Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Haunting Tales of Iberia

For some time, I have wanted to post about two intriguing novels — one takes place in Spain, and one takes place in Portugal.

Those of you who have followed my blog for some time know that my husband and I travel periodically to Galicia, in the northwest corner of Spain, and also to Braga, Portugal, where I've set my cozy mystery, Deadly Vintage. In truth, we are enamored of Spain and Portugal—partly for the sense of antiquity in old stone and tile; also the echoes of political history; but mainly for the embracing warmth of the people in both countries.

So I have read these books — devoured them, really — and reflected on the worlds they open up.

     I'll start with The Time In Between by María Dueñas, first. — a very long book (reader be warned), but worth every page It starts out like a love story, perhaps even a family saga, then swiftly moves into a spy story that takes a reader to Morocco and returns one to Madrid during the early Franco years in Spain.
     The protagonist, Sira Quiroja, makes a romantic mistake early on in the book, and it changes her entire future. The way she develops throughout the novel suggests that, looking back, it was the best mistake she could have made to escape a life of boredom and acceptance of Franco's coming regime. But, at the time of her tribulations, of course, how could she know? 
     The story is compelling as it unfolds, and the writing captures moments in a way that makes you want to return to them. It's a long book — 609 pages — but worth the read. And the re-read! I have no doubt that I will re-read this book more than once, partly for the delicious story, and partly for appreciation of what makes a good novel tick. And, incidentally, I learned quite a bit of history in a painless, engrossing way. 

Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier is a completely different kind of experience. It's a philosophical novel, one that gives you a mental massage and makes you think, page by page. To some readers, it could be upsetting or boring, but I loved it. 
     The protagonist, Raymond Gregorius, a lonely, divorced professor of classical languages at a Swiss lycée, encounters a woman on a bridge who seems about to leap and end her life. He learns she is Portuguese and becomes pulled into her mystery. Because of that, he becomes intrigued by the very idea of Portugal.      
     The discovery in a bookshop of an arcane book by a Portuguese writer, Amadeu de Prado, sets Gregorius off on a journey to Lisbon to learn more about Prado, as the book seems to speak to Gregorius's very soul. No doubt Gregorius is having a midlife crisis of sorts, but he takes the leap and takes a train to Lisbon, where he encounters those who knew the author and unravels Prado's personal tale. In the process, Gregorius unravels his own story.
     As I said, this is a philosophical novel. A reader journeys into both Gregorius's and Prado's self-doubts, doubts about God, probings of the layers of one's identity and value systems, and the questioning of existence and meaning. Some readers might find this tedious  but I was swept along into the questions and the earnest attempts of Gregorius (and Prado) to answer them. In that sense, this is a lovely book, and for the philosophically inclined, one that merits more than one reading.

The beauty of novels and most fiction, I think, is in the opportunity to enter someone else's reality and have your own world stretched beyond the familiar horizons. In this sense, both of these books excel. I can't wait to begin each one again — and maybe even again. The writing is lovely in both, and in both, worlds unfold.

Have you experienced special books like that? Books that enlarge your world, stretch your mind, open up history for you and make you think? Any good titles to share?  

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Hamish Macbeth Mysteries by M. C. Beaton

Recently I discovered the cozy mysteries of M. C. Beaton's Hamish Macbeth series, set in Lochdubh, a small fishing village in the Highlands of Scotland.
I found the books, while browsing in my favorite used bookstore in Midtown, Sacramento, Time Tested Books. There were five altogether, and, after buying two, and then two more, and then the last one, I'm completely hooked.

These are the five. The proprietor of the store assures me there may be more in the back room. But I clearly see that once those run out, I'm going to have to go online and find even more.

What is so special about these books? Well, two factors right off: I love cozies, and these are well written cozies. And I love books set in far away places. These mysteries leave you with a feeling that you've had a free trip to the Highlands.

But there are writerly reasons I am enamored of this series as well:

 First, the characters: Hamish Macbeth is the lanky, endearing police constable who loves Lochdubh and has no ambition to be promoted to the larger town of Strathbane, where his nemesis, Chief Inspector Blair, does harbor ambitions and constantly chafes at Hamish's success at solving crimes

in the area. Hamish himself is unorthodox in his approach but has strong integrity and empathy for his fellow villagers. He loves dogs, checks in with older people to see how they are doing, and yet is relentless and quick witted in the pursuit of justice. But all the villagers are nicely drawn as well, with just the right, minimalist brushstrokes that fix them clearly in your mind.

Then there is the plot — each book is a great puzzle to solve. Every single element of storytelling drives the plot forward, and Beaton is a master of tweaking interest and suspense with false leads and true ones, side stories, and the unexpected, until she brings you to an ending that is inevitable but not predictable.

The setting is superb. Beaton manages to give the landscape such texture and atmosphere that it becomes a character in its own right. Lochdubh is so far north that summer gets little darkness and winter gets little light. Storms rage even in late spring and early fall, followed by surprisingly mild days until the next shrieking winds descend with buckets of rain. Mists rise, swirl, and disperse. Clouds hover and cover. The village has a couple of hotels, a restaurant, a bar, a general store run by an Indian named Patel, an elementary school so small its students are in danger of being bussed to a larger district, a police department with one constable (Macbeth) who lives in part of the police station. Such a locale colors the lives of the people, and by the time you put down the book, it's easy to feel you've had your free trip to a remote village in the Highlands.

There is wonderful humor in the way Beaton tells these tales. Even with mayhem on the loose, it's hard not to snicker and chuckle as characters enter and exit with their little moment of drama. And while this series has a progression in the lives and interactions of the characters—especially the star-crossed romance between Hamish and Priscilla Halburton-Smyth—each mystery is a satisfying stand-alone read. (I didn't read these five in order, as I wasn't sure what the order was, and that didn't spoil my enjoyment one bit.)

You can see all of the books in the series at Beaton's website HERE.

But, oh, oh, oh: dreadful question to consider: What am I to do when this series runs out?

How about you? Do you have a series you are absolutely hooked on? (Recommendations, please — especially if it is a mystery series.) And, what do you do when you get to the last read in the series? Start over? Look for a new one?

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Cover Reveal for Dark Winds Rising

Being a history buff I can't resist a novel set in the past, especially one in the Wales of long ago. And loving travel as I do, I always consider a good historical novel a free trip into that other world. So I am pleased to announce Mark Noce is publishing book two of his exciting series set in Medieval Wales and to announce his cover reveal.

Dark Winds Rising . . . What an irresistible title that is! About this new gem, Mark says, "Dark Winds Rising is the sequel to my debut novel Between Two Fires, and comes out with St. Martin’s Press December 5th 2017! Today is my cover reveal for the next book in my historical fiction series set in medieval Wales. A big thanks to St. Martin’s Press for the great cover art!" 

Here is the synopsis for Dark Winds Rising:

Queen Branwen finds her world once again turned upside down as Pictish raiders harry the shores of her kingdom. Rallying her people once more, she must face her most dangerous foe yet, the Queen of the Picts. Ruthless and cunning, the Pictish Queen turns the Welsh against each other in a bloody civil war, and Branwen must attempt to stop her before her country threatens to tear itself apart. All the while Branwen is heavy with child, and finds her young son’s footsteps dogged by a mysterious assassin. Branwen must somehow defeat the Picts and save her people before the Pictish Queen and a mysterious assassin threaten to destroy their lives from the inside out.

About the Author:

Mark Noce writes historical fiction with a passion, and eagerly reads everything from fantasy to literature. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, he’s an avid traveler and backpacker, particularly in Europe and North America. He earned his BA and MA from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where he also met his beautiful wife. By day, he works as a Technical Writer, having spent much of his career at places like Google and Facebook. When not reading or writing, he’s probably listening to U2, sailing his dad’s boat, or gardening with his family.

Dark Winds Rising is his second novel in a historical series published by St. Martin’s Press. His debut novel, Between Two Fires, (also published via St. Martin's Press) is available wherever books are sold. Learn more at marknoce.com or connect via his newsletter or blog.

You can purchase Between Two Fires at:  Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Macmillan
(For those of you who haven't read Between Two Fires — a gripping and satisfying read — you can read an earlier review I wrote of it HERE. )  I've also learned you can pre-order Dark Winds Rising from Amazon now.

How about you? Are you fascinated by Welsh history and novels set in Wales? Do you like historical fiction in general? Did you get a chance to read Mark's first book? 

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Magic of Greek Music

Last Sunday we were fortunate enough to hear the riveting music of Orestis Koletsos and Athena Labiri, at the Greek Food Imports on Fulton Avenue (near Fair Oaks Blvd.) Athena sings and plays the guitar; Orestis plays the bouzouki and sometimes joins her in song. Together, they are a perfectly synchronized team, and for three hours Rajan and I were mesmerized. You may (or may not) be able to hear a few strains in this short video.

We first heard Orestis Koletsos play the bouzouki last September at the Greek Festival, which for years has been at the Community Center on J Street at 14th, each Labor Day week-end. (This year it will be at the Greek Orthodox Church on Alhambra Blvd., across from McKinley Park in October, instead.) Since we enjoyed the music so much, we were delighted to learn of last Sunday's concert. We enjoy Greek food, so the Greek Food Imports was a great find for us. They have a deli, as well as imports from Greece. Being vegetarians, we were able to enjoy delicious snacks while we listened to the music (and the retsina was pretty good, too.) We also met some lovely people at our table. (Good music and food have a way of doing that.) I'm uploading a couple more videos, and I hope they will play well on this post. 

Meanwhile, if you enjoy Greek food, definitely check out the Greek Food Imports. (They have a page on Facebook, too, so you can learn of coming events as well as check out their menu.)

If you enjoy Greek music, definitely check out the Facebook Page for Orestis so you can learn of other performances, both in the Sacramento area and other towns.

And if you like both Greek food and Greek music, watch for the Greek Festival the first week-end in October. Opa!

Do you know of other festivals that offer good music and food? What are your favorites? 

Friday, January 27, 2017

Inspirational People

Almost a week has gone by since the march  last Saturday, and two days have gone by since a visit to good reading and writing friends, Romain and Pam Nelsen.

 I'll talk about the friends first, and then later in this post add more pictures of the march.

I met Romain and Pam when Romain was a fellow student in a series of workshops conducted by Sands Hall in Sacramento. We were all so sorry when the last class ended. (Hall is a remarkable teacher.) When the series ended, a group of us decided to form a writing group, and we called it ASH. (Alumni of Sands Hall.) Romain and his lovely wife were kind enough to host the group in their home in Davis for a few years, until health problems made hosting difficult. But I and others remember those days so warmly. It was a great group, the critiques were truly stellar, and many of us went on to become published. It was wonderful, Wednesday, to sip tea, eat pumpkin bread, and reminisce about the old days.

For her part, Pam is an avid reader (she reads her husband's work), and we have found we share a great love of mysteries, among other genres.
Meanwhile, in recent years, as well as being a fine writer of short stories, Ro has gone on to do woodworking. He created the guitar you see in the pictures above. (He can play that thing pretty well, too.)

On to the women's march: Through the years, the Nelsens were always inspirational to talk with about politics. We are much on the same wave length. And they would have been marching if their energy levels were up to it, so Rajan and I marched for them as well as for ourselves. In fact I march for another couple, dear friends in Colfax, who are dealing with some health issues, and another writer friend in Sisters in Crime who was not free to march that day. It was a march to remember, for sure. Several other friends were marching, but the crowd was so thick, we didn't run into them. Organizers had expected 10,000, but over 20,000 showed up! To give you some idea of what that looks like, here are some pictures.
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It was also exciting to hear how many marched all over the country and abroad. We go to Braga, Portugal periodically in connection with my cozy mystery.

A friend there wrote that Braga had a march, as well as Lisbon, Porto, and many other cities in Portugal.

 But the newspapers reported over 50 countries had marches, and there were marches every continent, including Antarctica. Wow!

 Knowing that gave me such a great feeling of solidarity with people in a world that is larger than "Me first!"
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How about you? Did you march? Did you have friends who marched? Do you find peaceful gatherings inspirational and energy boosting, or do large crowds make you nervous? If you are a writer, to you have an alternative hobby like woodworking or some other handicraft? What do you do for inspiration?

Friday, January 13, 2017

Celebrating Submissions & Good Books

I had mentioned earlier that one of my New Year's resolutions was to write more. Well, I've been scribbling notes for WIPs and new works, but more importantly, I've been submitting work—last week, a picture book and a chapter book. Today, I submitted10 poems to a contest.

On another note, I'm celebrating two good reads: I ordered and have begun to read, Anne Bronte's The Tenant at Wildfowl Hall (which I mentioned in last week's post on my blog next door: Victorian Scribbles). And I'm halfway through Amy Thomas's The Detective and the Woman and the Winking Tree. Expect positive reviews for both in posts to come.

What a pleasure good books are!

Celebrate the Small Things  is a blog hop co-hosted by Lexa Cain at: Lexa Cain,  L.G. Keltner @ Writing Off The Edge , and Tonja Drecker @ Tidbits Blog. (You can go to any of these sites to add your name to the links, if you want to participate. I recommend it, because it's always fun to see news that others are celebrating, and to share your own as well. )

What are you celebrating this week? Did you make New Year resolutions? If so, were you able to start applying to at least one of them? If not, are you somewhat skeptical of resolutions, and do you just go with the flow or wing it each year? Any good reads to share?

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Sick this week . . .

I expected to have a New Year's post early in the week, but came down Tuesday with a really unpleasant virus. If I hadn't had my flu shot, I would swear it's the flu. I'm on the upswing, so I expect to be back posting next week. Until then, belated Happy New Year and everyone have a great week-end.