Virginia Woolf was never introduced to me in school with a three-week analysis of her work like Emily Dickinson, or Edgar Allen Poe. No memories reveal a conversation with a friend saying, “If you read nothing else you must read Mrs. Dalloway.” Like Sylvia Plath, Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, my exploration of Woolf’s writing came after my fascination with her life. The Bloomsbury Group, founded in part by Virginia and her siblings, Vanessa, Thoby and Adrian, was a group of writers, philosophers and artists, intent on the development and promotion of the arts, as they flexed the rules of Victorian society. Information about the liberal nature of this influential group is abundant, but it wasn’t until reading Vanessa and Her Sister that the intellectual stimulation, the professional frustrations and personal jealousies of these extraordinary friends truly came to life. Priya Parmar’s novel made me wish I could travel back in time to mingle with the Stephen sisters and their peers.

Settling in with Vanessa and the Bloomsberries was unlike any other reading experience. Initially, I was overwhelmed by the cast of characters, ten family members and eighteen friends to keep straight, and feared an exam would be given in the end. For readers who have no background in the era of the Bloomsberries getting cozy with the characters might involve more patience than usual, but the payoff is more than worthy of the early uncertainty of who is who. The bulk of the story is conveyed through Vanessa’s diary entries and the rest is filled in through letters and postcard exchanges. This format, too, requires the reader to double check the cast of characters from time to time until all the relationships tumble into their notches. Then whoosh, the reader is in the flow.

What’s interesting about the storytelling for Vanessa and Her Sister is the structure itself allows the reader to feel as if they are in midst of an actual gathering of the Bloomsbury Group. The chaos of keeping tabs on everyone’s love life, the invitations to travel to nurture their creative interests and explore the innovations of the characters’ contemporaries, and the observations of character that are integral to regular interactions swirl around the reader with such specificity it was sad to remember I wasn’t really there.

The tug of these characters was so strong, when I wasn’t reading I often found myself thinking of Gil Pender’s obsession with Paris during the 1920’s in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. So, I asked myself, what is “calling to me” about these particular people in the early 1900’s in London?

And what if people are shocked that we have no curtains and hold mixed at homes and invite guests who don’t know when to leave? Only we live here, and we can do it how we like.

The boldness to be at the forefront of change is enviable. What artist doesn’t long to be the first to break with rules, question expectations and ignite self-awareness? Witnessing the Bloomsberries in action has nudged me to think twice about where I’m going as a writer. Another aspect of these extraordinary individuals that kept me plugged into the story was the timelessness of their frustrations. Today we speak of Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and those they admired at the time like Matisse and Picasso, because of the impact they had on their particular field of expertise. Yet, they too, were struggling and wondering if they would ever break through.

The rest of us are still living on the borrowed fuel of potential and so far have not left deep footprints. But together we carry a brackish air of importance. As if we are doing something worthy in the world. Maybe how we live our lives is the grand experiment? Mixing company, throwing out customs, using first names, waiting to marry, ignoring the rules and choosing what to care about. Is that why we matter? Or perhaps Miss Warre-Cornish is right and we do not matter in the least.

Delving into the lives of Vanessa and Her Sister also reminded me of what no longer seems appreciated: silence. One of my secret wishes is for the internet, all cell phones and television to go on the fritz long enough for everyone, who is wired in, to have enough time to discover the wonder of sitting with their own thoughts, and then take those discoveries and develop and channel them into something other than a sound bite.

Tonight the talk was purposeful, intentional. No one spoke unless there was something to say. When there was nothing to say, we made room for silence, like a thick blue wave rolling through the house.

The most delicious element of Parmar’s novel is again, wrapped in the storytelling structure. Letter writing has become an underrated, if not lost, art form. However, Parmar’s use of diary entries and letters to illuminate the intimate story of two sisters and their legendary friends shows us, and will remind many, of how breathtaking it is to bare one’s soul on the page. And how the exchange of thoughts through letters encourages the writer to not only share how he feels, but to thoroughly understand why he possesses those feelings.

Nessa is powered by some internal metronome that keeps perfect time, while the rest of us flounder about in a state of breathless pitching exaggeration, carried by momentum rather than purpose.

Virginia has a vibrancy about her that makes time spent with her seem inherently more valuable than time spent away from her; minutes burn brighter, words fall more steeply into meaning, and you feel you are not just alive but living.

Vanessa and Her Sister is an intimate portrait of Vanessa and Virginia Stephen as they struggled to define themselves as women and artists in an era dominated by men, and in the process helped launch a movement of artistic freedom that continues to resonate. Since finishing Vanessa’s tale I have reread A Room of One’s Own and The Voyage Out and still feel compelled to revisit the rest of Woolf’s published works and learn more about her sister and their contemporaries. And that, dear reader, is the reason I believe Vanessa and Her Sister exemplifies the power of historical fiction.


I was drawn to Secret of a Thousand Beauties after reading an interview with Mingmei Yip on Women’s Fiction Writers. Her fascination with the Chinese tradition of female oppression aroused my curiosity. Set in China during the 1930’s, Secret of a Thousand Beauties explores one woman’s journey to escape the horrible fate of a Ghost Marriage.

Couples were often betrothed in childhood, or even before birth. Since only half of children survived to adulthood, many lost their fiancés. Because they had already pledged marriage, the cruel custom was to marry the woman to the dead man. As a practical matter, this meant she was a slave to her supposed in-laws.—Mingmei Yip

Finding the right starting place for a story is essential, yet often difficult. I don’t know if Yip struggled with the opening of Secrets of a Thousand Beauties, but her choice to have Spring Swallow run away after the marriage ceremony to her dead fiancé is brilliant. The immediate peril for our heroine makes us fear for her safety, wonder how she will survive and worry about the consequences if the in-laws find her. As the story progresses we come to understand Spring Swallow’s rebellion is only the first of many. She is forced to take risks because Yip refuses to allow our heroine to get comfortable.

In my experience, death like a cunning fox, is always lurking around the corner ready to catch you off guard.

Spring Swallow learns to stay one step ahead of the fox when she joins a community of embroiderers. The lessons given by Aunty Peony—a former imperial embroiderer—provide a solid foundation from which her inner strength blossoms. These secret techniques of this ancient art form are life lessons Spring Swallow continues to draw upon. They are also invaluable guideposts for writers.

Pause and think for a moment before you sew your first stitch—since the next thousand stitches all derive from this first one. Placing the first stitch is like laying the first brick of a house. If it is done wrong, the structure will be slanted and collapse.

Although rebellion on Spring Swallow’s part persists throughout the story, once she receives this lesson we never see her do anything quite as impulsive as running away after her ghost marriage. She weighs options and chooses sensibly not only for herself, but for the other women she has grown to care about.

Yip seems to have followed this advice as well. By starting the story in the midst of upheaval she set her heroine on a trajectory of action. Starting earlier would have created a sense of lethargy for the protagonist and the reader; later, and our heroine’s inner turmoil and motivation would’ve been less clear.

Even if a mountain collapses outside your window, you shouldn’t look, but continue to work.

Even though Aunty Peony has taken on a lucrative assignment that will take a year to complete Spring Swallow is not allowed to help. Five months pass before she is given the opportunity to embroider simple items like hats and slippers. Yet, she works daily for such long periods her fingers swell and become calloused. Eventually Aunty recognizes her skill and promotes her to lead embroider.

There is controversy over Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,ooo Hour Rule. Although I agree with this Huffington Post article that other factors are also important to master a skill, I believe as Spring Swallow and Aunty Peony that the most important ingredient is showing up to do the work.

These are not art, only craft. […] They try too much to please. […] when work is slick, the connoisseur will reject it.

Mingmei Yip’s novel is the antithesis of this statement by Aunty Peony because as Amy Sue Nathan mentions in her interview with Yip, Secret of a Thousand Beauties resonates with “the passion the author has for her subject and for storytelling.”

The soul Aunty Peony hopes her apprentices will bring to their own work is one of the hardest lessons for Spring Swallow to learn. But her devotion to perfect the ancient art of embroidery allows her to develop into the strong woman she was meant to be, and in turn, helps her secure a family that she never expected to be in her future.

Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip is a tender and compelling tale that shines a spotlight on Chinese culture, life and art.


On ne naît pas femm: on le deviant.

One is not born woman; one becomes woman.

—Simone de Beauvoir

The above may be one of the best preface quotes ever. Not only does it prime us for the journey it feels as if the sentiment was the springboard for Becoming Josephine. For me it was a relief because the novel’s cover, though lovely, led me to believe the emphasis of the story would revolve around the romance between Rose Tascher (eventually Joséphine de Beauharnais) and Napoleon Bonaparte. Simone de Beauvoir’s quote lifted this assumption from my mind and allowed me to be transported back to libertine France under Heather Webb’s deft prose.

The sheer number of people rendered me speechless. Hordes shuffled along the roadside carrying packages, toting their children, or walking arm in arm with friends. Odors assailed my senses; rich coffee wafted from cafes, sweaty horses and fetid piles of animal waste assaulted, flowery perfumes and warm bread tempted. Street vendors, juggling performers, and the incessant clopping of hooves whirled together in an orchestra of sounds.

The establishment of setting and atmosphere is one of Webb’s strengths. Her attention to detail deepens the reader’s understanding of her characters’ point of view, conflicts and dreams. And when the moment calls she uses this painter-like style to ramp up the suspense.

I sucked in the steamy air, heart thundering in my ears. A screech sounded from the shadows. The familiar shapes of the wood grew grotesque in the fading light. I ran faster. Serpents slid from their holes when the heat of the day faded, seeking victims for their poison. I had witnessed bitten men convulse with frothing lips and blue-black swelling beneath their skin. I shook my head to dispel the images. I couldn’t think of that now.

I recently read Webb’s second novel, Rodin’s Lover, and was captivated by the way she used the passionate intent of her characters to drive the story forward. Her dexterity with Intent also shines here.

I studied the silk rug. I would go to court, I vowed. I would mingle with nobility, with or without Alexandre. But first I must make friends. I would begin tonight.

By zeroing in on Rose’s desires we’re able to tap into her strength and heart and observe how they grow throughout her life.

Rose’s transformation to Josephine astonishes and inspires. On the surface Rose Tascher’s life is Pygmalion-esque. When she arrives in Paris for her arranged marriage, her fiancé Alexandre is put off by her attire and the frankness with which she speaks, yet by the time she meets Napoleon she has learned that every part of her manner is a…

…tool to secure one’s station, like the ruse of love.

But unlike Eliza Doolittle, who grows into a higher station in life and ends up finding love, Rose’s integration into high society enlarges her view of the world.

What a grandiose idea. I had never given a slave’s freedom any thought, let alone the “rights” of women, I accepted our roles—those of the slaves in their fields and the Grands Blancs running their plantations. Our sugarcane would rot, our plantations crumble without the Africans. Where would we be then? Yet Fanny had given me much to ponder.

As the revolution in France intensifies many of Rose’s family and friends are arrested and eventually she joins them in the cells of Les Carmes prison. The filth and squalor of such confinement, particularly in this period of time, can lead to individuals becoming angry, callous or withdrawn. Not so for Rose. Although she physically wastes away to almost no one at all her empathy for others expands. She continues to use whatever connections she has to petition for the release of everyone she knows, no matter what the odds. Her open heart will eventually bond her to the people of France. Still, Rose is not a soft touch.

I cough deeply, uncontrollably, as if I might vomit my organs. I sucked in a ragged breath and leaned against the wall. I ran my hand over the naked skin on my neck. A few days before, Delphine had chopped my locks into jagged disarray with a knife, borrowed from a jailer. My enemies would not shave my head in front of a mocking crowd.

In this moment, Marie-Josephe-Rose de Tascher de La Pagerie de Beauhanais—who has yet to meet Napoleon—though frail is triumphant. Her determination never to be a victim is an inspiration and a testament to the strength of all women.

Becoming Josephine exemplifies Simone de Beauvoir’s quote: One is not born woman; one becomes woman. Rose Tascher’s story was meant to be told and Heather Webb delivers it brilliantly.

RODIN’S LOVER by Heather Webb

Move over Catherine and Heathcliff, Camille and Auguste have arrived. They now stand where you once did, on the summit designated for the most passionate lovers in the saddest love story of all time. This all-consuming, real-life affair comes to the page thanks to the sensitive and ruthless storytelling of Heather Webb. From the first sentence to the last we are absorbed in a world of over-heightened emotions, where sensory input arrives in 3-D. It is the artistic world of Belle Époque Paris with all the magical allure, prejudices and injustices of the time fanned out before us.

Despair hit her like an ocean wave, filled the hollow of her chest, her lungs, until she felt as if she would drown. She perched in the doorway of a condemned building and sucked in steadying breaths. 

Camille’s journey to break through the glass ceiling of the Belle Époque art world is no small feat. In order to get to Paris, attain a tutor and an atelier of her own she must agree to meet with the suitors her mother chooses. To her credit she plays the respectability game only long enough to get herself rooted in the artistic world of her dreams. Camille Claudel’s passion and single-minded determination to excel may appear reckless at times (she alienates almost everyone she meets) but we can’t help admire her devotion and self-confidence.

She would fight the men controlling her fate the only way she knew how by creating more, by pushing harder, by leaving them breathless with emotion when they examined her sculptures. 

We are never in doubt of Camille’s intentions. They drive her forward with enviable abandon. But the reason we fall in love with her and August Rodin, the reason we pray they can sort through the obstacles in their paths in order to enjoy the kind of relationship they both deserve is due to Heather Webb’s ability to place us inside the heart and soul of an artist. We are always looking through an artistic lens.

The afternoon sun slid from its pedestal in the sky, yet heat radiated from the paved walkway and muggy air stuck in their throats and clung to their clothing.

And with the eyes that see flowing fabrics, movement and emotions there is also confidence and insecurity—professionally:

Despite Auguste’s show of enthusiasm the familiar tide of yearning rushed over him each time a friend advanced and he ran in place.

and personally:

Auguste released her as if she had bitten him. Embarrassment, then hurt crashed over him. She did not want him—and of course she did not! What was he thinking. 

Passion and fury permeates Rodin’s Lover. This emotional messiness underscores the love affair, heightens the mood to build suspense and leads us directly into the pathway of Camille Claudel’s descent into madness. Her downward spiral is delivered with such beautiful complexity we are as confused as she and, like her, wish to deny what’s happening.

They argued, but their conversation muddled and sloshed in her mind. She envisioned their words as strings of pearls browning and disintegrating before evaporating out of her ears like a stream of smoke. What in the devil was the matter with her? She cursed herself for drinking too much. 

Although I’ve coveted Rodin’s work ever since my first art history class in college, I knew nothing about his personal life, or Camille Claudel until I saw Midnight in Paris. The scene where Paul Bates argues with the tour guide over who was Rodin’s mistress is one of the reasons I wanted to read Heather Webb’s historical novel. Rodin’s Lover not only satisfied my curiosity about one of the most tumultuous relationships in the history of the art world, it made me long for the artistic world of Belle Époque, the way Midnight in Paris makes me long for Paris in the 1920’s.

Rodin’s Lover touches the artist within us all; the part of ourselves that refuses to fold silently into the mindset of the masses, and strikes boldly against the wind so our hearts might soar.

THE MAGICIAN’S LIE by Greer Macallister

The Magician’s Lie, the title alone portends an unreliable protagonist and arouses intrigue before we open the cover. Then debut novelist Greer Macallister drives our curiosity into full bloom with an opening that is its own magic show.

Tonight, I will do the impossible. The impossible is nothing new to me. As I do every night, I will make people believe things that aren’t true […] I will weave a web of beautiful illusion to snare them, a glittering trap that drags them willingly with me into the magical, false, spellbinding world. 

We see no smoke or mirrors. Instead, we experience a magical pulse through the words Macallister selects. She is a temptress of words. At times she understands that which grows simplest grows best.

They sit together in silence, two figures in two chairs on the fringe of the circle of lamplight.

Simple, yet provocative. Other times she indulges our senses.

Here every smell was on top of every other, good or otherwise. Garlic and perfume and manure. Silk and smoke and mud. Voices come to you the same way: a trilling woman’s soprano shouting out the price of oysters, overlapping with a Sicilian shopkeeper’s dusky accent and two German teenagers arguing at full volume, blotting out a whispering grasp of Irish girls on their way to work.

But she never goes too far because, like her protagonist (the Amazing Arden) the smoke, the mirrors and the slight of hand is rooted in her character and drawn on only when the need arises. Macallister offers an invitation we can’t resist and we follow her without hesitation or doubt.

Arden is one of the strongest female characters around. She defies the odds at the turn of the century and rises to the top of the masculine world of magic. The obstacles she needs to surmount to reach such success are delivered to us in her own words after she is arrested for killing her husband. The murder allegedly carried out on stage during her incredible trick of sawing a man in half. Whether she is lying about the events that led her to this moment, or telling the truth doesn’t matter. At least, it didn’t matter to this reader because Arden’s determination to stand against all opposition, without hesitation, is an inspiration. My empathy for Arden was so complete, I never believed I could turn away from her, even if she ended up being despicable.

Another reason we latch on to Arden’s strength has to do with how powerfully Macallister delivers vulnerability.

Pouring cheap gin on top of today’s news and tonight’s gore has hollowed him out like a rotten stump.

This passage is from Virgil Holt, the officer who arrests and interrogates the Amazing Arden, and the other Point of View character, in The Magician’s Lie. Arden’s and Virgil’s point of views are designed to secure our objectivity as the facts of the case unfold. But the beauty of these opposing forces lie in how they keep us on a tightrope of tension, wondering what is true and what is false. This two-person point of view is also where the real magic of the novel happens.

I only blinked on occasion, because when a powerful woman who smells of rosewater instead of dung tells you to stay still, you know everything depends on how still you can stay, and for how long. 

One person’s control over another is at the core of every riveting piece of fiction, and Greer Macallister delivers by adhering to her protagonist’s advice.

The novelty of being a woman would get audiences in the theaters once, but I needed to handle them just right once they were there. 

Macallister keeps us hooked by showing us how Arden gains and loses control of her life through the unexpected twists that occur, again and again. Each shift of power expertly interwoven with the inner turmoil of the characters.

He stands up and turns his back so she can’t see his face. It isn’t fair. He has all the power and none of it. The ceiling seems lower than it did an hour before, the room, smaller, though he knows that’s not possible. So much is riding on this night. He can’t afford to lose control. 

The Magician’s Lie may be Greer Macallister’s debut novel, but she is no novice. Like the Amazing Arden she spins a story that challenges your powers of observation.


If Erika Robuck were an athlete she’d win MVP year after year for her willingness to push beyond expectations. This was evident in her novel Fallen Beauty. While she plumbed the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, she uncovered a different well of emotion; one that infused her prose with an urgency so powerful, the reader could easily forget he took the time to turn the page. Fallen Beauty illuminated one of Robuck’s finest skills; her ability to meld with her subject. In The House of Hawthorne the emotional essence of Sophia Peabody Hawthorne is so palpable, raw and fluid the reader dances through the pages.

…his face a tempest of confusion and despair, his heart divided between the great truth that is reinforced with each passing year of our lives: one hand is open, overflowing with an abundance of joy and vitality, the other is a fist, clutching a void so desperately that the nails dig holes in the skin. 

Sophia’s imagery is an integral part of who she is: an artist, a painter who can not create fast enough.

Something about the concentration of all that color and power on the point of a brush, instilling life on a canvas with each motion, brings me such ecstasy and torture. I am left breathless at the thought.

Her hunger to express herself creatively may seem trivial today, when so many people appear to be seeking their fifteen minutes of fame. This was not the case in the 1800’s, a time when women were expected to marry and roll immediately into motherhood. Sophia’s quest was a rebellion and a cross to carry when she fell in love with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Thanks to Robuck’s expert storytelling, the reader comes to understand how every aspect of an artist’s life becomes a choice they may or may not have an easy time living with.

It pains me to acknowledge it, but I do sometimes imagine what my life would have been if I had never entered the parlor that day to meet Nathaniel. […] Would I be a world-famous painter by now if I had not chosen domesticity? Would I want such a thing, when the pressure and art of creation often brought me such physical misery?

Whether you are an artist or not, connecting with Sophia is as inevitable as breathing because we are never separated from her personal point of view. Everything we learn of her past through the present situations draws us deeper into her inner landscape, where the real story evolves.

I am entranced by her figure in a billowing crimson gown, framed by the rays of the sun slipping through flimsy curtains dancing in the breeze. The scent of jasmine has filled the room from where it climbs around the doorways of La Recompensa, and I might be walking the landscape of an opium haze, which I recall fondly from when I regularly took the drug while under a doctor’s care. 

Unlike Robuck’s previous novels about deceased writers, The House of Hawthorne explores the real-life relationship of Sophia Peabody and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although their love for one another is not threatened per se, their artistic temperaments coupled with the societal restraints and obligations of the time complicate their destiny.

I crumple the letter and throw it across the room. He moves like one stuck in tar pits and I long to drag him out by the collar. I am nearly thirty years old! He is thirty-five! At this age, most women have died from having their fourth child, and most men are widowers, and yet we are virgins! 

Doing justice to these amazing artists is unfathomable to me, but Robuck is at home in the past, in the same way Sophia and Nathaniel are at home with each other. Her talent for lifting the truth from journals, letters and biographical accounts and weaving it into a tapestry of passion so personal it makes you want to fall in love all over again.

When I enter, Hawthorne’s eyes meet mine, and he rises. By the holy angels, I feel my soul at once aflame and reaching through my breast toward him. […] My sphere has never been so disturbed by another’s as it is now, and I know that Hawthorne must feel the same way. 

While The House of Hawthorne is driven by the love of Sophia and Nathaniel, it offers more. The Hawthorne’s circumstances give the reader a chance to examine the compromises and sacrifices needed to attain personal and professional success and to question the limitations and judgments we often thrust onto others without understanding their situation. Their story is also an inspirational wellspring.

“Please, Sophia. You have no idea how your journal has fueled a writing fire in me, one that was in desperate need of kindling. I am on the edge of something.” 

The House of Hawthorne is a history of two unique artists whose love is the Muse with which they create a life most people only dream about. Their commitment and support of each other, shown to us through the heartfelt prose of Erika Robuck, will encourage you to dream bigger and delve into your soul’s deepest secrets to create with the wild abandon you were meant to share.

THE FALLEN SNOW by John J. Kelley

I met John J. Kelley at the Writer Unboxed Un-Conference in Salem, Massachusetts. When he spoke of his debut The Fallen Snow, he called it a quiet novel. Quiet is an accurate description of how the story unfolds, but the impact of Joshua Hunter’s journey is huge. He is a character you will carry in your heart for the rest of your life.

“Specifics beget Specifics,” said writing coach Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story, at the WU Un-Conference. The clearer a writer is about the past, which shaped the hero’s life, the more precise the writer can be about the hero’s goal(s) and the obstacles that get in his way. The Fallen Snow is an excellent example of how specifics establish character, clarify relationships and provide the context for the world our hero must navigate.

The first steps were the hardest. The cold didn’t help, though it was more than stiffness. More like his leg muscles had to relearn the motion, as though they’d forgotten their purpose. Maybe that was why he’d felt the compulsion from the time he’d awoken at the field hospital. He had to keep pushing lest he find himself trapped, or paralyzed. Or left for dead. 

This passage is our introduction to Joshua Hunter, a WWI infantry sniper sent home after receiving an award for valor. These few lines tell us nothing of his past, but they clue us in on all we need to know about his character. Even in the face of great fear he is determined to move forward. We also sense Joshua’s fears run deeper than his physical injuries, and although the coming days will not be easy, he will not be beaten. He has something to live for, even if, like his legs, he is unable to articulate it at this time. We, the readers, haven’t even turned the first page, but we know we will because no one can step away from a character with such courage.

As Joshua reconnects with family and friends in his hometown in the Blue Ridge Mountains, we become steeped in what it means to live in Appalachia in 1918. Kelley places us there without effort by allowing us to look through his characters finely focused lenses.

Some women took snuff in private or sipped from a flask hidden on the back step, like Mrs. McCullough across the way. Elisabeth Hunter dug at her worries while gazing down the ridge towards the town. 

The Fallen Snow is all about relationships during a very particular period of time in this country. Kelley depicts the expectations and parameters that exist between friends, spouses, siblings and lovers with great accuracy to reinforce the world we have come to know. But the resonance these relationships have for us lies in his ability to expose the inner conflict of each character with a light hand, like when Elisabeth Hunter ponders her sick husband.

He could scowl all he wanted. Her husband carried an angry boy inside, acting up whenever he was frustrated. She could handle it. She had for years. It was the silence he’d leave behind that scared her.

Silence is a strong silk thread that leads us from one inner conflict to another in this beautiful debut. Kelley’s respect for silence allows him to magnify the unrest and overwhelming fear that surrounds Joshua’s life as he struggles to come to terms with who he is, without beating us over the head with proprieties. 

Watching him was mesmerizing. Aiden was handsome…masculine.

Joshua tore his gaze away. He fidgeted, as if caught. No one was paying attention, the men nearby listless from the motion or busy in their conversations. Tommy remained fast asleep.

He turned his focus to the dirty floor, burying the feelings. It was a practice he’d perfected…automatic, instinctive. In a minute he’d convince himself it hadn’t happened, like always. 

These seeds of attraction slip delicately into the fabric of the novel and show us a very different world than the society of 1918 that Joshua returns to, and might have maneuvered The Fallen Snow into a novel about gay rights, if it weren’t for Kelley’s deft handling of the material. Kelley touches on the pain of rejection based on incomprehension and in so doing, slices our hearts to bits. In that moment we understand that although The Fallen Snow is a quiet novel, it is also big, for it shows us the agony of what it means to live against the truth within your soul.

Step into the powerful stillness of The Fallen Snow.

FALLEN BEAUTY by Erika Robuck

Each time I open a book, my wish is for the author’s words to spin my imagination into a kaleidoscope of color so my heart will dance. When I find an author who is capable of such magic early in their careers each novel deepens my admiration, and my desire to hear from them again is wrapped in the hope and promise of greater stories to come. Stephen King may have been the first author to have such an impact on me. My reaction to his hiatus and subsequent return to writing The Dark Tower Series was akin to agony and ecstasy. Have I moved into melodrama? Oh, well, there it is. For the hope, promise and joy I feel for Erika Robuck’s novels is nothing less than a romantic attachment.

The writing in Fallen Beauty is an undertow of words that reel you in, while emotions rise with such force it’s impossible to put down. And yet I had to in order to take notes on character and story, and capture quotes for future reference—even though I know this is a book I will read again and again like The Hours, A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Old Man and the Sea.

I came down a hill, back from raping the earth of her treasures, to see a nymph waiting for me, breathless, angry, uncertain, and I felt the sorrow of seeing the wounded pierce my heart more than she could know. 

These words belong to Edna St. Vincent Millay, one of two point-of-view characters in Fallen Beauty. The second is Laura Kelley, a seamstress whose choice to follow her heart in 1928 leads her to a life of limitations and hardship as she tries to provide for her child who was born out-of-wedlock. The voices of these women and the way they behave place them at opposite ends of a spectrum. The brilliance of Robuck lies in her understanding that for Vincent and Laura to be at opposite ends of a spectrum they must share a through-line, and they do. Both possess a passion and a desperate need to express the beauty they see in the world.

Vincent, the artist in full-peacock bloom, knows her ability to weave beauty and love into words for everyone to experience is a gift—a gift that must be used and fueled or it will be lost.

If I don’t use my words for truth, I will never get new words. I will not be able to write. 

She often nurtures her poetic gift with behavior not accepted by society. But she doesn’t care about their judgment. Her purpose is not to please the masses, but to live as fully as she can in order to enlighten those who will listen to the power and glory of love and beauty. She wishes to open people’s hearts to a range of emotions so they too may bring themselves fully into the world.

Laura covets Vincent’s free spirit and her gift. She longs to spin fabric into costumes that bring the essence of the characters, or the person wearing them to life. But to do so is a betrayal to her sister and the way she was raised. She doesn’t realize that to stifle her spirit only brings more pain into her life.

I know she turns the pain of the town’s judgment on me, because we all need something lower than ourselves to hate. Otherwise we would be left to absorb all the bad energy and it would destroy us. 

This too is Vincent. Her compassion for Laura is why we are so willing to forgive and look past her actions that we would not ordinarily tolerate. This is another of Robuck’s strengths: her deftness in maneuvering characters into situations where they have no choice other than to see themselves in another character. These moments of realization often ricochet the character forward to do things they never believed possible; other times the character steps back. Here’s Laura.

I shoved my hands deep in my pockets, and tried to concentrate on the shafts of moonlight slipping through the trees. I hated that I couldn’t find a single word to say to him. I was sabotaging something real, and possibly good […] I hated that I was a prisoner of my past. 

The way Robuck’s characters pierce and paw at each other keep the conflicts high, and the passion running deep. Fallen Beauty has given Robuck a chance to take off her writing gloves. She allows her characters to street fight with words, pushing each other in and out of corners, round after round until the final bell rings. She may never have trained as a boxer, but she’s one of the champion writers on my shelves.

Ignite your passion with Fallen Beauty.

CALL ME ZELDA by Erika Robuck

Look at Scott and Zelda, slowly killing each other by stray bullets meant for themselves. That’s what happens with love. It ends by death or separation. 

We are a third of our way into Call Me Zelda before we breathe in this line of sorrow and yet, the essence of this line is with us from the opening of the novel. This is one of Erika Robuck’s strengths; her ability to establish the mood and let it roll and gather momentum much like the fog rolls over the moors of Scotland.

Another strength, or gift is her ability to weave historical facts into fiction so that the material reads like a memoir. From page one I felt caught up in a gaper’s block on the highway; horrified by what I saw and unable to turn away, and too engrossed to be embarrassed by my rudeness. Robuck’s words cast a spell over her readers, keeping them transfixed until journey’s end.

Current events and history have always put me to sleep—a knee-jerk reaction left over from childhood; a story for another time—unless the material relates to the character I am developing for the stage or page, and then I can’t get enough. Erika Robuck was born to get people excited about history. When she wrote Hemingway’s Girl, she hoped to stimulate an interest in Hemingway’s life and writing. Her success prompted me to read A Farewell to Arms. And now she’s worked her magic with the Fitzgeralds. I’ve placed their novels and many biographies onto my wish list. I hope I have time to read them all. Whether she knows it or not, Robuck is one history geek who can’t be ignored. She dangles the facts in front of us just long enough to stir our appetites and we grow hungry because of her storytelling.

But maybe it was my selfish desire to be needed. Deep down I knew I longed for the blissful anonymity of becoming part of something beautiful and tragic and even historic—like a single stroke of paint on a large and detailed landscape.

Anna, Zelda’s nurse, is not the only one who longs to be part of something greater than herself. Scott and Zelda are also driven to rise above the dust that is now their life. These three make up a triangle of enablers—a stellar choice for Robuck. She exposes and underscores the dangerous quality of love that bound and tore the Fitzgeralds apart, not by showing us their evolution, but by allowing Anna to experience it first hand. Anna is dropped into the middle of a tsunami and all we can do is pray for someone to float to the surface.

One of the saddest and most sensitively written parts of the novel was a wonderful surprise for me. When we see Scott and Zelda depicted on screen as the wildly, carefree couple who symbolizes the Roaring Twenties, one element of their lives is overlooked—their daughter, Scottie. Robuck does not forget. Scottie’s presence is a touchstone for each of the characters. This little girl, who is treated like a second-class citizen because she was born into a chaotic world of savage artistic temperaments, forces the other characters to break free from their self-centered battles long enough to remember the goodness and love that resides (though often hidden) in their hearts.

Sadness and turmoil propel much of Call Me Zelda, but I wouldn’t label it a dark tale. The friendship that grows between Anna and Zelda begins with shared fear and loss, and is transformed through love and offers hope—a Fitzgerald essential. Hope…

…the light at the end of the dock [that leads us] to safety.

Call Me Zelda, a delicate and beautiful story of the destructive and healing power of love.

THE MADAM by Julianna Baggott

Some of the happiest times of my life have occurred while reading, alone. As a child I hated reading out loud. As an actress I despised read-throughs of scripts. Both situations made me self-conscious and clumsy. I would mispronounce words and butcher punctuation so sentences made no sense to the listeners and less sense to me. I needed privacy to understand the material I was reading, or at least a solo rehearsal so I could transition from myself into the character I was supposed to portray.

Over the last two years, I have finally managed to shrug off the curse I believed had been cast upon me. By reading to my Aunt on a regular basis, I have found a way to relax and become one with the book, in order to step comfortably into the characters the author has created. I look forward to our reading sessions. My happiness has now reached a new level of enjoyment thanks to The Madam by Julianna Baggott.

The Madam is not what you might expect from a novel about a woman who chooses to run a whorehouse to provide for herself and her children. The characters are loners with troubled souls and inadequate communication skills, and yet, they draw you in with their raw observations of the world. Much of what they feel or think about underscore their individual strangeness. But it’s impossible not to worry and wonder how they will survive or if they’ll ever experience true happiness. Our endearment to the characters happens through Baggott’s poetic prose.

Bagott’s storytelling is mesmerizing. This particular novel is also a marvelous example of craft elements in their finest execution. Stay away from clichés; avoid stereotypes and predictable images, phrases and events. I don’t believe Julianna Baggott has ever colored inside the lines. Her characters communicate with a freshness that dares you not to laugh.

Wall-Eye, if you don’t stop playing that bagpipe, I’ll shove it so far up your ass, your farts’ll come out duck calls for the rest of your life. 

Point of view is crucial in delineating characters and deepening our understanding of how characters feel about themselves, relationships and situations. The unique ways Baggott’s characters see the world do all the above, plus create a layer of individualized unrest and tension.

And then he was embarrassed by the way she lay here, regarding him listlessly. He tucked in his penis, snaillike, a little slick and shrunken, a soft nub of okra and tightened his belt. 

Part of the poetic strength in Baggott’s writing stems from specificity. What she leaves out smacks up against what she highlights to ground us in the richest of atmospheres, our senses tingling.

Everything is dusted in dog hair, but the dogs have run off. Their scent rises up alongside the smells of bowels, decay, like under-earth, like the death-rot stench of wet leaves. 

What I covet most about The Madam is the rhythm; a ceaseless current slowing only around punctuation with the occasional pause for a period. The rhythm of the words, chosen with a surgeon’s care, mingle with the reader’s pulse and urge him ever onward. Read the following excerpt out loud and see for yourself how disappointed you are when you have to stop. 

Delphine dips the needle into the bottle, then tries to steady the glob over the lamp. Her hands are shaky. They’ve been shaky for as long as she can remember. As the opium bubbles, swells, doubling and tripling in size, she recalls dropping her mother’s butcher-wrapped meat off a trestle bridge over the coal-clouded Monongahela. It was iced over. The meat skidded, leaving a pink trail of blood. Her mother made her climb down through the iced reeds to retrieve it. Her mother, her scarf wrapped around her throat to hide the goiter, nearly as large as a baseball, at the side of her throat. The ice cracked, splintered. The river’s jaws opened and set to swallow her whole.

No book deserves to be read aloud more than Julianna Baggott’s The Madam. In fact, I dare any reader to pick it up and not fall in love.

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