I was inspired to read The Ebony Swan after reading Kay Hudson’s, Remembering Phyllis A. Whitney, a master of the mystery genre.
I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed her stories, years ago, and I hadn’t read all of her works, which added up to an impressive 77; the last three or four when she was in her nineties—Wow! What an inspiration to us all. Her numerous works included 39 Adult mysteries; 4 On Writing; 20 in Juvenile Fiction, and 14 YA.
Whitney was not only a prolific writer but also a force for advancing women’s recognition in the mystery genre. In the late 1980’s she wrote an open letter to Mystery Writers of America, admonishing them for their refusal to take women in the genre seriously. She pointed out that in their forty-one-year existence only seven women had been awarded the Edgar for best novel. Yes. It was time to become reacquainted with Phyllis Whitney.
I chose one of her last works, The Ebony Swan, a story that encompasses a subject dear to my heart: ballet.
With a light touch, Whitney draws the reader into the worlds she creates. In the Ebony Swan, it is the lush backdrop of the Virginia Tidewater, where we meet Alexandrina (Alex) Montoro, now in her seventies, once a world-renowned ballerina. Alex was married to the late distinguished author, Juan Gabriel Montoro; they had one child, Dolores.
The mystery: Why was Alex’s daughter dead? Twenty-five years earlier, Dolores died when she fell down a flight of steps, and Alex’s granddaughter, Susan, witnessed the tragedy at a very young age. Ruled an accident, Alex feared the unknown truth and remained silent.
Did Susan, in a fit of childish rage, push her mother? Juan Gabriel, still alive at the time, was found unconscious on the hall floor above where Dolores’s body lay. Was he somehow responsible, or was there someone else in the house that day?
After Dolores’s death, the unspoken turmoil and competing passions in the Montoro family exploded. Susan’s father took her away from Virginia and forbade her to have any contact with her maternal grandmother, but after his passing, Susan found herself at a crossroads and decided to return to Virginia.
Despite her grandmother’s joy to be reunited with her only grandchild, Susan is not welcomed by all. On the surface, her reception is friendly, but there is an undercurrent of fear and resentment. Could a return to the scene of her mother’s death jog Susan’s memory, and what will she remember? Who is friend and who is foe, she wonders, while getting to know Alex?
A hint of romance adds another dimension, but anger, jealousy betrayal and danger drive the story as the impact of one deed crosses two generations.
Some say Whitney’s books start too slow for today’s reading public because she spends time and words immersing us in location, atmosphere, and historical data, making them relevant to her character’s lives and the story; for me, it was a breath of fresh air. Phyllis Whitney’s gift for spinning a yarn with gossamer threads that weave together in beautifully crafted storytelling is still compelling.
Francine Paino, aka F. Della Notta, is a native New Yorker and a Texas transplant. She loves learning about her new State and enjoys melding the cultures and characteristics of two cities: New York and Austin.
In 2018, writing as F. Della Notte, she created the Housekeeper Mystery Series in the tradition of the clergy amateur sleuths, with a 21st-century twist. The housekeeper isn’t a sidekick; she is the sleuthing equal of the priest. The second book in the Housekeeper Mystery Series, CATWALK DEAD, will be released in 2019.
One of the most frequent, if not the number one, questions asked when joining a book club is, “Who is your favorite author?” My inside voice always answers, “Do you have to have just one?” If you are a reader and a book lover, one author, or even one genre, can never be enough.
Six months ago, I joined an on-line book club. I needed to change my lifelong reading patterns. I was in a rut and had no idea of what I was getting myself into but decided to make it through the first month and see what it was about. Many of the book clubs were based on physical type book clubs–everyone read the same book, made comments, and moved on to the next book. But I did find one that was different; it comprised competitive teams reading for points.
I was reading anyway–why not? It was one of the best choices I could have made.
The founders/administrators are young to middle-aged adults. The members’ ages range widely with “oldie but goodies” thrown in the mix. The approximately 1000 members are divided into specific teams with an overriding theme for each month: Superheroes DC Icons, Tricksters, Lovers (Valentines), Broadway musicals, etc. At first blush, maybe a bit silly you might think.
So exactly what does this club do differently? It is a competitive reading book club – the more you read, the more points you are awarded, and the team with the most points is the monthly winner. Sounds simple right?
Each team is provided monthly activities under two primary lists: a Criteria list and a Bonus list. There is always an author highlight –three to four authors–and you choose one to read. The Bonus point list includes activities for additional points. These are alternative choices such as cooking, crafting, watching a documentary or movie, providing weekly book reviews, posting Instagram photos daily, or creating something uniquely yours as an opportunity to garner extra points for your team.
While this may appear to be busy work or something less, it is first a community of readers striving together with reading as it core principle. It additionally is a forum for young and old readers to meet online regardless of physical location and to join together in their love of reading. The Criteria listing exposes readers to new authors, subjects, and genres, but you can read whatever you want regardless of subject matter or format.
The benefit is that, whatever you read in whatever form you receive it, the more you read, the more points your team accumulates. But, best of all, you can read for the joy of reading.
A wide variety of delivery formats are accepted, including physical books, audio books, Fanfiction, and E-books. Regardless of the reading form, the page counts equal points. Format is not important; reading is the goal. Extra points can be garnered using your smart phone by taking pictures, writing reviews, and posting. Social media is used widely among the members. Computer skill sets are used and keep members engaged on a variety of levels. (A good skill set for older readers).
What I Learned
Many established authors advise that to be a good writer, you must first be a reader. What is a better research tool than a book club to see what readers are interested in reading?
I joined this book club because I wanted more information about the current market, what was selling, who was writing, and the current subjects of interest to others. I also needed to change my reading habits and see what was popular among current book buyers. I finally had the time to explore a wide array of reading material and believed this was a good start.
Although initially frustrated with the choice of authors at times (young adult) or difficulty finding novels that met the criteria such as “Read a book with the title written in Green, Purple, or Gold”; Read a book featuring a taboo subject,” I continued signing up for another month.
(Believe me, as plain as these requirements might look at first, finding books you might want to read under these simple criteria can be a bit tricky).
I began to look forward to the announcement of each month’s winners, the next team themes, the range of highlighted authors, the criteria list and beginning the hunt for reading material that would meet that month’s focus.
It became apparent rather quickly that there is a large group of young adults and middle-aged adults who are buying and reading books in all kinds of formats and a multitude of subjects. They are sharing their love of reading in formats never imagined. Reading is alive and well despite the warning that print books are declining.
And I learned that I have missed some very worthy authors, at times by dismissing young adult literature as a reading option. Despite being categorized as “young adult,” these very same novels deal with difficult real-life issues and provide support and help in dealing with terrible events: the Holocaust, rape, drug addiction, child abuse, and dysfunctional families.
Joining has been an enlightening experience and has offered myriad alternative options to my tried and true reading habits. While the group is based online and does not physically meet, it is nonetheless a vigorous community committed to reading varied types of literature in many formats. It has also pushed me to establish reading goals, and for that I am very grateful. I believe that not only have a become a better reader over the past six months but that it has opened numerous possibilities for more confident writing in the future.
Some of the books read since November 2018
Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book
Jona Oberski, Childhood
Carol Rifka Brunt, Tell the Wolves I’m Home
Michael Cannell, Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, The Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling
Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Ruth Ware, The Lying Game
Olivia Kiernan, Too Close to Breathe : A Novel
Photos courtesy of Amazon.com
A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.
In her 2001 collection Rereadings, Anne Fadimanchallenged writers to revisit books they read before they were twenty-five, and still re-read. Contributor Arthur Krystal (his favorite re-read is a boxing book, Witwer’s The Leather Pushers), quotes George Orwell: “The books one read in childhood, and perhaps most all bad and good bad books, create in one’s mind a sort of false map of the world, a series of fabulous countries into which one can retreat at odd moments.”
Oh yes, “odd moments,” like when the world is too much with us. Then I repair to the shelves and drag off not only my pre-twenty-five faves (Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, Jane Austen, Kim) but also later loves: Patrick O’Brian, tattered volumes by Dorothy Dunnett, mysteries by Rowling/Galbraith, Marsh, Hillerman—and, especially, John Le Carré. Over and over I return to the travails, humiliations, and perilous triumph of his character George Smiley. Sometimes re-reading feels guilty—shouldn’t I be reading Important New Novels, not the Le Carré spy novel genre?—but it’s guilty pleasure, like getting on a train clutching a Hershey-bar-with-almonds I don’t have to share.
One Rereadings contributor vindicated my re-reading of Le Carré. The terrific Pico Iyer addressed D. H. Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gypsy, which he discovered “within the tightly guarded confines of a fifteenth-century English boarding school.” Iyer says, “[Lawrence] had something in common with all the great English writers who railed against English narrowness and skepticism (Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham, John Berger and John le Carré)….”
Yes! An English writer calling Le Carré a “great English writer”! Rereading is justified!
For instance, consider Le Carré’s genius for character depiction. Let’s look at just two of his repeating characters, George Smiley and Peter Guillam, and their relationship, in three books: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974); Smiley’s People (1980); and his recent A Legacy of Spies (2017). Le Carré builds Smiley in part through others’ eyes:
From the outset of this meeting, Smiley had assumed for the main a Buddha-like inscrutability… He sat leaning back with his short legs bent, head forward, and plump hands linked across his generous stomach. His hooded eyes had closed behind the thick lenses. His only fidget was to polish his glasses on the silk lining of his tie, and when he did this his eyes had a soaked, naked look that was embarrassing to those who caught him at it. (Tinker)
A police superintendent describes the complexity behind Smiley’s face, in Smiley’s People:
Not one face at all actually, the Superintendent reflected….More your whole range of faces. More your patchwork of different ages, people, and endeavours. Even—thought the Superintendent—of different faiths.
He’s so physically unimposing as to be nearly comical, yet his intellect and ferocious tenacity come across to other characters. We come to understand why he inspires fear in his adversaries and devotion in those, like Peter Guillam, whom he has mentored.
In other words, I can pick up my Hershey bar with confidence that—again—Smiley will triumph…for the Circus…at least for a time. I have the same confidence as Guillam that Smiley will ultimately succeed…for this battle. So, another bite of Hershey bar.
And I, like Guillam, have confidence that while others are still scrambling to see the big picture, Smiley will ultimately hold all the threads in his hand. But—again like Guillam—I cannot see all the threads, until the end, if then.
Le Carré uses physical description to support Smiley’s reliance on Peter Guillam for sometimes perilous tasks. We see the younger Guillam in Tinker:
Guillam drove languidly but fast. Smiley wondered how old Guillam was and guessed forty, but in that light he could have been an undergraduate sculling on the river, he moved the gear lever with a long flowing movement as if he were passing it through water.
Le Carré shows us Guillam in action when at Smiley’s request Guillam sneaks into the Circus to steal records. Despite appalling potential consequences, under the very eyes of Smiley’s adversaries, Guillam pulls off a bald-faced daylight theft:
Move. Once you stop, you never start again: there is a special stage-fright that can make you dry up and walk away, that burns your fingers when you touch the goods and turns your stomach to water. Move…. His shirt was clinging to his ribs. What’s happened to me? Christ, I’m over the hill. He turned forward and back, forward again, twice, three times, then closed the cupboard on the lot. He waited, listened, took a last worried look at the dust, then stepped boldly across the corridor, back to the safety of the men’s room.
Then, when we meet him later in Smiley’s People, Guillam’s still fast-moving and independent (the Porsche has a role in the plot):
Guillam, it may be added, was an athlete, half French, but more English on account of it; he was slender, and near enough handsome—but though he fought it every inch of the way, he was also close on fifty, which is the watershed that few careers of ageing fieldmen survive. He also owned a brand-new German Porsche car, which he had acquired, somewhat shamefacedly, at diplomatic rates, and parked, to the Ambassador’s strident disapproval, in the Embassy car-park.
Guillam worked for Smiley on and off for years. By the uncomfortably present time of A Legacy of Spies, both are retired and have not seen each other in nearly a decade. Did Guillam ever see the big picture? He asks himself that question as first-person narrator of A Legacy of Spies, where we see everything through his eyes. British interrogators haul him out of retirement in France and back to London, where they confiscate his British passport (he’s hidden another elsewhere). They repeatedly demand, “Where’s George? When did you last see George? Or talk to him?” Guillam hasn’t, and won’t, until the last five pages of Legacy. The plot involves laying blame on Guillam for decades-old failures at the Circus, and Guillam has to rely on decades-old tradecraft skills to escape, plus, appropriately, some new skills, like resorting to his hearing aids (“deaf aids”) to buy time in his interrogation:
[‘Bunny’ Butterfield] “Let me ask you just one question ahead of the rest of the field. May I?” —squeeze of the eyes. “Operation Windfall. How was it mounted, who drove it, where did it go so wrong, and what was your part in it?”
Does an easing of the soul take place when you realize your worst expectations have been fulfilled? Not in my case.
“Windfall, Bunny, did you say?”
“Windfall”—louder, in case he hasn’t reached my deaf aids.
Keep it slow. Remember you’re of an age. Memory not your strong point these days. Take your time.
But when it appears his captors won’t let him go, Guillam is off and running
When the truth catches up with you, don’t be a hero, run. But I took care to walk, slowly, into Dolphin Square and up to the safe flat I knew I would never sleep in again. Draw curtains, sigh resignedly for the television set, close bedroom door. Extract French passport from dead letter box behind fire precautions notice. There is a calming ritual to escape. Don clean set of clothes. Shove razor in raincoat pocket, leave the rest in place. Make my way down to grill room, order light meal, settle to my boring book like a man reconciled to a solitary evening. Chat up Hungarian waitress in case she has reporting responsibility.…Saunter into courtyard….Prepare to join exodus to Embankment, never to return.
No spoilers about Guillam’s final reunion with George Smiley. A Legacy of Spies feels even more complex than earlier plots, given Guillam’s flashbacks and immersion in old records, and more immediate with his first-person narration. Of course, British cold war spylore is still a trip to another country, though not necessarily as Orwell says a “false map of the world.” Indeed, Guillam puzzles over whether the Circus itself had a false map of the world, whether even George Smiley had a false map of the world, or whether he himself—with his unquestioning patriotism—had one, and Smiley might have known it was false but did not tell him, for all the best reasons.
Most writers, like all artists who create work for public consumption, have to overcome their own inner critics to create a finished work. The voices of doubt are strong and loud in their heads. Will anyone read it? Will anyone like it? Will people hate it? In the past, that inner voice of self-doubt was the main voice an author had to overcome.
But today, writers face an additional level of fear and doubt between themselves and their goal of reaching publication. They face an online atmosphere of intimidation. They face a world in which a work may be torn apart by a Twitter mob or Facebook mob before it’s even published.
In the last few years, several YA novels (Blood Heir, A Place for Wolves, The Black Witch, and The Continent to name a few) have been delayed or pulled from the publishing process before their publication date because of online criticism. Someone found what he or she considered to be a flaw in the advance reader copies of the works and cried out loudly enough to enrage mobs of people echoing the criticisms.
In one case, someone was offended by a character’s racist ideology. The character was designed by the author to be racist and to grow to recognize their own racism as the story progresses. That was a point the author was trying to make. In another case, an Asian author, who wasn’t raised in the United States, wrote a fantasy story drawing from her own perspective and background which touched on the history of indentured servitude and human trafficking in Asia. She was charged with being insensitive to U. S. racial history and U. S. cultural context.
The authors were vilified online, attacked personally and professionally, until they or their publisher felt driven to pull their books from the publication schedule. Their stories were prevented or delayed from reaching an audience by mobs who hadn’t even read the books.
Authors’ voices of self-doubt are already strong. Throw a harassing mob on top of that inner critic, and many authors, especially debut authors, will fold under the weight of the criticism. Because of the fear of online mobs harassing, attacking, and vilifying them, some authors are censoring their work as they write it. They are looking for ways to avoid offending anyone. These authors decide to err on the side of caution. They think, “Perhaps if I avoid this subject altogether, I can avoid offending someone. Perhaps if I don’t mention (fill in the blank), no one will attack me.” And, so begins the self-stifling of free expression out of fear of mob rule. Differing points of view vanish. Stories go untold out of fear. Difficult subjects are avoided completely rather than discussed.
Still other writers deal with the issue by asking someone else to review their work, looking for potentially offensive material. They hire “sensitivity readers” in hopes of catching any potential problems before publication. They hope that one person’s opinion of what’s acceptable will work for everyone, an idea that is doomed to failure. Authors can’t control what different readers see in their words because every reader’s inner vision, life experiences, and point of view will be different. What one reader sees in a story, another may not see at all.
It’s not merely harsh reviews these authors fear. They fear being trolled. They fear their phone ringing with obscene calls and incessant threatening texts, their web pages and Facebook pages being overwhelmed with threatening comments. They fear receiving death threats. They fear nonstop harassment of their families. When mobs consider offending someone akin to physically harming them, authors who write about difficult subjects risk sparking nonstop attacks with every work they release.
We are living in a Fahrenheit 451 world, a world in which the crime of accidentally offending someone can cause a book to be pulled from publication before it ever reaches a single vendor. We live in a world in which the crime of offending someone is punishable by online lynching. We need these attacks to stop. We need all voices to be heard and debated, not silenced before they ever reach publication by people who deem themselves to be “woker-than-thou.”
N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Most recently, she has been writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories, the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017) and its sequel coming in fall 2019. Learn more at www.nmcedeno.com or amazon.com/author/nmcedeno
Hey! Hey! Holy Mackerel! The Cubs are on the field!
Baseball’s back, and I’m celebrating with a return to one of my favorite subjects—The Chicago Cubs. Yes, I am a huge Cubbies fan, so much so, I wrote a book about it, THREE DAYS AT WRIGLEY FIELD.
Why? Easy. Chicago Cub blood runs in my veins. And I come by it honestly. Blame my father, Ed Gabel.
Born on Chicago’s northside in 1920, Dad was a lifelong Cubs fan. In his lifetime he never saw his team win the World Series. Oh, they went a few times, but no World Championship. That never stopped him from rooting for the Cubs. I swear his DNA had Cubbie blue genes in it, and I inherited those beautiful blue chromosomes. I was a Cub fan from conception.
Wrigley Field was only six years old when my dad was born, so you could say the two grew up together. I remember he talked about how, during the depression, Mr. Wrigley let the neighborhood kids come in and sweep down the stands after games. Their payment was a free ticket to the next day’s game. Dad did a lot of sweeping back then.
When he was seventeen (i.e. 1937) Wrigley Field underwent a few renovations, enlarged for more seating, and put up the huge, iconic, hand-operated centerfield scoreboard. (Which is still in use!) And Bill Veeck (who started out with the Cubs) planted the bittersweet ivy along the outfield wall.
Yep, my dad loved the Cubs, and he passed that passion on to me. Sometimes a curse, but mostly a blessing. Hey, it’s taught me that success has many faces, and that it’s a cardinal sin to be a fair-weather fan. (And yes, that’s a direct dig at that team from St. Louis).
I wrote THREE DAYS AT WRIGLEY FIELD before the Cubs won the 2016 World Series. My favorite review from Publishers Weekly Booklife Prize called it “a love letter to baseball and powerful page turner.” A love letter to baseball. Yes, that’s exactly what it is.
Then came 2016, and my Cubbies won the World Series. As I watched play resume after that nineteen minute rain delay in the ninth inning, I thought of my father. Although he was long gone, I felt I was watching the unbelievable come true—but not just for me, for my dad as well.
To capture that soul-filling love in a book is humbling and exhilarating. I invite you to experience that love with me. Give THREE DAYS AT WRIGLEY FIELD a read.