Tag Archives: She Reads

Book Review: The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

perfume collectorThe Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro (Harper; 464 pages; $24.99).

It was with quite a bit of reluctance that I picked up The Perfume Collector.  I read the description and sighed deeply.  Yet another dual narrative?

If it had been closer to Halloween, I would have dressed up like the Statue of Liberty, torch and all, shouting my own version of the Emma Lazarus poem:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your dull dual narrators yearning to break free…”

I wanted something different.  I wanted to read a story in which the narrator was the setting of the story.  I wanted a coming-of-age tale in which the protagonist was unreliable.  I wanted suspense.  I wanted thrills and chills.  I wanted the first person plural.  I wanted flash fiction, meta fiction, flashback, flash forward.  Anything, anything other than a dual narrative.  It just seems as if we are inundated with those these days.

However, there was one aspect of The Perfume Collector that I found unable to resist: perfume.  Ever since I was quite young, I have collected perfume bottles and scents.  I will admit that it was the perfume aspect of the novel that persuaded me to read the book.   And when I did, the experience was so intoxicating and unforgettable.

An inheritance from a mysterious stranger . . .
An abandoned perfume shop on the Left Bank of Paris . . .
And three exquisite perfumes that hold a memory . . . and a secret

London, 1955: Grace Monroe is a fortunate young woman. Despite her sheltered upbringing in Oxford, her recent marriage has thrust her into the heart of London’s most refined and ambitious social circles. However, playing the role of the sophisticated socialite her husband would like her to be doesn’t come easily to her—and perhaps never will.

Then one evening a letter arrives from France that will change everything. Grace has received an inheritance. There’s only one problem: she has never heard of her benefactor, the mysterious Eva d’Orsey.

So begins a journey that takes Grace to Paris in search of Eva. There, in a long-abandoned perfume shop on the Left Bank, she discovers the seductive world of perfumers and their muses, and a surprising, complex love story. Told by invoking the three distinctive perfumes she inspired, Eva d’Orsey’s story weaves through the decades, from 1920s New York to Monte Carlo, Paris, and London.

But these three perfumes hold secrets. And as Eva’s past and Grace’s future intersect, Grace realizes she must choose between the life she thinks she should live and the person she is truly meant to be.

Illuminating the lives and challenging times of two fascinating women,The Perfume Collector weaves a haunting, imaginative, and beautifully written tale filled with passion and possibility, heartbreak and hope.

Tessaro, the author of Elegance, creates two strong yet very distinctive women who transported me to places I had never been, to an era in which I was not a part.    She has an innate ability to immerse her readers completely in the time period in which she writes. And aren’t those the best novels?

It wasn’t long before my heart skipped a beat and my senses heightened.  My whole body became alert.  Was the dual narrative what I needed?  Even when I had turned my back on this technique? 

I sped through the story, utterly riveted to Tessaro’s pages, heady with feeling, intoxicated by the author’s prose, setting, characterization, and plot.

The Perfume Collector restored my faith in the dual narrative, and I have the author to thank for that.  Kathleen-Tessaro-236x300

So I pose these questions to you:

Which technique and style do you prefer?

What do you think there is just too much of?

What would you like to see more of?

To read more reviews of this book, connect with other readers,  enter giveaways, and participate in discussion–visit She Reads.



Filed under book review, books, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, She Reads, Summer Reading, women's fiction, women's lit

Interview with Marybeth Whalen, Author of The Wishing Tree

the wishing treeIvy Marshall, a savvy, determined woman, finds out her husband has cheated on her on the same day her sister’s perfect boyfriend proposes on national television. When Ivy’s mother asks her to return to her family’s beach home to plan her sister’s upcoming wedding, she decides to use the excuse to escape from the pain of her circumstances.
When her return to Sunset Beach, North Carolina, brings her face to face with her former fiance, old feelings rise to the surface and she wonders if there is a future for them. However, her husband has started tweeting his apology to her and doesn’t want to give up on their marriage. As she helps prepare the wishing tree for her sister’s wedding, she must examine her own wishes for the future and decide what love should be.
The Wishing Tree by Marybeth Whalen (Zondervan; 336 pages; $15.99)

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Marybeth, for letting me ask you these questions.  Your fourth novel struck such a chord with me—it’s incredibly moving, tender, and sweet.  Did you always want to be a novelist?

Marybeth Whalen: Thank you! Yes, I have wanted to write novels for as long as I can remember. But the thought of putting myself out there, and possibly failing, terrified me. Of course, now I’m so glad I finally did!

JB: How would you describe The Wishing Tree in ten words or less?

MW: A story about wishes we make and power of forgiveness.

JB: What inspired you to write this story?

MW: In researching the history of guest books for my last novel (The Guest Book), I stumbled across information about the tradition of putting up a wishing tree at a wedding. I was intrigued and decided that would make a great element to wrap a story around next.

JB: I confess that, prior to reading The Wishing Tree, I had no idea what a wishing tree was.  Can you explain what it is?  Is it a regional practice?  Is the wishing tree a tradition in your own family?

MW: It’s actually a Dutch tradition that I’d never heard of either before my research. But I loved the idea of starting off a life together with all these wishes from those you love. And then I thought how all marriages begin with wishes– and then those wishes change over time. And what a picture that is of marriage. I had the theme and element I knew would make for a great story.

JB: In The Wishing Tree, Elliott gets to know his wife, Ivy, all over again through social media sites like Pinterest, Goodreads, and Twitter.  While reading that, I thought to myself: “How modern and how cute!”  You have a presence on all these sites.  Is this your love letter to social media?

MW: It’s my acknowledgement of how these sites have invaded our lives, for better or worse. They’re a part of our culture and I felt they should be included. I originally had the idea of a husband who apologized to his wife via Twitter because she wouldn’t talk to him and he was desperate to get to her. I put myself in that situation and knew that– if it were me– just knowing he was talking about me would compel me to peek, no matter how stalwart I was about my anger. That tension between wanting to know what he’s saying and wanting to keep her distance, creates a dilemma for Ivy in the book. Of course, it’s not her only one!

JB: Have you ever gotten to reconnect with someone through social media?

MW: Facebook has put me in touch with many people from my past. It’s been so fun! I was actually able to hear from the girl who took me to Sunset Beach, North Carolina, the first time. Without her I’d never know about this special place where 3 of my books are set. So it was so wonderful to be able to thank her.

JB: Ivy’s mother, Margot, says to her: “I didn’t even consider that something that was over could have a new life.”  How does the wishing tree reflect Ivy and Elliott’s marriage?

MW: The wishing tree is a symbol of their marriage. Where do we hang our wishes? Is it right to hang our wishes on another human being? Can they withstand the weight of those wishes? And what happens if they can’t? The story that ensues is an examination of that.

 JB: You choose not to show the reader the conversation between Ivy and Elliott near the end of the book, the talk in which they got back together.  Why not feature it within the narrative?

MW: That conversation was so raw and personal and intimate I felt it was almost like a sex scene. Better to say it was happening, then leave the details up to the imagination. To try to hash it out line by line somehow cheapened the scene.

JB: How different were earlier versions of The Wishing Tree compared to the final version?

MW: Pretty similar except there were some character issues– motives, history, resolution– that had to be resolved.

JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing this novel?  And did you learn anything new about yourself in the midst of writing and editing?

MW: Dealing with Ivy’s motives in pursuing Michael. It made me uncomfortable and I knew it would my reader as well. Also determining how the book should end. I didn’t know for most of the book what would happen. In some ways that was fun and in some ways unnerving!

JB: What are some of your favorite books and who are some of your favorite authors?

MW: Elizabeth Berg is probably my all-time favorite. I read all her work. She has a knack for noticing the little things that are actually poignant and preserving them in prose.

JB: You are a wife, mother of six children, novelist, and the director of She Reads, an online book club focusing on the best in women’s fiction.  You are Superwoman!  How do you do it all?

Marybeth Whalen

Marybeth Whalen

MW: I do the best I can every day, working my priorities, which vary according to the day. I try to be flexible and forgive myself when I fail, which is a lot. Somehow it all gets done.

JB: What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?

MW: Read. Hang out with my family. Watch movies or true crime shows. Now that it’s summer, we spend a lot of the time at the pool.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Wishing Tree?

MW: The power of forgiveness– forgiving others, forgiving yourself.

JB: What’s next for you?  Are you working on anything new?

MW: I just finished my fifth novel which, Lord willing, will be out this time next summer. It’s another Sunset Beach story with a symbolic element bringing two people together a la The MailboxThe Guest Book, and The Wishing Tree!

JB: Thanks, Marybeth, for a wonderful interview!  Good luck with the book.


Filed under author interviews, beach books, books, contemporary fiction, fiction, Summer Reading, women's lit

Book Review: Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline (William Morrow Paperbacks; 304 pages; $14.99).

orphan train

            For thousands of years, the Wabanaki Indians traveled extensively by canoe, portaging from one body of water to another.  They had to decide which possessions were necessary and which were not needed on their journeys.  The Wabanakis “learned to travel light” and to make logical decisions about “what to keep and what to discard.”  The canoes were essential; little else, though, was deemed indispensable.

Molly Ayer, a Penobscot youth and one of the main characters in Christina Baker Kline’s emotional page turner Orphan Train, knows the concept of portaging all too well.  At 17, she is months away from aging out of the foster care system.  In nine years, Molly “has been in over a dozen foster homes, some for as little as a week.”

As Kline illustrates, life has been difficult for Molly, who has “been spanked with a spatula, slapped across the face, made to sleep on an unheated sun porch in the winter, and taught to roll a joint by a foster father.”  If that is not enough to make your heart go out to Molly, consider this: she got her first tattoo at 16 from a 23-year-old man in exchange for her virginity.

People make assumptions about Molly.  She has streaks in her hair, a number of piercings, and tattoos.  She comes across as tough-as-nails and extremely apathetic.  But it’s all for show.  Molly is hurting crying out for help.

Molly gets in big trouble when she steals a beat-up and old copy of Jane Eyre from the library and must do 50 hours of community service.  Because it’s “better than juvie,” she agrees to help an “old lady” clean out her attic.

As Molly sees it, Vivian Daly, a wealthy widow, has led a full and fulfilling life with everything she could ever want.  Interestingly, Molly is guilty of making the same kind of assumptions about Vivian as people make about her.

In reality, Vivian has a tragic past: she was an Irish immigrant and orphan sent by train from New York to Minnesota to be adopted by Midwestern families.  In some cases, the families fed, clothed, and educated the children until they reached 18 and mutual love and affection developed.  This was not Vivian’s experience.  Going from house to house, from family to family, Vivian endures hardship, hatred, and abuse.  Everything was stripped from her, even her name.

For Vivian, it was a “pitiful kind of childhood, to know that no one loves you or is taking care of you, to always be on the outside looking in.”  It really was not a childhood at all, as she knew “too much” and had seen “people at their worst, at their most desperate and selfish.”  This knowledge made Vivian cautious.  Vivian learned “to pretend, to smile and nod, [and] to display [an] empathy” that she did not feel.  Broken inside, she was little more than an indentured servant, hoping and praying for the day her time would be up and she would be free.

Molly learns that she and Vivian are more alike than she knows when her American History teacher gives his students an assignment: interview someone about his or her own portage, the moments in life “when they’ve had to take a journey, literal or metaphorical.”  He urges them to create an oral history of those they are to interview and ask: “What did you choose to bring with you to the next place?  What did you leave behind?  What insights did you gain about what’s important?”  Molly seeks out Vivian, who tells the young girl about the orphan train, a secret she has kept hidden for years.

Kline makes clear that both Molly and Vivian have undertaken a number of portages throughout their lives.  Their journeys have shaped their personalities and made them skeptical, guarded, and afraid.  Although Vivian seems done with portages, Molly is not and must undergo another in the novel: “She’s a turtle carrying its shell.  Jane Eyre, staggering across the heath.  A Penobscot under the weight of a canoe.”

In Orphan Train, Kline employs a dual narrative format as she takes us from contemporary Maine to a Minnesota in the midst of depression and war.  The author gives us Molly’s perspective in the third person but shifts points of view for Vivian to first person.  This marked change underscores the importance of Vivian’s narrative and gives her story more bearing.

Orphan Train is a historical gem, shedding much-needed light on an almost-forgotten period in American history when East Coast orphans were packed up and put on trains headed to the Midwest from 1854 to 1929.  Kline not only entertains us and captivates us with such a well-told story but she also informs and educates us, and I applaud her for that.

Solemnity and heartbreak intersperse the pages of this novel, yet Kline also infuses Orphan Train with inspiration and hope.  While Molly and Vivian undertake both literal and physical portages, Kline forces us to ponder our own lives: what we take, what we leave behind, and those things that are of utmost importance.

Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline is the She Reads May Book Club Selection.  For giveaways, interviews, discussion, and more reviews, please visit She Reads.


Christina Baker Kline

Christina Baker Kline


Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, contemporary fiction, fiction, historical fiction, history, literary fiction, She Reads

Book Review: The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow by Rita Leganski (Harper Paperbacks; 400 pages; $14.99).


            Reading The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, one assumes the novel’s author, Rita Leganski, was born and raised in the South.  Imagine the surprise upon learning Leganski is from Wisconsin.  On frigid and interminable winter nights when she was growing up, Leganski curled up with her favorite authors—tellers of tales from much warmer climes, such as Carson McCullers, Harper Lee, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Tennessee Williams.  Many novelists write what they know, but Leganski composes the stuff of her dreams.  And thank goodness for that.

Wildly inventive, The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow blends historical fiction with fantasy and lyricism to produce an unforgettable and uniquely Southern story.  Like her  beloved Southern dramatists, Leganski sets her story in 1920s-1950s New Orleans,  bringing the city to life while simultaneously lending the yarn a deeply atmospheric quality.  Leganski also has the seemingly effortless skill of narrating her tale from many different perspectives, just as her favored literary figures did.

Most pivotal in Leganski’s story is the central raconteur and titular character, Bonaventure Arrow.  Bonaventure is mute.  Leganski writes, “Bonaventure Arrow didn’t make a peep when he was born, and the doctor nearly took him for dead.  But the child was only listening, placing sound inside quiet and gaining his bearings….”  He “stayed like that, all wide-eyed and hopeful, and continued to keep his silence. “ Bonaventure’s muteness only belies the intensity and commotion inside him.  Throughout Leganski’s fictional work, Bonaventure never says a word; yet, Bonaventure speaks loudly and clearly.  His deafness is “not a handicap at all but a gift—an extraordinary, inexplicable, immeasurable gift that” allows Bonaventure to hear “what no one else” can.

He is a unique little boy who has a very special way of communing with nature.  Through Bonaventure’s acute audible senses, Leganski is able to imbue supernatural elements into her story.  One of the ways in which she accomplishes this is through magical realism.  Bonaventure can hear “as no other human”being can.  By the time he is five, Bonaventure can hear “flowers grow, a thousand shades of blue, and the miniature tempests that rage inside raindrops.”

If those characteristics alone do not make you want to know Bonaventure Arrow, then maybe this will.  Bonaventure also has a kindred spirit, Trinidad Prefontaine, a widowed servant from Pascagoula, Mississippi.  Trinidad plays an important role in the boy’s life and works to ease his burden.  Leganski uses her to help guide Bonaventure on a quest that involves his father’s untimely death.

Because Bonaventure is so extraordinary, he knows things others do not.  He also sees things others do not, like the ghost of his deceased father, William Arrow.  A mysterious man called “The Wanderer” murdered William before Bonaventure was even born.  William’s death almost destroyed Dancy, Bonaventure’s mother, who carries around an enormous amount of guilt years after her husband’s death.  For Bonaventure, his mother’s feelings of culpability are palpable; he can hear her remorse.

In Bonaventure’s world, colors and flowers are not the only inanimate objects with voices.  Long-buried articles from the past call out to the boy, and they demand justice.  Bonaventure is the only one who can right earlier wrongs, for he was “chosen to bring peace.”  “There was guilt to be dealt with,” Leganski explains in her story, “and poor broken hearts, and atonement gone terribly wrong.  And too there were family secrets to be heard; some of them old and all of them harmful.”  Leganski illustrates the power of personification as a box, pieces of glass, clothing, and a note call out to Bonaventure in anguished voices, lending a great deal of mystery to the work.

Setting is also powerful in The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow.  Leganski places her story in New Orleans and in the fictional town of Bayou Cymbaline.  These locales come to vivid life and actually become characters in Leganski’s tale.  The result is a picturesque backdrop, evocative, flavorful, distinctively Southern, and wholly New Orleans.

Leganski’s lucid prose, her crystal clarity, and her magical realism catapult The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow into a category alongside Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.  Mixing historical fiction with fantasy, superstition, magic, and poetic sentiment, Leganski creates an emotional and memorable story.  A gifted storyteller, Leganski has many more stories yet to tell.  She’s off to a boisterous beginning, as there is nothing reserved about Bonaventure Arrow.  This novel is richer than New Orleans chicory coffee and sweeter than a plate of beignets.

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow is the March Book Club Selection for She Reads.  For reviews, discussions, and giveaways, be sure to visit their website.

I am also giving away a brand new copy of the book.  Complete the brief form below.  I will choose a winner using random.org.  Giveaway ends Friday at 3 pm ET.  Good luck!


Filed under book giveaway, book review, books, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, mystery, She Reads, Southern fiction

Interview with Rita Leganski, Author of The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow

Interview with Rita Leganski, Author of The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow

Rita Leganski

Rita Leganski

Jaime Boler: Thank you, Rita, for letting me interview you.  I have to tell you how much I loved your magical story.  Through his silence, Bonaventure Arrow spoke to me, and I heard him loudly and clearly.  I’m very pleased that She Reads chose it as the March Book Club Selection.  Did you always want to be a writer?

Rita Leganski: I’ve always enjoyed writing, whether it was a school assignment or just as a pastime. At times in my life when I’ve felt unsettled, story writing helped me through. When I decided to return to school as an adult, I deliberately chose to study writing.

JB: Reading this very Southern story, I was surprised to learn you grew up in Wisconsin.  You began reading Southern writers at a very young age.  How old were you?  Who were your favorite authors?

RL: I suppose I was in middle school when I was transported to 1930s Maycomb, Alabama, by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Huckleberry Finn did his part as well in luring my imagination southward.  As my tastes and abilities grew more sophisticated, I added Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner to my list of favorites.

JB: How have these beloved Southern authors influenced your writing?

RL: I think their greatest influence on me has been their artistry with voice and tone, as well as feeling at liberty to bring in supernatural influences and just downright crazy folks. Those writers taught me to let the setting actually be one of the characters.

JB: Prior to beginning this story, had you ever visited New Orleans or Louisiana?

RL: I had never been anywhere in Louisiana before going there to do research for Bonaventure Arrow. One doesn’t merely go to New Orleans; one experiences it. Everybody should try it at least once. If for no other reason, go for the beignets – fried doughnuts covered in confectioner’s sugar!

JB: One of my favorite things about New Orleans!  The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow began as a short story when you were in graduate school.  When did you begin working on the story? And how did you come up with Bonaventure Arrow?

RL: I began the short story in May of 2009 and completed it in June. It was my very last assignment before graduating with a Master’s in Writing. The professor had pleaded with us to give him something different, so I decided to try my hand at magical realism. I can’t honestly tell you how I came up with Bonaventure Arrow; he was just always there.  In the original thirteen-page short story, he is nine years old (not seven) and William has been killed in Korea. As I recall, the only characters in it were Bonaventure, Dancy, Grandma Roman, and Trinidad Prefontaine. That story did make its way into the novel, but well into it. It comprises the scene in the kitchen with the Blue Bottle fly and the scene in which Grandma Roman takes Bonaventure to Bixie’s.

JB: Bayou Cymbaline, though fictional, feels so real.  How did you come up with this “magical, haunted, and lovely place steeped in faith and superstition—the ideal home for a gifted little boy who could hear fantastic sounds”?

RL: I needed to locate the story in a unique place, one that was near enough to New Orleans to be under its influence, but not overshadowed by it. I have referred to my fictional town as a metaphorical house of God because it was home to so many different types. I named it Bayou Cymbaline because of associations and semantic characteristics of those nouns.  Bayou sets it geographically and Cymbaline was borrowed from Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Cymbeline (I changed just one letter to make it my own). Like that Shakespearean play, THE SILENCE OF BONAVENTURE ARROW deals with innocence and jealousy.

JB: Your use of magical realism is close to the divine.  I’d put your name right beside Isabel Allende and Yann Martel.  How did characters like Bonaventure and Trinidad and others and even your setting allow you to use this literary tool to your advantage?

RL: Wow! What a compliment! Thank you very much!  Magical realism sets writers free. It invites the fantastic, the unbelievable; the downright bizarre to come into reality and both change it and leave it alone. After all, it’s reality that acts as a measuring stick for the magic. Bonaventure and Trinidad move through the same reality as everyone around them, yet they are set apart by their otherworldly gifts. New Orleans is kind of the same way; it’s a place of commerce and residences, but there’s also this ever-present vibe that’s not quite namable. Joy dances with sorrow in New Orleans. This duality of natures worked to my advantage because it gave me leeway to let the supernatural in.

JB: Who is your favorite character in the story?

RL: Coleman Tate. He was an interesting character to write.

JB: What was the most difficult thing about writing this book?

RL: The toughest thing was to keep the flow going while trying to tell backstory. Preserving some sense of chronology was difficult; it seemed I had to constantly move whole sections to do it. Probably my most interesting difficulty was to bring in an element of suspense AFTER the novel had been completed. Believe it or not, The Wanderer was not part of the original version.

JB: How fascinating!  I can’t even think of the story without him.  What kind of research did you do?  Find anything you’d like to use in a future story?

RL: Even though THE SILENCE OF BONAVENTURE ARROW is a work of fiction I wanted to get it right, especially when it came to Catholicism and New Orleans. To that end, I adhered to only credible sources. I spoke to historians, archivists, and folks in New Orleans during the time I spent there doing research. I also consulted various digital collections and online libraries as well as consulting with people in Catholic ministries.

I save all my research. No doubt, I’ll reach into it for some future story.

JB: So many early readers love Bonaventure.  Has the advance praise surprised you at all or did you always expect Bonaventure to pull at the heartstrings of readers?

RL: I can honestly say it has surprised me. It’s such a different sort of story that I wasn’t sure how it would be received. I only knew how much I loved Bonaventure.

JB: Ever thought of moving to the South, but especially to New Orleans?

RL: Not really, my family is in the north. But I’ll definitely return to the South for vacations.

JB: What do you like to do when you are not writing?

RL: I love to read, knit, and crochet. I also love to renovate – give me a paint brush and some wood flooring and I’ll be happy for a long, long time. I’m an exercise freak, too. My husband and I enjoy travelling, hiking, and snowshoeing. He loves to cook, but I need a map to find the kitchen.

JB: If a reader asked you to give her a list of five Southern writers that you consider required reading, who would be on your list and why?

RL: Carson McCullers – She’s best known for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, but The Member of the Wedding is actually my favorite McCullers work. I also love her very long short story The Ballad of the Sad Café. Her characters are works of art. She finds the extraordinary under layers of human weakness.

Harper Lee – There are no words to adequately praise To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout Finch may very well be the best reminiscent narrator ever.

Flannery O’Connor – Though she wrote a few novels, O’Conner is best known as a master of the short story. She had a gift for exploiting the peculiar and bringing about endings that manage to be both fascinating and macabre as they blindside you. If I had to pick a favorite work of hers it would be a tie between “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “The River”.

Tennessee Williams – He had a gift for bringing charm to the gritty. His titles are some of the best: “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” are a couple that pull you right in.

William Faulkner – If you want to learn how to write quirky characters, read Faulkner.

JB: An amazing list!  Which book or books are you currently reading?

RL: I just finished THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY by Rachel Joyce. I loved it.

I’m currently reading THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.

JB: Those are actually two of my favorite novels.  Will you go on a book tour?  If so, which cities are you visiting?

RL: Yes, I will tour. It’s in the planning stages at HarperCollins.

JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow?

RL: That when it comes to forgiveness, accepting it is just as important as offering it. Also, I would hope that readers would become in tune with the miraculous that is all around us all the time.

JB: Are you working on anything new?

RL: I’ve actually begun three different projects. I’m hoping that sooner or later one of them overpowers the other two.

JB: Thank you, Rita, for a wonderful interview!  May you venture forth into bestseller land.

RL: Thanks for inviting me!

Follow Rita on Facebook

silence.jpg The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow is the She Reads March Book Club Selection.  For reviews, a chance to win a copy of the book, and discussion, visit She Reads.  I am also giving away a brand new copy of the story.  Please fill out the brief form below.  I will choose a winner using random.org on Friday at 3 pm ET.  Good luck!

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Filed under author interviews, book giveaway, books, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, She Reads, Southern fiction

Interview with Julie Kibler, Author of Calling Me Home

Interview with Julie Kibler, Author of Calling Me Home

Julie Kibler

Julie Kibler

Jaime Boler: Julie, thank you for allowing me to ask you these questions.  We over at She Reads love your book Calling Me Home, the February Book Club Selection.  Many of us, in fact, have said it’s our favorite book thus far!  There is a story behind your story.  How did you come up with the idea for Calling Me Home?


Julie Kibler: Five or six years ago (I’m struggling to remember the exact time frame these days!), my dad shared that when my grandmother was a young woman, she had fallen in love with a black man, and that their families had torn them apart. This really opened my eyes. My grandma hadn’t been an especially happy or warm person, at least when I knew her, though we shared some special moments in time. But learning this convinced me she had lost her “one true love”–and that her life had never been exactly as she dreamed it might be as a result. The idea for writing a novel with this concept at the crux took hold and wouldn’t let go. It took me a few years to gather the courage to write it, but I finally did. I am thankful I did, and I think she would like it. I hope she would like it. 


JB: Readers are really connecting with your main characters, Isabelle and Dorrie.  How do you feel about the wonderful early praise your book is getting?


JK: It is exhilarating and terrifying at once. I’m thrilled most of the reviews I’ve seen have been positive. Yet, I think every writer really takes to heart the ones that aren’t quite so good. We hyper focus on the things we worry might be true. Of course, we can’t please everyone, and the hope is that your book will find the right readers in the right timing. I am, of course, absolutely thrilled readers are connecting with Isabelle and Dorrie. I tried to make these two women as authentic as I could, and it wasn’t always easy.


JB: In Calling Me Home, the residents of Shalerville erected a sign warning any African-Americans to get out of town before darkness fell.  On your website, I read where your father’s hometown actually had such a sign.  Was it difficult to write about such an ugly time in our history?


JK: It was difficult at times, partly because I did not live during that era. I did not experience it myself. I knew I’d never truly comprehend what it must have been like, from either side of the sign. I believe my father was brave to share this when I asked him to describe his hometown as I was creating my setting. I didn’t know about sundown towns, and he had never, ever mentioned this before. I think it was both freeing and a little frightening for him to say the words that were on the sign in his hometown out loud—which were even uglier than those I used in Calling Me Home. I used a phrase more commonly documented in discussions about sundown towns. My dad was one of my earliest readers, and he seems pleased with the story and the setting I created based on a conglomeration of details I learned about the whole region of Northern Kentucky—not on one single town.


During my research, I also learned that my grandmother and her family had lived in more than one sundown town—and not just in Kentucky. These towns existed all over the country in various forms, as I learned on a website created by James W. Loewen. I also realized my mother’s side of the family had lived in sundown towns, too, here in Texas—in fact, one entire county. It blew me away. My parents are some of the most open, least racist people I have ever known. Somehow they made a break with this attitude and taught my siblings and me differently. Thank goodness.


JB: What kind of research did you do for your story?


JK: To be honest, there wasn’t any true system to my research. I am the kind of writer who gets an idea and takes off, researching as I go along. That doesn’t mean I didn’t fall down the rabbit hole of research on many occasions—for hours or days or sometimes weeks, I would hyper focus on certain details, trying to ensure I got them completely right. Interestingly, one detail that seems almost insignificant in relationship to many others, I got wrong. I discovered it after the galleys were printed and out. I corrected it for the final copy. Nobody has noticed or pointed it out in the galleys (a very small detail relating to the work Isabelle did working with photographic slides), but I know it’s there, and that bothers me. So, while I may not do my research in a completely orthodox or linear fashion, I am a perfectionist when it comes to getting things right.


JB: When you were writing the story, did you have any sense how big it could be?


JK: This is a weird question. Not because you asked it, but because of the answer. I have to say that I had a gut feeling it could be. I was so obsessed with writing it, I knew I had finally found the “right story” (it wasn’t my first manuscript). The reaction of those I told about it as I was writing and of my critique partners as they read it, one by one, also gave me an inkling it could be. I was also somewhat systematic in trying to make it a “big” story. I found Donald Maass’ books Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction especially helpful in ensuring the story hit on all cylinders. I didn’t want to blow it; I really wanted to tell this story.


JB: My favorite character in the story is Isabelle.  Do you have a favorite?  Or is that like asking you to choose your favorite child?


JK: I must admit I was often impatient with Isabelle. Some reviewers have noted they thought she was naïve at certain points. My reaction is a strong YES. She was 16. She was sheltered. She was in love. I was frustrated with her at times, even though I was writing her. I thought she was melodramatic and self-involved and, frankly, quite dumb on more than one occasion. Then I would step back and say, Yeah, she was. I have two teenage girls—one who was exactly Isabelle’s age as I began writing the novel. I pictured her in this situation 75 years ago, and how her level of maturity might have directed her actions. Some days 16-year-old girls are really wise. Some days, it’s obvious their frontal lobes aren’t completely connected to the rest of their brains yet.   


On the other hand, Dorrie was pretty easy for me to write, and I loved her. I loved how she made me laugh or cry. I relate to her for several reasons. First, I was a single mom for several years and I know what it’s like, though my situation was unlike hers in many ways. Also, and this is one of the few places I’ve mentioned it, but my personal hairstylist of 12 years is a lot like Dorrie. She recently moved away, and I still text or call her to whine, because I miss her. Not just because she did such a good job on my hair, but because over that twelve years, we became friends. She knows my character Dorrie was modeled after her personality to a certain extent. But in many ways, they are very different. Dorrie thought and did things my friend never would have done, and vice versa. The book is dedicated to Fannie in the acknowledgments, because she is one of the strongest single moms I’ve ever known. I’m hoping she’ll show up at one of my book events. If I could convince her to read from my book, I would, but she told me it would take alcohol to make that happen.


But as far as favorites? I’ll just say this: In real life, I have three kids. They are each my favorite. 


JB: I pictured Dorrie as Queen Latifah.  Are there any plans to make the book into a movie?


JK: My film agent understands my vision for the possibility of turning Calling Me Home into a movie. Hearing the news that someone or some studio was interested in making a film from this story would be mind boggling, but very exciting! We’ll see.


JB: You hear so much today about the United States being a “post-racial society,” but as Isabelle and Dorrie travel together, glares, stage whispers, and meanness follow in their wake.  Do you think we’ve come far as a nation in term of race relations?  Do we still have far to go?


JK: I think these are immeasurable distances. I believe there will always be marginalized groups—probably for reasons we couldn’t even comprehend today. We’re a constant work-in-progress. The United States has made inroads, certainly, but there are still miles to travel. It’s said we all have prejudices to varying degrees and for varying reasons. I know this is true in my own heart if I’m honest. I make assumptions. I stereotype. I try not to, but sometimes I do anyway. 


I see extremes where I live. My neighborhood and city is about as diverse as you can find anywhere. On my block, there are Asian, black, Hispanic, white, and Middle Eastern families. I feel exhilarated sometimes to see the rainbow of faces in our local restaurants. My kids have never been particular about the race of their friends.


On the other hand, sometimes you still hear ugly whispers about who belongs where, when, and how. School districting tends to be a hot button in many communities, and it’s often an unspoken battle about racial diversity. Sadly, this behavior seems modeled by the adults and passed down from generation to generation. If only we could follow the example of our children more often.


JB: I have to say this story made me cry.  Did you ever cry while writing it?  Did you ever have to get up, leave what you were doing, and get away from it for a while?


JK: I cried over certain chapters when I wrote them, and I cry again every time I read them. I cry every time I read the last page. I think this means these characters were like the Velveteen Rabbit—they became real to me. I rejoiced with them and I grieved with them. I don’t remember having to get away from them. Writing that made me the most emotional was the kind I wanted to dwell in forever. I wanted to jump in that stream and swim as long as I could. Unfortunately, that kind of writing session is something you can’t predict or replicate. It happens a different way each time. 


JB: What would your grandmother have made of this story?


JK: I asked my dad this after I sold the book. He said she was probably laughing in her grave and saying, “Ohhhhh, SH##!” Pardon her language, but I think he’s right. I can picture it. But I also believe she would be happy. Calling Me Home is not her story as much as it is the essence of it. She was probably poor. She wasn’t a doctor’s daughter. I don’t really know much at all. What I do know is I felt her sitting at my shoulder, whispering to me of what it felt like to be a young girl hopelessly in love in an impossible situation. 


JB: What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?


JK: I’m a rabid movie fan—especially independent films. My husband and I attend movies nearly every weekend, and then talk about them over dinner. I’m a little worried about the book release as I know we won’t have as many chances to get our movie fix. I fear withdrawal.


We’re also big fans of food. We love finding new restaurants and trying new things, as well as going to our favorites and wallowing in our comfort foods. I say “we” because I’m lucky enough to have a husband who has similar taste in cuisine. We figured out if we share, we can get an appetizer, entree, and dessert without overeating too much. Well. Sometimes.


I love to travel, and my favorite thing is going off the beaten path. I was once put off a train in England because of a bomb scare. I landed in a little suburb of Liverpool where I might have been the first American tourist to ever show up. It was one of the most memorable days I’ve ever had, wandering around and talking with the locals. They were shocked when I ordered a baked potato—a “jacket potato”—with chili AND cheese. I assured them this is done regularly in Texas. 


JB: If you could have dinner with any author, living or dead, who would you choose and why?


JK: Probably Laura Ingalls Wilder. I’d say her writing affected me as a child more than any other, and was instrumental in making me both a reader and a writer. There are few books I’ve read over and over—the Little House books are the exception.


JB: What book is on your nightstand right now?


JK: About 15 or so, in a precarious pile. Not kidding, though I’m reading J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy on my Nook for a book club meeting. I never read a single Harry Potter book (I know!), and I’m liking this quite a bit. I had no preconceived notions of what a Rowling book should be. I’m also reading a manuscript for a blurb, which is a new and surreal experience. And I’m reading a book as research for my current project. I often have three or four books going these days, which means I read each one very, very slowly.


JB: If you could describe yourself in one word, what would it be?


JK: Evolving.


JB: Are you going on an author tour?  If so, which cities will you visit?


JK: I’m doing a launch event in Arlington, Texas. At this point, I’m also doing events in Austin, Houston, and Waco, Texas; Denver, Colorado; and Spokane, Washington. There are a few other things in the works. My events page on my website and Facebook author page should be current.


JB: You are also a book blogger.  How important are bloggers to the publishing industry and to authors?


JK: I think book blogging is a relatively new and developing phenomenon, so it’s hard to say. Book bloggers feel very important to me, and publishers obviously put a lot of stock in them to send so many books for review each year. I’m eager to see how this evolves over time, and how it affects publishing. Will blogger reviews become more important than industry reviews? It’s so hard to say. It’s a form of word-of-mouth marketing, though, and we all know word-of-mouth is instrumental in selling almost anything.


JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Calling Me Home?


JK: In my acknowledgments, I charge the reader with an unoriginal (something similar is attributed to Mahatma Gandhi), yet important challenge: It’s up to you to be the change. It’s the thing I truly want readers to think about as they close the cover.


JB: Are you working on anything new?


JK: Yes, but I can’t talk about it just yet! It might lose its magic. Suffice it to say it’s another story involving marginalized groups, family issues, and a nostalgic setting closer to my current home in Texas.


JB: This story really has so much to teach us about life, about our fellow man, and about ourselves.  It bridges generations and races, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk with you about Calling Me Home. Good luck with the book, Julie!


JK: This has truly been my pleasure, and your questions were thoughtful and fun to answer. Thank you so much for your kind words and for hosting me today.

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Filed under author interviews, books, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, She Reads, women's lit

Book Review: Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler

Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler (St. Martin’s Press; 336 pages; $24.99).


            William Shakespeare wrote that the course of true love never did run smooth, and nowhere is that truer than in Julie Kibler’s sobering, yet heartening debut Calling Me Home.  Kibler drew inspiration for her tale after learning her grandmother had fallen in love with an African American when she was a young woman.  At the time, though, any romantic connection between the two was unfeasible.  A story idea was thus born.

Employing a dual narrative format, Kibler sets Calling Me Home in both present-day Texas and in pre-World War II Kentucky, introducing us to two extraordinary women: eighty-nine-year-old Isabelle McAllister, an elderly white lady and thirty-something Dorrie Curtis, a single black mother of two.

Isabelle has a huge favor to ask of Dorrie, something so big she cannot ask anyone else.  She has to go to a funeral in Cincinnati, Ohio, and she has to leave tomorrow.  Isabelle wants Dorrie to drive her there.

Why does Isabelle ask Dorrie?  What kind of connection can an elderly white woman and a young black female have?  It’s simple, really.  Dorrie is Isabelle’s hairdresser.

If you are a woman, then you immediately understand the intimate relationship between a woman and her beautician.  There is a connection between the two women that belies age and race.  Isabelle and Dorrie have bonded over hair and have become friends.  But there are things both women have chosen not to tell the other.

Dorrie agrees to drive Isabelle to the funeral, although Isabelle refuses to say who died or how she is connected to the deceased.  For Dorrie, it’s a bit of a mystery.  But she does not pry.  She knows instinctively that Isabelle will reveal everything when she is good and ready.

When the two women set off, Kibler begins her second story arc.  Isabelle confides to Dorrie that she fell in love with Robert Prewitt when she was a teenager (Isabelle is only loosely based on Kibler’s own grandmother).  Robert wanted to be a doctor; he was the son of her family’s housekeeper and was African American.

Because this is 1939 Kentucky, the reader knows this is a doomed romance.  Especially in a “sundown” town like Shalerville where blacks were not allowed after dark.  Such places really existed.  It was quite alright for African-American maids, chauffeurs, and workers to be in Shalerville during the day, but, come sundown, they had to vacate the area or face the consequences.

Kibler’s decision to set part of the story in this sundown town has a sobering effect on the reader, or at least it did on me.  I worried for Robert and for Isabelle, but especially for Robert’s safety in such a dark, chilling and painful place.

As Isabelle narrates her part of the story, Kibler illustrates the sheer ugliness of the world in which Isabelle lives.  It’s full of small minds and discrimination so common at the time.  Robert and Isabelle know how difficult life will be for them but they are in love and determined.  They run away together, but the course of true love never does go smoothly, does it?  And Robert and Isabelle are no exception.

As Isabelle conveys her story to Dorrie, the young black mother begins confiding to Isabelle.  Dorrie likes Teague, a handsome, successful black man, but he just seems too perfect—something she is not.  After her divorce, Dorrie is hesitant about bringing a new man into her life and into the lives of her children: a sweet young daughter and a son who is a senior in high school.  Her son and his future constantly worry Dorrie, who is uncertain if she needs the added concern of a new relationship.  Listening to Isabelle’s story, though, Dorrie learns something profound about life and about love.

A bond that first formed over hair expands further.  For Isabelle and Dorrie, age and color matter not; they are insignificant things.

Calling Me Home is a courageous tale because Kibler holds nothing back.  Just a few weeks into President Barack Obama’s second term in office, you hear so often how we live in a “post-racial” society.  But is that actually true?  When Dorrie and Isabelle stop to eat at a restaurant on their trip, a white man and woman look curiously at them.  The man soon turns rude and openly stares at them.  In a stage whisper, he wonders why a white lady is with a black woman.

If the romance between Isabelle and Robert highlights race in the American past, then this scene is an eye-opening look at race in the American present.  Kibler shows us how far we’ve come in this country; however, she also shows us how far we still have to go.

Calling Me Home is both a solemn and stirringly emotional novel that takes us deep into a woman’s heart and backward into one country’s harsh past.  Kibler’s story of love, loss, family, faith, and friendship hearken to the stuff of life.  In the end, Calling Me Home is a surprising novel.  Because Kibler is always patient and easy on the foreshadowing, the conclusion is an ending that will surely amaze readers, just as it did me.

We should never dwell on our differences and focus instead on the ways we are the same.  That’s what I learned from Calling Me Home.  Kibler will break your heart in this tale, but she will also put it back together again.

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Julie Kibler’s Calling Me Home is the She Reads February Book Club Selection.  You can discuss the book and enter to win one of ten copies and read the fabulous reviews of members.  The book comes out February 12.  Check back here on my blog February 12 for my interview with Kibler.  It’s going to be amazing!



Filed under book review, books, fiction, literary fiction, She Reads, women's lit