Interview with Padma Venkatraman

June 25, 2009

Everyone please welcome Padma Venkatraman, author of Climbing the Stairs, a YA historical fiction novel about fifteen-year old Vidya’s struggle for personal freedom that plays out against the backdrop of World War II and the nonviolent Indian independence movement led by Gandhi.

If you haven’t already, don’t forget to stop by Climbing the Stairs.  And take a moment to visit Padma’s personal webpage.

1. Hello Padma. Welcome and thank you for taking the time to stop by Damsels in Regress to talk with us. So I’m going to jump right in and start off by asking what drew you to historical fiction, and your setting in particular.

Interestingly enough, what drew me to history was a question of current relevance, which is the central question that fuels the plot in CLIMBING THE STAIRS – the meaning of violence and nonviolence and the role of each within ourselves as individuals as well as in society at large.

When I started writing CLIMBING THE STAIRS, in 2003, I was the head of a school in England. Every day, I saw students faced with different kinds of violence – overt and subtle – name calling, bullying, and caste-like cliques. At that time, I had also chosen to become an American citizen and thus was particularly concerned about the Iraq war – and the larger issue of war itself. As I grappled with the question of whether a person should ever act violently, and of when, if and why a nation or a person should ever take up arms, my mind flew back to a different era, a different circumstance, a different culture, in which people I knew and loved had debated those same questions.

India, 1941. The time of Hitler and of Mahatma Gandhi. A setting of unparalleled contrast, I think, in which that timeless debate over violence and nonviolence and the meaning of war and peace was especially poignant.

2. What type of research did you do for Climbing the Stairs?

Read the rest of this entry »


Climbing the Stairs Contest

June 24, 2009

Continuing with our Author’s Spotlight week, I present to you the contest! You have a week to enter. The contest will end a week from today on July 1st! Tomorrow I will post the interview I did with Padma (make sure you stop by, you don’t want to miss it!) But now comes the fun part!

Answer the following questions (all answers can be found at Padma’s Climbing the Stairs website) and you’ll get your name entered into the drawing to win a signed copy of the book. You don’t need to have read the book to answer any of these questions!

Question 1: What is one book from Raman’s library that you’d be interested in reading?

Question 2: Were Periamma’s actions in the book based off true stories from women who lived through that time period in India?

Question 3: Who is Vidya’s character based on?

Leave your answers! I can’t screen comments so honor system if you leave a comment with your answers, or you can email us at damselsinregress [at] gmail [dot] com.

I know we have a couple young readers out there! If you’re under 18 please make sure you have your parents permission to enter the contest, and if you win, give your address out for where we can send the novel.

Book Review: Climbing the Stairs, by Padma Venkatraman

June 22, 2009

We are pleased to present to you the first “Author’s Week with the Damsels”.

Climbing the Stairs, by Padma Venkatraman

Climbing the Stairs, by Padma Venkatraman

This week we’re featuring Padma Venkatraman author of Climbing the Stairs. Stay tune for a book review, author interview and a contest with your chance to win a signed copy of the novel. So make sure to stop by so you don’t miss any of the fun this week! Now onward to my review.

Climbing the Stairs, by Padma Venkatraman

In a male dominated society, where oppression was a fact of life for women, we see the struggle of one girl and her determination to overcome years of “tradition”. With a vividly described setting and strong female protagonist World War II in India comes to life in Padma’s first novel Climbing the Stiars.

Climbing the Stairs, YA historical fiction, is about fifteen-year old Vidya’s struggle for personal freedom that plays out against the backdrop of World War II and the nonviolent Indian independence movement led by Gandhi. Vidya is a bright, intelligent and willful girl whose dreams of attending college are shattered when her father is injured in a freedom rally. Forced to move in with her grandfather and his traditional household, Vidya’s only means of escape are her forbidden trips to her grandfather’s library.

While the plot does involve the war and India’s struggle for freedom from Britain’s rule the heart of the story lies in Vidya’s struggle against following the traditions of her strict culture. Even though the war is only a back drop we get a wonderful picture of what India was like. The world comes alive with descriptions and little details that are worked in almost seamlessly. I love novels where fact and story are woven together so well you finish the novel realizing you had a history lesson, without even realizing you’d received one.

Vidya is a likable character. While she starts off a little naïve, we quickly see her grow up after her father’s accident. Vidya faces many challenges from dealing with her guilt over her father’s beating to struggling against her family and its traditions, and with each conflict she grows. I became quite attached to her with each turn of the page.

This was an important time in India’s history and the author has brought the story to life in a believable and interesting way. What’s even more impressive are the different beliefs presented in the book and how we get to see both sides of the argument, but aren’t told one way is better than the other, that one way is right and one is wrong. We’re left to discover what we believe/think on our own.

This is a very easy read that packs a powerful punch. I recommend it to anyone who’s looking for something a little different. In fact I recommend it to everyone.

Visit Padma’s site Climbing the Stairs for more information on India’s culture and topics in the book.

Dear Diary . . .

June 19, 2009

Have you ever wondered what daily life was like in the past?  What a young man or woman did with their time?  As I was doing research on the Victorian era for one of my books, I came across interesting selections from diaries of people of all ages.

My initial search started because the protagonist in my novel, An Inherited Evil, must learn more about his long-dead grandmother.  To give him the chance to do this, I provided him with diaries written by his grandmother when she was a teenager and in her early twenties.

Through my research, I discovered that many actual diaries of the time had preprinted pages with several dates per page—only room enough to write short capsules of your day.  Yet even those capsules gave a picture of a life.  Excerpts like, “Spent all day sewing my new frock,” or “Took most of the day to churn the butter,” are typical of these capsules.  But there are also bits about who the writer called on and who returned the favor.  And if the author of the diary lived in the country, guests would often stay overnight even if they lived nearby.  I suppose because a home nearby wasn’t really all that close.  (Or the weather was bad.)

For my novel, I needed the diary entries to be long paragraphs.  I was happy to find that Victorians also wrote in blank books and scrap books filled with drawings and photos to keep records of their lives.  The most difficult part about reading old diaries is deciphering the handwriting, which is often cramped, with more lines per page than seem humanly possible.  But if you’re interested in making the attempt, there are countless resources online and books available.

All this made me wonder if people do this type of record-keeping anymore.  I mean, I’m aware that some people keep journals where they record thoughts and feelings and ideas.  But do people, especially teenagers, record snippets of their daily life in a book meant to be private?  Or is that type of thing now done on social networking sites where people can instantly let others know about their day?

Maybe 100 years from now, people will be reading blogs to see what life was like in the 21st century.

Simple Remedies

June 18, 2009

America Frugal Housewife

Cotton wool, wet with sweet oil and paregoric, relieves the ear-ache very soon.

…presented to you from The American Frugal Housewife – Dedicated to those who are not ashamed of economy, by Mrs. Child…

Book Review: What I Saw and How I Lied, by Judy Blundell

June 15, 2009

What I Saw and How I Lied, by Judy Blundell

whatisawhowiliedThis book had an engaging narrator in Evelyn (something about that name in 1940s stories, I guess), who is fifteen in the summer of 1947. Her stepfather, Joe, has recently come home from serving in Europe and has opened two successful stores selling the latest appliances, like washing machines and air conditioning units. Joe surprises Evelyn and her mother by taking them on a road trip from their home in Queens, New York, to Palm Beach, Florida, which was the place to go if you were anybody. Evelyn struggles to shed her little girl, goody-two-shoes image while away from home and meets Peter, a man in his early twenties who treats her like a grown-up. He pays compliments to both Evelyn and her gorgeous mother and Evelyn finds herself falling hopelessly in love with him.

Of course, all is not as it seems. Peter says he knew Joe during the war, but Joe is uneasy in Peter’s presence, at times becoming downright hostile. Peter finally tells Evelyn what he and Joe did after the war, and soon Evelyn learns more family secrets than she ever wanted to know, all the while wondering if her first love returns her affections.

I loved that this book doesn’t skirt around the prejudices and unsavory cultural practices of this era. There is a lot of anti-Semitism from many sides, and Evelyn, who is Catholic and who grew up in a religiously-segregated neighborhood, wrestles with her feelings as she sees this play out with people she’s come to care about. All the adult characters smoke as if cigarettes were water in a desert and drink cocktails every night before dinner, which was very typical of their time period. Evelyn has no magical insight from the future that smoking causes lung cancer and heavy drinking causes liver damage, and all the while my nose wrinkled I appreciated that historical authenticity.

I also loved that the characters celebrated the war being over and tried to move on with their lives, but found it hard in many ways to do so. Just because sugar and cigarettes were available didn’t mean the scars of war were healed, and this book does a wonderful job of showing how such a huge, all-encompassing event is not over just because you want it to be.

The Lacemaker and the Princess by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

June 8, 2009

lacemakerprincessThis book came out a couple of years ago, but it didn’t cross my path until recently when I was browsing through Amazon. It’s not a fantasy, but a story of differing cultures in France before the Revolution.

When eleven-year-old Isabelle Bonnard, a lacemaker like her mother and grandmother, delivers lace to the palace at Versailles, she has a chance encounter with Marie Antoinette. The queen invites her to spend the day with her daughter Marie-Therese, whose regular playmate is unavailable. Isabelle, of course, agrees, and enters a world of privilege and wealth where she is given a more fashionable name and new clothes so she can dress identically to the princess.

As she becomes one of the princess’s companions, Isabelle discovers that Therese is just as lonely as she is, but there are great differences as well. Isabelle is uneducated and has much to learn about court life. Therese does not understand that some children have to work and earn money and she refuses to consider Isabelle in that light.

Yet, the girls develop a friendship and Isabelle grows so used to the privileged life that her older brother, a palace stable hand, worries that she’s lost touch with the real world. He takes her with him when he delivers a carriage to Paris, and on the walk home (12 miles!) he shows her the poverty of the people across the countryside. Isabelle is changed by the experience and begins to understand the country’s unrest with the royal family she so admires.

Brubaker Bradley does a wonderful job building the tension as the story progresses. A mob of people march on Versailles and the royal family is taken away to Paris. Before reading this, I knew that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were eventually executed, but had not known what happened to their children. The Lacemaker and the Princess is full of the details that make historical fiction fascinating. I definitely recommend it.