Friday, April 24, 2009

On Agate Hill, by Lee Smith

I read an interview with Lee Smith in a writer's magazine last month, and was intrigued by her comments regarding On Agate Hill. So, I bought the book.The story is set in post-Civil War North Carolina. As readers of my book reviews know, I’m drawn to stories set in the Civil War period, particularly those set in the Confederate states. As someone who descended from a great-grandfather who fought for the Union, and who has lived her life on the west coast, I know very little of the effects of the war on the citizens of the southern states.

On Agate Hill is the story of Molly Petree, who is an orphan of thirteen when the book begins in 1872. Smith narrates Molly’s life through the use of diaries, letters, court records, and even sometimes song lyrics. It’s an unconventional method, but it serves this story well. By reading Molly’s words, and the words others write about her, the reader gets a fully dimensional view of an unforgettable heroine. The only drawback to this method of storytelling is the fact that when one of the sections ended, it created a natural place to stop reading and put the book down. But curiosity about what would happen to Molly next brought me back after those breaks.By the end of the story, I felt I had lost someone dear to me. Not a friend, exactly. More like an interesting relative who sends letters home telling of an exotic life beyond my imagining.

Molly’s life was far from exotic in the conventional sense. She never leaves North Carolina, but her life is ruled by her own definition of herself as a “bad girl.” Therefore, she doesn’t balk at challenging the status quo no matter where she finds herself. Smith has done a magnificent job of describing the beauty of North Carolina, especially the mountain areas. Her characters are all memorable—there aren’t any stick figures in this book.The privations of the reconstruction period following the Civil War are shown through Molly’s eyes in a way that makes them more real than melodramatic scenes could do.

On Agate Hill definitely falls in the category of literary fiction, and was written for the general market. Using movie ratings, I’d categorize it as PG-13. I recommend this book highly, especially for lovers of Civil War fiction.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Miss Fortune and Miss Match by Sara Mills

Welcome to Sara Mills' blog tour. This interview took place last week, the day before Sara's husband died of a heart attack on Tuesday. He was young -- 40 -- and I am grieved for Sara and her children. If you've considered buying one of these books, please follow the link at the end of this post to buy one or both of them.

Here's the interview with Sara, as conducted by Cara Putman:

Cara: Miss Fortune and Miss Match are delightful books set in NYC in 1947. Tell us how you got the idea for Allie and these books.

I got the idea for Miss Fortune in the middle of the night, when all good ideas come to me:
One sleepless night I was watching The Maltese Falcon and I started to wonder how different the story would be if Sam Spade had been a woman. She'd never have fallen for Miss Wunderly's charms and lies. She'd have been smart and tough and she would have solved the case in half the time it took Sam because she wouldn't spend all of her time smoking cigarettes and calling her secretary Precious.
The thought of a hard-boiled female detective got my mind whirling.
I paused the movie and sat in my darkened living room thinking about how much fun a female Sam Spade could be. Intrigued but not yet ready to dash to my computer, I changed disks and put on Casablanca (my all time favorite movie ever). The sweeping love story, a tale full of hard choices and sacrifice was what finally made the whole idea click in my mind. If I could just combine the P.I. detective story of the Maltese Falcon with the love story from Casablanca, and make Sam Spade more of a Samantha, I could have the best of all worlds.

Cara: These books are so good, I wish I'd written them. How did you set the stage to capture that gritty PI feel without being dark?

I find that a lot of PI stories are gritty and dark, focusing on the worst of the humanity, and while I wanted the Allie Fortune mysteries to be exciting and tension-filled I didn’t want them to be stark and hopeless.
One of the things I tried to do to counteract the darkness was to give Allie a multi-layered life. She has cases, relationships, friends and family, all of which I hope combine to make the stories textured, rich and full of life.

Cara: Allie is a character I'd love to have coffee with. What did she teach you while you wrote these books?

Allie was a great character to write. One of the things I learned from her was that human relationships (man/woman, mother/daughter, friends) are complicated and full of unspoken rules and expectations. Allie is a rule-breaker at heart and it complicates her life on a regular basis. One of the storylines I loved most is Allie’s relationship with her mother and how it grows and changes and how it’s shaped her.
Another dimension of Allie’s character that really taught me a lot was her willingness to do whatever was needed to help those she loves. There is no price on that kind of friendship and it’s a characteristic I’d like to see more of in myself. Okay I admit it, I’ve got a bit of a friend-crush on Allie. LOL.

Cara: One last question: If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would that be and who would you take with you?

If I could go anywhere right now I’d head to Monterey, California (I’m writing a book set there right now) and I’d plant myself on the beach with a notebook, writing my story as the waves crashed. Sounds like my idea of heaven on earth. There’s something about the wind-shaped Cypress trees and the crash of the surf in Monterey that calls to me. I don’t know why, it just is.
Miss Fortune and Miss Match are available through

469260: Miss Fortune, Allie Fortune Mystery Series #1Miss Fortune, Allie Fortune Mystery Series #1

By Sara Mills / Moody Publishers

In 1947 Allie Fortune is the only female private investigator in New York City, but she's kept awake at night by a mystery of her own: her fianci disappeared in the war and no one knows if he's still alive. Until Allie finds out, she will have no peace. When there's a knock on her office door at four in the morning, Allie suspects trouble as usual, and Mary Gordon is no exception. Mary claims someone is following her, that her apartment has been ransacked, and that she's been shot at, but she has no idea why any of this is happening. Allie takes the case, and in the process discovers an international mystery that puts her own life in danger.

Meanwhile, the FBI is working the case as well, and she is partnered up with an attractive, single agent who would be perfect for her under other circumstances-if only she knew whether her fianci was still alive.

469270: Miss Match, Allie Fortune Mystery Series #2Miss Match, Allie Fortune Mystery Series #2

By Sara Mills / Moody Publishers

FBI agent Jack O'Connor receives a letter from Maggie, a woman he used to love, saying she's in trouble in Berlin. The FBI refuses to get involved, so Jack asks Allie Fortune to help him investigate. Allie and Jack pose as a missionary couple who want to bring orphans back to the United States.

A child finds important documents that everyone in the city - Soviets and allies alike - want for themselves. Maggie refuses to tell Jack what the documents are, saying if things go wrong, they are better off not knowing. Through the course of the search, Allie's past is brought back to her, half a world away from home.