interviewing Larissa Brown, author of Beautiful Wreck

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One of my goals for 2015 is to read all the romances my colleaguesBW at AAR picked as their choice for Best of 2014. (That column is here.) The first one I chose was Melanie’s: Beautiful Wreck by Larissa Brown. (You can read Melanie’s DIK review here.) I loved this book. I’d give it six stars if I could. And, once I read it, I couldn’t stop wondering about it. So, there was nothing for it but to ask Larissa Brown if she’d answer some questions for me. She graciously said yes.


Dabney: Beautiful Wreck is your debut novel. I find this rather astonishing. Your prose and your plot are wonderfully confident and strong. How long have you been writing?

​Larissa: Thank you so much for your kind words about my book and for interviewing me. Though Beautiful Wreck is my first novel, I have written two books about the craft of knitting and I write essays about craft for magazines or I self-publish them on my site. I blogged for 10 years and built a following of “fans” that I consider more like friends.

The writing is very different. The novel is so much more personal and was initially hard for me to share. But it had some lessons in common with the craft books, such as persevering to finish a manuscript, and the ins and outs of publishing and promotion.

Dabney: Jenn/Ginn, the heroine of your book, is from our future–is it the beginning of the 22nd century?–and lives in modern Iceland. In her time, there are no real animals and hardly anything left of the natural world? Why? Did you have a backstory for how Earth became so, to me, sterile?

​Larissa: I’m glad it felt sterile, because that is Jen’s experience of her time, and we feel it through her point of view. ​Jen is odd, because in a world where people are obsessed with playing roles, she craves something real and genuine. I hope that the cold and flat future fuels her central desire and drives her character. Being from the future is key, just one reason being that Jen does not share the superstitions of the past and this allows her to love Heirik.

Dabney: Ginn travels through time to 10th century Iceland, onto an island of Vikings. Why did you pick Iceland?

Larissa: ​Iceland is gorgeous and epic and unreal. I hoped for my book to have some of those same qualities. Once I’d seen the country (on a too-short research trip) the landscape became almost like a character to me.​

Initially, I chose it for practical reasons. One was peace. I wanted a hero who was not out burning down villages and fighting. I wanted him to be close to the heroine and spend tender time with her. Also, Iceland is the one place where Vikings’ everyday life was recorded (albeit a couple centuries later, after the conversion to Christianity.) So I had some guidance about their worldview and daily lives.

Also, bathing. Iceland is full of hot springs and bathing pools everywhere in the ground, and Vikings were known for spending a lot of time in them. Hygiene implements have been found in ruins there, including tools to clean your ears, and people in Iceland had access to herbs they used for mouthwash. Our hero is kissably clean!

Dabney: The world Ginn goes to is one far most sophisticated than most of us would credit existing in the 10th century. And yet your book feels meticulously true. You must have done an extraordinary amount of research for Beautiful Wreck. When did that process begin? What was the most interesting thing or things you learned?

Larissa: Thank you. Yes, I did a ton of research, and whenever possible it was hands-on. The key question for me was: How would a woman from the future feel when trying to learn to fit in here? What would she see? So I tried things. I tried to learn the craft of naalbinding to make socks, I shot arrows in the little alley behind my house, I dyed yarn with birch leaves, I rode an Icelandic horse, and I walked around a weekend SCA re-enactment in a 10-pound linen dress.

However, the book is definitely not a history lesson. Where there were scant details, I made lots of things up. I hope that it’s the small moments of daily life – which I think all humans share – that give it a feeling of authenticity.

The most interesting thing I learned was that I’d accidentally picked one of the most romantic spots on earth for my story. Early on, I chose a real Viking house that was the location for Ginn’s farm, so that I’d have a reference for my landscape.

Like Jen, I found myself squinting at a screen wanting to go there. So I did go there, and my first thought was that the Viking who built the house there truly knew poetry. Walking around, my traveling companions and I found the most gorgeous waterway, with big rocks leading down to twin waterfalls, and we were basically stunned. It became a setting in my book.

(Ginn’s house can be seen on my Pinterest board and also in an episode of Game of Thrones. I was thrilled when the Wildlings raided it. It is a horribly violent scene, but my eyes were just glued to her grass-covered house and stable yard.)

Dabney: The Iceland of your world is remote from the rest of the world and yet not entirely isolated. At one point in the book one of the characters tells a story in which men who go to “the end of the known world” and trade “for slippery cloth spun by insects.” Did that detail come from your research? Did the Vikings in Iceland travel to China?

Larissa: ​It did come from my research, though I didn’t know if Icelanders had a word for silk, so I made up a phrase for it. Vikings traveled as far East as Central Asia. The traded for silk and also for spices, wine, sliver and more. Heirik’s family would not have gone there themselves. He personally has never left Iceland. But his family is rich – richer than any family that would have actually settled there – and his brother travels to other parts of Europe to trade.

Dabney: Cloth, weaving, crafts: These all figure mightily in your story. In the novel, Ginn arrives in Iceland wearing an Icelandic red dress which you describe her in again and again. How many dresses would a woman like Ginn–who is presumed to be from an elevated class–have had in that world? Would she have had more than Betta, her friend, who is from a lowly origin?

Larissa: ​This is one thing I guessed about. I figured that a rich woman would have multiple dresses, but that in Iceland rich was a relative term. I decided she would have three dresses: a working dress, the pretty red one she arrives in, and a formal equivalent of a gown. The thralls (slaves) would have washed them for her. When the family takes Betta into the main house, they would have given her more clothes and basically cleaned her up so that she was appropriate.

Dabney: Betta’s father is a thrall–a slave. How did these people come to have their slaves?

Larissa: I decided early on that for romantic fiction, I was not going to delve into or dwell on slavery, because it is a complex topic and not what Ginn’s love story is about. However, I learned a lot, some of which applied to her friend Betta.

In very early Iceland, slaves (called thralls) would have come on the boats with their masters, since only a couple other humans are known to have lived on the island prior to the late 800s. Thralls were purchased in the Danish lands or forcibly taken from the islands along the way. Especially in Iceland, where it was a pioneer land with no kings and everyone had to work​, relationships and status were probably less clear. I don’t know if I have it right AT ALL. I believe Betta would have been technically free, because she was third generation, but she had nowhere else to go.

Dabney: From the moment Ginn sees Heirik, the young chief of the tribe, she is struck by his physical presence. And yet, to his people, he is terrible to look at because part of his face and body are covered by a port wine stain or birthmark. What made you pick that for him?

Larissa: I needed for Heirik to be lonely and awkward in a way that matched Ginn’s loneliness. They are the only ones for each other in all of time. She is the only person who can love him, since she is from outside their culture. And ​I had to have a reason that Heirik – THE best catch in the country – would not already be in a partnership of marriage (which at the time would be more of a business partnership between families which might or might not include love and attraction. Another thing I bent to my fictional will was that several marriages in my book are based on epic love.

Dabney: Ginn is, in this book, the only time traveler. This seems to be both something specific to her and something enhanced by the technology of her time. Do you envision others able to travel as she does?

Larissa: ​Absolutely! I am working on a companion book in which someone follows her.​ I don’t want to give away much about it, though, because I’m writing it now and think it’s coming out really fun.

Dabney: There are no mirrors in your 10th century world–no one uses anything, not metal, not water, to see him or herself. Why is that?

Larissa: ​Heirik’s mother would have gotten rid of anything that hurt him, but I don’t think in general that a mirror would have been a priority the way it is for us today. (Women groomed the men and made them look exactly how they wanted, which I think is an excellent system.) There is a motif of hiding throughout the book, and I wanted Heirik to be clueless about his own image. I hope the reader will wonder: Is he actually ugly? And what does that really mean when it’s in the eye of the beholder?

Dabney: Tell me about the language of the book. I know nothing about ancient Icelandic… unlike you!

Larissa: ​Hah! Well, I own A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic, if that counts as knowledge. I have a friend who speaks Old Norse and a very rudimentary understanding of today’s Icelandic. After gathering all that intelligence, I made up their words. It was one of the most enjoyable parts of writing. I had the most fun inventing insults and my own kennings (Viking compound-word-poems that revealed a lot about their worldview.)

Dabney: Are you done with these characters? I confess, I want to know what happens to Heinrik’s brother Brosa and what happens to Ranka, a little girl in the story, when she grows up!

Larissa: ​No way! I’m not done with them. Brosa is the main male character in the next book set in this world, which I’m tentatively calling So Wild A Dream.​ Here’s another atypical “hero.” I think of this Viking saying when I think of him: “Who can say what sorrow a carefree man bears to his life’s end?”

Dabney: What is next for you?

Larissa: ​Right now, I am on a writing retreat where I’m working to finish a novella that’s set in a different world. I’m also at work on the much-longer So Wild A Dream.​ I’ll let the world know through all my social media channels when each of these comes out.

If you want to link to places where people can find out about my books, my website is here: www.larissabrown.net

And I post pictures of my #writingspot multiple times a week on my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/beautifulwreckbook

Also, I give sneak peeks and knitting-related news through my newsletter: http://eepurl.com/Y9N4T

Thank you again!

Dabney: Thank you.

mini reviews

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When Good Earls Go Bad: A Victorian Valentine’s Day Novella by Megan Frampton is a quick read and one I’d recommend to anyone who likes frothy, fun historical romance. Ms. Frampton is a reliably strong writer and in this novella she strives for and achieves an archly humorous tone. Each chapter starts with a maxim from the fictitious A Belle’s Guide to Household Management. In general, they cracked me up with insights such as “A housekeeper is similar to a man (even though she is always a woman!): She needs to know everything about a particular subject without ever having to do it herself.” and “Cleaning out the house is not the same as being cleaned out, even though by the end of the former your enthusiasm for the task might be the latter.” The heroine, Annabelle, is on the ditzy side and she’s just what the rather uptight hero, Matthew, needs to set him on a path to happiness. Their story is short and sweet and, once finished, forgettable. Grade: B.

Broken Open by Lauren Dane is not the book for me. I am in the minority, however. On Amazon, this book has almost 100 reviews and a 4.5 star rating. Perhaps it’s my current apathy toward rock star romances, but I just couldn’t finish this story which features a hunky rock star turned rancher and his brother’s girlfriend’s best friend. I read half of it, intrigued by its interracial romance but couldn’t finish it. Ms. Dane writes excellent sex scenes and she does a good job here of showing the pain of a self-aware recovered addict. Despite those pluses, this novel fell into my DNF pile where it languishes still. Grade: DNF.

In for the Kill is the last McClouds and Friends adventure by Shannon McKenna. It has less WTF than several of the recent books in this series, which is not necessarily a good thing. The heroine of this book, Sveti, first appeared in my favorite book in the series, Extreme Danger, as a child kidnapped by VERY BAD PEOPLE. In that book, Sveti fell in love with the heroine’s brother who is–somewhat to my disappointment, not the hero here. Ex-cop Sam Petrie is. He’s a typical McKenna hero–obsessed with fucking the heroine, brutally honest, and able to fight his way out of constant over-the-top violence. He’s a jerk but, honestly, he’s the winner in the story. Sveti is a TSTL heroine who makes such silly choices that after Sam saves her life for the third time, I wished he hadn’t. Grade: C-.

Rock Hard by Nalini Singh. I know I said I’m not that into rock star romances but I did like the first book and a half in this series by New Zealand author Singh. I thought this would be another tale about a member of Schoolboy Choir, the world famous super band featured earlier in the first two books. Sadly, it is not. The hero of this book is a very bossy CEO who decides to romance his shy and retiring employee. She has a traumatic past and he charms her right past it. This is one of these books where I liked both the leads individually far more than I liked them as a couple. The book is full of great one-liners and vivid descriptions but, as a love story, it didn’t rock my world. Grade: B-.

Time Served by Juliana Keyes left me ambivalent. On the one hand, this story of reunited high school lovers is sexy as hell and does a great job of illuminating the challenges of a cross-class relationship. (She’s a successful lawyer; he’s an ex-con out on parole who works at warehouse stacking pallets.) On the other hand, the hero, Dean, is so angry he’s scary and the heroine, Rachel, seems to hate all the other women she knows. Additionally, over and over again, Dean does shitty things to Rachel even as it’s clear he loves her as deeply as he is able. Time Served riveted me–I read it in one sitting and I’ve thought about it several times since I finished it.  If you like gritty contemporaries, this one fits the bill. But if books with morally ambiguous characters bother you, stay away from Time Served. Grade: B.

Trade Me by Courtney Milan is the first thing I’ve read by Ms. Milan that didn’t work for me. I am an unabashed fan girl of her historical romances and was sure I’d love her foray into modern times. I didn’t. To be fair, this is a New Adult romance and I like those even less than I like rock star romances. But even allowing for my non-propensity for NA, this book fell flat for me. The heroine, a dirt-poor pre-med student at Cal Berkley, is so precocious and perceptive that she seemed far older than 20. She’s determined to make a better life for her Chinese parents and her younger ADHD sister and thus has no time for gorgeous billionaire boys who have the hots for her. In fact, the hero, Blake (his father is the CEO of one of Silicon Valley’s most successful companies) irritates the hell out of Tina mostly because he’s seemingly so clueless about his wealth and the extraordinary privilege it affords him. So when Blake offers to switch lives for the rest of the semester, Tina doesn’t believe there’s a chance in hell he’ll be able to live in grinding poverty. The novel features Ms. Milan’s usual stellar prose but the story seemed forced. And while it was nice to read a book where being a billionaire is presented as a character flaw rather than a synonym for uber-sexy, I felt the moral message of the book swamped the story. Still, there is much to admire here. Tina’s roommate’s sexuality (she’s transsexual) is presented matter of factly and well, as is Blake’s emotional baggage. The lives of the Chen family and that of Blake’s father are interesting and enhance the plot. But the romance lacked credibility and the plot flew off the handle in the concluding chapters. I’m always interested in what Ms. Milan writes but this book is perhaps my least favorite of her works. Grade: C.

the passionate reader picks the best of 2014

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HH2015 was a great reading romance year for me. I read widely across genres and found many a book I’d happily recommend. (You can see all my reading and ratings on Goodreads.) Here, however, are the books I loved the best.

My pick for most enjoyable historical romance of the year comes from Eloisa James. Ms. James, when she’s on her game, writes some of the wittiest romances around. Three Weeks with Lady X  is full of sparkling, sexy exchanges between its heroine, Lady Xenobia India St. Claire, and its hero, Thorn (Tobias) Dautry (the illegitimate son of the Duke of Villiers, the hero of A Duke of Her Own.) I love almost everything about this book–the hero’s grand gesture at the end seemed a bit much–especially the letters Xenobia and Thorn send one another while she is overseeing the refurbishment of his estate. Three Weeks with Lady X is my favorite work by Ms. James in several years.

Mary Balogh is a consistently strong writer of historical romance. Only Enchanting has a wonderful love story with a heroine who has decided to, after a life of small rewards, to go for the gusto. The man she lets seduce her is just the hero she needs although he certainly doesn’t think so. I recommend it wholeheartedly. 

Many many reviewers have included Joanna Bourne’s Rogue Spy on their Best of 2014 lists. Add me to that list.  I remain in awe of Ms. Bourne’s plotting. Rogue Spy is set during 1802, the same year that The Spymaster’s Lady takes place. It is, chronologically, the middle book of the Spymasters series, and, though we’ve encountered Pax (the hero of Rogue Spy) in the later books, his story is a completely engrossing surprise.

Cecilia Grant’s A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong is a tart, smart holiday novella. I wrote my review at All About Romance for it after reading it once. I’ve since read it again and it’s risen in my estimation. (I originally gave it a B.) Ms. Grant is justifiably known for the clarity and crispness of her writing and, in this work, her characterizations as well as her humor are astute. This novella, like her debut A Lady Awakened (review here), takes a romance cliche–here, the fake marriage–and turns it into something new.

Last September, my social media feeds were full of readers raving about Frozen by Meljean Brook. It’s a novella and was (and still is) priced at .99. I’ve read a few of Ms. Brook’s steampunk love stories and enjoyed them so I downloaded Frozen. I’m glad I did. Ms. Brook doesn’t spend a great deal of time world-building here and that’s a good thing. Her focus is on her lovers and the curse they must break to find their HEA. There’s just enough paranormal here–a giant, a clan of werewolves, and soothsaying mother–to give the story intrigue but the heart of the tale is its lovers and they are a compelling pair. Continue reading

Siege Warfare: Meditations on Medieval Romance with Author Elise Cyr

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Originally posted on Badass Romance:

Besieged by love? How many times have you read something like “her emotions were under siege” in a romance novel? I feel like this metaphor is common, and compelling, yet I’ve never really unpacked it. For one thing, it suggests a traditionally gendered experience, in which the hero is the pursuer, surrounding the heroine with his army of manly charms until she accepts and gives in to the inevitability of surrender/conquest.

What makes this work in genre romance is that while she may be “conquered” by the hero’s love, the heroine surrenders as much to the power of her own corresponding emotion as to the conquering male. The siege as romantic metaphor sort of circles in on itself, since the besieged is frequently “starving” herself of love/emotion while the besieger “attacks” by providing rather than depriving. (I know there must be examples of the metaphor used with the genders reversed and…

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REVIEW: Ros Clarke’s AN UNSUITABLE HUSBAND And Reluctant Wife

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the passionate reader:

This review is so well-written I had to share it.

Originally posted on Miss Bates Reads Romance:

An Unsuitable HusbandMiss Bates once listened to a CBC radio program called “The Myth of the Secular,” which argued that the demise of religion in the public sphere has not come about as Western philosophical thought assumed. During one of the six episodes, a Muslim theologian presented an alternate view to the West’s traditional notion of faith originating in revelation and followed by practice, the most dramatic example being Paul’s road to Damascus moment. She argued that non-Western notions posit that gesture and practice, the physicality of religious ritual, in other words starting with the body, can lead to and sustain faith, understanding, and thought. Faith follows from practice. (One interesting addendum in support of this argument are testimonies from martial arts’ practitioners for fitness’ sake; they find themselves interested in, even adhering to, the Eastern philosophy in which their exercise routine originates.) Miss Bates, what are you talking about, you’d rightly…

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Cara McKenna’s Hard TIme: the mini-review

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Hard Time by Cara McKenna

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an interesting book and I give Ms. McKenna props for yet again giving readers an unlikely hero. That said, the hero seemed too perfect to me. I felt as if, in order to compensate for his one failing–a belief in violence as an act of punishment against the unreedemable, Ms. McKenna was afraid to give him a single other failing. I did, however, marvel at how well Ms. McKenna does “setting.” The prison, the downtrodden almost dead Michigan town, even the step above skanky bar the heroine lives above are all so vividly portrayed, I could imagine myself there. If you, like me, are tired of books where real life takes a backseat to florid portrayals of lives where the super-rich play at being geniuses, this book will strike you as bracing in the best way.
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Unfixable by Tessa Bailey: the mini-review

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UnfixableUnfixable by Tessa Bailey

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I loved this book up until the end and then it just burned up for me. This is a 3.5 star book for me! Also, the heroine is maybe 18 and I think the hero is closer to 30. His age and the gap didn’t bother me as much as her youth.

Still, it was a really fun read and now I am dying to go to Ireland.

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