Karen Musser Nortman’s Time Traveling Trailers

Read on for reviews of Karen Musser Nortman’s Time Traveling Trailer series, then see below for an interview with the author.

Lynne McBriar is estranged from her husband and growing ever more distant from her 14-year-old daughter, Dinah. Hoping to find a hobby that will give them quality time together, Lynne purchases a vintage camper from her old friend Ben, which he hasn’t used since his wife dies. Lynne spruces it up, talks a reluctant Dinah into a camping trip, takes a test run at a nearby park—and wakes up in the 1960s.

Thus begin Lynne’s adventures with The Time Travel Trailer.

Fortunately, since she runs her own travel agency, Lynne is acquainted with the idea of travel, and she quickly turns into a seasoned time-traveling pro. She figures out fairly quickly what propels the trailer back in time, and also (overcoming the usual sticking point in time-travel stories) figures out how to get back to the present; she’s careful not to change anything to disrupt the time flow; and, as she goes back to an earlier and earlier decade each time, she also proves proficient at managing to prepare for her excursions by having period-appropriate attire, cooking utensils, decor, and even, yes, license plates. She’s a thinker, that Lynne.

A 1935 Covered Wagon, not quite the model in the book

Dinah also, after some initial terror, gets interested in the time travel concept, and starts reading up on the phenomenon through several excursions to her local library, where she meets a helpful college-age guy who gives her a good reading list. The whole time-travel thing is a fun and loopy secret hobby until, one day, Dinah gets taken hostage by an escaped criminal, and Lynne realizes time travel is more dangerous than she thought. So is parenting, as she discovers when Dinah disappears—and only Lynne knows how far Dinah might have run not just geographically speaking but temporally speaking, too.

This first installment in Nortman’s pair of books is is a fun, entertaining, well-paced story where the writing never gets in the way of the action. Nortman is a pro at putting together mysteries thanks to her practice with the Frannie Shoemaker mystery series. She’s a seasoned camper herself, so she knows the details about camping life that make those scenes particularly rich and fun. She also knows her history, so each time Lynne goes back, she sees for herself a cultural moment or attitude in the way it affected real peoples’ attitudes and lives. Those are rewarding scenes for the history buff.

Interior of the Covered Wagon Trailer

The only complaint I had about the book is a mild one in that there seemed to be a few missed opportunities. Nortman takes it fairly easy on her characters, never putting them in danger the reader fears they can’t find their way out of. Lynne knows in advance not to leave her cell phone sitting out on the camper counter when she travels. When her husband insists on coming with her to help find Dinah, he has the foresight to raid his coin collection and bring period-correct change. While these are smart and capable things to do, they also mean missed opportunities in terms of getting the characters into real trouble in their scenes spent out-of-time.

But then again, this is cozy-variety sci-fi. Some of the things I expected as a lover of the time-travel genre didn’t, in fact, happen. For instance, I was sure the mysterious library guy was going to turn out to be a time-traveler himself, with some last minute information that would pull the rug out from under everyone. But nope; he was just a good kid.

There were a few surprises when characters go back in time to meet their own family. It turns out Lynne’s grandmother Lynette, for instance, was quite a hellion in her day. She gets Dinah in a lot of trouble, which keeps the pages turning quickly to the end. Still, there don’t seem to be any time-forward consequences to what happened. Lynette doesn’t turn out to influence the present moment as more than a gentle reminisce. The really poignant mystery is what happened to Ben’s wife, and that too gets a fairly easy (if somewhat confusing) resolution. For all that they’re messing with forces beyond their control, one never gets the sense that the characters are in Real Trouble; Lynne will simply figure everything out. Resourceful, intelligent, and fairly even-keel, Lynne is the kind of person you would want helping you out in a disaster, but you’re also never worried that she won’t think herself out of a problem.

That doesn’t take away at all from the enjoyment of the read, which is lively and fun. Nortman has a wonderful, dry, witty voice and I often found myself grinning at her observations about raising teenagers. I do wish there could have been some more resolution to the unresolved conflicts with her daughter and husband, and more information about what comes next for Ben. But on the whole The Time Travel Trailer is a satisfying read, and will leave you eager for the next installment.

In Trailer on the Fly, Lynne decides to dust off the trailer she thought she’d retire in order to help out a friend who’s paralyzed with grief. Still as competent as ever—though her relationships with her husband and daughter don’t seem to have changed significantly from the first book—Lynne wastes little time worrying about the philosophical paradoxes that might result from messing with the time stream. She’s a woman of action, and she has a problem to fix, and some camping to do.

Dinah isn’t part of this book, and the story lacks some of the pull of the first as a consequence. Lynne has much less invested in what is going on in the not-so-distant past (she only goes 10 years back this time) and isn’t as attached to the people. True, she’s the only one who knows of an impending natural disaster, but one never gets the sense that Lynne herself is at risk. Her husband, Kurt, is also harder to like in this version, and while he presents the appropriate obstacles to Lynne’s achieving what she wants, it doesn’t really feel like they’re working toward resolution, either.

The best part of the second in the series is, again, the camping, which this time entails a wonderfully described kayak trip down the river and Lynne’s being adopted by a gang of gregarious women campers calling themselves the Sisters on the Fly. The relationships among the sisters, a few dangerous escapades, and the mortal danger looming over them keep this portion of the book moving along, though once again the stakes seem fairly low; Lynne knows how to get back to her own time whenever she needs to. Altruism wins out, but then she returns home to find that messing with past events has somehow tampered with her own life—at least in so far as the progress she thought she was making in “working things out” with her husband never happened. So now Lynne has to fix her own life, in the present, with only the resources to hand.

Altogether, the books are an amusing concept, and they don’t present too much mind-twisting with the whole idea of time travel. They’re fun reads that you can share with friends, and once you’ve read them, treat yourself to Nortman’s Frannie Shoemaker cozy mystery series for more camping fun.

Karen Musser Nortman spent 22 years as a secondary social studies teacher and 18 years as a test developer for ACT. Now that she’s retired, she gets to have fun writing books. She and her husband, Butch, are diehard campers, and her books so far all center around camping. They have three children, eight grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter.

FL: Tell us the story behind the stories. What made you start writing novels? What drew you to writing mysteries in particular?

KMN: I have always loved mysteries of all types, but especially cozy mysteries. Camping offers lots of material in the form of interesting characters, both funny and serious mishaps, and unexpected events from nature. When you are camping, you get brief glimpses into people’s lives. Those glimpses could be explained by nefarious deeds—perfect material for mysteries.

FL: What was the inspiration for the time-traveling trailer?

KMN: I became interested in the current popularity of vintage campers and combined with my interest in history, the idea of a vintage camper that is a time portal intrigued me. But I didn’t want to do something where the main character goes back several centuries or alters major events. I have always been fascinated by the part common people play in history.

Many women today are especially interested in restoring vintage campers and planning events with like-minded women. Some are single, divorced, or widowed; others have husbands who are not interested in camping or have jobs that prevent their participation. One woman I know works during the school year but her husband is a greenskeeper and therefore busy all summer. These kinds of events have been very empowering for women.

FL: What made you want to write the second book?

KMN: I didn’t plan on it, but one of my readers demanded a second and even sent me a plot idea! She is a member of the Sisters on the Fly, who organize outdoor adventures for women, many of who have vintage trailers.

FL: Why did you choose the time periods you did?

In the first book, I wanted the main character to be able to meet and observe her own grandmother as a young girl. Although there are few hard and fast rules for time travel, it seemed logical that a trailer should not go back any farther than the year it was built. So I searched for a camper that was being built in the 1930s. One of those was the Covered Wagon brand. The story line involves the gradual rehab of the trailer to its original condition, and each removal of later remodels sends it back to a previous time period.

FL: What kind of research did you do?

KMN: From teaching history, I knew about the major events of the time period, but I did extra research on the popular culture and slang of the time.

FL: Time travel is a tricky subject. How did you manage some of the paradoxes?

KMN: I’m not sure I did. Working with time travel is sort of like picking up mercury. You try picking something up and it skitters all over the place. But in the first book, Lynne and her daughter never go back in their own lifetimes. When Lynne does in the second book, we are left to wonder if there is another ‘her’ somewhere. Time travel really requires a willing suspension of disbelief. One of the reviewers on Amazon liked the book, but said it was “pretty far-fetched.” Well….yeah.

FL: What do you most hope readers will take away from your books?

KMN: The time travel books started because I of course only knew my grandparents in their 50s and 60s as community leaders and fairly stern individuals, but there were hints of less acceptable behavior in their youth. Unfortunately, I didn’t ask them about that when I could have and have always wished I could have been a mouse in the corner to see them in their terrible twos or as rebellious teenagers. I think the message in those books is that what we see in the present is only the tip of the iceberg.

My campground mysteries are meant to be exactly what camping is meant to be—a relaxing escape.

FL: What’s your next project?

KMN: I’m working on a third time travel book, Trailer, Get Your Kicks! Lynne and her family take the trailer on “the Mother Road”—Route 66 in the 50s.

FL: Tell us something about your process for writing books – preparation, research, drafts, beta reads, editing, time to publication, those sorts of things. You don’t have to give away any secrets if you don’t want to.

KMN: I don’t have any secrets. Often a germ of a plot comes to me from an actual event or something someone says. Sometimes I have a general outline in mind, but mostly I’m a pantser, writing it as it develops. I do a lot of rewriting and tweaking as later events change things in the plot and research as I go along. My characters are very important to me and sometimes I write backstory about them that will never be in the book but affects how well I know them. Generally a book takes me about six months. I have three regular beta readers: another cozy mystery writer, my ex-boss who is also a camper and a stickler for details, and a good friend who is a retired librarian. My husband also gives me feedback on technical aspects.

FL: What’s your advice for writers who would like to write mysteries of their own?

KMN: Keep asking “what if?” Most basic plot ideas require a lot more added complication. I read once that if things seem to be slowing down, throw another body on the doorstep. That doesn’t have to be literal, but adding another stumbling block adds interest.

FL: How can readers get in touch with you?

KMN: My website has links to my email, Facebook page, and Twitter accounts. I also have a blog on there about our camping adventures and news about my books.

Covered Wagon vintage trailer

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Almost Missed You: How Character Becomes Plot

Almost Missed You, by Jessica Strawser. St. Martin’s Press, 2017

I subscribe to Writer’s Digest, so as a would-be debut novelist myself, I paid attention to what editor-at-large Jessica Strawser had to say in those pages about her journey in writing, selling, and marketing her debut novel, Almost Missed You, which is a combination of women’s fiction and domestic suspense, a kind of Gone Girl without fangs. I was very curious to read the book if for no other reason than to see what someone who deals everyday with instructing others in the craft of writing would write on her own time.

The book was about what I expected in terms of depth, craft, and ambition, but in no way a disappointment. This is a solid debut and will create plenty of readers eager to read Strawser’s next.

The book, somewhat on the premise of David Nicholls’ One Day, happens all in the month of August, but Augusts spanning the years 2010 to 2017. The opening chapter gives us the hook, which is, as the jacket copy tells us, that during their family vacation to a Florida beach named Sunny Isles, Violet returns to her hotel room to find her husband has disappeared with their 3-year-old son, leaving no note, no motive, and no trace. The second chapter takes us back to the very first meeting on that very same beach between Violet and Finn, where their meet-cute is interrupted by a stranger’s medical emergency and a distressed child. Their story of near-misses thereafter is said to be so marvelously one of those ‘meant-to-be/twists of Fate’ tales that people can’t stop asking them to tell the story, until they themselves almost can’t believe how meant to be they are.

Sunny Isles Beach, Florida. Photo by Online Image Arcade

Which turns out, of course, to be a big fat lie. The novel isn’t interested, thankfully, in fate, romance, or what ‘meant-to-be’ even means. It is more interested in the kinds of wounds we carry, the secrets we bring even to our relationships, and the ways we hurt and betray the people we most love. All excellent fodder for fiction, which should make this an excellent book.

I stumbled over two qualities, however, in the characterization and the storytelling. We never actually *see* how or why Finn and Violet are so marvelously suited or ‘meant to be.’ We never see them telling their story to friends or strangers who coo and stare. We’re simply reminded frequently by the author that this is the case. I occasionally had the sense while reading that certain plot points or situations were invented to fulfill this interesting premise, rather than the organic and inevitable and rather shocking choices made by characters driven with powerful needs, fears, and internal motivations. In short, several moments in the Violet-Finns storyline felt contrived, not organic, the characters conforming to the story, rather than running it.

The mysteries keep coming, which is one strong point in the story’s favor. The main mystery of where Finn went with Bear is answered by chapter 3, when he shows up to blackmail/torture/extort his so-called best friend, Caitlin, but there are plenty more secrets to surface and wrong turns taken after that. It’s easy to keep reading, for no other reason than to find out how Violet is going to get Bear back.

Fountain Square, Cincinnati.

Yet even as a desperate and bereaved mother, Violet, I have to say, never captured me as a character. She has no depth, no secrets, no urgent motivations, and no point to her existence other than to be the perfect mother to Bear. Since I fail daily to be even an adequate mother to my children in real life, I resent these perfect characters in life and fiction. The plot leaves Violet with little to do other than cry, get drunk, wonder what happened, and—when she does show any energy or action—be mean to the people who are trying to help her. This last makes her a bit easier to relate to, but her ongoing righteousness didn’t win me over at all.

She’s so good as to be uninteresting, and frankly I wished that Violet had a little more inner darkness. Her scenes, which are mostly her being bereaved (at least in the present August of the story, 2016), would have been more interesting if Violet had done some soul-searching and found moments she wasn’t, in fact, the perfect wife and mother. If she sometimes ignored or got impatient with Finn. If she sometimes were petulant or demanding. If she occasionally just got exhausted with her 3-year-old, as some mothers do, and locked herself in the bathroom while he cried himself to sleep. Even if she had only done this once, but it came back to torment her in the question of ‘did I deserve to have my son taken away? Am I a bad wife/person/mother?’ I would have found her much more fascinating. I like internal darkness, I admit.

The Finn sections have the same trouble as the Violet sections. I had the same difficulty feeling Finn’s pain, though we do learn his motivations, as well as his secrets. But again, instead of having traces of bad, his only real flaw is that he is emotionally stunted by grief and acting like a wounded animal rather than a responsible adult. This is a little more interesting as a character, but as he spends most of his time in the present moment of the story feeling bad about his moral choices, there isn’t, again, a lot for him to *do*.

Asheville, North Carolina. Photo by The Reserve at Lake Keowee

But Caitlin, for me, was a different matter altogether. I admit, when Chapter 3 began, I wondered why we needed her. I had already failed to really care about either of the two main characters, even though I am a mother of young children whose perfect nightmare involves some harm to them, and so should have identified strongly. But once Finn comes on stage, taking her off guard, we learn Caitlin has a secret. Caitlin is forced to an impossible choice. Caitlin did something wrong that Finn knows about, and he could destroy her whole family and devastate her, just as he’s destroyed his own family and devastated his wife.

NOW, I thought, things are interesting. We have a character with internal and external obstacles, a character whose motivations are clear and relatable, a character who is again and again going to act in ways she thinks make sense and will solve the problem, and are just going to get her into more and more trouble. Everything that happens to Caitlin is somehow a catastrophe related to a choice she made.

And THAT, friends, is how character becomes plot.

I noticed that, in Violet and Finn sections, I very often skipped paragraphs, or forgot the paragraphs I just read. They simply didn’t stick with me. With Caitlin’s chapters, I was glued to every line. What was going to happen next? What would she do? I both could and could not see it coming, which is the sweet spot of suspense that you want your reader to be in.

LumenoCity at Music Hall, Cincinnati

With Violet and Finn, I very often felt that their responses answered some question a beta reader or editor had flagged in the text: “Would Finn really—? Wouldn’t Violet just—?” And then, in an act of dutiful revision, came the statement or declaration of motives that would exactly answer the question in the reader’s mind. Caitlin did none of this. Caitlin kept us guessing. And by the end of the story, when everything is in the biggest stew possible—as it should be, at this stage in the plot—Caitlin’s husband George stepped in with a big reveal of his own and stole the scene, the story, and my heart.

By the end of the book (spoiler alert) I didn’t even care about the final confrontation between Violet and Finn. I didn’t see that there was anything to resolve. The only real question was how long Finn would be in jail for parental kidnapping. But I was desperate to know what was happening between Caitlin and George, now that both of their big secrets had blown open, their lies to one another exposed, their bad choices out on the table for everyone to see. They went off stage and disappeared.

This was the final piece of evidence that suggested to me that, while the book is structurally sound and competently written and carefully plotted and edited and revised, with a marketable premise in place, the part I engaged with was not what the author thought was the most important part of her story. This book, for me, is not about Finn’s escapade and Violet’s being blindsided or even about a wife whose perfect marriage falls apart. This book is about grief, secrets, relationships, how we talk to one another, how we figure out what we want, how we bear to keep going, and how we respond when the people we love are in danger or hurt. Caitlin and George’s story is about all those things even more urgently and compellingly than Violet and Finn’s, and yet the book closes on Violet and Finn’s story—even going to far as to append an epilogue that I felt in no way matched the emotional arc that any of the characters had undergone—without realizing that the real story isn’t complete without seeing what happens to Caitlin and George.

These aren’t small flaws, and there’s an additional hindrance in the book’s readability in that there are large chunks of exposition—the author telling us what the characters did and felt—that could have been better communicated in scene. Those were the parts I would have flagged as an editor, anyway.

All this said, it’s still a readable story, and the book deserves all the praise given it. I look forward to reading Strawser’s next (possibly a study in how a sophomore novel compares to a debut?) and in the meantime, I’ll continue to enjoy her columns in Writer’s Digest. And continue to apply what I learn from that magazine and what I learned from this novel in trying to sell books of my own creation.

St. Augustine, Florida

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Women Writers Reading: Teresa LaBella reads Jean Grainger

Shadow of a Century by Jean Grainger

The premise of Jean Grainger‘s Shadow of a Century: An Irish Love Story intrigued me. The story of Ireland’s struggle for independence from British rule told by Volunteers who lived through the Rising and their descendants re-living the history 100 years later became the lesson I wish my Irish grandmother and I would have shared during her lifetime.

Scarlett O’Hara resents the name her mother gave her and the dismal childhood with an alcoholic father that Lorena O’Hara, by enduring the beatings and abuse, refused to save herself and her daughter from. She responds as an adult in classic overachieving behavior. The small town journalist climbs to big city reporter prominence only to lose it all in a blaze of bad PR over an affair with a married politician who covers his indiscretion by blaming her for seducing him away from the devoted family he values. She accepts the only job offered, a freelance assignment from her former boss, and meets Eileen, an elderly woman living alone, devastated by the break-in that violated her home and desperate to find a flag wrapped in linen brought to America by her mother who was forced by revolutionary violence to leave her husband and Irish homeland. The flag leads Scarlett, Lorena and Eileen on a journey back to Dublin to discover the past, resolve the present, and cherish their divergent paths to future peace and potential happiness.

Chapters woven between the contemporary story trace the events leading up to and after the Easter Uprising in April 1916. Mary Doyle leaves the only home she’s ever known, an orphanage run by nuns, and goes to live and work in service for a wealthy family in Dublin. Her involvement with the freedom-seekers begins with the mistress of the house, Angeline Grant, whose fierce political stance opposes the opinions and threatens the pride and livelihood of her pro-British husband. Mary’s friendship with Eileen O’Dwyer, maid to another nearby household and sister to Rory O’Dwyer who is destined to become IRA leader Michael Collins’ right hand man, puts Mary in the epicenter of danger and a lifelong passionate love for Rory and a free Ireland.

The rather abrupt ending rubbed a bit of the shine from an otherwise polished novel. But the characters and their story remain with me. That, in my humble opinion, is a good read I highly recommend.

Photograph of Author Teresa LaBellaTeresa LaBella published her first contemporary romance novel, Reservations, in 2013. The big city story continued in Heartland, set in small-town Iowa. Belonging, the final novel in the New Life in Love trilogy, moved the McKenna family saga to the west coast of Scotland. LaBella’s ebooks include a trio of stories in Tales from Heartland that revisit the charm of Harmony and the lives of neighbors met in book two, and Love Unlikely, the surprising chance for happily-ever-after for Marisa’s sister, Rachel. A freelance writer, marketing coordinator, and consultant, Teresa resides in her Davenport, Iowa, hometown with her filmmaker/indie publisher husband, John, and their three rescued Huskies.

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Women Writers Reading: Teresa LaBella reads C. Hope Clark

Book Cover: Edisto Jinx by C. Hope Clark

Edisto Jinx by C. Hope Clark

Bad things happen to good people in peaceful places, not once, not twice, but six times in August on Edisto Island.

Childhood tourist and recent resident Callie Jean Morgan can’t leave her big-city detective life behind when a young woman she just met dies at a party hosted by a realtor intent on keeping the summer season rental revenue rolling in like waves on the beach. Callie’s quirky next door neighbor Sophie’s connections in the spirit world throttle up, the jinx buzz talk spreads on Twitter feeds, and Callie becomes convinced that the same-time-each-year deaths of profiled women are not the case-closed accidents that Acting Police Chief Mike Seabrook insists they are. Her investigation introduces Callie to a cast of intriguing characters, from amateur sleuths bored with two weeks of solitary summer pleasures to an ambitious online journalist and a killer hiding behind a hashtag.

C. Hope Clark‘s near-flawless writing ratchets up character development to a fine literary art. Callie’s tragic history of personal loss and the residual effects carry over from Murder on Edisto, the first book in the Edisto Island Mysteries series. In the traumatizing opening chapter of Book 1, Callie stands in line at a pharmacy waiting to fill prescriptions for birth control and anti-depressants with her teenaged son and only child, Jeb, on the anniversary of the SIDS death of her infant daughter, Bonnie. The first call on her cell phone from her CO at Boston PD preps her for an impending day in court that will take down a Russian crime boss after a grueling two-year investigation. The second call from her husband, John, warns her not to come home. The high anxiety scene concludes with Callie and Jeb clinging to each other, the only surviving members of their family, as their home burns and explodes with husband and father inside.

Callie’s spiral into the depths of alcohol abuse fueled by grief ends her career. She accepts her parents’ offer to give her the summer house and take refuge on Edisto. Callie and Jeb struggle to start over only to have the retaliatory threat follow them from Boston. The trauma that reverses the roles of mother and son continues in Book 2. Jeb foregoes college to remain on Edisto as watchdog over Callie’s sobriety and a reminder of her promise to stay out of law enforcement for her own good.

But the forces in Edisto Jinx push Callie to take a long look in the mirror and decide what’s next and best for her. Her choice could have ended the series. But it didn’t. As crime novelist extraordinaire Mickey Spillane once said, “The first page sells the book. The last page sells the next book.”

On to Book 3, Echoes of Edisto, and beyond to the most recently released Edisto Stranger.

Photograph of Edisto Beach

Edisto Island, South Carolina

Photograph of Author Teresa LaBellaTeresa LaBella published her first contemporary romance novel, Reservations, in 2013. The big city story continued in Heartland, set in small-town Iowa. Belonging, the final novel in the New Life in Love trilogy, moved the McKenna family saga to the west coast of Scotland. LaBella’s ebooks include a trio of stories in Tales from Heartland that revisit the charm of Harmony and the lives of neighbors met in book two, and Love Unlikely, the surprising chance for happily-ever-after for Marisa’s sister, Rachel. A freelance writer, marketing coordinator, and consultant, Teresa resides in her Davenport, Iowa, hometown with her filmmaker/indie publisher husband, John, and their three rescued Huskies.

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Women Writers Reading: Angélique Jamail reads Erika Johansen

I often tell my students, especially my seniors, that they need to make the world a better place. They smile, they nod, they agree. They contemplate ways in which they might do that.

I’m not being flippant when I charge them with this important task. The conversation usually begins with a student’s own exploration of a social issue, a question about justice in an unjust world. A conversation follows in which we look at as many sides as we can, and I let them do most of the work. My older students, cognizant of the world they inhabit, draw some impressive conclusions pretty quickly in a classroom I’ve tried to make as safe a space as possible.

“Go out and fix the world,” I say with a smile, veering them back toward the surface lesson, something rooted in whatever text we’re studying. “Please.” I can only hope they make the genuine attempt to do so, utilizing the vast resources available to them through their education and status in the world, the myriad opportunities unfolding before them like flowers in the springtime sun.

Erika Johansen’s Tearling trilogy addresses the idea of how one fixes a broken world in a setting which appears in the first book, The Queen of the Tearling, to be undeniable fantasy. One might be forgiven for the assumption, early on, that the Tearling is in some version of medieval Europe. Armor-clad and sword-wielding knights on horseback escorting a young heir-apparent to her castle could hardly suggest otherwise. But as the book goes on, it teaches us to expand our assumptions. There is magic in this world. There is an enigmatic history involving a mass migration of people to a foreign land. There might be a chronology we weren’t expecting. Eventual allusions help us to see that the Tearling is a realm set far behind us, the readers, in technology but far ahead of us in time.

The writing is unapologetic, efficient, fearless, instructive. The protagonist, Kelsea, is a young woman whose situation offers no leeway for her impulsive—though noble-hearted—choices. The primary villain, an evil queen worthy of the darkest fairy tales, slices through our expectations the way her ruthless army cuts a swath of destruction across Kelsea’s land. If an aspiring writer wants to know how to create strong female characters who are both equal to their male counterparts and still realistic women, then Johansen’s books should be at the top of the TBR list. Beyond that, the Tearling is just a good story, engaging and gripping in the fiercest ways, filled with political machinations and peril and characters the reader can love.

The second book, The Invasion of the Tearling, drops us right into the action where the first book left off, and as we move through the story, we come to understand that the Tearling is not so much alt-history as it is a cautionary tale. Soon we meet new characters in a completely new setting, starting with Lily Mayhew, an American living in the late 21st century. And now the trilogy, as it alternates mysteriously between Kelsea’s and Lily’s disparate settings, embraces its dystopian nature full-force.

Lily’s social circle reflects the deepest emptiness of socialite life, the predecessor of which can easily be discovered in any elite community today, against the backdrop of an ominously imminent “smart” world. Here, women have again become property and technology imprisons us all. The world of Lily Mayhew is a grim combination of technological superiority and Big Brother, a fantasy world which is bleak because we must know it to be our own world, that we ourselves are just a few unfortunate choices away from bringing this near-future dystopia down on our own heads.

And Lily, along with visionary William Tear and the new community he has amassed, sail through a rift in time and place to what will eventually become the Tearling, a realm that Queen Kelsea, three hundred years later, must manage. The escape from our world to a different one is a powerful fantasy, especially now when society appears, on some days, to be devolving around us amidst the crumbles of social discourse and anesthetizing entertainment options.

Tear takes with him all of the things he imagines his utopia will need, which does not include guns or other modern weapons. They are not going with an intention to replicate their modern society with all its flaws. They know they will be starting over in so many ways, and their new society’s population has been cultivated to include the people who can best give it a chance at thriving. They carry with them medicines and doctors, artisans and utopian-minded people, textiles and books.

Books play an important role in the Tearling, and no wonder. It’s no secret that reading fiction from an early age cultivates empathy and emotional intelligence. When Tear’s utopian society experiences divisions, some of those fractures split along the same tribal lines that divide us in our real world. The characters who value books in the Tearling are not the people who, in real life, make an embittered bonfire of their school work every summer and later, as adults, refuse to believe scientific and statistical data on issues such as climate change, gun control, and whether federal money funds abortions.

Johansen’s trilogy is social critique writ large. It cautions readers to examine their own culture, their own religious institutions, their own choices, and to ask whether the concept of utopia truly can transcend human nature. The third book, The Fate of the Tearling, glaringly demonstrates the way a society begins to break down, sliding into catastrophic failure, using as its fissures the seemingly benevolent blessings of faith and devotion. As one character notes, “Few things are more dangerous to an egalitarian ideal than the concept of a chosen people… Our species is capable of altruism, certainly, but it is not a game we play willingly, let alone well.”

The character Row Finn, who inhabits all three books in varying aspects of what a person can be, is a prescient choice for a messiah: someone whose intentions may encompass a greater good, but whose methods and scruples belie a worse sort of humanity, a lack of belief in the viability of equality, a perilous arrogance about the righteousness of his own perfect vision.

Johansen also examines the question of liberty versus security: how much influence the state should have over a free society, and what its role is in protecting a community. It’s not an easy question in real life, and the Tearling story honors its complications in earnest and heartfelt ways.


When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the administration of George W. Bush made a case for war which neglected one crucial component: the budget to pay for it.

As the conflict dragged on, seemingly without end, the federal budget every year failed to make appropriate provisions for the war. Perhaps in an effort to make our involvement in Iraq more palatable to the American people, Bush never came out and asked the country to make sacrifices.

The nation made sacrifices, yes, tremendous ones, especially in people and cultural values, but at no point were we asked to cut back on anything. Not on spending, not on the near-pathological celebration of ideology, not on the consumption of our resources. In fact, just the opposite: the American public was urged to spend, spend, spend to help bolster the economy. There were no victory gardens for the Iraq War, only a steadfast belief in the dark Dickensian aphorism that whatever is, is right.

The idea of sacrifice has become taboo in our culture. The idea that a family might want to tighten its metaphorical belt during stressful financial times has become shameful, even though in reality, there is greater dishonor in irresponsibility. The idea that one might have to give something up has grown so unpleasant that we as a culture, obsessed with instant gratification, can barely stomach it. We don’t, as a society, even acknowledge something as basic and undeniable as the physical sacrifices a woman makes to carry and birth a child; every tabloid and magazine cover in the checkout line at the grocery store will assure you these circumstances are a disgrace.

The final book of the Tearling trilogy unflinchingly explores the idea of sacrifice, forcing the characters and the reader to confront the question of what types of sacrifice are meaningful and appropriate, and when they can be righteously made. What, for example, must a queen sacrifice for her realm? What must a citizenry sacrifice for a functioning, civil society? What if that sacrifice includes one’s own assumptions? As one character insists, “These people are so damned proud of their hatred! Hatred is easy, and lazy to boot. It’s love that demands effort, love that exacts a price from us. Love costs; this is its value.”

Johansen offers confident and intense answers to these questions, and while I won’t tell you how the story ends, I will tell you that the conclusion of the Tearling trilogy is—like all the best endings—at once satisfying and shocking, unpredictable and yet inevitable.


In the author’s note at the end of the third book, Johansen charges us all with going out to make a better world, which is the central theme of Queen Kelsea’s life’s work. It is the task given to her by her guardian, whose memory haunts Kelsea throughout her reign. It is the underlying quest of all the characters Kelsea meets or becomes in her fugue states, those original settlers of the world which became the Tearling.

And the ways in which they fail or succeed are meant to challenge us, the readers, to make us question our own complicity in creating the world we have perhaps tried to escape through reading.

  About the Author

Angélique Jamail’s poetry and essays have appeared in over two dozen anthologies and journals, including Time-Slice (2005), Improbable Worlds (2011), Pluck Magazine (2011), The Milk of Female Kindness—An Anthology of Honest Motherhood (2013), and Untameable City: Poems on the Nature of Houston (2015). Her work was selected as a Finalist for the New Letters Prize in Poetry in 2011. Her magic realism novelette Finis. (2014) has been praised by fiction writer Ari Marmell as having “some of the most real people I’ve encountered via text in a long time,” and by poet Marie Marshall as “a witty tale of conformity, prejudice, and transformation, in a world that is disturbing as much for its familiarity as for its strangeness.” An illustrated edition of Finis., with drawings by Houston-based artist Lauren Taylor, was released in 2015. She teaches Creative Writing and English in Houston. Find her online at her blog Sappho’s Torque.

Posted in book reviews, feminist reads, pop culture, Women Writers Reading | 6 Comments

America made this supermodel a feminist

Too good not to share: Paulina Porizkova’s op-ed in the New York Times about how America made her a feminist. Nearly as interesting as Porizkova’s sharp assessments of how women and sex are viewed in the different countries in which she’s lived and worked are the commenters who firmly believe that having been a model and thus having at times been photographed in little clothing automatically bars her from being able to sincerely believe in political, social, and legal equality for women/all genders.

We had this discussion in class last semester over the controversy about whether anyone can take Emma Watson seriously as a feminist because Vanity Fair printed some alluring photographs of her. There were some in my class who agreed that because we had seen skin, Watson was colluding in the relentless media objectification/sexualization of women and therefore could not be truthfully considered someone who disapproves of discrimination, violence against women, sexualization, i.e., a feminist.

My question was and is: who owns the woman’s body? The woman, or the people looking at her? Perhaps it’s a simplistic take on the situation, but that answer, to me, decides who can carry their feminist card, and who has to turn theirs in.

Meanwhile, here’s a book to put on pre-order: A Brief History of Feminism by Patu and Antje Schrupp, coming soon from MIT Press. If you read it, consider writing a review!


Posted in feminist rants, general cattiness | 1 Comment