Interview: Jeff Russell, author of The Dream Shelf

Today I am delighted to welcome Jeff Russell, author of The Dream Shelf to What Cathy Read Next.   Jeff has kindly agreed to answer some questions about his book, its inspiration and his approach to writing.


TheDreamShelfAbout the Book

No pictures, no past and yet his dreams were left on the shelf. A book, a toy, a framed quote and a plaster bust represented the places Sam’s father wanted to see and things he wanted to do. But Robert Archer refused to discuss his background and when he died unexpectedly Sam was left with the bitter regret of a lost opportunity to learn more about his dad. Things change with the discovery of a hidden yearbook, a list of names and a government document. Sam’s interest in his father’s life becomes a surreptitious tale that ignites a passion to know what happened to him and why his secrets could not be shared. He embarks on a quest for ‘his story’, one with both the promise of closure and the threat of learning more than he wants to know. The trail leads to Gus, a WWII veteran whose cryptic ramblings suggest a horrific plan to end the war in Germany, and his daughter Karen, who is torn between helping Sam and protecting her father. Together they learn the dark secret behind the Dream Shelf, the high cost of integrity and the lessons a father left behind for his son.

Purchase links*
Amazon.co.uk
Amazon.com
Barnes & Noble
*links provided for convenience not as part of any affiliate programme


Q&A: Jeff Russell, author of The Dream Shelf

Without giving too much away, can you tell me a bit about The Dream Shelf?

The story addresses the inherent human need to feel secure, specifically the security of knowing who we are as individuals. Robert Archer was a single parent who sacrificed everything to ensure that his son Sam had the best possible chance for success in life. Sam recognizes and appreciates that love but is deeply troubled by the fact that Robert’s life prior to 1948 is a closely guarded secret. Without knowing how his father became the person he is, Sam’s own story is incomplete and when Robert suddenly dies, Sam is left believing his questions will never be answered. All that remains is a small shelf of knick-knacks, simple items that Sam once believed represented his father’s unfulfilled dreams. A chance discovery rekindles his hope to uncover his father’s hidden past and the quest is on. As the story unfolds Sam comes to realize that the items on the shelf were actually clues to Robert’s life and lessons he hoped to pass down to his son.

(Jeff has shared this photo of the actual Dream Shelf from the book, just as Sam would have viewed it as a young boy.)
DreamShelf

Where did you get the idea for the book?

I am drawn to puzzles and curious titbits of history. This story gave me a chance to combine the two, weaving a tale around true pieces of the past – including the American Civil War and WWII – and creating puzzles to let readers decipher for themselves what actually happened to Sam’s father. When a reader comes to me and says “I never knew that happened. That’s amazing!” I know they’ve experienced that same excitement.

How did you approach the research for The Dream Shelf? Do you enjoy the process of research?

Research is half the fun of writing; it lets me experience the thrill of discovery. And history provides plenty of factual material to work with. All I need to do is pick a timeframe and search for information relative to a specific scenario or dilemma in the story.

What was the biggest challenge you encountered when writing The Dream Shelf?

One of the items on the Dream Shelf is a framed literary quote. I wanted to use a line from a famous author’s poem (to give my story a sense of credibility) but the complication of getting permission turned out to be a huge drain on my time. I dropped that idea and instead wrote my own poem. In the end it fit much better into the story and I’m quite proud of the poem.

I know that one of your childhood literary heroes was Jules Verne. What contemporary writers do you admire?

I realize this will sound blasphemous among the legions of writers but I don’t have a favourite contemporary author. I’ve learned that all writers are my teacher, each author has some gift or talent I would like to emulate and for that reason I read as many different authors as I can. Some I like more than others but once I’ve read one work by them I find that subsequent works have less new lessons to share and so I move on to a different author. I should point out also that, with the exception of Afterlight – which is the sequel to Cab’s Lantern – all my stories are unique. I don’t stick with a particular theme or dilemma, hence reading multiple authors makes it easier to find new inspiration.

You say your characters are ‘ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances’.   What is it about this concept that inspires you?

Some readers want to picture themselves as having unlimited physical, financial, intellectual or sexual resources and gravitate towards stories that let them experience those pleasures. But there are others (myself included) who are satisfied being ‘simple old me’ and would like the occasional adventure of facing an unusually challenging situation and having nothing to fall back on other than a cool head and sharp wits. Those readers are my target audience. Credibility is key here. For a reader to truly feel that they are caught in a tense situation there must be no suspension of belief.

Have you had any real life adventures that you’ve used (or plan to use) as a basis for your writing?

Nothing exciting, I’m afraid. I’ve done a lot and seen a lot but the story of my life would have less plot than a dictionary. That said, parts of my past have resurfaced in my characters. As a result I have lived great adventures through them and for that I will always be grateful.

What is your favourite and least favourite part of the writing process?

Creating characters, scenes and dilemmas and then fitting them together is the favourite part. I believe that the creative process is the driving force that keeps most authors glued to the keyboard. Proof-reading is my least favourite part… by a long shot. I know the plot, characters and dialog so well that I race ahead, missing typos and other blunders in the process. That’s where beta-readers become critical.

Do you have a special place to write or any writing rituals?

Ideas come to me throughout the day but I save them for the following morning, long before the sun rises. Then I sit at a small desk in a quiet room and start working those elements into the story. It seems I need to be away from that desk to find the inspiration but must be sitting at my computer to start composing. And this only works early in the morning; by the end of the day my brain is too frazzled to be creative.

What are you working on next?

My current work in progress deals with the fear of growing old alone. The protagonist, who is faced with having to choose between two unattractive options regarding how he will spend the rest of his life, encounters a group of WWII vets who meet each day for coffee. By talking to them and sharing their experiences he hopes to find a solution to his own quandary. I am drawn to this project because that group of vets actually exists. I meet with them frequently and some have volunteered their stories for my book. Hopefully this will let their stories live on.

Thank you, Jeff, for providing such fascinating answers to my questions.

What would be on your Dream Shelf? Jeff and I would love to know…share on Twitter @CabsLantern, hashtag #DreamShelf


JeffRussellAbout the Author

Jeff: I am a tale-spinner. My childhood heroes were Jules Verne and Victor Appleton II, architects of fantastic adventures. Hemingway stepped in when I discovered that the trials and triumphs of real people – those with limited physical and financial resources – were even more intriguing than science fiction. Today I try to follow that example with my own characters. They are the ‘you and me’ of the world, ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances, beaten down perhaps and yet determined to succeed. Invariably they find adventure, romance and self-fulfilment, as should we all. When not absorbed in the pages of some new author or hammering away at my latest manuscript I can be found living and running in Stowe, VT. Visit my website at www.CabsLantern.com and feel free to drop me a line at JeffRussell@CabsLantern.com. Happy reading!

Other ways to connect with Jeff

Twitter https://twitter.com/CabsLantern
Goodreads https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7232345.Jeff_Russell

Excerpt: The Dream Shelf by Jeff Russell

Today I am delighted to bring you an excerpt from Jeff Russell’s novel, The Dream Shelf, a thrilling mystery about family secrets.  

TheDreamShelfAbout the Book

No pictures, no past and yet his dreams were left on the shelf. A book, a toy, a framed quote and a plaster bust represented the places Sam’s father wanted to see and things he wanted to do. But Robert Archer refused to discuss his background and when he died unexpectedly Sam was left with the bitter regret of a lost opportunity to learn more about his dad. Things change with the discovery of a hidden yearbook, a list of names and a government document. Sam’s interest in his father’s life becomes a surreptitious tale that ignites a passion to know what happened to him and why his secrets could not be shared. He embarks on a quest for ‘his story’, one with both the promise of closure and the threat of learning more than he wants to know. The trail leads to Gus, a WWII veteran whose cryptic ramblings suggest a horrific plan to end the war in Germany, and his daughter Karen, who is torn between helping Sam and protecting her father. Together they learn the dark secret behind the Dream Shelf, the high cost of integrity and the lessons a father left behind for his son.

Purchase links*
Amazon.co.uk
Amazon.com
Barnes & Noble
*links provided for convenience not as part of any affiliate programme


Excerpt from The Dream Shelf

“You’re early,” Karen said as they walked through the house toward the kitchen. “Dad isn’t even awake yet. How about some coffee.”

Sam saw that she was dressed for work and, based on the way she hurried about, presumed she’d be leaving soon. The suit gave her a professional appearance but it also made her look sheltered, as if to shield her from the psychological burden of other people’s problems. He tried to smile but it didn’t show in his eyes. “I have to head back. There’s coursework to submit for next semester and I’ve already missed that deadline, plus I have to meet with the lawyers about my father’s house.” He wanted to keep going, lumping reason upon reason to make his abrupt departure sound justified but he knew what she was thinking … He didn’t find what he came for so he’s leaving, simple as that. Kiss the girl and make her cry.

“My flight leaves in a couple hours.”

Karen swallowed hard but kept her composure. She nodded, handed him his coffee and sat down beside him at the table but didn’t look at him. “Well, I hope you found something you can use,” she said.

There were a dozen ways Sam could respond, all jumbled on the tip of his tongue but he did not know where to begin and fell back on the obvious. “You told me earlier that whatever happened to my father was history, that I should accept it and let it go. You were right.”

He waited for her to turn in his direction, for a chance to look in her eyes again, but she stared straight-faced into the distance. “It was wrong of me to come,” he confessed, looking down into his coffee. “I had this fantasy about getting some answers, about finally figuring out who my father was … who I am. I ignored the consequences. Guess I’m not supposed to know.” He turned back to her again. “You told me I should let it go…I’m letting it go.”

Giving up on his father hurt, but he’d hurt that way before and learned to move on. It was different this time. Walking away now meant walking away from Karen. Despite everything he’d told himself the night before about time, meaningful relationships and the line between delight and delusion the thought of walking away from her hurt even more. There was nothing left to say yet so much he felt needed to be said. He was struggling for the words when a voice called out from behind them.

“Look at the book you took, kid.”

They spun around together just as Gus dropped the Manhattan Project book on the table between them. It landed with a thud that Sam felt in his stomach.

Gus pointed to the book and glared down at Sam. “Look at the book you took and remove the common denominator. Come back when you figure it out.” Ignoring their confused looks he then went out on the porch, lit a cigarette, took a long drag and swore under his breath.

It was one more cryptic message that Sam didn’t understand but he’d already chosen not to take anything Gus said seriously. He realized he wasn’t being fair, that it was disappointment talking and that he was shutting Gus out because he was frustrated with the game, yet out of spite he remained silent until Gus left the room. Then he turned to Karen. “Was that another riddle?”

She had gone to the door and was staring down the length of the porch to where her father leaned against the railing. There was no confusion on her face, only the sadness of someone watching everything they hold dear slip away. “Yes,” she replied, “another riddle.” Her voice trailed off. “But never ignore the riddles … they always mean something.”


JeffRussellAbout the Author

Jeff: I am a tale-spinner. My childhood heroes were Jules Verne and Victor Appleton II, architects of fantastic adventures. Hemingway stepped in when I discovered that the trials and triumphs of real people – those with limited physical and financial resources – were even more intriguing than science fiction. Today I try to follow that example with my own characters. They are the ‘you and me’ of the world, ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances, beaten down perhaps and yet determined to succeed. Invariably they find adventure, romance and self-fulfilment, as should we all. When not absorbed in the pages of some new author or hammering away at my latest manuscript I can be found living and running in Stowe, VT. Visit my website at www.CabsLantern.com and feel free to drop me a line at JeffRussell@CabsLantern.com. Happy reading!

Connect with Jeff

Twitter https://twitter.com/CabsLantern
Goodreads https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7232345.Jeff_Russell

Book Review: Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King

 

Delicious tale of ambition and its consequences

FeastofSorrowAbout the Book

Description (courtesy of Goodreads): On a blistering day in the twenty-sixth year of Augustus Caesar’s reign, a young chef, Thrasius, is acquired for the exorbitant price of twenty thousand denarii. His purchaser is the infamous gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius, wealthy beyond measure, obsessed with a taste for fine meals from exotic places, and a singular ambition: to serve as culinary advisor to Caesar, an honor that will cement his legacy as Rome’s leading epicure. Apicius rightfully believes that Thrasius is the key to his culinary success, and with Thrasius’s help he soon becomes known for his lavish parties and fantastic meals. Thrasius finds a family in Apicius’s household, his daughter Apicata, his wife Aelia, and her handmaiden, Passia whom Thrasius quickly falls in love with. But as Apicius draws closer to his ultimate goal, his reckless disregard for any who might get in his way takes a dangerous turn that threatens his young family and places his entire household at the mercy of the most powerful forces in Rome.

Praise for Feast of Sorrow

“Crystal King’s debut is a feast for the senses, bringing ancient Rome to dark, vibrant life. Politics, intrigue, danger, and passion mix deliciously in this tale of a young slave vaulted into the corridors of power as personal chef to the ancient world’s greatest gourmet. Not to be missed!” (Kate Quinn, author of Mistress of Rome)

“An engaging foray into the treacherous world of Claudio-Julian Rome from a fresh perspective. Who knew that the gourmand Apicius was larger than life? King deftly serves up intrigue, scandal and heartbreak with lashings of exotic sauces, mouth-watering recipes and the occasional drop of poison. Highly recommended.” (Elisabeth Storrs, author of the series Tales of Ancient Rome)

“Through the lens of a slave in ancient Rome, Crystal King illuminates a realm of seemingly impossible gluttony and excess, along with every other deadly sin. In the household of outrageous gourmand Apicius, he of extraordinarily decadent mores, one man, a slave, Thrasius, provides the sole ethical center. Feast of Sorrow is impossible to put down.” (Randy Susan Meyers, bestselling author of Accidents of Marriage)

“Crystal King has clearly done her homework. The historical world of Feast of Sorrow lives and breathes, and it is a delight to follow its characters’ struggle for happiness and survival amidst the simmering peril of Rome’s great houses. Even if you’re not a foodie drawn to novels of ancient Rome, this immersive, sensorily rich page-turner will take you for a delicious and unforgettable ride.” (Tim Weed, author of Will Poole’s Island)

“Crystal King’s debut novel, Feast of Sorrow, tells the story of Apicius, the notorious gourmand of ancient Rome, from the viewpoint of his slave and cook Thrasius. It’s a dark and engrossing read, and provides an evocative new perspective on the rule of Tiberius.” (Emily Hauser, author of For the Most Beautiful)

“Crystal King has written a delicious feast of a book, one that allows us to not only see, but also taste ancient Rome in all its dark and varied appetites.” (Yael Goldstein Love, author of Overture)

Book Facts

  • Format: ebook
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • No. of pages: 416
  • Publication date: 25th April 2017
  • Genre: Historical Fiction

My Review (4 out of 5)

I really enjoyed the author’s assured writing and the fascinating details of daily Roman life and customs that are woven into the plot – dining customs, religious rituals, rules of hospitality and so on. The focus of the book is the life of Apicius so naturally there are gorgeous descriptions of actual Roman recipes, even if some of the ingredients themselves are not so gorgeous sounding to modern diners. Each section of the book opens with an authentic recipe from the time.

Through the invented character of Thrasius, the cook, the author enables the reader to get up close and personal with the real-life Apicius. He is vain and single-minded to the point of selfishness and, as Thrasius remarks, ‘apt to assume the world revolved around him’. However, one cannot help admiring his passion for food and for seeking out new ingredients and taste experiences. Unfortunately, along the way, he creates some powerful enemies although those closest to him show absolute loyalty to the end.   Apicius’ story is one of ambition bringing success but with tragic consequences for himself and those around him.

As well as Apicius, well-known figures from Roman history feature – Livia, Sejanus, Ovid and Tiberius Caesar – feature prominently in the plot.  Political rivalries and the jockeying for position, power and influence are played out through the medium of food at elaborate banquets featuring the choicest and most expensive ingredients. It’s a game of gastronomic one-upmanship but one with dangerous consequences.

I really enjoyed Feast of Sorrow which should appeal to fans of historical fiction, cookery or Roman history.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Touchstone, in return for an honest review.

To buy a copy of Feast of Sorrow from Amazon.co.uk, click here (link is provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme)

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In three words: Well-researched, engaging, fascinating

Try something similar…I Am Livia by Phyllis T. Smith


CrystalKingAbout the Author

Crystal King is an author, culinary enthusiast and marketing expert. Her writing is fueled by a love of history and a passion for the food, language and culture of Italy. She has taught classes in writing, creativity and social media at Harvard Extension School, Boston University, Mass College of Art, UMass Boston and GrubStreet, one of the leading creative writing centers in the US. A Pushcart-nominated poet and former co-editor of the online literary arts journal Plum Ruby Review, Crystal received her M.A. in Critical and Creative Thinking from UMass Boston, where she developed a series of exercises and writing prompts to help fiction writers in medias res. She considers Italy her next great love, after her husband, Joe, and their two cats, Nero and Merlin.

Connect with Crystal
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Book Review: The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet

Funny, clever but challenging satire on French politics and intellectuals

7thfunctionAbout the Book

Publisher’s description: Roland Barthes is knocked down in a Paris street by a laundry van. It’s February 1980 and he has just come from lunch with Francois Mitterrand, a slippery politician locked in a battle for the Presidency. Barthes dies soon afterwards. History tells us it was an accident. But what if it were an assassination? What if Barthes was carrying a document of unbelievable, global importance? A document explaining the seventh function of language – an idea so powerful it gives whoever masters it the ability to convince anyone, in any situation, to do anything. Police Captain Jacques Bayard and his reluctant accomplice Simon Herzog set off on a chase that takes them from the corridors of power and academia to backstreet saunas and midnight rendezvous. What they discover is a worldwide conspiracy involving the President, murderous Bulgarians and a secret international debating society. In the world of intellectuals and politicians, everyone is a suspect. Who can you trust when the idea of truth itself is at stake?

Book Facts

  • Format: ebook
  • Publisher: Vintage Digital
  • No. of pages: 400
  • Publication date: 4th May 2017
  • Genre: Literary Fiction

To pre-order/purchase from Amazon.co.uk click here (link provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme)


My Review (3 out of 5)

If I tell you this book is about the death of the author of ‘The Death of the Author’ (Roland Barthes) plus one of the character wonders if he’s just a character in a novel, you’ll understand we’re well into metafictional territory here.   This is a funny, clever novel but at times it is a little too knowingly clever. Furthermore, if you have little knowledge of linguistic theory, its main players or French politics then I fear a lot of the jokes will be lost on you. This reader has a limited knowledge of linguistics from having studied for an MA in English but I reckon a lot of the satire and allusions went over my head.

As well as Barthes, there are parts for real life figures including Michael Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, Sartre and Umberto Eco. Whether they would be flattered by their depiction as sex-obsessed, alcohol-fixated individuals constantly engaged in intellectual one-upmanship, I’m not sure.  Really, it comes across as a colossal payback for anyone who has ever had to struggle to understand linguistic theory or semiotics.

Think The Name of the Rose transported to the Paris of the 1980’s, with Inspector Bayard given the task of tracking down a document that reveals a previously unknown seventh function of language that will give the possessor unrivalled powers of persuasion (very useful if you want to become President of France). Bayard engages a side-kick in the person of linguistic lecturer, Simon Herzog, who attempts to help Bayard understand some of the concepts, with limited success it has to be said. Simon is probably the most engaging character in the book. I particularly liked the scenes where he uses James Bond films to explain linguistic concepts and decodes the educational backgrounds of drinkers in a bar from their gestures, in the manner of Sherlock Holmes with the man who loses the goose in ‘The Blue Carbuncle’.

I really wanted Julia Kristeva to be the culprit (and I’m not saying whether she was or wasn’t) just because I had to study her work as part of my OU course and found it almost impossible to understand.  Sorry, Julia.

In the end, the in-jokes and the satire rather overwhelmed the unravelling of the mystery so although I could admire the achievement and the author’s obvious erudition I couldn’t love this book. I admit I struggled through some of the passages.  I’d like to give a big shout-out to translator, Sam Taylor, who had to cope with some extremely abstruse linguistic and semiological concepts.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Random House UK, in return for an honest review.

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In three words: Satirical, intellectual, playful

Try something similar…Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco


LaurentBinetAbout the Author

The son of an historian, Laurent Binet was born in Paris, graduated from the University of Paris in literature and taught literature in the Parisian suburbs and eventually at University. He was awarded the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman for his first novel, HHhH.

Connect with Laurent…

Twitter https://twitter.com/LaurentBinetH

My Dream Book Conference Panel

FantasyThank you to global event technology platform, Eventbrite, for challenging book bloggers like myself to come up with our dream list of authors or characters we’d love to hear speak at a conference.  We’re allowed to jettison reality (after all, most of us spend a lot of our time in fictional worlds anyway), so my fantasy book conference is entitled: Two Characters in Conversation with their Authors.

DaphneduMaurierFirst up, Mrs De Winter from Rebecca will be quizzing author, Daphne du Maurier. Questions (if she can summon up the courage to ask them) are likely to include:

  • Why didn’t you tell the reader my first name?
  • Would you try your hand at writing a sequel to Rebecca?
  • Aside from Max and me, who is your favourite character in Rebecca?
  • Mrs Danvers and Rebecca – any girl-on-girl action going on there, do you think?
  • What do you reckon a white ball gown, barely worn, might fetch on eBay?
  • Do you have a cousin called Rachel?
  • Mr Rochester from Jane Eyre – snog, marry, avoid?

CharlotteBronteNext Jane Rochester (nee Eyre) interviews her creator, Miss Charlotte Brontë. Expect probing (but polite and morally uplifting) questions such as:

  • [Spoiler Alert] Did you cry when writing the scene where Helen Burns dies? If not, why not – the rest of us did.
  • [Spoiler Alert] What do you think would have happened if I’d chosen St John Rivers over Mr Rochester?
  • The Red Room at the beginning of Jane Eyre – does it worry you it now has quite different connotations in the book world?
  • Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys – intertextual masterpiece, literary deconstruction of the concept of the “Madwoman in the Attic” or cheap rip-off?
  • Admit it, don’t you wish you’d written Wuthering Heights instead of your sister?
  • Max de Winter from Rebecca – snog, marry, avoid?

boxfishModerator for the conference, to maintain control in case things get fiery or supply a witty one-liner if the conversation lulls, Miss Lillian Boxfish (of Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk by Kathleen Rooney).

So, that’s my idea – now over to you!