Monday, June 30, 2014

Fly Away Home by Rachel Heffington + Interview

The first book I'd like to review for Home Educated Authors Week is Fly Away Home, a witty and amusing book by a witty and amusing lady! Rachel Heffington's debut novel follows the adventures and misadventures of Callie Harper, a young journalist in 1950s New York. Callie is plucked from her dead-end job writing obituaries in doggerel for the job of a lifetime: assist Wade Barnett, celebrity journalist, in starting up a good clean magazine for the American family. Admitted into the lives of the rich and glamorous, Callie knows she's found the life she's always dreamed of. But when a secret from her past threatens to catch up with her and end her career, Callie sees the ruthless side of the high life. How much is she willing to pay to get to the top?

This book was irresistible. I'll admit that it had some flaws. The friend who first mentioned it to me told me that she'd found the heroine so offputting that she couldn't get past the first chapter. I think I must have had a similar reaction. I found Callie very unsympathetic at the beginning of the book--she seemed irrational, emotional, and incredibly immature for her stated age of 27. A few chapters in, as the romance began to develop between Callie and Mr Barnett, I paused to make a mental note that it would be a miracle if the author could develop Callie's character to the point that I could swallow the happy ending. O me of little faith: She did. Miracle accomplished, with flair even!

I had a few more niggles. The plot seemed a little stagnant to begin with, and I note that the main antagonist isn't revealed until halfway through the book, which means that the first half doesn't have a lot of drive. We know there are deep, dark secrets behind why Mr Barnett has sought Callie out, but they aren't teased enough to provide a sense of threat to impel the plot forward. Personally, I also found the threat provided by the villain--when he arrived--a little underwhelming. In the 1950s, is a girl's career really going to be threatened by a secret like that? Meanwhile, as soon as Callie had told us readers the secret of her past, I correctly deduced Mr Barnett's. Still, despite knowing what was coming in the big climactic scene, I got a huge kick anyway. That suggests to me that the book is crafted well enough to stand up to re-reads, and doesn't depend on the mystery for its appeal. So another well-played to Rachel Heffington!

Otherwise, as I said, I found Fly Away Home nigh irresistible. It was cute, it was witty, it was erudite, it was gloriously well-written. Most books these days clank and groan to some extent or another. Rachel Heffington, however, writes in an effortless, almost seamlessly authentic vintage style. Wade Barnett's letters, in particular, are smooth and flowing and charming and Calida Harper's narration, at best, crackles with wit. Their verbal sparring matches, especially toward the end of the book, are terrific. The whole book was full of hilarious lines: "Mucho bueno, goose-egg" made me laugh out loud.

While I felt that the plot was a little lacking, the author did very well with it! Too many authors start out with brilliant plots, but then fail to make the most of them. Despite flaws in Fly Away Home's plot and characterisation, I felt that Rachel Heffington missed no opportunity for fun. In retrospect I might be shaking my head over the silliness of a misunderstanding late in the plot, but I can't deny that at the time I was completely swept up in the story. I might not have appreciated Callie's character or the slow pacing early in the book, but none of that mattered when it came to the last few chapters, which I drank in without a backward glance, possibly with a big silly grin on my face.

I also loved how well the book's themes were packaged. At the beginning of our story Callie is an unbeliever with her heart set on being famous. By the end, she’s had a subtle but obvious change of heart on both things. Her conversion to Christianity is gentle, slow, and understated. Her journey out of feminism is even defter and lighter. Rachel Heffington doesn’t stare over her pince-nez at you and snap, “Stay home! Careers are evil!” She just gently, quietly encourages her readers to value motherhood and homemaking above anything else. The result is blessedly subtle and gracious--and she doesn’t come across as condemning any kind of career for a woman. For of course being a godly woman might involve having a business and making money or becoming famous. But this is the kind of book that will encourage you to love the truth instead of getting shrill about the lie.

One last thing, and this may sound a bit rich coming from a girl who loves a good Mary Stewart novel, but I was a little hesitant about the fact that Fly Away Home is mostly romance. If I hadn’t distracted my inner spinster, the one with horn-rimmed spectacles and a judgemental glare, with tea and macarons while Mr Barnett was smooching Callie he might have got a rap over the knuckles with a knitting-needle. My problem with the genre is that inviting twitter-patedness over fictional men doesn't seem like great training for keeping your head when it comes to real men, and Fly Away Home definitely made my inner spinster tut a little on that account. On the other hand, I do think that there's room for romantic plots featuring the right kind of fellow. Humans can't help being romantic creatures, and by all means we should be trained in recognising the right kind of character to become romantic about.

A light, comic romance in the style of an old screwball comedy, Fly Away Home won me over after a rocky start. Highly recommended for horn-rimmed spinsters sensible enough to appreciate the writing and wit and not lose their heads over the delightful romance.

And now for something very special...

Interview with Rachel Heffington!

Rachel, hello and welcome to Vintage Novels! Can you introduce yourself briefly to our readers? 

Hello everyone! I am a whimsical, happy-natured sort of person with an undying interest in other people. Some of my favourite things to do (besides write, which is a given if I'm being interviewed for a book release) are: singing Broadway show-tunes with my sisters and friends, read, work political campaigns with teenagers, write letters, and blog about fashion.

When did you know you were going to be a writer? 

I was twelve years old when I wrote my first 50,000-word novel. It was horrible, but it was a start. After this, it became obvious to me that I could not not write because it is in my blood somehow. I just enjoy it so … it's my kind of magic.

What are some ways your favourite authors have influenced you?

Since my favourite writers were all published before 1950 (and are mainly British), my writing has been influenced a great deal by an older style of literature. Also, my sense of humour resounds with writers like A.A. Milne, P.G. Wodehouse, and others so that my funny-bits unconsciously take on a bit of their flavour. I would say that my word-choice, even in day-to-day life, is more vintage than most, though my plots take life at a modern trot.

For the encouragement and edification of other writers, what’s a good piece of writing advice you’ve benefited from?

Keep writing. First drafts are never quite as horrible as you think them at the spot James Scott Bell has termed “The Wall”. I get to a spot around 30,000 words into my stories where I'm convinced I know nothing about my craft. It's pretty frightening but when I press through and look back, what I wrote is usually not too shabby after all.

Fly Away Home was such a fun book! It reminded me of old screwball comedies like His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby. Who would play the main characters of Fly Away Home in a movie? 

This is always a fun but tough question for me, because I see Wade Barnett in my mind as played by Gregory Peck. And Peck's dead, you know, so that doesn't work out so well. But if it was not a matter of time-constraints, I would cast Gregory Peck as Wade Barnett, Zooey Deschanel as Callie Harper, a youthful Sean Astin as Jerry Atwood, and Nigella Lawson (can she act? Ha!) as Nalia Crosticinni. Nancy Moffat would be played by Rosamund Pike.

I’m intrigued by the anthology of Cinderella stories you’ve recently contributed to, Five Glass Slippers. Bit of a shift, from 1950s screwball comedy to fairy tale retelling. Do the two stories have anything in common? What are some hallmarks of your writing that emerge in all your stories? 

I laugh when you say that a fairy tale retelling is a shift from 50's screwball comedy because, really, the difference between these stories is that one is a screwball comedy in the 1950's, the other is a screwball comedy in a fairy tale realm. In all seriousness, though, my humor is definitely one thing that translate in some fashion into everything I write. Also, my tendency to take a common style of character and twist them just a bit to where they are something new. I took Cinderella down a completely different path than the usual.

You have such a timeless writing style, more vintage (like your setting) than perfectly up-to-date. I think it’s beautiful, especially in Wade Barnett’s letters. How did you develop that style? 

It came, as I said before, from reading so many novels written pre-1950's. My tastes run vintage anyway, and my vocabulary, thoughts, and experiences of how to execute a story well have all run from the books I love.

Most people love to read fluffy comic writing, but few would consider it worth spending serious time and effort on, as you clearly have! (I’m so glad you did). What would you say is the place of fluffy comic romantic fiction in the Christian life? Is this worth being serious about? 

I think the question for me is this: readers want light comic writing to some extent, correct? And if there are no options written in the Christian fiction market, won't they end up going elsewhere to find something light and relaxing? I know I do, in many areas (music, movies, etc.). In fact, my desire to write first came when I thought I'd read all the fun decent books around and ought to provide my own. I definitely see myself as showing up the light side of life (not without some pathos, of course) for my market, though I can write more serious matter on occasion. It's a neglected art, I think, working hard to allow someone “a laugh without a blush” as another of my favourite authors said. I have always identified with Jane Austen in saying: “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to let everyone not greatly at fault themselves to tolerable comfort.”

What’s the main thing you hope readers get from or learn from Fly Away Home? 

I hope they get an appreciation for the different styles of “greatness” and for the value of a romantic relationship built off of friendship. I had a woman tell me last autumn, “Find a guy who's your best friend and marry him.” I think that's very sound advice.

Are you working on any other books at the moment? 

Yes! God willing, I will be releasing my first mystery (Anon, Sir, Anon) in November of this year. It is a good old British murder mystery … with the common character-cast entirely re-imagined. I had such fun playing with the detectives and the feedback from my beta-readers has been gratifying in that respect.

And finally, where can readers buy your books?

In paperback, from my blog ( or from Amazon. In e-reader editions from Barnes &Noble and Amazon.

I'm really looking forward to reading some more of your work in the future! Thanks so much for participating in the Home Educated Authors Feature Week, Rachel! 

Thank you for having me, Suzannah! I was thrilled to be here.


Home Educated Authors Week will continue tomorrow with two books from our second author, Rachel Rossano: Duty and Wren.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Feature Week: Home Educated Authors

Well, it's a little embarrassing to promise y'all a feature week and then go overseas for a whole month before getting the thing together. But I'm back now, the patient is recovering nicely, and it's time for

Here at Vintage Novels I'm regularly contacted by publishers, agents, and authors with review requests for recently-published fiction. There are few things I like more than being offered free books to read, so this has always been a wonderful opportunity. Sadly, I get very few review requests for the kind of book I can recommend.

Still, I realised that many authors out there must be writing the kind of thing I like to read. So I decided to go and look for some. I decided to keep it to home educated authors, partly because I always like to give a fellow home-ed grad a boost, but mostly because I reckoned this would have a better chance of yielding the kind of book I like to read.

I contacted a number of home educated authors--my research being materially helped out by the wonderful Homeschool Authors blog--and found six authors willing to participate! It was a thrill, in many ways, to have the opportunity to read their books and interview them for Vintage Novels. I thoroughly enjoyed the process, and hope that you'll enjoy this feature week just as much as I enjoyed doing the reading and research for it.

Without further ado, I'd like to announce our first home educated author, Rachel Heffington, author of Fly Away Home. Check back tomorrow for the review and interview!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Poem: The Happy Marriage by PG Wodehouse

My trip overseas has lengthened by a couple of weeks, and so I thought I would post another poem for your enjoyment. This one is by PG Wodehouse, and it was recommended to me by a couple of well-known ladies who you might not expect to have a taste for this kind of thing, which just goes to show that people are usually much jollier in person than you might expect!

I love the mixture of truth and outrageous whimsy in this little gem. Enjoy... 

by PG Wodehouse

(A sensation has been caused in Portland, Oregon, by the arrest of two ladies and their husbands for highway robbery. Evidence was brought to show that the ladies used to stand beside their husbands while the robberies were being committed, and help to rifle the victims.)

When Emerson K. Washington met Sadie Q. Van Pott,
Her numerous attractions bowled him over on the spot:
At first distinctly timid, gaining courage by degrees,
He rushed into her presence, and addressed her, on his knees:

“Oh, Sadie Q., I worship you, and not as other men;
My love had proved a worthy theme for Poet Shakespeare's pen;
My groans and sighs excite surprise, whene’er I pace the street;
I really cannot sleep at all. And, worse, I cannot eat.

“For ham and eggs (Virginia style) I’ve ceased to care a jot;
No strawberry shortcake tempts me now, nor Boston beans, served hot.
The oyster-stew I wave aside: I cannot touch a clam:
From these remarks you’ll judge in what a wretched state I am.

“So do decide to be my bride; oh, heed a lover’s prayers;
Admit some sunshine to a lot, which now is dark with cares.
But lest without reflection you are tempted to decline,
I’ll picture what will happen should we form the said combine.

“Most husbands treat their wives as dolls, and, sorrowful to state,
Refuse to let them take a hand in things of any weight:
Myself I mean to act upon a widely different plan;
For Lovely Woman’s duty lies, I hold, in helping man.

“If you elect to marry me, my angel-bird, you’ll be
As partner in my business quite invaluable to me.
And what that business is, without preamble I will tell:
You see in me a footpad. And I’m doing very well.

“Way out in pleasant Oregon my humble trade I ply;
Few highwaymen have got a larger clientele than I;
Think not that these are idle words. With truth my claims agree;
You may have heard of ‘Sand Bag Bill’? Exactly. I am he.

“So if my proffered heart and hand you’ll but consent to take,
You’ll come with me on every expedition that I make;
Together, hand in hand, my love, at night we’ll roam about,
Entrap the guileless traveller, and – briefly – clean him out.”

His speech was scarcely finished, when quoth Sadie, “Wal, I vum!
What, marry you, my Emerson? I calculate! Why, some!
Stray travellers in Oregon will soon be mighty sick;
Ring up the parson on the ‘phone, and get it over slick.”

The parson put the service through without the least delay;
And Emerson and Sadie Q. were wed that very day;
Their happiness, I’m glad to say, is wholly free from cares;
I never knew so prosperous a married life as theirs.

For every night, when dinner’s o’er, and darkling shadows fall,
They take their knuckle-dusters from the hat-stand in the hall,
And Emerson says, “Sadie, have you cartridges, my pet?
Your iron, is it clean and bright?” And Sadie says, “You bet.”

And then through quiet streets they prowl, through dim-lit squares they roam,
They intercept the passer-by, as he is hurrying home;
And Emerson’s destructive club upsets him with a crash,
While Sadie’s nimble fingers gather in the needful cash.

So on they go from day to day, as happy as can be,
And in this simple tale, I think, a moral we may see:
The married state can never be completely free from strife,
Unless a man’s profession also interests his wife.

Punch, 9 December 1903


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