turns out to have been the muse to one of France’s greatest perfumers, and as our heroine uncovers more and more about her, their lives become increasingly intertwined.

These women’s stories are told through perfume and even though one of them is gone, what remains is the pure poetic essence she inspired.

Sometimes all we have left to cling to are our fading memories and the diminishing notes of a once radiant perfume. We must inhale deeply, before both evaporate forever.

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The Perfume CollectorA remarkable novel about secrets, desire, memory, passion, and possibility.

Newlywed Grace Monroe doesn’t fit anyone’s expectations of a successful 1950s London socialite, least of all her own. When she receives an unexpected inheritance from a complete stranger, Madame Eva d’Orsey, Grace is drawn to uncover the identity of her mysterious benefactor.

Weaving through the decades, from 1920s New York to Monte Carlo, Paris, and London, the story Grace uncovers is that of an extraordinary women who inspired one of Paris’s greatest perfumers. Immortalized in three evocative perfumes, Eva d’Orsey’s history will transform Grace’s life forever, forcing her to choose between the woman she is expected to be and the person she really is.

The Perfume Collector  explores the complex and obsessive love between muse and artist, and the tremendous power of memory and scent.

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Audio Book Review: The Ashford Affair by Lauren Willig

Today’s post by Teresa Krueger, one of the amazing bloggers in our  Blog Network | @TeresasReading

The Ashford AffairTHE ASHFORD AFFAIR is a masterful tale centering around two very strong women separated by time.  It is a story full of mystery, suspense and a touch of romance.

I this family saga, Willig takes the reader on a journey from a coffee plantation in Kenya in the early 20th century to present day New York City. The story is centered on the lives of these two very engaging women who are finding themselves and in a way, finding each other.  The story unwinds slowly with the revelation of a long kept family secret and its aftermath.

Each of the characters played an important role in THE ASHFORD AFFAIR, but I found it much more plot driven. It was difficult for me to personally connect with any of the characters. I came closest with Clemmie’s thread once we got to know her, but found that the plot in this story is so compelling that you will continue to listen in order to see where it ends up. The path the story follows is not completely unexpected, but the threads in the story keep the reader engaged.

Notes on the narration:   Nicola Barber did an excellent job differentiating between the various characters throughout the story. Addie and Clemmie each had very distinct voices right down to period inflection.

Listening to the Ashford Affair was my first experience with both Lauren Willig and Nicola Barber and will certainly not be my last.

Willig is known for her Pink Carnation Series. The 10th installment, THE PASSION OF THE PURPLE PLUMERIA was just released on Aug 6, 2013.

Publisher: Macmillan Audio

Audio Source: Personal Library

Narrated by: Nicola Barber

Running Time: 13 hours and 35 Minutes

Written by  Lauren Willig  

Teresa's Reading CornerTeresa Krueger (Teresa’s Reading Corner)

I’ve loved reading for as long as I can remember. I realized as a child that a good book can transport you anywhere you want to go.  I began  Teresa’s Reading Corner  in early 2010 in order to share those experiences with others. Since starting the blog I’ve discovered so many new authors and genres and my excitement for books has grown exponentially.  I’ve also discovered the wonder of audio books and began hosting the Audio Book Challenge in 2011. When I’m not reading, writing about reading, or reading about reading I am enjoying life with my husband, my two little monkeys and our dog.

Teresa on Facebook  | Twitter:  @teresasreading

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What’s The Moral Of The Story?

Today’s post by this month’s featured author, Kathleen Tessaro | @Kathleen Tessaro

Kathleen Tessaro

Kathleen Tessaro

Living with Ambiguity…

Recently I read a review of my new novel, The Perfume Collector. While the reviewer enjoyed the book, she ended her piece wondering what the moral of the story was, a question that, frankly, surprised me.

It’s true that I associate moral endings more with Aesop’s fables or the maddening tales of Guy de Maupassant. That kind of storytelling has its place. However, my reader’s query forced me to consider my own lack of, and indeed, aversion to, a neatly packaged moral message.

For me, ambiguity is a worthy theme in itself. As we get older, life becomes increasingly conflicted. People we love do things we disagree with fundamentally. Others we were inclined to dismiss take actions we unexpectedly admire. To put it simply, there’s bad in the best of us and good in the worst. Perhaps most importantly, we discover in ourselves a capacity for error and misguided prejudice that requires sober reevaluation. We’re not, in short, the people we imagined we were. And neither is anyone else.

This is a recurring theme in my books; every protagonist I write polishes their identity against the rough surface and confusing duality of life. The characters don’t triumph; instead they learn to tolerate and surrender to the vacillating nature of people and circumstances. It’s not a subject matter I deliberately chose, however, it’s an ongoing question I turn around in my mind with each new set of characters. Ambiguity itself is a creative irritant; the uncomfortable grit that hopefully produces a pearl.

I’ve been told that learning to live with ambiguity and paradox is both the challenge and the measure of becoming an emotionally mature adult. Certainly I find it no easy task. I often wish I could reach back to my younger, cockier self and grab hold of the hard, bright certainty I once enjoyed, when I could clearly divide the world and its people into “right “,' wrong “, “good ” and “bad “.   But I can’t. One of the unfortunate side effects of no longer being able to shoe-horn yourself into those categories is that you’re unable to do it to anyone else.

That’s why I write about the experience of ambiguity — moral, religious, sexual, artistic – and why it appears as a theme in my novels. I want to read about people who have come to grips with their humanness and made peace with the attendant disillusionment that brings. My experience isn’t that life’s people and issues resolve themselves neatly or even come to a discernable end, let alone present a clear lesson. Like it or not, sometimes the point is simply to keep going, without any comforting clarity or reassurance. To me, that persistence in the face of self-doubt is heroism. We blunder, we flounder; we take ridiculous actions, driven by fear, delusions of grandeur; hubris. We try, we fail. We try again.

And occasionally something beautiful happens. Something flawed, starkly miraculous and unexpected. Those are the stories I like best.

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August Book Club Selection

The Perfume Collector Cropped

Choosing selections for She Reads is more art than science. There are a million factors involved, many that we can’t actually control. But it all begins when a book arrives on our doorstep. The problem with this month’s selection, Kathleen Tessaro’s THE PERFUME COLLECTOR, was that no sooner had it arrived, it was stolen. By my sister. Never let it be said that books aren’t judged by their covers. Because they are. My sister absconded with the book because it’s gorgeous. (I do love red)  The fact that it contains a dazzling story just makes it magic.

By the time THE PERFUME COLLECTOR finally made it’s way back to me I was dying to experience it for myself. And I was not disappointed. It’s everything we want a She Reads selection to be: smart, thought-provocting, emotional, compelling. Brilliantly written. Filled with secrets and memories and hope.

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The Perfume CollectorA secret history of scent, memory and desire   … from the Sunday Times bestselling author of  Elegance  and  The Debutante.

London,1955: Grace Monroe is a very fortunate young woman. In spite of a sheltered upbringing in Oxford, her recent marriage has thrust her into the heart of London’s most refined and ambitious social circles, where alliances are formed and reputations made. However, playing the role of the sophisticated socialite her husband would like her to be doesn’t come naturally to her – and perhaps never will.

 Then one evening, a letter arrives from a law firm in Paris. Grace has received an unanticipated inheritance. Only her benefactor, Frenchwoman Eva d’Orsey, is a complete stranger to her. Grace dismisses it as a mistake. However, when later that same night, she suddenly suspects her husband of infidelity, her world is thrown into chaos.

Fleeing London for Paris, Grace searches for information about the mysterious Eva d’Orsey. What she uncovers is the remarkable history of an unconventional woman who inspired one of Paris’s greatest perfumers. Only Eva’s past and Grace’s future intersect. And soon Grace must chose between the life she thinks she ought to live or becoming the person she truly is.

Told in three distinctive perfumes, the story weaves through the decades, from 1920’s New York to Monte Carlo, Paris and London; revealing the complex, obsessive love between muse and artist and the tremendous power of memory and scent.

Add THE PERFUME COLLECTOR to your Goodreads to-read list.

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Kathleen TessaroBorn in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Kathleen Tessaro attended the University of Pittsburgh before entering the drama program of Carnegie Mellon University. In the middle of her sophomore year, she went to study in London for three months and stayed for the next twenty-three years. She began writing at the suggestion of a friend and was an early member of the Wimpole Street Writer’s Workshop. Her debut novel,  Elegance, became a bestseller in hardback and paperback. All of Kathleen’s novels including  Innocence,  The Flirt,  The Debutante, and most recently,  The Perfume Collector  have been translated into many languages and sold all over the world. She returned to Pittsburgh in 2009, where she now lives with her husband and son.

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