Thursday, 19 September 2013

An Interview with Mary Gottschalk - Author of the Memoir 'Sailing Down the Moonbeam'

The Lunchtime Book Review was recently lucky enough to interview the very talented Mary Gottschalk, who is the author of the memoir 'Sailing Down the Moonbeam.'.

Sailing Down the Moonbeam - Mary Gottschalk
Sailing Down the Moonbeam - Mary Gottschalk

Q: Mary, how did you and your husband decide to go on your trip?  Was there a triggering event or did the idea evolve over time?

A: Tom and I were experienced sailors and loved working with nature to get where we wanted to go, and we intended to circumnavigate the world when we retired.  However, the decision to do it in 1985 was spur-of-the-moment: we first discussed it in late January and sailed out of New York Harbor only 7 months later.

At the time, we were very successful in our Wall Street careers, but at age 40, the decision seemed like a huge risk.  We felt the opportunity to see more of the world while we were still young and healthy was worth it.  It was the right decision. When we eventually went back to work, we both ended up in jobs in which we were much happier and probably more successful than we would have been if we hadn’t taken the trip.

Q: Your book ‘Sailing Down the Moonbeam’ is the story of the amazing sailing trip you took around the world.  Did you plan to write this book before you went on your voyage, or was it something that you decided later?

AI had no plans to do a memoir when we left, although I did keep a journal from the first day.
It took nearly two decades for me to appreciate that sailing is a metaphor for life: nothing ever works out as planned and you often end up someplace very different than you intended to go.  But if you make the most of every moment — instead of trying to control the outcome — you will enjoy the trip a lot more.  When you apply that to everyday life, you’ll be much happier if you do what you love rather than trying to meet the expectations of others. 

QIt is an intensely personal memoir, so what was it like to open up your private thoughts and emotions to the world?

AMoonbeam wasn’t cathartic in the traditional sense, as I had made peace with both my mother and my ex-husband long before I started the draft in 2002. 

That said, one of the extraordinary benefits of Moonbeam was learning how many people had unpleasant or embarrassing experiences that I thought were unique to me. I learned this from my original writing group, but it became even more apparent from the responses readers after it was published. 

QHow long did it take to write the book?

AIt was six years from the time I first put pen to paper until I had a printed copy in my hand.

Q: Did you hit any writing obstacles along the way?

AFor sure.  The writing process broke into three phases:
  • Trying to figure out what from my 400 pages of journals was relevant to a story of personal growth.  For example, we spent six wonderful weeks in the Dominican Republic, but nothing happened there that influenced the way I changed or the way Tom and I thought about our trip. So it doesn’t appear in Moonbeam.
  • Creating 3-dimensional characters on the page.  While I was an accomplished business writer, I had little experience with the kinds of physical and emotional details that make for appealing and intriguing characters.
  • Keeping the reader turning the pages. I knew that dialogue was key, but my journal did not include any, so I put words into people’s mouths, words that reflected both the emotional content of the scene and the way that individual tended to talk.  But this can be dangerous territory in a memoir.
When it was all done, I sent it to Tom (we’d been separated for more than decade) and said that if he found inaccuracies, I would change them.  He told me not to change a thing.

Q: Looking back on your experience of writing the book, is there anything you wish you had done differently?

AI loved learning the craft of creative writing … developing intimate relationships with the other women in my writing group … and of course, gaining additional insight into myself along the way.

The hardest part was marketing.  As a run-of-the-mill introvert, I dislike drawing attention to myself.  I accomplished far more than I ever imagined I could, in terms of reaching out to bookstores, book clubs, and libraries, but I left a lot of good soil untilled. I' m approaching it quite differently for the novel that will come out in the spring.

QWhy did you choose to go down the route of self-publishing?

AI had two main reasons.
  • As a first time author writing about sailing story from landlocked Iowa, I thought getting an agent and publisher would be almost impossible.
  • I’d heard so many horror stories about losing control of your book … the cover, the editing, the price, and the timing.  Having gone to the trouble of writing it, I didn’t want someone to make changes I didn’t agree with.
Q: In your opinion, what are some of the pros and cons of self-publishing?

AThe pros are easy.  You can control pretty much everything, except the marketing.  And if you have both print and e-book versions, you make a lot more money on the e-book that you would if you go with a traditional publisher.

The con is the marketing and distribution, as many bookstores and libraries are reluctant to stock self-published books.  You can get around this if you have personal contacts and/ or can get someone to confirm the quality of your book.  But it takes a lot of legwork. 

Q: From writing a memoir, you moved into writing fiction with your novel ‘A Fitting Place’.  What attracted you to writing fiction?

AThere were two factors.  One is that I really enjoyed the experience of creating characters and dialogue.

The second was that I really believe that there are huge personal and/or professional benefits to stepping out of your comfort zone.  The memoir was based stepping out from a geographical perspective.  By contrast, the protagonist in my novel never strays far from her home, but is hurled outside of her emotional comfort by circumstances.

QCould you give us a short extract from your current project?

AA very short section from Part III

'As she put her toothbrush in the holder, the light caught the stones in her pendant and cast two small red discs on either side of a single white one on the bathroom wall. She stared at them, fascinated by the myriad ways in which light could come alive, but they disappeared the moment she raised her hand to touch them.

She rubbed the pendant between her fingers as she continued to stare at the now blank spot on the wall. Although this tiny piece of jewelry was the repository of some of her most treasured memories, it had been years since she thought consciously about why she always wore it.
But now, she couldn’t avoid thinking about the day Ted gave it to her, the day Zoey was born. He’d had it made by their neighborhood jeweler in Sydney. A ruby for each of the July-born women he loved, and a diamond for himself, an April Fools baby.

She’d worn that pendant for nearly twelve years, rarely taking it off. For many of those years, as they lay in bed at night, he’d run his fingers along the chain around her neck, and tell her that she was more valuable than any jewel he could ever hope to buy.

When had he stopped doing that?
Turning to observe herself in the mirror, she reached up and opened the clasp at the back of her neck. She held her hands there for several moments, then slowly lowered them, and dropped the chain and pendant into the top drawer of bathroom vanity.

The diamond in her life was gone, and she could no longer pretend it would return.'

About Mary Gottschalk

Mary has made a career out of changing careers.  After finishing her MBA, she spent nearly thirty years in the financial markets, working as an economist, a banker and a financial consultant to major corporations.  She has worked in New York, New Zealand, Australia, Central America, Europe, and amazingly, Des Moines, Iowa. 
Along the way, she dropped out several times.  In the mid-1980’s, Mary and her husband Tom embarked on the multi-year sailing voyage that is the subject of her memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam.  Twice, she left finance to provide financial and strategic planning services to the nonprofit community, first in New York and later in Des Moines.
In her latest incarnation, she defines herself as a writer.  She is working on her first novel, writes for The Iowan magazine, and lectures on the subject of personal risk-taking.
Mary is on several non-profit boards, including the Des Moines A.M. Rotary

Links to books and social media sites

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Worthless Men - Andrew Cowan

How would you feel if you returned home one day to find that none of your family or friends could see, hear or touch you?  In Worthless Men by Andrew Cowan, Walter Barley finds out exactly how it feels as he drifts into his home town one hot summer day.  It is market day, so the town is bustling with people and traffic, as farmers try to get their beasts to market, housewives go out to shop at the market stalls and the town's pubs and tea rooms are full to bursting.

Although it might look, sound and smell like the market days Walter remembers from his childhood, the big changes that have taken place in the outside world have found their way even to this very ordinary market town in England.  Changes that will leave a devastating and lasting scar across the lives of everyone who lives in the town and the surrounding countryside. His first visit is to his family home, where the women of his family are now employed in the barbed wire factory owned by the Beckwith family, because most of the town's men are now away fighting in the trenches on the Western Front or have already been killed.  Walter's mother alone has been deprived of a husband and adult sons and has to work even harder to keep her younger children fed and clothed.

But Walter has really returned to find the girl he fell in love with, the pretty and innocent Gertie Dobson, daughter of the local pharmacist.  But as he roams the hot streets, unseen and unnoticed by anyone except the others who are like him, he realises that the girl he loves is being drawn into the web of the Beckwith's son and heir who has returned from the Western Front broken in mind and body.

What secrets do Walter Barley and Montague Beckwith share?  What does Walter know that would make him want to keep his beloved away from the injured officer?  Montague Beckwith also has history with Gertie's pharmacist father, as they shared an interest before the war in stock breeding and eugenics, trading opinions on how to best improve the human race and standards in society.  But Mr Dobson also has secrets that he wouldn't like to get out, secrets that closely concern Gertie and could affect her future.

So as the blisteringly hot day builds towards a mighty thunderstorm, will Walter be able to find his lost love and avert further tragedy?  Or have events been set in motion that are now unstoppable?  A series of events, coincidences and decisions that will culminate in the scenes that play out over a few short minutes in the wind and pouring rain, changing things forever.

Worthless Men is a very descriptive book that really brings alive the sounds, noises and smells of a busy market town during the Great War.  It depicts a time of change, where women are going to work out of the home in greater numbers, because they need to earn a wage to support their families and because of the shortage of male labour.  It also describes very vividly the grinding poverty that many of the town's families still lived in with few of the amenities that we now take for granted, such as running water, inside toilets and enough bedrooms for the family.

The relationship between Mr Dobson the pharmacist and Montague Beckwith is also interesting, as we tend to forget these days just how accepted the idea of eugenics and controlling who could have children was. The idea of somehow improving the human race, just as farmers sought to develop their livestock breeding programmes, was openly discussed in meetings, pamphlets and journals across the whole of Europe.

But Worthless Men is a slow book to get into.  If you prefer action and excitement to lengthy description, then this is probably not the book for you.  The slaughter of livestock in the local abattoir is especially well described, providing a metaphor for the carnage that was being wreaked on the men who were enduring life in the trenches, so perhaps also a book to avoid if blood and gore is not your thing.

I award this book three sandwiches, mainly for evoking so well the spirit and essence of a busy English market town on a hot summer day.  One to read with a roast beef sandwich and horseradish sauce and a pint of beer or pie and mash.  Any dish that is typically English and transports you back to an earlier time.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Star Island - Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen books are an acquired taste, but if you have a bit of a twisted sense of humour you will find them original and laugh out loud funny. Star Island is no exception and is a tale of good and evil set in the steamy, tropical heat of Miami and the Florida Keys. Low life paparazzi Claude 'Bang' Abbott has few work ethics, no morals and a realistic view of his attractiveness to the female race.  He spends his life taking pictures of celebrities in compromising situations and, as he views any star as just a way to make a quick buck, no one is more surprised than him when he becomes dangerously obsessed with a wild young starlet called Cherry Pye, who has more than a few unhealthy habits that are spiralling out of control. And after all, how often does a guy like Bang get his first taste of the mile high club in a private jet with said hot, blonde pop singer?

But the course of true obsession is not destined to run smoothly for poor Bang, as unbeknownst to him the wayward Cherry Pye has a body double, an unknown actress called Ann DaLusia, who takes her place at public engagements when Cherry's wild lifestyle puts her out of action.  Bang makes one of the worst mistakes of his life when he kidnaps the wrong Cherry Pye and finds that he has no famous starlet and one very unamused Ann DaLusia on his hands, setting off a chain of unfortunate events that leads to the loss of his prized cameras and blackberry, damage to several of his body parts and  his dreams and aspirations plunging into a terminally downward spiral.

For Ann DaLusia proves to be not your average kidnap victim, giving Bang more than a run for his money.  Also he is blissfully unaware that after a crash on a dark, lonely road in the Keys, that Ann has acquired a most unusual knight in shining armour, who will stop at nothing to rescue her and keep her safe, even taking to the ocean waves and braving the crowded streets of Miami, which he hates, on her behalf.

Star Island is a very funny book, set in the murky underbelly of Florida society and the tawdry celebrity scene.  Hiaasen has a knack for making his character's outrageous behaviour seem normal, and getting you to believe that it is an everyday occurrence to meet someone with a weed strimmer for an arm prosthesis  or an ex state governor living in a camp in the swamps and living off road kill.  It is a cleverly wrought story of plots, manipulation and counter-plots, where many of the characters are more than happy to lie, cheat and even kill to further their own plans.  But somehow right manages to triumph over evil and many of the characters in Star Island end up finding out the hard way that crime does not pay and that karma always catches up with you in the end.

Star Island brings back some of Carl Hiaasen's most memorable characters such as Skink, aka Clint Tyree, the former Governor of Florida who takes Ann DaLusia under his wing and Chemo, former bent mortgage adviser and prison inmate turned celebrity bodyguard who wields his strimmer prosthesis to great effect.

The great thing about Hiaasen's characters and plots is that they are so implausibly over the top that they become believable and you very quickly fall into his wacky world of tarnished celebrities, corrupt politicians and petty criminals. Hiaasen's universe is a twisted but seductive place where the best laid plans and the highest of intentions are always going astray.  And I promise that you will never look at a sea urchin in the same way again!

To go with Star Island's tropical theme, I suggest that you mix yourself a pitcher of frozen margaritas and chuck some jumbo prawns on the barbie, as this is a great book to chuckle through as you are sunning yourself on a lounger by the pool.

As I now have a new rating system, I award Star island 4 sandwiches out of five for being such a ridiculously funny, off the wall read.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The Deceit – Tom Knox

RatingThree Sandwiches out of five

I was very wary of picking up another Tom Knox title after ‘The Genesis Secret’.  This was not because I didn’t enjoy the novel; it was more to do with the fact that some of the violence and ritualistic murders were very gruesome and graphically described.  But the plot of ‘The Deceit’ sounded interesting, so I thought I would have another try.

‘The Deceit’ is a thriller set in Egypt and Cornwall where in two seemingly separate stories Egyptologist Ryan Harper joins the search for some priceless, ancient papyri known as the ‘Sokar documents’ and DI Karen Trevithick investigates an incident where cats are burned in a grisly, ancient ritual. The documents Ryan Harper is seeking were found on the corpse of his old tutor Victor Sassoon after he had deliberately walked out into the desert and hid in a cave until he died.  Dating from the time of the earliest Christians in Egypt, The Copts, what secrets did the documents contain that Sassoon felt were so important they remain hidden that he was prepared to die rather than they be found?

After recovering some of the documents, Harper finds himself on the run in Egypt with the attractive German filmmaker Helen Fassbinder, desperately trying to translate the obscure Coptic script in order to solve the mystery they contain. As he deciphers the clues, what is revealed leads them to Bubastis and the ancient underground necropolis of the mummified cats.  Violence soon erupts however, and they are taken prisoner by a small band of what appear to be mercenary soldiers.  But are they really there to save them and protect them as they say or do they really have more sinister motives?  Their quest takes them next to Luxor and then down to Aswan and the temple of Philae. But everywhere they turn they are faced with more attempts on their life and a mysterious illness.

Back in Cornwall the hideous ritual of the sacrifice of the cats is followed by the discovery of a body at the bottom of an old mine shaft.  CCTV footage shows that the young man apparently committed suicide, but what drove him to such a deed?  For DI Trevithick a disturbing encounter with a young woman who seemingly had been driven to psychosis by her exposure to these rituals puts her on the trail of a frightening young man, who is experimenting with dangerous ritual magic to achieve his ends.  But just how far will he go?

While the two stories are being told separately, the book is an interesting read, very fast paced and full of action.  The stories are intriguing and I found I wanted to read on to find out what would happen.  Also, importantly for me, although fairly gory, it was not nearly as bad as the ‘Genesis Secret’.  But  I found the huge secret that Victor Sassoon was prepared to die for rather than unleash on the world a bit of a damp squib; not something most religious folks would get that riled up about to be quite honest.  The book then changes tack bringing the two stories together back in Cornwall in rather an unbelievable way.  For me the ending was a disappointment and a bit fuzzy around the edges.

As most book review sites have a ratings system, I’ve decided to introduce the sandwich rating and from now on will rate books from one (awful book) to five (awesome book) sandwiches.  I’m going to award ‘The Deceit’ by Tom Knox Three Sandwiches.  It was an interesting, thrilling read, but it petered out a bit in the last third and I thought that the ending was a bit lame and unbelievable. I know that in this type of novel nothing is ever really believable, but the really good thrillers can carry you away and let you suspend your belief as you get immersed in the story.  This book, however, is not one of those, but is still worth having a read of.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

The Secrets of Pain - Phil Rickman

‘The Secrets of Pain’ is part of Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins series, books that tell the story of a single mother who retrains to become a vicar in village close to the border with Wales. As well as having to break into a tight knit rural community and dealing with the prejudices and opinions about women priests, she is also then appointed as diocese Deliverance Consultant (that's Exorcist to you and me!).

The books are paranormal thrillers telling the stories of Merrily’s encounters with the paranormal and the evil that can be found woven into the fabric of daily living.  The books also tend to draw on the ancient past and traditions of the area and ‘The Secrets of Pain’ is no exception.

The book starts as the village of Ledwardine is preparing for Easter.  The spring is slow coming that year and the weather is bitter.  Murders are committed that at first seem to have no connection to each other.  A prosperous local farmer is found savagely slaughtered and covered in blood in his own field, while two young migrant workers are found dead in the city.  DI Frannie Bliss has to work his way through a tangled web of crime and local rivalries to find the connection, only to discover that his own private life has been compromised and it has become personal.

Merrily is drawn into this web through an old acquaintance that seems to be hiding a dark secret that he cannot talk about but is obviously weighing him down.  He is the chaplain at the nearby SAS base and is found dead a few days later on a steep path on the hillside. Did he die of natural causes or was this suicide?  If so, what terrible knowledge drove him to his death?  Merrily discovers that some of his SAS colleagues may have embraced an old cult from Roman times that celebrated being a warrior and perhaps were even performing the ancient rites.

Merrily’s daughter Jane became involved when she got mixed up with a sleazy banker from the city who was staying at the new resort that catered for townies who wanted to become part of the hunting, shooting and fishing crowd.  But her discovery of a dead cock that he had dumped in a rubbish bin triggers suspicions that somebody in the district has revived the cruel sport of cock fighting.  As she tries to find out where this is taking place and who is behind it, will she find that her new acquaintance is actually involved in something much darker and much older?

The story takes us into the ancient Roman past of the area and the more recent history of the SAS. One of the major themes of the book is blood sacrifice as Merrily prepares for a Good Friday meditation based on the writings of Julian of Norwich about the crucifixion.  But had some of these hard bitten SAS men taken up rituals involving a very different form of blood sacrifice? Had the beliefs of the ancient Mithras cult permeated the closed, secretive ranks of the SAS? 

As Easter grows closer can Merrily unravel the tangled trail behind the deaths that have taken place before someone else gets killed? Or will someone close to her pay a heavy price for their investigations and  interference?

'The Secrets of Pain' is a long book that is heavy on detail and description, which at times feels a bit ponderous and sometimes as I was reading I wished that he would just get on with the story. The book is, however, beautifully written with a lot of interesting historical detail. However, I found that the tension didn't build was well as it could because of the length and detail and I would have preferred a little more action as they say.

The book does work as a standalone read, but if you haven’t read any of the earlier Merrily Watkins books then you might enjoy it more if you start reading from the beginning of the series, as you will get to know the characters and the background.  And surely by now Jane should know not to get into cars with strange men that she doesn't trust?

You will need quite a few lunches to get through this one, so stock up the fridge or book a seat in your local sandwich bar and ask them to keep your coffee mug topped up.