Joni Rendon

The legend of Dracula is one of the world's most enduring, spanning over 500 years since the death of the fearsome Romanian prince who inspired it, Vlad the Impaler. Thus it seems only fitting that any literary endeavor attempting to take on a historical and mythical figure of this magnitude should require time, patience and fortitude. Fortunately, debut novelist Elizabeth Kostova didn't shy away from the challenge, investing 10 long years of writing and research into what has become one of the most anticipated novels of the year, The Historian.

Kostova's keen interest in the subject stems from a childhood of being entertained by her father's stories of Bram Stoker's Dracula. From these early fictional seeds, her fertile imagination took flight, eventually percolating into an epic and unforgettable story of such breathtaking scope that it seems to belie classification as a debut novel.

Arcing back and forth between the 1970s and the 1950s, The Historian follows a motherless young girl's quest to learn the truth about her father's secret past and his search through Cold War-era Eastern Europe for the murderous fiend that has cost him so much—Dracula. The two journeys eventually become one as the story traces the monster's footsteps from the hallowed halls of Oxford to the mist-shrouded mountains of Transylvania and finally to a medieval monastery that yields a shocking truth. Going back in time to the Middle Ages, the novel peels back centuries of history and myth, threading together a chilling hypothetical portrayal of Dracula's lingering bloodthirsty presence into modern times.

It is this stunning fictional premise, made all the more plausible by the novel's rich historical context and use of epistolary narrative devices and archival documents, that makes The Historian so viscerally alluring. Ambitiously transcending genres, it succeeds equally as a terrifying gothic thriller, enlightening historical novel and haunting love story. Though the shifts between the two main storylines are occasionally awkward, Kostova's masterful and atmospheric storytelling yields a bewitching and paradoxical tale that would satiate even the prince of darkness himself.

 

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Behind a blockbuster
Among the many debut novels published each year, only a small percentage are granted generous advances, film rights sales and the full force of a publishing house's publicity machine. In 1997, the debut novel that drew the world's attention was Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha. This year, the smash hit in the first-novel category is unarguably Elizabeth Kostova's vampire novel The Historian, which has more than 800,000 copies in print. Ten years in the making, the novel follows a young girl who takes up her father's quest to find the real Dracula. Kostova was inspired both by her own father's vampire stories, and by her experiences living and traveling in Eastern Europe as the Iron Curtain fell. On one such trip to Bulgaria in 1989, she met her future husband, Georgi Kostov, who later emigrated to the U.S. Told partially through letters and punctuated by digressions on European history and vampire lore, Kostova's novel might not have looked like a sure bet. However, when the book was published in mid-June, first-day sales topped those of another surprise blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code, and it hasn't left the bestseller lists since. The leisurely pace and literary style of The Historian are quite different from the hectic speed of Dan Brown's novel, but both books blend fact and fiction in interesting ways and both keep readers eagerly turning the pages. Kostova has said that her next novel will be vampire-free, though it still deals with her first love, history. Whatever the subject, her phenomenal success guarantees that the book will resemble its predecessor in at least one respect: sales figures.

—BookPage

The legend of Dracula is one of the world's most enduring, spanning over 500 years since the death of the fearsome Romanian prince who inspired it, Vlad the Impaler. Thus it seems only fitting that any literary endeavor attempting to take on a historical and mythical figure of this magnitude should require time, patience and fortitude. Fortunately, debut novelist Elizabeth Kostova didn't shy away from the challenge, investing 10 long years of writing and research into what has become one of the most anticipated novels of the year, The Historian.

What would happen if the man you just married yet hardly knew died suddenly, leaving behind not only a vast fortune, but a host of secrets as well? If you were an aristocrat in Victorian England, you'd certainly let sleeping dogs lie and focus your attentions on finding a new husband after an appropriate period of mourning. Fortunately for us, the independent-minded heroine in Tasha Alexander's debut novel has other ideas. Lady Emily Ashton has never been one to follow society's conventions, and after finding a mysterious cautionary note in her late husband Philip's personal effects, she decides to investigate his death.

Embarking on a search for answers that takes her from the halls of the British Museum to Paris and beyond, Emily plunges into a fascinating world of ancient antiquities, Greek mythology and scholarly pursuits not at all suited for a lady, as her class-conscious mother constantly reminds her. Undeterred, she delves further into her investigations and finds herself belatedly falling in love with her late husband, whom she'd married primarily as a means of escaping her mother's clutches. When her sleuthing reveals elements of forgery, theft and deception lurking beneath the surface of the genteel world of statuary collecting beloved by her husband, Emily ends up facing the same danger that may have brought about his untimely demise. Confiding in two of his dearest friends, both of whom vie feverishly for her affections, she soon realizes that in life, as in art, appearances can be deceiving.

Engagingly suspenseful and rich with period detail, And Only to Deceive provides a fascinating look at the repressive social mores and painstaking rules of etiquette in Victorian high society. Barrier-breaking sleuth Nancy Drew has nothing on Alexander's fearless and tenacious Lady Emily, and readers will be glad to discover that there's an encore performance in the works for this unconventional heroine.

Joni Rendon lives in London and loves novels about Victorian England, but is grateful for today's more relaxed code of conduct.

 

What would happen if the man you just married yet hardly knew died suddenly, leaving behind not only a vast fortune, but a host of secrets as well? If you were an aristocrat in Victorian England, you'd certainly let sleeping dogs lie and focus your attentions on finding a new husband after an appropriate period of mourning. Fortunately for us, the independent-minded heroine in Tasha Alexander's debut novel has other ideas.

The cacophony of sights, sounds and smells emanating from the seamier side of Victorian London seethe like the city itself in the pages of this highly atmospheric debut novel that chooses an unusual backdrop for murder: the city's sewers. During this era, crumbling subterranean tunnels festered beneath the cobbled streets, absorbing the city's detritus and spewing it out into the Thames, which had become a giant, odiferous cesspool. By the summer of 1858, things had reached a fever pitch as a cholera epidemic ravaged the city and a sewage backup gave rise to a stench so repulsive it became known as "The Great Stink." It is within this pungent milieu that Clare Clark sets her richly imagined story of murder, madness and corruption centering on a humble surveyor with the Metropolitan Board of Works, William May. After witnessing the atrocities of war on the Crimean frontlines, William returns home in a precarious mental state, finding comfort in his wife and child as well as in his work assessing the decrepit sewers. But after a murder occurs in his subterranean sanctuary, he plunges into a madness so profound that it nearly destroys his family, his tenuous connection to reality and even his very life, as he finds himself standing trial for the crime. The only one who can save him is a Dickensian sewer scavenger, Long Arm Tom, who knows more than he cares to share and has a score of his own to settle. Interspersing the narratives of the two men, The Great Stink takes us on a fascinating aboveground tour of London's corrupt bureaucracies, raucous taverns and overcrowded tenements, by way of the labyrinthine underworld that connects them all. Combining riveting fact with imaginative fiction, the author brings to heady olfactory life the fascinating political machinations surrounding the birth of the city's modern sewer system. As deeply engrossing and evocative as the novels of Caleb Carr and Charles Palliser, The Great Stink shines a lantern into the dark and uncelebrated recesses where few have dared venture before.

 

Joni Rendon writes from London, where she is very grateful indeed for the Victorian modernization of the sewage system.

 

The cacophony of sights, sounds and smells emanating from the seamier side of Victorian London seethe like the city itself in the pages of this highly atmospheric debut novel that chooses an unusual backdrop for murder: the city's sewers. During this era, crumbling subterranean tunnels festered beneath the cobbled streets, absorbing the city's detritus and […]

Fans of Sue Monk Kidd's best-selling debut novel, The Secret Life of Bees, will be equally enamored with her beguiling sophomore effort, The Mermaid Chair, which revisits some of the terrain of its predecessor but in an altogether new context. Though the novel centers on a middle-aged woman rather than a young girl, it remains a coming-of-age story of sorts, and its themes of self-discovery, parental loss and the redeeming power of love echo those of Kidd's earlier work.

Jessie Sullivan returns home to the South Carolina island of her youth after finding out that her estranged mother Nelle has committed a bizarre act of self-mutilation. While attempting to uncover the secrets of her mother's tormented past, she meets Brother Thomas, a Benedictine monk from the neighboring abbey, with whom she shares an immediate and powerful attraction. As their relationship unfolds, Jessie undergoes a seismic spiritual, artistic and erotic awakening, shedding the confines of her 20-year marriage and her circumscribed roles as wife and mother. When Nelle's mental state takes a turn for the worse, her eccentric and endearing friends stage a dramatic intervention in which Jessie learns the truth about the death of her beloved father decades earlier. Freed from the guilt and sorrow that have weighed on her since childhood, she is finally able to take possession of herself and begin life anew.

As in the author's previous novel, myth and legend figure prominently in the narrative, here in the form of the title's eponymous chair residing in the island's abbey. Intricately carved with mermaids and dedicated to Senara, a mermaid turned saint, the chair's purported power to answer prayers has long captivated the imagination of hopeful supplicants. But as Jessie discovers with her misguided desire for Brother Thomas, the chair's mythical qualities are no shortcut to enlightenment and serenity. Reconciling the spiritual with the human, The Mermaid Chair is a captivating metaphorical and sensual journey into one woman's soul. Weaving enduring folklore about the seductive and transformative power of mermaids into a modern-day tale of rebirth, the novel shows us that sometimes we need to swim out to sea for the currents to carry us back home.

Joni Rendon writes from Hoboken, New Jersey.

Fans of Sue Monk Kidd's best-selling debut novel, The Secret Life of Bees, will be equally enamored with her beguiling sophomore effort, The Mermaid Chair, which revisits some of the terrain of its predecessor but in an altogether new context. Though the novel centers on a middle-aged woman rather than a young girl, it remains […]

Life often inspires art, but rarely do the two align with such symmetry as they did for debut author Jeff Stone. An adoptee who had conducted a 15-year search for his birth mother, Stone succeeded in his quest just a week after he completed Tiger: The Five Ancestors #1, the first novel in a series about five orphaned brothers. In an uncanny twist of fate, the author's fictional explorations served as a catalyst for resolving an unwritten chapter from his past.

Stone says his journey started with two objectives. "I was going through an early midlife crisis and realized there were two major things I wanted to try to accomplish in life one was to write a book and the other was to find my birth mother," he told BookPage from his Indiana home. Stone eventually came up with an idea that would allow him to work toward both goals: he would write a series of children's books that explored the different sides of adoption, particularly the range of emotions and stages that adoptees go through during searches.

Stone also drew inspiration from his practice of Shaolin kung fu, an ancient discipline based on a rich history of Chinese legends, myths and philosophies. Stone, who has earned a second-degree brown belt, was particularly intrigued by the legend of five warrior monks who miraculously escaped the destruction of China's famed Shaolin Temple in the 17th century. He thought it would be interesting to approach the story from a child's perspective by asking what would happen if the five young monks were forced to deal with this tragic event while simultaneously trying to uncover their own mysterious pasts. This hypothetical scenario plays out in Tiger, which follows the adventures of the orphaned monks as they are raised in a secret temple under the tutelage of an avuncular kung fu Grandmaster.

While there are many reasons children will fall in love with this exciting new series, Stone says, "I just hope kids will be inspired to recognize that everyone has individual strengths and weaknesses. If they can embrace the differences and build on their strengths, it will make the world a better place for them." The author's own lifelong passion for martial arts and Asian culture may seem incongruous in light of his Polish heritage and Midwest upbringing, but Stone says it was a childhood love of '70s kung fu TV shows that ignited his imagination. "It drove my parents nuts," he admits, laughing. But this portrayal of a distant and unfamiliar world appealed to him, he says, "because that foreign feeling was something I felt growing up all the time, looking and feeling a little bit out of place, and [the shows] transported me to another world." Stone realized that "a lot of adoptees, including myself, struggle with nature vs. nurture issues," so he decided to incorporate this conflict into the lives of the young monks in his series.

Stone faced these issues head-on while writing the book and searching for his biological mother, but fate dealt an unexpected blow when he lost his job during the process. Fortunately, his four-year-old daughter provided the encouragement he needed to forge ahead. "I was sitting there one day, kind of down, and she came up and handed me a scrap of paper. I asked her what it was and she said, 'It's your new business card!'" It said simply, 'Daddy, Write Books' and his daughter matter-of-factly informed him, "You love to write books, Daddy, so just do that."

Fortunately, Stone took this youthful advice to heart and finshed Tiger, which was snapped up in a heated publishing auction shortly after he was happily reunited with his birth mother. He has since completed the manuscript for the second book in the series, Monkey, due out this fall, and there are five more books in the works. In a fitting finale, this spring Stone is visiting the Shaolin Temple in China, where he hopes to test for his black belt and bring closure to a journey that has come full circle.

Life often inspires art, but rarely do the two align with such symmetry as they did for debut author Jeff Stone. An adoptee who had conducted a 15-year search for his birth mother, Stone succeeded in his quest just a week after he completed Tiger: The Five Ancestors #1, the first novel in a series […]

Mary Gordon's novel Pearl is a weighty meditation on the complexity of familial bonds and the burdens of guilt and forgiveness. On an otherwise unremarkable Christmas Day, single mother Maria Meyers receives an earth-shattering phone call from the State Department. Her beloved daughter Pearl, studying abroad in Ireland, has embarked on a six-week hunger strike and chained herself to a pole in front of the American Embassy for reasons that remain unclear. Frantic, Maria heads to Ireland, hoping she can intervene before it's too late. The only clues to Pearl's bizarre actions are gleaned from letters found on the ground beside her nearly comatose body: one is addressed to her mother and the other to close family friend Joseph Kasperman. In the documents, Pearl declares she is sacrificing her life to bear witness to the death of a young boy, an event for which she feels partially responsible, as well as to make a political statement for the peace process. Arriving on the scene, Maria struggles to piece together the private world of the daughter she thought she knew one whose seemingly well-adjusted, apolitical veneer bore no hint of the tortured emotions that led her to these actions. As Pearl hovers on the brink of death, Maria and Joseph must instill in her the will to live while facing down their own recriminations for past failures. This moving philosophical novel lends many penetrating insights into the human psyche, although the intrusive presence of an unidentified narrator erects a barrier that keeps the reader from becoming fully engaged in the plight of the characters. Fortunately, the author's sharply observed, intimate portraits of the characters' emotional lives overcomes the distance invoked by the narrative voice.

Most compelling of all is the nuanced portrayal of the changes wrought within Maria, Joseph and Pearl as they grapple with some of life's universal questions. The ultimately uplifting message delivered is that hope springs from the power of human beings to change and that the sheer act of living makes a stronger statement than even the noblest of deaths can achieve.

Mary Gordon's novel Pearl is a weighty meditation on the complexity of familial bonds and the burdens of guilt and forgiveness. On an otherwise unremarkable Christmas Day, single mother Maria Meyers receives an earth-shattering phone call from the State Department. Her beloved daughter Pearl, studying abroad in Ireland, has embarked on a six-week hunger strike […]

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