June 27, 2013

Guest Post: Jennifer Cody Epstein's The Gods of Heavenly Punishment

Please welcome Jennifer Cody Epstein as part of her virtual tour while promoting her novel, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment.

On Fiction and Fashion

As a writer, I seem to be drawn to very dark themes. My first novel, The Painter from Shanghai, was about Chinese artist Pan Yuliang's journey from prostitution to Post Impressionism, and it included several very tough phases/scenes. My second novel, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, is even darker--it studies the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo (100,000 Japanese civilians incinerated by American napalm-packed bombs in under four hours) from both sides of the conflict. It covers cruelty by Japanese soldiers to both their occupied peoples and their own kind, as well as infidelity and moral betrayal. Obviously, there are happy moments in both novels. They both feature redemption of the human spirit and the power of the human soul as key themes. And they both center around heroines who fight for the right to define—and ultimately succeed in defining--their own destinies.

The less-happy stuff that those heroines had to go through, though, was still pretty heavy; both to research, and to try to process onto paper. In fact, one question I often get from readers and interviewers is how I got myself through those few grim and dark scenes. It’s a fair question, I think. There were certainly moments (after, say, describing Tokyo’s eerie, smoking silence the morning after the attack) where I asked myself the same thing: How on earth am I going to get through this? Up until now, at least, I’ve given a fairly standard response: I grounded myself in the happy, healthy moments of my life. I went running with my dog, and watched old movies with my daughters, and drank good wine and ate good food with my husband and friends. I did a lot of yoga. I meditated. I got massages and acupuncture: all true. 

There is one thing I also did, though, about which I haven’t always been as forthcoming. And here it is: 

I shopped. 

It’s embarrassing, and yet I can’t in good conscience deny it: my writing fueled a surprising consumer habit. Every chapter or so---or after a particularly tough scene, or (sometimes) before a scene I knew would be difficult—I would allow myself to go on line and cruise around for up to an hour, filling e-carts to my heart’s delight. And it wasn’t with useful things like household linens or duct tape or toilet paper. I shopped for fashion—for really interesting, unique, of-the-moment clothes, shoes and accessories. I was never quite sure why I was doing it. But for some reason, foraging through cybermalls in search of the perfect cuff bracelet or pair of platforms got me through some of the bleakest writing stints of my life. What’s more, after a while I started to realize that simply learning about the newest jeans or the best dress deals or the most environmentally-friendly handbags wasn’t enough: as was the case with the “real” research I was doing about the Pacific War, I felt compelled to write about what I was discovering. And so, about three years ago—and about a hundred pages into my second novel—I launched a fashion blog. I did it anonymously, and kept it tongue-in-cheek and witty, with each post ending with a literary reference or featuring an interview with a fellow writer or designer. But the fact that I did it at all caused some people to shake their heads: why? Why would a supposedly smart, literary woman express an interest in—much less write about—something as frivolous as fashion? 

It’s a question I asked myself repeatedly as I wrote my columns (on asymmetrical hemlines and heelless high-heels and one-shouldered tops) between and around scenes about fire and death: Why am I interested in this stuff? Granted, I’d always liked clothes. One of my earliest memories is of getting a new pair of Mary Janes as a toddler and loving them so much that I wore them to bed. Growing up, though, I’d essentially embraced the shapeless, neutral-hued, flat-soled and largely-linen styles of New England, and wore them well into my early thirties. But when I came to New York, something in my fashion outlook changed. I think it related to the innovation I saw in the outfits I saw being strutted down city streets; the way so many people here put together their daily ensembles with such obvious thought and care. They looked—good. And it looked like fun. At some point, it even occurred to me that the putting-together of such statements was not unlike the putting-together of—well, statements. Or sentences. Like the ones I put together every day on my computer screen. In other words, it occurred to me that fashion was perhaps just another form of expression—one with its own lyricism and logic and balance. And what better place to study it than here in NYC—the second fashion capital of the world? 

And so I did: as I studied James Doolittle’s breathtakingly heroic mission to avenge Pearl Harbor, and pondered Curtis LeMay’s plans to level scores of Japanese cities, and the painstaking process of rebuilding a decimated Tokyo out of its own ashes, I also studied ….shoes. What was it about heels (which I hadn’t worn since high school) that made them worth the pain? And jewelry: how much jewelry was too much? Is Coco Chanel’s famous dictum (accessorize, then take one accessory off before you leave the house) really valid? And tonality: do shoes and bag always have to match? What about toenails and fingernails? Are black and navy ever acceptable together? The weird thing is that this bizarre balance somehow worked: I got through the toughest sections in my novel without feeling overwhelmingly crushed by the injustice of the world. My novel was published in mid-March. And—while I certainly didn’t buy everything I put in those cyber-carts, I still ended up with a decent closetfull of clothes I’m still enjoying. And I even learned to walk in 4” platforms. 

The other weird thing, though, is that once my sporadically-dark novel was done I seemed to lose the urge to write about the light stuff. I retired my blog last Spring, around the time I was finishing up the final drafts of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment. It seemed I’d simply run out of haute steam. In the months since, while I’ve still indulged in the occasional cybershop, I don’t find myself quite as mesmerized as I always did when I had more pressing things to research. Which, I suppose, is just further proof to me that the two elements—the dark stuff of my novels, the light stuff of my closet--were somehow part of the same mysterious process for me.

That’s not to say the fashion-blog bug won’t bite again. I’ve just started researching my third novel, which will also be set against a war, and hence is also likely to have some dark moments. And around the same time, I suddenly found myself obsessed with easy, breezy summer dresses. Nothing too flashy—just well-cut, light and made from something other than polyester. And maybe with a subtle high-low hem job to boot. In fact, over the course of writing this post I took a break to peruse Piperlime’s bi-yearly tag sale, and found a few interesting candidates. 

Coincidence? Perhaps. 

About the book

Publication Date: March 11, 2013
W.W. Norton & Company
Hardcover; 384p
ISBN-10: 039307157X

A lush, exquisitely rendered meditation on war, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment tells the story of several families, American and Japanese, their loves and infidelities, their dreams and losses, and how they are all connected by one of the most devastating acts of war in human history.

Fifteen-year-old Yoshi Kobayashi, child of Japan’s New Empire, daughter of an ardent expansionist and a mother with a haunting past, is on her way home on a March night when American bombers shower her city with napalm—an attack that leaves one hundred thousand dead within hours and half the city in ashen ruins. In the days that follow, Yoshi’s old life will blur beyond recognition, leading her to a new world marked by destruction and shaped by those considered the enemy: Cam, a downed bomber pilot taken prisoner by the Imperial Japanese Army; Anton, a gifted architect who helped modernize Tokyo’s prewar skyline but is now charged with destroying it; and Billy, an Occupation soldier who arrives in the blackened city with a dark secret of his own. Directly or indirectly, each will shape Yoshi’s journey as she seeks safety, love, and redemption.

Praise for The Gods of Heavenly Punishment
“…The book reveals itself to be as miraculously constructed as Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (which itself is a character). The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is a page-turner thanks to its high-stakes adventure, torrid love affairs and characters so real they seem to follow you around. And in the end, this gripping novel asks us not just to consider a lost chapter of a famous war but also to explore what it means to be lucky—and what it means to be loved. (Amy Shearn, O magazine)

"The Gods of Heavenly Punishment showcases war’s bitter ironies...as well as its romantic serendipities." (Megan O’Grady, Vogue)

"With stunning clarity, Epstein has re-created Tokyo both before and after the bombing in a novel that raises still-unanswered questions about the horrors of war, the cruelty associated with it and the lasting impression it can make on a person, a people or a place." (Shelf-Awareness.com)

“An epic novel about a young Japanese girl during World War II underscores the far-reaching impact that the decisions of others can have.” (Kirkus Reviews)

"Epstein’s second novel (after The Painter from Shanghai) is bursting with characters and locales. Yet painful, authentic (Epstein has lived and worked in Asia), and exquisite portraits emerge of the personal impact of national conflicts—and how sometimes those conflicts can be bridged by human connections." (Publishers Weekly)

“Sweeping….[A] harrowing novel of destruction and creation that will appeal to fans of historical fiction” (Library Journal—starred review)

About the Author
Jennifer Cody Epstein is the author of The Gods of Heavenly Punishment and the international bestseller The Painter from Shanghai. She has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Asian Wall Street Journal, Self, Mademoiselle and NBC, and has worked in Hong Kong, Japan and Bangkok, Thailand. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, two daughters and especially needy Springer Spaniel. 

For more information, please visit www.jennifercodyepstein.com.

Visit the other tours for more reviews and giveaways-- HFVBT TOUR SCHEDULE

June 18, 2013

(Giveaway) The Altarpiece (The Cross and The Crown Series, #1) by Sarah Kennedy

Knox Robinson Publishing, March 2013
The Altarpiece (The Cross and The Crown Series, #1) by Sarah Kennedy
It is 1535, and in the tumultuous years of King Henry VIII's break from Rome, the religious houses of England are being seized by force. Twenty-year-old Catherine Havens is a foundling and the adopted daughter of the prioress of the Priory of Mount Grace in a small Yorkshire village. Catherine, like her adoptive mother, has a gift for healing, and she is widely sought and admired for her knowledge.

Catherine’s hopes for a place at court have been dashed by the king’s divorce, and she has reluctantly taken the veil. In the remote North, the nuns enjoy the freedoms unavailable to other women. England is their home, but the times have changed, and now the few remaining nuns dread the arrival of the priory’s new owner, Robert Overton. When the priory’s costly altarpiece goes missing, Catherine and her friend Ann Smith find themselves under increased suspicion.

King Henry VIII’s soldiers have not had their fill of destruction, and when they return to Mount Grace to destroy the priory, Catherine must choose between the sacred calling of her past and the man who may represent her country’s future.

Why Margery Kempe? 

When I tell people that I am fascinated by the medieval mystic Margery Kempe, and that I have given a copy of her autobiography to my fictional nun, Catherine Havens, in my novel The Altarpiece, they often ask, “Why?” Why not her more subdued contemporary, Julian of Norwich, who assured us that “all manner of thing shall be well”?

Well, in Henry VIII’s England, all was not well, and Margery Kempe was, for me, the mystic for the Tudor era. The historical monastery at Mount Grace, which I used as the setting for my novel, actually did have a copy of the Book of Margery Kempe! My nun, Catherine, insists on the value of this early story of a self-determined mother, and it’s a good thing that people like Catherine existed, because we now recognize the Book of Margery Kempe as the one of the first autobiographies by an English woman. Margery’s life was actually recorded by monks, because Margery herself was apparently illiterate. It begins when Margery has had her first child and falls into what we would now call post-partum depression. A priest is called to hear her confession, and when he fails to pardon her, she falls into such a state that she must be tied to her own bed. Jesus appears to her, saying “Why hast thou forsaken me and I forsook never thee?” After this vision, Margery regains her wits.

Over the years, Margery starts several businesses (they all fail) and has fourteen children. She separates from her husband and goes on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She’s robbed and abandoned by her maid while they’re in Rome. She meets up with an Irish hunchback named Richard, who kindly accompanies her home. Oh, and she’s dragged to York to be tried for heresy.

Pretty exciting, isn’t it? So why don’t more readers love brash, independent Margery? It’s the weeping bit. Margery developed “holy tears,” and while it may sound lovely, the condition was a constant annoyance to her neighbors. She also refers to Jesus as her “husband” and invites him into her bed for lovemaking. People tend to get very squirmy when they read these passages, and some are downright offended.

It’s important to remember, though, that in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance the notion of being a “bride of Christ” was a European metaphor for humanity’s relationship to the divine. All of humankind was seen either as a collective child to the parents of the Godhead or as the collective wife to Christ. This “feminized” humanity—even as it laid the path for the decreased power of wives after the Reformation, when the position of men in families was enhanced to fill the role vacated by priests.

In Margery Kempe’s time, Christ was commonly thought of as the husband of the church, and she takes this metaphor to its literal meaning. Margery may not be able to run a business, but she can be loved by God as passionately as any human being. And she maintains that her life is as worth recording as anyone’s, even down to the last days of her marriage, when she moves back in with her husband, now grown incontinent and feeble-minded, until his death. Margery Kempe was unashamed of compassion and of her ability to experience the divine physically.

This combination of compassion for others and confidence in her female self is what my nun Catherine values in Margery Kempe. Was Margery crazy? Maybe. But if she was, her “insanity” was caused by a holiness so intense that the banal world could not contain it.

  Author bio:
Sarah Kennedy is a professor of English at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia and the author of seven books of poems. She holds a PhD in Renaissance Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing. Sarah has received grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Virginia Commission for the Arts and is currently a contributing editor for Shenandoah. Sarah will publish a series of novels with Knox Robinson centering around the sixteenth century closure of the monasteries and convents of England by King Henry VIII. You may be able to meet her at some of the events she'll be attending this summer.

Open to HF-Connection followers in USA, the author's publicist is offering a giveaway of The Altarpiece to one lucky winner! Enter via the Rafflecopter form below. Please take note that there are TWO mandatory entries in order to be considered for the raffle.

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June 06, 2013

(Giveaway) The Unsinkable Herr Goering by Ian Cassidy

The Unsinkable Herr Goering
Cassowary Press; March 1st 2013
“Contrary to what the so-called history books tell you, Hermann Goering, Hitler's Deputy, Head of the Luftwaffe and second most powerful man in Nazi Germany, did not leave this world courtesy of a cyanide tablet secreted in the heel of his jackboot minutes before his appointment with the hangman. The truth is far more bizarre. THE UNSINKABLE HERR GOERING is a monumental debut novel by Ian Cassidy. It follows Goering, a man blindsided by hubris, on his attempted escape - from both Germany as well as from the Allies - and the inept men of mettle who put a stop to it. It is a hilariously depraved story of villainous villains, slightly less villainous heroes, bad behaviour (and even worse beer), and uncomfortable underwear. Not since A Confederacy of Dunces has a book brought to life such audaciously flawed characters. It gets so much wrong, yet so much right.”

Please welcome the author Ian Cassidy with the following piece about his book:

The name Herman Goering conjures up images of excess, gluttony, greed, red-faced spluttering rage, art theft and complicity in the most unspeakable atrocities. What is less well known is that he had an embarrassing secret.

The extensive research I did for my novel The Unsinkable Herr Goering, combined with a few educated guesses, a few more minor flights of fancy and even more leaps of imagination, led me to the shocking discovery that Herman Goering—Hitler’s deputy, Reich Marshal of Germany and Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe—was a transvestite.

Unearthing this previously overlooked, if largely irrelevant piece of information set me on the path to further remarkable discoveries. By the same methods of detailed research, informed guesswork, wild speculation and brazen fabrication, I discovered that the Herman Goering who gave evidence at Nuremberg, the man who came so close to outwitting Chief Justice Jackson and derailing the entire process was in fact an impostor, an actor substituted by the Allies. That is because the real Herman Goering was lying in a watery grave following a fateful meeting with a dodgy house painter from Birmingham and a fatal encounter with the Royal Navy off the coast of Gibraltar.

Herman Goering did not take his own life minutes before his appointment with Master Sergeant John Woods and no-one died in that cell. The impostor slipped quietly away to obscurity, and for the first time the extraordinary ‘real’ events leading up to Goering’s death are related in my novel.

The Unsinkable Herr Goering is a monumental historical comedy, and whilst I play fast and loose with some of the facts, others are presented with scrupulous accuracy. The details about Von Stauffenberg’s attempt on Hitler’s life are accurate as are the details about the city of Lichfield in the summer of 1944. As the home of the Staffordshire Regiment, Lichfield was a hive of military activity as the Staffords prepared to supplement the Parachute Regiment in linking up with U.S. and Polish forces for the ill-fated airborne assault on the Rhine bridges that culminated in disaster at Arnhem.

There’s some techie stuff in there too. I had to research what sort of light aircraft the head of the Luftwaffe may have flown, and all the technical details relating to that are accurate, including airspeed and range without re-fuelling. The same is true of the sports cars manufactured by Mercedes Benz at the time. I researched the development of the Autobahns, so that when my characters hurtle down the motorway, it was really there and the car was really capable of such speeds. But the research I enjoyed most was that concerning the Nazis predilection for looting major artworks, the parts of my novel concerning the Amber Room, the Sterzing Altar and the career of Hans Van Meegeren are accurate.

The Unsinkable Herr Goering isn't just a comedy. Goering, despite the comic potential in his vast bulk, his outrageous greed, flamboyant dress and penchant for gaudy military decorations, was an evil man and at times the novel reflects this. It has something for everyone—history, sex, travel and boozing, but above all plenty of laughs.

About Ian Cassidy:
Ian Cassidy was born in Staffordshire just as the 'swinging sixties' became the austere, strike-ridden seventies. He went to the Cathedral School in Lichfield, where he still lives. He studied law in London but hated being a barrister so he tried teaching law at a local university. Needless to say he hated that as well and so he tried his hand at string of jobs including painting and decorating, bookmaking, restoring antique furniture & paintings and stocktaking for a beer tap manufacturer.
He now teaches law privately and writes. For more details see www.iancassidy.co.uk

Follow the instructions on the Rafflecopter form below to enter for a copy of The Unsinkable Herr Goering by Ian Cassidy!

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