Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Q&A with Emmanuel Dongala, Author of The Bridgetower Sonata: Sonata Mulattica -- AUTHOR INTERVIEW


Emmanuel Dongala is a Congolese novelist who fled his native country during the civil war in 1997. He was a professor at Bard College at Simon's Rock until 2014 and still lives in Massachusetts. He is the award-winning author of several novels, the latest of which is based on the true story of George Bridgetower, an 18th Century violin virtuoso and the son of a Black man from the Caribbean. 

Bridgetower was a child prodigy who entertained Parisienne high society then fled to London to avoid the French Revolution and enjoyed the patronage of the Prince of Wales. He later moved to Vienna and became the friend and collaborator of Ludwig Van Beethoven. Dongala's new historical novel brings life to this forgotten story. 

Emmanuel talked with Rose City Reader about George Bridgetower, his new book, and researching historical fiction:  

Who was George Bridgetower?

George Bridgetower was a Black musician – he had a Polish mother and a Black father from Barbados. He befriended the young and upcoming composer Beethoven in Vienna. The latter’s most famous violin sonata known today as the Kreutzer sonata was originally written for Bridgetower.

What drew you to Bridgetower’s story and made you want to write The Bridgetower Sonata, a historical novel about his life?

For me, it was both fascinating and challenging to write about this musician, very famous during his time and yet completely forgotten today.

How much of your novel is based on true, historical events and how much did you have to imagine? In particular, how much do historians know about Bridgetower’s interactions with Beethoven, Thomas Jefferson, Alexandre Dumas, and other real people depicted in your book?

The book is based very much on historical events. Examples: The last concert Jefferson attended in Paris where he was the US ambassador was a concert given by Bridgetower. The falling out between Beethoven and Bridgetower was about a woman, Giuletta Giuccardi. Bridgetower was really adopted by the future king George IV etc. However, all the details, the dialogues, the interactions between the protagonists are of my imagination.

How did you research the historical information and detail found in your book? Did you have access to primary source materials?

I used all sources available. I even found a French magazine of 1789, where was the review of the first concert given by Bridgetower in Paris.

Did Beethoven really dedicate a sonata to Bridgetower before changing it to the Kreutzer Sonata? What is the story there?

Yes, he wrote it for Bridgetower. The original title was Sonata Mulattica, as a joke toward his friend who was what they used to call then “mulatto” a person of “mixed race” as they say today.

Why did you choose to write Bridgetower’s story as historical fiction instead of straight biography?

I am a novelist. [Ed. note: Best answer ever to this question.]

What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?

The biggest challenge was how to get out of all the historical material I collected during my research and turn it into a novel.

What is your background? How did it lead you to writing fiction?

I am a scientist, a chemistry professor. I was always an avid reader and this led me to try may hand at writing.

Is your own writing influenced by the authors you read?

I think all writers are influenced by other writers. Not necessarily directly, but all that they absorb here and there by reading.

What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?

The best advice I can give to a would-be writer is to read a lot, be an avid reader in all categories.

What kind of books do you like to read? What are you reading now?

Right now I’m re-reading The Underground Railway by Colson Whitehead.



Monday, June 28, 2021

Three New History Books -- MAILBOX MONDAY


Three New History Books from Pegasus Books

Are you traveling anywhere this summer? 

Now that corona restrictions are easing up, I had hoped to make a few trips to visit family. But it looks like those trips are on hold until after a big trial scheduled to take most of September. I don't mind traveling in the fall though, when the weather is cooler and crowds thinner. 

So it looks like my summer travel will be of the armchair variety. With these three new books from Pegasus Books, I'll travel back in time as well as out of my Pacific Northwest home.

Cheyenne Summer: The Battle of Beecher Island: A History by Terry Mort. The first stop on my history trip will be eastern Colorado during the Indian Wars of the late 1800s. 

Mort's new book (out next week) focusses on one battle, which he describes as not strategically significant but of cultural an historical importance. In 1868, Cheyenne and Sioux warriors fought US Army scouts, including two battalions of Black "Buffalo Soldiers," in the Battle of Beecher Island. Mort uses the battle to write about America's Western frontier and one of the most transformative periods in America's history.

The Florentines: From Dante to Galileo: The Transformation of Western Civilization by Paul Strathern (also out on July 6). Next, I'll travel to Florence, the city that gave birth to the Renaissance.

Strathern offers a masterful history of 400 years of Florentine culture. He explores how the ideas that flourished between the birth of Dante in 1265 and the death of Galileo in 1642 -- ideas expressed in the art and architecture of Florence -- converged as the philosophy of humanism and changed the world.

The Normans: The Conquest of Christendom by Trevor Rowley. This one comes out August 3. I was excited to get an early copy so I can finish my trip backward in time. My last stop is Normandy of the Middle Ages, or more specifically, the early 10th Century to about the middle of the 13th Century.

Trevor Rowley offers a comprehensive history of the Normans in this fascinating little book. The Normans conquered England, Wales, Ireland, and parts of Scotland, and established kingdoms in southern Italy, Sicily, the Holy Land, and North Africa. 


What new books came to your house last week? Join other book lovers on Mailbox Monday to share the books that came into your house last week. Visit the Mailbox Monday website to find links to all the participants' posts and read more about Books that Caught our Eye.

Mailbox Monday is hosted by Serena of Savvy Verse & Wit and Martha of Reviews by Martha's Bookshelf. They are looking for another co-host, so if you are interested, contact them for details.

Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Real Hergé: The Inspiration Behind Tintin by Sian Lye -- BOOK REVIEW



Hergé is the pen name of the famous Belgian cartoonist who brought Tintin to life. His 24 books chronicling The Adventures of Tintin have sold over 250 million copies and been translated into over 110 languages. But George Prosper Remi himself is a complicated figure. While celebrated as a beloved author – Belgium put him on a stamp in 2004 – his life involved a series of scandals, from marital infidelity to accusations of sexism, racism, and anti-Semitism, including possible collaboration with the Nazis during World War Two.

It is easy to hear about these shortcomings and think maybe Hergé should just be written off, his books no longer read. But is that the best course? The Tintin books bring joy. Isn’t it better to wrestle with Hergé’s flaws and see what we can learn from them, rather than deny readers the pleasure of his books? Wrestling with his flaws is just what journalist Sian Lye does in her new biography, The Real Hergé: The Inspiration Behind Tintin. Lye examines Hergé’s life with all the controversies that surround it. She also looks at the personal relationships and experiences that influenced his attitudes and his works.  

Some of these earliest influences were his Catholic mother, who suffered from mental illness, and his involvement in Boy Scouts. Although his time in Scouting was tainted by sexual hazing among the boys and conduct by his Scoutmaster we would consider abusive today, Hergé loved the Scouts. The camping trips appealed to his sense of adventure and gave him an opportunity to travel and explore. This love of adventure inspired his Tintin stories. However, the cruelty of his Scoutmaster made Hergé hate authority and order, feelings he carried with him the rest of his life.

It was through Boy Scouts that Hergé had his first opportunity to publish his work. He began regularly submitting articles and illustrations to Le Boy-Scout, the official publication of the Belgian Catholic Scouts, when he was 15. This led to a job with a Catholic newspaper and, shortly after, his first Tintin book.

Lye’s analysis of Hergé’s life and work leads her to conclude that he was easily influenced by strong personalities around him. Often these “charismatic characters” as she calls them brought out his best work. But sometimes they led Hergé to make bad life and political decisions that haunted him. However, Hergé was willing to reconsider his past views and work. He took criticism to heart, just as he was swayed by other opinions. He often revised his books before they were reprinted.

It is certainly possible to enjoy the Tintin books without knowing Hergé. But they are more interesting after learning about this complex, sometimes frustrating, man. We can learn from him, even if we learn from his mistakes.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

The Dive: The Untold Story of the World's Deepest Submarine Rescue by Stephen McGinty - BOOK BEGINNINGS


We are heading into a scorcher of a weekend here in Portland. Like all Oregonians (or all Willamette Valley dwelling Oregonians), I complain about the heat as soon as we have more than two days in a row over 80 degrees. So when the temperature is forecast to go 100+ for days on end, I dread it. 

There's no a/c in my house, so my weekend plan involves lying on the floor, trying not to move, with an iced beverage in hand and a box fan blowing on me. A book about undersea rescue might help cook me down.

What are your weekend plans?

In the meantime, please join me for Book Beginnings on Fridays, where participants share the opening sentence (or so) of the book they want to highlight this week. Add the link to your Book Beginning blog or social media post in the Linky box below.


In the cabin the gentle rock and roll of the ship is as good as a lullaby to Roger Chapman.
-- from the Prologue.
The hook resembles an anchor but with five arms instead of only two, the hands at the ends of the arms resembling shovels in shape. To the hook was connected a thick wire rope, more than five miles long. 
-- from Chapter One.

I included both beginnings because the description in Chapter One really captured my attention more than the first sentence of the prologue -- especially the idea of a wire rope five miles long. 

The Dive is the true story of the race to save two men trapped in a broken submarine on the ocean floor. It's the kind of real-life adventure story that appeals to readers like my husband, who cannot wait to read this book. His favorite books are the ones where explorers have to eat their sled dogs or ships sink -- or both. 

Stephen McGinty is a British journalist and book author. The Dive is his first book published in America. It is the minute-by-minute account of the daring rescue mission to accomplish the deepest rescue in maritime history. It is a nail-biter of a story!


If you share on social media, please use the hashtag #bookbeginnings.

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Another fun Friday event is The Friday 56. Share a two-sentence teaser from page 56 of your book, or 56% of the way through your e-book or audiobook, on this weekly event hosted by Freda at Freda's Voice.


From The Dive:
At 2 pm on 28 June 1774 the Maria was towed out to a spot just off Drake's Island in Plymouth Sound by HMS Orpheus, a navel frigate on whose stern gathered invited guests. Hundreds more members of the public were spread out on the coastline in the hope of witnessing [John] Day sink, then ascend at the appointed hour. 
Describing the early history of submarine experiments, not the 1973 accident and rescue that is the subject of The Dive

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Blue Desert by Celia Jeffries - BOOK REVIEW



Blue Desert by Celia Jeffries (2021, Rootstock Publishing)

Sixty years after Alice George lived in the Sahara desert with the nomadic Tuarig tribe, she received a telegram telling her that Abu was dead. "Who is Abu?" her husband asks. "My lover," she replies. This is the set up for Blue Desert, the new novel by Celia Jeffries. The story braids the two narratives of Alice's time spent in the Sahara during the years of World War I and 1970s London, during the week she tells her secrets to her husband for the first time.

The story of Alice’s time spent with the Taurig people is particularly fascinating. The Sahara is land mass larger than the continental United States and is seemingly hostile to human life. But this tribe found a way to live in harmony with that environment. Add to that, women were valued and held power within their society in a way that contrasted markedly with the British society Alice had left behind in the early 1900s.

One of the main themes in Blue Desert is how survival and love can be entwined and take many forms. What helped Alice survive in the desert was acceptance—of her situation and of the people she found herself among. What helped Martin survive the WWI was acceptance of the altered state of the world. Finally, what made their marriage work was total acceptance of each other as they were.

If you like historical fiction with a feminist bent, Blue Desert is the book for you.


Read my author interview of Celia Jeffries, here.

Learn more about the book Blue Desert and author Celia Jeffries on her website, here.

Watch the YouTube video of the Cambridge Common Writers launch of Blue Desert, here, where you can listen to Celia read from her novel and answer questions about the story and her writing process.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

The Garden in Every Sense and Season: A Year of Insights and Inspiration from My Garden by Tovah Martin - BOOK REVIEW


In The Garden in Every Sense and Season: A Year of Insights and Inspiration from My Garden, Tovah Martin chronicles four seasons in her garden, carefully describing what each of her five senses experiences each season. As she describes:
This is the story of a nose and how I followed it through the year. This is the saga of a garden and how it spoke to me. In these pages I chronicle a pair of hands as they grope their way through the weeding, hoeing, and digging without too much pain. And this is the tale of someone who has looked at her garden for years, but only now saw it fully for the first time.
I’m a half-hearted gardener at best. Well, that would be a gross overstatement. I like to wander through famous gardens or sit in a pretty garden, mine included. But I’d prefer someone else to make mine pretty for me. My husband, reasonably enough, does not find this arrangement equitable. My hope is that Martin’s lively and chummy descriptions of the rewards of gardening will inspire me to get my hands dirty.

Martin has been creating her seven-acre garden in northeastern Connecticut since 1996, so there is plenty for her to see, smell, hear, touch, and taste. But don’t think this is a book (only) about mooning over the lusciousness of a ripe peach or the nostalgia of a rough fence board under the fingertips. Martin's essays offer practical gardening advice, organized by season and senses. Her “touch” section for Spring, for instance, includes an essay on garden gates with this:
I favor a barrel bolt with an easy-release lever and latch grab that catches seamlessly. Heavy-duty garden gate versions have a latch you can release easily with a gloved hand.
Not sappy poetry, that. But for those who enjoy it, the luscious peach is there too.

The 100 essays in The Garden in Every Sense and Season are like spending a year in a garden with a good friend. You’ll have a few laughs, pick up some sound pointers, get fresh ideas, and maybe appreciate your own garden in a new way.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Spin: A Novel Based on a (Mostly) True Story by Peter Zheutlin - BOOK BEGINNINGS



Are you in a book club? Did you meet during corona time?

I'm in two book clubs, and they responded to corona completely differently. The one I've been in the longest broke down during COVID. We haven't gathered since Portland declared its semi-lockdown status on March 17, 2020. We barely emailed each other. And that is odd because the group has been going strong for 18 years or so, longer than the 14 years I've been a member. We rallied now that restrictions are lifted and we are all vaxxed and are getting together in July to get back on track. I'm quite excited about that!

My second book club has only been around about five years. It reacted the opposite to COVID restrictions. We went from meeting every other month when we met IRL to meeting every month on zoom. Our virtual meetings were a social lifeline last year and right up through last month. We got together in person last night for the first time in over 16 months. We were all giddy to gather at my house for a potluck and some chat about Skios by Michael Frayn. We had so much fun!


It is time again for Book Beginnings on Fridays, where readers share the first sentence (or so) of the book they want to highlight this week. Please add the link to your Book beginning blog or social media post in the Linky box below. If you share on social media, please use the #bookbeginnings hashtag.


This week, my Book Beginning is from Spin: A Novel Based on a (Mostly) True Story by Peter Zheutlin, new from Pegasus Books:

Dearest Mary, 
I'm an old woman now. Exactly how old depends on which of the many stories I've told over the years you choose to believe, for I have not always been the most reliable witness to the events of my own life.
I like this beginning a lot! You get the idea right away we have an autobiographical story told from the perspective of an old lady who just confessed she will be an unreliable narrator. Sounds like fun!

Spin is the historical fiction account of Annie Londonderry adventures as she became "the first woman to cycle around the world" in the 1890s. Author Peter Zheutlin is Annie's great-grand-nephew and wrote the novel based on historic and family materials. 

Spin is an entertaining summer read for adult and YA fans of historic fiction.


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Another fun Friday event is The Friday 56. Share a two-sentence teaser from page 56 of your book, or 56% of the way through your e-book or audiobook, on this weekly event hosted by Freda at Freda's Voice.


From Spin:

Thus, when I arrived at the Providence Hotel late that afternoon, I had no money to pay for my lodging. So I bartered with the hotel manager to allow me to earn my stay by working the candy counter at the hotel store for several hours and to give a short lecture in the lobby on what we called then “physical culture” (exercise and physical fitness) to a few curious guests who saw me standing there with my wheel.

What do you think? Does Spin look like a book you would enjoy or do you know someone who would?

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Grammar for a Full Life: How the Ways We Shape a Sentence Can Limit or Enlarge Us by Lawrence Weinstein - BOOK REVIEW


Grammar books range in style and I’m a fan of all of them. They can be straightforward handbooks on the rules of grammar like the classic The Elements of Style, or classified as grammar books but focus on punctuation like the funny Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Books about language usage often get lumped in with grammar books. My favorite of these is The King’s English by Kingsley Amis.

But Grammar for a Full Life is not like any grammar book I’ve ever read. It’s a self-help book that seeks to make you a better person as much as a better writer. Lawrence Weinstein explores big issues like agency, belonging, freedom, and mindfulness, all viewed through the lens of grammar.

Weinstein breaks the major topics into several subchapters, each reading like the musings of the college professor he is. His chapter on empathy in the context of correcting other people’s grammar is particularly good. Throughout, he offers many examples to illustrate his points but few hard and fast rules.

He looks at how grammar choices may reflect personality traits and distinct ways of understanding and dealing with life. More important, Weinstein considers how, by intentionally making certain choices about grammar, we can foster our well-being. For example, he writes convincingly that a combination of active and passive voice unleashes creativity in a way that using only active voice does not.

Grammar for a Full Life caught my eye because I like any grammar book. It captured my heart because of its unique charm.


Listen to an interview with Larry Weinstein on the Clark and Miller podcast, here.

Read a review of Grammar for a Full Life on Do Yoga for Beginners, here.

Visit grammarforafulllife.com to learn more about this wonderful book and its author.

Monday, June 14, 2021

They Called Him Marvin & More -- MAILBOX MONDAY



They Called Him Marvin is the intimate history of one family caught up the War in the Pacific during WWII. First Lieutenant Dean Sherman was one of some 570 Allied airmen captured by the Japanese. His wife Connie was home in Utah, raising the baby Dean never met. 

Roger Stark's new book tells the story of Dean and Connie Sherman in all its historical context, using their own letters as well as primary source materials. It is the story of the brave men flying B-29 fighters and the harrowing effects the war had on families on both sides.

They Called Him Marvin launches September1 and is available for pre-order now. Learn more about the book and what prompted Stark to write it on theycalledhimmarvin.com.  


"They were the fathers we never knew, the uncles we never met, the friends who never returned, the heroes we can never repay. They gave us our world. And those simple sounds of freedom we hear today are their voices speaking to us across the years." Bill Clinton

Such a man was 1st Lt Dean Harold Sherman, B-29 Airplane Commander.
They Called Him Marvin is a history. A history of war and of family. A history of the collision of the raging politics of a global war, young love, patriotism, sacred family commitments, duty and the horrors and tragedies, the catastrophe that war is.

The other books that came into my house last week were this nifty set of vintage Viking poetry books. My neighbor had a garage sale and, while he was ambivalent about parting with this set, he was happy they were only going across the street so he can visit them. 

I can't see myself hunkering down to read any of these cover to cover. But I can imagine dipping into them now and again when I'm feeling nostalgic for my days as an English Major. 


Join other book lovers on Mailbox Monday to share the books that came into your house last week. Visit the Mailbox Monday website to find links to all the participants' posts and read more about Books that Caught our Eye.

Mailbox Monday is hosted by Serena of Savvy Verse & Wit and Martha of Reviews by Martha's Bookshelf.

Saturday, June 12, 2021

May Wrap Up -- My May Books


Oh, the merry month of May! Apparently I spent most of it with my nose in a book. How about you?

During May, I made progress on my TBR 21 in '21 and Mt. TBR Challenges, but read nothing for the Vintage Mystery Challenge. I read one more for the European Reading Challenge and three for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

Here are the 14 books I read in May, in the order I read them, not the order they are stacked in the picture. Spot anything that looks good? 

Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt by Arthur C. Brooks, spot on and couldn’t be more timely. (TBR 21 in '21) 🌹🌹🌹🌹🌹

Consequences by Penelope Lively, an excellent novel about three generations of women. (Mt. TBR) 🌹🌹🌹🌹🌹

The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald, her fictionalized and lighthearted story of pre-WWII life on a chicken ranch in the PNW rainforest. This one counts as the "new to me author" pick for the Back to the Classics Challenge. 🌹🌹🌹🌹

The Day of the Jack Russell by Colin Bateman, the hilarious second book in his Mystery Man series. 🌹🌹🌹🌹

Orchids & Salami by Eva Gabor, the most random book on my shelf, a TBR 21 in '21 pick and my "Hungary" pick for the European Reading Challenge. 🌹🌹🌹

The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe, his fascinating critique of linguistics, Darwinism, and a lot more! (Mt. TBR) 🌹🌹🌹🌹

Jeeves in the Offing by P. G. Wodehouse, always funny. (Mt. TBR) 🌹🌹🌹🌹🌹

The Dead Bell by Reid Winslow, a page-turner of a new mystery out this fall. Check back for my review and look for the book this September -- it may just have a Rose City Reader blurb on the back cover! 🌹🌹🌹🌹🌹

This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger, historical fiction about Depression-era orphans, Indian Schools, tent revivals, and other sad things by someone who really doesn’t like alcohol. (Book Club pick) 🌹🌹🌹

The Tender Bar by J. R. Moehringer, a memoir of growing up in a bar by someone who really did like alcohol. 🌹🌹🌹🌹

The Private Patient by P. D. James, the final book in her Adam Dalgliesh series. (Mt. TBR) 🌹🌹🌹🌹

A Really Big Lunch by Jim Harrison, a collection of later food essays by one of my favorite authors. (TBR 21 in '21) 🌹🌹🌹🌹

Mark Hampton: An American Decorator by Duane Hampton, a delightful anchor to my coffee table book collection. (Mt. TBR) 🌹🌹🌹🌹🌹

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham, a reread of an all time favorite. Every few years, I listen again to the audiobook narrated by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame and love it even more! 🌹🌹🌹🌹🌹

How did May treat you? Anything good in store for June?


Thursday, June 10, 2021

Two New Adventure Books by Women -- The Last Layer of the Ocean and On the Run -- on BOOK BEGINNINGS


Welcome back to Book Beginnings on Fridays! Please share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are featuring this week. Add the link to your blog or social media post in the box below. 

Thank you all for participating! It is always fun to see what everyone is reading. 


I have a Book Beginnings two-fer today. These two books are both new from OSU Press and they go together well. 

The Last Layer of the Ocean: Kayaking Through Love and Loss on Alaska's Wild Coast by Mary Emerick:
I understood the kind of people that I came from but not why I felt so different from them.
The Last Layer of the Ocean is Emerick's compelling memoir about moving to the Alaskan coast when she was 38. She took a job as a kayak ranger, traveling along the rugged Alaskan coast in a small yellow kayak. She married a man who lived on a different island and learned that marriage could be just as difficult as ocean kayaking.

cover of On the Run: Finding the Trail Home by Catherine Doucette

On the Run: Finding the Trail Home by Catherine Doucette:
I can no longer remember the first time I heard the ice booming on a frigid night.
On the Run is another book by an adventure-seeking woman. Doucette is a backcountry skier, horseback rider, and mountaineer. In this collection of essays, she looks at how her outdoor lifestyle brings excitement and joy but requires sacrifices.


Link to your Book Beginnings post below. If you share on social media, please use the hashtag #bookbeginnings. 

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TIE IN: The Friday 56 hosted by Freda's Voice is a natural tie in with this event and there is a lot of cross over, so many people combine the two. The idea is to post a teaser from page 56 of the book you are reading and share a link to your post. Find details and the Linky for your Friday 56 post on Freda’s Voice.


From The Last Layer of the Ocean:
Because the Forest Service required me to carry it, I complied, although I was not sure I would be able to shoot a bear if things went wrong. Guns were so casual in town, a second thought; people carried them the way women carried purses in other states. 
I could have picked any two sentences from page 56, they were are so interesting! Emerick is talking about the very real threat of bears, stories of unfortunate people mauled by bears, but how she had a hard time with her regulation rifle because it was hard for her to shoot and too big to fit properly on her kayak. 

From On the Run:
The terrain ahead demands attention, the alpine blade dropping away thousands of feet on either side. The guided skiers are already picking their way across the ridge, one at a time, tied to the guide who shuttles them over the exposed slice of mountain. 
Doucettes adventures are the sorts I could never even imagine doing! It is interesting to read about her life because it is so completely different than mine. 

Monday, June 7, 2021

Q&A with Nicki Chen, Author of When in Vanuatu -- AUTHOR INTERVIEW


Nicki Chen is a novelist and blogger from Washington state. Tales of her husband's childhood in China inspired her first novel, Tiger Tale Soup. Her new novel, When in Vanuatu (2020, She Writes Press), was influenced by the couple's expatriate years, including time lived in Manila and the island of Vanuatu.

Nicki talked with Rose City Reader about new new book, historical fiction, and expatriate living: 

How did you come to write When in Vanuatu?

My first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, required a lot of research. It was set in China during WWII, a time and place I knew only from stories I’d heard and books I’d read. I thought it was time I wrote a novel about something closer to my own experience. Why not a story about a group of expatriates living in Vanuatu?

The book takes place in Manila and the South Seas island of Vanuatu. Why did you choose to set your novel in these locations? Do you have a personal connection?

My husband and I lived in Vanuatu for three years. It was beautiful and fascinating—the perfect backdrop for a story.

I didn’t settle on Manila until rather late in the process. In fact, I originally wrote a brief section set in Singapore. I was more familiar with Manila, though. My husband, our three daughters, and I lived there for about fifteen years beginning in 1971. Our daughters started nursery school there and went through the grades at the Manila International School. They were in college in the United States during the time of my novel.

Did you know right away, or have an idea, how you were going to end the story? Or did it come to you as you were in the process of writing?

I didn’t decide how to end the story until I was almost there. By then, I knew what would feel right, and I felt that it would work.

What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject of the book or the writing process – that most surprised you?

During the process of writing the novel, I kept noticing, little by little, how much our lives and particularly the expatriate experience has changed since 1989-90. We didn’t email then, no social media, no cell phones, no blogging. My protagonist, Diana, had only one way to communicate with her friends and family back in the United States: international air mail and occasional (expensive) phone calls.

I didn’t classify When in Vanuatu as “historical fiction,” but recently I learned that the majority of historians consider history anything that happened twenty or thirty years ago. So I guess my novel qualifies.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

After sharing Diana’s life for 316 pages, I hope readers will have gained a greater understanding of the expat experience and an appreciation for its pleasures and challenges and that they’ll come away filled with tropical dreams.

What is your favorite review or compliment you received about your book?

I like a review by Tegan Tigani of the Queen Anne Book Company. She ended it like this: “It’s ideal for book clubs or anyone who would want to read a modern, feminist Graham Green.” I’m a big fan of book clubs and also of Graham Green stories.

What is your background and how did it lead to writing fiction?

Who knows how a short and early career teaching kindergarten and a later long-term interest in art, particularly Chinese brush painting and batik, led me on a path to that led to writing fiction? But at some point, I developed a real passion for it. Thanks to some wonderful teachers at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I gained the ability to craft a story and succeeded in earning an MFA. I had to travel half-way around the world several times to do it, though.

Were books an important part of your household when you were growing up?

Yes. I loved fairy tales in every form, from Grimm to Hans Christian Andersen, from Walt Disney to the Hansel and Gretel opera. Mom read to me; then I read to my sister. Dad could recite long Robert Service poems. At bedtime he invented stories for us filled with giants and flying carpets.

Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by the authors you read?

My favorite authors change as time goes by. Some current favorites: Liane Moriarty, Margaret Atwood, Tana French, Kristen Hannah, Ian McEwan, and Jess Walter. Whoops! That’s six. I hope I’m influenced by these talented writers, but I can’t guarantee it.

What are you reading now?

Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian, another favorite author.

You have a terrific website and are also on Facebook and Twitter. From an author's perspective, how important are social networking sites and other internet resources to promote your book?

They’re crucial. Any new product (or book) needs serious marketing if anyone is going to know it exists. For many of us, that marketing will be online. The place to start is having a good website. I recently remodeled mine, and I’m proud if its new look. You’re welcome to visit me at nickichenwrites.com.  

We all have our favorite social media. You will find me more often on Facebook. Occasionally I spend too much time on twitter. I’m just beginning to learn my way around Instagram. It seems to be very popular among readers. 

Do you have any writing rituals, odd habits, or superstitions?

I sit on a stool in my kitchen and write everything longhand. At the end of the day, I type it up and print it. Then, the following day I do a quick revision before carrying on.

What’s next? Are you working on another book?

Currently I’m working on a collection of short stories set in the South Pacific.



Thursday, June 3, 2021

The First Lady of Underfashions by Christina Erteszek - BOOK BEGINNINGS


This is my first Book Beginnings post from my office instead of my house since before corona. My office opened this week for the first time since March 2020! 

There are only three of us in the office -- me, my law partner, and our legal assistant. I've been working from home 100%. Our legal assistant has been working at the office because she preferred it to WFH. And when my law partner wanted to be in the office, our LA stayed at home. Portland never locked down completely, so we could have been in the office, but only if we wore masks and stayed six feet apart. We just didn't want to bother with all that. Now we are all vaccinated and can be here without masks or any of the other rigmarole. 

So this week has been fun and busy as we settled back into our old routines. A client came by with a box of doughnuts for us this morning just to visit in person. I met with the parents of another client to get them ready for their depositions next week. It's so nice to talk to people face to face instead of on zoom!

But enough about my work week! Let's get down to Book Beginnings. Please share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you want to highlight this week. Add the link to your blog or social media post in the Linky box below. Please use the hashtag #bookbeginnings if you share on SM. 


From The First Lady of Underfashions by Christina Erteszek:

The massive trunks of the coral trees lining the median of San Vicente Boulevard drew my father's attention as I drove us in the spring of 1986, the trunks reminding me of naked brown bodies, their determined limbs boldly reaching toward the sky.

Christina Erteszek’s parents, Jan and Olga, escaped WWII Poland, emigrated to America, and starting the Olga “underfashion” company. Her new book is the story of their immigrant experience, how they built their family business, the surprising takeover by a competing company, and how Christina found her own place in the world they created. 


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blog event button for The Friday 56 on Freda's Voice


Another fun Friday event is The Friday 56. Share a two-sentence teaser from page 56 of your book, or 56% of the way through your e-book or audiobook, on this weekly event hosted by Freda at Freda's Voice.


From The First Lady of Underfashions:

Jakub touched the old mare with a switch, and she jumped forward. The couple turned around for a last look at Otylia's parents in the darkness of their doorway.

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