Friday, July 23, 2021

What Happens Next Is Anyone’s Guess, an essay by Jonathan Harries, author of The Carpet Salesman from Baghdad

Today I'm welcoming author Jonathan Harries with an entertaining post about his writing process for what sounds like an equally entertaining historical adventure series.

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What Happens Next Is Anyone’s Guess
Jonathan Harries

“Come, come,” my wife’s brother said to me. “Surely you plot out your novels. What sort of idiot embarks on a novel without any idea where it will end up?” Well, that’s the gist of what he said. He didn’t use words like “come, come,” but he definitely used “idiot” or it could have been “moron,” I forget. Or perhaps I wasn’t listening.

The Carpet Salesman from Baghdad
is my sixth novel, and I’m in the process of putting the finishing touches to my seventh, The Bodyguard of Sarawak. In none have I developed a plotline on the appropriate app nor pinned an outline to a cork board. I have no notebook with character sketches and elaborate ideas for how they’d develop as the novel plods its way to the finish. I’m sure someone who may have picked one up in the past will be making some sort of disparaging sound and thinking, “Well, there you go. That explains a lot.”

My first novel, Killing Harry Bones, began as a biography of a childhood friend who lived the most colorful—and irresponsible—life imaginable. My initial flirtation with his story happened to coincide with a particularly nasty incident at work involving a despicable swine whose actions I felt were in dire need of redress. I am not by nature a vindictive person, but in his case, I felt a dollop of vengeance was justified. So, I combined the two stories, threw in animal traffickers, poachers, big-game hunters, and ex-Nazis for good measure and began to write with absolutely no idea where the story would end, other than that the bad guys would get their comeuppance. Two other books in the series followed a similar theme.

Now, I imagine the mere mention of the word “theme” means there is some plotting involved. In that respect I suppose there is. All my books have unimaginably awful people getting their just deserts. In the Roger Storm books – Killing Harry Bones, Killing Bobby Fatt, and Killing Valerian Zolotov, trophy hunters and animal traffickers are creatively dispatched by a group of vigilantes hell-bent on saving the planet’s dwindling wildlife. In the Tales of the Sica series—The Tailor of Riga, The Carpet Salesman from Baghdad, and the soon-to-be-completed Bodyguard of Sarawak—a family of assassins who can trace their origin back nearly two thousand years (and just happen to be my own family) take out some of the biggest rotters in history—including Jack the Ripper. The weapon of choice? A millennia-old dagger called a sica, once used in the Jewish uprising against the Romans in around 70 AD.

The Carpet Salesman from Baghdad, which launches on July 27, features a distant relative, Elias Smulian-Hasson, who is summoned from Baghdad to Bombay by David Sassoon, the “Rothschild of the East,” on behalf of the Maharaja of Kutch. The year is 1858, soon after the end of the Sepoy Uprising against the British occupiers of India, and the man Elias is tasked with whacking is an English officer whose cruelty towards the Indian survivors of the rebellion are too much even for his own men. What seems like a standard hit at first turns out to be a lot more complicated, and after surviving an ambush in some caves outside of Bombay, Elias pursues his quarry to the southern Kingdom of Travancore. Here, beneath a magnificent temple in amongst troves of gold and jewels and nests of giant cobras, a fierce battle takes place. Will justice be served up like a fiery chicken vindaloo? Aha, you’ll just have to find out.

I don’t believe I knew who would be in the book initially (other than Elias) or who he’d meet or where he’d meet them until shortly before he did. I really like it when my characters make their own decisions as to where they’re going, and I become no more than a chauffeur dropping them off at their destination and picking them up when they’re ready to leave. It’s more fun for me—which is why I write—and I hope more entertaining for my readers.

If you’re one of them, then I appreciate you very much. You may also like to know that every cent I make on all my books go to different animal and wildlife charities.

Bio

Jonathan Harries began his career as a trainee copywriter at Foote, Cone & Belding in South Africa and ended it as Chairman of FCB Worldwide with a few stops in between.

After winning his first Cannes Lion award, he was offered a job at Grey Advertising in South Africa, where he worked as a copywriter and ended up as CEO at age 29, just before emigrating to the US. Like most immigrants in those days, he started once again from scratch. After a five year stint as Executive Creative Director of Hal Riney in Chicago, he was offered a senior position at FCB. Within ten years, he became the Global Chief Creative Officer and spent the next ten traveling to over 90 countries, racking up 8 million miles on American Airlines alone.

He began writing his first novel, Killing Harry Bones, in the last year of his career and transitioned into becoming a full-time author three years ago, just after retiring from FCB. He’s been writing ever since while doing occasional consulting work for old clients.

Jonathan has a great love of animals, and he and his wife try to go on safari every year. They’ve been lucky enough to visit game reserves in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Tanzania, India, and Sri Lanka.

Blurb

What if my highly dubious story of a two-thousand-year-old family of assassins turned out to be true?

Can you blame a chap for wanting to turn his otherwise humdrum family into a bunch of assassins?

It turns out you can.

I found this out soon after my novel The Tailor of Riga was published, and I received a bunch of beastly emails and threats from incensed family members horrified that I’d portrayed them as the descendants of bloodthirsty hitmen.

Then, out of the blue, a package arrived from a long-lost cousin in Argentina that changed everything.

It was the diary of an unknown ancestor, Elias Smulian-Hasson, summoned from Baghdad to Bombay by the enormously wealthy David Sassoon to take on an assignment for the Maharajah of Kutch.

His mission was to find and kill a British officer responsible for some of the most brutal acts of retribution against Indian survivors of the Great Sepoy Uprising and retrieve a fortune in stolen gemstones. Elias pursues his quarry from Bombay to the Kingdom of Travancore, where the contemptible swine is planning to rob the vaults of the richest temple in the world.

Priceless treasures, mysterious maharajahs, unspeakably evil villains, and the beautiful Mozelle Jacob, a woman Elias will pursue to the ends of the earth, all blend together like a spicy chicken vindaloo in the next saga of the sica.

The Tailor of Riga (see the review at Kirkus), the first book in the Tales of the Sica, is free on Kindle between July 23-27, for anyone interested in getting started with the series.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Lengthening Shadow by Liz Harris, a saga set in England and Germany between the world wars

The title of this fast-paced and memorable saga, spanning from 1914 through 1934 in England and Germany, reflects the historical atmosphere: the darkness spreading across the land as the Nazis rise in power and influence, and its chilling effect on the people living beneath it.

Each volume in the Linford series focuses on different characters. In this third entry, the protagonists are Dorothy Linford, eldest daughter of Joseph, chairman of a prominent London-based building company; and her troubled younger cousin, Louisa. Although some material overlaps with the previous two books, they can all be read independently, and readers familiar with the saga will appreciate how Harris has avoided spoilers for The Dark Horizon (book one) and The Flame Within (book two) – this is very skillfully done!

Serving as a nurse with the Voluntary Aid Detachment during WWI, Dorothy meets and falls in love with one of her hospital patients, Franz Hartmann, a German internee. Disowned by her parents after their marriage, Dorothy moves with Franz to Germany, where they raise two children. Although she misses England dreadfully, she loves the friendliness and religious amity in their small town, Rundheim.

Through the experiences of the Hartmanns and their neighbors, the novel shows the subtle and, later, overt pressures that ordinary German citizens felt to support Hitler, even against their better judgment. One scene set in 1933, where the view from a mountain hike sweeps from the beauteous natural backdrop to the swastika flags flying from windows below, evokes an unsettling contrast.

As her worry and fear grow, Dorothy has painful decisions to make. Back in England, Louisa, a surly teenager, must reassess her priorities after a major wrongdoing. The characters realistically grow and change, and readers will turn the pages eagerly, hoping for optimistic endings for them all.

The Lengthening Shadow was published by Heywood Press in 2021; I reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review. This is the third and last book in the Linford series.  The author's next historical novel, The Darjeeling Inheritance, out in October, is set in India in 1930.  I look forward to reading it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Those I Have Lost by Sharon Maas, a wartime saga set in India and Ceylon

Sharon Maas is a novelist whose works I’ve been meaning to read for some time, since her books promised to bring me to places beyond the familiar sites we see so often in historical fiction.

Set in India and Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) before and during the WWII years, Those I Have Lost takes an angle on the war that will be new for many readers. Events are seen through the eyes of Rosalind (Rosie) Todd, who narrates a heartfelt story of coming of age, love, and loss.

A girl of English heritage raised in a household free of cultural prejudice in pre-Partition India, Rosie loses her beloved mother at age 10, and her passing leaves her and her father, an academic scholar, in deep grief. When her late mother’s good friend, Silvia Huxley, pays a visit and asks to take Rosie to live with her family in Ceylon, sharing proof that it’s what her mother would have wanted, her father reluctantly agrees that a girl of Rosie’s age needs a woman’s guiding touch, and lets her go.

The Huxleys, who live in a “bungalow” (really a mansion) at a tea plantation in the green hills near the city of Kandy, are the parents of three boys, the younger two of whom, Andrew and Victor, were Rosie’s playmates on her earlier visits there. Graham, considerably older than his brothers, was a more distant figure and now works as a surgeon. As the war approaches, all three brothers sign on, to their mother’s anguish. Furthermore, Andrew has fallen in forbidden love with Usha, Rosie’s friend and the Huxleys’ housekeeper's daughter, whose marriage had been arranged with another man. And Rosie’s father vanishes after an enigmatic note, leading her to think he’s away in the mountains following an Indian guru. In other words, her personal life and the world around her are in turmoil.

Those I Have Lost is a briskly paced saga enhanced by its colorful, lush setting of mango trees and sweetly scented frangipani and its richly developed secondary characters and social contexts. The viewpoint of Usha’s mother, Sunita, is never seen firsthand, but we sense her thoughts based on her reactions to events, and her admonition to Usha to “remember her place.” The Catholic priest called “Father Bear,” an old friend of Rosie’s family, is refreshingly different from stereotype; he’s a self-described “Christian freethinker” who tells amusing dad-jokes.

I found the story most gripping during the war years, as Rosie and the Huxleys wait on tenterhooks to hear news of the three sons. A couple of the plot twists (there are many) were too much for my taste, but I did enjoy this story and the interactions among its multicultural cast.

Those I Have Lost was published by Bookouture this month; I read it from a NetGalley copy, and this review forms part of the publisher's blog tour.


Author Bio:

Sharon Maas was born into a prominent political family in Georgetown, Guyana, in 1951. She was educated in England, Guyana, and, later, Germany. After leaving school, she worked as a trainee reporter with the Guyana Graphic in Georgetown and later wrote feature articles for the Sunday Chronicle as a staff journalist.

Her first novel, Of Marriageable Age, is set in Guyana and India and was published by HarperCollins in 1999. In 2014 she moved to Bookouture, and now has ten novels under her belt. Her books span continents, cultures, and eras. From the sugar plantations of colonial British Guiana in South America, to the French battlefields of World War Two, to the present-day brothels of Mumbai and the rice-fields and villages of South India, Sharon never runs out of stories for the armchair traveller.

Please visit the author at: https://www.sharonmaas.com/ and at https://twitter.com/sharon_maas.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Her Heart for a Compass, a Victorian coming-of-age novel by Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, and Marguerite Kaye

Ferguson, the well-known former British royal, in collaboration with romance author Marguerite Kaye, has crafted a debut historical novel of thought-provoking escapism. She bases her protagonist, Lady Margaret Montagu Douglas Scott, on a distant great-aunt and, incorporating autobiographical elements, weaves a fictional coming-of-age adventure for her.

In 1865, flame-haired Margaret, the Duke of Buccleuch’s second daughter, ignites a scandal after fleeing her betrothal party. Torn between duty and personal desires, she shares confidences with other women weighing these issues, including best friend Princess Louise, and is forced to make difficult choices that leave her seeking self-reflection. She also learns to use her privilege for good.

In contrast with the Victorian nobility’s mannered world, Margaret moves through life with disarming candor. The pages turn swiftly, and as Margaret travels from London to Scotland, Ireland, and New York City, readers will bask in the lush details on fashion and architecture. The writings interspersed throughout the narrative – gossipy society columns, letters, and more – heighten this captivating novel's theme of a woman gaining confidence and learning to direct her own story.

Her Heart for a Compass will be published by William Morrow (US) and Mills and Boon (UK) in August. I reviewed it for Booklist's May 15th issue from an Edelweiss copy.  There aren't many reviews out there so far, but I'm sure we'll be seeing more as the pub date gets closer. 

At the end of the novel, Sarah Ferguson writes her own author's note, explaining how she's been wanting to write Lady Margaret's story for fifteen years, and that her heroine was the daughter of her 3x great-grandparents. Both authors also contribute a historical note, detailing which parts of the book are historical and which are invented.

Read more about the book and the authors' collaboration at Town and Country and The Bookseller, where the publication was originally announced.

Monday, July 05, 2021

Angela Jackson-Brown's When Stars Rain Down explores coming-of-age in a segregated, Depression-era Georgia town

Angela Jackson-Brown’s When Stars Rain Down is a Southern historical novel I’ve posted about here before. Once I got the opportunity to read it, the story consumed my attention for a full day and a half. It whisked me right out of my own time and into the viewpoint of Opal Pruitt, a girl of nearly eighteen whose coming of age in the small, segregated town of Parsons, Georgia, gets complicated.

It’s the summer of 1936, and Opal has never kept company with boys before. Miss Birdie, her Granny who raised her after her mother left, won’t allow it. But two different young men she has known for years begin stirring up unexpected romantic feelings. The “Colored” and white residents of Parsons stay pretty much separate, although the elderly white widow, Miss Peggy, who employs both Granny and Opal as housekeepers, treats them both like family, and the two groups attend the Founder’s Day celebration every year.

When local KKK members decide to ride through Opal’s neighborhood, Colored Town, one night, the property destruction and subsequent brutality forces them all into a reckoning. Opal’s large, close-knit family is divided on what to do: should they trust in God and look out for one another, or should they retaliate and risk more violence?

Opal is an endearing character I admired and wanted to protect. Like other Southern girls of her age, she respects her elders (replying “yes, ma’am” to her Granny’s requests) but knows they don’t have all the answers. Opal takes pride in her cooking and cleaning work, which she enjoys, and in her beautiful homemade clothes, stitched from patterns shared by Miss Peggy. The story addresses racial tensions head-on, including the pain inflicted on Black people by well-intentioned but clueless white folks.

The characters’ joys and warm sense of community – Opal has a strong support system – also spring from the page. Many elements combine to enfold readers in the setting of Depression-era Georgia: the oppressive heat, the local vernacular, the smell of peaches and barbecue, and the thrill of the crowd as they see baseball star Satchel Paige play in a Negro League exhibition game. One favorite character is Miss Lobelia, the “hoodoo woman,” who has difficulty convincing Opal that her medicine doesn’t go against Christian ways.

When Stars Rain Down has themes obviously relevant for today, and it also speaks to the value of people listening to one another, and to what their own heart is telling them.

The novel was published by Thomas Nelson in April.

Saturday, July 03, 2021

Review of The Librarian of Saint-Malo, set in Nazi-occupied Brittany

Saint-Malo, a picturesque walled seaside port in Brittany, is the setting for Mario Escobar’s newest novel, which focuses on the efforts of a French librarian, Jocelyn Ferrec, to preserve the books in her beloved town during its occupation by the Germans in World War II. Knowing the importance of the written word, but feeling unable to chronicle her experiences for posterity, Jocelyn addresses letters to a famous French author describing the deteriorating situation around her, hoping he’ll transform them into a book for others to read.

It’s an odd concept, and the epistolary format is just one among many aspects of this novel that don’t make sense. The chapters of The Librarian of Saint-Malo are the letters themselves; they read like a traditional narrative, except for occasional, awkwardly inserted references to the addressee (“Marcel Zola,” a novelist the author imagines as a fictional version of Albert Camus).

Newly married to her childhood sweetheart, Antoine, Jocelyn discovers she’s suffering from tuberculosis, and she’s left alone, in her weakened state, after Antoine leaves to join the fighting. She takes solace in the books of the library where she works and does her best to save them when the Nazis arrive with lists of prohibited literature, intending to destroy whatever they deem subversive. The cruel and lecherous Adolf Bauman, an SS officer, demands lodging in Jocelyn’s home, while another German, Hermann von Choltiz, a medieval literature scholar, tries to protect Jocelyn from his compatriot’s attentions. Jocelyn is touched by his kindness and develops a rapport with him that she isn’t sure she can trust.

Saint-Malo is hauntingly described, with its storied history as a pirate haven contrasting with the traumatic Nazi occupation as neighbors turn on one another, food becomes scarce, and Jews are carted away. The novel’s characters, however, behave in unrealistic ways and have perplexing emotional reactions. In just one early example: Jocelyn sees a horrific event and learns awful news while on an out-of-town trip. That same evening sees her attending a fancy dinner party, in a borrowed gown, feeling that the war was an “ephemeral dream.”

Jocelyn is beyond na├»ve at times, and her tuberculosis symptoms appear and disappear when it’s convenient for the plot. Hermann is hardly a heroic individual, and the author's attempts to make a Nazi into a sympathetic or even romantic figure simply don’t work. The actions of one Jewish character ring particularly false as well.

The Librarian of Saint-Malo has an intriguing setting and theme, saving literature in a time of war, so it's disappointing that I'm not able to recommend this novel.  

The Librarian of Saint-Malo was published by Thomas Nelson in June. I read it from a NetGalley copy.

Friday, June 25, 2021

The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray, an inspiring saga of French history across 150 years

This ambitious saga follows three distinctive women across 150 years and four different wars: the American and French Revolutions and World Wars I and II. Each would have been impressive on its own, but braided together, they create a multifaceted anthem of Franco-American relations and feminine courage. The tales are united across time by a common theme – the tireless pursuit of liberty – and a special place which comes to symbolize it: the Chateau de Chavaniac, a large manor house in the Auvergne region of central France where the Marquis de Lafayette was born.

Marthe Simone had grown up at the orphanage at Chavaniac, and now, in 1940, she teaches the children recuperating from illness at the preventorium there. A talented artist, she accepts a commission to paint portraits of the chateau’s best-known mistress, Adrienne Lafayette, since the Vichy regime may find the 18th-century marquise less objectionable than her famous husband. As times grow darker, and Marthe’s interpersonal relationships shift in surprising ways, she must decide what risks to take, and who to trust.

In July 1914, colorful American socialite Beatrice Chanler debates separating from her estranged millionaire husband as war erupts in Europe. A caring mother who’s aghast at seeing wounded children while traveling through Amiens, Beatrice determines to back the war effort despite President Wilson’s declaration of neutrality. Over a century earlier, Adrienne de Noailles, only a teenager when she marries Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, makes innumerable sacrifices to support her husband while he fights for the American colonists, but her husband’s principles imperil the couple as tides turn during their country’s own revolution.

Based on original research, as explained in the wonderful author’s note, this novel provides satisfying, deep immersion into all three timelines. All three heroines (two are real, one fictional) feel dimensionally real, and their actions are truly inspiring.

The Women of Chateau Lafayette was published by Berkley in March; I'd reviewed it via NetGalley for May's Historical Novels Review.

If you're curious about some of the amazing discoveries the author made about one of her heroines, read this article in the New York Post, which began with her contacting one of her subject's living descendants for more information (I'm not listing the title in case of possible spoilers).  If you've already read the novel, please click away to learn more.