TANTALUS by Jane Jazz

When my son suggested I share my reviews on Twitter I couldn’t comprehend how that would work. Two years later I’m still learning how to navigate this cyberworld (by the way, if anyone can explain what a #hashtag is and how to use it, in a way that doesn’t fry my nerve endings, I’ll be happy to name one of the characters in my next novel after you) and yet, I’m thrilled to be a part of it. Without Twitter I would never have learned about English author Jane Jazz and her debut novel, Tantalus.

The fascination with the unknown and the improbable that is embedded in the foundation of Tantalus reminded me of Susan Hill’s chilling ghost story The Woman In Black.

The room was dimly lit by long fingers of cool moonlight, and there was something…intangible…in the air. 

I was immediately filled with the possibility of magic and charmed by how Jane Jazz formulated the kind of romance we only dream about. Through Tantalus she makes the impossible probable.

Like Pyramus and Thisbe, Thomas and Sylvia are separated by a physical barrier. Unlike those star-crossed lovers Thomas and Sylvia meet in different times, 1924 and 1975 respectfully. It is improbable, but not unbelievable, especially once they start exchanging letters.

I will happily retire to bed, for only in sleep can I step through your torn sky of time, and into a land where strawberries grow in snow and Sylvia can lie in my arms. 

Tantalus sweeps us away like all powerful love stories do. Does the honeymoon last? Of course not. Sylvia and Thomas battle the realities of their situation and the improbable re-enters the readers’ mind. Then Jane Jazz excavates the newest chink in the story and the reader is swept away all over again.

In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning.

This quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald opens Chapter One. While it portends the event that will upend our heroine’s life, it also filters into the reader’s psyche, priming them to leap where they normally would hold back. Choosing to set the interactions between Thomas and Sylvia in the wee hours of the morning speaks to our secret desire to come face to face with whatever is ultimately holding us back. This is the real magic of Jazz’s debut; a story that shows us how the union of two souls transform these people into the artists they were destined to be. Who isn’t intrigued by that?

As engaged as I was there were times when I felt cheated as a reader, especially in the scenes between Sylvia and her best friend Clemmie. Because of the way these scenes unfold, it dampens the impact of the events that lead to a major upheaval in Sylvia’s life. Yet, in the end, none of those blips mattered, for the overriding premise of an artist foraging through the emotional minefield of life was a pay off I couldn’t live without.

Tantalus is a love story that spans time on par with Wuthering Heights, without the cruelty. A true romance for the artist’s soul.


HEMINGWAY’S GIRL by Erika Robuck

My introduction to Erika Robuck came through Amy Sue Nathan’s blog Women’s Fiction Writers in 2012, when Robuck shared her journey to publication. It’s an inspiring interview, which I saved and reference from time to time.

For the booklovers who frequent my Bookshelf, you know that I like to zero in on what works and what doesn’t work for me—an ingrained curse of a writer struggling with a debut novel. I’m delighted and surprised to say Erika Robuck nudged me out of habit. When I finished the novel my son asked how I liked it.

“It was good,” I said. 

“So, you didn’t really like it?”

Pause. 

“No,” I said. “You’ve completely misunderstood. I loved it. I was swept away, hardly took any notes. In fact, Erika Robuck made me forget I was a writer.”

A theory exists to help readers choose books. I came across it on The Kill Zone with a blog post titled The Page 69-Bomb. Select a book and turn to page 69. If you like that page you’ll probably like the book. If you’re unable to get a sense of the book’s heart by then, best to leave the book on the shelf. How did Hemingway’s Girl stand up? I didn’t test the book ahead of time, but I can say, without hesitation, my allegiance and investment in heroine Mariella Bennet was complete after the first four pages. By page 43 I had to force myself to stop reading in order to get anything else done during the day. Now that’s happiness.

Before the novel begins Robuck writes to the reader:

After reading all [of Hemingway’s] novels and eventually ending up in his home in Key West, I had a strong desire to tell a piece of his story and inspire others to read his work. 

I’m thrilled to say Robuck’s wish came true for me. Although I’ve read The Old Man and The Sea four times, A Moveable Feast and a few short stories, Hemingway’s other novels have remained a mystery—until now. I’m currently in the midst of A Farewell to Arms thanks to Hemingway’s Girl. And I have a growing interest in reading about the women in Hemingway’s life.

I can’t imagine writing a historical novel. The research alone would intimidate me. Luckily for us, Erika Robuck did not let fear get the best of her. What she learned about Key West, the Veterans of WWI, Hemingway and the Depression enriches, but never overpowers the page. The truth of 1935 and the characters she writes about seep under our skins until we feel like active participants in the action.

Another strength is Robuck’s understanding of the mind/body connection that is essential to creating fully formed characters.

Pauline regarded Mariella for a moment. Mariella could feel the woman testing her, wondering whether she could fight, cry and live in front of Mariella without actually having to think about her. Mariella relaxed her posture so she wouldn’t appear aggressive and folded her hands in her lap. 

These kinds of nuances are woven into each character and illuminate their humanity and inner turmoil, which keeps us glued to the page.

In the Reader’s Guide Robuck admits to being intimidated about putting words into Hemingway’s mouth, which was one of the reasons she left him out as a point-of-view character. Be that as it may, her portrayal of this legendary writer rings true—as Hemingway would say—and shows a total empathy for the character that may have been lost in the hands of another writer. Papa’s gusto, from his need to party into the night to his passion for hunting and fishing at the expense of his family is drawn beautifully from the moment we meet him on the page. But what Robuck does with greater delicacy and balance is show Hemingway’s vulnerability, which shines in an early fishing scene between Papa and Mariella, where they discuss Hemingway’s father’s suicide. The tenderness of this moment allows readers to tolerate the character’s future brutishness, while hoping to see more of his underbelly.

But my favorite part of Hemingway’s Girl is the love story. The triangle of tension between WWI Veteran Gavin, Mariella and Hemingway was a fantasy come true for me. What I found unique about this particular love story was Robuck’s ability to keep me guessing. I was never 100% sure who Mariella was going to end up with. And the twists and turns in the story, especially near the end are so surprising I was disappointed and pleased by how everything resolved. My desire to root so passionately for a particular ending is a testament to Erika Robuck’s talent for whipping a reader up into the undertow of the story and carrying them effortlessly through to the end.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to A Farewell to Arms, while dreaming of Erika Robuck’s next adventure with Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald.

Turn back to 1935 and meet Hemingway’s Girl.


THE PROMISE OF STARDUST by Priscille Sibley

Reading The Promise of Stardust is like indulging in Parisian chocolates. The substance is so rich in flavor you must take time to savor every morsel. Stardust is one of the most romantic and beautiful books I’ve read in a long time. I cried through the last twenty pages and for half an hour after. Sibley’s writing touches the reader’s soul because she isn’t afraid to open the hearts of the characters. Love pours from each page and carries the reader away.

My experience with The Promise of Stardust reminds me of when I saw Beaches in theatres. I went with a dear friend. We laughed and cried so hard at the end we took our tearful selves out of the theatre without a word and cried some more in the restroom. About halfway home my friend broke our silence with, “So, what do you think?” Without hesitation I said, “Some movies shouldn’t be analyzed just enjoyed.”

I believe this is true for Priscille Sibley’s debut. What Matt and Elle Beaulieu go through is so powerful and personal the reader’s response is personal too. So personal it is difficult to express the story’s poignancy. As a reader I am without words.

As a writer I am in awe of the seamless way Sibley uses the elements of craft. Placing a pregnant woman, who was a former astronaut, in a vegetative state raises the stakes right from the start. Then once Matt decides to save their child by keeping Elle on life support, Sibley pits not only the media and activists, but his entire family against him. The obstacles that follow increase the tension and play counterpoint to Matt and Elle’s love story that unfolds throughout the novel. But the Beaulieu’s love story is not void of rough edges, and is one of many reasons readers will connect with Sibley’s novel. Matt and Elle are flawed, make mistakes and often fail at communication, just like us.

The Promise of Stardust is so plausible and the characters are so real the reader can’t avoid speculating how they would react if they were placed in the same circumstances. Priscille Sibley has offered up a novel that will tug at your heart and engage your mind long after Matt and Elle’s journey ends.

Reach for love. Reach for The Promise of Stardust.