Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Favorite Reads of 2014

As a book reviewer for Shelf Awareness, I read and review at least three titles per month. Below is a short list of some of my favorite reads from 2014.  Hope you'll discover a title, plot line, topic or author that might interest you enough to feed your e-reader and/or support your local indie bookshop.

To learn more about any of the selections, click on the highlighted titles for additional information:

This riveting short book, with concise chapters, is narrated by a disillusioned, middle-aged French woman who owns a fabric shop. When she wins the lottery, she chooses not to tell those she loves about the windfall right away. An interesting examination about want and need and pondering changes in life.

Irish-Catholic family dysfunction straddles the past and the present in this  accessible, multi-generational saga (with dashes of humor and romance) about an aging woman with "holes in her memory" who is forced to stitch together the past in order to better grasp the truth of who she is.  

This absurdist comedy of manner offers a timeless, vivid take on the 1990s - before the advent of cell phones, email and reality shows. When an aging mother suffers a freak accident, her two disparate daughters, sisters who've never seen eye-to-eye, are reunited and forced to confront each other and figure out what they truly want out of life.  

An atmospheric historical novel centered around an arranged marriage and a cabinet-sized replica of 17th Century Amsterdam home. When an elusive miniaturist is enlisted to furnish the house and replicate dolls of the inhabitants, eerie and chilling coincidences start to mirror real-life happenings . . . part love story, part suspense novel, part thriller. 

This book was released in 2013, but I only read it in 2014.  This thought-provoking novel of contemporary domestic fiction is set in Australia and centers on the lives of three women. Moriarity braids the tumultuous threads of each separate life together to explore the ways in which, married or single, we can never really know the ones we love.

A tender, graceful story about a successful businesswoman who must settle her great-aunt Ruby's estate - including deciding the fate of Ruby's beloved children's bookshop in Seattle. While sorting through papers, letters between Ruby and Margaret Wise Brown, the writer of Goodnight Moon, a classic children's book, are discovered. In the process, secrets are revealed that have the power to change lives.

A single, hermetic, New York City writer--with a keen eye and perceptive, searing wit--goes on a quest to find Mr. Right.  But when a serious illness strikes, this very entertaining social satire--that pokes fun at helicopter moms, young/self-important urban professionals, entrenched New Yorkers and fanatical city dog-owners--gains unexpected depth and profundity.

Caldwell writes exquisite, insightful memoirs about turning points in life, and this time she delivers a moving and powerful story about her midlife odyssey to reconstruct her leg crippled by and degenerating from childhood polio. A ruminative, wise, uplifting meditation on growing older and wiser.

The true story about this secretive nanny who was a gifted (yet closeted) street photographer is intriguing, however sad. Maier's photography only came to light and brought her fame after her death, when a trove of more than 100,000 images were discovered in a locker. This mammoth collection brings together the best of her best work.

A riveting thriller that keeps readers consistently off-balance. The story centers on a lonely, single woman--an alcoholic jilted in romance--who rides the rails in London and suddenly finds herself caught up in murder investigation in her old neighborhood.  Some are predicting this will be the Gone Girl of the new year!

Happy Reading in 2015 !  

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Christmas Cat

A single, 34 year-old man, with an aversion and allergy to cats, is faced with the methodical task of finding suitable homes for six precious felines in The Christmas Cat, a heartwarming novel by Melody Carlson (The Christmas Dog). Garrison Brown—trying to build a new life in Seattle after spending nine years doing missionary work in Uganda, battling malaria and nursing a broken heart in romance—receives word, near Christmas, that his widowed grandmother has died of a heart attack.

Summoned to Vancouver, Washington to settle her affairs, Garrison is surprised to learn that his frugal "Gram"—who raised him after his parents died in a car crash when he was 12 years-old—left behind her house, fully paid off, along with a substantial nest egg. Before Garrison can claim his inheritance, however, he is designated as "the keeper of the cats," responsible for following Gram's detailed, stringent criteria to match each cat's unique personality to his or her prospective new owner. Once Garrison can prove each cat is happily settled, the selected adoptive families will each receive $10,000. Where does this leave Garrison—especially with his feelings about cats? And just how should he roll out the plan in order to sift through suitable adoptive homes from mere gold diggers?

What ensues is a lighthearted story of Garrison's reconnection to his old neighborhood, his interacting with strangers who may become friends—or even something more—and his rekindling old hopes and dreams. Carlson, prolific in feel-good, faith-based fiction, once again delivers an affirming tale brimming with compassion and charm.

The Christmas Cat by Melody Carlson
Fleming H. Revell Company, $15.99 Hardcover, 9780800719661, 169 pp
Publication Date: September 2, 2014
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (9/12/14), click HERE

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Writer's Garden

Jackie Bennett (former editor of The Garden Design Journal) offers an intimate glimpse into the country homes and gardens of notable, accomplished British poets, essayists and novelists in The Writer's Garden: How gardens inspired our best-loved authors. This coffee table book examines the lives of nineteen, diversely accomplished British writers and how their  private residences facilitated their work: Virginia Woolf wandered the room-like gardens at Monk's House while she labored over Mrs. Dalloway. Charles Dickens tended daily to the gardens at Gad's Hill Place before tackling masterpieces like Great Expectations. The woodland paths and boathouse at Greenway inspired Agatha Christie's Dead Man's Folly. And would there have ever been a James and the Giant Peach had Roald Dahl not studied his own fruit orchard and crawly creatures in the gardens at Gipsy House?

Archival images and vivid landscape photographs by Richard Hanson accompany the profiles and enhance each intimate glimpse into the countryside sanctuaries that fed the imaginations of great writers. "Written in Residence" sidebars offer lists of works created at each locale, and epilogues explain what became of the homes and gardens after the death of each revered wordsmith.

(Photographs by Richard Hanson)
Frances Lincoln Publishers, $40.00 Hardcover, 9780711234949, 176 pp
Publication Date: November 1, 2014
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (11/29/14), click HERE

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

 Can Thanksgiving still be Thanksgiving without serving a turkey dinner?

Thursday, November 27, 2014
Opinion/Editorial: "Other Views" (Section A-23)

To read the article in its entirety, click on the highlighted title above

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sonya Cobb: The Value of Craftsmanship and Art

The Writer's Life

 Sonya Cobb has worked as an advertising copywriter for 26 years. After having her children, she turned to writing fiction as a way to reclaim a part of herself "that had been neglected for way too long." In her debut novel, The Objects of Her Affection (read the book review below), a wife and mother becomes a thief who steals Renaissance works from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Cobb lives in Westchester County, N.Y., with her two children and her husband, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
You say that the heroine of the novel "bears more than a passing resemblance" to you. Was this a conscious choice?
Job Number One for me was making my story feel as real and true as possible, and like many first-time novelists, I found it easiest to tap into my own reality for material. Becoming a mother was a powerful experience, with a lot of very complicated, mixed emotions that I thought could, in certain situations, drive someone to desperate acts. I decided to start with the very real feelings I had as a working mother with two small children. Then I imposed some dire circumstances on my character and imagined what the result would be. So it was a little bit like exploring my own life in a parallel universe, if things had gone very badly for me.
Tell us about the research needed to write this novel.
I love research because it provides a fun little escape from the tough business of writing--but you don't feel guilty about it because it's absolutely necessary. My husband has a vast library of art books, which I turned to for information about Nuremberg goldsmiths and Saint-Porchaire ceramics. I also spent time wandering the galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and exploring the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's web site. Finally, I turned to auction websites when I was looking for smaller, not-quite-museum-quality objects that could plausibly be found languishing in a storage room.
How and why did you select the specific art and artifacts the heroine steals in the novel?
I chose decorative objects because they're easier to slip into a bag than, say, a painting. I picked silver because there's so much of it out there--some of it very old and valuable, most of it not. So it's plausible that a museum could have received a large batch of family silver that went straight into storage, and that one or two super-valuable pieces could have escaped the curators' notice.
Some of the objects I describe are real, and some are loosely based on real objects. All of the artists mentioned are real. The Jamnitzer mirror is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The van Vianen tazza, a footed dish, is loosely based on a piece in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Saint-Porchaire candlestick is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art.
In the story, museum security seems surprisingly lax. Is this typical? 
For the most part, the scenarios that allow Sophie, the protagonist, to steal objects simply wouldn't happen in a modern-day museum. Storage practices are quite rigorous, and visitors--even curators' spouses--are never allowed to be anywhere near museum objects without an escort. They're never allowed to enter storage areas at all. The system of object cards that I describe in the book has been replaced by collection management software such as The Museum System (TMS), which is widely used by most major museums to keep track of works of art.
Illegal art trafficking contributes to the suspense of the novel. What knowledge or experience, if any, do you have with black markets and dealers?
Early on in the writing of the novel, I was inspired by Robert Wittman's book, Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures. The founder of the FBI's Art Crime Team, Wittman describes dozens of thefts that he investigated over the years. I was most fascinated by the petty thefts--the small, often unnoticed objects that would be pilfered from storage areas by museum employees. I learned that while famous works of art are almost impossible to sell, those smaller objects often disappear into the black market without a trace. 
An old house and a major renovation figure prominently in the story. Is this something that personally interests you?
My husband and I renovated a Civil War-era row house very similar to the one I describe in the book. I fell in love with the house and its history. The row house was an early example of mass production: every house on a block was exactly the same, with stock decorative details that were produced in great quantities. Nevertheless, everything was made from noble materials, with care and attention to aesthetic matters. In my house we found, under the wallpaper, a signature by "The Plaster Boys," dated 1863. They were proud of their work! Beauty, artistry and craftsmanship were still valued at that time, even as we emerged from the industrial revolution. Sophie and I both feel sad about the demise of those values in today's world.
Please discuss the themes of the novel--the idea of want and need and the value we place on things and aspects of our lives.
Sometimes I feel oppressed by the amount of "stuff" we're surrounded by in today's world--the piles of cheap, mass-produced goods we bring home from the store in big plastic bags. These goods are inexpensive and plentiful, so you could say they have little value in a monetary sense, and they lack value because we have no connection to the people who made them. If you buy a ceramic bowl at Target, you probably don't spend any time thinking about the person who designed it, or the person who glazed it. But if you own a tazza crafted by van Vianen--the silversmith who eventually left the trade to take over his father's brewery--you own a part of someone's story. That, in itself, has a lot of value apart from the aspects of supply and demand. It connects us to one another, even across centuries.
Sophie, the protagonist, is struggling with her own sense of value, and work is important to her sense of identity, just as it probably was for van Vianen and Jamnitzer. When Sophie learns the story behind the van Vianen tazza, she begins to understand the true value of work, and she begins to grasp the enormity of her crime.
The Objects of Her Affection blends suspense with domestic and marital issues. Did you find it difficult to balance these aspects?
It was incredibly difficult... and tricky: the story has to move, but it takes time to develop your characters' inner struggles. I've never truly enjoyed novels that are purely plot-driven or purely character-driven, so I set out knowing very clearly what my task would be. Being a first-time novelist, though, I had to toss out writing that was either too slow or too fast or not contributing toboth character and story. 
What are your future literary plans?
I'm working on a second novel that explores themes of work, class, human nature and creativity through the eyes of two very different characters. 

Note: This interview is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this 
Q&A as originally published on Shelf Awareness  (8/29/14), click HERE

The Objects of Her Affection

An ordinary woman becomes a thief of Renaissance art in order to pay the bills in The Objects of Her Affection, an engrossing novel by Sonya Cobb that focuses on themes of want and need.

The Porters are a young, seemingly idyllic Philadelphia family. Beneath the surface, however, Sophie Porter and her husband Brian want different things. Brian, a workaholic curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is focused mainly on his career, constantly traveling. Sophie, feeling neglected and at a professional standstill as a web developer, thinks being approved for a hefty mortgage on a 150-year-old fixer-upper house will empower her life and give the couple's two children the childhood she herself never had.

Brian sees all the problems with the house, while Sophie sees a perfect future. When their approved adjustable-rate mortgage suddenly skyrockets and the Porters can't pay the bills, Sophie panics, yet she keeps the financial anxieties a secret. While visiting Brian at the museum one day, she discovers a trove of small, poorly stored, valuable works of art. Sophie 'accidentally' makes off with a Renaissance decorative mirror. Fearful of having to return it and thinking it might pay off some debt, she sells it to an art dealer who befriends Sophie while pulling her into a life of crime.

"She only wanted what was best for her family," Cobb writes about her deeply flawed, risk-taking protagonist with whom some readers will empathize. The thought-provoking, suspenseful plot will also hold crossover appeal for fans of thrillers as well as those intrigued by the lives of ordinary people misguided by their decisions and desires.

Sourcebooks Landmark, $14.99 Trade Paper, 9781402294242, 337 pp
Publication Date: August 1, 2014
To order via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (8/1/14), click HERE

Friday, November 21, 2014

Italian-American Pilgrims

From My Shelf

In my novella Cold Comfort, a workaholic photojournalist returns to an Italian-American enclave in Rhode Island to spend Thanksgiving with her only remaining relative, a hip 96-year-old aunt who texts and blogs. Challenged by a blizzard and a blackout, the aunt is intent on serving the family's traditionally Italian, seven-course Thanksgiving feast when a character off-handedly remarks, "Maybe your aunt thinks the pilgrims were Italian?"
With Italians, it's always about the food. But Italian-American culture has brought more to the American table than just culinary prowess. Their immigrant influence has distinctly touched all the arts--especially the literary landscape heralded by Gay Talese, Francine Prose, Mario Puzo and Adriana Trigiani.
Joseph Luzzi launches My Two Italies, his deeply personal Italian-American memoir, with a story about how, as a boy, a beloved aunt arrived at his house one morning and gave him a pet rabbit that, hours later, wound up served on the family dinner table. This is just the beginning of Luzzi's historical examination of the contradictions imbued in Italian culture both in the U.S. and abroad.
In All This Talk of Love, novelist Christopher Castellani lovingly explores the hopes, wishes and dreams of the Grasso family, Italian-American immigrants and their offspring, who, in this last book in a sweeping trilogy, must cope with their roots, the price of sacrifice and loss, myths and memories.
Italian-American writer Ann Hood chronicles a strongly feminine point-of-view in her novel An Italian Wife, a multi-generational saga centered on Josephine Rimaldi, a young woman who journeys from Italy for an arranged marriage and how the trajectory of her life is sensuously infused by family, faith and love.
Maybe after you whip up some Turkey Tetrazzini and Pumpkin Pie Gelato from your Thanksgiving leftovers, you'll be inspired to crack the cover on a book penned by a "pilgrim" of Italian-American descent. 

Note: This article is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this piece as published on Shelf Awareness for Readers (11/18/14), link HERE 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Good Dog: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Loyalty

Garden & Gun is a magazine devoted to the best of Southern food, music, arts, literature and sports. The "Good Dog" column, which highlights personal stories about purebreds and mutts--good or bad, living or dead--has become a reader favorite. In Good Dog: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Loyalty, David DiBenedetto and the editors of Garden & Gun offer a diverse compilation of the most memorable essays (and some new additions) about dogs and why we love them—no matter what!

The 51 stories in the anthology are by notable writers--novelists, journalists and humorists--most of whom have a connection to the South and whose lives have been affected, for better or worse, by dogs. The anthology is broken down into five sections: The Troublemakers, Afield, Man's Best Friend, Family Ties and Life Lessons.

Some essays are profound; Mary Lou Bendrick's "Last Rites" details the experience of her dog's grand exit from the world. Straddling the line between pathos and humor are essays such as "Licked to Death by a Pit Bull," in which Bronwen Dickey fights the prejudice against a notorious "bully breed." Comic relief infuses others; in "My Mother, My Dog," Donna Levine believes her cockapoo is her mother reincarnated, noting their relationship "has never been better."

Regardless of whether the pets have been adopted from an animal rescue or purchased from a breeder, acquired to offer companionship or protection, each story conveys the endearing sense of love, loyalty and resilience that comes from sharing a life with dogs.

Good Dog: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Loyalty by David DiBenedetto and the editors of Garden & Gun
HarperWave, $25.99 Hardcover, 9780062242358, 288 pp
Publication Date: October 21, 2014
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (10/31/14), click HERE

This review was also featured (in a much longer form) on Shelf Awareness: Book Trade (10/10/14). To read the longer review click HERE

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Beguiling Haunted Houses

From My Shelf: Happy Halloween!

A house is normally considered a safe place. In fiction, however, when a house has creaky stairs, rattling shutters, dark attics and basements and trapped secrets that embody the shadowy essence of unnerving spirits, scary becomes even scarier--especially on Halloween.

Shirley Jackson paved the way with her terrifying 1959 novel, The Haunting of Hill House, where four people investigate an 80-year-old house filled with spirits and other unexplained events. Richard Matheson expanded that premise in Hell House (1971), where a physicist and two mediums examine a spooky shuttered house in Maine presumably haunted after serving as a domicile for decadence, drugs and alcohol.
The unifying elements of haunted house novels--past and present--seem to be long-buried secrets, demons from the past that need to be confronted and escalating suspense.

This House Is Haunted by John Boyne is set in a country estate in 1860s Norfolk. This Dickens-inspired story centers on a governess who cares for two seemingly parentless children and a malign, supernatural presence that taunts them.
An old carriage house on a sprawling estate invigorates Rebecca Makkai's The Hundred-Year House, where a young couple faces unexpected rumors of buried bodies, family mysteries and the presence of a ghost immortalized in a prominently displayed portrait.
Long-dead, lingering spirits--former residents of an old country house--jostle with an estranged, contemporary family, heirs who have come to sort through the detritus of their departed patriarch in Rooms, an imaginative, explosive story by Lauren Oliver.
In A Sudden Light, Garth Stein has crafted an atmospheric ghost story set in a rambling Pacific Northwest ancestral estate. This epic tale is part family saga and part mystery, infused with secrets, curses, dark familial legacies and a tragic love affair.
While jack-o'-lanterns, bats and witches are all symbols of Halloween, it's the haunted house, where ghosts and a fear of the unknown collide, that keeps readers bound captive to the page! 

Note: This article is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this piece as published on Shelf Awareness for Readers (10/31/14), link HERE

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Great Grisby

Part history book, part memoir, The Great Grisby written by Oxford-educated, Mikita Brottman, PhD (Thirteen Girls) is a fascinating exploration of how dogs have changed people and the world in myriad ways. Brottman acquired her first dog, Grisby—a lovable, French bulldog—when she was close to 40 years-old. Her eight-year "love affair" with Grisby encouraged her to better understand their mutual affinity and the many roles dogs have historically played in the lives of others who share their loyal companionship. In the process, she unearthed a trove of information about the ineffable bond between notable humans and their canines.

Over 26 chapters, Brottman analyzes many stories including those of avant-gardes Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and their string of standard poodles; poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her inseparable connection to her cocker spaniel, Flush; Philosopher Schopenhauer and his attachment to all his dogs, always named Atma; Freud's late-life fondness for chows, especially females; Picasso and his curious relationship with Lump, his beloved dachshund; and aristocratic dogs including Prince Albert's greyhound, Eos, and Russian Princess Tatiana and Ortipo, the French bulldog gifted to her by a grateful soldier. Also included are references to the dogs of politicians and in-depth depictions of canines as featured in literature from Charles Dickens to Albert Camus.

Interspersed throughout short chapters, the author shares lively, personal anecdotes about Grisby and how he served as "a buffer...and a bridge" keeping Brottman connected to a world she concludes is generally more empathic because of human-canine kinship. 

The Great Grisby: Two Thousand Years of Literary, Royal, Philosophical, and Artistic Dog Lovers and Their Exceptional Animals by Mikita Brottman
Harper, $25.99 Hardcover, 9780062304612, 288 pp
Publication Date: October 7, 2014
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (10/14/14), click HERE

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Jessie Burton: When Imagination Takes Control

The Writer's Life
photo: Wolf Marloh

Oxford University graduate and actress Jessie Burton is English born and bred. Her debut novel, The Miniaturist (Ecco; review below), tells the story of a wealthy, dysfunctional family living in Amsterdam during the Dutch Golden Age. Burton claims her only connection to the Netherlands is having visited Amsterdam twice. On one of those trips, she visited the Rijksmuseum and was drawn to an eight-foot-tall cabinet house built in the late 17th century. Burton was intrigued by the "very beautiful, decorative object, full of detail, precision and imagination." When she discovered the miniature house was an exact replica of an actual house owned by a woman named Petronella Oortman--and that it cost the same as a full-blown townhouse to build and furnish--the writer in Burton began to consider the type of woman who would commission such a house and what sort of society would condone such an expenditure.
It took Burton four years and 17 drafts to perfect the novel. During that time, she got to know the characters better, layered and sculpted the story and enriched it. The finished project ultimately went to auction in Britain and around the world. The book will be published in 30 languages. Burton admits, "I would have been happy with one!"
When you first saw the cabinet house in Amsterdam, did you perceive the potential to write a historical novel immediately?
Not immediately, no. I bought the guidebook in the museum shop and kept reading and thinking about the cabinet house. A month or two later, I abandoned another writing project I had been working on and pictured this young woman, turning up in the city of Amsterdam to start a new life. It began as a short story--I had never written a full novel. But quickly it became clear I had a novel on my hands.
Tell us about the research necessary to create such an authentic 17th-century world.
I researched as I wrote. I needed the fictional story to pose factual questions rather than just me absorbing historical facts and regurgitating them as prose. I could neither afford the time nor money to travel extensively to Amsterdam, so I read a lot about the social and art history of the region, looked at paintings, and used Google maps and moved through the city, parts of which have barely changed since the 17th century!
I had the fictional skeleton of the novel in my head, but certain facts, like what pie they might have eaten and in what season, or the debts accrued with a tailor, or draconian citizenship policies, or the type of dog an Amsterdammer might have favored, would trigger my imagination and root the story in a factual, yet still impressionistic, setting. The facts that I learned allowed me to play. The priority was the story. Sometimes I conflated real-life events, sometimes I adhered to them in their chronological order. Other times, I rebelled, because it's a novel. I let imagination take control.
Did you ever have a dollhouse?
I did. When I was a child, I had a Sylvanian Families one, with little woodland animals instead of dolls. I adored it. I had a whole world--a nursery, a school, a shop, an ice-cream cart, a house... it was perfect.
The owners of the actual cabinet house--Nella Oortman and her wealthy, merchant husband, Johannes Brandt--are characters in the novel. How much of their lives is historically accurate and how much was invented? Were any other characters based on actual people?
Very little is based on actual lives. I was more interested in the object of the dollhouse as the inspirational springboard. I invented the ages of Nella and Johannes, the fact that it was Nella's first marriage and her rural upbringing. The novel is all invention except for their names, the historical setting and the fact that Nella owned the dollhouse. All the other characters are invented, too, but their presence has been inspired by many portraits and paintings I studied from that time.
Are there any characters in the novel to whom you feel a strong affinity/dislike?
I feel very deeply for Marin, Petronella's sister-in-law. She took me by surprise. Initially, she was supposed to be a sort of obstacle to Nella, and not much more, but then I realized how complicated and strong she was, how capable she was of love. I have no dislike of any of my characters. They all have their crosses to bear.
There are strong feminist overtones in the novel. Was it always your intention to build that platform into the storyline or did those aspects evolve through the writing?
I had no agenda nor pre-orchestrated intentions. My female characters are just who they are. If a male writer puts strength, color and adventure in the hands of his male characters, he is not asked if he is pursuing an agenda. Many people assume that what he's doing is the norm, because that is the overarching dominating history of Western literature--books by male writers portraying the male experience as universal, even when they're writing women characters. I am female, and it is quite normal for me to give the universal themes to my female protagonists. I didn't think twice.
Did you carefully plot out the novel before undertaking to write it?
I didn't know before I started writing what was going to happen in every chapter, but I had images in my mind--scenes, conversations, ideas I wanted to explore. I had a vague arc with a beginning and an end, and was always jotting down instructions to myself like, 'this has to happen--but where?' Gradually, through the long process, things all started slotting into place. But the process was not obvious.
Why did you choose to write the narrative in the present tense?
I chose the present tense to ratchet up the tension. The book takes place over three months, and I wanted readers to really feel they were seeing all this through Nella's eyes.
The story is visually rich and would certainly lend itself well to a TV or film adaption. Any prospects?
Thank you! On that subject, my lips are sealed!
You've been an actress in Britain for many years. Have you found any similarities between acting and writing?
I have always written--short stories, sketches, poetry. And writing has always gone hand in hand with my acting....The pursuit of a creative career is fraught with high expectations and disappointment... but I think acting and writing are actually very different. Acting works when the actors on stage are all in harmony with each other--it's communal, a mutual concerto, it's about listening and sharing. But writing is so solitary--you are ALL the actors, the director, the producer making sure you turn up for work... it's impossible for me to compare them as they use different parts of who I am.
Are you writing a second book? If so, will it be another historical novel?
Yes. My next book is set in Spain in 1937 and London, 1967. It is about identity and belonging, the chaos of war, missing bodies, an art theft, an unusual friendship and a woman who isn't who she says she is. That's all I can say for now! 

Note: This interview is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this Q&A on Shelf Awareness (Maximum Shelf, 5/21/14), click HERE