Recent Review: Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay

I’ve fallen down on the review portion of my site, but I have been reading, so it’s time to begin to catch up.

For a lover of well-written fiction, fantasy, and orientalia in general, Under Heaven is a knockout. I can appreciate Kay’s desire not to be classified as a genre writer. Though his story may closely rely on and follow historic figures and their paths, nations, and, well, history, they are not historical novels. Under Heaven is based on the 8th century Tang Dynasty and the events leading up to the An Shi Rebellion. If you enjoy even the sense of historical fiction, this is a tale for you.

The story follows Shen Tai, the second son of a renowned general of Kitai, who is given 250 prized prized horses from the Kitan Empress of the neighboring Taguran Empire to honor his work burying the dead of both sides at a battleground that is still haunted by the ghosts of the slain soldiers.

The horses themselves–coveted for their use and beauty as they are–pose a problem for Shen Tai, and involve him in struggles with politicians and the noble houses that are related to and allied with the Kitan Emperor. At the same time, the horses’ value gains him entry to their world, allowing him to form friendships with many of them, making enemies of some.

He leaves his cemetery work and makes his way toward the capital, Xinan, protected by Wei Song, a female Kanlin warrior, who stays by his side through thick and thin and several attempts on his life.

Of course, there are other plots. There’s Shen Tai’s sister Li-Mei, sent north by her older brother Shen Liu to be married off to a leader of a northern tribe in order to advance Liu’s career. That match thankfully goes awry as her escape is made possible with the help of a curious man who speaks to wolves, who considers his soul part-wolf. Then there’s Shen Tai’s first love, Spring Rain, who finds herself concubine to a courtier plotting Shen Tai’s death, and the An Li rebellion, and disease and famine, all vividly described.

Shen Tai’s story arc has personal, familial, and national repercussions, and so much danger. Loss, honor, friendship, and love come together, sometimes in a seeming slow dance, sometimes slamming together as if by magic, which also exists in this fictional land.

A man of action, thoughtful tactician, sometime scholar, awed by his heroes, Shen Tai is an exceptional, humble, and human hero in his own right.

Kay’s writing is what drew me to this novel. His command of language is wonderful, powerful, lyrical, and at the same time a perfect fit for this Chinese fantasy.

While I have other novels to review, the next novel in this series will certainly be one of them.


Whining about wine

A departure here from my usual never-to-be-missed ruminations about writing, or those dazzling reviews of recently read novels. (And yes I know I’ve fallen down on the reviewing job lately but I lost my reporter’s fedora and I’m useless never mind witless without it.)

Today’s blog post is about foibles. Yes. Foibles. And wine. To be explicit, my weakness is the inability to pick the correct wine–i.e., the one I’ve been tasting in my memory but can’t reproduce in real life with real alcohol.

You see, in real life a Cote du Rhone or Beaujolais Nouveau would be perfect. Unfortunately, it’s mid-spring, and you don’t want a Beaujolais Nouveau now. It’s, well, it’s not nouveau anymore. It’s past its prime and can be akin to cotton. Maybe it’s good for bathing. But no, the Japanese do that in hot springs fortified with Beaujolais Nouveau in November.

And though I’m told gamay grapes–those which make the fresh and fruity Beaujolais Nouveau–have been described as the ‘younger sibling’ of pinot noir, I never liked pinot noir. But I allowed myself to be convinced that this was what I wanted and came home with a bottle of a Burgundy region Beaujolais blend.

It wasn’t light, and the dryness was overwhelming. In fact, all we could taste was dry. No grape. No fruit. Not even leather (though I don’t know who’d want their wine to have leather notes. All I think of regarding leather notes are saddle cinches. Not pleasant.)

Not to waste the bottle, I dredged up a favorite old chicken recipe that calls for a sauce composed of a butter/flour roux, a 6 oz can of tomato paste, and the 26 oz bottle of dry red wine. Of course, there are herbs and slivers of raw ham added, but you get the gist.

The sauce was superb.

I crossed the gamay blend off my list and trekked back to the wine shop.

“I’d like a grenache,” I said, and was instructed that that grape originated in Spain, where it’s routinely blended with other varieties.

I bought a bottle blended with Syrah (or Shiraz). It was drinkable, but while not full-bodied or heavy, it lacked the fruitiness I wanted, and so I used half the bottle along with some sugar to poach pears. They were yummy.

Back to the store. By this time, I didn’t want to be lectured. I was downright demanding. I wanted a true grenache and that’s all I wanted. A Cote du Rhone, I told the wine expert.

He told me that they, too, are usually blended–over 80% grenache in the Southern Rhone area of France, and sold me a Chateauneuf du Pape.

I thought ‘I have struck gold!’ I knew the region. Knew the grape. Its tannins would be very subtle, its nose fruity, its body light. But when I got home, I saw the blend was only 59% grenache.

Now, I don’t think I failed to make myself clear. Writing fiction, which is what I do, demands clarity–of images, actions, setting. And so I’m sure I explained myself well. Whether the wine merchant understood me or had his own ulterior motives is another issue.

I haven’t opened the bottle yet. I’m saving it for Sunday supper. I sure hope it’s what I want because honestly, I don’t have any more recipes that use a 26 oz. bottle of dry red wine.




The rooster crows, the hatchet falls

When Jenny was four, her dad brought home a dozen adorable fuzzy yellow chicks for Easter–Peeps come to life! She was delighted when he said she could raise them, and helped him set up a quasi-chicken coop in the garage of their tract home on suburban Long Island. Jenny fed them Cheerios every morning. Mom was downstairs a lot, so Jenny knew she saw to their other needs.

She didn’t know whether dad had intended to butcher them from the get-go or not, but it seems his hand was forced when several of the chickens turned out to be roosters who woke the neighborhood every morning at 5 am with their crowing. That, and the loud, cackling squabbles that broke out several times a day, necessitated their demise.

She never wondered if dad knew what to do. After all, he wasn’t farm raised. He grew up in the Bronx. So did mom. Jenny just assumed he did. After all, he was Dad. So, she matter-of-factly watched as dad set up a wide board in the laundry room atop mom’s washer and dryer one June day, and she kissed each bird goodbye before dad chopped their heads off. She wasn’t squeamish. No. She was curious, and observant, fascinated as a few ran around the laundry room floor, headless, and others continued to flap their wings, sending a flurry of down and feathers skyward to fall gently after the guillotine had dropped and dad tossed their heads into the slop sink. She was delighted with the chicken foot he gave her, especially when he showed her how to make the claws open and shut by pressing one particular spot.

She tucked the treasure in her pocket, and gave the whole exercise no more thought, knowing that dad said he’d pluck the chickens and mom would be the one to clean the blood spatter from her sparkling white appliances and always spotless cement floor.

Shortly thereafter–at least in her four-year-old frame of reference–six-year-old Joey came knocking on her door.

“Can I play with Jenny?” he asked.

She was so happy when mom let him in. Other kids were gone for the summer at camp and she was lonely, but it wasn’t long before Jenny broke a vase trying to pitch Joey a ball. She’d given no thought to what a baseball could do to inanimate objects, and she had no idea how to make a ball go straight when she threw it.

Mom banished them to the backyard.

“What do you want to play now?” Jenny asked, eager to please the only playmate she’d had in what felt like forever. He proposed follow the leader, and so she trooped after him down the slide, then up it, and then they played Simon Says, which she really didn’t understand and lost interest in. She didn’t have rollerskates, and Joey wasn’t allowed to use his brother’s skateboard, so she was at a momentary loss as to what to do.

And then inspiration struck.

“Let’s play house,” she said. “I’ll be the mommy and you be the daddy.”

Joey agreed, and raked a stick across the sparse grass of the lawn, while Jenny knelt and pulled what she thought were weeds like her mom did.

Joey dropped the stick and dusted off his hands. “There. Yardwork done,” he said while glancing about.

Jenny knew with some certainty he was bored and that she could lose her playmate, and so she hopped to her feet. “Time to kill the chickens!” she said, and explained about the hatchet, the blood, the headless carcasses fleeing the scene. To make it more interesting, she pulled the chicken foot out of her pocket and showed Joey how the claws clenched and unclenched.

Joe paled, looking a lot like the white hens themselves had, and then he said, “Mom’s calling. I gotta go.”

Lucky Boy

A short story for the still short new year.

Lucky Boy, copyright 2016, by Donna Rubino

Joe Claesson threw himself down in the brush beside me, sending a sworl of dried earth into my face. “Hey, Cara-sweetie, didja hear?”

I spat. “Quit it, Joe. The name’s Carabinieri.” Nothing made me madder than to have some slice o’ white bread from Kansas make fun of my name.

“Hey, this ain’t New York City.” Joe grinned and clapped me on the helmet. “You rather I call you Angel?”

“It’s Angelo.” I dug a rock out from under my hip and hurled it away. Sometimes I thought Ma musta hated me, naming me after some old great grandpapa in Italy.

“Yeah yeah, kid.” Joe butted shoulders with me. “Orders are to go into the town to mop up any Krauts still there.”

“Who’d be stupid enough to still be there?” Our guys had bombed the hell out of coastal towns like Emilie and St. Lo at the same time my buddies and me landed on Omaha Beach. There wasn’t much left of the town. But then, there was nothing left of the guys in my squad. They died on the beach that day, mowed down by machine gun fire, blown up by landmines.

At night, I could still hear the bombs screeching, exploding, the machine-gun fire, men screaming. The only way I knew if I was dreaming or not was when I saw the blood spraying everywhere, the guys cut in half, limbs flying away, or flying at me. That was Omaha, so I was dreaming.

Since then, we’d marched along paths of sand, packed earth and sometimes paved roads. Made the walking easier, when we could walk and not crawl or run, crouching, in a fire-fight.

“Okay, Cara-sweetie.” Joe rapped on my helmet again. “Let’s go.”

We shoved ourselves to our feet, slung our rifles over our shoulders and headed for the troop gathered around Sarge.

“Y’all keep your heads down and do me proud, boys,” he said in that Southern drawl of his.

I didn’t much care about doing him proud. I was more interested in staying alive.

We followed the road into St. Lo, 19 of us, jumping bomb craters, clambering over downed trees and building rubble, and at a corner pungent with rotting horse remains and piss, separated into four groups to scour the town. Me, Joe and two guys from Cleveland went off down a rubble-strewn street. Before long, we were two as the Ohioans peeled off and headed down a hill towards the bombed out post office.

Joe and I headed toward the town center.

“Hear that?”

I nodded. An exchange of fire. A yell. The roar of a flame thrower. A withering scream. Cleveland had a flame thrower. Hope it was theirs and not the enemy’s.

Joe and I crouched now, losing our footing on loose bricks, throwing an arm out against part of a wall to keep our balance as we went.

A dog barked. Joe nudged me. “Maybe the Krauts been feeding him. Let’s go look down that courtyard.”

I shook my head and thrust my chin forward. There was a restaurant up ahead, a standing building. I was no hero, but if my job was to sweep for Germans, that was a good place for them to hide.

Joe left me.

I inched along, gaze scanning the empty stone frames of windows on my right, open street on my left, swinging my rifle before me, ready. One more block to the restaurant. Heck, maybe there was some food left. Cheese keeps. Wine, too. Ma’s Sunday gravy popped into my mind. I swallowed a river of saliva.

Under my boot soles broken glass popped, cement dust gritted. A burst of distant machine gun fire stopped me cold near the next corner. An M-1 answered. Another exchange. Too far to be Joe. One of the other fellas.

I gripped my rifle tighter and headed toward my target, slipping on a fallen Boulangerie sign, slamming my rifle butt against the wall to right myself.

I made it to the intersection. At its corner I swung right to check around it, and came face to face with a blond, blue-eyed Nazi. He was taller, bigger, older than me, a good ten years, I figured, and carried a machine gun.

I froze. So did he. We didn’t blink, just stared at each other, fingers on our triggers until the Kraut’s gaze slipped past my shoulder like he was dreaming. Slowly, he turned his back on me and in five steps—yeah, I counted ’em–disappeared through a door and into a crumbling building.

I spun back around that corner, out of his sight. As I slammed my back into the brick wall, my bones melted straight into my boots. So did I, and slid down to sit, gasping for breath, gripping my rifle stock, trying to stop shaking. Shit. Shit. Shit.

I should be dead. Why wasn’t I dead?

Wishes for the new year

December has been a whirlwind of sights, sounds, memories, sensations, and emotions.

I was lucky enough to travel this month. Germany, Austria, and Slovenia with their colorful Christmas markets were a seasonal delight–

Christmas gingerbread in Munich

Christmas gingerbread in Munich


Nuremberg market at dusk

Nuremberg market at dusk

Citrus pomanders in a Bratislava market stall

Handmade citrus pomanders in a Bratislava market stall

Vienna's St. Charles Borromeo Church hosted a midnight performance of Mozart's Requiem

Vienna’s St. Charles Borromeo Church hosted a midnight performance of Mozart’s Requiem

And while the trip was thrilling, it came at a price, the race to prepare for Christmas when I returned home.

A tradition of 30 years and more, friends and family and I climbed the hills of a Christmas tree farm hunting for the perfect tree. Trimming them, dressing the house for the holidays, gift wrapping, and baking occupied the final 2 weeks before Christmas.

It was only on Christmas, with favorite carols and holiday music flavoring the air in my home that I began to enjoy the day. White Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, The Christmas Waltz and more reminded me of  happy holidays past, while Adeste Fidelis, Ave Maria, and Panis Angelicus settled the joyful reason for Chritsmas in my heart and soul.

Next came the holiday parties, this year, thankfully, celebrated happily with close friends.

And now comes the new year.

I wish you all what I wish for myself–health, peace, a modicum of wealth, creative inspiration, the satisfaction of work well done, and success in whatever endeavors we hold dear.

Happy New Year!

How Margarida got her groove

Part of the work involved in creating a novel is learning when backstory adds to a story and when it’s extraneous, so that the finished product moves apace because the timing’s good and the writing sparkles.

This flashback scene, which originates in Grifon’s dining hall, was cut from the original Luck of Two Magpies, its important information woven into another scene. Still, it’s a lovely scene.

In The Luck of Two Magpies, Margarida calls Elisa by her Christian first name, Cara. As this scene is in Margarida’s pov, Elisa is referred to as Cara. Duncan is William’s dog.

Margarida wagged her spoon in Cara’s face. “Ye must ally yourself with a strong man. My William is such a man.”

“I must do no such a thing!”

“Aye. Ye must.” Her chin dipped authoritatively.

“It wasn’t that way for you. You told me so.”

Margarida dropped her gaze. “But also I did say ye we were lucky, my lord Dyrke and I. Truly. I loved my lord from the moment I set eyes on him.” She smiled, holding her palms to her cheeks to cool them. “And he me.”

Her hands went to the table, their mottled backs a sign of so many years passed. They were still for a time, until their tremor matched the twitching in her eye.

In a moment she was gone from Cara and the hall.

She was almost three and ten again, and standing beside her mother on the curtain wall at Bien Venue. Her silk gown was new, the perfect blue shade to bring out the silver in her gray eyes and the platinum in her blonde hair, though the slim cut of it made her feel awkward.

She plucked at the bodice.

Her mother tapped her fingers lightly. “Let it alone, daughter… See there. The Earl of Norburnshire’s party approaches.”

Indeed they did, with pennants waving, horses prancing. Hubert was a man in his prime her mother said. He sat his saddle ramrod-straight, dark hair gleaming in the sun, teeth flashing as he laughed and spoke to the lad who rode beside him.

She couldn’t see much of Dyrke. She knew he was eleven. She knew she was tall. She gripped her mother’s hand, her palm moist.

“Ma mère,” she whispered nervously.

Ma mère’s smile creased the skin around her eyes but made her look younger. “Our lord your father has prayed mightily o’er this match, daughter,” she said, trapping a flying wisp of Margarida’s hair in her fingers. “ ‘Twas made when ye were a babe. A most advantageous match for ye, bound to a most powerful House.” She tucked the blonde strand into one of the dozen ribbons braiding Margarida’s hair. “And yet our lord did petition God that in doing your duty you should also know happiness.”

She nodded. She had been schooled in what to expect today and  wasn’t worried. It was only their first meeting. It was the future that caused the right hard twist in her stomach and the sleepless nights she was having of late. She’d seen animals rutting; watched the sows grow fat and push out their piglets, the cows drop their calves. There didn’t seem to be much to bearing young. But she’d begun to notice her parents’ role more. Of course her father’s word was law, but her mother was always beside him. He conferred with her often, valued her opinions.

What of Margarida? She would be a wife, a noblewoman of stature, one day, countess to an earl. Would Dyrke be as enlightened as her father? What if he wasn’t?

Ma mère tugged at her hand. “Come. They ride beneath the drawbridge.”

Down each of the hundreds of stone steps, Margarethe’s stomach sank a bit further, her thoughts grew direr. What if her future husband denied her books? Studies? She knew his decisions would be final, but what if he never included her in the process of making them? What if he hated reading? Debate? Music? What if he chose her women-in-waiting instead of letting her choose? What if? What if?

“Have a care,” ma mère said as they descended into the last staircase, a tight spiral in a slender tower lit only by the arrow slits in the wall. She clung to her mother’s hand, wishing she were still a small child, wondering if she would have some say in the running of the household? What if her mother-in-law hated her?

They emerged from the dark shade of the tower and paused a moment, blinded by full sun. She could hear her father’s and Earl Hubert’s growled laughter, hear the muffled sounds of their back-slapping.

As her sight returned, she saw them break from a hug, hold each other’s arms, speaking words she could not quite make out. In the space between them, a raven-haired boy stood with his back to her. Black hair, like Hubert’s. Dryke.

“Come,” ma mère whispered.

Approaching, she added disappointment to her fears. Dyrke came halfway up her father’s upper arm. Her temple grazed her father’s shoulder. She trembled as her father caught sight of her. He flung his arm wide and called gregariously, “Daughter! Tarry not! Your future lord is here to pay ye court!”

Lord Hubert swung toward her, his stare appraising her as if she were a prized mare bought and paid for. She nearly vomited.

Dyrke was slow to turn about. He held her gaze. His eyes were the most intense blue she’d ever seen. The breeze on her tongue told her that her mouth was open. She pursed her lips, at once jelly-limbed and wondering if she could walk the rest of the way.

She didn’t have to. Dyrke broke into a grin that rivaled the sun for brilliance, and strode toward her.

“You are Margarida.” He held out his hand, palm up. “I am Dyrke. I understand we will be wed in time.” The corners of his mouth quirked as he fought to keep from smiling again. “If you will have me.”

She rested her palm in his. He closed his other hand over hers. His fingers were warm; his grip was secure but not too strong. His grin reemerged, fuller, brighter than before if that were possible.

“I will,” she croaked.

“ ‘Tis goodely, my lady,” he said confidently. “Of course, there will be much time before we wed, but that is good, as well, nay?”


“Aye. I wish to be as tall as my wife.”

She blushed, thinking he sought a way out of their contract. If he never got as tall as she was, he wouldn’t marry her. She dropped her gaze. “As you wish, my lord.”

He laughed. “Nay, my lady.” He bowed perfectly. “I would be as you wish.”

And it had been as she wished. He never quite got as tall as she, but that hadn’t stopped him. She learned he was persistent. They wrote to each other for the next five years, all through his private tutoring, his squiring in King Edward’s household, and while he studied at Oxford. She loved his openness, his willingness to argue, to accept defeat when she was right, to be modest in triumph. He left Oxford at graduation and rode straight to Bien Venue to claim her despite his father’s insistence that he wait according to protocol. She learned he was stubborn.

In the years that followed, she shared every intimate detail of his life, even the ones she didn’t care to know. He was honest, trustworthy, intelligent, brave; the best a man could be. She adored him. And when, after years of worry and doubt, William was safely born, she knelt beside Dyrke and prayed God that their son should know the same fullness in marriage that they had.

She glanced up, aware that the hall was silent. Cara watched her, consumed by curiosity, but this reverie was private. She sighed in defeat.

“Aye, then.” Her head came up sharply, her chin a round, hard pillow of resolve. “I will not mention an alliance until—”

“Thank you, dear Lady Margarida!” Relief flooded Cara’s face. She jumped from her chair.

“Will ye ne’er learn ye must move slowly? Gracefully?!” Her instruction fell on deaf ears as Cara hugged her from behind, kissing her cheek. “Tsk!” She patted the arm wrapped around her neck. “Get ye gone, before my lord sends his squire for ye.”

“Yes, ma’am. William said not to be too long,” she said breathlessly, and ran off.

Margarida grunted. “Aye…I shall say no more about an alliance, until ye do both see the truth of it before your eyes.”

She tore a piece of brown bread from her trencher, but one look showed her the eggs and mutton it held were cold. She wrinkled her nose. “Duncan!”


Wherefore art thou, Romeo?

I’ll tell you where… at Petco.

I had gone there–sans my own pets–to fill our dogs’ pantry before rushing off to do my regular grocery shopping.

I’d spied some designer biscuits that smelled like lemon cookies and, being a loving and concerned mom, was reading the label when I heard a woman’s voice.

“Romeo! Romeo, stop that! Don’t pull!” came from the next aisle along with the kind of shuffling sounds boys playing at hand-to-hand combat make, and before I knew it, a brindled Italian Mastiff the size of a bumper car charged around the corner and burst into my aisle–his owner in tow as if schussing down a hill on skis–and promptly made me the object of his affection.

His aim was true. He bowled me over–along with the display of gourmet cookies. My lemon scented biscuits went flying, but Romeo managed to gobble up a fair number of them before his owner, a petite brunette, pulled herself closer, like a losing combatant in a game of tug of war.

“Romeo! Oh, Romeo, you bad! Tsk!”  Romeo didn’t care one whit about the reprimand, though. He washed my face and stood on my foot as I struggled to stand, and covered me and my clothing with slobber and biscuit bits while rendering the floor as slippery as a skating rink with the excess.

His mom pulled a towel out of her pocket with all the authority of a bullfighter calling a bull and began to swipe at his jowls. A store employee appeared with a mop while another began to pick up the biscuits and right the display table.

“You’re so bad!” She glanced at me. “I’m sorry. He’s still a puppy,” she said, wincing an embarrassed smile and shaking out her soggy towel. I was glad she didn’t offer it  to me.

“Just you wait until daddy gets here,” she said in that tone all mothers use to imply that dad’s going to do the dirty work of disciplining, but Romeo just wagged, his brown eyes wide, mouth panting, his licking tongue reaching well past his nose, tossing more slobber and crumbs everywhere.

And just when I thought It couldn’t get any worse, daddy appeared… with Juliet.

I jumped out of the way of the two Colossuses… or is it Colossi? Anyway, the table went flying again as Juliet swung a paw the size of a catcher’s mitt at her brother. I assume Romeo was her brother. I didn’t hang around to ask.

Instead, I went home to change my sodden duds, noting my husband’s astonished expression at my disarray, while muttering about how Romeo and Juliet had used me as a stage prop for their play.

Recent Reads: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I have mentioned that I am not a lover of literary fiction, so it should come as no surprise that I did not appreciate Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch. I bought and read it, no doubt enticed–as I am by most literary novels–by the wonderful writing style and the novel’s length. I love the intricacies of plot and characterization that lengthy fiction works promise to deliver. But here–while some who have praised the novel call its extensive narrative passages symbolic echoes–I see only protracted examples of navel gazing, clichés, and mind-numbing repetition.

In 784 pages, The Goldfinch is the story of 13 year old Theo Decker, his formative years to adulthood and his descent into a spiritual morass of loss and drug use as a result of the inciting event: a bomb explosion in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that kills Theo’s beloved mother, among others. One of few to escape the area of the explosion, Theo takes with him the small 17th century Carel Fabritius masterpiece entitled The Goldfinch. He’s not a thief. He’d been comforting a badly wounded man at the explosion site, and promises to save the painting the old man presses on him before he dies.

We follow Theo for the next 14 years—through his short-lived residence with a school chum and his wealthy, dysfunctional family, to live with his alcohol and drug dependent father in Las Vegas, where Theo meets a Russian teen who becomes his drinking buddy and partner in drug experimentation.

When his father dies, Theo goes back to New York, taking the painting, which he never surrenders to either the authorities or the person the dying man in the museum told him to. But he does take up residence with that man, whose name is Hobie, a furniture restorer and friend of the old man who’d died in the museum blast. Hobie pretty much becomes Theo’s surrogate father. They care for each other deeply, though due to the boy’s secretive nature (about both the painting and his drug use) and Hobie’s naivety and deep interest in his work, a bond of truth–the soul-baring kind offered up in Confession–is never established.

The story is populated by a host of eccentric characters, from Boris, the Russian teen who grows to become an international player who lives by his wits, mostly just under the radar of the international police; to Theo’s dad (and his girlfriend); to Pippa, Theo’s lifelong crush, who’s just as emotionally damaged and drug dependent as he is. There are a myriad other lowlifes, preppy losers, recluses, and con men, and many of them want the painting for their own nefarious reasons.

When I first thought about reviewing The Goldfinch, I doubted myself and my opinion. After all, no Pulitzer Prize winner am I. But I’m not alone. There are some doubtful reviewers out there, easily searchable, including Evgenia Peretz in a July 2014 article in Vanity Fair, where she explores the novel’s reviews as a preamble to her main topic: What makes a work literature and who gets to decide.

Read Ms. Peretz’s article for her thoughtful and sometimes humorous view of the literature scene. I enjoyed it greatly, much more, I’m sorry to say, than The Goldfinch.

The Camaraderie of Conference

A week ago today, I began the first day of a 4-day pitch conference in NYC organized by the Algonkian Writers Conferences and attended by about 50 writers, male and female, ‘Gen-x’ers to retirees, separated into 3 groups by their genres.

My group, 17 women, ‘Gen-x’ers through retirees, American and Canadian, were writers of memoir and women’s fiction, a generous genre that Wikipedia defines as “women centered books that focus on women’s life experience, marketed to female readers.” As an umbrella term, “it includes many mainstream novels. There exists no comparable label in English for works of fiction that are marketed to males,” adds Wikipedia, but to address that requires a whole other post and the expression ‘vive la difference’ comes to mind.

RWA (Romance Writers of America) has a whole sector devoted to romance writers of women’s fiction. Its definition of the genre is “a commercial novel about a woman on the brink of life change and personal growth. Her journey details emotional reflection and action that transforms her and her relationship with others, and includes a hopeful/upbeat ending with regard to her romantic relationship.”

The women in our group—writers of memoir, literary fiction, and women’s fiction–have created works that would appeal to women’s emotions. Personal courage and growth, humor and pathos in the lives of the aging, a difficult parent-child relationship, the excesses of the rich and powerful, and a not-so-old-fashioned ghost story, these were examined in depth, along with dreams, hidden fears, and so much more.

Readers would learn lessons, hearts would be touched, suspense mixed with humor would enrich, oh, the stories we told.

Our group leader, the able and talented Susan Breen, former journalist, author of several short stories and the novel The Fiction Class, and teacher at the Gotham Writer’s Workshop in Manhattan, had her hands full with us as we worked to shed dense synopses and develop the perfect pitch to deliver to 4 editors over the course of the conference.

It was hard work and many of us rewrote again and again late into the night or in the early hours of the morning before coming to class, but in the end, many of us were rewarded with requests for pages from the editors.

We’ve already begun to seek ways to remain in touch regularly, and a more worthwhile relationship I can’t imagine. I hope to read several of these books when they’re published. You can be sure I’ll blog about them.