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.

1 comment:

Lady Bibliophile said...

Loved your answer, Rachel, on the place for comic romantic fiction in the Christian life. Very well thought out, and I agree one hundred percent! There's a place for that sort of thing, and it's impossible to write something of any genre without having a passion for it.

Plus, comic fiction takes a lot more artistry and effort in some aspects. The more relaxing, the more funny, the more effort the author put forth. It takes a lot of work to help readers relax! :)

Great kickoff, Suzannah. Looking forward to the rest.



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