Review: A Fine Imitation

After reading my reviews friends often ask, “but—did you like the book?” Generally, I shrug their questions off. It’s not my job to like or dislike a book. I believe good reviews provide enough information for the reader to decide if they will like the book.  I’ve already read it—at least four times.

If I’m truly unhappy with some aspect of the work, I may slip in a hint that the book wasn’t my favorite: “others may like,” “not to everyone’s taste,” or “too much of a good thing.”

Fortunately, there was no need for code phrases about A Fine Imitation. Although it shares the New York setting and 1920s period, Amber Brock’s debut novel is not the next The Great Gatsby, but it is an excellent summer read for fans of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic.

Read my full review of A Fine Imitation published in the Historical Novel Society‘s May 2016 Historical Novels Review.

Review: At The Existentialist Café

Most of the books I review for the Historical Novel Society have little word of mouth. An unknown gem, I predict, each time I tear open the manila mailer, hoping to find the next best seller.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 11.49.09 AMAnd then there was the time my envelope yielded At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, And Apricot Cocktails. Four dour characters commanded the cover—the men smoking and only the woman making eye contact with her reader. This one’s a loser, I concluded, unless the recipe for apricot cocktails is truly intoxicating.

Soon, my “loser” book began to taunt my flip condemnation. A full page ad in the New York Times was followed by a solid review. The Guardian joined in with a glowing analysis. The LA Times celebrated that “the existentialists come alive (over cocktails.)” flagged the book as the #1 Best Seller in Philosopher Biographies (admittedly a thin category.) Even the Historical Novel Society published a feature review describing Sarah Bakewell’s work as “admirable.”


So, did I agree with the experts? Read my review from the May issue of the Historical Novels Review and find out.

I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below.

Review: Playing Custer

Sometimes a book doesn’t click with the Historical Novel Society’s volunteer reviewers. Maybe the period or place didn’t sync, the descriptive blurb wasn’t engaging, or the stars weren’t aligned that day.

Faced with an embarrassed book rocking from cover to cover, avoiding eye contact, trying to hide behind a computer monitor, the review editors will send out a plea, “This novel seems friendly. It wants to please. Will someone give this book a chance?”

Playing CusterI gave Playing Custer by Gerald Duff a chance and didn’t regret it for a moment. Set simultaneously in 1876 and 2001, Playing Custer is a collection of fictional monologues by those who lived and died at the Battle of The Little Bighorn and their twenty-first century reenactors.

If Western history is your thing, if you want to to know what Custer might have been thinking that afternoon in June, or if you’re a monologue junkie as I am, give Playing Custer a chance—and then send me a comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

My full review:  Playing Custer by Gerald Duff, Historical Novel Society Review
February 2016


Character Foretastes – The Tsar of Love and Techno

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Anthony Marra‘s first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, won multiple awards including the 2014 National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize, the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, as well as the inaugural 2014 Carla Furstenberg Cohen Fiction Award.


The TSar of Love and TechnoIn late 2015, Marra released an equally award-worthy collection of short stories: The Tsar of Love and Techno

I recently studied Marra’s latest to understand his disjointed timeline and slow character reveals: The Tsar of Love and Techno – Character Introductions.

While my craft analysis may not appeal to all readers, I recommend The Tsar of Love and Techno to all for its language, structure, insights into the Soviet era, and the reverberations of  personal decisions through generations. Presented across decades and in multiple voices, the collection flows with the easy digressions one might experience in a long evening’s conversation with a friend.

Please share your thoughts on Marra’s work below. Criticism is as welcome as compliments.

Review: The Axeman

Axeman JazzThe Axeman is based on an intriguing historical fact…a jazz-loving serial murderer was afoot in 1918-1919 New Orleans. The novel follows fictional former friends, a detective and and the mentor he sent to prison, as they compete to find the killer first.

Unfortunately, the author complicates an otherwise solid and colorful story by imaging New Orleans native Louis Armstrong as a part-time detective supporting his gal pal, a wannabe Pinkerton agent also in search of the Axeman.


My full review appears in the Historical Novel Society’s February 2016 update.

Announcing 1000 Words!

I’m delighted to announce that the Winter 2015 issue of One Thousand Words is now available for Kindle Fire and the Kindle App at!

In One Thousand Words, four talented—and brief—authors share 250-word stories inspired by a single photograph. Literally, one picture equals one thousand words.

Winter 2015 - Cafe


An early reader called our Winter 2015 Café issue “a decadent chocolate truffle, every word well thought-out and intentioned.”

The Café stories are short enough to read on your phone while waiting for your caffé mocha or between subway stops. Although the prose is slim, the characters linger.

Please “Like” us on Facebook for news of future issues and updates on our authors’ successes.

Review: In the Dark by Deborah Moggach

In the DarkDeborah Moggach’s sixteenth novel, In the Dark, masterfully recreates London during the Great War, focusing not on the trenches but on the inhabitants of a shabby Southwark boarding house.

With the help of her hormone-ravaged son Ralph and maid-of-all-duties Winnie, Eithne Clay, a war widow, rents rooms to a showgirl-loving dandy bound for war, a ravenous woman with broken dentures, a Karl Marx-spouting blind veteran, and a family whose daughter is bent on more than guiding her shell-shocked father to the pub.

Beleaguered by rationing and unwilling to evict boarders behind in their rent, Eithne’s prospects and the lodgers’ meals improve when Neville Turk, a prosperous butcher, courts Eithne with “top quality bangers, sixty percent pork.” Annoyed, Ralph turns vegetarian, questions where the butcher gets his lamb chops, and demands to know why the man hasn’t joined up to fight.

Moggach deftly paints the deprivation of wartime. Families survive on “cabbage leaves picked up from the gutter” and thrice-boiled tea. Still, the lodgers gather pleasure where they can: the blind veteran cherishes his gramophone, war-liberated women discover their sexuality, and Ralph sleeps with a cat warming his belly—when he’s not lusting over bust-enhancing advertisements.

Historical details flow naturally from the story: inexplicably, Neville Turk finds able-bodied men to wire the house for electricity; Ralph and Winnie attempt smoking as protection against the spreading influenza; and delighted by her new telephone, Eithne realizes she has no one to call.

In the dark, secrets are revealed and exploited. Lodgers lie, plot, and blackmail. In a stunning climax, the choice between right and wrong is as complex as Moggach’s characters.

This review first appeared in the Historical Novel Society’s November update.