Book Review: South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon

South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon

B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

San Diego Book Award Winner

by G.J. Berger

While fond of historical fiction, the Roman era is one I’m not typically drawn to, a concern pushed to the side by the blurb for G.J. Berger’s South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon, and I decided to take the plunge. With each page I found myself drawn all the more to the adolescent Lavena’s triumphs and struggles in a transitional era that would test every bit of her enthusiasm, training and even question her survival.

south of burnt rocksSet in Iberia in between the second and third Punic wars, South of Burnt Rocks opens in an era when Rome is attempting to recover resources following Carthaginian assaults that occurred simultaneous to the first of the Macedonian wars. The Village on the Cliff, populated by Iberian Celts, holds a treaty with the Roman praetor Piso, whereby the tribe lives under a levied peace. However, he is recalled to the capital and replaced by a more forceful magistrate who revokes the treaty and plans to resume the monstrous Roman sweep of barbari lands in search of ever more loot: young slaves and their plentiful precious metals.

It is in this setting we meet Lavena, who opens the novel when, as an eleven-year-old future warrior woman, she witnesses a superfluous and ghastly murder committed by a Roman soldier. In short order we bear witness to the truism of various political opinion when Piso’s governorship is discussed amongst a gathering of tribal elders, including her father Sinorix, their leader.

Her father shook his head and grinned. “Piso won’t even let us raid the other tribes for practice like we did before the treaty.”

One of the other old men said, “That’s why we made our treaties…Piso helps us all live in peace, respects us, has for a long time….”

 Her father said, “His men show us less respect than they show their dogs. Roman praetors always leave after they’ve taken what they want from us.”

The narrative moves forward in large part through Lavena’s point of view and as such, readers won’t find Berger lacing the novel with names of historical battles, sieges or dates, as the girl would not likely have referenced them in the way history later would. As readers, we rely on what she knows and learns, and Berger presents this in an engaging and gripping manner that holds us close to their thought processes as well as ensuing action, and provides hints as to some of the tribe’s contact with others.

No river could be longer or wider than her river. Alexandros said the mountains were named after the Greek god, Pyrene. Lavena did not believe that either. Everyone she knew called them Burnt Rocks and that’s how they looked from a distance.

Sinorix contemplates a transition that gives us further insight into what they know of their history.

“Maybe we’ll cross the Burnt Rocks, maybe we’ll go west of the moon and across the big water to the land we came from, to our brothers and sisters in the cold country.”

Lavena prepares, knowing the newer Roman army will soon advance, and she is anxious to prove herself up to the task of helping defeat them. We witness, too, her move into adulthood and become familiar with the role women play in this society, a larger and more central place than Roman women maintain in theirs. It is easy to admire their cunning, will and courage, especially when even at a 2,000 year remove, Berger truly brings home to us just how ruthless and cruel their aggressors are willing to be. His portrayal of the Keltoi brings them to life in such a manner that we seem to be at their side, smarting at the setbacks they suffer, mourning their losses, encouraging their gains.

Also admirable are the differences Berger is able to overcome when telling Lavena’s tale. Much has been made of male authors speaking for female characters (and vice versa); add to this a grownup taking on the voice of an adolescent and as mentioned, that of an individual who would have lived over two millennia before. Combined with the dialogue and relating of events as they occur, readers might wonder that perhaps Berger recorded Lavena’s story as she herself related it to him. We become so engaged in the life of her tribe when they are at peace as well as when the battering rams begin to do their work, that there is no question of whether we will follow her, in the wake of her people’s destruction, as she escapes and seeks to engage other tribes to form a defensive consortium.

Berger also gives us an insider’s view to a Roman legion in the form of Marcus, who is tasked with locating a missing scouting group that includes his own brother. We see the decay up close, as well as the corruption of power, though from the perspective of one not in a position to make any high-level changes. The third-person narration transitions occur smoothly and as Marcus and Lavena’s paths grow closer together, the thrill is palpable as Berger’s expert ability to keep us at rapt attention merges with the alternating views of each character. Depending on events as they occur, we may agree or disagree, admire or despise, feel disgust or sympathy for Marcus, as his creator shows us the many sides to even a Roman soldier. The path he winds through the story leads to an ending that surprised me a bit, and the contemplations I had of Marcus pointed again to the author’s caveat that even Romans aren’t all exactly who we think they were.

While Lavena’s objectives take her often frighteningly close to the army as their campaign carries them through Iberia, she also remains true to her spiritual legacy, and Berger magnificently portrays her communion with nature and the departed to whom she speaks, often asking for guidance. Her progression is fast paced and the detail examined from her eyes—surroundings, perceptive recognition of others’ responses to her and events, clues as to the presence of outsiders, for example—is multiple layered without being weighty. Berger has crafted his narrative to near perfection: not a single word is wasted and the world that was, is brought to life for us to witness. The sounds, sights, smells and sense of Roman Spain as well as the events carrying Lavena through the story are so present that we feel as if we are there with her.

South of Burnt Rocks is an extremely satisfying read, one that engages the audience, stirring us to probe further into an era many of us remember only in bits from school-age history classes. To that end, the author’s notes succinctly fill in many gaps and it is evident the research done for the novel is extensive and painstakingly thorough. Our view to history is a bit more privileged than that of Lavena, who learns she must come to grips with her own family’s role in that succession and what it means for her, as well as for those who come to know of her courageous stand against tyranny.

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A copy of South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.

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BergerIn north central Spain outside the town of Soria sits an archeological dig being restored by the government. The site is the ancient city of Numancia. It was the place of the last stand by the locals against the Roman invaders. By then Lavena would have been an old woman, and Numancia might make for my third novel in a trilogy. At that site I visited reconstructed houses of the kind Lavena might have lived in and walls of the kind that might have protected her village. In the photo I’m looking at the pillar of a taller fancier house the Romans built after they finally won their multi-year siege.

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George_1_9-17-13_email6x9When G. J. was eight, his mom told him the story of Hannibal crossing the Alps with elephants and a great army. He asked her what happened to Hannibal after that. Mom didn’t know, but he was hooked, had to find out, had to write about it.

G. J. spent much of his young life on the road and at sea, often working as a crew member on a tramp steamer. Wherever his travels took him, old walls, canals, even storage holes deep in the ground, made him wonder about how they got there, about the people who built them, how they lived and got along. The result is this and two other novels-to-be wherein the places, the history, even some of the Burnt Rocks characters do and did exist.

When not writing, G. J. tries to roam around the places he writes about, likes to sit and soak up the times back then and bring them to modern life in his stories. G. J. is convinced that for all the changes in last 2000 years, people loved and hated, suffered and rejoiced, destroyed and built the same ways then as they do today.

G. J. lives in San Diego with his favorite grammarian and English professor. They visit their two sons and grandson as often as the kids will have them.

You can learn more about G.J. Berger’s work and news at his website and Twitter. A review for Four Nails, the upcoming prequel to South of Burnt Rocks, can be seen here.

Book Review: Song of Australia

Happy Australia Day 2016!!!

Song of Australia by Stephen Crabbe

Growing up as many of us did, learning in history classes of German aggression against others, Stephen Crabbe’s Song of Australia is a departure, moving away from this into the stories of Germans—specifically German-Australians—who suffered discrimination and abuse based on their ethnicity. Set in the state of South Australia during the Great War—a world war at that time not being numbered or perceived to need such label so as to differentiate from some other world war—the book is divided into three novellas, the interconnectedness of which is slowly revealed as the characters move through events that link back to each other.

Song-of-Australia-cover-resized-for-web-192x300Opening with “Magpies and Mendelssohn,” we see Neddy approaching a music hall from which come voices singing “God Save the King,” accompanied by piano. Though initially shooed away, he makes his way inside to warn Elsie Fischer, whose family later Anglicise their names, the better to fit in, of danger to her father. Misunderstood by many, Neddy is referred to as the “dull-witted child.” Indeed, he cannot communicate in typical fashion and uses his singing voice to reach Elsie.

 

[H]is voice utter[ed] a wordless succession of shrill cries. She gaped at him. His voice was so clear, so sure. It uttered just two notes and she could see them as if written. First a crotchet, then an accentuated minim; together making an interval of a rising augmented fifth. A call of alarm!

Crabbe’s flow of words here is somewhat deceptive because although the style seems fitted to approximate what many regard as the more “innocent” speech and perception patterns of the early 20th century, it is brimming with symbolism. Perhaps autistic (the book never reveals exactly what disorder the child possibly experiences), Neddy does not express himself in a way most of the community can comprehend. Rather, he utilizes music to speak, deftly mimicking the magpies whose tree he shares and to whom he relates so closely. It is interesting to note that several websites give magpies symbolic meaning for such traits as being perceptive and expressive as well as deceptive and illusory—characteristics owned by those around Neddy depending upon their understanding of his search for a voice, a medium with which to communicate to others.

In search of voice also is the German community, many of whom are individuals born and raised in Australia but often treated like enemies. Elsie’s father, target of the xenophobic and threatening conversation Neddy had overheard, stifles his own voice while trying to show Elsie to seek her own, even during flight to the relative safety of the city, where they might better blend in.

The book’s other two novellas, “Song of Australia” and “The Parade,” develop in more detail the threat to Germans of Australia as we see Elsie and Edwin, a young man struggling with the contradictions between faith and war, develop a friendship that rewards as well as endangers. Attending language lessons together they become involved with Will Krause’s endeavors to find a place in Australia, itself seeking identification, all intertwined in Carl Linger’s “Song of Australia.”

Edwin, who hides his anti-war stance and Elsie her true background, work to develop a manner in which they might speak to the world, as would Australia, as “free and strong, but peaceful,” in defiance of their true circumstances, which force them into the silence of an illusory existence in which others perceive them not for who and what they are, but rather what their own deceptions perceive them to be.

As the individuals’ stories proceed and make connections, readers are given a greater understanding of the war mentality and how it drives otherwise peaceful citizens to harass some of their neighbors to such an extent that lives, careers and futures are destroyed. Using the language of music to convey some of his most lyrical passages, Crabbe guides readers through a story that matures, much like its characters, who themselves act almost as part of an opera, engaging us in the history of a young nation seeking its identity.

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You can keep up with and learn more about Stephen Crabbe and his work at his Facebook author page as well as his blog, where he discusses writing, books, music, language and life.

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This post previously appeared at the blog’s previous location.

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Middle of the Night Musings: Earthquake Edition

Most of us probably met the shaking with the same response as usual: wait it out. Alaska typically has about 20 earthquakes a day, most of which can’t be felt. The ones that can are usually small and used as jumpstarts for stalled conversations. Some are taken slightly more seriously, and after they settle down and everyone realizes it was minor, starts tossing numbers regarding magnitude. Some place quick bets and it becomes a game.

So last night (01:30) when the weird, swooshy swaying started I pretty much assumed the same, though it did feel very odd, like my house was sliding. Dude. I was in the living room at the computer and across the room was my son, fast asleep in his weekend campout area—the floor he occupied being right in front of an armoire I’d worried about in the past, for moments such as these.

I hopped up to go over there, more, certainly, a quite unnecessary precautionary measure, and as I stood above him everything started rattling rather forcefully. Still thinking it would stop any moment I was one second debating waking him and the next—hearing a low moan and knowing there was no way I could hold up that now-wobbling armoire if it did decide to topple over—leaning down, shaking him, urging him awake.

“Get up, quick! It’s OK, but come over here, quickly!” Of course he was half asleep but he moved impressively fast as the power crashed and we guided each other to the doorway. I’d only heard a few small things falling over, but wow! That shaking was really something else. It had gone on and on, long past the betting phase and into the one where people start to panic. Thoughts of 1964 crossed my mind and that terrible audio I’d once heard of the earth moaning and screeching, the one I could never listen to again. Had I imagined the growling as the shaking continued and my fear informed me how stupid I was to just stand there staring at my child? I recall the recurring thought as the quake continued: “It’s still shaking!” And what seemed like a full minute later thinking, “It’s still shaking!” And then: “Still!” It felt like so long, except the entire episode was only about 30 seconds or so. The 1964 quake, in contrast, went on for over four minutes. Typing this now, I can’t imagine what that must have been like for people who experienced this in daylight hours, and who saw the streets splitting wide open in front of them.

As we lingered in the doorway (see update below), surveying the arctic entry and the world outside, I wondered about the strange way the nature of the quake had shifted. At first it was that trippy rolling, like we were on a ship bouncing on waves. Then, over by the armoire, we were shaken violently, like characters inside a snow globe.

earthquake grocery

As is usual, it was my son who brought the clever back into our moment and when he picked up the phone I realized we did actually have a connection to the rest of the world. Our home wifi was out for the count but oh baby! Yes! Facebook! I was so glad to see other people also connecting and letting the rest of us know they were OK. And I laughed easily at the typically American response to moments such as these: humor.

At first I’d read the quake had been assigned a magnitude of 6.4; later this was changed to 7.1. A Facebook friend wrote:

I’d like to congratulate Alaska’s recent quake on its promotion from a 6.4 to 7.1. Your ambition is certainly noted. Coming from so far below the surface, you really had some gusto. Good work!

The Twitter hashtag #akquake also shows Alaskans getting their fun on as one commenter admits his wreck of a room looked like that before the earthquake. Someone else joked about not being able to differentiate between the aftershocks and her husband’s snoring. Still another lamented the loss of the rum stock. My boy decided he wanted to have an earthquake party on my bed with a bowl of Doritos in hand and Thor on the laptop.

Here’s an update from a Canadian living in Alaska:

And speaking of split roads, here’s a slideshow including a cracked road near Kasilof.

So yes, as mentioned in the video above, one home exploded following a gas leak and I’ve just read that elsewhere four other homes also were lost. However, damages as far as I know are not extensive (I realize the families who lost their homes might not feel the same way) and no one was hurt. Also, given the earthquake was centered 50 miles down, the dreaded tsunami won’t be plaguing us this time round. We’re all still watching updates as we go along.

Oh and by the way, my own power came back on at around 04:30 or so. I’d been drifting in and out of sleep so am not certain of the when, but it was such a wonderful surprise that it was restored so quickly–within a few hours. For us that meant no real digging out of emergency supplies, it being the middle of the night anyway. By the time we woke up they were not needed. A really great and huge thanks to all the amazing people who leave their warm homes or on-call stations in the middle of the night to help get us back to safety and comfort: electricity crews, police, firefighters, emergency and hospital medical personnel, military. You peeps are all simply fantastic and have our eternal gratitude. :-)

Cheers, everybody!!

Update: This blog was updated to include some information I just saw posted as a link to Facebook. Click here for full post:

Cats, dogs and babies often naturally curl up in the fetal position. You should too in an earthquake. It is a natural safety/survival instinct. You can survive in a smaller void. Get next to an object, next to a sofa, next to a bed, next to a large bulky object that will compress slightly but leave a void next to it.

 Most everyone who gets under a doorway when buildings collapse is killed. How? If you stand under a doorway and the doorjamb falls forward or backward you will be crushed by the ceiling above. If the door jam falls sideways you will be cut in half by the doorway. In either case, you will be killed!

Many, many thanks to Nancy Nadon Burke for posting this article online.

Friday Night Flashback: A Novel Exploration: Stewy Bugs Otis

Once more our “Novel Exploration” series takes us back to a memory, in this instance of reading Beverly Cleary’s Otis Spofford with my son, who at that time was in kindergarten. I’d loved the books myself as a child and had introduced Adam (his chosen non de plume at the time) to the neighborhood by way of Ribsy. He’d adored this lovable, goofy pooch, even though at the time he was terrified of dogs.

He is now twelve and continues to love animals and books. He also engages in running commentary as he reads; even if he is reading to himself, he often will come explain what is occurring and then offer his assessment. (I’m pretty proud to add that many times his observations are quite impressive.) The long and the short of this is he truly engages with what he is reading–the characters and events matter to him. There is a relationship.

As I was reading over old other-blog entries for this FNF, I chose this one as it was so closely related to a book review I’d just published, for a novel whose theme involved relationships, and I’d referenced reader/protagonist connections. Especially when I reached the last paragraph, when Adam asks about compromise, I marveled not only at the connections between reading experiences but also, as I mention, too, in that last paragraph, how they linger for lifetimes.

As with my own alternating views of Tessa in my read, here Adam goes back and forth with regard to how he feels about Otis. His dislike from the previous session may have been influenced by, as mentioned below, his disapproval of Otis’s meanness, fatigue or even just disinterest, in general or in the moment. Becoming keen on Otis once more might have been rejuvenated by rest, the character’s consideration for an animal, or any number of reasons. The bottom line is that here is a protagonist who speaks to the reader, and that is worth carrying for a lifetime.

dragonfly
“Look at that dragonfly,” he said. “That’s a beauty.” Otis felt a little better. At least Hack Battleson liked his dragonfly. (Click image)

 

Over the past few days Adam and I have been reading Otis Spofford as well as a few other books. Sometimes I wonder if Adam needs a break from Otis or if on occasion my timing is just off, because during one reading he seemed rather unenthusiastic. He may have just been tired, I suppose, or not in the mood for this boy, whom Adam doesn’t always view as a sympathetic character. “He’s mean,” he says with surprise.

We don’t finish a chapter at each reading (I don’t, in fact, make that a goal), and one night I don’t even get to a suitable transition spot. We just end up stopping because it simply isn’t working well. Adam, insanely tired, is restless and simply cannot sit still unless it’s to go to sleep, which he does rather quickly after we decide to close the book. I’m OK with stopping, but I feel a bit bad that it didn’t seem a good experience for him, and wonder if fatigue was the only problem.

otisBut he seems to recover quickly because soon enough he’s carrying the book around the house again and talking about Mutt the rat, whom Otis had smuggled contraband food into the classroom for, thereby upsetting a class experiment on nutrition. Mutt was supposed to be fed soda pop and bread while Pinky, another rat, was given leftovers from the school’s lunch menu. Mrs. Gitler’s goal in the end is to show that on pop and bread a rat would not grow well. Otis feels sorry for the rat, however, and his secret is at the cost of his own lunch hour (and lunch) as he was, unknown to his teacher, locked into the classroom–on one occasion while she sits just on the other side of the class from where he secrets himself. In the end it is revealed that someone else, the disturbingly clean and neat and obedient girl Ellen Tebbits, was also secretly sustaining Mutt, and the two have a tense battle for who gets to take home the rat at project’s end.

“Raise your hand, Otis! Wave it!” Adam waves his hand wildly as if instructing Otis how to be seen by Mrs. Gitler, who is ignoring him following Ellen’s confession. When he, too, confesses and the rat is awarded to Ellen–“Yes, Ellen, since you told us about feeding Mutt first, you may have him for a pet”–he is sorely disappointed and complains bitterly to himself. But Adam consoles him by advising of Ellen’s tidiness and unsuitability for a pet rat. As Otis sits in front of his home Adam predicts that Ellen, who at this point is walking down the street, would give him the animal. “Her mommy won’t let her keep a rat!” And sure enough this is exactly how it turns out.

It’s really interesting to watch all this unfold from the viewpoint of another, from a child, especially given that Adam has not always been this adept at such skills as predicting. His commentary has become somewhat astute as well, and I’m very eager to read to him with another child in attendance. I’m curious to see another child’s perspective, if Adam holds back with her present (I’m thinking of a particular friend of his), or if there is any kind of distracting quality in our new dynamic.

The next time we read is a bit different. He’s more subdued, but it doesn’t seem to be for any negative reason. It’s also interesting to see that though insects are involved, he not only doesn’t mind, he’s downright engaged. (In “real” life he is not fond of insects and often checks under his blanket [or sleeps on top] to make sure none are under there.) As with his lack of involvement with dogs, books seem to give him the opportunity to get closer to something, see what it is like or how it works, at no risk to him.

On a boring early evening after school, Otis and Stewy are canvassing the neighborhood looking for something to do when they happen upon Hack Battleson, a high school football player who has star status in the boys’ eyes. Otis is unhappy and restless until then, and when he learns Hack needs to collect 30 bugs for a science project, he offers to help. Stewy follows suit and this bugs Otis, who dreams of being the sole savior of the high school football team: Having collected the bugs, he would have freed Hack to practice his game.

otis-jacket-1980sBut Stewy, much to Otis’s (and Adam’s) chagrin, insists on being a part of the action and the race is on! The boys have until 6:30 and the competition is fierce. Adam, who had chanted the “T-T-T-A-Y. L-L-L-O-R. T-A-Y. L-O-R. Ta-a-ay-lor!” cheer along with the boys earlier, now urges Otis to hurry up and get his bugs. At one point when Otis climbs a trellis Adam asks me to look it up on the Internet and show him a picture. I’d done this before as an easy way to give him a visual of something he was unfamiliar with, and like any smart child of our computerized information age, he remembered the lesson well. It kind of makes me wonder in a sort of sidebar part of my thoughts at that moment, how he will later feel about Internet books. Would they be ordinary to him, having been born and raised on computers? Or would having had many books with pictures and possibly a special sort of aura about them be a mark against e-books?

Then I read a sentence about a fly and Adam chimes in with, “If you took his wings off would he be called a walk?” He’s starting to get into the moment again and I laugh heartily at his memory of a joke we’d shared. When Stewy admonishes Otis for “stealing” a bug (because it came from the sidewalk in front of the rival’s house), Adam quickly comes to Otis’s defense: “It’s not your sidewalk,” which is along the lines of Otis’s own retort.

But Otis doesn’t waste time arguing and goes to his own house to follow up on an idea; Bucky, a kindergarten neighbor dressed up as a cowboy, is there and begging for attention as usual. I wonder how Adam might receive Otis’s impatience with the kindergartner and characterizations of little kids, but he doesn’t seem bothered. The cowboy costume might have saved Bucky in the eyes of our own kindergarten reader.

In the end Otis, who has only 29 bugs and fears Stewy has beaten him, discovers one of Stewy’s gems is actually a spider, a critter Hack had prohibited for its non-insect status (too many legs). Just as the discovery is made known to Hack, the dog scratches himself–as he had in the beginning of the story, a neat little way to fit things together–and Otis gets the idea to, “get a flea off the dog!” Adam mightn’t have thought of this had we not read about how fleas had played a role in Ribsy and that dog’s inability to return to his owner (who had taken the collar off to give the poor pooch some relief). But then again, all predictive ability relies on previous knowledge, and I feel a lot of pleasure that Adam has gained from it for his body of knowledge and bring it to bear here.

Once more Otis settles for a compromise of sorts as Stewy insists the flea belongs to him–it is his dog after all. Running home for dinner, Otis consoles himself with a fantasy of being Five Yard Spofford, running towards a touchdown to save the Zachary P. Taylor High School football team’s big game.

As I type this I recall Adam asking on a following afternoon, “What does compromise mean?” I answer his inquiry and we discuss it, but it doesn’t occur to me until a few moments later that he may have been remembering it from our discussion of the chapter after we stopped reading for the night. I can’t really be sure, as he hears and reads all kinds of words big and small, but true to the childlike ability to teach us grownups a thing or two, I was given a reminder of how long those post-reading summaries can last in a child’s mind. Not just days, but also, as the information becomes part of his being, a lifetime.

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Click here to see the previous (and first!) in the “Novel Exploration” series.

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This post was updated to link to a previous entry.

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Book Review: After the Sucker Punch (With Soundtrack)

After the Sucker Punch

B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

by Lorraine Devon Wilke

Perceptions can be tricky animals, especially when filtered secondhand, even more so when they involve those closest to us. What happens when we find out that what we thought others thought—of us—is way off base? That actually the reflections they’d been silently entertaining along the way were rather negative? The kicker: what if that person was our parent?

after

Tessa Curzio’s situation goes one step further in that she discovers her father’s dismal judgments about her after he has already passed away and she can no longer ask him about it. In fact, After the Sucker Punch opens with Tessa reading his previously-journaled words reaching out to slap her with a hurt as fresh as the grave the family had lowered him into just hours before. It’s a sucker punch that she knows not only re-writes the past, but also alters the future she is at that very moment moving into.

Knowing the novel’s premise, I was slightly apprehensive about my own relationship with Tessa. Would she be someone who deflects responsibility and whinges a lot about what is done to her? This wasn’t an impression I’d already formed of Lorraine Devon Wilke’s protagonist, more a concern based on real-life individuals who tend to blame parents for everything that goes wrong in their lives. It was a nice, thick book with one of the most well-written blurbs I’d ever read. I really wanted to enjoy it.

Guess what? I loved it. And, as goes the dual affection most parents feel for their children, I also liked it. Devon Wilke fills the story with pieces of a logophile’s dream: crinkly handwriting, tragedy porn—and the use of soundtrack as a verb are some that highlight along the way how the words interact with each other as well as those who utter and listen to them. Tessa is fast on her feet, sometimes too fast, which leads her on occasion to speak out of turn or too soon for what she really feels, but this adds to the novel’s depth and honesty because the author presents our lead as she truly is.

Their brother Duncan was a highly successful product liability attorney who’d made a name and several million in a case involving a child’s death caused by a drug later recalled by the FDA. He had become somewhat of a celebrity and certainly an expert, garnering a pulpit style that often edged toward high-pitched pontification. There was talk of politics and much consensus that he was a bold and righteous crusader. Tessa thought he might just be an ambitious prick but odds were that was sour grapes. Duncan’s financial and general life success stirred bona fide envy in her, as did his inexplicably close relationship with a father who seemed far less interested in her.

She isn’t completely honest or perfectly perceptive, though. Frankly, Tessa is somewhat of a mess. Not entirely, and not all her emotional chaos is visible, not even to herself. As the year moves forward and she assesses her life and where it is going, she also begins to untangle the web of her inner being as well as her relationships with family, partner, friends and career. Once part of a band, Tessa seems to reach out for the sort of stability those days provided, though with each knot she picks free, she slowly begins contemplating what stability really means.

This sense of stability manifests itself in many different ways, some of which we as readers could certainly relate to as Tessa begins a downward spiral of self-doubt. When her auntie, a nun and counselor unfazed by sexuality and her niece’s lapsed Catholic status (and opinions), makes contact and wants to get together, Tessa feels conflicted and practices avoidance:

Aunt Joanne. She had called repeatedly, concerned that they hadn’t talked before they both left Chicago, but so far Tessa had managed to return the calls when she guessed her aunt would be occupied, trading messages without the actual burden of conversation.

Some of the conversations she does engage in lead to snarls in communication, expertly laid out with Devon Wilke’s dialogue. She argues with her sister Michaela, over the latter’s reluctance to ship their father’s multiple journals to her sister, who feels she needs to read them all in order to get a better grip on who her father was and what else he thought of her. There is a breakdown in the relationship with her partner David, the recipient of her sometime unrealistic expectations—“I wanted you to want to read [the journal]”—and who struggles to understand what she is going through.

Devon Wilke’s aptitude for shining light on human behaviors and what motives, conscious and not, often lie behind them, is stunning in its capacity, lyrical presentation and raw reality. It’s not often the latter two of this triad pair together, certainly not well at least, but Devon Wilke does it while avoiding the pitfall of a bitter sarcasm so consistent it becomes a turnoff. Instead, she captures the strength and fragility of the human heart, teaming it with a character readers feel they could be a friend to because the duration of the relationship—for us, the length of the novel—benefits all quarters and not just Tessa’s.

While the entire work is filled with examples of the author’s outstanding abilities to create dialogue and utilize it to tell her story, one set, between Tessa and Michaela, I found to be the most nourishing, for where it leads them, even when it doesn’t point to perfection. Moreover, the third-person narrative doesn’t take Tessa’s side and simply present Micky as the bad guy. Real life is much more complicated than that and Devon Wilke clearly knows it, as she presents both sides in conversations and—the true test—readers can see valid points from the two corners.

It is perhaps unsurprising that as a musician herself, Devon Wilke acts as conduit for Tessa to pour herself into song, and at story’s end “Tessa’s Song (My Search For You)” captures so much of the nuance contained within the experiences Tessa undergoes and that we follow, having experienced many of the emotions as she. Events are different, naturally, but we all have hearts capable of being broken and spend our lives protecting them from such an eventuality.

Available online with a link provided, Tessa’s words are equally strong and vulnerable, and Devon Wilke’s vocal and instrumental arrangement captures so perfectly the rise and fall of sensitivity in the telling of Tessa’s journey in a manner most often best understood by the heart and audio sensibilities.

So elusive, I wonder if you ever figured it out?

How your silence always made me feel a little loud

So convinced if I sang and danced and jumped up and down

You would see me, just me, and maybe be a little proud

It is a recognition that registers, stirring listeners’ own instinct for healing, a powerful resonance for the courageous and often frighteningly difficult steps toward honesty within oneself, and the requisite changes, or decision to remain, that need to be addressed. The song is strong out of the gate—much as Tessa might have been had she began the conversation with her father—the guitar strumming forcefully, with demonstrated strength. As we move through the stanzas, there are glimpses of vulnerability– in the words, certainly, but also with technique: always made me feel a little loud or jumped up and down are part of I phrases that tend for us humans not to come easy and require, surprisingly, sustained support, here demonstrated via the companionship of backing vocals.

Tessa presents in the song as she does in After the Sucker Punch; she is clearly a complicated character, at times confused, and even reader perceptions of her may alternate as they witness her struggle. This is not necessarily a negative, for Tessa, like us, learns more about who she is as the story carries on.

Who she is also appears in song, in its various forms, as an elongated you credits the person her father is or her statement that “we squandered the time we had” both admits her own culpability and insists upon responsibility for other parties, too. She also acknowledges the individual she is as well as that she is in some ways like her father, the trick to doing both of these being able to carry it out sans indictment of the self while also accepting responsibility. It’s not an endeavor for the meek of heart, and friends like Kate could provide support if Tessa accepts it and both don the term friendship in all its ugly glory. That is, truths must be revealed, and friends remain so despite the presence of flaws. Tessa wants to know how her long-term friend can do all this and Kate answers, “Because I was there. I was a witness to your life, Tessa.”

After the Sucker Punch is Tessa’s story, one she can only retrieve with the aid of others whose contributions she will either receive or reject. It is also a portrait of father/daughter relationships and all their attendant baggage, including the need to define oneself within that dyad without further input from the one whose assessment opened the door. Funny, poignant, angry, loving, insightful, momentous, like families themselves, After the Sucker Punch is a story of acceptance from an author readers will want to return to again and again.

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A copy of After the Sucker Punch was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.

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Lorraine singingAuthor, photographer, singer/songwriter Lorraine Devon Wilke brings the sum total of her creative experience to all her work, including her compelling contemporary fiction. Pulling from every chapter of her eclectic background, she creates characters and plots that are both unique and recognizable, with dialogue that jumps off the page. Additionally, her book covers are designed with her own photography, and her debut novel, After the Sucker Punch, includes a free download of one of her recorded songs.

A longtime contributor to The Huffington Post, Devon Wilke’s trademark “sass and sensibility” infuses her writing with candor, provocative themes, and, whenever possible, lots of laughter. Whether exploring issues of family, faith, love, or tragedy, her stories always embrace an elemental mix of heart and soul.

lorraine purpleCurrently working on her third novel, both After the Sucker Punch and Hysterical Love are available in print and ebook via Amazon and various other sites. Her extensive photography collection can be viewed and purchased at Fine Art America, she keeps readers updated on her “adventures in publishing” at After the Sucker Punch, and her more topical essays can be found at The Huffington Post or at her blog, Rock + Paper + Music. On the music front, she continues to write and record whenever she can, and has recently been cast in new rock musical set to debut in San Diego, California in early 2017.

Devon Wilke can be contacted here, and all links to her work are available via her website.

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Stay tuned for my review of Hysterical Love!

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Book Review: When the Tide Turned

When the Tide Turned (Book II in the Mysterious Marsh series)

by M.L. Eaton

tideAttorney Hazel Dawkins has recently given birth to baby Jessica and after seven weeks is asked to fill in, temporarily, at her previous firm while one of the partners takes leave. Though reluctant at first—she is beyond exhausted—she eventually agrees, noting to herself that the money would indeed come in handy, and being able to take Jessica with each day is a supreme advantage. But when strange events and an aggressive client impede on her work, Hazel sets out to sort through it all, only to discover one mystery after another, leading from one dark place to the next.

Set mostly in 1970s Rye, an historic area known as part of the ancient Cinque Ports, at a time when women lawyers were still a bit of a curiosity, When the Tide Turned is liberally sprinkled with what I now, having read this author before, would call Eaton’s trademark imagery, beautifully brimming with words that make you want to read them again, envisioning, breathing in, surrounded by the scenes she describes.

Romney Marsh: a wondrous place where sky, land and sea met in a glorious pageantry of colour. Above the flat land, uncluttered with buildings and trees, the swirl of wind current painted ever-changing cloudscapes in the sky; sun and shadows reflected across meadows of green divided by still, dark dykes edged with rushes and the lace of meadowsweet.

So reads one passage from the novel, a mystery involving events and dark forces spanning two centuries and a painting related to Napoleon’s planned invasion of England. The author also occasionally adds in physical and historical descriptions of the area in which Dawkins lives, sometimes via her reminiscing. In this manner we learn background information and how characters come to be where they now are. Hazel is also subject to strange visions in which she sees people and places, unexplainable events that occur, which begin to bear remarkable—and eerie—similarities to actual events unfolding in her daily life. We see rather quickly, too, a dark force beginning to overshadow her family’s lives, even replacing the benign presence she had become aware of when they’d first moved in to their cottage home.

The mystery initially begins to reveal its nature when a client, Mr. Harris, demands documentation to secure the provenance of a painting. His erratic behavior attracts Hazel’s suspicions and events around the office—too bizarre to ignore—link to the dreams and visions she soon begins to piece together.

Eaton very early on had my full attention, partly because I sought out the afore-mentioned imagery I knew she would likely write into the story, and here she does not disappoint.

[Rype] had escaped the modernisation that had blighted similar town in the nineteen sixties and early seventies, clinging to its Englishness in the same way that honeysuckle and climbing roses embraced the half-timbered buildings along its High Street.

Additionally, Hazel Dawkins is easy to like, and her preparation for the temporary assignment begins very soon after the start of her tale, holding both the magnificent ordinary—her journey into marriage and motherhood—as well as brilliant narrative and conversation on the surroundings and its history filled with ghosts, Viking diet, land reclamation and old pirate bands, all without the slow start many otherwise brilliant works suffer from.

Eaton also lures us in with etymology of place names and keeps us moving with the tide—frantically turning the pages—as Hazel herself tries to figure out exactly what is going on. Like the Shakespearean “tide on the affairs of men” quoted in the epigraph, “On such a full sea are we now afloat,” there is a distinct urgency on part of reader as well as protagonist, to avoid loss of venture.

One morning, in preparation for a visit from Mr. Harris, who had insisted he see Hazel at that time, she visits the strongroom in order to find previous documents and their file, only to be locked in after a good shove has sent her reeling farther in the enclosed space. As she gets her bearings on the situation she now finds herself in, she assesses her prison:

Sudden panic threatened to overwhelm me. The strongroom had been built to protect the deeds against fire as well as theft. How much air was there in this vault? How long could I survive in here? Worse, how long could Jessica survive? Although the day outside was warm and sunny, here in the vault it was dank and cold. I was already beginning to shiver.

Eaton’s storytelling via Hazel is so gripping that readers will remember how the author sets up this scenario with a description of exactly how enclosed Hazel would be.

The strongroom was situated at the other end of the building. It had originally been a store burrowed into the side of the hill on which the building stood, a little way down from the summit. At some stage it had been transformed into a strongroom, lined with steel and sealed by a heavy steel door that boasted a huge iron lock.

clocksWhen we first read it at the start of this scene, it is a mere description; now it has transformed into a dark cloud no one knows about. This frightening event is not too far into the story, and its result is a sort of reader skittishness: I personally didn’t want any part of this vault. Each time it subsequently comes up as a real destination or even hint I found myself becoming nervous, not wanting Hazel to go near it, until I finally realized, That is so previous chapter! Indeed, Eaton doesn’t need to rely on repetitious maneuvers to thrill, for she has plenty of intrigue up her sleeve, rendering readers only too happy to let their dinner burn.

Certainly we could easily forget the rest of the world as we follow Hazel through with her investigations into the odd behavior of her client, connections between painting and her visions, dark secrets linking past and present, where it all takes her and every facet of her life affected, including those who’ve intruded in upon it and will go to great lengths to stop her learning the truth. As she makes her way to startling discoveries, old and new, Eaton takes us through action and intrigue that rise like the tide of the title and epigraph, as we follow breathlessly behind, when there is so much at stake.

Quite simply this is an addicting read one will be unsurprised to learn is a B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree. Moreover, it being the second in the Mysterious Marsh series, it goes without saying I shall be looking toward the opening novel without hesitation. I highly recommend readers do the same.

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eatonI’ve wanted to write for as long as I can remember. But Life intervened and I only managed to complete my first novel when I was over sixty.

My first career (as a lawyer) began in the nineteen seventies when there were very few women in the legal profession of England and Wales, and the dice tended to be loaded against them! My first small office on Romney Marsh eventually extended until, after a number of changes, amalgamations and growth it evolved into one of the top 100 legal firms in England and Wales.

My second career (in complementary health) began in 1994 when I qualified as a professional aromatherapist and also became a Usui Reiki Master Teacher. Over the years I have taught Reiki to hundreds of students. With my husband, also a lawyer, I ran a complementary health clinic in the Old Town of Hastings, East Sussex for several years.

All forms of holistic health interest me but it is energy healing, in all its various facets and forms, which I find most fascinating and from which I can never quite retire.

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You can learn more about M.L. Eaton at her website or Amazon author page. Some of her other works include When the Clocks Stopped (B.R.A.G. Medallion Winner) and Norfolk Twilight, as well as The Elephants’ Child and The Lion Mountains, first and second in The Faraway Lands series. I am also pleased to announce that The Snaking River, latest in the series, is now available. All may be purchased at Amazon and Amazon UK.

Click here for my review of The Elephants’ Child.

When the Earth Cracked, third in Eaton’s Mysterious Marsh set, will launch in April.

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A copy of When the Tide Turned was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.

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Comfort Food: Stewed Apples on a Cold Winter’s Day

It’s still pretty cold outside, so this recipe might be a nice one to cozy up to at home. Hope you like it!

Frugal Days

My first entry on Frugal Days! I’m excited to be sharing here for the first time and hope you will enjoy my debut enough to try it for yourself. A piece of great news: It’s super duper easy and you can adjust it to suit your taste.

In this case I had come across a reference in passing to stewed apples in a book I was reading, Gloria Zachgo’s Never Waste Tears, a post-Civil War story about Kansas homesteaders. This is not unusual for me, that books lead me to recipes, and some even contain recipes as part of their plot line. This one didn’t have instructions but I did find a nice home recipe online.

So stewed apples sounded simply lovely—I envisioned a fire in one corner and a plateful of tender apples waiting on a cold prairie evening. I was lucky on this one because I already…

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Golden Years: Remembering David Bowie

January 11, 2016

It’s still only around 03:00 or thereabouts when I take a break from the solitaire game I’d engaged in before my second sleep, and flip over to an online screen–“just to check messages.” And there I take in something that I have to re-read to get it right, for my brain has seen it as something else, something that ordinarily would come before this terrible news.

David Bowie succumbs to cancer at 69.

Somehow I manage to fall asleep again and even rise when it’s time. I still can’t believe it. As I drive to my morning destination even the sky seems silent, mournful. It hasn’t yet begun its pinkish transition, and there is a weightiness to the clouds that hang over me. Perhaps they, too, need to cry. It occurs to me that the reason my own tears took so long to fall is because with this passing, so too passes a portion of me, of all of us and a moment in our time, and that’s really a little bit incomprehensible.

My mind travels back to my teen years, when I was on the solitary side, mainly because I had specific interests that generally entailed only my own company. I didn’t hate people and had a few fun friends, but when I was with them, I couldn’t do the stuff I wanted to do. I adored music: it has a capacity to find something deep within that hides from the world and allies itself to that thing, almost as if to say, “Here I am, partner.” It shares your sorrow as well as your joy; it can be whatever you want it to be–whatever you need it to be, gesticulating, swaying in ways that match the music flowing, careening, leaping, caressing through the air.

Lyrics are a bonus, especially if a singer or songwriter has somehow managed to capture just those right words for what we’re feeling. Like many teens (at least that I hear of today; my own son does it), I spent long hours listening to favorite songs and writing down the lyrics. I adored the soulfulness of “Golden Years,” for example.

Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere, angel
Come get up my baby
Look at that sky, life’s begun
Nights are warm and the days are young
Come get up my baby

I also wrote poetry and somehow, to me, David Bowie was poetry. His major chameleon-like personas–all of whom had come and long been replaced by the time I came to know him–and lyrics of life, as I called them, because they covered absolutely everything, strengthened the intensity of my own explorations and studies. I practically lived at the library and the pattern tended to be that whatever I read at any given time led me to another must-explore topic. In turn, I wrote about almost everything I read. If Bowie sang about it, I looked it up. That was a little weird to most people, but it gave me great satisfaction.

I was especially entranced by the instrumentals in this song,

“Lady Grinning Soul.”

So I knew all Bowie’s songs by heart and, thanks to an older brother’s rock magazines and manuals, squeezed every single detail I could out of the universe pertaining to utterly everything about this amazing singer. In turn he fed my creativity and expansion even came when I started to draw–a pursuit I had absolutely no talent in. Faces were most difficult and I can recall tracing some of them, though I no longer remember which of the ones I still have were freehand and which not. My father and brother, who were artists, were only too happy to participate in this endeavor, so what might have been a bee in the bonnet that I let go after a week or so, stretched into a yearlong excursion in which I translated many of my thoughts into images.

Drawing from my teen years
Drawing from my teen years, copied from “Low” album cover

Sometimes this can, even now, amaze me, especially when I look at the drawings I still have. They aren’t really fantastic works waiting to be discovered, not even that great, truth be told. But that’s okay, because what I remember from the time I created them is that I reached deep inside of myself to find what was there, and found…a lot, actually. This remained rather large to me because in later years I was once more to do that sort of reaching, this time to find a massive amount of strength I needed in a big way–and somehow found it.

I didn’t read a lot of poetry then, at that later time. Poetry is meant to be read aloud, and I couldn’t do it then without my voice shaking, at least the poems that meant the most to me, such as Tagore’s “Shah Jahan.” Music, however, was sort of therapeutic because when I belted out enough songs–in total privacy, mind you, because I also can’t carry a tune–I was able to draw some negative energy out and away, or engaged in a sensory kind of satisfaction that relieved a lot of pressure. Who was one of my top picks at the time? You guessed it: David Bowie. Somehow, in different ways, we always manage to come home.

“David Bowie dies of cancer at 69: His death was a work of art.”

Driving away not long after I’d arrived at my appointment, I see the pinkishness breaking through; it’s the latter part of that phase of emerging daylight. I drive a little extra, just for the comforting feel of the motor, singing a very soft version of “Golden Years,” eyes welling up as my heart seems already full of tears and, still, disbelief. I end up in the empty library parking lot. Peering out over the early morning wakefulness of the ducks in their pond, I look up to see magnificent blue pouring all around the clouds. They look dark in some areas, and maybe even heavy with rain threatening to fall. But the startling blue asserts its presence and I shift gears and head toward home once more.

Look at that sky, life’s begun

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Mr. David Bowie, thank you for the music, and rest in peace.

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Author Interview: Gloria Zachgo, Author of Never Waste Tears (With Giveaway)

Previously this week I reviewed author Gloria Zachgo’s B.R.A.G. Medallion award-winning novel Never Waste Tears, and today we get a little glimpse into some background of the book and life of its author. 

Gloria Zachgo is so kindly gifting a FREE COPY of Never Waste Tears to one lucky winner. For your chance to win, simply comment below, at the review (see here) or at the pinned thread on the blog’s Facebook page, located here

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The contest is worldwide, so anyone anywhere in the world can win! (Paperback within the U.S.; e-copy elsewhere.)

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Good day, dear readers, and welcome! I had a great opportunity today to have a bit of a chat with Gloria Zachgo, author of Never Waste Tears, the tale of five individuals whose stories are told in their own words as they pave their way for future generations. Having left their families for various reasons, to journey into the unknown and claim the future for themselves and those yet to come, they struggled, fought and persevered, wasting not a single resource, not even their own tears. It was a life of sacrifices that promised free territory, land to call their own, though they all paid their own prices elsewhere.

never wasteGood morning, Gloria Zachgo, and thanks so much for taking a few extra moments to talk about your book, yourself, your background…perhaps a standard question to start with, but I’m wondering which authors may have planted a seed in you that grew until you decided to begin your own writing projects?

 Our local library sponsored a writer’s workshop put on by author Nancy Pickard. On the way home from that workshop I kept thinking about a short story I’d written. I knew there was more to that story, so I challenged myself to develop it.

For the next year I wrote and re-wrote my first full manuscript, getting feedback from a writer friend of mine. With that friend’s encouragement I took another year to read a chapter a week to my writing group. I received such good encouragement that I finally published my debut novel, The Rocking Horse.

The back-of-the-book blurb reads: “An isolated cemetery on a lone country road inspired Gloria Zachgo to write this story. Dates on the headstones testified to long forgotten generations….” Do you count any of those laid to rest in this cemetery amongst your ancestors? If so, are any of the characters modeled after or influenced by anybody? Can you tell us some more about the inspiration for Never Waste Tears?

 No one in that particular cemetery was an ancestor. However, the cemetery where my maternal parents, grandparents, and great grandparents are buried is on ground that was owned by my grandparents.

I tried to picture that land as it might have been before it was homesteaded – before there were any trees on it. I even created Carl Taylor as the spitting image of my maternal grandfather. As a young girl I would sit in the back of a wheat truck with him, chewing the newly harvested wheat until it made a gluten gum.

He proudly told me the story of how he and his brother planted the cottonwood that stood in the middle of the field where my dad was harvesting wheat.

Dad hated that tree. Every year he would have to stop the combine and pick up limbs the cottonwood had dropped during some of our Kansas windstorms.

Chewing wheat until it turned into a gluten mess doesn’t sound so appetizing today, but it’s one of the memories I treasure of my grandpa.

If you could talk with one of the characters from Never Waste Tears, which one would it be and why? What might you ask him or her?

It’s hard to choose one, but it would probably be Skinner. Although I never gave him his own voice, I came to admire the way he tried to see the human nature in all men and women.

I would want to ask him if he was happy when he found a wife and finally had someone to call family.

What kind of research did you engage in in the writing of this book?

A lot of research was done on the internet. I even watched a video on how to hand dig a well. But it wasn’t until I visited a museum in Lincoln County, Kansas that I realized the struggles that happened at that time between the settlers and the Indians in the area. There were real massacres on both sides.

What was the most challenging element of writing Never Waste Tears?

 Giving five different points of view without being redundant.

I had written about a third of my novel in third person. It was the same story, but the characters didn’t become real to me until I re-wrote the story with each person’s own point of view. That’s when I truly fell in love with Carl, Hannah, Rebecca, Nathan, and Sarah.

Sometimes authors (songwriters, playwrights, etc.) read a review or analysis of their work and experience an “Mmmm” moment—the reviewer saw something in the work the author didn’t consciously include. Or it may be “accidentally” written in a style particular to a certain tradition, resulting in its popularity in a particular country or amongst a certain group. Did anything like that happen with you?

I got a question from two of my readers once. They had been discussing the book amongst themselves and couldn’t decide whether or not Nathan killed Rebecca.

Of course, I couldn’t tell them the answer, because Nathan himself didn’t know. I purposely left the question open to haunt Nathan.

What inspired the cover for Never Waste Tears? It has a very lonesome feel to it.

 A visit to yet another country cemetery, where off in the distance under an old cedar tree is a lone limestone marker of a child.

I wanted to portray how lonely the prairie had to be for the first settlers. So I took lots of pictures of limestone markers, but I couldn’t find any as crude as Nathan would have been able to make. Instead of using a photo, I painted the scene.

What books are you reading these days? What is your favorite genre? Are there any books you decided to try, not convinced you’d enjoy, that you ended up really loving?

I’m as eclectic in my reading as I am in my art. I like to have friends recommend different things because I really have no favorite genre.

I wasn’t convinced I’d enjoy the book The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan. But I found the perseverance of those who survived the Depression fascinating and inspiring. I would recommend it to anyone who loves the history of our country.

What are you currently writing about?

I’ve started another manuscript about a woman who cannot verbally speak about her abusive childhood. Since starting the story (I don’t outline) it’s taken me on a different path than I had originally intended.

Not knowing what is going to happen to my characters next is where I find the passion in my writing. Sometimes I take a character down one path and he changes direction on me. I never really know how a story will end until I get to that last chapter.

Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about?

 I like to write about ordinary people. My characters are mostly made up of the people I’ve met in my own life. Of course, because I write fiction, I get to mix up their physical traits and idiosyncrasies. That’s what makes it challenging and so much fun.

Thank you so much, Gloria Zachgo, for taking the time out for us!

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zachgo bio picAfter raising two children and selling her home-based business, Gloria Zachgo discovered her artistic talents. When the walls of her home grew heavy with her eclectic drawings and paintings she found she also had a flair for writing fictional stories. One of those stories developed into her debut novel, The Rocking Horse, which received honorable mention at the 20th annual Self-Published Book Awards winners.

Zachgo published her second novel, Never Waste Tears, in December of 2014. It was selected as an indie B.R.A.G (Book Readers Appreciation Group) Medallion honoree.

She lives with her husband, Ron, in Kansas, where she is currently working on another novel.

You can learn more about Gloria Zachgo at her website, Amazon author page and Facebook. Follow her at Twitter and her Goodreads author page.

Remember to comment for your chance to win a FREE COPY of

Never Waste Tears.

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My Tottering TBR: Focus on Food

Today is sort of relaxing even though I’ve been doing some editing—my own and someone else’s—perhaps because it’s sort of rainy, I’m kind of of sleepy and I didn’t eat at the desk while working. I also broke to go to the library and post office, where I saw several packages waiting for me to collect them.

As it turns out, I had six review books in those packages, though I didn’t open them until at home, which is quite a change for me. Usually I get into them as soon as possible, sometimes even at a table in the post office, or in the car. Today, however, I ran a couple of other quick errands, came home and set up my lunch, opening as I ate.

frenchieNow, according to Mireille Guiliano, if I recall my reading correctly, one should never do anything while eating except relax, talk and enjoy the company you are with. I don’t remember if she allows exceptions for opening packets of lovely books (though she does kindheartedly prohibit reading), but I did do this today with deliberation and pleasure, and even slowly (which she would approve, I feel sure).

And so this brings me to the train of thought that inspired what is before you now. Well, that and an earlier invitation I’d received to participate in a blog concerned primarily with frugality, the debut of which went straight for the food. Frugal Days, my kind of blog!

No matter where in the world you go, food is the glue that binds the people of various communities together, and checking out that food is something I like to do. I’m not a “foodie,” that is to say I don’t have any special training and my culinary knowledge has loads of gaps. However, I care enough about food to keep, for example, charts of fruits and what their benefits are, to try at home tasty dishes eaten out, and to get creative or even just a little clever with what I’ve got on hand. There’s a savory satisfaction to re-purposing leftovers or putting to good use ingredients I’d forgotten the reason for buying in the first place, or purchased and didn’t use very much. Or even just taking it all out and with care and deliberation, putting it all together.

yummy
Karen explains this recipe at her blog, Frugal Days (click image)

I really enjoy cooking and consider a delicious meal prepared from scratch to be an act of love. Sometimes I see pictures of food and the elements—cast iron pan, rich mixture of ingredients, hearty satisfaction, wondrous smells, attractive colors—and it brings memories of feeling comfortable, at home, in an environment that soothes and wraps itself around you like a warm blanket on a bitterly cold day.

As it happens I’d recently made in the slow cooker a similar meal—chicken chili. Until recently I haven’t really loved beans a lot, though I kept trying to talk myself into it because they do bestow benefits. So I got together this dish and the joy that coursed through my system when tasting it can hardly be overemphasized. It took me a few days to stop talking about it.

I'll use this book to help transform myself into a fearless home cook (click image)
I’ll use this book to help transform myself into a fearless home cook (click image)

Unfortunately, I do have a tendency to buy loads of stuff and not really use it all to its full potential—or at least to my full ability, which I would like to further develop. To me, it is also a matter of respecting the ingredients enough not to be wasteful of them, to engage with the creation stage as much as when it is time to consume. Earlier I sat with my books and my food, each one having its role in my little process but also its own moment—that is to say my hands never held books and food simultaneously—as each received its due attention. Awarding ingredients their place in part means using them, and making that into sheer joy also leads to really fun and delicious meals that friends and family can taste the love in. Even the sight of it waiting in its serving dish, or in a beautiful cast iron pan creates a real sense of home and being a part of something special.

Now what does all this have to do with a tottering TBR, or any kind of TBR? Well, my patient ones, I even like to read about food and I’ve got several books lined up that had given me many writing ideas since at least the last two years, though I’ve not had the opportunity to follow through. Well now…ta da!

Not just recipes, this is a must-read book (click image)
Not just recipes, this is a must-read book (click image)

As some readers already know, I’m also in love with the Middle Ages, and to that end had in the past acquired Food and Feast In Medieval England as well as Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony as part of my quest to learn about all things medieval. Before I began blogging I’d fallen in love with one of the salads included within the pages of the first book, a dish that incorporated turnips, parsnips and beets, simple enough, with such other delectables as almonds, filberts, figs, dried apple rounds and dried honeyed pineapple.

I also once saw (and would love to get my hands on again) a book about spices that, much like the fruit chart mentioned above, laid out from where the different spices originated, their various health and taste benefits and how they interacted with each other, amongst other tidbits. I do actually have on my shelf Spice: The History of a Temptation, a gem I happened upon quite by accident at a popular local used book store. The crude oil of its day, wars were fought over this stuff, and one passage speaks of “The Debate of the Body and the Soul,” a poem narrated by the ghost of a rather vainglorious knight whose trappings in life included the “fragrant spices sweet to smell.” A phrase used by the author in the same passage–“spices meant nobility”–brings to bear our understanding that people traveled amazing distances and died to acquire what today sits casually, sometimes forgotten, in those small jars lined upon our kitchen racks.

Click image for book description
Click image for book description

By the same happy accident I also discovered Food in History, a work that brings us all the way to pre-history (to start) and musings about who and how it was found that meat roasted over a fire tastes pretty good. One chapter, “Food For the Traveller,” talks a bit of food at sea, a topic discussed at even greater length in Food at Sea: Shipboard Cuisine From Ancient to Modern Times. Having a bit of love for the sea myself, I was no less than ecstatic when I came upon this one at our library. “Telling the story of food on ships requires the telling of the story of the ships themselves,” the author introduces. He references the changing designs of seafaring vessels, which affected what and how sailors and other travelers ate. He promises a lot of surprises and I’m pretty sure I’m going to have a fantabulous time making those discoveries, and am very eager to see what it is I take away from the experience.

spice food