Monday, October 22, 2018

Hard times: Laurie Loewenstein's Death of a Rainmaker, a mystery set in Dust Bowl Oklahoma

When times turn desperate, tensions rise, and people start seeking an outlet for their suffering. In this sense, the Depression-era Dust Bowl feels like a classic setting for a murder mystery, although surprisingly few authors have taken advantage of it.

Here, just like in her first novel, Unmentionables, Laurie Loewenstein offers vivid storytelling and a fine eye for evoking small-town life in America’s heartland.

In August 1935, it’s been 240 days since the last rainfall, and the leading citizens of Vermillion, Oklahoma, the seat of Jackson County, seek out hope where they can find it. Roland Coombs arrives in town with promising testimonials to his skills in enticing clouds to let loose their precious drops of water. But less than a day after he shoots shells packed with TNT into the heavens, his body is found in the alley next to the Jewel Movie House, lying under a pile of dirt after an intense dust storm.

The need to solve the crime creates difficulties for longtime sheriff Temple Jennings, who’s up for re-election shortly. He’s also under pressure to start foreclosure proceedings against the Fullers, a hardworking farm couple who’d tried hard to make a go of their land but failed, thanks to the weather. When circumstances lead Temple to pinpoint Carmine, a young man from the nearby CCC camp, as the rainmaker’s murderer, the decision raises unease in those closest to him.

The novel excels in depicting characters and relationships. Temple and his wife, Etha, are devoted to one another, but Etha sees qualities of her late son in Carmine and has reason to believe him innocent. Having lost a child, Etha is horrified by stories of families forcing their older children to leave home since they can’t feed them any more. Then there’s Temple’s deputy, Ed McCance, an earnest former CCCer who doesn’t want the organization’s name tarnished. Just when you think the plot is heading in one direction, the crime’s resolution comes as a surprise.

There are some quirky local traditions, such as the “rarely used” (per Etha) small jail cell in a corner of the Jenningses’ kitchen, and a host of personalities depicted without stereotype, including Chester Benton, the blind and dapper theater owner disgruntled by how the murder leads to lost sales.

The atmosphere of Dust Bowl Oklahoma seeps through the pages, and the descriptions of these tough times become yet stronger when they're made personal: the “worn and brittle” men inhabiting a once-prosperous rooming house, a former destination for westward dreamers, and a family’s daisy-patterned china, the plates they ate on every day, now “nothing more than secondhand plates to some stranger, wiped clean of meaning.”

Death of a Rainmaker was published by Kaylie Jones Books this month; thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Review of The Game of Hope by Sandra Gulland, a novel about Hortense de Beauharnais, Napoleon's stepdaughter

“The key to survival is flexibility.” These words of wisdom, spoken by the drawing instructor at Maîtresse Campan’s boarding school for girls, prove prescient for his pupil, Hortense de Beauharnais. At the beginning of Gulland’s elegantly written young adult novel, set in France in 1798, Hortense is just fifteen. She and her cousin Ém and close friend Adèle (called Mouse), Maîtresse Campan’s niece, form a tightly knit threesome. They attend their lessons and look after the school’s younger charges. However, their mutually supportive group is still part of the larger world, and Gulland carefully presents the historical backdrop as Hortense would have experienced it.

It’s been a mere four years since the Reign of Terror, in which many French aristocrats were executed via guillotine. Hortense’s father was one of them, and she suffers terrible nightmares and worries that she played a role in his death. Her ebullient mother, Rose, now married to General Bonaparte, has been obliged to reinvent herself as well; she now goes by Josephine, Bonaparte’s preferred name for her. Hortense’s brother Eugène is serving with Bonaparte in Egypt, and she writes him heartfelt letters that she’s unable to send. And then there’s her classmate Annunziata, Bonaparte’s rude younger sister, who suddenly decides to call herself Caroline.

Hortense’s lively and warm nature makes her an appealing narrator, and although more colorful personalities threaten to outshine her, she holds her own. Her coming of age and the accompanying shifts in her relationships are among the book’s highlights. While Josephine writes to her daughter that “we’re more like the best of friends,” she also counsels her that “it’s wise not to linger” in an unmarried state, since “a girl quickly loses her bloom.” This is difficult advice for a romantically-inclined teenager to hear, especially when she has a crush on a handsome, older officer.

Over the course of the book, Hortense gains greater perspective on the stepfather she disdains, the father she adored but barely knew, and even her challenging schoolmate, Caroline. Her frequent exclamations (aie!) and parenthetical asides sometimes make her seem younger than her age. That said, the novel strikes the right balance between Hortense’s youthful innocence and the tense uncertainty of the era. It creates a convincing portrait of a young woman learning about her world, navigating through limited choices, and fulfilling her ambitions as much as she’s able.

The Game of Hope was published by Viking Books for Young Readers in June (384pp, hardcover and ebook); I read it from a personal copy. This review forms part of the author's blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.


During the Blog Tour, we will be giving away a copy of The Game of Hope to one lucky reader! To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below.

Giveaway Rules:

– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on October 22nd. You must be 18 or older to enter.
– Giveaway is open to US Only.
– Only one entry per household.
– All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspect of fraud is decided upon by blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.  Good luck!

Game of Hope

Monday, October 15, 2018

Interview with Margaret Porter, author of Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr

Margaret Porter's new novel Beautiful Invention reveals, in lively and convincing fashion, the complicated life of Hedy Lamarr: Austrian-born screen star, film producer, wartime fundraiser, and talented inventor. While she was best known as a glamour girl, the results of her scientific collaboration with composer George Antheil are credited as a precursor to today's Bluetooth technology. I'm happy to offer an interview today with Margaret, and I'd like to thank her for answering my questions and sending me a copy of the book, which is being launched in the US today.


What convinced you to write a novel based on Hedy Lamarr, and what aspects about her do you admire the most?

The desire to write about Hedy resulted from various alignments and serendipities. Not many years after her death, I was doing an internet search for some '30s and '40s film stars—her near contemporaries—and kept hitting articles about her newly publicized technological achievement. At the time, I filed it in the back of my mind as merely “interesting” and “surprising” and “unexpected.”

Then, in 2010, two biographies of her were published—one by Ruth Barton and the other by Michael Shearer. The following year came Hedy’s Folly by Richard Rhodes, primarily about her invention of frequency-hopping and spread-spectrum technology. I still remember hearing the author’s interview on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show. At the time, my focus was 17th- and 18th-century England, but gradually I considered starting a novel about Hedy Lamarr, if only to challenge myself.

The time period seemed so far outside my familiarity zone. Yet I had studied cinema history extensively during my graduate film studies, and after earning my degree I continued reading about related subjects just for pleasure. And I’ve always been a TCM addict. When I was unable to decide which competing 17th or 18th century subject to pursue, Hedy slipped in and co-opted my attention. It helped having two fine biographies of her, and many other explorations of her life and career—these were a great foundation. But Beautiful Invention is largely based on my own primary research, and there was so, so much background material to utilize.

Beautiful Invention shows that Hedy Lamarr had a thoroughly eventful life in the public eye, beginning when she was just sixteen. I enjoyed your depiction of the many facets of her life, her scientific accomplishments, and her need and desire to continually reinvent herself. How did you decide what aspects to depict on the page, and which to skim over or leave out? 

The filtering process was probably my greatest challenge. Earlier drafts contained more of her life in Austria, because that was the most unfamiliar aspect of her life to most people—apart from her hobby of inventing. And then I found that different periods of her life fit rather neatly into a three-part structure. She starred in so many films, therefore I had to pick and choose which roles were important in the overall trajectory of her career, and where the primary focus should be her complex personal life. Early on I decided to conclude on an ambiguously positive note, while at the same time foreshadowing her next reinvention. I had no intention of pursuing her into her post-Hollywood life. It was so tortured, as anyone who viewed the Bombshell documentary is aware.

In the afterword, you described having learned about Hedy at a young age, since your father had thought highly of her. How did your impressions of Hedy change as you delved into her story and researched it more thoroughly?

When I began the novel, I thought of her chiefly as a beautiful actress with a brilliantly creative brain. I couldn’t help being impressed by her curiosity, her intellect, and her determination. I discovered how mercurial she was, and how very enigmatic she could be in her relationships. Because Hedy was a collection of contradictions, I wanted to be very intentional in clarifying motivations at decision points in the story.

Her ethnic background was one of the reasons she needed to leave Austria when she did. But she never admitted that all her grandparents were Jewish, not even to her own children. Hitler was aware, and it was no secret in Europe—yet during her years of greatest prominence, hardly any American press accounts mentioned it. She regarded her beauty as a curse, and hated that people’s expectations of her were based wholly on the way she looked. But she needed to capitalize on her appeal in order to make a living. She was a down-to-earth homebody but professionally ambitious.

Hedy Lamarr, publicity photo for The Heavenly Body (1944)

The glamour girl image that MGM projected was uncomfortable for her, and she had to sustained it to survive and thrive within the studio system. She wanted to excel at acting but found movie making tedious. She longed to commit to a true soul mate, but fell in love too easily and married too hastily. More than once.

I enjoyed the nuanced depiction of Hedy’s marriage to Fritz Mandl, although her life with him definitely wasn’t easy. I found it interesting that they stayed in contact years later. How did you gain insight into their relationship?

Fritz is also an enigma. To a very great degree, he acted from unalloyed self-interest. I regard his continued contact with Hedy as an artifact of his controlling and possessive nature: “Once mine, forever mine.” But maintaining his connection to the world’s most famous film star was also very convenient for him. After his association with the Nazi regime in Germany became widely known, he would have wanted to salvage his reputation. And I suspect Hedy was grateful to him, in a way, for expanding her horizons beyond the theatre through their social life.

There’s no doubt she met interesting and prominent people during that marriage. At the same time, she was very frustrated and unhappy—who wouldn’t be? But one notable aspect of her character was an ability to move beyond the past and live almost wholly in the present. She prided herself on remaining friends with Fritz, although she probably didn’t expect to in the worst moments of their marriage. Based on the evidence, their parting was more mutual and possibly more amicable than MGM wanted people to believe. The studio had a vested interest in covering over the Mandl taint.

Did you find that your background as an actress informed your perspective on Hedy’s life?

Most definitely. This is my fourth novel with a performer as a heroine, and I do draw on my experience as necessary. Stardom—in films, or on the stage—is a common teenage dream, one that Hedy and I shared. I’ve spent years of my life, since childhood, in the theatre, and from my teens I was on location with feature films or television shows. Unlike Hedy, I never had the pressure of carrying a film, and its profitability certainly did not depend on my efforts as an extra! I felt an especially close kinship with her when she ventured into producing, because that’s the path I eventually followed. I would like to have focused on that brief chapter of her career more than I was able to in this book.

author Margaret Porter
Your last two novels have moved in the new direction of biographical fiction. What appeals to you about writing novels based on historical figures?

Biographical fiction was my destiny. In my youth, those were the types of novels I read and re-read and most wanted to write. As an adult reader, I followed the same pattern. Within a few years of finishing graduate school, my first novel was published as a Regency romance, and eventually I was writing longer, more complex books, extremely fact-based. I got distracted from fiction by an ambitious attempt at a literary biography. While intensely researching my subject, the light dawned. “What was I thinking? Here’s my long-awaited opportunity to write a biographical novel!”

That individual generated so much speculation and unsatisfied curiosity, despite my deep immersion in the historical record, and I needed my imagination to fill the gaps. And to supply the deeply personal details and motivations and reactions that are inevitably unavailable to the researcher. For me, that’s what exerts so strong and irresistible an appeal. But at that time I wasn’t entirely clear on the scope of the plot, or its structure, the character arc. So I decided to clear my head by exploring an intriguing but obscure 17th century couple rooted in my own family tree . . . which resulted in A Pledge of Better Times. The next four planned projects also feature real people of the past—though none as famous as Hedy Lamarr!

~

MARGARET PORTER is the award-winning, bestselling author of Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr and twelve other historical novels for U.S. and foreign-language publishers. She studied British history in the U.K. and afterwards worked professionally in theatre, film, and television. Margaret returns annually to Great Britain and Europe to research her novels. She and her husband live in New England with their dogs, dividing their time between an architecturally unique book-filled house in a small city and a waterfront cottage located on one of the region’s largest lakes. More information is available at her website, www.margaretporter.com.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Queen's Promise: a panoramic view of the early English Civil War years

Vantrease’s long-awaited return to the historical fiction scene showcases her painstaking attention to characterization and period atmosphere. Opening with a prologue depicting the execution of Charles I’s advisor Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, in 1641, the novel follows a wide array of individuals as tensions between the king and Parliament erupt into civil war.

In 1642, Queen Henrietta Maria, detested by England’s people for her extravagances and fervent Catholicism, travels abroad to deliver the 10-year-old Princess Mary to her future husband and convince the Dutch to buy England’s crown jewels. She has promised to help finance her husband’s battles and return to her younger children, but her words may be as empty as those of her husband, who had vowed to save his friend Strafford.

Meanwhile, young Prince Henry and Princess Elizabeth are quietly taken into the care of Lucy Hay, Countess of Carlisle—Strafford’s former lover, Henrietta’s sometime friend, and current lover of Parliamentary leader John Pym.

Lucy, a courtier who was one of the era’s most intriguing personalities, tended to serve both sides simultaneously when it suited her purposes. In Vantrease’s portrayal, this doesn’t demonstrate fickleness on her part but a unique blend of survival instinct and human compassion.

Although Henrietta and Lucy are the ostensible protagonists, the narrative splits into many different strands that take a long time to form into a cohesive story. The chapters with Caroline Pendleton, wife of a wool merchant turned knight, succeed in evoking the desperate plight of women left alone during wartime. Others focus on James Whittier, a nobleman, printer, and one-time highwayman whose path crosses Caroline’s.

While their stories are interesting when taken individually, the overlarge cast makes the novel lose focus. And so the Broken Kingdom series has a fairly slow start; hopefully Part Two will draw all the stories together more tightly.

Brenda Rickman Vantrease's The Queen's Promise was published by Severn House in August. Book 2, A Far Horizon, will be out next February.  This review first appeared in the Historical Novels Review's August 2018 issue.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Edward Carey's Little, a witty, macabre epic about the woman who became Madame Tussaud

Carey presents an immensely creative epic that follows a poor orphan’s rise to become the famous Madame Tussaud.

Born in 1761, and nicknamed “Little” for her petite size, Anne Marie Grosholtz becomes the unpaid apprentice of her late mother’s odd, nervous employer, Dr. Curtius. After fleeing to Paris, they join forces with a redoubtable widow and her son. Their skills with wax attract attention, leading to their unusual museum and Marie’s invitation to tutor Princesse Elisabeth at Versailles.

At a time of rampant social disparities, the museum becomes a great equalizer: a place where royalty, poets, and notorious murderers—that is, their sculpted stand-ins—can be viewed up close, and ordinary people can participate in a lottery to be models themselves.

Mingling a sense of playfulness with macabre history, Carey depicts the excesses of wealth and violence during the French Revolution through the eyes of a talented woman who lived through it and survived. The oddball characters and gothic eccentricities evoke Tim Burton’s work, but without any fantastical elements; the reality is sufficiently strange on its own.

Carey shows how the seemingly absurd, like royal servants lodging in cupboards and artisans forced to re-create newly executed people’s heads in wax, becomes shockingly routine. The unique perspective, witty narrative voice, and clever illustrations make for an irresistible read.

I wrote this starred review for Booklist's September issue.  Little will be published later this month by Riverhead in the US. Aardvark Bureau published it in the UK this week.

The question of whether there are fantastical elements in the book (see the review at Kirkus) seems up for debate; it depends on whether you believe that some of the objects Marie encounters are actually sentient, or if her perceptions are due to her unique view of the world. I chose the latter, and appreciate how it was written to be read either way.

Also, having read and loved Michelle Moran's Madame Tussaud (see my earlier review), I wondered how similar a read Little would be.  My conclusion: other than being based on the same person and circumstances, they're very different in approach and tone.  It's worth reading both!

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Reading the Past appearing on Tall Poppy Writers' #bloomblogweek


This week is blogger appreciation week on Bloom, the Facebook group for Tall Poppy Writers, a team of 42 female authors who've banded together to meet readers and promote philanthropic projects. I'm grateful to Janie Chang, author of literary fiction set in 20th-century China, for inviting me to participate and contribute a post, and thanks to the rest of the group for their support!  I've been a member of the FB group for the last month and have been enjoying the conversations and camaraderie.

Please stop by the group this week for appearances from me and other book bloggers.  We'll all be posting about our sites and hosting a giveaway.  In my case, I'll be offering three copies of Janie's bestselling novel Dragon Springs Road, contributed by the author, as well as a copy of Frances de Pontes Peebles' The Air You Breathe, which was one of my favorites of 2018 so far.

For more about Tall Poppy Writers, please visit their site at http://www.tallpoppies.org. Here are links to my earlier reviews of novels by authors in the group:

Julie Cantrell, Into the Free, set in Depression-era Mississippi
Susan Meissner, As Bright as Heaven, set during the 1918 flu epidemic in Philadelphia
Weina Dai Randel, The Moon in the Palace, about Empress Wu in 7th-century China
Aimie K. Runyan, Daughters of the Night Sky, about the "Night Witches" of WWII, and Promised to the Crown and Duty to the Crown, about the New France settlement of 17th-century Quebec.

Hope to see you online on Facebook!

Monday, September 24, 2018

Love Is Blind by William Boyd, a globe-spanning journey of passion and danger

Moving from Edinburgh in 1894 to the far-flung Andaman Islands in 1906, and smoothly landing in various European cities in between, Boyd’s (Sweet Caress, 2015) affecting novel follows a young Scotsman’s ardent pursuit of a woman and its treacherous consequences.

An appealing though naive protagonist, Brodie Moncur has perfect pitch, a gift he uses as an accomplished piano tuner. He agrees to help manage a Parisian piano showroom, but he hates leaving his siblings behind with their controlling preacher father in their rural village.

Brodie’s quest for a sponsorship arrangement for his employer’s business introduces him to the celebrated pianist John Kilbarron, his shifty brother, Malachi, and John’s mistress, Russian soprano Lika Blum; they all accompany Kilbarron on his concert tours. Brodie falls hard for Lika, which leads to clandestine meetings, a high-stress lifestyle, and, eventually, much worse.

Their relationship feels more like erotic passion than love, but the novel hauntingly depicts how strong emotions can skew one’s perceptions. Boyd beautifully paints the settings and the moods they evoke while sending readers on Brodie’s adventurous, troublesome, and transformative journey.

This review first appeared in Booklist's September 15th issue. Love Is Blind will be published by Knopf on October 9th.  In the UK, it was published by Viking on September 20th.  This is the first novel by Boyd that I've read. While it was a smoothly written and engaging read, the characters' emotions felt a bit distant in places.  If you've read any earlier novels of his, which ones would you recommend?

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Love Song: Frankfort, Michigan, an essay by Lee Zacharias, author of Across the Great Lake

It can be a magical experience to read historical fiction that captures the essence of a place from long ago. In today's guest post, Lee Zacharias writes eloquently about the setting for her new novel and the reasons why she chose it. Coincidentally, Frankfort happens to be a place where I've traveled many times; I look forward to revisiting it by reading Across the Great Lake, which is published today by the University of Wisconsin Press.

~

Love Song: Frankfort, Michigan
Lee Zacharias

In many ways my new novel, Across the Great Lake, is a love song to a time and place. The setting is more than backdrop. It is the long-lost beloved, the place my narrator Fern yearns for. In fact, the novel began with place; I knew the setting before I knew any of the characters or their stories, that beautiful northwestern Michigan town with its shady streets, gracious old houses, Lake Michigan's crystal-clear water, the pristine beach, steep bluff beyond, most of all the haunting call of the foghorn, now long gone.

But it would be wrong to say I invented the characters simply to populate the novel. They and their stories grew out of that place, just as we are all formed, one way or another, by the places we come from. As Eudora Welty said in her essay "Place in Fiction," it does far more than "furnish a plausible abode for the novel's world of feeling," it "is the ground conductor of all the currents of emotion and belief and moral conviction..." Location serves to make the characters real.

My narrator, Fern, behaves the way she does and feels the way she feels, because of where she comes from, high on a hill above the loveliest of lovely streets in a town that sits on the opposite side of its harbor from what was still in the 1930s the industrial hub of Benzie County, the infinitely less lovely village of Elberta that is home to the apprentice deckhand, Alv, and many of the other sailors. The Frankfort of my novel is the domain of officers, Elberta the realm of iron workers, switch operators, and ordinary sea men.

I visited Frankfort once as a girl, a girl who grew up at the southern end of the lake, among the steel mills and oil refineries of Indiana's Calumet region. No one swam at our beach, which was often littered with dead alewives. The water was polluted. And so when I saw Frankfort I thought it was the most beautiful place I had ever been. To live there would be like living inside a sunlit picture post card.

Lighthouse, Frankfort, Michigan (photo: Mark Johnson)

My reality was a sky dreary with smoke from the mills, a treeless lower middle class street lined with the cramped tract houses that had replaced the fouled prairie. I fell in love with Frankfort because I recognized Elberta, its railyard and asphalt tanks near the beach that stored petroleum products from a refinery no more than ten miles from my house, those tanks that gave the village a distinctive gassy odor. Our feelings about place are as much a part of us as the color of our eyes or shape of our toes, and I hated where I lived and longed to escape.

And so when I was twelve Frankfort became the locus of my other life, the fantasy I wished to live instead of the all-too-real world that seemed to drag out the sentence of childhood and adolescence that bound me to Hammond. In Frankfort I would be able to walk wherever I wanted to go. In Hammond I played in the school band, and every time the director called an evening rehearsal I had to ask for a ride from my father, who always let me know what at inconvenience it was. In Frankfort, I would be one of the teens playing volleyball on the beach instead the awkward pubescent ridiculed by the neighborhood boys. In Frankfort I would be free, not just of Hammond but of myself. Such, I imagined, is the power of place.

And yet Fern is no princess in my fairy tale other life. Tragic things happen to her. She is responsible for another. Though she belongs to a class my teenaged self aspired to, her unconscious sense of privilege contributes to the harm that will haunt the rest of her years, that will transform a lively, adventurous little girl into a woman incapable of fully engaging with her adult life. For her childhood is synonymous with the place that exile denies her. She yearns for Frankfort because it is hers. And as I wrote I yearned with her, but the reason I yearned for Frankfort and the lake my own father once sailed was because they had never been mine. The only way I could claim any part of them was to inhabit her, to write her story as if it were memoir.

~

photo credit: Traci Arney
Lee Zacharias is the author of a collection of short stories, Helping Muriel Make It Through the Night; three novels, Across the Great Lake, Lessons, and At Random; and a collection of personal essays, The Only Sounds We Make. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council, North Carolina's Sir Walter Raleigh Award, Southern Humanities Review's Theodore Christian Hoepfner Award, Prairie Schooner's Glenna Luschei Award, and a Silver Medal in Creative Nonfiction from the Independent Publisher Book Awards (the IPPYs).

Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals and been recognized by The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Essay, which reprinted her essay "Buzzards" in its 2008 edition. She taught at the University of Arkansas, Princeton University, and the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where she is Emerita Professor of English, as well as many conferences, most recently the Wildacres Writers Workshop. Find her online at http://leezacharias.com.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

A visual preview of the fall 2018 season in historical fiction

Fall is almost upon us, bringing with it a new crop of historical novels. Here are ten, chosen purely out of personal interest. Are you planning on reading any of them?  Please leave your thoughts in the comments.



A new retelling of the Trojan War, as seen from the viewpoint of Briseis, a former queen turned captive. Barker has said that this is the novel she hopes she'll be remembered for. Doubleday, Sept. (this one is out now). [see on Goodreads]



The story of Judith Leyster, a painter of the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century, and her ambitions to join the artists' guild in Haarlem. Amberjack, Nov. [see on Goodreads]



Alva Smith Vanderbilt, known in Gilded Age society for her opulent masquerade balls and unstoppable ambition, especially where her daughter was concerned, later became a prominent women's rights supporter. St. Martin's, Oct. [see on Goodreads]



In the 14th century, a Templar's son is sent to a rural English village to solve a mysterious murder and gets caught up in a tangled nest of secrets. Crooked Lane, Nov. [see on Goodreads]



The story of Hercules, acclaimed chef to President Washington in late 18th-century Philadelphia: an enslaved man in a city famed for its principles of liberty. Based on a true story. Arcade, Nov. [see on Goodreads]



The Splendor Before the Dark is part two (after The Confessions of Young Nero) of the outrageous life story of Emperor Nero, told in his own lively voice and seen here in a new and sympathetic light. Berkley, Nov. [see on Goodreads]


I've yet to read one of Grisham's novels, and this one dovetails with my historical fiction interests. It's described as a mixture of legal thriller and Southern Gothic, centering on the mysterious killing of a Mississippi pastor in 1946 by one of his good friends. Doubleday, Oct. [see on Goodreads]



In hopes of a more prosperous life, a young woman travels from China to San Francisco in 1923 to establish a new life with a husband she doesn't know; she also works hard to save an orphan she met en route. Lake Union, Oct. [see on Goodreads]



The story of Liberia's founding in the 19th century, told through the viewpoints of several characters, and with a touch of magical realism. Graywolf, Sept. (out now). [see on Goodreads]



Roy's novel examines mid-20th-century India through the stories of a man who uncovers his artist mother's itinerant life through India and Bali, as he searches for the reasons she left her family behind. Atria, Nov. [see on Goodreads]

Thursday, September 13, 2018

On writing Lone Wolf in Jerusalem, a guest post by Ehud Diskin

In today's essay, Ehud Diskin, a bestselling author in Israel, writes about his reasons for writing historical fiction and the research process for his new novel.  Lone Wolf in Jerusalem was published by Greenleaf Book Group in August.

~

On Writing Lone Wolf in Jerusalem
Ehud Diskin

I wanted to write the history of Israel in the 1940s prior to the establishment of the state of Israel and to tell about the people who fought hard for it --- to tell the story of the Jews who survived Europe after WWII and came to Israel to establish a Jewish state. I took into consideration that today, a lot of people don’t read history books, and in order to tell the history also to those people, I decided to write a historical novel. I used elements of suspense, action, drama, adventure, and romance, so that it will interest most potential readers.

Originally the book was written in Hebrew, and the fact that it had rapidly became a bestseller proved my intent.

My novel is set in the same time period as Leon Uris’s Exodus. I wrote my novel as someone who knows Israel and its history in the 20th century. I am a seventh generation Israeli. I was born and lived as a child in a besieged Jerusalem, fought in three wars and reached the rank of a colonel.

As a result, I could truly imagine the story of the fictional hero of the book, David Gabinsky, who leads a courageous group of Jewish partisans in Belarus and after the war, makes his way to Jerusalem to help his people find freedom from the British. The characters in the book are fictional, but the history is accurate. The reader finds himself involved with the characters of Jerusalem in those days, and learns through the main characters, the true experiences of people who lived during that time.

When I wrote this book, besides reading many books about that period (there is a bibliography list in the end of the book), I researched and reviewed a lot of documents. In Israel in the 1940s there were three Jewish undergrounds who fought the British. Each of them had a different point of view not only ideologically, but they saw each event differently. I had to research to find out what really happened. I interviewed people who lived at that period; they were in their 80s and 90s. I visited all the places in Jerusalem that I wrote about. I researched the names of the streets in those days, and in the beginning of the book there is a diagram map of Jerusalem related to the relevant period and to the book.

Besides being recently published in English, the novel was also translated in Russian. A Russian reader sent me letter expressing her enthusiasm for the book and why she felt it was an important look at Israel. I am pleased because it shows that the idea of telling the history through a historical novel was successful.

~

Ehud Diskin was born in Jerusalem. He served as an officer in combat roles during Israel's wars, as detailed in his memoir, Yes, It's Possible, and ended his military career with the rank of colonel. After attending the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he earned a PhD in business management and became the director of the LIBI fund, collecting contributions from all over the world to provide support for the education of soldiers. Later, he left the public sector and became a businessman, establishing several successful enterprises in the United States. Find out more and read reviews of the original edition at lonewolfinjerusalem.com.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

The Locksmith's Daughter by Karen Brooks, a spy story of Elizabethan London

Australian cover (Harlequin, 2016)
Karen Brooks’ first historical novel, The Brewer’s Tale, charted the travails of a young woman who dared enter a traditional male profession in early 15th-century England, and the repercussions she faced. The Locksmith’s Daughter, the author’s follow-up novel, moves forward a century and a half to Elizabethan times. It follows the intrigue-filled life of Mallory Bright, another talented woman who finds herself in a profession reserved for men. Her role is more covert than that of Brooks’ earlier heroine, Anneke Sheldrake, but it proves to be equally treacherous.

The setting is 1580s London, which Brooks richly evokes through her descriptions of clothing and architecture as well as the characters’ period vocabulary. There are many phrases recognizable from Shakespeare (“Go to,” for instance) and others compelling enough to invite re-use today (“cupshotten,” meaning drunk).

The taut political intrigue of the times is ever-present, too. The religious tolerance of Queen Elizabeth’s earlier reign, her statement against making “windows into men’s souls,” has begun to evaporate in the face of Catholic threats against her realm. No one pursues these perceived traitors as fervently as Sir Francis Walsingham, Her Majesty’s principal secretary and spymaster.

Mallory gets drawn into Walsingham’s network because of a scandal in her recent past. Having just returned to her father’s home after a traumatic would-be elopement, Mallory pretends to be a widow to avoid public rebuke. (On this note, it’s curious to hear others call her “Mistress Mallory” rather than her supposed married name.) Although she was given a good education and learned lock-picking at her father’s knee, her unfortunate romantic decision means she’s now a burden and embarrassment to her parents. Only Caleb, an actor who lodges with their family, seems supportive and understanding.

US Cover (Morrow, 2018)
When her father’s old friend Walsingham comes to test her skills and offers her an opportunity to work for him secretly, she knows it’s the only way forward for her future. Brooks makes Mallory’s circumstances relatable; at first, she soaks up Walsingham’s praise for her accomplishments. However, when she sees Catholics rounded up for doing nothing more than worshipping differently, and the impact later hits far closer to home, she develops ambivalence and then doubt about her role.

As the mysteries from Mallory’s past are slowly revealed, the plot spins into a propulsive, sometimes over-the-top thriller that moves from Walsingham’s lair on Seething Lane (a great and historically accurate name) to the grim Tower of London, and into the company of a lanky nobleman who sailed with Francis Drake and has his own demons to fight. The book’s length may seem intimidating, but it moves fast. It conveys an overall message of tolerance while maintaining the atmosphere of multi-cultural Tudor London and providing a mini-lesson on the intricate art of lock-picking.

The Locksmith's Daughter was recently published in the US by Morrow, but was previously published in the author's home country of Australia by Harlequin (who had provided me access via NetGalley in 2016; my apologies for the delayed appearance of this review).

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Signe Pike's The Lost Queen, about an early British queen and the Arthurian legends

Pike bases her engrossing debut on recent research into the Arthurian legends’ possible Scottish origins. Fiery-haired, strong-willed Languoreth, daughter of King Morken of Goddeu, adores the wild places and pagan rituals at her home at Cadzow Fortress in Strathclyde. However, she resents that her destiny lies in an advantageous marriage rather than training to become a Wisdom Keeper (druid) like her twin brother, Lailoken.

Her story, beginning at age 10, has a slow but compelling build. As she grows into adolescence, danger threatens her livelihood from different sides: the invading Anglo-Saxons are attacking villages, while Christianity’s influence is increasing. Although reluctantly agreeing to wed Rhydderch, the tyrannical High King’s son, Languoreth’s heart remains with the warrior Maelgwn.

Pike’s narrative blends court intrigue, romantic interludes, and gritty violence into a literary brew worth savoring to the dramatic finale. The elements of Celtic mysticism will appeal to fantasy fans looking for a Mists of Avalon–type experience, while the setting remains grounded in sixth-century Scotland’s political realities. Enthusiastically recommended for readers of female-centered historical sagas and those enamored of Arthurian tales.

The Lost Queen, first in a trilogy, was published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster this week.  I read it in June, and the review appeared in August's issue of Booklist.

Monday, September 03, 2018

Il Viaggio: What Inspired My Journey to Write Claire’s Last Secret, a guest post by Marty Ambrose

In today's guest post, Marty Ambrose writes about the background to her new historical mystery, which centers on the "haunted summer" of 1816 – when a group of young people gathered in a large villa by Lake Geneva, creativity was sparked, and considerable drama ensued.  Read on for her account of the circumstances inspiring Claire's Last Secret.

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Il Viaggio: What Inspired My Journey to Write Claire’s Last Secret
Marty Ambrose

Byron once said, “I awoke to find myself famous.” – Truly, it is every writer’s dream to be thrust into a world of sudden, unfolding adoration for one’s work. But the inspiration for Claire’s Last Secret was more of a nightmare: I “awoke” during my summer teaching hiatus to find myself with a back injury that left me practically housebound on an island, in between writing projects, and feeling like the world was passing me by.

Even though my husband was my rock, I felt isolated. People get busy. Time moves on. But I was waiting, not sure what was going to happen next. I watched a lot of the History Channel. I texted friends. I binge watched Netflix (loved “Shetland”!). And I read. New books. Old books. Classic books. Whatever books. And, slowly, in spite of the future’s uncertainty, I came to appreciate that I had given the gift of stepping out of life for a while and could just let my imagination run free.

Much of my life, I’ve been a scholar of the Byron/Shelley circle and had a stack of unread books about them piling up in my home office. I happened to pick up Daisy Hay’s volume, The Young Romantics, and learned that she had found a fragment of Claire Clairmont’s (Mary Shelley’s stepsister) journal, saying that the famous Byron/Shelley summer of “free love” in 1816 had created a “perfect hell” for her. Of course, Claire wrote those words when she was almost eighty (something that I was surprised to learn), impoverished, and living in Florence, Italy, having outlived the two great poets and Mary by many decades. Intrigued, I wondered what it would feel like to outlive everyone who had been part of one’s youth. As the lone remaining figure of that famous quartet, she’d been left behind.

In that moment, I bonded with Claire and decided to tell her story with the “voice,” that had not been heard yet, but as a fictional memoir.

As I delved into Claire’s life, pieces came together in my thoughts: her illicit love for Byron, her roller-coaster relationship with Mary and Shelley, and her later years in Italy—and I knew I had to tell her story from two perspectives: the young, reckless Claire and the older-but-wiser Claire. We see her at two stages in her life: when she’s seventeen during the summer of 1816 and when she’s 75, living in Italy as an expatriate. This was quite a challenge for me as a writer because her “young” voice is very different from her “mature” voice; she’s an older and wiser woman in much of the book, but still so influenced by what happened to her in her younger days. Then, there was the mystery of her lost daughter with Byron. Her lovers. Her passion for life. It all coalesced into the kind of genre-bending novel that I’ve always wanted to create. Even with my background in the Romantics, I had to complete a lot more research on Claire, pouring over biographies and savoring her marvelously witty letters. She was a remarkable, but rather elusive person as the “almost famous” member of the group, and I found she inspired me with her independent spirit.

As I wrote the book, I healed after successful back surgery, wrote a grant, and had the amazing opportunity to travel to Geneva and Florence with my hubby to research the book. I awoke to find myself with a new life. Like Claire, I had the chance to see Europe with fresh eyes—in my case as an author moving in a new creative direction with my historical fiction. I saw Castle Chillon on Lake Geneva and walked in the steps of the greatness that passed there before me. I saw Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein manuscript (with Percy’s notes) at the Bodmer Museum. I wandered in the Boboli Gardens in Florence, Italy, and imagined Claire’s final years, looking back but still believing in the future.

What began as a challenging physical injury eventually became my own summer of “awakening” into an entirely new life that inspires me each day: every writer’s dream, indeed.

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Marty Ambrose has been a writer most of her life, consumed with the world of literature whether teaching English at Florida Southwestern State College or creating her own fiction. Her writing career has spanned almost fifteen years, with eight published novels for Avalon Books, Kensington Books, Thomas & Mercer—and, now, Severn House.

Two years ago, Marty had the opportunity to apply for a grant that took her to Geneva and Florence to research a new creative direction that builds on her interest in the Romantic poets: historical fiction. Her new book, Claire’s Last Secret, combines memoir and mystery in a genre-bending narrative of the Byron/Shelley “haunted summer,” with Claire Clairmont, as the protagonist/sleuth—the “almost famous” member of the group. The novel spans two eras played out against the backdrop of nineteenth-century Italy and is the first of a trilogy.

Marty lives on an island in Southwest Florida with her husband, former news-anchor, Jim McLaughlin. They are planning a three-week trip to Italy this fall to attend a book festival and research the second book, A Shadowed Fate.

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah Bird, a novel about the only female Buffalo Soldier

Many historical novels celebrate strong women whose accomplishments went unheralded in their time. Cathy Williams, the first black woman to serve in the U.S. Army, is a prime example.

Bird’s (Above the East China Sea, 2014) fictionalized version of her life begins in 1864, when Yankee general Philip Sheridan burns the Missouri plantation where she is enslaved and takes her as “contraband” to become his cook’s assistant. Cathy is proud of her illustrious African heritage, and her witty voice and down-to-earth honesty enliven her lengthy tale.

After Appomattox, declining a traditional feminine role, she dresses as a man and enlists as “William Cathay.” Bird’s meaty epic provides abundant, intimate details about Cathy’s life as a Buffalo Soldier: her patrols on the western frontier; the racism of her unit’s white commanding officer; and the harassment she endures from her fellow soldiers, who find her self-protective modesty unnatural. She’s also secretly attracted to her fair-minded sergeant.

“If you don’t push, you never move ahead,” she notes, determining never to be unfree again. An admiring novel about a groundbreaking, mentally tough woman.

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen will be published next week by St. Martin's Press; I wrote this review for Booklist's August issue.  Read more about Cathy (sometimes also called Cathay) Williams at the National Park Service website, though be alert to possible spoilers about the basic outline of her life and service.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar, an entertaining portrait of Georgian society

When one of the sea-captains in his employ returns home, Jonah Hancock, a widowed, middle-aged merchant, is aghast. Captain Jones has sold the Calliope and purchased, instead, a small, shriveled “mermaid.”

In 1785 London, the dead creature is a lucrative commodity. Dubious, but anxious to recoup his costs, Mr. Hancock decides to display it, which eventually introduces him to a brothel-keeper and her courtesans. Among them is the gorgeous Angelica Neal, who seeks a new protector.

Bawdy hijinks ensue – the title predicts the protagonists’ unlikely match – and serious ramifications also. The characters wrestle with their ambitions versus being content with what they have.

Leisurely told, and leavened with a knowing wit, Gowar’s debut, a UK bestseller, brims with colorful period vernacular and delicious phrasings (one woman is “built like an armchair, more upholstered than clothed”; another has a “mouth like low tide”). Concerned with the issue of women’s freedom, it offers a panoramic view of Georgian society: its coffee-houses, street life, class distinctions, and multicultural populace.

A sumptuous historical feast recommended for fans of Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist.

Imogen Hermes Gowar's The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock has been available in the UK since January, and it will be published in the US by Harper on September 11th.  I submitted this review for Booklist's August issue.  If you've already read it, I'll be interested to hear your thoughts!

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles, an epic of friendship, ambition, and music set in 1920s-30s Brazil

A soaring fusion of emotion, intense drama, and the compelling rhythms of Brazilian music, The Air You Breathe belongs to the special category of historical novels that chronicle entire lives – and it does so in enthralling fashion. Its focus is the close, volatile friendship between Dores, a kitchen maid born on the Riacho Doce sugar plantation in northeastern Brazil in 1920, and Graça Pimentel, the owner’s only child.

The two first meet as girls, when Graça and her parents move into the plantation’s Great House. Graça is strong-willed, selfish, and unmistakably charismatic. They share an education (at Graça’s insistence) and adventures, and an excursion to a big-city concert kindles their musical interest and ambitions for greater achievements. This was a time when LPs and phonographs seemed like magic, and the era is conjured up brilliantly. The girls dream of becoming radio stars together, Graça’s mellifluous voice complementing Dores’ raspier tones. Their path takes them from the diverse nightlife scene of Lapa in Rio to the movie studios of Los Angeles, where Graça, as “Brazilian Bombshell” Sofia Salvador, performs her unique brand of South American entertainment. Alongside Graça’s upward trajectory, Dores partners with a guitarist to write songs the others make famous.

The women’s relationship vacillates between symbiosis and rivalry, all the while shaped by outside forces and unreciprocated desire. Looking back from old age, Dores narrates in a voice as lyrical and achingly passionate as the sambas she writes. She reveals early on that Graça died young, but not how, and the mystery suffuses her tale with longing. Through her wise observations, readers experience their music at every stage: its intimate creation, the showy on-stage performances, and the informal rodas, where their group plays just for themselves. The novel is an intoxicating performance itself, not to be missed by anyone wanting to be wrapped up in a well-told story.

The Air You Breathe was published yesterday in hardcover by Riverhead; I wrote this review for August's Historical Novels Review.  Reading it over now, I did gush a bit!  It's one of my five-star reads for the year.  Peebles has an earlier novel (2008), The Seamstress, also set in Brazil during the same period, and which I haven't read yet, but it's moved up much further on the TBR pile.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Eight historical novels sitting on Mt. TBR

Hope you're all having a good weekend. I've been using the time to catch up with the TBR, and along those lines, here are eight books I'm looking forward to reading in the near future, time permitting. I took over additional duties at the library in June, so my summer has been more packed than it used to be.



The Locksmith's Daughter, my latest read, is a meaty novel of suspense and intrigue set in Elizabethan England.  Review to come.

Hamilton and Peggy!, which I received a copy of during the winter, covers the friendship between Alexander Hamilton and the woman who became his sister-in-law, Peggy Schuyler. It's a YA title, but L.M. Elliott's earlier novel of Renaissance Italy was equally enjoyable for adults, so I'm expecting this one will be too.

The Last of Our Kind, a prize-winner in France, is a literary mystery about love and family secrets set during WWII and the 1970s.

Death of a Rainmaker, a mystery set in Dust Bowl Oklahoma, just received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. I'd enjoyed Laurie Loewenstein's first novel about social change in small-town Illinois, Unmentionables, when it was published in 2014.

Twentieth-century Korea and its people have been the subject of several new historical novels, including Min Jin Lee's Pachinko and Mary Lynn Bracht's White Chrysanthemum. Eugenia Kim's The Kinship of Secrets (which has a blurb from Min Jin Lee) focuses on two sisters divided by the Korean War.

Kate Morton's newest gothic saga The Clockmaker's Daughter (yes, another "daughter" book) is one I've been anticipating for months, since I've loved all of her earlier books.

In The Splendor Before the Dark, Margaret George will conclude her two-book saga of about Emperor Nero.  I have a review due in 10 days so had better get cracking...

Lastly, The Latecomers is about an Irish housemaid and an old New England house with lots of secrets. There's a detailed family tree at the beginning, which is enough to catch my attention.

Will you be putting any of these on your own TBRs?

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Cometh the Hour by Annie Whitehead, a novel of war, religion, love, and family in 7th-century Britain

With a careful hand and keen appreciation for the era’s material culture, Annie Whitehead, the inaugural winner of the HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition, depicts five tumultuous decades in early medieval Britain. In her third novel, she puts a human face on the Game of Thrones-style drama involving the kingdoms of Deira, Bernicia, Mercia, and East Anglia.

The story spans from 604 AD – when the devious Aylfrith of Bernicia attacks neighboring Deira, abducting the king’s sister, Acha, and sending her other brother, Edwin, into exile – up through the Battle of the Winwaed in the year 655. Every personage once lived.

The family tree and dramatis personae prove critical, since there are many characters, viewpoints, and relationships to track. The action sometimes feels episodic, and some significant historical events aren’t shown firsthand, but subsequent scenes make it clear what happened.

The battle scenes, seen from close-up, are fierce and forceful. “War is for men, but it is the women who suffer,” states one newly-made widow, all too correctly, and Whitehead devotes significant attention to the women, including peace-weaver brides, mothers, abbesses, and loyal wives set aside after their husbands tire of them.

Among the most sympathetic portrayals are kind-hearted Carinna (Cwenburh), a princess of Mercia, and Derwena, whose love-match with Carinna’s cousin, Penda, helps hold their large family together. Then there’s Queen Bertana of East Anglia, whose scenes are brief but memorable. Her reaction to her husband Redwald’s religious conversion is a hoot!

Penda of Mercia, a pagan in an increasingly Christianized land, emerges as the strongest hero. Alliances frequently shift, with motivations changing over time, and the story demonstrates how overzealous ambition can warp one’s nature. As a result, not all characters retain readers’ sympathy throughout, and the transitions are skillfully done. A solid choice for fans of the period.

Cometh the Hour was published in 2017 by FeedARead; I reviewed it for August's Historical Novels Review. Since it's labeled as book 1 of the Tales of the Iclingas (the name of the Mercian dynasty from the period), I'm guessing that means there's more to come, which is good news.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Beneath an Indian Sky by Renita D'Silva, a multi-period saga set in England and India

Author D’Silva transports readers to her native India in a new multi-period novel exploring her frequent themes of difficult family dynamics and the limited choices open to the country’s daughters.

In 1936, Mary Brigham, raised in her aunt and uncle’s London home, is preparing her debutante season and planning to be presented at court. An atypical historical novel heroine, she dreams only of marrying well and raising a family—at least until an old friend of her late parents alludes to their lives in India and a terrible tragedy she can’t recall.

Chapters set eleven years earlier introduce Sita, a girl from a wealthy Indian household, and show how her unusual childhood friendship with Mary developed. In the beginning, both Mary and Sita are equally sympathetic: Mary for her sorrowful past and determination to face up to it, and Sita because she can never attain her parents’ approval.

Despite some confusing aspects of their juxtaposed narratives—the girls’ ages aren’t mentioned, for one—the novel smoothly depicts their transformations into adulthood. Sita ends up marrying a prince and moving into his opulent palace, where her mother-in-law makes her life miserable. Years later, what happens at Mary and Sita’s reunion twists their lives irrevocably and leads to a devastating secret left for Sita’s granddaughter, Priya, to uncover decades later. Priya, a modern documentary filmmaker depressed over her husband’s infidelity, plays an unfortunately small role, although her presence serves to bring the earlier stories full circle.

The plot gets over-the-top dramatic toward the end, and colonial Indian politics remain mostly in the background. Also, too many women have the tendency to faint when confronted with bad news. Still, readers desiring a satisfying excursion to a land of jasmine breezes and delicious cuisine may wish to follow the story and indulge in all the lush atmospheric details.

Beneath an Indian Sky was published by Bookouture in 2018; I read it from a NetGalley copy and wrote this review for August's Historical Novels Review.  D'Silva has written a number of family sagas, many of which have historical elements, including A Daughter's Courage (which I reviewed last year).

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Susan Spann's Trial on Mount Koya, a Shinobi mystery of 16th-century Japan

One might expect a Shingon Buddhist temple to be a peaceful site of sanctuary, but the opposite holds true in the atmospheric sixth novel of Susan Spann’s Shinobi Mysteries.

Set in 1565, this entry brings her protagonists – the shinobi assassin Hiro Hattori and the Jesuit priest whose life he's pledged to protect, Father Mateo – to the remote summit of Mount Koya. Hiro has been sent by his cousin, a master ninja, to carry a directive to a spy who’s been living there as a priest. Having left their housekeeper Ana behind at a nyonindo (women’s hall), since females aren’t allowed to enter the sacred precincts atop the mountain, they approach the temple and are welcomed by the very man, Ringa, that Hiro hopes to find.

However, shortly after Hiro communicates his message to Ringa, a brutal snowstorm enshrouds the temple, forming the right conditions for a locked room-style mystery. Then, later that night, Ringa is discovered horribly murdered. Subsequent deaths follow at regular intervals, with the bodies posed as Buddhist judges of the afterlife. Creepily, the personalities of the late priests seem to resemble those particular Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The small population at the temple is quickly dwindling, with the perpetrator clearly among them – and if the pattern holds true, Father Mateo could be next.

While Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is the story’s inspiration, the author spins the basic outline into a mystery specific to her chosen cast and setting, making it a very clever homage indeed. There are a multitude of priests of diverse ages, talents, and backgrounds. As is often the case with many characters introduced at once, their personalities take a bit to settle in, but their particular perspectives emerge in time. On site as well are a mysterious pilgrim and his son, and as outsiders, they fall under suspicion.

The growing friendship between Hiro and Father Mateo is a highlight. Consumed by revenge and loss after his lover’s death in the previous book, Hiro isn’t able to acknowledge how much this affects his judgment, but Father Mateo provides support and sage advice. Cat lovers will appreciate the prominence and entertaining personality of Hiro’s cat, Gato, in this entry, too.

What puzzles the detective pair is not only the bizarre nature of the murders, but also the motive. Perhaps it derives from an internal power struggle, or it could be a madman’s work. As the stakes get higher, the suspense level rises. Fortunately, Spann plays fair with her readers, since -- as it turns out  -- the clues are present from the outset. Readers may be tempted to reread from the beginning, noting how well the mystery was constructed.


Trial on Mount Koya was published in July by Seventh Street. Thanks to the publisher and Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for the e-galley copy via Edelweiss.

During the Blog Tour, five copies of Trial on Mount Koya are up for grabs.  Note that because this is the last stop on the tour, the deadline is tonight. To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below. Good luck!

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Trial on Mount Koya

Monday, August 06, 2018

The Sea Queen by Linnea Hartsuyker, a tale of Viking-era Norway

The “sea queen” is Svanhild Eysteinsdotter, a strong-willed woman with a difficult path ahead. In ninth-century Norway, six years after events in The Half-Drowned King (2017), Svanhild loves the seafaring life she led with her husband, the raider Solvi, but knows her intellectually-minded son’s needs take priority.

Alongside their marital strife, Solvi pursues revenge against Harald, Norway’s king. He’s not alone. Throughout the country and elsewhere, disaffected exiles and noblemen resentful of Harald’s taxes rise up against him. Svanhild’s brother, Ragnvald, king of Sogn, is Harald’s loyal man, and as pockets of rebellion join forces, helping Harald achieve a united Norway becomes increasingly dangerous.

Although less action-oriented than its predecessor, this second in the Golden Wolf Saga captures the era’s warlike atmosphere, where blood-feuds last generations; an early incident of stark brutality haunts Ragnvald long afterward. Through her multi-faceted characters, Hartsuyker adeptly evokes female alliances, the complications of love and passion, and vengeance both terrible and triumphant. She juggles many subplots and settings effectively, with scenes moving from Norway’s harsh, picturesque coast to sulfurous Iceland and Dublin’s muddy harbor.

The Sea Queen will be published by Harper on August 14th. I wrote this review for Booklist's August issue. I also reviewed the first book last year and look forward to reading the final installment, The Golden Wolf, next summer.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

The Haunts of London: Jeri Westerson's medieval mystery The Deepest Grave

In his entertaining 11th adventure, Crispin Guest, known throughout late 14th-century London as the Tracker, has his hands full with two perplexing cases.

The first is rather grisly: Father Bulthius of St. Modwen’s asks him to investigate the “demon’s march” of corpses from the graveyard. The dead are supposedly unearthing themselves and dragging their coffins around after dark. Crispin can hardly believe it until he visits the parish church and sees a shadowy figure carrying a heavy object, and then the empty grave. Something mysterious is clearly afoot. His apprentice, Jack Tucker, a devout lad, is too creeped out to be enthusiastic about their venture but dutifully follows where his master leads.

In the second instance, Crispin receives a note from an old lover, Philippa Walcote, who’s now a prosperous mercer’s wife. Her seven-year-old son, Christopher, is accused of murdering his father’s neighbor and competitor; even worse, the boy confessed to the crime. With nowhere else to turn, Philippa requests Crispin’s help.

The novel offers a compelling balance of situations and emotions. There are some hilarious moments spurred by Jack’s reluctance to go skulking about amongst the graves (who can blame him?). Crispin, a disgraced knight and longtime bachelor, also broods a bit about his unusual household. Jack and his wife, Isabel, are living at Crispin’s place and are expecting their first child imminently, and Crispin is sort-of-but-not-quite a member of Jack’s growing family. Both his home life, and meeting Philippa and her son, leave Crispin pondering what might have been.

Westerson wonderfully evokes the streets, taverns, and other haunts of medieval London, when the city’s outskirts were still rural, as well as period mentalities (among other mysteries, a religious relic appears to have a mind of its own). Crispin’s backstory is woven in so well that newcomers won’t feel lost, either.

The Deepest Grave is published today by Severn House; thanks to the publisher for NetGalley access. I reviewed the novel for August's Historical Novels Review.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Interview with Lisa Jensen, author of the historical fairy-tale retelling Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge

Lisa Jensen, who I'd spoken with in 2014 about her historical fantasy Alias Hook, has returned to the literary scene with another new twist on a familiar story. The original fairy tale upon which Beast is based should be apparent from the title, but this isn't the familiar Beauty and the Beast story we all know; tweaking the perspective makes all the difference. Opening long before "Beauty" comes on the scene, Beast is seen through the eyes of a young chambermaid, Lucie. Soon after she comes to work at Château Beaumont, home of the handsome chevalier Jean-Loup, a terrible event spurs her to take revenge — resulting in dramatic transformations involving Lucie, the cruel Jean-Loup, and a beautiful young woman named Rose. The story is set in early 17th-century Burgundy, France, and is geared toward mature YAs and up.  Please read on!

Your previous novel Alias Hook took a new look at the story of Peter Pan, while Beast reworks the traditional Beauty and the Beast fairy tale in new and creative ways. What appeals to you about recasting old stories in a different light?

It usually arises out of my dissatisfaction with the original, and my craving as an author to rewrite it! I always found Captain Hook far more interesting than Peter Pan, so in Alias Hook, I wanted to explore what it must be like for a grown man to be trapped eternally in a world run by beastly little boys.

In the same way, I always adored the Beast character in Beauty and the Beast. But the moment all thinking women dread is when the magnificent, noble Beast turns into a bland, boring handsome prince in the end. Beast does all the work of wooing Beauty. It's Beast she falls in love with. Why should the Prince get the girl?

I thought Beast, in all his soulfulness and sensitivity, deserved to be the hero in his own tale.

While Beast is set in France’s Burgundy region during the reign of “Henri Quatre,” it also successfully conveys the timeless nature of the fairy-tale realm. How and why did you choose the historical period?

Beauty-and-Beast tales (and many other so-called Animal Bridegroom tales) have been around at least since the Greeks. But this particular fairy tale is very French in origin. The first version to be written down was by a French authoress, Mme. de Villeneuve, and published in 1740. It was a bit long and rambling, but the essence of the story was there. A shorter, streamlined adaptation was published by another Frenchwoman, Mme. de Beaumont, in 1757. This is the version of the tale we recognize today.

I had spent some time in the Burgundy region of France, so that was the area I picked. I discovered that everything in rural France looks like a fairy tale, even today! And I decided to use the Henri Quatre period (short window though it was), ca. 1600, because I wanted my book to take place at least 100 years before those other published editions. I think of mine as the origin story from which all future versions of this tale might have evolved.

How did you research the historical setting and locale?

Backwards! I started out with the date, working backwards from the publication dates of those first two version of the story. Then I studied up on what was going on in France around that time. Eh, voila — Henri the Fourth, quite an interesting character in his own right. I decided that my Prince character, Jean-Loup, Chevalier de Beaumont, had earned his knighthood fighting with Henri, then the Prince of Navarre, against the Spanish invaders. And since I was already familiar with the villages and churches of Burgundy, that's where I chose to place the enchanted chateau.

Servants can make insightful narrators; they can observe everything around them while their behavior and feelings often go unobserved by people from the upper classes. At what point during the writing process did you realize that Lucie the chambermaid, rather than Beauty/Rose, had to be the heroine for the story you wanted to tell?

My idea was always to create a heroine worthy of Beast, another woman on the scene who had the sense to fall in love with Beast as he was. So it couldn't be the Beauty character, who is so willing to forget the Beast she says she loves and waltz off with the Prince, a complete stranger! And I always knew the story would be told from Lucie's viewpoint, my protagonist, as we watch her evolve from lowly servant into heroine.

In my story, Beauty (Rose) is more like the antagonist. When she comes to the chateau, the traditional fairy tale plot kicks in. Her appearance interrupts the relationship beginning to develop between Lucie and Beast, and when Lucie realizes Rose has the power to break the spell that created Beast — that Lucie might lose him forever — she'll do anything to try and stop it!

Not to give too much away, but some of the action is seen from the viewpoint of a candlestick. How easy/fun, or how complicated, was it to place her in locations where she could see what was happening?

It was a challenge, but it was also fun! This character narrates the story, in and out of human form, so I had to keep that voice consistently strong from page to page — even during the time the character is inanimate. And the sheer necessity of moving the character around to comment on the action led to some serendipitous moments — as when the silver candlestick is stolen, prompting Beast's enraged reaction! Why does Beast get so angry when the old man plucks a rose from his garden? Now we know!

What was the experience like in writing your first book for a younger audience?

Originally, I wrote this book for adults. I wanted some distance from the fairy tale we all think we remember from childhood, to create a new perspective, a new way of looking at the story. But, as it turned out, a YA editor fell in love with the book and bought it for Candlewick Press. We spent two years editing it to make it age-appropriate (my editor, the intrepid Kaylan Adair, is very thorough). But be warned: there are still so many ways my book is not the Disney Version!

Thanks very much, Lisa!

Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge was published this month in hardcover and ebook by Candlewick Press.