The Age for Loving (or Hating a Book)

In this weekend’s NYT Book review’s ‘By the Book’ I saw two questions (this week for YA author John Green) that I don’t recall seeing before and which started me mulling about the impact of timing (and one’s age, specifically) when in comes to appreciating certain books. The two questions were:

  • What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
  • What book should nobody read until the age of 40?

Great questions – right? Not because I believe that anyone should prescribe a particular book to a particular age group but because I’ve begun to realize just how much age has been a factor in terms of appreciating certain books in my life. This realization came as I was trying (unsuccessfully I might add!) to cull some overflowing book shelves, and I started leafing through books that I absolutely adored when I read them but now, as I began to flip through them, all I could think was ‘huh?’.

My book group a few years ago did an experiment where we chose a book that everyone had read years before and which we wanted to revisit only to have us all recoiling in horror, unable to believe that (a) We’d actually read the book before (so much had been lost to the mists of time…) and (b) That we’d actually loved it (the book BTW was The Magus by John Fowles). I remember our discussion circling round whether age was the main factor in our changing tastes in literature – and, although we all instinctively knew this to be true, it still surprised us just how much impact it had. Going through my shelves the other day, I was surprised how many books I’d loved in the 1980s and 1990s now seemed dated, not just in terms of technology, but also in terms of themes and emotional resonance. If I were to read these same books today I have little doubt that my reaction to them would be completely different…Actually, it made me sad to think of the books I no longer loved:(

So the questions in the NYT book review got me thinking – both about books that I think everyone should have read before turning 21 as well as those I don’t think people should tackle until they’re at least 40…The first question seemed easier as I immediately thought of To Kill A Mockingbird (as well as a myriad of children’s books, like the Narnia series). The second question was harder…much harder…although I recently read Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot and I’m pretty sure this would have made zero impact if I’d read this as a younger woman. Some books touch on themes that really only resonate at certain points in your life with both age and experience (and What Alice Forgot is definitely one of those books). Other than that though I was stumped… so I thought, why not turn to my TKZers for guidance and input…

So if you had to answer these two questions what would you say? What book do you think everybody should read before the age of 21? What book should nobody read until the age of 40?



Toxic Romance?

My mother-in-law forwarded me an interesting article on the toxicity of many of the romances depicted in YA novels and it got me thinking about how writers tackle the whole romance thing, especially in an age where many protagonists (in mysteries, thrillers as well as YA) are often ‘bad boy’ (or ‘bad girl’)  heroes/anti-heroes.

The article in the Melbourne newspaper The Age (link here), is an interview with Kasey Edwards, an Australian writer, about the often abusive, stalkerish, and horrible relationships depicted in some YA novels (most notably, the Twilight series) where girls fall for the ‘bad boy’ who thinks ‘no’ just means ‘try harder’ when it comes to winning their affection. And it’s not just YA – you have books like the Fifty Shades of Grey series which translate this behavior in a decidedly adult way where girls/women fall in love with someone who is more powerful, controlling and possibly abusive (I confess I haven’t read the Fifty Shades of Grey books so I can’t really comment!).

I do think there is a broader issue at play in terms of the way relationships and romances are depicted, irrespective of gender or genre. I know I’ve certainly fallen into the trap of creating emotionally distant male characters who don’t treat their female counterparts with the respect that I certainly would demand in real life. But then fiction isn’t real life and nice, kind, pleasant people don’t necessarily make the most compelling characters!

In YA I think the issue of depicting abusive, controlling relationships and toxic romance as ‘normal’ is a definite concern, because girls (and boys) reading them may start to believe that these are the sort of relationships they should seek in real life. In adult fiction the lines are more blurred and, though I wouldn’t want to write a book that would in any way condone or encourage abusive relationships, mysteries and thrillers by their very nature deal with the darker aspects of human nature as well as society. So how do we, as writers, reconcile the two? How do we create compelling relationships without falling into the trap of writing ‘toxic’ romance?

I don’t have any answers, except to say that I support a writer’s right to choose to depict whatever characters, relationships, or romances they want – even though somewhere along the line those choices must come with some level of responsibility (again, I think in YA, this is much greater). Beyond that, I’m not really sure – although I do think it’s a valuable topic to debate. After reading this article, I’ll certainly think a little more carefully about the type of romance and relationships I portray in my books.

So TKZers how do you approach the issue of potentially ‘toxic romance’ in your writing? Do you step back and consider the nature of the relationships and romance between your characters – especially if they might be seen as condoning abusive or dysfunctional behavior or perpetuating damaging stereotypes?



What book made you a reader?

I’ve been reading some of the previews of the upcoming version of Little Women (though seriously, how many film versions do we need?…) and it got me nostalgic for the days when my sister and I would reenact scenes from the book (I was always Jo, she was always Amy). Looking back I realize just how definitive this book was in turning me into a lifelong reader – and when I see books like ‘How to Raise A Reader’, I wonder if some books really do turn out to be pivotal in inspiring someone to love reading. I know for my sister at least, there really wasn’t any one book (or books) that proved critical to turning her into a lifelong book lover. In fact, growing up she was indifferent to many of the books I adored and, though we played ‘Little Women’, she didn’t actually read that book until she was a young adult. I wonder if for her it was just a matter of timing – finding that one amazing book at the right time in childhood that would make all the difference – because, even though she is a great reader now, she was never as passionate (nor as voracious) a reader as I was as a child. This got me questioning whether many ‘non-readers’ simply never found that one pivotal book in childhood that inspired them to read…

For me, Little Women was one of many books that inspired my love of reading. I remember how much I wanted to be just like Jo, how I wished she’d married Laurie (I really hated Amy for a while!), and how much a wept over Beth’s death. Little Women wasn’t the only book I remember reading vividly – there was also C. S. Lewis’ Narnia series, Madeline L’Engle’s ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, and Elinor M. Brent Dyer’s Chalet School Series (which I read and re-read for many years). When I think back to my childhood reading experience, these are the books that really stand out for me – with the memories of the first time I read them indelibly imprinted on my brain. When I look at my own children, I feel grateful to have witnessed their own ‘book’ moments that turned them into lifelong readers – but then I wonder what happens to those kids that never find that special book, or who never have those moments which turn them into book lovers…?

So TKZers, what were your early reading experiences like? Was there a particular book (or books) that turned you into a reader? Do you think it’s getting harder for kids to experience this? (asked against a background of dread that ‘screen time’ has now replaced book time!)


Labors of Love

Happy Labor Day weekend!

I hope you all are enjoying the quasi-official end of summer. For me, the approaching fall has got me thinking about how few of us have time for hobbies anymore. I think about this as my twins enter their freshmen year at high school and how crammed their schedules are with both school work as well as activities, most of which (given everyone’s focus on college and careers) cannot be mere hobbies anymore.

Sadly there doesn’t seem much time now for activities undertaken simply for pleasure. You don’t have to excel at a hobby – you don’t even have to be any good at it – you just have to enjoy It. But for my kids especially, there is a culture of excellence which means they should forgo what they’re not good at (even if they enjoy it) for sports or other activities they excel in. Sometimes, it seems like it’s all about getting into the competitive sports teams (recreational leagues being few and far between for my boys at least), or working towards varsity in your chosen activity such as marching band or debate. The focus is definitely on pursuing activities that will either look good on your college application or that might lead to scholarship or other opportunities. It’s really hard for them to find time just to enjoy something for fun!

Even for the adults around me, there’s very little time left in our busy schedules to undertake anything remotely resembling a hobby. Take gardening, for example…what was once an enjoyable hobby for my husband has now turned into a desperate scramble to keep things alive in the garden with the few minutes or hours that can be carved out over a weekend!

This fall, however, I’ve decided to buck the trend and indulge (that’s what it feels like sometimes – an indulgence) in not one but two hobbies…the first is my painting, which I love, and the second is knitting, which I’ve never succeeded at before. When it comes to my art, I’ve always felt guilty setting aside time to paint, especially as most of my life is taken up with writing (something, my husband considers a hobby anyway:)). There are always so many other chores or errands to run, that taking time to paint (especially when I’m clearly never going to make a career or money out of it) feels wantonly indulgent. Recently, however, I returned to art class and loved it so much I vowed that I had to allow myself time to  to paint. Painting unlocks a different creative process for me than writing – the only difficulty is, I still feel guilty doing it!

I decided to take up knitting for completely different reasons. When I was at school we had one compulsory craft unit in 7th grade, and I was so terrible (and I mean terrible…) at the knitting component, that the teacher had to get assurances from my parents that I would never do another craft lesson with her! As a result, I’ve been designated the ‘uncrafty’ one throughout my adult life – the one incapable of knitting or sewing, while my mother, mother-in-law, and sister proudly knit, sew clothes, embroider etc. A  few months ago I stumbled across a website ‘We are Knitters’ and decided I would finally throw off the yoke of ‘uncraftiness’ and try knitting. I’ll admit I had pretty unrealistic visions of sitting by the fire in the mountains knitting away…but I was determined to give it a try.  A month ago my mother-in-law was in town and she helped me get started – and, despite some fear-filled moments of dropped/wrong stitches, I’ve finally managed to get the hang of it. Now, I feel like knitting could actually be a real hobby of mine – if only I can find the time…I’m also totally fine with the fact that I might never be actually that good at it!

So, TKZers, what new hobbies have you tried this year? How do you find (and justify) the time? Do you find having a hobby helps or hinders your writing process?



Independent Editors

Happy Monday!

A few weeks ago I reached out to my fellow bloggers about freelance editor recommendations and, although I got some great names and assistance (thanks!), it made me realize just how little I know about the process of hiring an independent editor to help with the development and revision of a novel. Up till now I have relied on my beta readers and my agent to get feedback during the drafting/revision process prior to submission, so I faced a bit of a dilemma when my agent and I realized that additional changes were still needed to one of my novels but that both of us were now too close to the material to know the best way to proceed. An independent editor seemed the obvious solution – but, after my agent lucked out with her contacts (all of which were over committed already), I said I’d try and identify additional options. It was at this point that I realized just how little I knew about the process…and how hard it was to identify the ‘right fit’ when it came to freelance editorial services. Not only did many seem super expensive, few I initially identified seemed to really align with what I needed. This was where I appreciated getting personal recommendations (again, thanks!) but hiring an editor still seems like a daunting task (especially given the potential fees involved!)…so I thought, why not open it to the TKZ community to see what their experiences have been…:)

So for all of you TKZers who have used independent editors, I’d appreciate honest answers and feedback to the following questions:

  • How did you identify your editor? What research did you undertake? Did you access any useful resources beyond getting other author recommendations?
  • What key questions did you ask to ascertain that this editor was the right fit for you?
  • What was your experience with using the editor you selected? Was their input as valuable as you were hoping? Did the relationship continue for further books?
  • How much did the editor charge – ball park figure – if you don’t mind me asking?!
  • What feedback or advice would you give to someone seeking an independent editor to help with their novel?

Thanks in anticipation for all your advice and shared experiences (and recommendations too if you have them!).




First Page Critique: No Tomorrows

Happy Monday (and for me, the final week of summer before my twins start high school – so no stress at all this week…)!! Today I’m critiquing the first page of a project entitled (ominously…) ‘No Tomorrows’. As always, my comments follow and I look forward to your input!

No Tomorrows

Sally Lee’s sandals squished on the wet pavement. She should’ve changed to sneakers, but hadn’t wanted to take the time. She had to escape the house.

Escape? A curious word. Where’d that come from?

The fog had closed in after the evening’s pounding rain. It swirled around her, shrouding her in cold white anonymity as she walked away from the peaceful cul-de-sac where they’d lived for twenty years. It felt good to be walking somewhere, anywhere. Her jacket whipped around her. She zipped it up and tucked her blond curls under the hood.

Wrapped in the mist, she could think, find her reason again after the strange events of the evening. It had started with the conversation at the dinner table.

After the blessing, Sally asked, as she always did, “How was your day, kids? Anything interesting happen?” She started the mashed potatoes around the table, then reached for the platter of pork chops. Dinner as usual. Sally thrived on as usual. Dinner was family talk time.

Four scrubbed faces turned her way. Mayra answered first, tossing her long blond hair over her shoulder. At fifteen, she acted as if it was her right to be first in any circumstance. Sally often had to remind her to allow the youngest to go first sometimes.

“Remember I told you we have to write an essay?” she asked. “Today Miss Harris told us we had to choose one of three questions to answer in our essays.”

Five pairs of eyes looked at her.

“Well?” Roger asked, “What question did you choose?”

“What would I do today if I knew I’d die tomorrow?” Mayra answered her father, reaching for the platter of dinner rolls.

Sally dropped her fork. It hit her plate with a clang, then bounced to the floor, skittering under the table. Five pairs of eyes watched as she scooted her chair back and dived under the table. She picked it up, along with a piece of broccoli.  Her hand trembled as she pushed her hair back from her damp forehead. The fork clattered to the floor again.

“What are you doing under there, Sal?” Roger peered down at her.

“Getting my fork—you writing a book? Leave that chapter out, okay?”

The children giggled.

Crawling out, she wiped her fork on her napkin and popped the broccoli into her mouth.

“Five second rule?” chirped five-year-old Kimmie.

Overall Comments

I loved how this first page juxtaposed an ordinary dinner scene with Sally’s rather desperate ‘escape’ in the first paragraph. The reader knows something is off kilter, yet there’s nothing obvious to explain Sally’s disquiet…yet…and this provides the reader with a great reason to keep turning the page. The writing is also succinct and clear, with just enough detail to evoke the rain and fog, as well as the dinner table conversation and the family dynamics. Sally’s reaction to her daughter’s essay topic certainly left me wanting to read more and, as with any good first page, it left me with lots of questions I wanted answered.

I particularly liked the first paragraph and the chilling use the phrase Escape? A curious word. Where’d that come from? This definitely made me want to know more about Sally’s past and why she felt such panic and anxiety that she needed to flee her house. The author did a great job of introducing some short snippets of information that made us empathize and also be intrigued by Sally (I loved the line: Sally thrived on as usual. It reveals so much about her character in just a few words.)

Some Suggestions

Still, I do think there were a few ways in which this first page could be strengthened – although most of my recommendations are really only minor nitpicks:)

First, I did feel like the dinner scene could have had a couple of more lines describing the whole family as we only really hear Mayra, Roger, and Kimmie (if my math is right there are two other kids at the table). I found it hard to picture them all – and the use of “Four scrubbed faces turned her way” followed by “Five pairs of eyes looked at her” was a bit generic. Likewise, having both the protagonist and her daughter described by their blond hair didn’t seem very distinctive or interesting.

Second, I didn’t really believe the essay topic that Mayra had been given at school. At fifteen, “What would I do today if I knew I’d die tomorrow?” seems a rather odd topic (though maybe this is just me??). I think I would have been more willing to go along with it had Roger reacted in some way or said something like “Wow, that’s pretty dark…” or “Miss Harris is a strange one.”  – something to show his character a bit more. This would also provide a nice contrast to Sally’s reaction.

Finally, I think I would have liked just a little bit more tension, maybe even menace, when it came to Sally’s reaction to her daughter’s essay topic. Just one line that could intrigue the reader a bit more perhaps? I didn’t quite understand why Sally said: “Getting my fork—you writing a book? Leave that chapter out, okay?” but that might just me! I think I wanted her to snap at him or be more defensive – something – to add to the disquiet beneath the cozy domesticity of the dinner table scene.

Overall though, I thought this was an effective first page. It managed to combine the ordinary with an uneasiness that made me want to find out more about what was really going on in Sally’s life – so bravo to our brave submitter!

So TKZers what comments, feedback, or advice would you provide?




When is a MS Ready?

Having just submitted a new draft MS to my agent, I recently found myself facing the perennial dilemma of deciding whether the draft was actually, really, well and truly, ‘ready’ to be sent…The answer being (of course) that a MS is never ready! But, even though that may be true – a story can never be perfect – such a glib answer doesn’t help anyone, least of all a beginning/aspiring writer embarking on their first few tentative steps towards being published. So how do you know when your MS is ‘ready’ to be sent off?

For me, the answer depends in part on who I’m sending it to…some of my beta readers get my drafts in chunks and stages, depending on the feedback I need. Other beta readers get the MS only when it has been revised and polished to the point where I would send it to my agent – and even then, the MS is still, in my mind, in the ‘draft’ stages. At that point, my story is not even close to being publication ready – It’s just at the stage where I can’t revise it any further without someone else’s input…or maybe when I am so close to the story that I can no longer see its flaws:)

This really is a gut feeling for me – a sense deep inside that the draft is finally done and ready to be sent off (for better or worse) to receive criticism and feedback.  It’s taken me a long time to understand this gut feeling or to have much confidence in it – though I am also lucky that my agent is happy to play the role of first editor so I don’t have the pressure to be totally perfect (at the same time though, I am also mindful of her time and would never want to send her something that wasn’t in my mind ‘ready’).

I’ve also (finally!) begun to accept my own writing process – realizing that time and time again I follow the same pathway when it comes to getting the MS ‘ready’. Although I’ve outlined my own process a few times before in previous blog posts, I thought it might be useful to show how I get to the point where I feel comfortable that my MS is indeed ‘ready’ to be sent into the world.

First comes the proposal – a brief summary/synopsis of my idea that I send to my agent before I start writing the MS. Then, after I receive feedback and (hopefully) her blessing, I proceed with putting together an outline and then writing the first 100 pages of the MS. I spend a lot of time at this stage, focusing on POV/voice, character, and setting. I send these pages to my agent for feedback as a kind of litmus test for the book. At this point, I often get beta reader feedback as well – but not always. For me, these foundational pages have to be virtually perfect before I can write the rest of the book (weird, I know!). When I do get around to writing the rest of the book, I use and revise the outline as I go. I rarely complete a ‘crappy first draft’ of any MS – each major section of the novel gets drafted and revised before I can move on. Once I do have a complete draft in place, however, I will go back through the entire MS for multiple revisions but this rarely involves major plot changes (I’m an outliner after all!). The whole drafting process usually takes me a year to a year and a half…and then of course I make further revisions once I get my agent’s feedback and we proceed with (hopefully) putting the MS out on submission.

I still find that at each step in the process I worry about whether the synopsis/pages/MS are truly ‘ready’ to be sent off. The fear never goes away – fear that my writing is crap, fear that I’m a fraud for even trying, fear even that I’m wasting everyone’s time by making them read what I’ve written…Perhaps, nothing is ever truly ‘ready’ to go out, you just have to be brave enough to do it anyway:)

So TKZers, how do you determine when your work is ‘ready’ to be sent out? How does your writing process help you get to the point where you know (or at least are brave enough) to send out your MS?


First Page Critique: A Goan Holiday

Happy Monday! Today’s first page review is for a novel entitled A Goan Holiday – which seems appropriate since I just got back from India (although, sadly, I’ve never visited Goa). My comments follow and I look forward to feedback from our great TKZ community. Read on!

A Goan Holiday

For the leftover hippies sunbathing nude on the beaches of Goa, drug-induced illusions were often indistinguishable from the breath-taking reality of the moss-covered cliffs and the bright blue sea. Back in the ’sixties, Vagator was one such beach few knew of until a forty-year-old American tourist with only eight fingers trudged down the mud track to the nearby village, starting a hippie stampede to the settlement. The disgruntled children of the West left the residents puzzled by adopting the matted hair, the rancid clothes, and the broken sandals of the homeless, seeking enlightenment in LSD and heroin, but there was one enterprising fellow who saw in the new arrivals a chance to make an easy buck.

Gossip had it his ramshackle shed at the far end of the beach was the designated cop-free zone where the hippies rented cots to crash at night. To the surprise of no one who knew him, the owner of the establishment disappeared one day, only to resurface the next week as the corpse found in a fishing boat adrift a few miles from the shore.

Half a century later, the shed’s owner was forgotten. Rich, young locals and backpackers from around the world still partied to trance music on the moonlit beaches of the former Portuguese colony on India’s west coast, the pungent smoke from industrial-sized rolls of charas, the home-grown weed, swirling all around. White surf frothed over rocks, tickling the feet of the stoned couples as they groped their companions for the night and made promises which wouldn’t last past daybreak.

The shed itself morphed into a hip café which served delicious seafood and fine wines for exorbitant prices. It was where the rich and the famous were frequently caught in carefully choreographed candid pictures. At least, that’s what the kaamwaali bai—the maid—employed at the Joshi vacation home a few miles away claimed. The woman showed up at her leisure and barely did any work if she could help it but always carried news of the movie stars spotted in the seaside village where her cousin lived.

None of the celebs seemed to have ventured outside this lousy night. Lucky for them, thought Anjali Joshi, skirting the group of tourists dancing to ear-splitting music on the beach despite the ominous dark clouds rolling across the half-moon. Each screech from the synthesiser thrummed across her skull. Even her eyeballs were vibrating.

Overall Comments

To be honest, this first page reads more like a travelogue at first than the start of a novel.

In my opinion it suffers from way too much data dumping about the history and clientele of the beaches of Goa and also from a lack of immediacy. Everything in this first page feels distant and third-hand to me – whereas I really wanted to be sucked into the drug scene at the beach and the ear-splitting music at the bar. I wanted to be introduced to a main character I could care about. I I wanted an inciting incident that would draw me into the story. Instead, I wasn’t sure who the book was really going to be about: Was it the forty-year-old American tourist with only eight fingers who started the hippie stampede to the settlement? Was it the enterprising fellow who saw a chance to make an easy buck and whose corpse showed up adrift a few miles from the shore? Was the maid who showed up at her leisure and barely did any work relevant to the story at all? Is Anjali Joshi who shows up in the final paragraph actually the protagonist? All of these characters have great potential but they are placed scattershot on this first page with no hint as to their relevance or importance to the story.

In this first page, nothing about the actual story is really clear and until the reader gets a handle on the story itself, the description and background to the drug culture in Goa doesn’t resonate (and, though I liked some of the detail and descriptions, most of this information could be inserted into the first chapter in discrete chunks rather than all at once).

So my main recommendation to our brave submitter is to start again – start the novel where the story really begins. Let us walk along the beach with Anjali Joshi and feel the music (I liked the image of her eyeballs vibrating BTW). Let us be drawn into the drama of an actual scene. Who is she? Why is she there? What incident is going to propel this story forward? Is it the discovery of a celebrity’s corpse? What dark events do the the ominous dark clouds suggest? Once we get these answers on the page, then, as readers, we will want to turn the page and care about the novel and its characters moving forward. Until then, this first page reads more like an interesting catalogue of the drug and hippie culture of the Goan beaches rather than the beginning of a novel.

TKZers, what advice would you provide to our brave submitter. How would you tackle the issues I’ve outlined?




Adventures in India

I’ve long been interested in India and its history and, as an early ‘big’ birthday present this year, my husband organized an amazing trip to India for the whole family. We knew that given the boys’ school commitments, the only real time we could all go was in the summer, which meant facing the scorching heat, outrunning the monsoon, but also (luckily) avoiding the tourist crowds. We also discovered that, although this time of year most Indians think you’re crazy to be visiting, it’s the best time to go if you want to glimpse tigers in the wild (which has long been a dream of mine).

We tried to expose our twin boys to as many of the cultural contrasts and contradictions of India as we could – from walking through the Dharavi slums of Mumbai, visiting the historical sites via public transport in Delhi, to seeing the Taj Mahal at daybreak, going on safari in Ranthambore national park in search of tigers, and walking through Amber Fort outside Jaipur in 116 degree heat. All in all, I think we managed to pack a lot in on our two weeks away!

I can’t wait to someday incorporate what we experienced in a book (or two)…though at the moment I feel I’m still in absorption mode. But rather than rant on about all of our amazing experiences, I thought I’d share just some of the photos of our time away.

Sunset over Mumbai:

A nearly deserted Taj Mahal at dawn:

Overtaking a camel on the road to Ranthambore:

Close encounter with tiger on safari (he was about ten feet from our jeep):

‘Basking’ in the scorching heat at Amber Fort:

They say travel broadens the mind but I think this trip, more than any other we’ve taken as a family, opened our eyes to another country and culture. So fellow TKZers, has any adventure done the same for you?




First Page Critique: Shadows of Leonardo

Happy Memorial Day! I want to first share my appreciation for all those who have served to defend our freedom and then turn to today’s first page critique entitled Shadows of Leonardo. Although I’ve provided my comments following the submission, I need to rely on you TKZers to help generate some further discussion and comments as I am winging my way to Mumbai, India(!) No doubt this trip will generate future posts, but for now, enjoy this submission and see my feedback  at the end.


Dosevski Railroad Station

January 1945

For the first time in his life, he hated snow. He glared at the endless white expanse and spat over the edge of the train platform, the spittle hardening into ice as he scanned the hazy blue horizon for Russian tanks.

. Standing over six feet tall, Sturmbannführer Kurt Seitz turned his back to the razor wind that piled snow over stiff straw-filled boots. A convulsive shiver racked him and he hunched inside his greatcoat, recalling skiing holidays in Austria with his younger brother before the war. Dieter had been the better skier, but he was dead now, killed at Normandy.

At least he’d been spared Russia, Seitz thought.

The abandoned station cowered like a stranded orphan in ragged clothes, half the roof collapsed, ice daggers lining the eaves. The frozen boards beneath his boots were hard as prehistoric stone, and Seitz imagined shaggy creatures stirring in ice-lined caverns below the platform. A tattered train schedule in Cyrillic script flapped in the wind until he ripped it down and let the wind carry it away.

Why, he wondered, had some witless Ivan constructed a rail line and train station in the exact center of nowhere? The entire goddam country was an endless succession of mosquito-infested marshes and impenetrable forests, scattered villages populated by beings no better than the animals they kept inside during the interminable winters.

And snow. An endless, punishing sea of snow.

Gloved hands balled in his pockets, his boots squeaked on snow as he paced the platform, scowling at the featureless landscape as though a giant hand had flung tons of bakers’ flour over the earth. Around him, only scattered bomb craters broke the monotony, the pitted earth filled with more snow. An expert in pits, he’d ordered droves of frightened Jews, Gypsies and Russians to dig countless mass graves in their final moments. An art education in Heidelberg and Berlin had promised a refined life, but his professors’ lectures hadn’t included toleration of Jews and Untermensch, and after enlistment, he was assigned to an SS einsatzgruppengroup to sweep away Europe’s dregs.

He stamped his feet and turned his back to lit his last Russian cigarette. The tip of the cardboard tube flared, his lungs convulsing at the coarse tobacco. Russian cigarettes smelled like a Turkish outhouse, but he had to hand it to the Russians: the bastards produced tanks like a bitch birthing pups.


What really stood out for me with this first page was the voice – I immediately felt a sense of the protagonist’s character and, even though he wasn’t exactly likable, it provided a compelling introduction. What also stood out for me was the immediate sense of place and of the cold – although I am on the fence as to whether there’s too much description in this first page…I like it as is, but I can imagine that some of our TKZers would argue that more action or dialogue would help ramp up the tension in this first page. For me, I was willing to wait to find out exactly what the protagonist was doing in this desolate part of Russia (apart from waiting for Russian tanks to appear!).

As far as character goes, the only thing that didn’t quite ring true to me was the art education reference in his background – Initially this protagonist sounded more hardened than that (though war will do that!) – but I would certainly be willing to read on to see how that backstory all came together. Given the title of the book, I’m assuming the art part plays a major role in the plot of this book so Seitz’s backstory will be an important component. Other than this, and some minor typographical errors (I think you need an ‘and’ before ‘scattered villages’ – or something to make this sentence complete), I thought this was a strong, compelling beginning to a historical mystery or thriller. I would definitely read on!  Bravo to our brave submitter and I look forward to seeing the feedback from some of our TKZers. Sorry in advance if I can’t contribute much to the discussion while I’m traveling.