The DC/Baltimore area is blessed with a vibrant book scene, illustrated in part by the increasing number of independent book stores and popular local book festivals the region supports. One of those festivals is Kensington Day of the Book, which is celebrating its 11th year on Sunday, April 24, from 11-4 on Howard Avenue. I’ll be one of the participating authors this year, so I hope you’ll come out to wonderful little Kensington, Maryland to celebrate all things book-related, and enjoy mingling with a slate of local and nationally known authors to talk books. Fingers crossed for warm, sunny weather!
Foreword Reviews Magazine is dedicated to exploring, discussing, highlighting, and celebrating all that is best in independent book publishing. On March 7th, Foreword Reviews released the list of finalists in its 2015 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards, and Up the Hill to Home is a finalist in both the General and Historical Fiction categories. Award winners will be announced at the American Libraries Association annual conference in June.
Each year, in Miami, Florida, Readers’ Favorite holds a weekend-long celebration for the recipients of its annual book awards, which recognizes the best in independent publishing. The festivities are always held the same November weekend as the huge Miami Book Festival, making this an all-books-all-the-time extravaganza. This year, Readers’ Favorite recognized Up the Hill to Home with a gold medal in the category of Christian Historical Fiction, so I took a quick weekend trip to attend the awards ceremony.
It’s hard to believe that Up the Hill to Home hasn’t been out for six months yet, and it’s already in 25 library systems worldwide, including Auckland, New Zealand! (Check out WorldCat.org.) That’s thanks to all the publications that have had such good things to say:
“An emotionally powerful, gorgeously imparted family saga.” —Foreword Reviews Magazine
“Complex characters . . . take up residence in your imagination, fully formed and breathing.” —Washington Independent Review of Books
“The author creates believable characters . . . with convincing details of 19th- and early-20th-century city life . . . a good book.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A masterpiece in the genre of historical fiction. . . Up the Hill to Home is a treasure, and one to which you should definitely treat yourself.” —Readers’ Favorite five-star review; 2015 Gold Medal Winner
“Beautifully and lovingly written . . . pure enjoyment” —Romance Reviews Today, Perfect 10 Review
“. . . nothing short of remarkable.” —Curled Up with a Good Book
“Up the Hill to Home is a novel of complex relationships and complicated people . . .” —Historical Novels Review
On Wednesday, October 21st, I presented “Publishers, Publicists, and a Reading Public,” at the monthly meeting of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association at Maryland Hall. The talk addressed my ongoing experiences as a debut novelist, focusing on many of the lessons I’ve learned–often the hard way–leading up to and following the April 2015 publication of Up the Hill to Home, including the concept of direct submissions to publishers (that is, traditional publishing without an agent), what to expect when working with a publicist, and the many challenges associated with building readership.
A video of the presentation (in three parts) is posted to the MWAA website.
This review first appeared in Washington Independent Review of Books on 9 September 2015.
So much is conveyed in the first paragraph of Rajia Hassib’s eloquent debut novel, In the Language of Miracles: protagonist Khaled’s status as favorite of his devoutly Islamic grandmother, Ehsan; her disappointment in her daughter’s failure to follow the same devout traditions; and her firm belief that such lapses will lead to disaster for the beautiful boy, as evidenced by Khaled’s life-threatening illness, which has prompted Ehsan’s emergency visit from Egypt.
“His mother’s insistence on throwing him an elaborate birthday party a few weeks earlier must have been the last straw. ‘Why parade the boy around? Why invite people’s envy?’ Ehsan would repeatedly mumble as she tended to the sick child. They might as well have injected him with bacteria and saved the money spent on the inflatables.”
That peek at a sly sense of humor is deceptive, though, because the story that Hassib goes on to relate is heart-wrenching. Meet the Al-Menshawy family: physician father Samir, stay-at-home mother Nagla, eldest son Hosaam, middle child Khaled, and youngest Fatima, along with the frequently visiting Ehsan.
Samir and Nagla made the leap as newlyweds from Alexandria, Egypt, to the U.S., ending up finally in small, suburban Sommerset, N.J., where Samir starts his medical practice and the family grows to be best friends with their next-door neighbors, Jim, Cynthia, and Natalie Broadbent.
The crux of the story, though, is the horrific incident that took the lives of longtime sweethearts Hosaam and Natalie, the first anniversary of which is quickly approaching as chapter one opens. The tragedy hangs over everything and everyone, and has separated the Al-Menshawys from the community, from their former best friends, and from each other. Each of the surviving family members is wrapped in his or her own form of grief, and their lonely attempts to find a way through increasingly polarize and isolate them from each other.
There is so much going on in Language, so many quiet layers that build on each other, and Hassib guides us through the nuanced implications of culture, religion, community, gender, familial relationships, even birth order that together form the unique lens we all use to view one another and to experience the world around us.
Samir is fully committed to his adopted nation, believing in his and his family’s ability to assimilate and be accepted as true Americans, while also clinging to very traditional beliefs about his role as the head of the family and each member’s role in relation to his.
He is certain he understands the American character and way of thinking, yet he is utterly tone deaf in his dealings with the community he’s lived in for years. Even his unassimilated mother-in-law understands what a poor idea it is for the family to attend the inevitable memorial service for Natalie. That he wishes to speak at the service is a source of dread for all of us; a disaster is in the making.
While Khaled is at the book’s center as the ever-obedient middle child now living even more deeply in his dead brother’s shadow — the standard miseries of adolescence paling in the face of chronic physical and social-media harassment, the constant fear of being recognized in public, and the sense that his family has turned its back on him — it is Nagla who is the book’s heart.
Our view into her grief, guilt, and sense of helplessness as a mother makes her universally accessible, and demands we consider how we would act under similar untenable circumstances. Nagla suffers through the judgmental and conflicting advice that her friend Ameena and mother Ehsan, two highly observant Muslim women, heap upon her.
“Both her mother and Ameena had an uncanny ability to quote the Qur’an in support of their arguments, even if their views opposed each other, even, she now realized, using the same verse to support two different sides of an argument,” but both sides telling Nagla she is wrong. She and Samir can no longer speak to each other without shouting, but Ehsan sides with Samir, even though she doesn’t agree with him. Nagla is truly alone.
Hassib’s book invites the question of how this scenario would have played out if the families involved were both from the same white, suburban, middle-class, typical “American” background. The answer, perhaps, is not so much differently.
The cultural disparity here makes the situation more fraught — particularly in a post-9/11 America and a 24-hour “news” cycle that has elevated public defamation to a full-contact team sport — but with the exception of Cynthia’s bigoted sister Pat, the people of Sommerset aren’t ostracizing the Al-Menshawys for being Muslim, but for having taken something from them that they can never recover.
Hassib herself only moved to the U.S. when she was 23, and yet she has an impeccable ear for the twanging crosscurrents of American culture, xenophobic melting pot that it is. She heads many of her chapters with roughly equivalent English and Arabic sayings that highlight both similarities and differences in the cultures.
And Hassib weaves in snippets from the Qur’an that feature a number of figures prominent in the Old Testament, helping to remind non-Muslim readers of the tightly linked origins of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It’s an empathetic reminder that our similarities are always larger than our differences.
On the heels of receiving a five-star review from Readers’ Favorite, Up the Hill to Home was also named the 2015 Readers’ Favorite Gold Medal recipient in the category of Christian Historical Fiction. Though readers may be surprised by the category, since the book does not necessarily fit the traditional image of Christian fiction, Up The Hill to Home tells the story of a Catholic family for whom faith is a crucial element of both personal identity and community, and the theme of faith as a bedrock of this family suffuses every part of the story.
It’s interesting to note that Up the Hill to Home is demonstrating wide appeal among readers of many different genres, since the book also garnered a Perfect 10 rating from Romance Reviews Today, making it eligible for RRT’s Best Book of the Year designation, even though the book also doesn’t fit the mold of what most readers would consider a romance novel.
In her review for Readers’ Favorite, Tracy Slowiak highlights the book’s evocation of time and place in history:
“I loved, loved, loved Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s new book, Up the Hill to Home. This debut novel is so beautifully and lovingly written that if I didn’t know that it was based on the author’s ancestors, I would have assumed as such. Up the Hill to Home follows the life of Lillie Voith, beloved wife of Ferd, only daughter of Emma and Charley Beck, and mother of nine, soon to be ten. When Lillie discovers her pregnancy, she happily asks Ferd to bring her the treasured memory box, the sweet custom she follows when she is expecting each of her children. When Lillie takes a fall in the basement one day, then develops a worrying cough, everyone starts to fear that they may lose the glue that holds the family together.
“Up the Hill to Home is, in this reviewer’s opinion, a masterpiece in the genre of historical fiction. Taking place in the late 1800s until the 1930s, the experiences, conversations and surroundings of the Beck and Voith families ring so truly of the time period that when I needed to take a break from reading, I’d have to shake my head a bit to clear my mind and bring myself back to the present moment. This book would appeal to any reader of authentic historical fiction, any lover of fiction in general, and any reader longing for a story that showcases true familial love and connectedness. I simply cannot recommend this book any more. Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s Up the Hill to Home is a treasure, and one to which you should definitely treat yourself.”
When Foreword Reviews magazine featured eight debut authors in its Summer 2015 issue, it introduced the work of eight writers from widely different backgrounds and geographical regions writing across the spectrum of literary genres. It also introduced the eight writers to each other. Connecting through various social media platforms, the Foreword Reviews 8–as we’ve now dubbed ourselves–decided to try using a Twitter chat session to discuss some of our experiences as debut authors. In a fast, free-flowing, and fun half-hour on August 20th, using the hashtag #debutnovel and including @ForewordReviews, we discussed how long it took us to write, what the editing experience was like, what was most enjoyable or memorable, what we would do differently if we had a do-over, how we’re connecting with readers, and a range of related topics. Foreword Reviews was wonderfully supportive of the effort, even blogging about it in advance, and these eight debut authors are grateful for everything the folks there have done to spread the word.
In today’s edition of Washington Independent Review of Books, reviewer Katy Bowman offers a lovely and detailed critique of Up the Hill to Home. Ms. Bowman says, “Yacovissi shines in her descriptions of daily life, whether that life is taking place in Civil War-era Washington as Jubal Early and his Confederate troops are closing in, or in the crowded mid-1930s household that Lillie calls home as the book begins.” Particularly gratifying is her assessment of the book’s “complex characters,” in which she notes, “She brings the people and the places to life in such a way that they take up residence in your imagination, fully formed and breathing.”
The Summer 2015 print issue of Foreword Reviews has hit the newsstands, and features reviewer Michelle Schingler’s article, “Welcome to the Big Time: highly touted authors make the most of their debuts”. As promised, literary historical novel Up the Hill to Home is highlighted as one of eight “dazzling first novels”. In her review of the book, Schingler notes, “Yacovissi’s command of language makes for fluid and tactile reading,” and ends by saying, “Up the Hill to Home is an emotionally powerful, gorgeously imparted family saga.”
Foreword Reviews is available at selected Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million stores. It was distributed at the recent BookExpo America conference, and will also be distributed at the upcoming American Library Association conference and the Beijing International Book Fair.