Relationships between mothers, daughters, and sisters, as they relate to one another as individuals and as a family unit, are complex. Now wrap them in the horrors, deprivations, losses, and dangers of World War II in Russia and France, and you have the foundations of two exceptional novels of mothers, daughters, and sisters in love and war.
Authors Kristin Hannah and Karen Robards place their readers in the middle of two families of women with fractured relationships. For one family, the war is over and it’s the traumatizing memories that cause the drama. For the other, the family’s story takes place in the midst of World War II.
In Kristin Hannah’s sweeping saga, The Winter Garden, World War II, specifically the siege of Leningrad, is the historical backdrop for the damaged Whitson family. The destructive tentacles of the past hold the emotionally scarred Anya Whitson in a stranglehold, impacting her relationship with her two daughters, Meredith and Nina, who were kept emotionally distant throughout their childhoods by their mother. Anya often expressed anger or indifference toward them, despite all attempts to please her. Sadly, the sisters believed their mother was a cold woman who did not love them. They had no idea of the past tragedies and secrets that had damaged Anya and created what seemed to be an impenetrable shell around her heart. Over time, a wall of pain and resentment developed between the sisters and lasted for decades, adding to the misunderstandings with their mother.
As an adult, Meredith, the more traditional of the two, stays close to home, marries, and helps run the apple orchard. She raises two children but keeps her husband at arm’s length. The other daughter, Nina, is a world-traveling photojournalist, and she stays away from the family as much as possible until their father’s failing health forces her to return.
On his deathbed, Evan Whitson demands a promise from his daughters. They are to get their mother to tell the entire fairy tale she’d partially told them as children, but after his death, Anya’s behavior becomes unbalanced. Again, they listen to the fairy tale about a prince and a peasant girl and remain confused, still unaware of the story’s significance.
One day, Meredith finds old papers with a letter from a Russian professor in Alaska addressed to Anya, stating that while he understood her refusal to tell her story, it would have been an excellent learning experience for others. Inspired by the professor’s words, the sisters take their mother on an Alaska trip, where they learn what had happened to her in Russia, the brutality of the German invasion, followed by the horror of life under Stalin.
Anya’s story weaves through an unimaginable nightmare as she tells her daughters the truth about living through the almost 900-day siege of Leningrad. Things begin to make sense about their mother’s bizarre behaviors. In Anya’s deliriums, she’d envisioned herself back in Leningrad during the siege and tried to strip and boil wallpaper to make soup, as the starving populace did because wallpaper pastes were made from potato starches. They also learned the tragic reason for her emotional connection to the winter garden outside her house, and why she seemed detached from her girls.
World War II is a past we only see through Anya’s tortured memories, but we suffer with her for what she’d endured, and we feel the pain of a mother and her daughters as they learn the truth and try to find forgiveness and love.
In The Black Swan of Paris, Karen Robards drops us into occupied Paris in 1944, in a historical thriller that keeps us on the edge of our seats with unrelenting tensions and fears – as life must have been for the resistance fighters of France.
The main character, Genevieve Dumont, a celebrity singer, is adored by the Nazis. Her manager, Max Bonet, is Captain Max Ryan, British SOE (Special Operations Executive). Max recruits her after helping her through a deadly incident in Morocco, and she becomes a reluctant front for the British spying and intelligence gathering network, living in constant fear for her life.
The French resistance cells are autonomous, keeping identities secret to increase their chances of survival. Thus, other cells don’t know of Genevieve’s double life and view her as a Nazi collaborator, but that cover is what gives her and her manager Max entry into the world of the Nazi hierarchy. But the Black Swan of Paris has deadly secrets of her own.
Unbeknownst to almost everyone, including Max, Genevieve was born Genevre de Rochford, the daughter of Baron and Baroness de Rochford, whom she’d disowned, along with her sister, Emmy, years earlier. Genevieve has no feelings for her parents or Emmy, or anyone else until she inadvertently hears that the Baroness de Rochford, now a member of the French resistance, has been captured by the Nazis. She learns that Max has been ordered to rescue the Baroness or kill her before the Nazis can torture information from her regarding the planned Allied invasion. This information shocks Genevieve and the familial bonds she thought dead surge to the surface. She doesn’t know what to do, but her sister Emmy, serving in another resistance cell, has kept track of Genevieve’s public career and finds her. Together, they put aside all past differences because somehow they must rescue their mother—but they need help from Max, the operative ordered to kill her.
Both stories are rich with details that bring readers into the world of these characters, showing the importance of extensive research. World War II, the siege of Leningrad, life under Stalin, the occupation of France, and the French resistance, come alive through superb storytelling.
One understands Anya’s behaviors through her tragic memories and feels the sense of powerlessness, the pain of losing loved ones, the physical pain of starvation, and the fear of what was to come by those who endured and survived the siege of Leningrad.
In Paris, 1944, the French resistance waits for Operation Overlord while Genevieve Dumont walks her tightrope, which could snap and plunge her and her network into the hell of Nazi hands and possibly undo the planned Allied invasion. The reader experiences the pressure of the tremendous weight on so few shoulders and the unrelenting fear of being captured.
The depth of knowledge of those historical events, whether told in the sweeping family saga of The Winter Garden or in the historical suspense thriller The Black Swan of Paris, is used deftly and add details and layers to the stories, enhancing each novel’s authenticity.
How long does it take to hear back from editors with acceptances or rejections of short stories? That depends on a number of variables, but in most cases in the world of short mystery fiction, patience is required.
How much patience?
I currently have stories that have been pending for 387 days, 200 days, and 190 days, respectively.
For the story pending the longest, I heard from the editor about several issues that have delayed responses. He made it clear that those who submitted are free to submit elsewhere, and, if the story is picked up by another market, to simply withdraw it from him. However, the story was written for a very specific call for submissions. I would have to re-edit the manuscript and change details to make it submittable elsewhere. So for the moment, I’ve decided to wait and see what happens rather than submit the story to another market.
The manuscript currently at 200 days post submission will probably not receive a response until a full year has passed. I know this because it’s submitted to one of the most prestigious markets in short mystery fiction, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. The statistics on how long AHMM takes to respond to submissions are available online at The Submission Grinder. The average response time is currently 371 days. I know of authors who won’t submit to the magazine because of the extreme length of response time and low odds of acceptance. My current thinking, which may change at some point, is that if I don’t submit, I’ll have no chance of getting published by the magazine. The wait is the price I have to pay for that opportunity.
The next story, submitted 190 days ago, is a bit more perplexing. I submitted it early, well before the call deadline. So although the editor has had it for six months, the deadline for submissions was three months ago. From what I can see online and from asking other authors, no one has had a response from the editor yet. Since the call for submissions didn’t give a timeline for responses, only the planned publication date, which is just a few months away at this point, I sent an email inquiring if my story was still being considered. Sadly, I haven’t received a response to my query. Unless I want to withdraw the submission and try to submit the piece elsewhere, all I can do is have patience and wait to see if anyone else receives a response or if the editor responds to my query.
These three stories submissions represent the longest wait times for responses that I usually experience from markets that actually bother to send responses. (Some markets never respond unless they want the story. And, yes, that’s REALLY ANNOYING.)
Many markets respond much faster to submissions than the above examples. Data on response times for various magazines can be found on The Submission Grinder and other places online. Waiting a few weeks to receive a response is common, as is waiting a few months. But the need for patience doesn’t end with the submission process.
And then, wait some more…
Once a story is accepted, the wait to publication begins. The longest I’ve had a short story pending publication after acceptance is currently at 16 months and counting. I’ve heard from authors who’ve waited as long as two years between acceptance and publication of a short story in a magazine. In this case, the story will be published shortly because I received the proof pages from the editor a few weeks ago. It’s coming … eventually.
To reiterate: In writing and submitting short mystery fiction for publication, patience isn’t merely a virtue, it’s a necessity.
N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter and is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.
“Giants are not as powerful as they seem and sometimes the shepherd has a sling in his pocket.” — Malcom Gladwell
Malcom Gladwell is not a “new author.” He has been writing for the New YorkTimes since 1996, and is the best-selling author of many books. But more than that, Gladwell is a one-of-a-kind writer–there is no one else like him. “. . . Gladwell’s true genius lies here, in identifying common assumptions that lie just beneath the surface—beliefs that are so widely accepted, so taken for granted, that we don’t even know we believe in them.” (Adam Grant).
Gladwell’s strength is taking the ordinary and making it interesting. (Adam Grant)
Gladwell shows why finding the answers is not as easy as it appears. By the end of this book, the reader finds that their once comfortable presumptions have been turned on their heads.
There is no better introduction for Gladwell’s, David and Goliath, than the story of David and Goliath – the most well-known underdog vs. giant story of all time. It is much more than we thought– David was a lucky young man who delivered a one-in-a-million shot instantly slaying the giant. David did do those things, but thanks to Gladwell, we now know there were other reasons that played a very large part in David’s victory.
No one disputes the fact that Goliath was a giant of a man for his day. He was a scary guy– overwhelmingly huge compared to others. What was not known is that Goliath suffered from a debilitating growth condition, now known as “acromegaly, a benign tumor of the pituitary gland” (Gladwell). Acromegaly caused Goliath’s unchecked growth and also impacted his eyesight–Goliath could not see well. And because of his size, Goliath’s responses were delayed, and because of his disease, he was not only slow, he could not see clearly. For this famous battle at least, these two facts substantially reduced Goliath’s chances of victory.
While Goliath was already a proven warrior, he was primarily successful engaged within hand-to-hand combat — traditional warfare. Traditional hand combat mandated certain behaviors and dress. Combatants wore a heavily armored breast plate, needed the ability to carry and wield a large and heavy sword with alacrity, must have the ability to target and throw a javelin, and all this, while wearing a heavy metal helmet.
The fully dressed combatant was restricted both in movement and sheer weight. Moreover, to be effective wielding the sword, the warrior must be very close to their opponent—face-to-face. In this story, David was at the bottom of a ravine, while Goliath was standing at the top of a slope bellowing demands while walking in a downward direction towards David. Unbeknownst to Goliath, the fight with David would not follow the familiar traditional rules of either dress, weapon, or combat, and there would be no face-to-face contact.
Unlike Goliath, the young shepherd David had never worn armor, fought hand to hand combat, or a major battle. David was small, lithe, unencumbered, and his only weapon a sling – and in that –slinging– he was an expert. David refused an offer of armor because he knew it would weigh him down. David approached the fight with excellent eyesight, a honed skill, unburdened by armor and no predisposed concepts of traditional warfare. David would not be close enough for hand-to-hand combat, and he carried no sword.
“So here we have a big, lumbering guy weighed down with armor, who can’t see much more than a few feet in front of his face, up against a kid running at him with a devastating weapon and a rock traveling with the stopping power of a .45 caliber handgun. That’s not a story of an underdog and a favorite. David has a ton of advantages in that battle, they’re just not obvious. That’s what gets the book rolling is this notion that we need to do a better job of looking at what an advantage is.” Malcom Gladwell (Interview, Inc.com)
We know the end of this story, and the underdog (weak) (disadvantaged) proves to be no underdog at all, and becomes in this situation the winner, (strong) (advantaged). This type of scrutiny is where Gladwell shines, taking a subject, stripping away assumptions, turning it on its head–making the story something else entirely.
Gladwell’s precise and skillful analysis continues on throughout the book’s nine sections, all equally thought-provoking, and all dealing with preconceived assumptions of weak and strong, advantages or disadvantages. In one of his more bewildering propositions, Gladwell questions the impact of certain types of disability and asks: Can disability ever be desirable? (Gladwell). A premise that at first blush, appears both jarring and indistinctly hopeful. We answer we cannot imagine that there is an appropriate answer.
To structure his premise, Gladwell reviews the impact of living with dyslexia – “a learning disability that makes it difficult to read, write, and spell, no matter how hard the person tries or how intelligent he or she is” (LDOnline). The root cause for dyslexia is still being studied, however, so far what we do know is that the brain’s mechanical functions are unable to link the vital connection of essential neuron transmitters that allow an individual to learn, to read, to speak, and to write.
Dyslexic individuals struggle every day, normal activities take a very long time and exhaustive concentration. Gladwell suggests that for dyslexics, the harder it is to learn, the more they excel in adulthood. The premise —they excelbecause they have worked so very hard from the very beginning to cope, to fit in, to make it through daily life.
This may seem improbable, but it has been found that “a high number of entrepreneurs are dyslexic” (Gladwell). Within one entrepreneurial group studied, it was found that approximately one-third of those participating had some type of learning disability. Which begs the question, would you want your child to have a disability? It is a tough question and a harder one to answer (Gladwell).
“I sat down with countless numbers of people who have been very successful in their fields who have dyslexia to ask them, ‘Did you succeed in spite of your disability or because of it,’ and every one of them said because of the disability. (emphasis added)
“In other words, these were people who, because they could not read easily were forced to develop other skills and try other strategies that proved to be more advantageous in terms of their careers.”Malcolm Gladwell, Air Talk.
The success stories of affected individuals winning over dyslexia exist because they were forced to compensate from a very early age and developed skills to overcome learning roadblocks—they were and are, flexible and adaptive and found a way to exist in a very cloudy and disorganized world. Dyslexia forced them to learn to listen acutely, memorize large amounts of information, and develop a razor-sharp ability to read people, retain complex nuances and facts, not on paper, but in their minds. So, under Gladwell’s premise, there are benefits to a disability – which may not be easily understood. (Photo: Pixabay)
While there is much, much more within Gladwell’s stories, in the end, the reader must decide which speaks to them. Which story is the most relatable, plausible? Gladwell writes simply; his premises, rebuttal, and results are presented in an easy to read format while challenging the reader to think deeply.
And if you stay the course to the end of the book, you will be given a glimmer of hope, because that is what Gladwell gives – hope. Hope that despite incredible odds, things are not as they seem –there is always more. Gladwell’s gift is to leave the reader questioning everything – and that is what Gladwell does better than anyone.
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, fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters, and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.
Our family’s favorite mystery quote (bolded below) appears in Strong Poison, by Dorothy Sayers, where detective Lord Peter Wimsey first meets novelist Harriet Vane. Vane’s on trial for murder, accused of systematically poisoning her former lover with arsenic.
Wimsey suspects the lover’s uncle, Norman Urquhart, but the uncle assures the police that he served a blameless dinner to his nephew. Wimsey sends the all-competent Bunter (his manservant and WWI batman), to winkle out secrets from Urquhart’s cook, Mrs. Pettican, and the housemaid.
Bunter ingratiates himself by means of crumpets:
“At half-past four…he was seated in the kitchen of Mr. Urquhart’s house, toasting crumpets. He had been trained to a great pitch of dexterity in the preparation of crumpets, and if he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter, that hurt nobody except Mr. Urquhart. It was natural that the conversation should turn to the subject of murder. Nothing goes so well with a hot fire and buttered crumpets as a wet day without and a good dose of comfortable horrors within. The heavier the lashing of the rain and the ghastlier the details, the better the flavour seems to be.”
What a setting! I’ve never tasted a crumpet, but can feel the heat of the fire and inhale the smells of toasting and melting butter. And in contrast to (or fueled by) this warmth, this delicious comfort, the cook reminds us of the victim’s death: “A dreadful wicked woman she must ‘a’ been,” said Mrs. Pettican, “—‘ev another crumpet, do, Mr. Bunter—a-torturin’ of the poor soul that long-winded way. Bashin’ on the ‘ed or the ‘asty use of a carvin’ knife when roused I can understand, but the ‘orrors of slow poisonin’ is the work of a fiend in ‘uman form, in my opinion.”
So in our kitchen at buttery moments some family member will mutter, “If he was somewhat lavish in the matter of butter…” But this week I wondered, “What are crumpets?” I mean, with Bunter toasting them over a (presumably coal) fire, then lavishing butter on them, they sound wonderful, especially for teatime in a firelit kitchen, on a cold wet afternoon, discussing the horrors of slow poisoning.
Compelled by curiosity I found a recipe. https://www.daringgourmet.com/traditional-english-crumpets/ Huh. I’d imagined English muffins. No. Instead, the goal is a tender disc, yeasty but also leavened with baking soda, creating bubbled holes to absorb melted butter, jam, and other decorations. Problem: locating crumpet rings. Yes, I’ve ordered some.
Sayers wasn’t writing a culinary cozy, despite the crumpets and an intense discussion on the following page between Mrs. Pettican and Bunter about casseroled chicken. A scene beginning with toasting crumpets produces a triumph of setting and character, a comic but dread-inspiring description of the victim’s death, and clever clue placement. Sayers does not describe either the smell of the toasting, or the taste of the crumpets, but surely you, dear reader, imagined those? Didn’t you feel yourself right there in the kitchen, with the rainy day outside, the gossipy discussion of the lover’s death agonies, and a vivid depiction of Bunter’s character? Courteous, yet firm, he deftly extracts critical information not reflected in the police report—and yes, a clue you doubtless spotted. Maybe Vane will escape the hangman’s noose after all.
Despite the strong impact of smells on humans, writers’ references to smell often seem sparse. Part of the problem is the sheer difficulty of describing certain smells. Imagine trying to describe the smell of a beloved house. It’s a mysterious mix, isn’t it? If I try to describe my mother’s house, I can’t do it with just one word. Part of the remembered smell is a faint perfume—maybe a bath powder she used, like Caswell Massey’s Gardenia. But there are other ingredients as well—contributions from oak furniture, cotton sheets, old Christmas cards on a closet shelf… See, I can’t accurately describe the smell itself; I have to name things.
My grandmother’s house in Hill County delivered a similar mixture, varying by seasons. In summer, it smelled of cantaloupe from her garden; at Christmas, of a decorated cedar tree. But always the substrate included a hard-to-describe mixture of our grandfather’s Yardley English Lavender talc, kept on the kitchen shelf where he shaved; of the garbage chute in the kitchen; of oil and electric discharges from his ham radio rig; of the ancient living room piano (wires, wood, felt). How describe the totality of that smell, that amalgam of odors, so instantly recognizable to me, but unknown to you? And how describe it without a bunch of nouns?
Poets apparently run into that problem. I set out to locate poems incorporating odor and fragrance, grabbing poetry volumes from the shelves. Yeats? Gorgeous references to sight and sound, as in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”: “Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee, /And live alone in the bee-loud glade…” The poem is rich in sight, in sound, but not smell. We don’t smell the clay and wattles or honey.
Same for Wendell Berry’s A Small Porch—a volume of ideas, images, light and air. But I didn’t find smell. Nor did I find smell references in Chaucer or a number of Renaissance English poets, except that Michael Drayton gives us a wonderful line in “To the Virginian Voyage” referring to the much-anticipated Virginia landfall of seaborne English explorers: “When as the luscious smell/of that delicious land…” Of course Shakespeare mentions the “sweet odour” of roses (as in Sonnet 54): “Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made.”
Indeed, I had trouble finding references to smell in most of the poetry books I opened. There were some. In “Aimless Love,” “gazing down affectionately at the soap,” Billy Collins writes, “I could feel myself falling again/as I felt its turning in my wet hands/and caught the scent of lavender and stone.”
Marianne Moore, in “Enough,” from O To Be a Dragon, gives us this: “The crested moss-rose casts a spell; its bud of solid green, as well, /and the Old Pink Moss—with fragrant wings/ imparting balsam scent that clings…” Many readers will recognize balsam. Another from Moore’s “In the Public Garden”: “O yes, and snowdrops in the snow that smell like violets.”
Also readers may know the smell of violets. Charles Wright, in “Dog Creek Mainline,” gives more challenging references: “Dog Creek: cat track and bird splay,/Spindrift and windfall; woodrot; Odor of muscadine…” If you’ve played around wild grapevine you know the odor of muscadine––maybe woodrot too.
Try the experiment yourself. Pull some poetry off the shelf. Don’t most poems rely on sight and sound, and rarely odor? Because a particular smell can be very hard to describe.
“The way the brain deals with smells is very different to how it deals with other senses, such as seeing and hearing. For example, we can identify the different instruments playing in a band, or the different shapes and colours in a painting. But it is very hard for us to tell the individual parts of a smell mixture.” He goes on: “We can sense the smell of “orange” or “coffee” as a single thing, but have trouble identifying the many different parts that make up those smells individually. However, it is possible to get better at this with practice. Professional wine-tasters or perfume-makers can detect more parts of a smell mixture than most people.”
Our difficulty in describing smell is not that we humans can’t detect odors—we can, says Greg Miller, Science (November 11, 2014): “We humans have about 400 different types of receptors for detecting odorant molecules. That’s on the low end for mammals, but it’s enough, at least in theory, to allow us to distinguish a trillion different odors, one team of neuroscientists calculated earlier this year (although there’s been some controversy about that estimate).”
Can’t you smell those spices? And doesn’t that passage help round out (pun) our vision of Nero Wolfe, gourmet, gourmand, brilliant detective? We’re planted in the kitchen of Wolfe’s New York brownstone, the primary setting for all the mysteries. These few lines convey Wolfe’s insistence on sophisticated cuisine, and reflect the rigor he demands of every employee under his roof, including Fritz the cook; Theodore Horstmann, the keeper of his orchid greenhouse; and our narrator, his foot soldier, Archie Goodwin. A shish kebab recipe helps define the setting and Wolfe’s character as well.
Ngaio Marsh begins Night at the Vulcan (1951) with Martyn Tarne, a young New Zealand actress desperately seeking an acting role in London. One night, out of food and money, with no place to stay, she enters the Vulcan Theatre which has advertised for a dresser: “She was at the back of the stalls, standing on thick carpet at the top of the ramp facing the centre aisle…The deadened air smelt of naphthalene and plush.” The empty theatre lacks an eager audience, waiting for the curtain to go up. Instead Marsh gives us the “deadened air” of a closed theatre, where the plush seats are empty, and the air smells of naphthalene—chemical dry cleaning. Martyn starts to work: “As soon as she crossed the threshold of the star dressing-room she smelt greasepaint. The dressing-shelf was bare, the room untenanted, but the smell of cosmetics mingled with the faint reek of gas.” I don’t know the smell of greasepaint, but Martyn does; she’s in a setting she understands.
Mick Herron’s unputdownable Slough House series uses odor to create the key setting––the decrepit building which serves as center stage. Book 2, Dead Lions, describes entry to the building as follows: “No one enters Slough House by the front door; instead, via a shabby alleyway, its inmates let themselves into a grubby yard with mildewed walls….” Yecch, mildew. The building houses the “slow horses” who flunked out of MI-5’s headquarters in posh Regent’s Park, and are now under the tutelage of former Cold Warrior Jackson Lamb, a terrifying mentor. “Jackson Lamb’s lair,” the office on the building’s top floor, is described thus: “The air is heavy with a dog’s olfactory daydream: takeaway food, illicit cigarettes, day-old farts and stale beer, but there will be no time to catalogue this because Jackson Lamb can move surprisingly swiftly for a man of his bulk….” No question that odor is part of the setting. Lamb is an olfactory terrorist. https://www.amazon.com/Dead-Lions-Slough-House-Book-ebook/dp/B008ADFIKQ/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2OWSNB20HLYMN&keywords=dead+lions&qid=1659990272&sprefix=dead+lion%2Caps%2C169&sr=8-1
The century-old Beer Barn, a beloved road house in Coffee Creek, is where townspeople gather in my Ghost series. That includes lawyer and protagonist Alice Greer. Naturally the smell of beer is key. In Book 3, Ghost Letter, Alice invites a political reporter to the Beer Barn for lunch: “As they pushed through the Beer Barn’s tall swinging doors the fragrant haze enveloped them—incense compounded of hickory smoke from the wood-fired grill, chiles toasted on an iron comal, and thousands of bubbles popping in bottles and glasses, releasing the yeasty magic of beer to the air.”
Smells may be hard to define, but including the smell of a setting can enrich a mystery’s impact. Or, as Mrs. Pettican says, “Have another crumpet, do!”
Helen Currie Foster lives and writes north of Dripping Springs, Texas, loosely supervised by three burros jostling for roles in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, set in the unique landscape of the Texas Hill Country. So far all three burros have made an appearance, though insisting on aliases. Book 8 is on its way…