Literary Halloween Reads: Barbara Comyns

It's countdown to one of every literary person's favorite holidays (because seriously, who does not love a great ghost story?)  Naturally, we can return to the fabulous Edgar, he of the Raven, and get out our flashlights.But I have a few other literary-minded suggestions, to be posted over the next few days.

For starters, you can do no better than the weird, frightening novels of the English author, Barbara Comyns.  Why this superb writer is not better known is beyond me.  I would say that she deserves a revival, but the fact that, as far as I know, she was never popular.  Yet another woman writer neglected.  (I discovered her through Peter Cameron's wonderful blog.)

But on to her scary, terrific novels.

 If you are in the mood for a scare, look no further than THE VET'S DAUGHTER.  It's out in a New York Review Classics Paperback, with a fine introduction by Kathryn Davis.

The story is told from the point of view of a shy girl, Alice, whose father is a man of stormy, cruel moods whose source the reader can only guess at.  After the death of Alice's mother, a crass mother-in-law enters the scene and tries to mold Alice anew.  And at that point, Alice acquires mysterious, floating powers.

 Comyns blends the supernatural with the realities of child abuse, seamless and spookily, with page-turning suspense. And the ending-- well, I'll leave you to discover what a fantastic ending Comyns concocts.

Also, I am thrilled that Amazon has released the amazing THE JUNIPER TREE in a Kindle edition.  I'll hop over soon, and add the digital copy to my library. I have sent friends copies of this amazing book.

Some of you may know the Grimm Brothers tale, "The Juniper Tree,"  It's a mysterious tale in itself (about a step-mother who murders her step-son.)

Comyns, in her plain-spoken, stripped-down prose, re-works the narrative from the point of view of a beautiful, but physically scarred, young woman.  Comyns, as ever, disdains psychology and dives right into evil. You won't sleep, I promise.  

FREE OCTOBER 18 and 19 --Strange Courtships: Nine Romantic Stories by Carla Sarett

If you want to pick up a free copy of my short story collection (some tales romantic, some surreal and others comic): it is free this weekend, on October 18 and 19.  Most of the stories were previously published, but I did include a sneak preview from my (forthcoming) comic novel, which will be released in 2015.  

I'd love to hear which of these stories is your favorite-- so let me know in an Amazon review, if you like.

Strange Courtships: Nine Romantic Stories - Kindle edition by Carla Sarett. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @

Does Social Media Sell Books?

Interesting post from the FSB Associates Blog on the "chicken-egg" question of whether social media helps to account for blockbusters like Gillian Flynn's GONE GIRL.  Her agent, Stephanie Rostan, argues that the author didn't promote the book-- her readership did it for her.  So, the book stimulated others to spread the word-- and then the snowball effect of social media kicked in.  Obviously, Flynn had two books under her belt, and some built-in audience-- but this time, everything clicked.

You can read the interview here:

FSB Associates Blog

Philadelphia Inquirer reviews Shoplandia | Jim Breslin

Congrats to friend (and occasional contributor to this blog) on the enthusiastic review of his latest novel, Shoplandia, Iwhich is about a home shopping network (loosely modeled on QVC, where Jim worked as a producer for 17 years.)  Jim's an active presence on the Philadelphia literary scene, with two Story Slams (or perhaps more by now) which feature live story-telling, and drinks, to boot.

You can read this review here:  Philadelphia Inquirer reviews Shoplandia | Jim Breslin

Interview with Author, Judith Harkness

Today’s interview is with fiction writer Judith Harkness, a writer whom I’m privileged to claim as a friend.  Judith has published five wonderfully written Regency novels, which are being released as e-books on October 7 on Amazon, Barnes and Nobles and other digital stores.

A few words about her:
After a childhood spent traveling with her diplomat parents, attending seven schools in seven countries, Judith Harkness graduated from Milton Academy and Brown University, where she majored in Comparative Literature. She now lives in Southern Rhode Island in an old stone house that requires a lot of upkeep. That, and gardening, swimming, reading, and walking her dog in the beautiful woods and on the beach, take up most of the time when she is not writing. .  

SARETT: You’ve written five Regencies. What attracts you to the form?  What’s the most difficult part of writing these?
HARKNESS: I was encouraged to write a Regency years ago by my then literary agent, who took me to lunch, and said "Wouldn't you like to be able to afford a nice lunch one day?" At the time , I wrote poetry and the occasional free lance magazine piece. Of course, I said, yes! And she suggested trying my hand at the Regency genre. Since I had been an ardent fan of Jane Austen, I was enthralled, thinking I could knock one off in a few weeks. A year later, I was still trying to write The Montague Scandal. After many false starts, I got the gist. At one point I had about a thousand pages of internal monologue!

What I like about the genre is that there is a formal structure, with predictable elements -- the heroine, usually feisty, a villain, and the hero, who reveals his depth and strength of character towards the end. But within that structure, there is a lot of room for variety, and humorous insight into the characters. I am a big fan of human comedy in fiction.

SARETT: There are lot of rules about what’s good writing and what’s bad.  Is there any rule that you secretly enjoy breaking?  
HARKNESS:  I don't know that I consciously break any rules. To me the one cardinal rule of all good story telling is that whatever serves the story, works. So if you are writing a historical romance, you need to follow a different set of rules than if you are writing, say, a thriller.

SARETT:   Do you think that men and women have a different sense of what is romantic?
HARKNESS: I always assumed women were much more into romance than men, but as I've gotten older, I've been amazed to discover how romantic men (at least some men) can be.  For  instance, I have been amazed at the elaborate arrangements some men make for proposing marriage, which has gotten to be almost as big a ritual as the wedding. And of course, it depends on the man. Some men wouldn't be caught dead reading a Regency, even one written by the great Jane Austen. My own husband, on the other hand, loves Jane Austen, and read all five of my Regencies when we were first seeing each other. I thought that was very romantic!

SARETT:  You've published five Regencies-- do you have a favorite character or love story?
HARKNESS:  To say a writer prefers one character over another would be a little disloyal, like saying you prefer one child over another, but I do have some favorites: 
Lady Pendleton, in Contrary Cousins, is one. She is a tiny, round, and I think hilarious and charming impresario, who decides to take charge of the introduction of her young American niece to London Society, partly to spite her brother, the odious and stuffy Earl. Her nephew, Freddy, is also one of my favorite (and human) heroes, as is Lord Arden, from The Montague Scandal. And I love Charlotte, who seems like such a delicate flower, but proves she has a spine of steel in Lady Charlotte's Ruse. I have a special fondness for the characters who exhibit human foibles.

SARETT: We are both huge Jane Austen fans.  What do you think that modern Regency writers can learn from her?
HARKNESS:  In a word, everything! I think all writers have a great deal to learn from her: starting with her economy of words,  and her deft insights into the motivations of her characters. And, as I know you will agree, she never sacrificed comedy while creating some of the most romantic stories ever told.

SARETT: I’m always trying to discover new interesting (or forgotten) women’s writers.  Do you have suggestions for our readers?   
HARKNESS: Apart from Jane Austen: Nancy Mitford, Diane Johnson. They are all masters of comedy and also highly literate romance. I have to say, I am also an ardent admirer of Carla Sarett!

SARETT:  What are your current projects -- and is there any new fiction in the works?
HARKNESS: I am working on a family saga that takes place in the present -- or recent --day, which I've been thinking about for a long time. I am not working on Regencies for the time being, but would love to see any of my books made into films. Wouldn't that be fun?

Find Judith Harkness Regencies on Amazon:  The Montague Scandal; The Determined Bachelor, The Admiral's Daughter, Contrary Cousins, Lady Charlotte's Ruse.

New thoughts on Amazon Book Reviews

With the proliferation of indie books, there has risen a veritable army of unpaid reviewers who review books in exchange for freebies.  Many Facebook groups exist to make this possible.  It's not a bad arrangement, given the difficulties that indie authors face in getting reviews.  But as with all online arrangements, there are pitfalls. Mainstream reviewers get paid for reviewing:   they follow rules. They review books and try to avoid inserting opinions. If you subscribe to a publication, you learn the tastes of different reviewers.

Online, it's more or less a free for all-- some reviewers are skilled, but many others are not.  A memoir gets a review: "I don't like memoirs." I recently observed a Facebook thread in which a reviewer had attacked a serial for having a "cliff-hanger," as if serialized fiction was a kind of scam.  (As an aside, it's curious how conservative reviewers are about the new formats that digital publishing allows.)  I tend to skip all reviews on fiction.  

As I've written before, Amazon could solve this problem -- in fiction, certainly. Have the reviewer state their preferred genres -- and their favorite authors.  Presto, I can "place" the reviewer.

If I knew that a reviewer liked, say, Nabokov, I might read his or her review with interest. If I know more about the reviewer's tastes (i.e., what books he or she likes) and why he or she likes the book (for a gift, for personal, etc.), the more I can use the review.  I might even read new authors, because I could "link" them to my own tastes-- just as I discover new authors through mainstream reviews.  Now, there's a thought.
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