Tuesday, October 06, 2015

The complexities and contradictions of a king: Geraldine Brooks' The Secret Chord

In her gorgeously written novel of ambition, courage, retribution, and triumph, Brooks imagines the life and character of King David in all his complexity, from his humble childhood through old age.  A brilliant harpist and singer with immense charisma, this man beloved by the Lord is also a fearsome warrior who ruthlessly pursues his vision of power.

Natan, David’s longtime counselor and prophet, proves a shrewd chronicler for his tale, and David wisely knows it. The plot ranges back and forth in time, as Natan interviews three individuals David hand-selects for him to speak with, reminisces about his years of service, and observes David’s passion for the beautiful, married Batsheva and its consequences.  But this isn’t David’s story alone. Stitched onto the familiar biblical framework are insightful interpretations of his wives and family members.

The language, clear and precise throughout, turns soaringly poetic when describing music or the glory of David’s city. Brooks’ preference for biblical Hebrew names emphasizes the story’s origins, and, taken as a whole, the novel feels simultaneously ancient, accessible, and timeless.

The Secret Chord is published today by Viking in hardcover ($27.95, 320pp).  This review first appeared in Booklist's August issue.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Coming of age in the heartland: Carol Bodensteiner's Go Away Home

According to the US Census, the population of Jackson County, Iowa, was just over 21,000 in 1910. Opening three years later, Carol Bodensteiner’s debut, set on dairy farms and in the small town of Maquoketa, the county seat, is a heartfelt coming-of-age story that should appeal to adults and mature YAs.

With her clear, unfussy writing style, the author re-creates the daily lives and hopes of women living in America’s heartland, basing the character of Liddie Treadway on her grandmother. Over the course of the novel, which has an epic feel despite its narrow geographic scope, Liddie grows up, comes to see what she values most, and learns the necessity of weathering the storms life sends her way.

Maquoketa is a mere 10 miles from her family’s farm, but for 16-year-old Liddie, “boarding in town, learning to be a seamstress, living on her own – those experiences were exotic.” She has talent and wants to see where it takes her, especially if it’s far from Iowa. But after her older sister, Amelia, gets pregnant and is sent away, and another tragedy strikes, Liddie sees her career aspirations crushed.

But circumstances change, as the swift-moving plot demonstrates. Liddie’s apprenticeship in a sewing shop gives her marketable skills, and her friendship with a photographer opens doors she never imagined. She writes frequent letters to Joe Bauer, her family’s former hired hand, homesteading in distant Saskatchewan, but she sees him only as a good friend. She wants to be more than a farmer’s wife.

She often acts immature for her years, stomping her feet when events go contrary to expectations, but it’s easy to warm to Liddie and root for her to outgrow her naïveté. The social values expressed in the novel reflect the time; even the kindest, most good-hearted men expect their wives home in time to cook dinner. Themes of women’s suffrage, anti-war sentiment, prejudice against German-Americans, and the threat of Spanish influenza wend through the novel.

Bodensteiner includes picturesque images of the hills of rural Iowa, “where the pattern of fields and fences reminded [Liddie] of a nine-patch quilt.” In places the novel reads like scenes from Country Magazine come to life. This was a time of party-line telephones and Brownie cameras, letter-writing and home-made dresses, when daily chores were constant and driving a car was an exciting, new experience.

However, despite its nostalgic qualities, the story has an inner grit that adds to its feeling of authenticity. Farming is difficult, and the family relationships are far from idealized. Readers interested in early 20th-century women’s lives should appreciate this involving story about the strength to leave home, the courage to come back, and the relationships formed along the way. A sequel would be welcome.

Go Away Home was published by Lake Union in July (400pp, pb and ebook).  Thanks to the publisher for making it available on NetGalley as a "read now" title.  A special alert: for those who ordinarily read the Author's Note at the end before starting a book, please don't!  (Thankfully, I didn't.)  Doing so will spoil the reading experience. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The story behind The Heart Remembers, a guest post by Margaret Redfern

Margaret Redfern, author of the medieval-set novels Flint and The Storyteller's Granddaughter, has a new post today about the writing and research behind The Heart Remembers, last in her trilogy.  Some beautiful photos from her wide-ranging travels are included below. The Heart Remembers is published by Honno on October 15th in paperback (£8.99, 352pp).


The Story Behind The Heart Remembers
Margaret Redfern

My niece is appalled. 'You killed him!' Well yes, I did. Not my choice, you understand, but inevitable and, as I am writing this in September and The Heart Remembers is not published until October, the 'he' must be nameless. That's the problem with writing. The characters take over and dictate events and so ‘his’ death was inevitable.

The Heart Remembers was originally a continuation of Storyteller's Granddaughter but the whole story 'just grew and grew', and so it was decided to split the MS. The third of the 'Flint' stories had taken on a life on its own. In this book, the group is separated but all eventually head for Ypres and Lincolnshire and reunion. The secondary characters had their chance to take centre stage, and the Lincolnshire background in particular became a character in its own right. A chance, as well, for 'East meets West', writers’ licence creating probably the only known instance of hot, piped water in the whole of 1330s Britain. And hot tubs.

Flat land, because this is farming land reclaimed from the Fens.

But first there was the arrival in Venice and subsequent dramatic events. My intention was to revisit this extraordinary city, last seen in 1973, but funds, as they say, did not permit, and a few domestic crises intervened. But – well – what was there for me to see? The catastrophic 14thC fire had destroyed much of ‘my’ Venice. Instead, I made a virtual tour – thank you Google – and read a hoard of books – thank you Lincoln Oxfam and Central Library - identifying the buildings of the 1330s city – and watched the DVD of the beguiling Francesco Da Mosta’s ‘Venice’. A real breakthrough was the on-line discovery of Professor Guido Ruggeiro’s gritty book, Violence in Early Renaissance Venice (UP 1980), tracked down to a real, paper copy by the staff of Lincoln Central Library. The book was a revelation. Venice was not a nice place to be in the 14th century.

Ypres presented similar problems. So much information on WW1 but so little about its medieval past. Chatham Library, Ontario provided the excellent book full of ‘useful stuff’ noted in my last essay for Sarah’s site. The cat-throwing ceremony, however, I discovered via the internet and wondered, at first, if it was a joke. I double checked. Nope. For real.

I couldn’t resist another ‘walk-on’ part, this time Giotto di Bondone, the first great artist of the Renaissance, though he doesn’t make an actual appearance. I was fascinated by his inclusion of Halley’s Comet, painted in place of the Star of Bethlehem, in his Adoration of the Magi in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, and also by the brown-curly-haired young man who appears in a number of Giotto’s frescoes. This had to be the young Will.

The horizon.

By this time I was realising that this book was very much about female power. The men are mentally, emotionally and, in one instance, physically vulnerable. Only Twm has a new inner certainty. The women are strong-minded, including the new characters, and those not always in a good way. I honestly didn't set out with ‘female power’ as a theme. The story and the characters created their own truth.

The lore of the 'wise women' – Ellen and Hilda – was learnt from Debbie of Lincoln who I first met at Chambers Farm Wood when she took a group of us round the woodland in spring, showing us the plants and herbs that were collected for medicine and well-being. I have shamelessly drawn on her knowledge. Later in the year we met again to make a useful winter salve, and a compote of blackberries, elderberries and wild apples flavoured with spices and sweetened with honey, and which I still make as a safeguard against winter ailments. As well, she gave us a recipe for fabulous Hawthorn Brandy. Medicinal use, of course. The 800 year old coppiced lime tree exists. And yes, I wept, hugging one of its trunks.

Chambers Farm Wood - moving into the Long Wood. Deep ponds here.

I cannot reveal the site of the deserted medieval village that became Bradwell. I didn't ask permission. It is one of many in Lincolnshire. Equally, the Norman manor that I ‘transplanted’ to the site of the village must remain unnamed though it is easily identified by anyone interested in ancient buildings. Much of 'Lost Lincoln' is still there, if hidden: the foundations of Gilbertine St Catherine's can be seen under glass flooring in what is now the community centre of a much later St Catherine's Church. Keep walking along the High Street and you pass 'Bargate', though it’s a street name only. No sign now of the original gatehouse. The Franciscan friary of Lincoln is gone, the 19thC St Swithin's church on the site of the original buildings, but there is one ancient building remaining between the church and library. One spring afternoon I trailed in behind a group of students whose seminar was to be held in the building. The tutor gave me permission to descend to its vaulted undercroft. Wow!

 The under croft of Bradwell manor.

And there are those Lincolnshire skyscapes, the extraordinary sunsets, dramatic thunderous clouds… late one January day, the sunset was exactly what I wanted for the beginning of Chapter 8 so I drove out to Bloxholme Wood for a closer view.

Bloxholme Wood and that sunset (chapter 8). Squint to miss the telegraph wires.

The wonderfully named Wasp's Nest hamlet alongside the Roma Carr Dyke.
And those skies!

My modest digital camera came in handy yet again, as it did on numerous ‘trottings’ around Lincolnshire. And Wales. The phenomenon of rainbow-lit clouds I really did see one rainy day when travelling along the ‘old road’ over the mountain from Dinas Mawddwy to Bala. And those indeterminate watery-landscapes of the Lincolnshire coast are still there.

Winter sunset along the Witham. It's canalised now - 1330s, spreading over a wide area but still with its stunning view of Lincoln Cathedral seen for miles dead-ahead.

I wanted this last book to come full circle and so in places I have repeated text from Flint and Storyteller’s Granddaughter. I’ve no idea if this will be obvious to the reader.

As always in all three books there is a sub-text of the need for love and tolerance of ‘same but different’. Right now, that need is more crucial and urgent than ever.

Blue skies - I'm the shadow. Better than selfies.

Margaret Redfern
September 2015

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The pursuit of an artistic life: Jeannine Atkins' Little Woman in Blue

Atkins’ elegantly understated work is the first novel to be written about May Alcott, a 19th-century artist whose talents were overshadowed by her older sister, Louisa. While it succeeds in drawing readers into the lives of the Alcotts of Concord, Massachusetts – their aspirations, values, insecurities, conflicts, and their love for one another – it’s more a portrait of a woman struggling to pursue her artistic dreams while hoping one day to become a wife and mother. May attracts many students to the local painting classes she teaches but knows she’s missing out, never having had the opportunity to visit Europe: “My art would improve with Michelangelo and Raphael to teach me,” she tells Louisa.

Although May enjoys a romance with Julian Hawthorne, the son of neighbors Nathaniel and Sophia, his poverty and lack of direction make him a bad choice as a husband for an ambitious woman. Once Louisa’s Little Women becomes a bestseller, a trip to Europe finally looks like more of a possibility. However, Louisa’s interpretation of May’s fictional counterpart – golden-haired Amy March, who dabbles in art but gives up her hobby to marry – shows May that her sister hardly knows her.

Atkins creates beautiful images with her writing: May and Julian’s moonlit boat excursion through the water lilies floating in the Concord River has the feel of an impressionist painting, and May’s observations of the bustling Parisian streets bring the city alive. Some sharper characterizations would have helped; the Alcott parents fade into the background, for instance, and without dialogue tags during lengthy exchanges, it can sometimes be hard to tell who’s saying what. A slight re-edit would be of benefit here.

While this is a quiet book, the characters’ strong emotions come through on the page. Thoughtful readers will appreciate the depictions of the sisters’ passion for their art and the challenges that 19th-century American women faced when they worked for a living.

Little Woman in Blue was published by She Writes Press this month ($16.95, trade pb, 326pp).  This review first appeared in the Historical Novels Review's indie reviews.

See also Jeannine Atkins' essay about her research, posted this past Monday.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Guest post by Jeannine Atkins: Plundering Back Cupboards

Jeannine Atkins, author of Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott, is here today with an essay about finding the little details that can make an era and character feel authentic.  


Plundering Back Cupboards
Jeannine Atkins

Obsession and an eye for detail can take a writer of historical fiction a long way, especially when those collide in a perfect storm. I’ve been drawn to the Alcott family since I was a girl arguing with my sister about who got to play which sister in Little Women. As an adult, I studied the connections and contradictions between Louisa May Alcott’s real family and her fictional creation. The youngest sister in the novel is depicted as a spoiled girl who grew into a dilettante. In reality, May Alcott spent much of her adult life unmarried – while flirting wildly – in order to devote herself to art. May’s greatest successes, including having her watercolor copies of Turner sold at London’s National Gallery and work shown in the competitive Paris Salon, came after Louisa wrote Little Women. Still, Louisa seemed unimpressed.

The warmth and grit between May and Louisa became the core of Little Woman in Blue: A Novel of May Alcott (She Writes Press, Sept. 2015). For me, writing historical fiction means spending years researching and imagining, so these had better be people that, like family members, you may not always approve of, but feel bound to by love, with all its highs and lows. Writers let that first flicker of “here’s a story” deepen into obsession as we follow clues around detours and past walls.

All the Alcott family members kept journals and wrote letters, many of which were saved. Some have been published, while others are in archives. It’s great to swap pens for pencils and touch fragile paper in quiet rooms, but it’s not a moment-by-moment a thrill. Eventually that first hold-your-breath intimacy bumps into the realization that there’s more humdrum than drama. Like attics, diaries often are full of stuff that seems useless, but a dim corner may hold just what we need. My eyes glaze at accounts of vague miseries but light up when I find out exactly how long a game of whist lasted or the shape of shoe’s heel. I borrow these real things in hope they’ll make my fiction seem thoroughly real to readers.

Writing based on real people means we’re given a shape, but to bring someone back to life, we must draw from a richness of stuff, plundering untidy closets and cupboards. Maybe an apple core or an old paint box will bring a story to life. Always, mystery abounds. 


In addition to her newest release, Little Woman in Blue, Jeannine Atkins is the acclaimed author of twelve books for young readers featuring women in history, including Borrowed Names: Poems about Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madam C. J. Walker, and Marie Curie and their Daughters. She is an adjunct professor at Simmons College and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Visit her website at www.jeannineatkins.com.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Interview with India Edghill, author of Game of Queens - plus special giveaway

Back in 2002, I trekked out to New York State to interview author India Edghill about her debut historical novel, Queenmaker, which took a fresh look at King David by picturing him from the viewpoint of his first wife and queen, Michal.  When given the opportunity to speak with India again about her new biblical novel, Game of Queens, I was immediately interested in following up with her about her writing career. As I'm no longer based in the Northeast, though, this new interview was conducted over email.   

Game of Queens puts a distinctive new spin on the traditional story of King Ahasuerus of Persia, Queen Esther, the repudiated Queen Vashti, the famous kingdom-wide beauty contest, and the circumstances that led to Esther's saving of the Jewish people (the origin of the Festival of Purim). The novel is partly told from Vashti's point of view; she's neither evil nor a rival of Esther's; and... well, I don't want to give too much away, but please read the interview (and the book!) to discover more.  Game of Queens is published by St. Martin's Press this month ($28.99, hb, 400pp).

India is generously offering a special giveaway for blog visitors.  Two selected winners will receive a set of both Game of Queens and Gladys Malvern's Behold Your Queen!, which you can learn more about below.  This giveaway is open internationally.  Fill out the form at the very end to enter.


You’ve mentioned that Gladys Malvern's Behold Your Queen!, an older novel about Queen Esther, is one of your all-time favorite books. Why does it stand out for you?

Behold Your Queen! is one of the first historical novels I ever read. BYQ! came out in 1951, and I read it when I was eight or nine fortunately, the elementary school library had a copy. (Back in the fifties, BYQ! was considered a children's book; now it's considered YA.) So it made a huge impression on me, just as Young Bess did.

And the writing in BYQ! is wondrous; not one word too many, not one word too few. It has a clarity and a purity that's rare. BYQ!'s Esther is an amazing character: intelligent and wise; kind, loving, and strong. Yes, she's also physically beautiful, but it's her inner beauty that leaves the most lasting impression.

What played into your decision to write your own version of the Esther story?

Well, I had this two-book contract… The first book on that contract was for a book about Delilah, and the second was about A Biblical Woman To Be Determined Later. People kept suggesting I do Esther, and I kept saying "Esther's been done a zillion times, and besides, my book won't be as good as Behold Your Queen!" I think it was my sister who suggested I do the story from Vashti's POV. It's really Vashti who sets the ball in play, because her refusal to obey Ahasuerus's command to show herself off to a banquet-hall full of drunks makes everything fall apart for Esther to put back together.

How did you come up with Vashti's family background in Game of Queens?

Tradition tells us that Vashti was Nebuchadnezzar's granddaughter, which would make Belshazzar her father (tradition says a lot of things about Vashti, most of them not very nice). I made Belshazzar her grandfather to suit my storyline.

However, I strongly suspect you're actually asking about Vashti's grandmother, Ishvari of the Black Horse People. She's totally fictional and she's in Game of Queens because I didn't want to spend a whole book about women talking about Vashti's grandfather. So I created a Scythian princess of great pride and beauty and gorgeous horses and incredible riding ability who's sent to marry Belshazzar. (Walter Farley and his Black Stallion series have a lot to answer for, literarily speaking….) (And you know, there's a really good reason that fiction's littered with orphans who have no relatives at all, living or dead. Boy, do relatives get cumbersome to keep track of in a manuscript.)

Book One, "The Lion's Den," covers the backstory of Daniel the seer. Why did you decide to begin the main part of the novel there?

Seriously? Because he's the oldest. No, really you see, I write a book in scenes, not beginning-to-end (and I cannot too strongly recommend that if you can, write straight through, not as your whimsy takes you), and so I had what I considered just Absolutely Fabulous openings for each of the main characters. Each of which would have been a perfectly corking beginning for the book…which wasn't actually possible. So it (eventually, and after much shuffling around) opened chronologically.

The amusing banter among the characters in that section was unexpected and fun to read -- Daniel has a good sense of humor. How did you decide on that approach? 

Daniel needs a good sense of humor, especially since he doesn't have much sense! The dialogue flowed from the kind of characters Arioch, Samamat, and Daniel were, and I'm glad you found it amusing, because humor is much, much harder to pull off than serious dialogue.

In Game of Queens, you've managed to create appealing personalities and realistic motivations for Vashti, Esther, and Ahasuerus. The story works well, yet none is cast as the villain of the piece. Why was this important to you?

There really isn't much need for additional villains when one of the characters is Haman The Horrible! Not only that, but writing villains gets tiring very fast; no one thinks of him/herself as a villain. Once you're in a character's POV, it's a real tightrope-dance to keep a villain, well, villainous. This is one reason there's not more about Queen Mother Amestris in the book it would have been far too easy to wind up with her as another main character for whom I felt sorry.

The toughest thing was turning the Bible's Ahasuerus, King of Kings But Not Any Too Bright, into a door prize that a nice Jewish girl like Esther would want, let alone into a mate worthy of her. I had to start just about from the time he was born to try and pull it off.

Anyone reading Game of Queens will recognize that you're an animal lover. Did any of your own pets, former or current, make it into the storyline?

Vashti herself is based on my Best Cat Ever, Vashti, who was a silver Persian with chatoyant opalescent eyes (you can see photos of her on my website). Unfortunately, once I'd done that, I was stuck for visual reference for ages like many writers, I stare at pictures of people who look like my characters when I'm working on a book. I started work on my Vashti-and-Esther novel in 2008, handed in the first version in 2010, and at that point photo reference of beautiful girls with white-blonde hair were about as rare as that hair color is in real life. Then I started watching this miniseries starring Sean Bean (the reason I watched in the first place) and Jason Momoa (a delightful surprise when he turned up), and unvirtue was rewarded, because it turned out there was a girl with long flowing white-blonde hair in it too!

Now that you've written four historical novels set in biblical times, can you pin down any qualities you look for when choosing a heroine to write about?

Ideally, she's a woman who hasn't already been written about recently, or too often. The Esther story's the exception, since it really has been done so often there's always room for one more Esther novel. I mean, who can resist that beauty contest? Other qualities are less tangible; I can't get excited about Ruth, for example, or Deborah, although they're both admirable characters. I'd hate to think that's because there's not much opportunity to put either in Sumptuous Raiment, but I'm afraid that's probably a consideration….)

Back when Queenmaker was first published, back in 1999, the popular trend of "biblical women" novels was just getting going. Do you have any thoughts on how biblical fiction has changed since then? What suggestions would you have for other authors thinking of writing in this period?

The trend may be dying out at the mainstream houses, although there will always be a market for novels about biblical women at the Christian publishing houses. If mainstream isn't interested, and inspirational isn't for you, consider self-publishing, which has changed dramatically in cost and reputation since I self-published Queenmaker.

And it doesn't matter how many other people have written about the woman you want to write about if 127 authors retell Esther's story, each story will be different. For instance, there are 126 other girls in the reality series "Who Wants To Be Queen of Queens?", and each of them has a story of her own….

Thanks very much, India!


The giveaway:

And now, for those who enjoy biblical fiction, here's a special opportunity to read two novels about Esther and Vashti... India Edghill's own take on their story, plus another novel that she highly recommends.

Fill out the form below for a chance to win!  One entry per household, please; void where prohibited.  Deadline Monday, September 28th.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Family, ambition, and competition: Sally Christie's The Sisters of Versailles

Although I’m a longtime fan of royalty stories and historical fiction set in France, Sally Christie’s The Sisters of Versailles focuses on a quintet of women I’d never come across before: the five intriguing Nesle sisters, four of whom became mistresses to Louis XV (the Sun King’s great-grandson and successor) in the 1730s and ´40s.

Based on this premise, one might imagine the rivalries, jealousies, and opulent fashions of The Other Boleyn Girl, but taken to the fourth power. There’s some truth to that.

A mere seven years separates Louise (the eldest) from Marie-Anne (the youngest), with Pauline, Diane, and Hortense in between. The closeness that develops among them, after their mother’s tragic early death and their father’s abandonment, means they know each other well… their distinctive qualities as well as their weaknesses, and how best to exploit them. No one can be as jealous or as critical as one’s sister when she has something you want for yourself. And the gowns the women wear (or don’t wear) in their king’s presence are stunning.

On the other hand, the comparison to Philippa Gregory’s oeuvre isn’t always apropos. King Louis is a more attractive prospect than tyrannical serial-husband Henry VIII, his royal court feels even more decadent than that of the Tudors, and the novel is simply hilarious in places. The sisters’ letters to one another, which are scattered throughout the book, express their dry wit and occasional cattiness. They’re also privy to a lot of lewd talk at court and elsewhere. The racy double entendres are funny when the women understand the references, and even funnier when they don’t.

The novel is framed by the observations of Hortense, the longest-lived and most sensible sister, and the only sexual holdout among the five, though that was her decision. (“I could have,” she tells us on page one. “Had I wanted. Because he – the king – he certainly wanted.”) Through their first-person accounts and notes zipping back and forth, the sisters reveal the events of their lives: from the time gentle Louise is hand-selected by the king’s advisers as his first-ever, secret mistress through the ascension, years later, of Marie-Anne, whose youthful bookishness conceals a latent drive for power.

Pauline’s ambition shows in her repeated pleadings for Louise to invite her to court -- which her sister spends years ignoring. Diane, possessed of a warm, jolly nature and terrible handwriting, just wants to find happiness but gets mixed up in her sisters’ schemes.

The details on how the four siblings succeed one another in the king’s bed are as dramatic as you’d expect. Members of the court, even as dissolute as it is, are scandalized by the whole prospect. Over the course of the book, Louis XV transforms from a reluctant adulterer to a libertine despite himself, and the sisters – some more than others – learn how to handle him to get what they want. Each is a unique individual, and their shifting relationships with one another, moving from loving and supportive to antagonistic and back again, kept me turning the pages quickly. King Louis may be an absolute monarch, but in this engrossing novel, it’s the women who rule.

Sally Christie's The Sisters of Versailles is published this month by Atria/Simon & Schuster (pb and ebook, 432pp).  This review marks the first stop on the blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.  Thanks to the publisher for giving me access via Edelweiss.