The Women in the Castle

Books I enjoyed

I have wanted to read The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck for a while now, and I finally got to it. I had high expectations. It did not disappoint.

51VVuJSj7TL._SY346_-2The book is set in the world war II era, as well as the post-war years; a familiar theme. However, what sets this story apart is that it revolves around three women, three German women—each experiencing the war differently—but all scrambling for survival afterwards. As fate binds them together, they take care of one another and their children, trying to find a better life.

The three women are nothing alike; Marianne is independent and strong, Betina beautiful yet vulnerable, and Ania tough and pragmatic—but every one of them brings something unique to the symbiotic relationship. Along with their strengths, they each have their weaknesses and faults, which makes them above all, very human. None of these three women are exceptionally bad or cruel—regardless of some of the bad choices they make. In many ways, they are like any of us, just born in a different time and place.

This book tells a very nuanced story, from the viewpoint of these three women, without making any excuses for their behavior or past actions. I couldn’t help but feeling sympathy for each woman as their memories took me on a journey of their past. Through the characters, the book explores some of the reasoning behind the world war horrors, and the blindness of the German people, or their willingness not to see.

It is a story of loss, guilt and shame, but also of love, hope, friendship and forgiveness. It is incredibly hard, in my opinion, to write a story like this, and write it well. But Jessica Shattuck did just that, and more. She did it exceptionally well.

Let me leave you with a quote from the book and some thoughts:

For so long Marianne and Albrecht and many of their friends had known Hitler was a lunatic, a leader whose lowbrow appeal to people’s most selfish, self-pitying emotions and ignorance was an embarrassment to the country. They had watched him make a masterwork of scapegoating Jews for Germany’s fall from power and persuade his followers that enlightenment, humanity and tolerance were weaknesses—“Jewish” ideas that led to defeat.”

If only we, as humans, would learn from our past mistakes. I’ve always believed that, back then, Germany was a country like any other—with its usual share of monsters and power-hungry enablers, and a lot of people willing to blindly follow a dangerous leader to the point of no return. Many atrocities were committed by average people, who didn’t enjoy them, but were already carrying too much guilt to turn back. This is why we need books like this. To stay vigilant. To remember that, in the end, any of us could be one of these three women.

Author Interview – Melissa Burovac

Meet Melissa Burovac, a writer living in Hawaii. She has published two books so far, and I read her second book, Sylvie Writes a Romance, which I took with me on vacation. There were many things I liked about this book. It’s light—nothing too heavy—I read it on the beach, and it left me with a smile on my face. The lead character, Sylvie, is funny and brave: a woman in her forties who’s trying out the online dating scene, which leads to all sorts of awkward moments. But…she is resourceful and not afraid of discovering new things. Be careful though, it really made me want to go to Hawaii (without the dating though).

Aloha Melissa! Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I am a writer and photographer on Kauai, Hawaii. An avid outdoors woman, I enjoy outrigger paddling—both one-man and six-man—SUP, running, surfing, sailing, and scuba diving, as well as yoga. I’m always up for adventure and loves doing things that scare me a little. My days are divided into two sections – mornings are in the ocean looking for wildlife to photograph, usually by swimming out with my Nikon and watching for animals to swim by; the afternoons are spent writing short stories or working on the two novels I have in progress. My entire life was interrupted in July when I adopted a rescue puppy, Lucy, who is far too cute to ignore when she wants to play; I am training her to be an ocean dog and my photo assistant, and eventually she’ll be independent enough to allow me to get more work done.

Why did you start writing a novel/how did you get your inspiration to write?

I began blogging when I did a round the world solo trip, mostly to reassure my mother that I didn’t die in some horrific accident somewhere in the world. I got great feedback from my blog, mostly from women who couldn’t believe I spent nearly a year on my own, and several mentioned I should write a book. From childhood I’d written short stories and had dreams of writing books but just never got around to it, so I decided I’d give it a real try; I had much of the material written in my blog, with all the detail of my day-to-day travel written daily on the road, so I spent the time to make it a coherent story and self-published my first book – Wandering – published in 2014. I was so pleased at writing a book and started a second shortly after – Sylvie Writes a Romance – a romcom published in 2016.

What is the hardest thing about the writing process for you?

The hardest part of my writing process is sitting down to get it done. I dream of stories all the time, but allow my life to get in the way too much. Scheduling writing time is essential for me.

Your first book is about your travels. Where did you go? Can you tell us a little bit about the book?

 My first book, Wandering, is the day-to-day account of my life on a solo RTW trip. I detail everything, from the adventures to the mundane to the anxiety of travel and meeting new people. I am not a great traveler, being directionally challenged and full of social anxiety, but waiting for a partner to travel with me was not working and I wanted to see more of the world. Some parts of the book are exciting with crazy excursions I took while other parts show the loneliness of spending so much time solo. I travelled to Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Cuba, Australia and Tasmania, Cambodia, and Thailand. I made many new friends, found some old friends, went scuba diving in all but Cambodia, and drank a little too much trying to escape my fears.

Your second book is a romcom. This is very different from the first. Is it in any way auto-biographic? Why did you change genres?

 I wrote a romcom, Sylvie Writes a Romance, because of an idea I had while reading an article about female romance writers. I wanted to be a full-time writer, but my first book wasn’t selling enough to quit my day job (and I hadn’t started a photography company yet). The article was about a few writers who made several thousand dollars each month from mass market romance novels, and I thought I would give that a try, make some money, then go back to writing books more my style (and I have yet to figure out exactly what my style is…). After a few tries at writing a romance I gave up, they were awful. And the idea of writing about a writer trying to write a romance novel was born. The book is autobiographical in that it is about a writer, but her methods of going about her writing – using online dating to learn about romance – is fiction.

Are you working on a third?

 I have two additional books in various stages of progress. One is a sequel to Sylvie Writes a Romance, and the bulk of it was written during NaNoWriMo 2016; I had just ended a relationship and wasn’t in a great mental space, and used the writing challenge to take my mind off my sorrows. The result was a full-length novel which was just a little too depressing – I write a lot of comedy – and I’m currently trying to untangle the story from my emotions at the time. The second book is a biography of a smuggler on Kauai. I have been conducting interviews with him for nearly a year, but progress is slow both because I have never written a biography and have spent a lot of time reading, and also because he is so fun we end up drinking a little too much on his boat during our “talk story” time.

What has made the deepest impression on you while traveling?

My deepest impression from traveling is the kindness of people all over the world. If we all simply stayed at home and read news stories we might think evil things about every other culture – but the fact is most people are well-meaning, helpful, and just as wonderful as our friends; plus they have so much to teach us about their histories and ways of life. In my nine months of travel I met very few individuals who had bad intentions, and none of them as violent as my mother imagined. I truly enjoyed the people I met in every country.

Thank you Melissa!

 
You can reach Melissa on her website, Facebook and Twitter.  Her books Wandering and Sylvie Writes a Romance are available on Amazon. You can also check out her photography company.

Our Basque Experience (with kids)

I have a great passion for traveling. Nothing is as fun and exciting as discovering new places, food, people and, yes, stories. Every place has its own stories, some from the past, some from current events, and some from imagination. I love going places, seeing places, and reading or hearing about them.

A while ago, I visited Basque Country, in Northern Spain (and Southern France). With vistas that are beyond stunningly beautiful, friendly people, wonderful food, it was a fantastic experience, both for us and the kids. And the stories, ah, the stories, were plentiful!

Basque Country has a turbulent history, and I do not presume to know the place well, or to fully understand its struggles or know its people. The Basques have their own language and culture, despite being part of Spain (and France). And in case you forgot while being there, the Basque flag is visible in so many places it will quickly remind you that first and foremost, you are in their territory.

Basque Country has so many things to offer—too many for this blog post.  The Camino de Santiago, of course, is famous, and something that is still high on my list of things to do. But for now, my children are too young, so we had to find different entertainment. A beach is always a great place to start. And Basque Country has plenty.

Its northern Atlantic coastline is breathtaking, with sandy beaches, steep rocky cliffs, lush vegetation and scattered old villages and towns waiting to be discovered. One of my favorite trips was to the chapel of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, and old chapel on a small peninsula connected to the mainland by a walkway with ~240 steps. The site goes back many centuries, but the chapel has been demolished few times. According to tradition,  when you get to the chapel and ring the bell three times, you can make a wish and it will ward off evil spirits. Let’s face it, we can all use some of that while traveling.

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Fun fact on the walkway: if you are a Game of Thrones fan, you may recognize the walkway to Dragonstone, where Daenerys Targaryen walked up to the mighty castle. Even though there is no castle, and no dragons either, the walkway is very real!

While exploring some of the villages in the rolling foothills of the Pyrenees, we came across Zugarramurdi, a pretty village tucked in between the hills, where time appears to slow down to a snail’s pace as you wander through the streets. It’s very peaceful now, but has a tragic history. The village was the site of the ruthless persecution of witches, during the time of the Inquisition. There is a small museum dedicated to the women who were taken away, some of them never returning. My kids thought the museum was a little scary, but they did like the witch cave, which is also near the village—presumably the site where the women came together to do whatever it is that witches do. There was a short but appealing hike to the cave itself (many steps, wet slippery rocks and a bridge over a stream), with the cave having plenty of opportunity for them to explore and let their imagination run wild.

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Zugarramurdi

More inland we visited the charming town of Oñati, which means “place with many hills.” The city sports many frog images as logos, and one of the stories in our guide book explaining this referred back to a count from long-ago, who apparently had a black and white checkered tile floor in the entrance of his estate. Annoyed at the villagers, who were muddying up his white tiles when visiting his castle, he ordered them to only stand on the black tiles. Thus, the villagers hopped from black tile to black tile, after which he mocked them and called them frogs. Even so, the town has adopted the frog with pride.

Oñati also has an ancient, extensive and beautiful cave system (the Arrikrutz caves), albeit a very chilly one. An English-speaking guide took us on a tour deep down in the earth, escaping the sweltering heat outside. The caves with all its stalagmites and stalactites, as well as the prehistoric finds, were telling their own fascinating story. Nothing makes a vacation as precious like a good reminder of your own short life-span.

For me, when I travel, it’s the stories that make a place come alive, give it that little extra, and paint my memories more vividly. When I think back of Basque Country, I think of all these places, and many more. But mostly, I think of sitting at the sea-side with my family, eating an unidentified fish-dish with a name I can’t pronounce, drinking a bottle of txacoli, and telling stories to my children. And I hope they will remember.

The Invention of Wings

Books I enjoyed:

Growing up on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, my history knowledge of the American (pre)Civil War era was fairly limited. Most of my information probably came from watching North and South episodes on television. Yeah…I know. I had and still have quite some catching up to do.

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The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is set in the first half of the nineteenth century, and tells the story of the Grimké sisters, but mostly that of Sarah Grimké. Born in the South and despite being raised in a slave-holding family, Sarah grows up abhorring slavery and believing things should be different. As the book describes her life and her slow but steady progress towards not just standing up for herself, but also for abolition and women’s rights in general, I can’t help but admire her for her enlightenment, her courage, and her will to do what is right, despite the restrictions the era—and society—placed upon her.

I had never heard of the Grimké sisters, so I was surprised to find out these ladies really existed, and yet are so little heard of. Therefore, I am grateful to Sue Monk Kidd, for writing this book. If nothing else, these women deserve some attention. In fact, Sarah and Angelina Grimké were one of the first American female advocates for abolition and women’s rights. They were both famous as well as infamous for their viewpoints.

Sue Monk Kidd has, for the most part, tried to be truthful to the life and voice of Sarah Grimké, through examining letters, diaries and so forth. The part of the book that is fiction is the voice of Handful, a slave girl that is given to Sarah on her eleventh birthday. Switching back and forth between the two girls, and later, women, the contrasts are stark; one is in a position of privilege, the other of captivity, submitted to the cruelty and whims of her oppressors. In my opinion, even though the story of Sarah is fascinating, it is the voice of Handful that carries the book to a whole new level.

Both girls endure confinement, albeit in different ways; Handful is owned—her lack of freedom is absolute—for Sarah there are the restrictions of her gender. As Handful points out to Sarah: “My body might be a slave, but my mind is not. For you it’s the other way around.” However, once Sarah manages to break free, she is able to continue along this journey, chipping away at the barriers holding her back, whereas for Handful, the road to any sort of freedom is permanently closed off. Yet, despite her circumstances, Handful’s spirit remains unbroken.

This book reminded me of a quote attributed to Goethe: ‘There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings’. How true.

After reading the book I was left with a variety of emotions, but mostly, hope. Even in our darkest times in which we display our most terrible behavior, there are still people willing to do the right thing—people who have a vision of how things could be, if only…

That’s something to hold onto.

Author Interview – Amy Vansant

Get ready for Amy Vansant, who I got to know after reading Pineapple Lies, the first book in The Pineapple Port Series. In Pineapple Lies, Charlotte, a young woman living in a retirement community in Florida, discovers a—eek!— body hidden in her back yard. But…Who is the deceased? And who in the community is the killer? A fun read all over, despite the dead body. The dialogues are strong, fast and often hilarious. I could easily picture the ‘older’ people in the retirement community, especially Mariska and Darla, each with their own quirks. If you are looking for an entertaining book this summer that will put a smile on your face, this is it.

Welcome Amy. Can you tell us a little about yourself. (And why does your website describe you as a “delusionist?”)

My writing bio wanders a bit…

  1. I was a freelance writer in high school and college. Also quietly worked on novels that were really terrible.
  2. I sent an article to Surfer about colleges near waves and they bought it.
  3. A week later their east coast editor quit and I think I was the only east coast writer they knew. They asked if I wanted to be east coast editor and I just about fell over with happiness.
  4. I did that along with freelancing for five years or so, and then I started to do graphic design for some extra money.
  5. I sent a novel to a publisher who loved the first three chapters and asked for the rest. I hadn’t written it. So I rushed through it and lost my opportunity.
  6. Started doing web design (again to support my writing “career”, started a company, and then quit writing for about thirteen years like an idiot.
  7. Then in 2010 I had literally had a dream that would turn into my novel Angeli.
  8. I started blogging to get used to writing again and all of a sudden I remembered I was supposed to be writing.
  9. For the blog I went back to humor, which is what I’d always liked to write best. After Angeli was finally done, I decided it was time to do straight humor and wrote Slightly Stalky.

Then I just kept writing!

As for “delusionist” – That’s sort of an inside joke with my husband.  I’m so overly optimistic about everything he jokes that I’m delusional.  He says I’m not allowed to be excited about how many books I’ve sold until I’ve sold as many as Stephen King, so it will be a while…

Where or how do you get your inspiration to write?

I was “born” with the general inspiration. As for specific ideas, things will just grab me and I’ll feel the need to write them.

Do you have a specific writing routine?

I write about an hour or two a day if at all possible…sometimes life intervenes!

What is the hardest thing about the writing process for you?

Plots, probably. The characters literally talk in my head, and I just write down what they’re saying, so that part comes easy. The problem comes when they’ve run out of funny things to say and look at me as if to say “What now?” and I don’t know! Then sometimes I have to take off a day or two and chew on what comes next and how it all wraps up in the end.

Do you have any advice for other Indie authors?

Do things right. Don’t throw books together with no editing and cobbled together covers because you can’t afford it or can’t wait any longer. You’ll just end up with bad reviews or no sales. Take some time, bounce things off other people, save up. Join Facebook groups with experienced Indies and learn from them. Don’t think you know it all…ever. And don’t throw money at every promotional opportunity that rolls down the pike — there are a LOT of people out there trying to rip you off.

The Pineapple Port series are cozy mysteries. You have branched out to different genres. Why do you like to cross genres? What can you tell us about your other books?

I get ideas I really want to explore and if they don’t fit a series, I need to start a new one. It’s been a good way to find what genres sell better than others too. Angeli (3) was my first (urban fantasy), then Slightly Stalky (that’s autobiographical so that had to come out), Pineapple (4), a middle grade book (The Magicatory) I wrote for my nieces, and then finally the latest series is Kilty as Charged (2) – a highlander time-travel romance thriller. That happened because I realized I liked writing mysteries like Pineapple, but I wanted a series that could have a little more edge.

If you could choose a character from Pineapple Port, who would you want as a neighbor and why?

Mariska is my mother-in-law, so I have to say her or she’ll kill me. 🙂

What can you tell us about your upcoming Pineapple Port mystery?

The group goes traveling to the Outer Banks of North Carolina and gets trapped in a house full of body bits! I’m about 70% done.

Which country have you not been to yet that you want to visit and why?

I think I need to go to Ireland. All the men in my books end up Irish! I had a crush on Pierce Brosnan when I was a teen, so I guess I’ve always had a thing for Celtic men. Ha! In fact, my husband, who thought he was mostly Polish, took a DNA test and it turned out he was mostly Irish! I must have known it before him!

Thank you Amy, for your time! I look forward to reading the other books in the Pineapple Port Series.

If you sign up for her newsletter on her website, Amy will give you a copy (ebook) of Pineapple Lies for free!

Check out Amy’s books on Amazon, or follow her on Goodreads, Facebook or Twitter.

The Lost Ones (Part 3)

This is the final post on The Lost Ones: Writers we lost in 2016. After all, we are about half-way through 2017.

I had not heard of Helen Bailey before, but if you live in the UK you may have. She was a YA writer (the Electra Brown series), but wrote one book for adults: When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis.

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In 2011, she and her husband went on vacation to Barbados, where her husband drowned while swimming in the ocean. She witnessed his death. “A wife at breakfast, a widow before lunch.”

Trying to deal with the loss of her husband, she started up a blog, Planet Grief, in which she reached out to other people who had lost loved ones. The book When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis is a memoir of her journey through the process of grief, based on that blog. She tells about life without her husband, of the simple things that would make her break down in tears, and of her dog, Boris, her loyal companion.

Her stories are filled with raw emotion—especially in the first half of the book—her writing poignant, and sometimes funny. Reading about her experience of loss, of which she writes in a very honest and open way, is heart wrenching.

Her tone gradually changes in the second half of the book. Maybe, there is a way through the hurt, a way toward accepting. Eventually, she meets another man with whom she starts a new relationship.

The book probably had a different effect on me than on people who have experienced a similar loss. For me, it was humbling. The devastation of the loss of a partner, her grief and pain, are almost palpable. She talks about friends being there for her, friends not being there for her, and people being awkward, or even inappropriate. In our society, I feel as if we often try to ignore death. Like many, I have been afraid to say the wrong thing to people who have gone through loss, or I just don’t know what to say or how to be there for them. This book may not have solved that, but at least it has given me plenty to think about.

In her last entry, she has sold her old house and bought a new one with her new partner. She closes the book with “It will all be OK in the end. We promise you.” She, and many of the widows and widowers she had been in touch with, had found new purpose, new joy in life, and some, new love.

We all like happy endings. But for Helen things turned out differently. She disappeared in April 2016. Three months later, her body, and that of her dog Boris, were found hidden in her house. She was 51. In February 2017, her partner was convicted of her murder.

Reading the book made me sad, but reading the book knowing how it all ended for her made it infinitely sadder. Her voice was so personal, almost like you are getting to know her while reading.

One story in the book especially stuck with me. Helen’s best friend gave Helen and her husband a bottle of champagne, which Helen wanted to save for a special occasion. All of a sudden, the best friend dies. The champagne is now symbolic, and no occasion is ever special enough. But then Helen’s husband drowns, and the opportunity for sharing the champagne was gone forever. She writes:

Why couldn’t I have seen that just being alive and with [my husband] was the only reason I ever needed to open it? I had been waiting for some big flashy occasion to come along, when in fact life with him was the big occasion.”

Finally, Helen takes the champagne to a party. But, as irony has it, when they open the bottle, the champagne has gone bad.

There are many things I will take away from the book, but most of all it will be that. Cherish the times you have with your loved-ones. Make every moment special. And when life offers you champagne, drink it.

Don’t Wake the Bear

It’s that time of year again. Schools are out and summer has started. I am all for long holidays—since I love traveling—I just wish adults would get the same amount of time off as the kids…

Summer holidays are a great time to get away, but here I find myself in a bit of a dilemma. You see, Michigan is so pretty in summer that I don’t want to go anywhere. This time of year, the weather is finally gorgeous, everything is green, flowers are blooming and Lake Michigan and its beaches are beckoning. Why leave?

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One of my favorite spots in Michigan is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. We have been there a number of times, because, well, it is beautiful. Lakes, nature, small towns, islands…and of course, the dunes. The dunes are an impressive sight, sitting on top of glacial moraines, they tower 400 feet over Lake Michigan. A sign on top of one of the dunes warns you that, if you feel bold enough to bound, roll or slide down to the lake, you had better be able to make it back up.

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Down, down, down…Those tiny specks on the far left near the water, those are people…

I love to tell my kids the origin of the name “Sleeping Bear Dune”—after all, I do like a good story with a bear in it. Sleeping Bear Dune is named after a legend from the Ojibwe (Chippewa), a Native American tribe that lived in this area. “Michigan” comes from the Chippewa word Mishigamaa—which means “large water.”

The legend goes as follows:

Across Lake Michigan, on the Wisconsin shore, a raging wildfire broke out, trapping a mother bear and her two cubs. To escape, they plunged into the water and started swimming east. They swam and swam, until finally, they could see the Michigan shore. The cubs were getting tired and started lagging behind. The mother bear made it to the beach and walked up a high bluff to look out for her cubs. In sight of the shoreline, the exhaustion on the cubs took its toll. One cub drowned, and soon after, the other as well. Grieving, the mother bear lay down, refusing to leave, waiting for her cubs to return. The Great Spirit Manitou, who witnessed the cubs’ courage, commemorated them by raising an island on the location where each one went under. Then, he placed a slumber over the waiting mother bear and covered her with sand.

The islands from the legend are North and South Manitou Island, which you can see from the shore. Apparently, Sleeping Bear Dune used to have a vegetation-covered knoll on top, that resembled a sleeping bear. It has much eroded since. A beautiful version of the legend, with wonderful illustrations, has been published by Kathy-jo Wargin. It’s called The Legend of Sleeping Bear Dune and was named The Official Children’s Book of Michigan.

This legend has been retold over many generations, preserving the story and the landmarks, even though the actual “bear” may not be recognizable anymore. Hopefully, parks like these will endure as well, and continue to amaze our future generations.

If you find yourself in Michigan this summer, do visit this beautiful area. It’s worth it.

Author Interview – Jennifer S. Alderson

JenniferSAldersonAuthorPhoto_TwitterFor my first author interview, I am featuring Jennifer S. Alderson. I reached out to Jennifer after reading her second book The Lover’s Portrait (check out my review in the section “On Books”), which was a great read and I highly recommend.

Jennifer, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Thanks for having me, Lucia! I’m a long-time expat, an American who’s been living in the Netherlands since 2004. I am also the author of two novels, Down and Out in Kathmandu: Adventures in Backpacking and The Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery, as well as my new travelogue, Notes of a Naive Traveler: Nepal and Thailand.

In America I worked as a journalist and multimedia developer until massive burnout lead me to quit my job, buy a backpack and head off to Nepal as a volunteer English teacher for three months.

After several years on the road, I moved to the Netherlands to study art history and never left. After completing degrees in art history and museum studies, I worked for several museums before the economy crashed and the cultural sector imploded.

While applying for jobs, I wrote my first novel as a way of keeping my mind occupied. Writing about my adventures in Nepal and Thailand also helped curtail my wanderlust. I finished it between contracts, but never pursued publication.

After my son was born, I had the luxury of staying home to raise him. Writing became a way to connect with ‘grownup’ life and use the knowledge I’d gained during my studies. The Lover’s Portrait was so well-received by everyone who read it, I decided to publish both of my books and see what happened. I’ve been absolutely blown away by the overwhelmingly positive reception so far.

What is the hardest thing about the writing process for you?

The most difficult part about writing a mystery for me is creating a ‘secret’ worthy of being kept and working out the motivation of all of the parties involved. There has got to be a compelling reason for one person or group to want the object or information in question to remain hidden, but also an important reason for another party to want to locate or reveal it. The next step is figuring out how my series’ heroine fits into it all!

Why do you feel this is your genre? Could you branch out?

Mystery, travel, adventure and thrillers are the genres my books fall into. I love to travel and mysteries have always been my favorite genre as a reader. When I set out to write my first novel, Down and Out in Kathmandu, combining the two came naturally.

In my second novel, The Lover’s Portrait, and current work-in-progress, The Anthropologist, I branched out to include aspects of historical fiction. This was incredibly difficult for me because, aside from Philip Kerr, I had read very little of the genre and was not sure how much historical detail I should include.

After reading several popular historical fiction books, I felt like I had a grasp of the genre’s expectations and the level of detail expected. Only then did I feel confident enough to add in to The Lover’s Portrait several historical chapters centered around the character Arjan van Heemsvliet, an art dealer in Amsterdam in the 1940s.

The Anthropologist is more thriller than mystery, which is a challenge for me to add in more action and increase the story’s pace, in comparison with my first two novels. We will see how it all works out in a few months.

Your first novel takes place in Nepal. Did you stay there for a long time to get to know the place?

I volunteered as an English teacher in Kathmandu for three months and then spent another three backpacking around Nepal and Thailand. During my ‘volunteer and cultural experience programme’, I learned quite a bit about the cultural and ethnic diversity of Nepal and visited many important temples and holy sites with my volunteer group.

An important side story in Down and Out in Kathmandu takes place in several cities in Thailand I visited. Without having traveled through both countries, I would not have dared to describe either in the detail which I have done in my debut novel.

Your second novel takes place in Amsterdam, where you live now. Is it in any way auto-biographic?

My protagonist’s professional background and academic experience s are largely autobiographical. We both studied art history and museum studies at the University of Amsterdam and interned at the Amsterdam Museum. Unlike Zelda, I spent my time researching the connections between a ceramic and book collection, an assignment which had absolutely nothing to do with the restitution of art or World War Two.

But that is where the similarities between Zelda and I end. In many ways, she gets to do what I wanted to do. While the jobs dried up in the cultural sector before I could work my way up the professional ladder, Zelda is able to conduct the kinds of research and work on the kinds of projects I hoped to. It is fun to live vicariously through her and write about what ‘could have been’.

What can you tell us about your third and upcoming novel?

The third novel in the Adventures of Zelda Richardson series, working title The Anthropologist, is set in Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum, an anthropologic and ethnographic museum, as well as Papua New Guinea, a country I have never been to. It is an art-mystery-thriller about Asmat bis poles, missionaries and anthropologists.

The storyline was conceived during my time as a collection researcher at the Tropenmuseum while working on a fascinating exhibition of Asmat bis poles held in Dutch museum collections. While searching through photographs and film fragments of Asmat tribes, missionaries and anthropologists working in Papua New Guinea during the 1930s through 1960s, I discovered that a well-known Dutch missionary – Reverend Gerald Zegwaard – was one of the last people to see Michael Rockefeller alive. During their meeting they’d made an appointment to meet again after Rockefeller returned from an acquisition trip upriver. The young American disappeared days later, resulting in one of the most famous unsolved mysteries of our time. That little detail about his un-kept appointment with Reverend Zegwaard stuck with me and eventually inspired this novel.

I only dared to write about Papua New Guinea because all of the chapters which take place there are set in the 1950s and 1960s. Because the country has changed so much since then, I relied on film footage and travel journals as the basis for my descriptions of the villages, landscape and people.

Which country have you not been to yet that you want to visit?

Kenya is a country I have wanted to visit for quite a while. While at the Tropenmuseum, I worked on a historical photography project in conjunction with the Nairobi National Museum of Kenya. Archival research was also part of this assignment. It is a fascinating land with diverse cultures and a turbulent history.

Thanks so much Jennifer, for your time. I look forward to reading your third novel!

Here you can find Jennifer’s website, her Amazon Author Page or follow her on Goodreads or Facebook. And definitely check out her books!

The Lover’s Portrait

51KNLQlFsBL._AC_US218_The Lover’s Portrait written by Jennifer S. Alderson, was a fun and exciting read!

The main character is Zelda, a young American woman, who has been immersing herself in Dutch culture, studying art. When she gets an internship at an art museum in Amsterdam, trying to restore the in WW II stolen art to the rightful owners, a painting gets claimed by two different women, and questions, as well as trouble, start piling up!

The mystery itself was compelling and made me want to keep reading (I read it in one day, because I couldn’t put it down). The location and time period were the icing on the cake.

The story not only takes the reader to the Amsterdam of today, but also of the past, during the time of WW II. Featuring the stolen and lost art during the German occupation of the Netherlands, it tells about what was happening in Amsterdam during that period, without it turning into a history lesson. It was both a fascinating glimpse back in time as well as very educational. I had the impression Jennifer must have invested a great deal of work researching the era and the city. Having lived in Amsterdam, one of my favorite cities, I felt the descriptions in the book were very accurate, bringing back great memories.

Obviously, it being a mystery novel, I don’t want to provide any more spoilers. You just need to read it!

The Lost Ones (Part 2)

This is the second part of Writers we lost in 2016, in which I highlight a book written by a writer who passed away last year, but was unknown to me.

This time I read a book from Cory Taylor, an Australian writer, who initially started out writing children’s books. I read her first novel, Me and Mr. Booker, written in 2011, which received the Commonwealth Book Prize for the Pacific Region.

me-and-mr-bookerThis was an interesting read. The person telling the story is Martha, a 16-year old girl, living in a sleepy, small town in Australia.

I thought Martha’s voice was authentic and well captured: A mixture of boredom, immaturity, and self-absorption, just “waiting for something to happen.” But, Martha is also witty, quite astute in her observations of the people around her, and of course, a teenager caught in her teenage years. Therefore, I couldn’t find myself disliking her, even more so since the adults in her life are—well—sad, filled with self-loathing and disappointment.

Martha describes her father as a bully as well as a loser, and faults her mother for having a hard time banning him from her life, even though they’ve split up. When Martha meets the Bookers, who just arrived in town from England, they are a welcome diversion, and—as the title suggests— she gets involved with Mr. Booker, who is twice her age. For me, there was nothing likable about Mr. Booker. It was very difficult and uncomfortable to read through the parts of their sexual affair, since their age difference made it such an obviously unequal relationship.

Most of the adults in the book appear to live a life of pretense and just going through the motions, while drinking too much. Yet, their disillusion with life is heart-breaking, because they all seem so trapped, without seeing, or perhaps, wanting a way out.

I read it in one afternoon. Truthfully, I am still not sure I enjoyed it; I like books that make me feel better, and this book does not provide many “feel-good moments,” as the people in it come across as mostly unhappy. Nevertheless, it was very well written, and the voices in the book felt real, resulting in a captivating story. More importantly, it kept lingering in my mind afterwards. The book made me feel conflicted; on the one hand I caught myself being judgmental about the characters while reading it, but then also feeling for them for being incapable of finding a way out. In the end, I was desperately rooting for Martha to escape this life and find something better.

Cory Taylor was diagnosed with melanoma in 2005. After Me and Mr. Booker, she wrote My Beautiful Enemy in 2013. Her last book, Dying, a memoir, was published just before her death. She was 61 years old.