Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Venetian Blood: Murder in a Sensuous City by Christine Evelyn Volker (Review, Author Interview, & Giveaway!)

Book Details:

Book Title: Venetian Blood: Murder in a Sensuous City
Author: Christine Evelyn Volker
Category: Adult Fiction, 328 pages
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: She Writes Press
Release date: August 2017
Tour dates: Sept 25 to Oct 6, 2017
Content Rating: PG-13 + M (There are a few instances of bad language and a scene with partial nakedness but little concrete description.)

Book Description:

Struggling to forget a crumbling marriage, forty-year-old Anna Lucia Lottol comes to Venice to visit an old friend—but instead of finding solace, she is dragged into a police station and accused of murdering a money laundering count with whom she had a brief affair. In the days that follow, Anna, a US Treasury officer with brains and athleticism, fights to clear her name in a seductive city of watery illusions. But as she tries to pry clues from a cast of uncooperative characters who implausibly deny what she sees and hears, she begins to question whether they are hiding something…or she is losing touch with reality. Racing to unlock secrets, she succeeds instead in unleashing a powerful foe bent on destroying her. Will she save herself and vanquish her enemies, including her darkest fears?

A captivating tapestry of murder, betrayal, and family, Venetian Blood is the story of one woman’s brave quest for the truth—before it’s too late.

My Review:

Well written with rich descriptions, historical details and lyrical language, Christine Volker's debut mystery novel set in Venice is a worthy read.

Anna Lucia Lottol travels to Venice to visit a friend. Having recently decided to divorce her alcoholic husband and put an end to a childless marriage, she is in need of a break. Instead, she gets accused of murdering Count Sergio Corrin, with whom she had a brief affair a few months ago and later regretted when he began to blackmail her.

Anna, a smart US Treasury officer, wants to clear her name and find out who the real murderer is, so she embarks on an investigation with her journalist friend, Margo. Within a week and a half, after being in the company of Venice's high society, many of whom knew, worked with and despised the Count, Anna gets a picture of the money-laundering dirty business that's been going on in Venice and abroad. Her life is at stake, in more ways than one, and many past secrets come to light that affect Anna in surprising ways.

Volker has succeeded in creating shady characters with complex relationships in an atmospheric setting where Venice's lapping waters, hidden canals, narrow streets, bridges and foggy bays cast both a sensual, mysterious and creepy light to this Italian city of masks. As a reader, it was hard to guess who the murderer was since Volker painted every character with suspicion. The ending was surprising although I began to have an inkling of what was coming toward the end.

Anna's own fears, anxieties, broken marriage, longings and sad childhood are interspersed throughout the narrative. Her grandparents were Italian and her memories of them come to the fore now that Anna is on Italian soil. Anna is truly a complex character and her past mistakes and emotional traumas weave in with her more logical world of banking and numbers to create the serious portrait of a woman in midlife crisis. It was painful to read at times. However, the story ends on a hopeful note for Anna, even as the reader is left to wonder how she will cope with what is revealed to her.

If you like literary novels and books set in Italy, especially Venice, then you will enjoy this one. The complex portrait of a woman in search of herself, along with a murder mystery makes this a compelling and worthy read.

To read more reviews, please visit Christine Evelyn Volker's page on Italy Book Tours.

Buy the Book:

My Interview with Christine Evelyn Volker

LF: Welcome to Essentially Italian! We are so pleased to be featuring your debut novel.

CEV: Thank you.

LF: Can you describe your book in 20 words or less?

CEV: A woman’s brave quest to save herself in a city of illusions.

LF: What made you want to write a book set in Venice?

CEV: Back in the 1990s, I lived in Milan and visited Venice many times, falling in love with the city. Its intriguing history, the miracle of its existence as it perches precariously on the shores of the Adriatic, the character of its people, and its pure beauty all appealed to me. A masked city with dark, twisting alleyways and illusory reflections is ideal for a murder mystery.

LF: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book? The easiest?

CEV: Portraying the protagonist’s complex nature, while enabling her to figure out the identity of the murderer. She’s brilliant, scientific, very rational, yet she has demons. I also wanted to make her likable. The easiest part was rendering Venice; I indulged in memories, managing to relive my time there, and enjoyed researching via many books. The city is so strong in the novel, it’s almost a character.

LF: What do you love about Italy? What do you dislike?

CEV: The warm, vivacious people, the pride Italian artisans take in their work, the exquisite vistas, the delicious food, and the beautiful language. I dislike the inefficiencies, and the feeling that fundamental issues in Italian society are not being resolved.

LF: I was impressed with the correctness of the Italian phrases in your novel. Are you fluent in Italian?

CEV: Thank you. I used to be! I’m pretty rusty now. For the book, I drafted what I wanted to say in Italian, but I had a native speaker offer corrections. I’d love to stay in Italy for a few months and brush up my language skills.

LF: If you could travel back in time, where would you go? Who would you see?

CEV: go back to the sixties. I’d try to figure out how society has frayed. We’ve degenerated from “all you need is love,” to “greed is good” and “screw you.” This is impacting not just people, but the entire earth. I’d love to spend time with Rachel Carson and other early environmental leaders.

LF: What is the funniest (or strangest, or scariest) incident that has ever happened to you?

CEV: Traveling through Italy when I was a junior in college, I had dinner with a young Italian man I had met on the train. Afterward, he took me on a motorcycle ride and we marveled at the Roman Coliseum, lit up like a galaxy of stars that night. Then we had an accident which broke my ankle, landing me in a hospital where no one could speak in English, Spanish or German to me (my languages). My bed was in the hallway of a hospital; after a day, I was transferred by ambulance to another, unknown one. Time passed, and I felt like I had been abducted: an example of how frightening it can be when you can’t communicate. I remember consulting my small, inadequate dictionary and ultimately demanding in Italian: “I want to speak with the American Embassy.” I laugh about this now; the care was quite good for those six days.

LF: Can you share with us some of your favorite authors and what you are currently reading?

CEV: Barbara Kingsolver, T.C. Boyle, Joseph Kanon. I’m currently re-reading Crime and Punishment. The poetry of Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca will be next, in preparation for our trip to Spain.

LF: Any future projects you would like to share with us?

CEV: My second international mystery, taking place in the rainforest of Peru and the city of Cuzco, is half-written. Settings are critical for me—I need to feel them. So we’ll return to Peru, and also go to Extremadura, the land of the conquistadors. The protagonist of my novel searches for the truth about her “disappeared” parents, confronts her own and her country’s past, and fights for its future. This novel will be quite broad in scope.

LF: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me!

Meet the Author:

Christine Evelyn Volker became intrigued by foreign cultures at an early age, which propelled her to study Spanish, German, and Italian. After pursuing an MLS and an MBA, she was drawn to international banking and became a senior vice president at a global financial institution. Her career brought her to Italy, where she immersed herself in the language and made frequent visits to Venice. A native New Yorker, she resides with her husband in the San Francisco Bay Area of California, where she heads a local library non-profit organization and writes about environmental sustainability. She is currently at work on her second international mystery, this one set in the rainforest of Peru.

Connect with the Author: Website ~ Twitter ~ Facebook

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Year in the Company of Freaks by Teresa Neumann (Review, Author Interview & Giveaway)

Another winner by Teresa Neumann! Atmospheric and highly readable, this one is a page-turner that will transport you back to the 70s. Whether you remember that time period or not, it's a good trip. I also had the pleasure of interviewing the author, so check it out below. Be sure to enter to win a copy too. 

Book Details:

Book Title: A Year in the Company of Freaks by Teresa Neumann
Category: Adult Fiction, 515 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: All's Well House
Release date: Dec 21, 2015
Tour dates: Sept 11 to 29, 2017
Content Rating: PG + M (Little violence and profanity, no f-words, no sex, but some drug use)

Book Description:

It's 1972 and a seismic clash-of-cultures is rattling northern California. In the redneck town of Trinity Springs, rumors of hippies migrating up from San Francisco have residents bracing for an invasion. When Italian-American hometown boy and Berkeley graduate Sid Jackson is busted for growing pot on his deceased parents' farm, locals suspect the assault has begun. Will a crazy deferral program devised by the sheriff keep Sid out of prison? Or will a house full of eccentric strangers, a passionate love interest, and demons from his past be his undoing?

A "disarmingly appealing" tale of discrimination, transformation and restoration, Freaks is bursting with intrigue, drama, comic relief and romance. Reviewers agree this five-star, coming-of-age classic "very much reflects the attitude and mood of the times."

Praise for A Year in the Company of Freaks:

“This coming of age story will draw the reader right in. Teresa Neumann demonstrates how much she values relationships in her writing … a precious skill. I held my breath all the way through to the final few pages. Five stars!” — The San Francisco Book Review

“As it relates to the complicated clash of culture and counterculture, Freaks acts as an authentic, strongly Seventies book. Northern California works as a strong presence in the novel that is vivid and omnipresent, but never overwhelming. Sure to intrigue and entertain, Freaks will have its digs in you before you realize how involved you’ve become.” — The Manhattan Book Review

My Review:
Reviewed by Laura Fabiani

Two years ago, I read Teresa Neumann's first novel Bianca's Vineyard and loved it. It was historical fiction set during WWII in Italy. This time, Neumann's latest novel is set during the 1970s hippies era in Northern California. Once again, Neumann deftly transported me to a different time with a colorful cast of characters and a poignant story of loss, transformation, love and redemption. I easily flew through the 500 pages of this novel as I quickly became invested in the lives of Sid Jackson and his eccentric boarders.

Italian-American Siderno Jackson returns after 4 years at Berkeley to the beautiful farm house and land he's inherited from his deceased parents in the small town of Trinity Springs. But he has unresolved issues from the death of his beloved parents and is reluctant to be back home to an empty house. He wants to escape rather than deal with his pain, so he plants pot on his property, but gets busted and faces the possibility of eight years in jail. Long-time friends of his parents intervene and Sid is now on probation and has to take care of the farm and lease out rooms to 4 boarders for a year.

Once again, Neumann weaves a story with unforgettable characters that jump off the page. The mood, issues and way of life in the 70s truly come alive in this book. I was a child who grew up in the 70s and 80s and I clearly remember wearing bell bottoms and watching Rambo, a movie  about a Vietnam veteran. I really liked being immersed into that time period through Sid's story. However, you don't have to be baby boomer to appreciate this book. It's well-written with a strong storyline and issues all young and old alike can relate to. Relationships is the backbone of this book. I especially loved how Sid comes to realize the value of friends who love you unconditionally.

Sid's Italian background plays a role in who he is, and as the daughter of Italian immigrants, I could see this clearly. Being close to his grandparents (Nonno and Nonna), growing vegetables and planting a vineyard was common for Italian immigrants that it made sense Sid would be drawn to doing the same thing. The role of the Skinners as godparents is also a very prominent Italian tradition, and small town life in America is not much different from small village life in Italy.

A Year in the Company of Freaks is another winner by Teresa Neumann. Atmospheric and highly readable, this one is a page-turner that will transport you back to an historic time of cultural revolution and small town values. Whether you remember that time period or not, it's a good trip. (Pun intended). This one will be on my list of Best Reads for 2017!

To read more reviews, please visit Teresa Neumann's page in iRead Book Tours.

Buy the Book:

My Interview with Teresa Neumann:

LF: Can you describe your book in 20 words or less?

TN: It’s a fun, engrossing, coming-of-age tale of regret, rebellion, tragedy, comedy, unconditional love, romance, hope, redemption, and reconciliation.

LF: What made you want to write a novel set in the 70s?

TN: Primarily because Freaks is loosely based on my observations living in northern California during that time period. 1972 was a pivotal year for the West Coast counter culture, as that is when the “back to earth” movement really took off and hippies began to spread out of urban areas to seek a more rural environment in order to be closer to nature. The whole polyester leisure suit and disco-music scene had yet to arrive, so the atmosphere was still deeply ingrained with the 60’s full-blown hippie vibe.

LF: How much of what is included in the book is based on true events?

TN: No particular scene, experience or character is based on a single true event. Rather, it is a composite of many different experiences, people I knew, and places I lived in or visited. For example, Ketch – the albino biker from Texas – is a character closely patterned after a Texan my husband and I befriended in the late 70’s in Boulder, Colorado. And anyone who partied during the 60’s and 70’s will, no doubt, identify with the “getting high” scenes in the book.

Most people have also heard about the “Jesus Movement” in the 60’s and 70’s, but don’t realize how truly radical and pervasive it was at the time. I can’t tell you how many times, hitchhiking, or just out and about in San Francisco, that I was approached by what we, at the time, called “Jesus Freaks.” Most of them were long-haired hippies, rather than “red-necks,” so there was at least a superficial connection with them. I’ll never forget one, who gave me a ride in his rainbow painted VW van, praying for me to be safe. He gave me a feeling as though he were my brother who truly cared for my safety. Encounters like that, and others, helped break the stereotype I had of “Jesus Freaks” being totally weird oddities.

LF: I grew up in the 70s as a young child and lived my teen years in the 80s, yet I could relate to some of the cultural references. Do you see any parallels to any other time period with the hippie movement of the 70s?

TN: There was the lawless “Roaring Twenties” that followed WWI (The Wiemar Republic in Germany was notorious for its descent into debauchery). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that rebellion via hedonism is typically higher after a bruising war, such as it was with WWI or Viet Nam. There was a huge loss of faith following WWI with many embracing nihilism. That tendency only increased after WWII and Viet Nam. (For the record, I am NOT a nihilist; far from it!) The “Peace and Love” movement of the 60’s was more accurately called that at its beginning with a select sub-groups of hippies who truly wanted to opt-out of society and pursue utopia.

Soon after, however, the movement became politicized, e.g. the Weathermen, SDS, etc. and some of the initial “hippie” values became radicalized and perverted with cults forming around them. There definitely remains a strong remnant today of the original “Flower Children” who still live communally and live by nearly communistic standards; they’re often parodied today in print and on screen by more conservative Americans – which shows you the cultural divide addressed in my book hasn’t changed that much ;-) Of course, there’s the far tamer hipster movement today. I must say, I love their beards!

LF: The main character is of half Italian descent. Do you think that our parents' culture helps to define who we are?

TN: Though most of us rebel to some degree against our parents, I think their culture definitely contributes to who we are ultimately. As a matter-of-fact, I’d go so far as to say my grandparents (who were born in 1899) were a huge influence in my life – as much as my own parents. You couldn’t have told me that in my 20’s, but today I am thankful for it. And when it comes to Italian families – well, all bets are off. The influence of family members in Italy is nothing short of astonishing. I love it. That’s why it plays such an integral part in my book’s main character, Sid.

LF: What feedback have you received from your readers that has made you happy you wrote this book?

TN: Unlike Bianca’s Vineyard, my first book, where the feedback was about immigration and WWII, people are responding to the issues of stereotypes, divisiveness and cultural discrimination addressed in Freaks The lesson to be learned in, I hope, is that we CAN live together and that we need each other – as different as we might be – to sharpen us; iron as to iron.

LF: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book? The easiest?

TN: The most challenging aspect of my book were the multiple edits. The original draft of Freaks was basically a novella; half the size and with twice the number of boarders -- TWELVE to be exact! My editor, the incomparable Sandra Byrd, suggested I drastically pare down the characters and considerably lengthen the word count. As always, she was right. I can take her recommendations to the bank. I love meeting my readers, but the actual marketing of my books is the least enjoyable aspect of being an author. The easiest (if you can call it that) part of writing Freaks was immersing myself into that time period. It seems like yesterday!

LF: If you could travel back in time, where would you go? Who would you see?

TN: Ah, it wouldn’t be the 1970’s, I can tell you that ;-) I’m far too much of an old-school romantic for all the relationship incongruities of that era. There’s something about the first decade of the 1900’s where the world was on the cusp of so many exciting inventions and breakthroughs and unjaded by the yet-to-happen world wars. No wonder my favorite seasons of Downtown Abbey, for example, were the years before WWI!

LF: What is the funniest (or strangest, or scariest) incident that has ever happened to you?

TN: Readers may think it’s strange/funny that when I lived in California I was the secretary for a mail-order “head” shop in Sausalito, located on a houseboat. It was called “Interplanetary Posters.” Because we shipped a lot of paraphernalia to prisoners around the country, my boss wanted to protect my identity and told me to create an alias to use in my correspondence. The name I came up with? Marsha Mellow. So 70’s, right?

The scariest experience I had living in California involved hitchhiking. I didn’t have a car (it was cool to be poor and unattached to material possessions) so I hitchhiked every day to my job about 30 miles from Novato where I lived. I also hitchhiked, alone, at night. Just crazy. I’d die if my daughters did that! Anyway, I prided myself in using “safe” tactics – not getting in a car with more than one person, not getting in the back of a two-door car, etc. One day, a guy who picked me up after work asked if I’d mind if he pulled off the freeway to get something he’d forgotten. Stupidly, I said, “Okay.” He parked in front of an apartment complex and said he’d be just a second. When he got back into the car – just a minute or two later – I glanced over and saw a hunting knife in a sheath attached to the driver’s door. My heart stopped and I froze. He started the car and I noticed he was acting strangely; jittery. I guessed that he had “shot up” something. As he slowed on his approach to the freeway entrance I insisted he stop the car. When he didn’t, I opened the door. He slammed on the brakes and I jumped out, feeling as though in doing so I had just saved my life. You’d think that would have compelled me to buy a car, but no. That would have been too bourgeois. Like I’ve often said, it’s a miracle I’m alive thinking of all the stupid things I did in the 70’s!

LF: Can you share with us some of your favorite authors and what you are currently reading?

TN: I cut my teeth on the classics at the parochial high school I attended in the Midwest, so they always score highest: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Dumas, Hardy, Dickens, Hugo, Austen, the Bronte Sisters, Sigrid Undset, G.K. Chesterton, etc. Tennyson and Edna St. Vincent Millay are my favorite poets. I love Elizabeth Goudge’s book, The Dean’s Watch. There are so many good writers out there today, I don’t know where to begin! Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River is, I think, a modern American classic. I also like fun, light travel memoirs, like Peter Mayle’s “Provence” books. I’m currently reading Map of the Heart by Susan Wiggs.

LF: Thank you so much, Teresa, for taking the time to chat with me!

About the Author:

Author of highly-acclaimed "A Year in the Company of Freaks," Teresa was raised in a large Midwest family and now lives in Oregon. She is also the author of "Bianca's Vineyard," and its sequel, "Domenico's Table." Both books are based on the true stories of her husband's Italian family in Tuscany. In addition to enjoying family, writing, reading, meeting her readers, wine tasting, traveling, and all things Italian, Teresa loves playing the fiddle with other musicians.

Connect with the Author: Website ~ Facebook ~ Twitter

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