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Between the Covers with Ronald L. Smith

posted by: August 31, 2015 - 7:00am

Hoodoo by Ronald L. SmithRonald L. Smith's debut novel Hoodoo, also the name of the main character, is about a 12-year-old African-American orphan living in Alabama in the 1930s. Hoodoo was named as such because of his birthmark which was taken as a sign of his inheriting the family’s magical talent. Despite the mark, Hoodoo is incapable of casting a spell. His lack of skill doesn’t stop him from being drawn into the supernatural world in this spooky story enhanced by historical details of rural life during the Great Depression. Get to know the author as he shares his inspiration for the story, tips for young writers and living in Baltimore.


Between the Covers: Hoodoo is set in rural Alabama during the Great Depression. You do an amazing job of bringing that time and place to life. Can you share some of your research? Why Alabama? Why the 1930s?

Ronald L. Smith: Thank you.


Well, my parents are from Alabama and we took trips there when I was a kid. I fell in love with the flora and fauna, the food and people. It’s a place full of history and tall tales. When I started looking into my family history, I began to wonder about that time and what it must have been like to live in that era. My parents were a great resource, and they told me much about their early lives.


BTC: Some have said that this novel is a meeting of Zora Neale Hurston and Stephen King. I think this is a perfect description. Was it challenging writing horror for a younger audience? Why did you want to share the history of folk magic?

RLS: Well, I didn’t really set out to write a book like this. As a lot of writers would probably tell you, ideas just come to you, and if they stick around long enough, you just have to put it on the page. Once the story began to take shape, I started thinking that I might be on to something special.


I wasn’t challenged by the horror aspect of the book. I just wrote for myself, as something I would have liked to read. Of course, I was aware that the book would be geared towards young readers. My editor and agent weighed in and I think we found a good balance.


BTC: Hoodoo’s voice is genuine and appealing. How did you get in the head of a 12-year-old living in the south during the Great Depression? Ron Smith reading.
RLS: I guess a lot of it is drawing from my own childhood: the way you feel as a kid, the way your parents talk to you, the way you look at the world. It all just came out in a kind of fugue state, if that makes sense. I used to write literary fiction until I discovered that my voice was a better fit for children’s literature.


BTC: This is your debut novel. What has been the most exciting thing about the publishing process? Has anything surprised you?
RLS: It has all been very exciting! It’s something I’ve wanted my whole life. The most exciting aspect of the adventure was when my agent called and told me the book was going to auction. That’s something I’ll never forget. Getting support and input from my editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was also fantastic. It’s truly been a wonderful experience.


BTC: Describe your writing process. How long did it take you to complete your first novel? What’s in store for readers next? 

RLS: Well, writers will tell you there are two kinds of writers: plotters and pantsters. I am of the latter, which means I fly by the seat of my pants when I write. I have tried outlining, index cards, Scrivener — all to no avail. I start with an idea and see where it goes. Once I have a few thousand words, the story begins to take shape. I always go back and add whatever is needed, once I know where the story is headed.


Hoodoo is my third novel, and the one that got me an agent. The first one I wrote took a few years and is on a file on my computer where it will remain! It was good practice, though. The second book is still close to my heart, and I would like to see it published someday.


After Hoodoo comes The Mesmerist, another middle grade, [which] takes place in Victorian England! Expect plagues and scary monsters!


BTC: What authors, books or ideas influenced you? What are you reading now?
RLS: That is a good question and I could fill several pages, but I’ll spare you.


I like children’s lit that is smart and assumes the reader will understand the concepts and themes of the book. Authors like M.T. Anderson, Philip Pullman, Holly Black. I’ve always been a big sci-fi and fantasy buff. I like dark movies and films. Not horror, specifically, unless it is done very well. I’m more interested in the supernatural aspects.


As for recent reads, I recently finished Lee Kelly’s City of Savages, which was quite good, and have also read the first book in Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy.


I am also re-reading the Harry Potter books. I’ve pretty much forgotten what happens in each, as it has been so long since first reading them. I’m watching the films immediately after I finish each book.


BTC: What would you tell young people interested in becoming writers? 
RLS: They’ve probably heard it before, but read. And then read some more. Read everything that interests you, and also pick up books that you might at first turn away from: history, anthropology, biographies of historical figures. Share the things you write with people you admire: teachers, parents. Once you feel comfortable, join a group where you can all share your writing to get feedback.


BTC: You grew up in army bases all over the world and are now settled in Baltimore. How long have you lived here and what made you stay? Tell us some of your favorite things about Baltimore. 
RLS: Well, my wife and I moved to Baltimore after living in Chicago for 13 years. We wanted to be closer to family. We’ve now been here for about six years. Baltimore is a strange little place. Not quite a big city, but too big to be a small town. I like its oddity, its accents and one-of-a-kind characters. The creative people that live here truly love what they do. They work hard and play hard. After living in Chicago for so long, I’ve come to appreciate Maryland’s green spaces, its beaches and rivers. Everything is here or a short drive away.


Also, crab cakes.



The Fateful Lightning: A Novel of the Civil War

posted by: August 28, 2015 - 7:00am

The Fateful Lightening: A Novel of the Civil WarIn The Fateful Lightning: A Novel of the Civil War, author Jeff Shaara recounts the events beginning in late 1864 that led to the annihilation of the Confederate Army by General Sherman’s infamous march through Georgia. Told from multiple perspectives, Shaara allows the reader to get a sense of just how desperate both sides were to end the war and how frustrated everyone felt that the conflict had dragged out for so long.


While Shaara switches focus from Union to Confederate, his most compelling narrators are General William T. Sherman and Franklin, a slave on a Georgian plantation. Sherman is portrayed as a determined leader who has to make many difficult decisions in order to secure a Union victory. Shaara carefully crafts Sherman as a man torn between moral rights versus military might. This portrait of Sherman makes him a three-dimensional human being which is very different from many previous incarnations of Sherman, where he is usually either a superhuman hero or the devil incarnate.


Franklin’s character is based on some of the slaves who were liberated as Sherman’s army marched through the South. Having spent his entire life as a slave on the governor of Georgia’s plantation, Franklin’s liberation is an event he has always dreamed of but cannot quite grasp when it occurs. Fortunately, Franklin is literate and becomes a valuable resource to Sherman’s army. As he marches with the Union soldiers, Franklin’s world changes forever, and he bears witness to the double-edged sword that freedom turns out to be.


The final installment in Shaara’s Civil War Western Theater series, The Fateful Lightning stands on its merit. Whether or not you have read any of the other books in this series, this novel is an engrossing recounting of the final brutal months that decided the Union victory over the Confederacy.  


Does This Beach Make Me Look Fat?

posted by: August 27, 2015 - 7:00am

Does This Beach Make Me Look Fat?Lisa Scottoline and Francesca Serritella once again tickle our funny bones with light-hearted humor and everyday situations in Does This Beach Make Me Look Fat? In a series of essays alternating between mother and daughter, Lisa and Francesca tackle college reunions, remote controls, city living, country dwelling, pet perils and TV religion. They also discuss bad breakups, last goodbyes, new beginnings and growing old.


Sharing their confessions, heartaches, love lives and just ordinary living, the authors remind us not to sweat the small stuff. While the mass media spends millions trying to convince us that we must be thin, smart, sexy, modern, well-read, and perfect in word and deed, Lisa and Francesca give us permission to eat on the beach and enjoy. To love yourself as your parents loved you. To recapture those blissful moments as children when we were free of guilt. To live life as it was meant to be lived — joyfully.


Lisa Scottoline is The New York Times bestselling author of the legal mystery series Rosato and Associates and numerous standalone titles. She is a past president of Mystery Writers of America and is an Edgar Allan Poe Award winner. Lisa co-authors a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer with her daughter, Francesca Serritella, entitled “Chick Wit.” Other humorous collections by these authors include Meet Me at Emotional Baggage Claim, Best Friends, Occasional Enemies and My Nest Isn’t Empty, It Just Has More Closet Space.


Don’t miss out on this book — it’s a gem!


Sword Art Online: Girls' Ops

posted by: August 26, 2015 - 7:00am

Sword Art Online: Girls' OpsWriter Reki Kawahara and designer abec have experienced unbridled success in the past half-decade with their original series Sword Art Online. In 2009, the first SAO light novel about virtual reality video games with real-life implications was released. The novel has since been expanded to 15 volumes and has spawned two seasons worth of anime, three PlayStation games, a handful of mobile games and eight manga adaptations. The most recent manga book to arrive stateside is Sword Art Online: Girls’ Ops, and it’s just as fun and endearing as the original SAO. It’s definitely cuter, too.


In SAO:GO, series favorites Suguha, Rika and Keiko are coping pretty well with the aftermath of the Aincrad tragedy, and are still just as hopelessly addicted to online gaming as ever. The trio play the new VRMMO Alfheim Online religiously, and are ecstatic to find a new add-on quest has arrived after a long day at the SAO returnees school. Dubbed “the Angel’s Whisper Rings,” the adventure has the young ladies aiding an angel in strife while proving their devotion to one another to earn powerful rings of friendship.


The three dive into Alfeim Online ready to take on the new high-level quest as their avatars Leafa, Silica and Lisbeth, using their previous experience with the angel in SAO as a starting point. On their way to find her, the trio encounters a familiar dual-wielding swordsman clad in a midnight-black coat. Fans of the series will know it’s fate that unites the girls with this swordsman, but will never foresee the impending twist that makes SAO:GO an enjoyable departure from the previous SAO adventures.


SAO:GO is a quirky, adorable spinoff of the Japanese megahit Sword Art Online. Readers who have enjoyed SAO arcs Aincrad, Fairy Dance and Progressive will find so much to love about Girls’ Ops. Gamers and anime fans alike should also check this out.




The Fifth Heart

posted by: August 25, 2015 - 7:00am

The Fifth Heart by Dan SimmonsWhat would have happened if novelist Henry James had met detective Sherlock Holmes? Granted, Holmes is a fictional character, but in The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons, the premise of this unlikely meeting is central to the story. Simmons, who is known primarily for sci-fi, fantasy and horror, combines elements of these genres in this narrative with historical events interwoven into his fictitious plot.


The story opens with Holmes saving James’ life by preventing him from jumping into the Seine one night. From that point on, the pair form an odd partnership that is at times akin to that of Holmes and Watson. However, James never fully believes that Holmes is really who he claims to be. Is this man who sometimes goes by the name of Jan Sigerson really THE Sherlock Holmes or is it all an elaborate ruse? What about the supposed suicide of James’ friend Clover Adams? Will Holmes be able to unravel the connection between Clover and the mysterious Irene Adler? For those familiar with the stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, there are references galore to many of the characters and plots of these detective tales.


In addition to Henry James, there are other historical figures making appearances including Samuel Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Adams and Vice President Adlai Stevenson, to name a few. Simmons enjoys going into great detail about various events (e.g. the crushing of someone’s skull or James’ criticism of Doyle’s stories) which can either add to or sideline the central mystery of the story. For those who either enjoy a complicated mystery full of plot twists or the idea of famous historical figures interacting with famous fictitious ones, The Fifth Heart definitely has plenty of both to offer.


Re Jane

posted by: August 24, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Re Jane by Patricia ParkWho recognizes this story? A young orphan lives with relatives who make her feel like a burden. To escape, she takes a job as a nanny to a little girl and falls in love with the child’s father. She flees that relationship to find herself in a second romantic entanglement but can’t forget about her first love. Yes, debut author Patricia Park freely admits that Re Jane was inspired by the Jane Eyre, but Park’s version is freshly minted and modern and anything but redundant.


Park’s Jane has a Korean mother and an American father, both of whom died when Jane was an infant. Jane has been raised in America by her traditional Korean uncle and his family, and works in his grocery in Queens. After a promising job offer in the financial sector falls through, Jane starts working as a live-in sitter for Devon, the adopted Chinese daughter of Beth and Bill Farley-Mazer. Gentrified Mazer family life opens a sophisticated new world for Jane, far from her familiar working class neighborhood of immigrants, and passion blooms between Jane and Bill. Just like the original heroine, Jane Re takes a trip to relieve her tap-tap-hai (an overwhelming discomfort), but her journey takes her to Korea to reconnect with extended family and explore her roots.


Park says the title Re Jane refers not only to her readaptation of the Bronte classic, but to Jane’s mixed heritage; Re is an Americanized version of the common Korean surname Ee, often pronounced in the United States as Lee. The cultural concept of nunchi, which Park describes as an expected social conduct combining anticipation and foresight, influences Jane as she struggles to find her footing as a Korean, an American, an adult and a woman. Sharply observant as well as endearing, readers will be pleased with this contemporary Jane.  


The Job

posted by: August 21, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Job by Steve OsborneRetired New York City police officer Steve Osborne has a swell of stories to tell, and his debut The Job: True Tales from the Life of a New York City Cop collects his written and oral tales featured in the popular NPR live program “The Moth.” After standing in at a show that was missing an act, Osborne’s penchant for chronicling his adventures on the beat in New York City’s ninth precinct landed him a nationwide storytelling tour and convinced him to keep writing in his spare time.


The Job contains heartfelt, easy-to-read stories with a great balance of action, humor and drama. In “Hot Dog,” Osborne recalls running into a repeat drug offender a few years after the man was released from Riker’s Island. “Midnights” details some of the worst possible calls a cop working the graveyard shift could receive — all of which flood Osborne’s precinct in one night. A woman reports a rape case and Osborne’s unit confronts the oddball assailant before he skips town in “Stockbroker.” Osborne reflects on the first time he had to face a mother and inform her of the death of her child in “Growing Pains.”


After taking in the stories collected in The Job, readers will get a great sense of the kind of cop Osborne was and the kind of guy he is now. His no-nonsense sincerity shines throughout his recollections, and he never shies away from portraying himself, his police allies or their suspects honestly. Osborne’s world views have been shaped by the survival tactics he had to employ every shift he worked, and the stories he shares are evident of the toll he has paid.







The Quiet Man

posted by: August 20, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Quiet Man by John SununuJohn Sununu, former Chief of Staff in the first Bush Administration, offers an inside portrait of the one-term presidency in The Quiet Man: The Indispensable Presidency of George H. W. Bush. The 41st president is most remembered for the First Gulf War, fought to liberate Kuwait after it was invaded by Iraq. It was one of the largest and most successful military campaigns in history. However, we seldom consider Bush’s domestic accomplishments in the face of an overwhelming opposition majority.


Sununu argues that Bush was also an effective engineer of domestic legislation. His legislative accomplishments included bolstering civil rights, creating the Americans with Disabilities Act and passing comprehensive clean air and water protections after they languished for 12 years in Congress. He identified the savings and loan crisis as a major threat to a healthy economy, overhauling the banking system and paving the way for the strong economic recovery of the 1990s.


With rare exceptions, don’t look for honest criticism in this work. It is clearly both a vigorous defense of the first Bush Administration and a homage to the man who held the office. It's still a fascinating behind-the-scenes view of the inner workings of the White House as it negotiates the tumultuous events at the end of the 20th century. We have a front-row seat to diplomatic machinations both domestic and foreign. Sununu observes that the consequences of 41’s presidency reverberate today like the "Thousand Points of Light" he lit across the nation.


Agree or disagree with his policies, this President Bush is aptly quoted, “I am a quiet man. But I hear the quiet people others don’t.”


Bennington Girls Are Easy

posted by: August 19, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Bennington Girls are Easy by Charlotte SilverSylvie and Cassandra graduate from the palace of privilege known as Bennington College in 2003 and set out to make their marks on the world in Bennington Girls are Easy by Charlotte Silver. Bennington is a unique institution, rumored to have been founded in 1932 as an option for wayward daughters of prosperous families. Free thinking is encouraged and, while the students — which now includes boys — aren’t all heirs to pastry fortunes and diamond mines, each embraces an attitude of entitlement. But these graduates soon discover that this magnified sense of self-worth is often at odds with the workings of the real world.


Sylvie heads to New York first with Cassandra visiting frequently before settling there permanently after her romantic sure-thing falls apart. The two are convinced that their friendship will last through anything and they'll enjoy their 20s in New York, exploring the city and their sexuality all while trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Each is flawed in her own way, but Sylvie is incapable of recognizing her defects. Cassandra grows increasingly tired of Sylvie using her for her money, and the friction between these besties intensifies.


This coming-of-age novel is an honest look at two young, immature and flawed women struggling to find themselves in their post-college years. A revolving cast of quirky characters, many of whom are friends from Bennington, provide added insight into the rarefied world Cassandra and Sylvie inhabit — a world of art, money and sex. While often unlikeable, the characters are intriguing, and the depiction of life after college is authentic. Silver, a Bennington grad herself, infuses an irreverent humor throughout the novel which balances the deeper messages of failed friendship and emotional maturation.




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