About Victoria

Born in Detroit. Lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania, D.C., and Princeton, New Jersey. Degrees in Journalism (U. of Michigan) and Public Health (U. of Pittsburgh). Alumna of U. of Michigan and U. of Pittsburgh. Favorite authors: Neal Stephenson, Frederick Forsyth, Alan Furst, Charles Dickens--they all know how to tell a good story! Best book read so far in 2012: Hilary Mantel's Bring up the Bodies. Favorite TV: The Wire; Treme.

Tried the New Shepherd.com Reviews?

Shepherd.com is a book review site that wants to make the search for a new book part of the fun. One of their ways is asking authors to recommend five books that fit a theme. The themes can be broad or incredibly niche. As an example, you might want to check out “the best mouthwatering reads for foodies” (I know I do!) or “the best books about historic Coney Island.” Hmmm. There could be a possible duplication there, if there’s a book about Nathan’s Famous.

The theme I picked is one of my favorites: “ordinary people in extraordinary situations.” Shepherd gives me the chance to explain why I picked it and to describe my own recent book, Architect of Courage. If you’ve read it, you’ll know it’s definitely built on that theme.

Here are five terrific thrillers that also show the kind of unexpected trouble people fall into and how they fight their way out of it!

  • The World at Night by Alan Furst – Reading Furst’s books was what made me think about how much this theme resonates with me. His thrillers are set in the months leading up to World War II, and his characters are trying for “business as usual.” Not a chance.
  • Disappeared by Bonnar Spring – In this new thriller, two American and two Moroccan women are trying to escape the country. For the Americans, all the social rules are upended. Not only are the authorities no help, they’re actually pursuing the women too.
  • Cover Story by Susan Rigetti – This is a jigsaw puzzle of a thriller, and I’ll bet you’ll be surprised when that last piece clicks into place. I was! The main character is a naïve young college dropout who wants to succeed in fashion publishing. You’d just like to shake her and wake her up.
  • Razorblade Tears by SA Cosby – A Black landscaper and white alcoholic ne’er-do-well find themselves an uneasy team when their gay sons are murdered. The police are getting nowhere in finding the killers, so the dads have to try. Awesome in audio.
  • Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips – A mom and her son have to hide in the zoo after hours, in the dark, because a pair of killers is stalking the grounds. Keeping a four-year-old quiet for hours challenges every maternal instinct this remarkable woman has!

You can read more about my five picks here or search for recommendations around your own favorite theme on the Shepherd website.

“Just One More”

Michael Venutolo-Mantovani has written a riveting piece for the October 2022 issue of Wired, “Just One More.” Late on the night of August 15, 2021, Worth Parker’s North Carolina cell phone received a Facebook message about the chaos in Afghanistan. It read: “Sir. I hope you are well. By any chance do you know any Marines who are on the ground right now?” Having retired from the US Marines as a Lt. Colonel six weeks before, Parker thought he’d cut those ties.

The message described the plight of the sender’s brother and father who had both worked for the US military in Afghanistan. With the American pullout scheduled for the end of the month, their lives were in increasing peril. The sender, Jason Essazay, had also worked for the US, but had obtained a Special Immigrant Visa for his service and was living in Houston. “Parker was Essazay’s last resort,” Venutolo-Mantovani writes. At the time the pullout was announced, 81,000 Afghans had pending applications for a SIV. US intelligence reports predicted it would take several months for the Taliban to take Kabul, but as we now know, the fall of Kabul occurred only days later.

When Parker read that the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit was helping with the evacuation, he called an old friend in the unit who said he’d try to help. Working in the eye of a fast-moving hurricane of fragmentary information, changing requirements, and coordination difficulties involving violent extremists and desperate families, Parker’s initiative succeeded.

Three days before Essazay’s contact with Parker, Joe Saboe, who’d left the Army 20 years earlier received a call from his younger brother, wanting help to get a friend and his family out of Afghanistan. Saboe didn’t know how he could help, but “tried the closest thing to a Noncombatant Evacuation Operations tool he had: Facebook. His post asking for help generated a message from a friend of twenty years before also trying to rescue someone. The two men strategized. Soon he heard from more veterans, each worried about a single contact. By August 17, Saboe had a group of volunteers working on the cases of 128 potential evacuees. A story in the Military Times generated more than a thousand contacts from Afghans looking for help and Americans wanting to provide it.

Parker, the former Lt. Colonel, enlisted his high-powered connections in the military establishment to form a group calling itself “the Graybeards.” Learning about Saboe’s operation, Parker hoped to convince Saboe’s volunteers to support the Graybeards’ efforts. “But almost immediately, Parker realized (the younger generation) was comically more tech savvy” than the retired military and civilian leaders. “It was time to reject the chain of command that had been drilled into him from the minute he joined the Marines.” He put the Graybeards’ Project Dunkirk in direct support of Saboe, giving him “some of the best-connected people in the US military and intelligence worlds.”

Heroic efforts were made in a fluid and increasingly dangerous Kabul. They achieved the rescue of more than 1,500 Afghans and, even today, more people continue to be evacuated in ones and twos. Each is a victory, but, collectively, they represent only five percent of Saboe’s database. Volunteers continue to chip away at that list, trying to save, as Project Dunkirk’s motto has it, “Just one more.” This whole inspiring and infuriating article is well worth a read.

Promotion, Promotion

Yesterday, The Writer’s Workshop at Authors Publish sponsored a pre-launch event for author Jennifer Givhan to talk about the development of her soon-to-be-published novel River Woman, River Demon. She was joined by Isabella Nugent, a publicist for Givhan’s publisher Blackstone, and the two discussed the publicity strategies they developed for the new book.

The inspiration for River Woman, River Demon, Givhan said, was a series of personal upheavals. She gives credit to both the strength and spirit of family for helping her weather these challenges and giving her a profound sense of herself as a person. This carries over into her book publicity strategy, where she looked for activities compatible with how she sees the world. It was an important idea that an author’s marketing activities have to be true to them as a person, in order to feel authentic (and doable). Otherwise, they can be awkward and unpersuasive.

This leads naturally to the notion that the author and the publicist need to develop a strong, mutually respectful, partnership. There are many ways to publicize a book, and the publicist has to hear it when the author isn’t comfortable with something.

The whole strategy development process for River Woman, River Demon took about nine months to plan and carry out. One of the first tasks was to cast a wide net for blurbs from other authors that then could be used to garner media publicity. During downtime, as the book was getting ready for market, Jenn made it a point to respond “yes” to as many requests for blurbs or other assistance from other authors as she could. Giving other writers uplift, she believes, not only makes her feel good, but in the long run will be of benefit to the larger writing community, herself included.

She recommends teaming up with other authors for publicity—doing readings together, interviewing each other, and so on. Authors working with smaller publishers may have a somewhat easier time making connections with their “sibs.”

Jenn also invested in an outside publicist, interviewing a great many, which resulted in some free consultations, even though she was up-front about her budgetary constraints. Even staying within budget, this extra help was useful. Jenn and Isabella talked about the importance of identifying all the different sets of contacts Jenn has. She is a novelist, but she’s also a poet, and those connections in the poetry world have led to some unpredictable good results and cross-promotions. “You don’t know who all of your readers are, and ultimately, they may connect.” I’ve certainly found that in promoting Architect of Courage. Reviews, help, invitations end up coming from all sorts of wonderful places!

Related
I describe my promotion strategy for not driving myself crazy right here.

Book Review: Jewish Noir II

Just in time for the High Holidays, comes Jewish Noir II, edited by Kenneth Wishnia and Chantelle Aimée Osman. In his lively introduction, noted crime writer Lawrence Block says you can sum up every Jewish holiday in three sentences: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!” While great food is an essential part of Jewish holiday celebrations, Block points out that the first two sentence are even more tied to the Jewish experience and, as he says, make the combination of Jews and noir almost inevitable. And timely, I’d add, given current trends.

This collection of twenty-three short stories, many of which were written by prize-winning authors, are clustered in six themes: legacies, scattered and dispersed (stories from the diaspora); you shame us in front of the world (embarrassment and dishonor); the God of mercy; the God of vengeance; and American Splendor (stories that could only happen in the United States). Editors Wishnia and Osman point to a subtext of many of the stories: fear amidst the stresses of modern life. Fear of the past, fear of loss, fear of anti-Semitism, fear of violence. Fear that is another signpost on the road to noir. Even with that common thread, the stories themselves are wildly diverse, and readers will find many that appeal, regardless of stylistic preferences. This review tackles only three of them, from across the themes mentioned.

“Taking Names,” the opening story by Steven Wishnia, sits perfectly in the sweet spot between past and present. It begins with the commemoration of a notorious tragedy, the 1911 fire at New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. In that calamity, scores of young women jumped nine stories to their deaths, rather than be burned alive. Because of the business owners’ negligence, 146 people—mainly Italian and Jewish immigrants—died. The issue of worker safety is brought up to the present day by reporter Charlie Purpelburg, who’s covering union efforts to increase worker safety in the construction industry. Once again, risky conditions affect the most vulnerable employees—undocumented workers, this time around. They’re not only caught in the political machinations of Jewish developers skirting safety regulations, their wages are being stolen. Enter the social media trolls. Where does all this racial hostility end? No place good.

Craig Faustus Buck’s “The Shabbes Goy” is another tale of exploitation, this time of an elderly woman by her ultra-religious husband, who fills their apartment with gloom and domination. How three members of the younger generation ally to thwart him is quite satisfying. Funny and horrifying, all at once.

“What was I thinking?” is the first line of “The Nazi in the Basement” by Rita Lakin. An elderly Jewish woman living in California returns to New York for a funeral and decides to do the unfathomable. She visits her old neighborhood in the Bronx for the first time in decades. When she lived there, the residents were mostly Jews, Irish, and Italians, and now, before she can park the rental car, she encounters teenagers from Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Hong Kong, and Bangladesh. They wheedle most of her life story out of her. But she doesn’t tell them the ending, the tragic events that produced in her “the scars masquerading as memories.”

Many of the remaining stories address the issues of younger generations of Jews and people living in other countries. Still, it is today’s elderly, grandchildren of the immigrants from the last century who have witnessed the massive social changes of upward mobility, and who, at this point, may be most caught between past and present.

The Malleability of Time: Javier Marias

Award-winning and much-translated Spanish novelist, translator, and short-story writer Javier Marias died September 11 from complications of Covid-19. You have to admire someone as dedicated as Marias, who began seriously writing as a young teenager, and at 17, ran away from home to join his uncle in Paris so he could write his first novel. Despite writing 15 novels and three collections of short stories, he considered himself “more a reader than a writer,” or so I learned in an interview conducted some years ago.

The main characters in his three-volume novel, Your Face Tomorrow, took what could have been a risky path, in that they were based on real people—one of them (even chancier) his own father, including his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, and Sir Peter Edward Lionel Russell of New Zealand, Professor of Spanish Studies and Director of Portuguese Studies at Queen’s College, Oxford. Russell also experienced the Spanish Civil War first-hand, on assignment from British Intelligence. He further served the Intelligence Corps of the British Army during World War II.

In his conversations with the two men, Marias believed they were hopeful the books would be published (they died before the third and final volume appeared). In an interesting way, Marias’s fiction, based however loosely on their own stories, gave them an opportunity to live slightly altered lives Wouldn’t we all like to go back and handle certain people and events differently? “Mistakes, I’ve made a few,” sings Sinatra.

Rethinking one’s history is another example of Marias’s preoccupation with manipulating time, touching it, in order to bring out the important moments that get washed away in the ceaseless flood. In part he has tried to accomplish this by way of numerous digressions. At one point in Your Face Tomorrow, a sword is about to fall, and he makes a left turn to talk about different kinds of swords and their history. Meanwhile, the reader is maybe thinking, “enough already. Get on with it.” But Marias believed the experience of what the sword ultimately does is different if readers have those moments of swordly contemplation.

I’m thinking about how much Riku Onda packed into Fish Swimming in Dappled Sunlight which is a novel of moderate length that takes place all in one night and, simultaneously, over decades, as twins review their relationships, their suspicions, and the reasons they cannot keep living together. There’s so much more in there than the highlight reel you’d hear if you asked one of them about that night a year, a month, maybe even a week later.

Even experimenting with the elasticity of time, it seems Marias was a pantser (writing by the seat of his pants, rather than carefully plotting in advance). He said, “I’m not the kind of writer who knows everything before I start writing a book, or even while I’m writing it.” When he said, “what I really like, in a way, is to find a story out.” I think of that as “the experience of discovery,” and it’s what makes writing exciting for me too.

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Book Clubs are Authors’ Friends

So far, three library book clubs and one “unaffiliated” club in three states have decided to read my mystery/thriller, Architect of Courage, and give their members a chance to ask me questions about it. The first one of these occurred last week, when my “home” club—the mystery book club at Princeton Public Library—read the book.

This is one of those activities that Zoom has made much more doable! The group not only includes ten or so members from the Princeton area, but one of us has moved to Maine, one is here now but for some months was based in Richmond, Virginia, and I think one or two of us are Florida snowbirds.

Group leader Gayle Stratton and I agreed that, in the interest of candor, the group would have about 45 minutes to discuss the book before I joined the call for the second half of our meeting. That apparently was an unnecessary precaution, because it seems they were unanimous in reporting they enjoyed the book! Their questions covered plot, intent, research strategies, publishing, favorite characters—a whole array of issues.

In promoting the novel through interviews and book events, I’ve found I most enjoy the q&a. It’s always fun to see how different people interpret the same things. It’s a challenge authors frequently face. They have to walk the fine line between explaining too much and explaining too little. Although I work hard to make the text clear, questions still come up. In general, I’m a big believer in trusting the reader. When I’m reading, I hate the feeling I’m being spoon-fed. If an author tells the character’s dog died, she doesn’t need to tell me the character stayed in bed all day because she is sad. I know why she did that.

Just after Labor Day, I spent two days at the Library of Virginia genealogizing, and saw a big poster for its book group. The club was planning to discuss SA Cosby and Razorblade Tears on September 14. I’ve listened to the audiobooks of Razorblade Tears and its predecessor, Blacktop Wasteland, both of which delve into what Cosby has called “the holy trinity of Southern fiction—race, class, and sex.”

This was an opportunity not to be missed! Another Zoom success, I thought; I could call in from New Jersey. Disappointingly, he wasn’t on the call, so I missed my opportunity to ask whether part of his process is reading his books out loud. His dialog is so spot-on perfect, I figured he must do that. Then his publisher hires the genius narrator Adam Lazarre-White for the audio versions (highly recommended). I’ll just have to wait for another chance to ask Cosby my question.

If your book club reads fiction—be in touch!

The Demands of Craft: Why Details Matter

Handwriting, boredom

In an interview published a few years ago, but well worth this second look, author Alexander Parsons provided considerable useful advice (and support!) for other writers. Now an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Houston, Parsons is the author of the award-winning Leaving Disneyland and In the Shadows of the Sun.

New writers, he believes, are lucky they don’t know what they don’t know about writing. It looks deceptively easy. “The more you commit to it, the more time you spend learning the craft, the more overcoming your ignorance feels like an extended alpine stage of the Tour de France,” he said. Good writing—and isn’t that what we all aspire to?—isn’t a skill, or a practice that you just “pick up, like learning to throw a Frisbee.”

Parsons would probably endorse the idea that a good writer is always learning the craft. There’s so much to know, so many craft details, that you can’t take it in all at once. In my own case, I have gradually tried to teach myself to recognize my own writing tics—you know, the weak sentence structures and repetitive word patterns that appear in a first draft, as I’m setting the story down, but need to be scrubbed out later. (Examples: “There is,” “there are,” “things” instead of more concrete nouns; sentences with too many adjectives or too few.)

In the Shadows of the Sun included portions that take place in the Philippines and Japan, neither of which he’d visited at the time he wrote about them. Research—in books and photographs—let him visualize the setting, but he believes the lack of first-hand knowledge also freed him. “The landscape of fiction is always the landscape of imagination,” he says. “Fiction organizes and alters the factual to serve the larger truths embodied in the work.” I interpret this to mean not just the larger facts of plot and character development, but also reaching down to the sentence and word level. Possibly many readers gloss over the precise details, but I cannot help but think that at some level, they sense the difference between a red dress that the author describes as “cherry” versus “ruby” versus (god forbid) blood-red.

Parsons’s first novel, Leaving Disneyland, explored prison culture and its effects on inmates, current and former. Learning enough detail about that world to write about it forcefully, honestly, and authentically took him several years, he says. Despite the amount of effort involved, he believes mastering the details of a character, a place, an environment let you write “from a point of view that takes you out of your comfort zone.” Scary, but possible.

When writers take on that challenge, they not only connect with the story they’re trying to tell, but also with their readers. It’s easy to create characters that are thinly disguised versions of oneself, but they are ultimately thin, not very satisfying, gruel.

Book Review: Death and the Conjuror

Fans of locked-room mysteries should love debut author Tom Mead’s historical mystery, Death and the Conjuror. In 1936 London, elderly showman and conjuror Joseph Spector is called on to aid Scotland Yard detective George Flint, who hopes Spector’s skills at misdirection can lead him to figure out what really happened in a strange case that involves not one, but two locked-room murders.

German immigrant (sometimes referred to as a psychologist and sometimes as a psychiatrist) Dr. Anselm Rees has recently relocated to London, along with his daughter, Dr. Lidia Rees.(Mead wisely set the story a few years before the gathering war clouds would have further complicated the story.) The elder Dr. Rees has gradually acquired three patients—musician Floyd Stenhouse, actor Della Cookson, and author Claude Weaver.

Lidia and her playboy boyfriend Marcus Bowman arrive home late one night and learn Dr. Rees’s throat has been slit. For one reason and another, all three patients become suspects, along with an unidentified evening caller, daughter Lidia (who stands to inherit), and her boyfriend (who needs the money). The door to the office was locked that evening, as were the French windows, with their keys on the inside.

On the evening of another unproductive day of investigation, Flint receives an urgent call from the musician Stenhouse, who believes he’s being followed. Flint and his sergeant hear a shot, and fruitlessly chase a shadowy figure. Upon returning to the apartment building, they discover the second locked-room puzzle: the elevator operator is dead inside his small cage.

Although Spector provides occasional interesting disquisitions about the creation of illusions, his potential seemed not fully exploited. Stories about illusionists and (real-life) magicians usually include some spectacular demonstrations. In this story, inexorable logic wins out. Because the setup of the two murders was so complicated, many pages are required to explain them, as various theories are posed and discarded.

You may have the sense—despite the automobiles, hairstyles, and a few other signals—that this story could just have easily taken place fifty years earlier, given the dialog, the background narration, and many of the characters’ attitudes. It has a definite old-fashioned feel, which, on one hand, is part of its charm, and on the other, may distance you from engaging with the characters.

It is a locked-room puzzle in that fine tradition, with a surfeit of clues, red herrings, and suspicions. The clever and complicated plots the unknown antagonist concocts will likely keep you guessing all the way through.

Travel Tips: The Poe Museum, Richmond, Virginia

Contributing stories to Quoth the Raven (contemporary works inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s writings) and Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of Edgar Allan Poe rekindled my interest in the much-misunderstood poet, literary critic, and inventor of the detective fiction genre. A recent Virginia trip (history, Busch Gardens, genealogy) offered an occasion to visit the Poe Museum, a tiny jewel of a museum located in several small Richmond houses connected by gardens.

The house where you enter and buy tickets has a nice selection of Poe souvenirs and books. When you leave that, you cross a small lawn whose paths lead to a memorial (pictured). The granite benches along the paths came from a rooming house where Poe once lived, and the ivy lining the paths originated with cuttings from Poe’s mother’s grave—a fittingly macabre touch. Two black cats laze about, darkly.

Possibly you remember that Poe was the middle child of three born to actors David Poe and English-born Elizabeth Hopkins. Their father abandoned him when he was about a year old, and his mother died of consumption when he was three. He was taken in, but never adopted, by the family of John Allan, a successful Richmond merchant, who paid for his education in Scotland and London before the family returned to Virginia. At 15, Poe served in a youth honor guard during a visit to Richmond by the Marquis de Lafayette. Poe was admitted to the fledgling University of Virginia, but his gambling debts cost him place at the university, as well as his relationship with his foster-father. He lasted only a year there.

The main building of the Museum is the “Old Stone House,” built around 1740 and the oldest original residence in the city (several major fires destroyed much). It contains some furnishings—bed, desk, fireplace mantel—from Poe’s boyhood home, as well as his sister’s piano. The memorial building contains original copies of his writing and editing, including editions of the Southern Literary Messenger, which he edited for several years. A bound collection of that magazine was open to one of Poe’s own short stories—“Berenice”—which coincidentally was the inspiration for my two Poe-adjacent stories.

The museum displays some pages in Poe’s own hand (tiny writing) that are hard to read, as they can’t be subjected to bright light, pictures of some of the women he allied with, including his cousin and much-loved wife Virginia who, too, fell to the ravages of consumption. Thirteen years his junior, she died at age 24, after an eleven-year marriage. (Yes, married at 13.) Her death was a considerable blow to Poe, who believed nothing was more romantic than the death of a beautiful woman, and clearly was a partial inspiration for some of his melancholic poems and stories, including “Berenice.”

Upstairs in this house is a “reading room” with books by and about Poe and artists’ interpretations. Lots of ravens. In another building you can find items from closer to the time of Poe’s death (in Baltimore, age 40), including a portrait of Rufus Wilmot Griswold, Poe’s literary executor, who took advantage of the death of his rival to sully Poe’s reputation. Not for many years were Griswold’s scurrilous accusations of madness and depravity seen for what they were—the product of an intense jealousy. The recent Julian Symons biography, The Tell-Tale Heart (reviewed here) is a well-researched, highly readable summary of a complicated and sad life.

More Information:

The Poe Museum 1914 East Main Street, Richmond. Open Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10-5; Sundays, 11-5; free parking. Tours, educational programs, shop.

For Quoth the Raven (contemporary stories and poems inspired by EAP), click here.

For Sherlock Holmes: Adventures in the Realms of Edgar Allan Poe (Holmes and Watson on the case), click here.

Memories of a Queen

Maybe it’s having been named Victoria, but the history and doings of the British royal family have always fascinated me—not the scandals so much as, in the present day, the Queen herself. Like her predecessor, Elizabeth I, she took on a tremendous responsibility at the age of 25 and bore it with grace during good times and bad (Victoria was 18).

I have never seen any of the royals up close—except once. In May 1985, we were visiting the town of Reims, with its famous cathedral, in the heart of France’s champagne region—reason enough to stop over there. Reims is also the town where Colonel General Alfred Jodl signed Germany’s unconditional surrender at the end of World War II. Coincidentally, we were there the day before the fortieth anniversary of the signing, a bit proud that General Eisenhower declined to attend the signing. Not only did he outrank Jodl, but he’d seen the camps. He knew what had been done.

As we wandered the cathedral aisles, practically the only visitors, one aisle to our right I saw a smiling elderly woman wearing a pale blue suit and matching hat. A few well-dressed men orbited in her vicinity. “Look! It’s the Queen Mum!” I whispered. My husband, knowing how poor I am at recognizing people, took a closer look. “Oh, my god, it IS!” I discreetly took a couple of pictures, now rather faded, and the headline from the newspaper the next day confirms the presence of the “reine-mère.”

In 2012, we again stumbled into royal doings, when we visited London to take in the special exhibits for the 200th birthday of favorite author Charles Dickens. They were quite fun. The photo is of the writing retreat he used, probably to escape the clamor of his many children. Coincidentally, again, we arrived right at the time of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee—her 60th year on the throne. We saw a great deal of Jubilee-related pageantry, a Royal Air Force flyover, and thousands of cheering Britons. I saw a dress I liked too.

Dickens
Dickens’s writing retreat in Rochester, England (photo: vweisfeld)