MedHum Mondays Book Review: Orphan Number Eight

DailyDose_PosterGood morning and welcome back to MedHum Mondays on the Daily Dose! Today, Review editor Anna Clutterbuck-Cook reporting on a novel that seeks to strike a balance between history, medicine, and fiction: Orphan Number Eight by Kim Alkemade.


Iorphan_number_eight_cvrn her debut novel, Orphan Number Eight, essayist Kim van Alkemade (Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania) seeks to offer readers a glimpse into the multiply-marginalized life of Rachel Rabinowitz. Orphaned in 1919 by the quasi-accidental homicide of her mother by her father, four-year-old Rachel is separated from her older brother and sent to an infant’s home. There, she is enrolled as a human subject in a number of medical experiments, including a radiology experiment conceived and conducted by ambitious medical resident Mildred Solomon. The prolonged exposure to radiation leaves Rachel hairless, a condition that makes her a target of bullying in the Home, and continues into adulthood causing her a great deal of body shame. Decades later, working as a nurse in a home for the elderly, Rachel finds herself caring for the now cancer-ridden and dying Dr. Solomon. The seemingly-fateful encounter prompts Rachel to  seek out a more complete picture of the medical “treatments” she endured as a child. What she discovers shocks and angers Rachel to such an extent she finds herself contemplating revenge.

Orphan Number Eight is written with a great deal of passionate anger about the complex and often ugly history of twentieth century medical ethics — a history that reveals a great deal of what, today, we would consider human rights violations. As an institutionalized child, the fictional Rachel had countless real-world counterparts — orphans, the mentally ill, the imprisoned, the poor — whose socially vulnerable, othered bodies became a testing ground for medical research under circumstances that precluded informed consent. van Alkemade seeks to explore this history and its human cost through the fictionalized account of one such survivor. This decision to use the medium of fiction could have been a powerful narrative choice, yet despite its triumphs, as a reader I came away ultimately unsatisfied.

Warning: plot spoilers after the jump. Continue reading “MedHum Mondays Book Review: Orphan Number Eight”

Fiction Reboot Presents: An Interview with DB Jackson/Thieftaker

fictionreboot2Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot (companion to the Daily Dose)!

Have you ever wondered how authors make historical fiction “work”? Or better, how do fusions of fiction and fact come together? From works like Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell to Dan Brown’s re-envisioning of the past, books offer us a taste not just of what “was” but what “might have been.” One of my favorite genres, steampunk, does the same. It plays with our sense of reality. But the authors of such works walk a careful line. At last year’s World Fantasy Conference, I listened in on a panel of historical fiction authors as they discussed their ethical duty to the past. Today, I am happy to feature one of those panelists: David Coe, or D.B. Jackson, author of the Thieftaker series. Taking place in Revolutionary Boston, the story mixes fact and the fantastic for a magical realism circa 1776. Thank you, David, for answering our burning questions!

DEAD MAN’S REACH is available now! Order today!


  1. The Thieftaker series combines fantasy with historical fiction. What inspired you–and more specifically, is there anything about the Revolutionary period in America that lends itself to magic-making?

I was originally inspired to write the Thieftaker Chronicles by something I read about the rise of thieftakers, private investigators operating in the absence of established police forces, who recovered stolen goods for a fee. In particular, I read about Jonathan Wild, a corrupt, ruthless thieftaker who operated in London in the early 18th century, and who was responsible for most of the thefts he “investigated.” Upon reading this, I knew that I wanted to write about thieftakers. My idea was to create a character based on Wild who would be the nemesis for my honest, magic-wielding, thieftaking hero. That character became Sephira Pryce, the lovely, dangerous nemesis for Ethan Kaille.

200DeadMansReachI chose to set the books in 1760s Boston because the city lacked an effective police force, and so could well have been someplace where thieftakers might flourish (though there is no historical evidence to suggest they actually did). It was also the center of pre-Revolutionary political unrest in North America, and I thought it would be a rich source of story ideas. And, to get to your second question, Boston, and the Province of Massachusetts Bay in general, saw “witch” trials and scares throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Given the history of witchcraft in the region, it seemed the perfect setting for a magical story.

  1. The magic in Thieftaker is much more than wand-waving; it’s physical, bloody, even sacrificial. Could you briefly describe the methods to the unfamiliar reader? What about this kind of magic made it right for the story world?

There are actually several “parts” to my magic system. First, every conjurer, including Ethan, has a spectral guide who appears whenever a conjurer casts a spell. These ghosts grant the conjurer access to magical power, which dwells at the boundary between the living world, and the realm of the dead. Second, every spell must include an incantation, spoken in Latin, which shapes that power and gives it purpose. And finally, every spell has to be fueled by some sort of offering. For the weakest spells — illusion spells mostly — a conjurer might use water or fire as a source. Stronger spells — those that shape matter in some way, like healing spells, or conjurings that can shatter glass or rend wood — require a more substantive offering, taken from some living thing. A conjurer might use grass, or leaves from a tree. Most often they use blood, because it’s readily available, and because it is the most powerful living source. The strongest spells require the taking of a life — human or some other animate creature. These conjurings are dark, even evil, and most conjurers stay away from them.

I created this complicated magic system with the intention of making it blend with my world. As I mentioned a moment ago, my books are set in a time and place in which people still feared witchcraft. Spells require that my conjurers commune with spirits, speak in tongues, use blood sacrifice. All of these appear in contemporary accounts of what witchcraft looked like, and so all contribute to the conflation of conjuring with “witchery.” Thus, in addition to all the other trials and tribulations I throw at my hero, he also lives in constant fear of being hanged or burned for witchcraft.

  1. You create a very real fear in the audience that this time the protagonist(s) might not actually make it out OK. How do you balance the thrill of an adventure tale, the centrality of all of the characters, and the suspense of the action sequences?

Thank you. That’s kind of you to say. I want my audience to fear for my characters, so I’m glad to hear that you were worried! I’m a big believer in the power of point of view. I believe that the narration of a point of view character is, in many ways, the most powerful tool a writer has at her or his disposal. When POV is handled well, the intellect, senses, and emotions of the protagonist inform everything the reader experiences. Put another way, Ethan’s fear, anger, love, hate, frustration, confusion, etc. insinuate themselves into your emotions.

On one level, of course, my readers know (or at least think they know) that everything will turn out all right in the end. They don’t believe that I’m going to kill off Ethan, and they probably assume that those closest to him are safe as well. But they’re subject to the power of Ethan’s emotions, and ETHAN doesn’t know any of those things for certain. He thinks he could be killed at any moment. He fears for the safety of Kannice and Janna, Diver and Henry. It’s his emotions and uncertainty that bring suspense to my action scenes. I do everything I can to make his reactions as real and visceral for my readers as possible. I like to say that point of view is the nexus of character and plot. It’s the place where character and adventure meet to create suspense.

  1. Some of the characters which intrigued me most were the less central ones, like his fellow conjurers. Can you tell us a little about how you go about creating these characters who are only briefly shown, but still have strong and interesting personalities?

On one level, this comes down to doing my homework. The characters to whom you refer may be minor, but I still want them to have depth and dimension. So I take time to give them a history, to create a personality to go with the name and face. I don’t spend as much time on them as I do on Ethan, Sephira, and Kannice, but I spend more time than one might think. My readers may not ever learn all that I know about them, but the weight of their backgrounds is conveyed in the narrative, and makes them seem real.

And again, point of view plays a role in this. To Ethan, all of these people are living breathing people. So his response to them, his observations, the rapport he shares with them, all combine to make them seem more believable to my readers.

  1. I was very surprised (as a first-time Thieftaker reader) to realize that Kaille was not strongly on the side of the Revolution. What made you decide to pull back from the perhaps more expected approach of backing the Revolution from the beginning and make Kaille so mistrustful of the men we now know as the nation’s forefathers?

I spent a good deal of time developing Ethan’s character, filling in his background, coming up with a detailed personal history. He’s an ex-convict, a former navy sailor, the son of a naval officer. He’s also somewhat older than most fantasy heroes — in his mid-forties by the time of the action in DEAD MAN’s REACH — and so is more set in his ways than the younger men who tended to gravitate to the Sons of Liberty. It probably sounds odd, but given everything I knew about him by the time I’d completed this process, I couldn’t make him anything but a loyalist. You’re right: Making him a patriot would have been more expected, and also more convenient. But he essentially told me he was a loyalist, and I had to respect that. I’ll also admit that it makes him a more interesting character, and his political conversion, which takes place over the span of these four books, complements the emotional elements of his character arc.

  1. Rumor has it this is the last novel in this series–how do you, as an author, know when a story-arc has arrived at its finale? Will there ever be more?

I hope there will be more Thieftaker novels. I have ideas for more. We have to see how this last book does commercially. Frankly, after writing four Thieftaker books in four years, I’m ready for a break. I’ll come back to Ethan and his adventures eventually, but for now I have other projects in mind.

And I think that answers your question to some extent. I knew while writing DEAD MAN’S REACH that I was ready to move on to something else. I love the book — I think it might be the best I’ve ever written. But I also could tell that if I’d had to write another Thieftaker novel right away, it would have felt stale, to me and to my readers. I trust that instinct, and I looked for ways to tie up some of the plot threads that run through the series, to give my readers and my characters some sense of closure. There is room still for more mysteries, more thrills, but there is also a feeling of resolution.


CoeJacksonPubPic1000David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson is the award-winning author of eighteen fantasy novels. Under the name D.B. Jackson, he writes the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy from Tor Books that includes Thieftaker, Thieves’ Quarry, A Plunder of Souls, and, the newest volume, Dead Man’s Reach, was released on July 21. Under his own name, he writes The Case Files of Justis Fearsson, a contemporary urban fantasy from Baen Books. The first volume, Spell Blind, debuted in January 2015. The newest book in the series, His Father’s Eyes, came out on August 4. He lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.


Fiction Reboot Interview’s Barbara Rogan, Mystery Writer

FictionReboot2Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot!

Today’s Friday Feature interviews Barbara Rogan, mystery writer, agent, and teacher. Rogan has lived a diverse life; from New York City and Santa Fe to Europe and Israel, she has experienced many different places and perspectives that have factored into her writing. A writer with a love of thriller and mystery novels, Rogan also teaches online writing classes on her “Next Level Workshop” site. Her latest book, “A Dangerous Fiction,” combines Rogan’s loves of the publishing industry and of this thriller theme. The book was touted by Diana Gabaldon “a thriller with a psychological heart of mystery, a double-ended love story, and a fascinating look at the world of high-stakes publishing.” In an exclusive interview, Rogan discusses how her rich past plays a role in her writing.

bio_2_1949043100Author Bio:

Born in New York City, Barbara Rogan has spent much of her life traveling. In college she took a year off to journey through Europe and Israel. After she graduated from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, she took a publishing job in New York. Six months later, Rogan left for Israel, studied Hebrew and worked as a park ranger, horse wrangler, and editor in Tel Aviv. Two years later, she launched Barbara Rogan Literary Agency, which soon became the largest in the country. After the birth of her son, she sold the agency, moved back to New York, and became a full time writer. She has since published multiple novels and continues to teach online writing courses and revise fiction.

To learn more about Rogan, visit her website at or follow her on Twitter at @RoganBarbara.

Interview with Barbara Rogan:

  1. You have a rich, diverse life. How does this factor into your writing?

It provides material and a wider view of life. I’m not an ivory tower sort of writer. Recently, a young writer asked my advice about going straight from college to grad school to get an MFA. I advised against it. I have nothing against MFA degrees. The degree itself isn’t critical, as writers are judged by what they produce, not how they got there; but the intense focus on writing and critical feedback required to attain that degree can be valuable indeed. The first thing the writer needs, though, is something to write about. I suspicion_1advised the young writer who asked not to go straight to grad school but rather to go out into the world, preferably someplace where he doesn’t feel at home.

  1. How did running such a large publishing agency in Israel shape your perspective as a writer?

It taught me how the industry works. Before I started the agency, I was an editor in a large New York City publishing house; so I’ve seen the publishing world from a lot of different angles. This is both good and bad for me as a writer. On the one hand, I’m not intimidated by any situation and I can speak the lingo without an interpreter. Writers who understand the business get a bit more respect and can help themselves more, or at least avoid hurting themselves. On the other hand, I can see potential problems coming from 50 different directions. Sometimes, it’s better to just sit back and enjoy the ride.

  1. Do you have a specific process that you follow when you write?

I spend months doing prep work before I start writing a book. I do research; I write down setting, character and plot ideas, and wait for them to cross-fertilize; and in the final stage of prep, I start plotting out the novel. In the beginning, it’s a pretty rough outline. I know where I want to start and end up, but not all the stops along the way. As I proceed with the writing, I continue to outline sections in more detail. I write down my goals for each scene, and the incidents that need to happen to get me there. After all that planning, I put my notes aside and just write. The notes have provided parameters for the scene, but writing without reference to them allows for unexpected things to pop up.

  1. Do you have any quirky writing habits?

I like to write naked, hanging upside down from a chandelier. Other than that, no.

  1. What draws you to the genre of suspense and mystery?

hindsight_1__1Well, for one thing I’ve always liked to read them. People should write what they enjoy reading I think. For another, they have a definitive form. Mysteries are to fiction as sonnets are to poetry. They have certain requirements and you can be very creative while playing within those lines; but they give a shape to the book and a solid resolution, which I find very satisfying.

  1. You taught for a long time and still continue to do so through workshops. Why is teaching so important to you?

I never had the opportunity to study writing in college or out of it; like most writers, I’ve learned through practice, good critical feedback, and other writers. Teaching is a way of exploring the art of fiction writing, consolidating what I’ve learned over the course of writing my books. It’s certainly made me a better writer.

I also enjoy working with serious writers, seeing their progress and offering a little help along the way. It’s hugely satisfying when my students go forth and publish, as many have. And I think it’s useful work. Most writers go through identical stages in learning to write, as babies do in learning to walk. You can’t make just anyone into a writer, but for those who have the skill and determination, a good teacher can shorten the path.

  1. How was your move from Israel back to the United States reflected in your writing, if at all?

My first couple of books were set in Israel. After I made the move back to the U. S., the settings moved as well. Part of the reason that I came back was for the language. When I lived in Israel, I read a lot in English but spoke Hebrew most of the time. After a number of years living abroad, I began to feel a certain disconnection to my native language, which is a living and evolving thing. Since I write in English, I wanted to re-immerse myself in that language.

  1. Tell me about your experience writing your latest book, “A Dangerous Fiction”?

DangerousFictionHC_jacket3“A DANGEROUS FICTION” is the story of Jo Donovan, a literary agent who came out of nowhere to become a star in the NYC publishing world. She’s living the life she always dreamed of until it all starts to go south. Jo’s problems begin with a stalker who insists that she represent him, but soon get much, much worse. I had loved the 15 or so years that I spent as an agent, traveling widely and working with brilliant, fascinating people, and writing this book gave me the opportunity to return to that world. It’s always fun to write a book in which the characters need be really clever. I did succeed in entertaining myself, always my first goal.

  1. Who are some of your favorite authors?

That’s tough because I read so many different kinds of books. In the suspense genre I like Dennis Lehane, Ron Rash, Gillian Flynn. Literary fiction: Don DeLillo, Edward St. Aubyn, Pat Parker, Barbara Kingsolver, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and the sainted Jane Austen, whose books I’ve read to the point of memorization. I read a lot of short stories, too: favorites include Katherine Mansfield, George Sanders, Amy Bloom, Lori Moore, and Tobias Wolff.

Thanks to Barbara Rogan for taking the time to speak with “Fiction Reboot.”

Keri Heath is a writer and journalist from Austin, Texas. She has written professionally for Austin Fit, Totally Dublin, Austin Woman, and ATX Man magazines. She has also seen her creative work published in NEAT and Straylight magazines, among others. When she isn’t writing, she loves to read, run, and play mandolin. You can view Keri’s work at or by following her @HeathKeri.