Friday, February 27

2 sentences

In two books, two characters want to leave their home without disturbing other family members. Opening the door to make a quiet escape is essential for each, and here are the descriptions of opening the door from each novel:

    "In bed her only sensible thought was that he must have taken great care going along the hall without her hearing, and closed the front door inch by deceitful inch." Ian McEwan, The Children Act

    "Saddiq had to open the door without disturbing his father. The man was sensitive to changes in teh house and would hear the door scrape against the dirt floor for feel a draft form outside.
     "Crouching, Saddiq rubbed his hand back and forth, smoothing dirt near the doorway ...Then he turned full attention to the door. Using two hands, he slowly lifted the thick wooden bar and gave the slightest tug. Gripping the side of the door with both hands, Saddiq pulled steadily just enough to slip outside. The lower edge rubbed against the floor with the softest whoosh. Holding his breath, he stepped outside, gently closing the door.... 
    "His father did not storm outside with questions." - Allure of Deceit

McEwan's sentence is more concise.  One reason may be that he is the better writer! But another difference stems from each character's' age. The first sentence describes an unhappy husband and the second describes a child who wants to embark upon a quest without his parents' knowledge.

And another difference is point of view. The first sentence is described by the wife who has just realized her husband's secret departure. The stealth in the second sentence carries the point of view of the child who opens the door.

Both examples turn an ordinary routine, the opening of door, into anxious intrigue.

Request a review copy of Allure of Deceit.

Portrait of The Open Door by Helen McNicoll, a Canadian painter who died in 1915 at the age of 35, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, in the public domain of the EU, the US and countries with a copyright term of life of author plus 70 years or less. "Primarily a painter of working women and maternal themes in outdoor settings, McNicoll drew her subject-matter from the tradition of Impressionist women painters such as Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, while acknowledging the “new woman” of the modernist age," notes Natalie Luckyj in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.  

Thursday, February 26

Rituals

Rituals are routines. Yet the first word carries an aura of meaningfulness and gravitas while the word "routines" may seem boring, rote and without thought. It's a good idea for each person, each family, to examine routines and decide which have meaning and purpose and which can be discarded.

"Romance is an ideal to which every married person should aspire," writes Francesca Di Meglio for About.com. She also argues society's definition of romance may be off. "We're making it be about grand gestures and things that require lots of work, which means time and/or money, neither of which any of us has. Romance doesn't have to be so hard. It can come in the form of a simple act..."

And then Francesca described one of my favorite rituals, my husband making coffee each morning. "It's a small gesture, maybe it's silly," I had explained to her, "but it's a habit that has built over time that matters as much as the gifts we've exchanged, trips we have taken, or activities we enjoy."

As Di Meglio reminds, the trick may be assessing our routines and turning them into pleasant and comfortable rituals. No couple does this more than Sofi and Parsaa in my novels set n Afghanistan. Fear of Beauty is Sofi's story, and Allure of Deceit describes Parsaa's reflections, his appreciation of his own marriage and thoughts about other romances that have gone wrong.

Request a review copy of either book by contacting Seventh Street Books.

The photo "Going Home" is courtesy of Iain Cochrane of Scotland, 2008, and Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, February 24

Places to go...



Books are wonderful companions for travelers, helping transport us to another land in person or spirit. Setting can be a key feature for some books, often performing as a character. Fiction and nonfiction can prepare readers for other cultures, adding special meaning to journeys that test our assumptions as readers: "writing images particular spaces onto the printed page, but just as writers invent places, readers are at the very least partners in the process of producing textual places," writes John Thieme in "Reading Places: The Geography of Literature," an essay that compares how R.K. Narayan and Amitav Ghosh handle cultural geography.

Amazon, Goodreads and other sites offer many lists on settings, but a map or table is really handy. Several websites focus on setting, connecting readers and writers with books set in all over the globe:

Few novels posted are set in
Afghanistan - or East Lansing 
Novels: On Location is the easiest and quickest site for posting location. Users can search by location or by novel. Those who want to add a book can zoom in on an location, add a pin, and type in the name of the novel. The site pinpoints most novels automatically with a thumbnail of the cover and description, allowing immediate purchase from Amazon or iBooks. It took less than 5 minutes to place Fear of Beauty on top of Afghanistan and explain how the setting of Laashekoh is a fictional village in northern Helmand. There is also a Reader Notes section, to add descriptions or quotes from the book. Results are posted immediately. 
The setting for both novels is a fictional and remote village. So I typed in "northern Helmand" as the location for both. Fear of Beauty is shown north of the capital in another province and Allure of Deceit is south of the Helmand provincial capital. Because the village is fictional, I can understood the tool's confusion.

Still, I agree with this self-assessment from the site's creators in the integration notes: "the Web's best way to find novels by setting. If you write a blog on literature, travel or, education, enhance the interactive experience for your readers by integrating Novels: On Location." Note of caution: Authors or readers may unintentionally inflate pin results by posting one book with more than one setting in multiple locations.

BooksSetIn relies on search engine methods and tabular results, with input provided by readers. This format accounts for both place and time. In searching for Helmand Province, one book emerges: Torn by David Massey, while a search for "Afghanistan" yields many more results. Again, it took less than 5 minutes to list the title, author, ISBN, and description for Fear of Beauty and Allure of Deceit. The site is inviting for travelers and readers both - and asks: "Taking a trip? Interested in another part of the world? Want to learn about another culture?" 

The tool easily permits multiple locations and also highlights a few places and books on its front page. Not much has been written about the site, but Facebook suggests it began in Pennsylvania.

Book Drum, from London, is the most thorough, elegant and yet complicated of the sites, inviting authors and other registered users to submit detailed profiles on authors and settings as well as background and new explorations of specific quotes. A map is promised but did not show up on this user's multiple  tries with browsers IE and Chrome (a message points out that Google has disabled its map tool for the application). Starting the profile is easy, logging on with Facebook, but some features such as adding coordinates or saving the page numbers for quotes do not run as smoothly. Books are not posted until all six sections are started. The site's self-assessment: "Book Drum is the perfect companion to the books we love, bringing them to life with immersive pictures, videos, maps and music." 

These websites are especially useful for countries and cities that are less common as literary settings. Cities like New York and London on these sites are teeming with books.

That doesn't mean the smallest villages of the world are not teeming with stories. 

Most authors and readers have not caught on to these sites just yet, and an avalanche of interest could arrive any day. 

Tuesday, February 17

Authors

Before a book is published, authors are expected to seek out blurbs from other authors to help readers in making a decision whether to read a book or not. So many authors are generous with their time, taking the time to read the books and craft a few lines about the story.

I'm honored by the four authors who agreed to comment on Allure of Deceit.



Mike Befeler
Author of Mystery of the Dinner Playhouse
“In Allure of Deceit, Susan Froetschel brings alive a country foreign to many readers. This provocative novel blends social conscience, long-held secrets, murder, and the reality of village mores.” 

Befeler is best known for his series about a elderly sleuth, which began with Retirement Homes Are Murder, published in 2007. His work was also nominated for a Lefty. 

 Likewise, the sleuth  featured in his Mystery of the Dinner Playhouse is retired and conducts the central murder investigation to escape boredom: "Gabe suddenly realized this retirement gig wasn't all it was cracked up to be." 

Befeler is an author and public speaker who addresses with eloquence and wisdom the secrets and art of growing old gracefully. 

I'm grateful for Befeler's assessment of Allure of Deceit because the leading male protagonist is a village leader who resists change but recognizes that the feelings stem from his own adjustments and fears due to aging. 

Peg Herring
Author of the Loser Mysteries
“Froetschel’s crystal clear picture of Afghanistan and its people fascinates me. Though her characters’ lives differ from ours, they are like us in the ways that really matter. They laugh, they love, they seek answers when things puzzle them. This is a mystery with a stunning sense of place.” 

Award-winning author Herring is a thoughtful colleague whom I've known since attending Sleuthfest in Boca Raton about six years ago. Her mysteries explore some of our society's most vulnerable citizens. She juggles three series, including the Loser Mysteries, the Dead Detective Mysteries and the Simon & Elizabeth Tudor mysteries. with the promise of "Strong women, great stories."

Such is the case with the three-book Loser Series, the haunting story of a woman who is homeless after traumatic deaths in her family. Herring is sensitive yet forthright with her insights into how bad memories complicate a life: "A person can say she's not going to think about something. She can resolve to put it into the back of her mind, slam the door, and lock it away. But it isn't that easy. My voices hadn't spoken or months, but that night, they invaded my sleep, constant and demanding."

I value comment from Herring because of her own ability to craft complex characters whose lives can quickly spin out of control.

Martin J. Smith
Author of the Memory Series crime novels
“Celebrity philanthropy. Baby trafficking. A mysterious compound in the Afghanistan mountains. Allure of Deceit is an IED of a novel. Trust no one, and step carefully.” 

Smith is an award-winning journalist and author of non-fiction and fiction. Both combine his sense for detail and knack for storytelling. For example, The Wild Duck Chase describes the Federal Duck Stamp Contest and competitive duck painting. In his Memory Series, Straw Men was nominated for an Edgar, and Disappeared Girl is the fourth in the series:

"He wondered again about his daughter's life before adoption, five years that were mostly a puzzle to him... this wasn't the first time Melissa had described strange and disturbing images of early childhood - scary strangers, angry voices, desperate adults.... Christensen was all too familiar with the psychological condition known as confabulation - when someone creates a false narrative of their past as a subconscious way of dealing with a contemporary trauma too painful to confront on a conscious level." 

Smith employs the direct, no-nonsense voice of a journalist for stories that explore the intricacies of family relationships. We were both raised in Pittsburgh, and while we did not know each other well, also graduated from the same high school and attended the same college to study journalism. To have received early comment from a writer who understands some of influences for Allure of Deceit is ideal. 

Daniel Stashower
Author of The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln before the Civil War 
“A smart, sharply plotted thriller that puts the reader on the ground in Afghanistan. Susan Froetschel delivers.” 

Stashower, two-time Edgar winner, writes mysteries, biographies and narrative histories that  have featured historical figures including Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, Harry Houdini, Allan Pinkerton and Abraham Lincoln. Stashower selects subjects whose lives are rich with activity, failures and successes, during periods of sweeping social change. Motivation is never a simple affair. A rich array of details on their communities, circumstances and personal histories offer clues as to why each may respond as they do: 

"The events of February 1861 continue to capture attention, however, not only for the drama of the plot and its detection, but also because Lincoln's handling of the crisis and its fallout would be a  fateful early test of his presidency, with many dark consequences. In charting the sweep of events that carried the nation into war, it is customary to focus on the landmarks of policy and social change, such as the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision. Set against these milestones, the drama in Baltimore is often overlooked, pushed aside by the more pressing urgencies that were to come, and obscured by its own uncertainties and contradictions." 

Because Allure of Deceit focuses on the history and forces of globalization unfolding in Afghanistan, Stashower's assessment was particularly welcome.


Do check out the books from these four authors. And for a review copy of Allure of Deceit, contact Cheryl Quimba of Seventh Street Books, CQuimba@prometheusbooks.com.

Wednesday, February 11

Heart-breaking

Three Muslim students were shot to death near their home at the University of North Carolina campus, reports the Guardian. The suspect has been arrested.

The motive is not yet known, but Muslims are understandably worried that the three students known for their career aspirations and humanitarian work were targeted for their religious beliefs.

Hatred and violence directed at any one group is wrong. Those who fear Islamic extremism need to understand that Muslims have suffered terribly under the hands of extremist groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The world has more than a billion Muslims, and they are a diverse group in and of themselves. A few are extremists. Blaming an entire group for the crimes of a few will deliver the chaos of the Middle East to communities elsewhere, including those in the United States. The country is better than this.

Parents are on the front line in combating the petty resentments that fuel extremism and recruits: "Parents must raise their children to detest the swagger, coercion and ‘holier than thou’ attitudes," I noted for the US Daily Review. Parents must train their children to calmly stand up to bullies and haters because silence signals acceptance of their atrocities. This applies to those of any belief.

The University of North Carolina offers rich resources for understanding Islamic art, culture and influences with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations and professors like Glaire Anderson whose specialty is Islamic art and architecture during the caliphal period and artistic exchanges between Islam and Christianity, as well as female patronage.

Painting of Christian and Muslim Playing Ouds is courtesy of Alfonso X, the 13th century, and Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, February 10

Competition?

The intense clamor to cut costs won't stop with governments but could extend to charity, too. Some needs are too great to rely on resources delivered in an uneven way. A lack of food or shelter among large groups of people, inadequate education for entire communities of children, can pose a security risk.

Writing an opinion essay for Commonweal, Fran Quigley, a professor of law at Indiana University, proposes that the United States end the tax deduction for making charitable contributions, replacing the system with solid social welfare programs managed by government. Ending the deduction would provide an additional $50 billion annually to government coffers.

US citizens donate more than do citizens of other countries. "We Americans get to vote with our wallets on what kind of support we want to offer the poor, an arrangement hat suits our individualism as well as our suspicion of bureaucracy," Quigley writes, but adds, "The generosity of Americans, impressive though it is, does not meet the needs of America's poor." He goes on to describe research that suggests the recipients of charity often feel demeaned.

For some, certainly not all, the purpose of charity may be to alleviate guilt or instill a sense of superiority.

Rob Meiksins responds to Quigley's argument for NPQ, NonProfit Quarterly, pointing out that the deduction not simply addresses needs but also quality of life: "It is about ensuring that we have a deep and meaningful cultural base to our society that both entertains and challenges."

Such arguments inspired Allure of Deceit, a novel about charity gone wrong. Worries about inequality in charitable giving and misplaced priorities inspired an opinion essay, and work on the novel began soon afterward. Why does one school district get a windfall and not another? Why does society step aside from setting firm priorities?  "Tax deductions for charitable giving effectively put the public good in the hands of wealthy donors and pet causes – at the expense of government revenue for the fair and reliable provision of services," I wrote for the Christian Science Monitor four years ago.

Allure of Deceit picks up after the murder of a wealthy inventor and his wife while on their honeymoon. Their will and trust documents shock family and friends alike, and lead to creation of the world's largest family foundation to support programs in the developing world. The reason for the shock? The young wife had dedicated her research questioning the inequality of charitable giving as well as the connected history and etymology of "forgiving," "charity," and "wrongdoing," as detailed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The corrupt can give, too, and shape minds. Corruption and waste in government hurts all government programs, and the same applies to charities, too.

Photo of unemployed men, 1931, lined outside a soup kitchen, started in Chicago by gangster Al Capone, courtesy of US Information Agency and Wikimedia Commons. 

Contact Seventh Street Books for review copies of Allure of Deceit. 









Wednesday, February 4

Motives

Mystery writers and readers are among the most contented, stable, productive people I know, yet so many of our acquaintances question we feel compelled to read and write about crime and murder.

Rachel Franks offers an answer, in her essay, "Motive for Murder: Reading Crime Fiction," for the ALIA Biennial Conference - these stories teach us about ourselves:

"Crime fiction focuses on what it means to be human, and how complex humans are, because stories of murders, and the men and women who solve them, comment on what drives some people to take a life and what drives others to avenge that life which is lost."

And then she goes on to quote the late P.D. James and her 2009 book Talking About Detective Fiction:

"[N]ot by luck or divine intervention, but by human ingenuity, human intelligence and human courage. It confirms our hope that, despite some evidence to the contrary, we live in a beneficent and moral universe in which problems can be solved by rational means and peace and order restored from communal or personal disruption and chaos." (p. 174).

Readers of mysteries are determined to root out and destroy evil, to restore justice. The question "Why?" may be the most essential to solving problems and understanding others. The investigation is not so easy in the wake of cruelty and pain.

Tuesday, February 3

Silk Road

A number of cookbooks have focused on the Silk Road, the network of trade routes winding through Asia and Europe, but few are as ambitious as Silk Road Gourmet by Laura Kelley. She ties food and recipes of 30 nations with smart historical research and a keen sense of connections. Readers who enjoy a certain setting often want to try their hands at the cuisine - and for those who read about the Middle East, Central Asia, China and India, Kelley's books and blog are a treasure. She delves into historical records and editions in libraries and museums to explore crockery, processes, recipes. I first discovered her work by reading a BBC News article about onions that begins with a description of  Yale University's Babylonian Collection and the world's oldest known cookbooks on clay tablets. The article then goes on to praise Kelley's research and recipes.

"Exploring how food is a part of an ethnic group’s or nation’s material culture has always been a private interest of mine as well," her website notes. "Everywhere I went, I saw connections between cultures in their foods and big sweeping patterns of ingredients or methods of preparation sweeping across the Old World.  How the land and maritime routes of the Silk Road brought about an early period of globalization became the theme to express these ideas about food and the world."

One recipe from Kelley's widely acclaimed book that readers of Fear of Beauty will want to try: Chicken With Apricots in Lemon-Pepper Sauce. She notes the dish, spicy and sweet, is an example of the Persian influence on Afghan cooking. (Recall that the villagers of Laashekoh were refugees from earlier wars and migrated southeast through Afghanistan until settling in northern Helmand. Apricots have a role in the novel, along with pomegranates, cumin, saffron, raisins and other wonderful ingredients from the region).

Her recipe calls to mind an old favorite recipe from New England: roasted chicken with apricot-nut stuffing. The comparisons are not so outlandish considering that Kelley herself writes about "How Colonial Americans Were Inspired by Asian Spices": 

"When we think of the diets of our founding fathers and mothers, we imagine porridges, breads, fresh and preserved fruits and vegetables, and gently flavored roast meats.  What most people don’t realize is that the colonists had a taste for exotic fare from all over the world and would pay dearly for delicacies from India, China, Indonesia and other places far from the shores of North America. In addition to buying authentic food items, the colonists tried to recreate these dishes based on taste and the ingredients they had on hand."

The connections are constant in Kelley's work. Check out her blog for more recipes - and you won't be able to resist trying the entire collection! The love and attention that goes into her writing and research are inspiring.

Photo of women at an Afghan meal, courtesy of Wellcome Images and Wikimedia Commons.