A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

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In the follow-up to his debut novel, Rules of Civility, author Amor Towles has written another fascinating and lyrical historical novel that captures the essence of a not so distant past.  This novel follows the story of Count Alexander Rostov , one of the last remaining members of the aristocracy left in Russia following the Revolution.  Rostov, a man of wit, charm and education who has never worked a day in his life is sentenced by a Bolshevik tribunal as being an unrepentant aristocrat and sentenced to house arrest at the Hotel Metropol, which sits across the street from the Kremlin.  Instead of a large palace or a luxury suite, he is stripped of his possessions and forced to live in a small attic room for over 30 years.

Rostov is not crushed by the change in his circumstances,  and instead develops close relationships with the staff and the regular guests at the hotel.  Against the backdrop of world events, Rostov observes the world and engages the interest and the friendship of a precocious nine-year-old named Nina.  As the years pass, it is Rostov’s charm and friendships that keep him safe from the purges that plague the outside world, despite a close relationship with the American ambassador Richard Wilshire.

Both of his novels are a joy to read, and the author’s love of language and wordplay is evident, as is his ability to illustrate overwhelmingly complicated situations with the use of quiet observation.  Rostov would be what my mother called a “charmer”, with the innate ability to understand human nature and gently manipulate situations to his advantage.  While the novel covers decades of fictional time, I was saddened to close the final page and look foward to any further works by Towles.

hotelmetropolLobby of the Hotel Metropol in Moscow, built in 1905.

On What Grounds by Cleo Coyle

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What could be better than curling up on a grey morning with a steaming mug and a cozy mystery! Possibly the only improvement to be made would be if that cozy mystery were focused on the world of coffee. Thankfully, and this is in no way a spoiler, the coffee plays no direct part in the murder. It does play a pivotal role in setting the groundwork for the Coffeehouse Mystery series; about the Village Blend coffeehouse in New York, its staff and the many adventures swirling like an intricate piece of latte art.

Clare Cosi manages the day to day operations of the Village Blend – a business steeped in history and no stranger to drama over the years. She arrives to work one day to find her assistance manager has been killed. The police come and go in what appears to be a simple accidental death case; but Clare is convinced there is something else going on and, like any truly dedicated and well caffeinated gumshoe, she gets to work.

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This first book in the series brings the reader all the elements you would expect in a cozy mystery. And for the readers who love all things coffee, it brings even more with information and advice that proves its author has certainly done her research into the coffee industry. So far I have read two books from this series and have 14 left to go. Time to put on the coffee pot and settle in for a cozy Sunday morning!

 

 

Jesse Roberts – http://www.tbpl.ca

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

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Everyone’s familiar with the fate of the Titanic, but very few have heard of the wreck of the Wilhelm Gustloff, the greatest maritime disaster ever in terms of lives lost on a single vessel. As the Red Army advanced through Prussia in 1945, the desperate Germans planned a naval evacuation of refugees and personnel across the Baltic Sea. Thousands of desperate citizens swarmed the ship and the estimated final count on board is 10,500. Five thousand of those were youth and children. The conditions were unimaginably overcrowded and dangerously cramped, but being on board was seen as the only hope for survival.

The Gustloff was hit by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea on 30 January 1945 and an estimated 9,400 of those on board perished. The sinking was not reported by the Third Reich in order to avoid spreading more bad news within the losing regime. It was also underreported in western Allied countries, and the official line in Russia stated (inaccurately) that the ship was transporting armed personnel. Due to these factors and the disinclination of the survivors to discuss the event due to their extreme trauma, the Gustloff largely disappeared from public knowledge.

This tragedy is the inspiration for Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Poignant, engrossing, and emotionally intense, we see the horrors of war-time Germany though four different perspectives of Lithuanian, Polish, Prussian and German youth. They endure starvation and brutality, but also find moments of hope, joy, and love. Different kinds of bravery and sacrifice are shown throughout the story, highlighting the heroism often found in society during terrible times, and despite the tragedy the book ends with moments of hope. I highly recommend this book to all readers of historical fiction.

Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

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womancabinIn the wake of books like Gone Girl and Girl on a Train, the latest novel by author Ruth Ware has been receiving a lot of press, as it combines first person point of view of a character that may or may not be an unreliable narrator and the classic crime story of a locked door mystery.

Travel writer Lo Blacklock has scored a prime assignment for her magazine to cover the inaugural voyage of an ultra luxury cruise liner through the Baltic Sea to view the Northern Lights.   Following a night of partying, Lo wakes to what she believes is the tossing of a woman off the side of the boat. When she reports the crime, everyone claims that no one is missing and the cabin beside her was empty, but Lo remembers the woman, having borrowed mascara from her.  Is she imagining things or is everyone conspiring against her?  In the days leading up to the trip, Lo’s apartment was burgled and she is suffering from vivid nightmares and sleep deprivation; combine that with drinking and prescription medication, perhaps, she is wrong, so why is her gut telling her that she’s in danger?

The book is set in the modern day but carries the feeling of a golden age mystery like “The Lady Vanishes” or “Murder on the Orient Express” as our technology does us no good in the middle of the ocean, where we are isolated and at the mercy of others.  This is an excellent read and Ware, the author of “In a Dark, Dark Wood” knows how to write a tight mystery. Despite enjoying the book, I must admit I never warmed to Lo, who is a conflicted and complex character, but would recommend this as a read for a cold winter night.

Interview with Claire Fuller

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clairefuller-68-2-copyClaire Fuller is a writer and an artist who lives in Winchester, England. Her debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for debut fiction, has been longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award, nominated for the Edinburgh First Book Award 2015, and was a finalist in the American Booksellers Association 2016 Indies Best Book Awards. Her second novel, Swimming Lessons, was published in January 2017. You can find her online at clairefuller.co.uk.

Shauna Kosoris: What inspired your new novel, Swimming Lessons?

Claire Fuller: A couple of things started it. A piece of flash fiction that I wrote about a man on a beach and the things he finds washed up there. And a project I did with my husband before we were married, and when he had his own flat. We decided we would write notes to each other and hide them in each other’s houses – love notes, I suppose. When he packed up his flat to move in with me, he found all the notes I’d written to him, but seven years later there are still two notes somewhere in the house we share together.

I noticed that some of your descriptions in the book (for example “smelling the khaki colour of unwashed hair” on pg 51, “cigarettes the colour of wet bark” on pg 261, and “the place still stank of burning, the only smell that was pure black” on pg 287) were very synaesthetic. These descriptions always occurred around Flora. Did she have synaesthesia?

Flora does have synaesthesia. I wrote one of the descriptions without even thinking about it, and someone in my writing group pointed it out, and I thought it would be an interesting thing to go with, especially since Flora is an artist. I don’t have synaesthesia but I think I do see non-visual things visually. I was trying to explain to my husband the other day about how I see decades: the 1960s and 1970s are vertical, the 1980s change to horizontal, with the 90s at an incline of about 30 degrees. He had no idea what I was on about!

Wow, that’s interesting; I hope that will make its way into your writing one day! But now I have to ask – why did Flora love wandering around naked?

Hah! Flora’s a bit of a free spirit, don’t you think? She doesn’t care what other people think of her. Being free of her clothes makes her feel liberated, when actually she isn’t free at all of her family’s history.

And her family’s history is so important in Swimming Lessons, as half of the story is told through the letters Ingrid wrote to her husband about their marriage. Did you always know you would be telling the story in this way?

Not at all. The story started from Gil’s point of view and I got to about 30,000 words before I realised that it was wrong, and deleted half of it. Now Gil’s point of view is only the prologue. I decided I wanted to hear from Ingrid, but because in the present she has disappeared, I started writing a letter from her to Gil, and they just continued.

I’m so glad they did – I absolutely loved Ingrid’s letters. Thinking of things I loved, I thought your short story “Emily, Baker and Me” was fantastic. Do you still write short fiction?

Thank you! I do still write a lot of short fiction – short stories (I recently won the Royal Academy & Pin Drop short story prize) and flash fiction. I’m part of an online group called Friday Fictioneers where a photograph is posted online each week and writers around the world each write a 100-word story inspired by it. It’s great for honing writing skills, and anyone can join in.

Friday Fictioneers sounds like a lot of fun, and congratulations on your win! You’ve written a blog post from a year ago about your writing process. Has your process changed at all since then?

It hasn’t changed much. I’ve now finished the first draft of my third novel, and the only thing that was different to the process I described in that blog post is aiming for a particular word count each day. I stopped doing that when I was about half way through and just made sure I wrote something new each day. Making sure I had 1,000 or 800 new words each day was too much pressure, and too often I found the next day that they were bad words. It was better to aim for fewer, better words.

Your bio on your website says you studied sculpture at the Winchester School of Art. Do you still make sculptures?

I’m not doing much at the moment. It feels like writing is my creative outlet, although sometimes I do a bit of drawing.

That’s fair. What are you working on now?

As I mentioned, I’ve just finished the first draft of my third novel. My literary agent gets to read it first, and she and her colleagues have given me some broad ideas for improving it, so now I really want to get back to it and write another draft. It’s still too early to say what it’s about, mostly because I don’t know how to explain it without it taking three pages!

Well I can’t wait to read it, whenever it’s done. I’ve just got a few more questions for you about reading. What book or author inspired you to write?

I’m not sure a particular book or author inspired me to write, but there are plenty I would like to write like. The ones that spring to mind are We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, and Legend of a Suicide by David Vann.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

No, I don’t think there is. We all like different books, different authors, different genres, and that’s just fine. I’d just like everyone to read, full-stop.

And what are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. I’ve only just started it, but I’m really enjoying it. It’s non-fiction about loneliness and how that’s reflected in the lives and work of some particular artists.

cover of Swimming Lessons

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

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cover of Swimming LessonsSwimming Lessons is the second novel by English author Claire Fuller. I was lucky enough to get an advanced reading copy of the book to review for our readers.

Swimming Lessons is a story within a story about a passionate but troubled marriage and its aftermath. Ingrid Coleman wrote letters to her husband, Gil, and hid them in his collection of books before disappearing, presumed drowned. In the present day, Gil sees a woman who looks like his wife and has an accident attempting to chase after her. His two adult daughters, Flora and Nan, return home to care for him. Flora, who never believed her mother was dead, desperately wants to know what happened to Ingrid; she doesn’t realize that the answers to so many of her questions lie hidden within the books around her.  

I loved Fuller’s descriptive passages, especially the ones detailing the world as Flora sees it (for example, “cigarettes the colour of wet bark” on pg 261). I found Ingrid’s letters to be absolutely fascinating, making Ingrid very alive and present throughout Swimming Lessons, even though she wasn’t physically there. Her letters overshadowed the present-day story about Flora, Nan and Gil for much of the book. But I also loved how the letters gradually became connected to the present more and more as the book progressed.

Swimming Lessons was a fantastic read that was extremely hard to put down. The book is expected to be published in early February – keep an eye out for it in our catalogue! We’ll also have an interview with Ms. Fuller here on this blog on February 1st, so stay tuned for that!

Interview with Peadar O’Guilin

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Picture of Peadar O’GuilinPeadar O’Guilin grew up in beautiful Donegal in the far northwest of Ireland.  These days, he lives in Dublin where he toils day and night for a giant corporation.  You can find him on Twitter by following @TheCallYA.

Shauna Kosoris: What inspired you to write The Call?

Peadar O’Guilin: I have always believed that one idea is never enough to make a good novel — you need at least two. Everything grows from the interaction of these concepts. The first piece of inspiration I had for The Call was an image of somebody disappearing in a crowded room. I imagined their clothing falling to the floor and I wondered what had happened to them. I knew it had to be something bad, I just didn’t know what. I guess a lifetime of reading mythology and folklore finally broke through to the surface because I used the Irish mythology I’d grown up with to supply the answer. Our version of fairy tales are weird and beautiful and quite unlike the ones that are more common in the rest of the western world. Nobody could fail to be inspired by them, in my opinion.

I completely agree!  So why does the Call last exactly 3 minutes and 4 seconds?

I wanted it to last three minutes so that any witnesses would be on the edge of their seats and counting down all the way, terrified of what might come back. The extra four seconds are there for no reason other than the fact that life isn’t very neat.

That’s fair.  How did Nessa, a girl with weak legs, become the heroine in a story where the teens have to run for their lives?

I always pick heroes for my stories that everybody else expects to fail. They put her in a box, they dismiss and pity her. But Nessa is not the type to lie down and I love her for that.

You said you “picked” Nessa. Were there other characters you were debating about making the protagonist?

No, there were no other characters before Nessa came into existence. All of the others materialised in response to her. I “picked” her, in the sense that I knew I would need somebody that others would consider useless. My main characters are often thought of by others as a “waste of resources” and a “waste of time”. But, like all of us, they have enormous value that society is in danger of squandering.

All of the teens had such different adventures in the Grey Lands.  How did you decide on what each of them would go through?

I never do a lot of planning in my novels. I want to be every bit as surprised as the readers by what happens. When I sat down to begin each “Call”, I didn’t always know if that character would live or die, or what would happen to them. This is why I wrote it in the present tense. I wanted to feel the unpredictability of the story that I was creating. And you’re right — I knew I had to be very careful to make all of the stories wildly different from each other. To do anything else would have quickly bored the readers.

So which character’s Call surprised you the most?

There were quite a few that surprised me. I didn’t know Cahal would turn out to have an inner decency. I didn’t know Chuckwu would do what he did. And I really didn’t expect what happened to Emma. I could say more, but… spoilers!

Emma’s Call was probably the most surprising one for me as a reader as well.  Outside of the whole idea of being Called by the Sidhe, I found the Sidhe’s world to be quite fascinating.  Where did you get the idea for the Grey Lands?

The Sídhe needed to live somewhere awful so that their desire for vengeance would be bottomless. So, I designed a world that would be the opposite in every way from the home they lost: The Many-Coloured Land. I took away the colour they loved so much. I left them no animals, so that they had to create their own out of pure hatred.

The Grey Lands and the Bone World of your previous trilogy are both very brutal settings.  Why do these types of worlds appeal to you as a writer?

It’s all about increasing the stakes. The greater the threat, the more heroic the characters have to be to overcome them and the more we, the readers, fear for their safety and root for their success. At least, that’s how I feel.

So what are you working on now?

I’m working on a sequel to The Call. I have no name for it yet and don’t plan on writing more than two books in this series. I have plenty of other stories in my mental queue for when that’s done.

How exciting – I can’t wait to read that sequel! Let’s finish up with a few quick questions about reading. What book or author inspired you to write?

I’ve been writing stories my whole life — at least since the age of five! So, I can’t remember what book first got me started. But the one that made me passionate about world-building, has to be The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Reading that the first time was like having a bomb go off in my brain with lights flashing and trumpets blaring. It changed everything for me.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

I think the book everybody should read is the one that will do to them what The Lord of the Rings did to me. However, that book is different for every reader. Please, read whatever you love and feel no guilt about it. Sure, you need to study whatever books your school demands too, but in your own time, you should be free in every sense of the word.

And what are you currently reading?

Kid Got Shot by Simon Mason. It’s a YA mystery with fantastic characters. I loved his previous novel, Running Girl.

cover art of The Call