Tuesday, July 26, 2011

An interview with Stewart Binns, author of Conquest

Today Stewart Binns is visiting the blog to respond to some questions about his new novel Conquest, fast-paced adventure fiction about Hereward of Bourne – or Hereward the Wake, as he's better known.  A legendary English hero whose existence is historically documented, Hereward led the resistance to the Normans' conquest of England in the landmark year of 1066.  The principal story of Conquest, however, begins thirteen years beforehand.  A strong and impetuous young man of eighteen, Hereward is a brilliant fighter who still has much to learn about the ways of the world.

Conquest was the first major novel about Hereward the Wake to appear in quite a while, and there have been several other authors writing about the tumultuous events of 11th-century England just within the last year, too. What attracted you to this time period, and why do you think readers are so interested in it now in particular?

I’ve always been fascinated by 11th century England and 1066 in particular. I think Senlac Ridge was the critical defining moment in English/British history where the outcome determined the kind of country England became and all that led from it: Britishness, Anglo-American (western) culture etc. It was a great battle in every sense: its consequences, its intensity, its protagonists and the fact that the margin between defeat and victory was so close. Hardrada and Stamford Bridge are part of this as well, and I’ve always been intrigued by the mix of Celt, Norse, Norman and Anglo-Saxon at the time and how different England and the modern world would have been if either Harald, or Harold had emerged victorious instead of William.

Hereward is an enigmatic figure with wonderful William Wallace-like hero potential, and I thought he was the perfect character to build both an heroic adventure around and to tell the story of those amazing times.

I think there is growing interest in English history at the moment as the English try to define themselves afresh in a newly-devolved Britain. Now that the Scots, Welsh and Irish are off doing their own thing, ‘Britain’ no longer exists in the way the English defined it, as, effectively, ‘Greater England’. The English tended to define ‘English’ as ‘British’ and that doesn’t work anymore, leaving the English in search of themselves and their past.

The novel is framed around Godwin of Ely's account of his earlier life in England. What made you decide to write the core of the novel in third person rather than first?

I suppose I wanted there to be a circle from The Old Man of the Wildwood and Godwin of Ely and for Hereward to survive into great old age. The Varangian Guard/Byzantium/John the Beautiful were irresistible as well. However, my biggest challenge was how the deal with William would work at the end of the Siege of Ely. Thus, the anonymity clause and the creation of Godwin. There are also factors at play that make book 2 work! (To be published next April).

In working through the material on Hereward's life, how did you decide which elements to take from the myths about him, and which from history?

I only took the bits that seem fairly substantial – the banishment and Ely, the rest is fiction. However, although the book is of course fiction, all the history is spot on in terms of main characters, events and chronology. That is really important to me.

Hereward's wife Torfida (or Torfrida) was a character in Charles Kingsley's 1865 novel about him, but was there any mention of her in other novels, or in history, before he wrote about her? How did you develop her character?

I slightly changed her name (by accident rather than design!) but she is mentioned in the 12th century Gesta. I wanted a strong female character, slightly mysterious and somewhat tragic. It is also mentioned that they had twins.

During his time as a mercenary, Hereward and his company travel throughout many parts of Britain and Europe - Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia, Sicily, the Alps, France, and elsewhere. Did you get the chance to visit any of these sites yourself?

I have a policy only to write about places I’ve been to and can visualise. I’m lucky, I’ve travelled a lot!

The novel's action scenes certainly feel very realistic! What was your most enjoyable battle scene to write?

I’m told I write battles well. Two reasons I think: My day job is as a documentary-maker, so I suppose I think in pictures. Also, as an ex-soldier, I know how they think.

Most enjoyable battle scene to write - Senlac Ridge of course – one of the most important battles in world history. I really enjoyed trying to explain how it might have happened, especially the astonishing bravery on both sides. I’m also quite fond of Ely. There is no known detail of what happened there, so an author’s paradise!

What do you hope readers get out of reading Hereward's story?

Superficially, a good action/adventure romp through a great period of history and beneath that some thoughts about good and evil, right and wrong, truth and myth; some questions about courage and sacrifice and beneath those a little thesis about the making of England.

Conquest was published in February by Penguin UK at £6.99 (pb, 497pp).

Friday, July 22, 2011

Book review: A Lesson in Secrets, by Jacqueline Winspear

Jacqueline Winspear’s eighth Maisie Dobbs mystery demonstrates the truth spoken by one of her characters: “One always has riches when one has a book to read.” This is my first outing with Maisie, who by 1932 is a successful private detective in London. Feeling that I ought to get up to speed with this award-winning series, I requested a copy of A Lesson in Secrets to review. Reading novels out of order doesn’t bother me; if an author does her job well, the order shouldn’t matter, plus starting with a later volume gets me interested in reading about the characters’ past histories, too.

Maisie’s outward sophistication belies her humble origins as a domestic servant to the aristocratic Comptons – a family whose son James is now Maisie’s beau. In the years following World War I, the social fabric of Britain has unraveled and re-formed. The political climate is likewise shifting, not necessarily for the better. At the request of the British Secret Service and Scotland Yard, Maisie takes a post as a junior lecturer in philosophy at a small Cambridge college that has been enrolling an unusual number of students from abroad. Her task is to keep her ear to the ground for any activities “not in the interests of the Crown.”

Greville Liddicote, the founder of St. Francis, has pacifist leanings, and his institution’s curriculum is grounded in his principles. A controversial children’s book he wrote during World War I turned many would-be soldiers into “Conchies” – conscientious objectors – and reportedly caused a mutiny on the front lines. (If this event ever occurred, that is. The British government has kept the truth under wraps.) When Liddicote is found murdered in his office, Maisie is asked to stick to her own investigation and let Special Branch do its job, but everything is closely entangled, of course. The more Maisie learns about her fellow instructors and their connections, the closer she comes to unveiling a murderer.

The plot of A Lesson in Secrets is not so much suspenseful as intellectually provocative. Although she is new on the faculty, Maisie’s natural ease with her peers and students gets them talking, and her inquiry is neatly worked into the history of the period. The Nazi party on the rise in Germany is attracting followers throughout Britain and Europe. Few besides Maisie are attuned to the threat it may pose.

For a newcomer to the series like me, Maisie seems a little too perfect at first: she can quickly discern a cause of death, conduct a well-received philosophy lecture with little preparation, and is remarkably aware of her surroundings. For her, success lies not just in what you know, but in who you know.  Over time, she has accumulated enough contacts who provide her with the information she seeks – even if it sometimes leads her up the wrong path.

Maisie is too wary of "happily ever after" endings for her romance with James to be smooth sailing, however, and episodes in her personal life still manage to surprise her.  The mix makes her an intriguing character, and I'm now curious about her transformation from servant to wartime nurse to PI. Her back story is well developed here, and the secondary characters are equally well crafted. Even her late mentor Maurice Blanche, who had left her enough funds in his will to make her financially independent, lives on the page as a close memory. I look forward to meeting him in person in Winspear’s earlier books.

A Lesson in Secrets was published in April by Harper ($25.99, 323pp, hardcover).

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A look at Kathleen Herbert's Moon in Leo, plus a giveaway

First, a disclosure: a quote of mine, based on my reading of Kathleen Herbert’s Dark Ages trilogy from the mid-'80s, is printed on the back cover and first page of Moon in Leo.  Not surprisingly, the words I’d written earlier proved to be true about this book as well:

"I’ve always loved Kathleen Herbert’s work. Written with sensitivity, passion, and an extraordinarily vivid sense of place, her novels reflect the realities of life in a bygone age while still evoking all of its magic."

Moon in Leo takes place on the Furness peninsula in south Cumbria, England, a remote land of sparkling estuaries, rocky woodlands, and wide skies that glow pink and lavender in the setting sun. (See the cover at left.) The novel is saturated with atmosphere to the extent that the setting becomes almost a character in itself. In this beautiful yet perilous place, wayfarers who manage to pull themselves free of Morecambe Bay’s treacherous sands can find sanctuary on Chapel Island – the spot where Moon in Leo begins and ends.

Rosamund Halistan comes from a family of alchemists who have always kept to themselves, which means that she has been more sheltered from the world than other young women of her age. In 1678, her twin brother Stephen returns home from a long stay abroad. Although Rosamund had hoped to become his lifelong partner in the mystical arts, Stephen’s interests no longer lie in that direction; he had fallen in love with the exuberant Italian culture and, more dangerously, the religion of its people. Rosamund finds evidence that someone’s out to kill him, and she’s right.

Even eighteen years after Charles II’s restoration, memories of the Civil War remain at the forefront of everyone’s minds. To help keep the peace in a company of mixed faiths and political allegiances, Rosamund and Stephen agree to attend a house party organized by Sir John Westby, a former Royalist, and his wife, Prudence, a former Parliamentarian. Dark undercurrents of schemes and deception flow through the conversations, and though Rosamund doesn’t catch all of the nuances, she finds herself caught in the thick of the action. When tragedy forces her to confront the layers of corruption in the highest circles of the realm, she determines to preserve what means most to her: her family.

Two suitors vie for her hand, one a fellow seeker of alchemical truths, the other a gentleman of the royal bedchamber. As an heiress, she’s a hot commodity, and whether they have their eye on her person or her fortune (or both) is unclear. Rosamund is a true ingénue trapped in a world swirling with intrigue, and while she struggles to find a foothold, her naïveté means that the reader doesn’t know whom to trust either. Reality versus illusion is one of the novel’s most prominent themes, and over its course, the multifaceted characters are seen from numerous angles.

This lengthy book is set against the backdrop of the Popish Plot, a fictional conspiracy drummed up by Titus Oates in an effort to incite violence against England’s Catholics and prevent them from holding power. The historical background is solid, and the storyline feels intensely romantic, at least until one looks beneath the surface. While declarations of affection abound, amid pet names of “dear” and “darling” and “oh my love,” women in this sparsely populated countryside must rely on male protectors, and few women in this book choose wisely – if they’re permitted to choose at all. Herbert’s lush style can make it feel as if one was reading a classic written many years ago rather than a modern work. As a result, the many songs and bawdy rhymes inserted into the text feel even more authentic to the storyline she creates.

Ghostly visitations, sigils charged with magic, and hermetic spells play such a strong role that I sometimes felt as if I’d stepped into a Dion Fortune novel. Although most of the characters don't believe in such things, these occult happenings definitely feel real to Rosamund, influencing her actions beyond what feels natural. The multiplicity of religious beliefs in this deep, involving read make her world feel genuine, as do the well-crafted depictions of ordinary people – nobles, scholars, courtiers, and gypsies – caught in the tide of history.

Moon in Leo was published by Trifolium Books earlier this year (£11.99, trade pb, 401pp).

Contest info:  I'm holding a giveaway for two electronic copies of Moon in Leo; the winners will be given directions by which they can download a copy at no charge from Smashwords.  To enter, please leave a comment on this post.  Deadline July 29th.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A spotlight on Jude Morgan's next novel

Longtime blog readers may remember my high praise for Jude Morgan's The Taste of Sorrow, a masterful work about the Brontës.  One of the things I enjoy most about his biographical novels is how carefully he matches his approach and his subjects; his books are all excellent, yet each is stylistically different from the others.  He writes about artistic types, musicians and writers and such, and his books show deep insight into the creative process.

While glancing at my recent purchase of his subsequent novel, A Little Folly - he's been alternating biographical treatments with more lighthearted Regency fare - it occurred to me that it would be time for something new from him very soon.

So I checked Amazon UK, et voilà.  The Secret Life of William Shakespeare will be out from Headline Review on March 1st next year, and here's the plot description, from the publisher:

The greatest writer of them all, brought to glorious life.

How well do you know the man you love? How much do you think you know about Shakespeare? What if they were one and the same? He is an ordinary man: unwilling craftsman, ambitious actor, resentful son, almost good-enough husband. And he is also a genius. The story of how a glove-maker from Warwickshire became the greatest writer of them all is vaguely known to most of us, but it would take an exceptional modern novelist to bring him to life. And now at last Jude Morgan, acclaimed author of Passion and The Taste of Sorrow, has taken Shakespeare's life, and created a masterpiece.

The title is gimmicky, but it's what's inside that matters.  Did I preorder it? You bet.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A visual preview of UK historical novels for late summer and autumn

With historical settings ranging from ancient Greece to Tudor England to 17th-century France to 19th-century India, here are some personal picks of historical novels set to be published in the UK over the next four months.

A.L. Berridge's In the Name of the King is swashbucking adventure set in France during the Thirty Years' War, a most uncommon setting.  In 1640, the Chevalier de Roland tangles with a cruel nobleman to save a young woman's honor and finds himself enmeshed in a political conspiracy.  2nd in series after Honour and the Sword.  Penguin, August 4th.

The forbidden romance between an Indian prince and an Englishwoman heats up colonial Lucknow, India, even as the couple battles society's prejudices and violence erupts all around them.  A debut novel for Sangeeta Bhargava.  Allison & Busby, July 25th.

Fiona Buckley's historical mystery heroine, Elizabethan lady-in-waiting Ursula Blanchard, re-emerges in this 9th entry in the series, which focuses on a covert plot to replace the queen with her Scots cousin.  Doesn't the lady on the cover look like a 16th-century version of Adele?  Creme de la Crime (now a Severn House imprint), Sept 29th.

Dickason has made a literary home for herself in 17th-century England. The little-known story of Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford, a daring noblewoman who becomes a peace-weaver between James I and his daughter, Elizabeth of Bohemia, after Elizabeth and her husband lose their throne.  Harper, November 24th.

Ewing is a versatile novelist, having mastered a variety of settings from Victorian and modern London to the colonial world of her native New Zealand.  I believe this is her first American outing.  Circus of Ghosts takes place in a circus in late 1840s New York and focuses on a mysterious woman adept at the dark art of mesmerism.  Sequel to The Mesmerist.  Sphere, July 28th.

Historical adventure in 13th-century Asia, as a Knight Templar travels from Palestine to the Mongol city of  Xanadu to form an alliance against the Saracens - and encounters a Tartar warrior princess that complicates his plans.  Why aren't more of Colin Falconer's novels published in the US?  Atlantic, October 1.

A multi-period family saga set in Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1917 and ninety years later.  I found Hislop's The Island a smoothly written, satisfying, and uplifting tale about a traumatic historical period, so I expect the same to be true here. Headline Review, October 27.

This one will be a must-purchase based on my experience reading McMahon's fabulous The Crimson Rooms.  Season of Light, a love story set in pre-Revolutionary Paris, centers on a young Englishwoman, Asa Ardleigh, who falls in love with a dashing intellectual at the salon of Madame de Genlis. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, November 1.

This debut novel from Madeline Miller, an American classical historian, retells the story of the Trojan War from the viewpoint of Patroclus, good friend and more to the heroic Achilles, bringing to life elements of the tale that Homer only hinted at.  Love, battles, and the hidden schemings of the gods.  Bloomsbury, September 6th; also Ecco/HarperCollins US, next March.

Among all of the queens of England, Henrietta Maria is one of the few whose story has rarely been told in fiction.  Described as an "English Gone with the Wind" by the publisher, Fiona Mountain's Cavalier Queen tells the story of a woman torn between the king who loves her and the man, Henry Jermyn, who wins her favor and supports her through years of exile and danger.  Preface, October 25th.

Lucinda Riley's followup to her epic saga Hothouse Flower deals with two families and their tangled history in London and in Ireland during WWI. Penguin, October 13th.

A young woman in modern Wales traces her grandparents' lives in WWII-era Kashmir when she discovers an antique shawl in her father's house, and a lock of hair in an envelope tucked within it.  The review at The Bookbag intrigues me.  What a colorful and eye-catching cover, though almost too much is going on with it.  HarperCollins, July 21st.

In this novel of the gem trade in Tudor-era Europe, Henry VIII is a vigorous man of 36 who has just fallen in love with Anne Boleyn.  The main character of Will Whitaker's The King's Diamond, though, is jewel merchant Richard Dansey, whose determination to seize control of the family business leads him into danger. HarperPress, July 21st.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Guest post from Eileen Clymer Schwab: Shining a Light on Dark Times

I'd like to welcome Eileen Clymer Schwab to the blog today.  In the following post, she discusses what inspires her to write about a tumultuous time in history - slavery in pre-Civil War America - and what she learned while researching the Underground Railroad.  Thanks, Eileen, for a thought-provoking post, which pinpoints the reasons I enjoy novels set during this period, too (and why I wish there were more of them).  If this isn't enough to get readers interested, Shadow of a Quarter Moon has an awesome cover. I'll be writing a review of it here in the coming weeks.

Shining a Light on Dark Times

One of the questions I often hear from readers is, “Do you find it difficult to write novels that are set in such a brutal period of American history?”

Let me confide to you that I am a “happily ever after” kind of gal. So the fact that I’ve written two novels against the backdrop of slavery in the 1800s may seem like a highly unusual choice. After all, what good can be gained by stirring old ghosts? For this reason, there is not a lot of adult fiction written about this period. I suspect this is because it is not a time our nation is proud of or wishes to reminisce over. Instead we hide it from sight like an ugly scar. Readers and writers alike often avoid revisiting these pre-Civil War years because of the horror and shame it stirs in our moral conscience.

As an author, I am inspired by the strength and courage of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances; how friends, family, and inner conviction can change the course of our lives. Endless stories of inspiration, danger, upheaval, and bold beginnings are waiting to be unearthed from the ashes. In keeping the door closed on this period, we miss the chance to celebrate and marvel at the incredible acts of courage and daring deeds that were the genesis of social change in our country. The secret network known as the Underground Railroad is the perfect example of the best of America in the worst of America, and it serves as a vehicle of transformation for the main character in my latest novel.

In Shadow of a Quarter Moon, an unimaginable secret changes the course of Jacy Lane’s life; not once, but twice. First, when it is hidden from her, and then when it is revealed. As the daughter of a plantation owner, Jacy has been raised in privilege until she discovers that she is the offspring of a dalliance between her father and a slave. Amid the shock and complexities of her mixed heritage, Jacy is simply a woman longing for love, happiness, and a sense of wholeness; however the 1800s are not a simple time, and Jacy begins a treacherous journey of denial and self-discovery that is fraught with danger and life-altering choices. She soon discovers that what she chases is as elusive as the secret network she hopes can save them.

Writing a novel against this turbulent backdrop required a great deal of research. Often it was heart-wrenching, and at other times, awe-inspiring. For me, research is a process of discovery – not just of historical facts, but of tendencies, beliefs, and nuances of the time. Through this process I become better acquainted with my characters and the world around them. I wanted to touch and see as much as I could, beginning at the library, as well as visiting places like the Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati and other historic sites found within our National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. So often the surprises discovered in research shift plotlines or shape characters in unexpected ways. For example, while doing some research in North Carolina, I came across Dismal Swamp. As a writer, I could not overlook a name so vivid and descriptive, and I knew it would be mentioned in my story. At the time, I had no idea that the bleak sounding region was so rich and storied in Underground Railroad history, or that it would play such a significant role in my novel.

Shadow of a Quarter Moon and my first novel, Promise Bridge, shine light on both the villainous and heroic activity of that dark time. It was an honor to look back and give voice to a generation deserving of acknowledgment, tribute, and literary life, as with any other period in our history. Remembering and discussing their trials and triumphs can be one way of paying respect to their role in our social evolution. My hope is that the spirit of the Underground Railroad will never be forgotten.


Visit Eileen Clymer Schwab at her website, blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter. Shadow of a Quarter Moon is published today, July 5th, by NAL at $15.00 (trade paperback, 400pp). (Photo credit: Portrait Innovations)