Monday, June 30, 2014

Book review: Baudelaire's Revenge, by Bob Van Laerhoven

In Belgian writer Bob Van Laerhoven’s ominous, squirm-inducing Baudelaire’s Revenge, a police procedural set in a besieged Paris in 1870, two detectives investigate a series of crimes as creative and twisted as the novel’s macabre plot.

During the Franco-Prussian war, the city is a hotbed of unrest, its residents hating the upstart emperor, Napoleon III, for keeping them impoverished and hungry and for leading France into a futile conflict. Prominent poet Charles Baudelaire has been dead for three years, his syphilis having infected his mind as well as the content of his most celebrated and controversial collection, Les Fleurs du Mal ("The Flowers of  Evil").

When the bodies of men who may have offended Baudelaire in life start turning up throughout Paris, bearing exotic poisoned tattoos and mysterious handwritten lines from his verse, people wonder if he’s come back from the dead to wreak vengeance.

A burly, hirsute man who loves literature and regularly visits his favorite brothel, commissioner Paul Lefèvre may be an unexpected crime novel protagonist, but his haunted personality suits the book. He and his old friend/assistant, Inspector Bernard Bouveroux, once fought together in Algeria, and Lefèvre still suffers flashbacks from the war. During their search for the killer, they’re forced to confront some of the city’s most repugnant venues and vices, which give rise to scenes of tortured death, drug-induced imaginings, and perverse sex.

One handicap to reading is the disjointed writing style. Viewpoints switch frequently, and evocative passages are broken up with dropped-in facts; the prose demands close attention while its content simultaneously repels it.  The sections featuring one unusual woman’s viewpoint exert a bizarre fascination, though, and the surprising conclusion will reward brave readers.

With his tribute to the poet and his work, Van Laerhoven has mirrored Baudelaire’s darker themes in assembling an intensely felt novel out of images of physical and moral decay.

Baudelaire's Revenge, translated from the original Dutch by Brian Doyle, was published by Pegasus in April ($25.95, hb, 256pp).

Friday, June 27, 2014

Why I chose to write about emancipation, a guest essay by Bradley Greenburg, plus giveaway

Today at the blog, I'm welcoming Bradley Greenburg, a debut historical novelist who is also a professor at one of my university's sister schools.  He has an informative essay detailing the background to his new novel, which spans over sixty years and details the experiences of one American family as they endure racial tensions and create a life for themselves in the Midwest.  There's a giveaway at the end, too, for US readers.

Why I Chose to Write about Emancipation
Bradley Greenburg

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed explores the consequences of declaring emancipation without being able to enforce it. In the United States after the Civil War, African-Americans had freedom on paper but not in their daily lives. As Reconstruction altered the political and social realities of the South in the wake of the Civil War, emancipated blacks faced an everyday struggle to work, live peaceful lives, and raise their families.

For the McGhee family, who are the focus of the novel, this leads them to pick up and move to the North in search of a new beginning. Small-town Alabama of 1868 offers few possibilities, so they head for Nashville in search of work. But while the divisions between North and South in the period of the war were clear, post-war America did not as a whole embrace its newly enfranchised citizens. Ironically, the skills that made them sought after as slaves – e.g. carpentry, building, skilled labour and craftsmanship – render them unemployable after emancipation: why would you pay a black man to do something which previously you could get him to do for nothing?

The only option for the McGhees is to be self-sufficient, to buy and cultivate their own land. James McGhee leaves his elderly parents, wife, and three children to ride north in search of a piece of land where they can make a new life free of the openly hostile prejudices of the former slave states. Eventually, he succeeds in buying a farm in northern Indiana, but when he brings his family to join him, they find many enemies. The conflict that ensues – violent and bloody – demonstrates that the color of one's skin is still an important issue. I chose to write about emancipation not in terms of a freedom that can be declared but a freedom that has to be struggled for, not once, but continually, year after year.

They are pioneers who have as yet no community to support them, so the allies they make are from minorities like themselves, Polish people, for example, who have also faced resistance and prejudice. Already, America is made up of a complex mix of people from many ethnic and religious backgrounds, so the racial and social tensions that lie beneath the surface erupt continually in open dispute and violence. There is of course money to be made, and even in such a new continent, there are vested interests which fear being diluted or compromised. When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed charts the history of the McGhees as they become pioneers and make their way haltingly, like the US itself, towards true emancipation.

The second half of the novel moves ahead to the year 1901. Clayton McGhee is a grown man and has his own children now. There are still racial tensions in the community but now the subject is emancipation from the past. How do people overcome the events that have formed their character? How do prejudices persist? While the McGhee family may have found some measure of freedom from the predations of 1868, there are new troubles on the horizon. Those who opposed them in the past have their own sons and grandsons, and the hostile attitudes and beliefs of the past find their way down the generations.

By this time, the opposition to emancipation has to some extent gone underground, but is more organised and potentially more deadly.

On another level, the novel is also about fathers and sons and how difficult it is for younger men either to live up to the courage of their forebears, or emancipate themselves from the prejudices and crimes of the past.

Bradley Greenburg grew up along the Wabash River in Tippercanoe County, Indiana, a few miles from Prophetstown and the Battle of Tippencanoe site. He teaches Renaissance drama and English literature at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. This is his first novel.

When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloomed by Bradley Greenburg is published on 19 June 2014 and is available at all good bookstores and online, price $19.00.

The publisher, Sandstone Press, is offering a giveaway of Bradley Greenburg's novel for US readers.  Please fill out the following form to enter (one entry per person, please).  Deadline Saturday, July 5.

Update 7/6/14:  The giveaway is over - congrats to Noreen Trotsky!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Book review: A Triple Knot, by Emma Campion

There are few historical novels set during the fifty-year reign of England's Edward III, maybe because his position on the throne was stable. This doesn't mean, however, that the era lacked political turmoil, drama, or strong personalities. This was the time of the Hundred Years' War, a series of international conflicts based on Edward's claim to be France's rightful king through his mother, who was born a French princess.

Using this tumultuous period as a backdrop, Emma Campion's welcome new novel A Triple Knot reveals the tangled marital history of the king's beautiful young cousin, Joan of Kent. (Although not explicitly stated, the title may refer to this aspect of her life.) The daughter of a Plantagenet relative beheaded as a traitor, Joan is taken in by her royal kin. The story follows her as she adjusts to her difficult position, forced to depend on those who caused her father's death and who want to use her to further the king's ambitions. Some of the novel's most vivid scenes take place in the Low Countries, where she and the court travel in an effort to bolster support for the king among local noblemen.

It's on the boat to Antwerp where Joan first meets Sir Thomas Holland, the man who will become the love of her life. Although she's only twelve, Joan sets her heart on him. (This is, needless to say, based in history, and those readers who can’t get past Joan’s age here probably shouldn’t be reading novels about real-life medieval women in the first place.) Campion shifts perspectives frequently to give readers a rounded impression of events and of Joan's character. When her own viewpoint is presented, Joan appears to be remarkably mature, but when the story moves to her mother's view, we understand how young she really is.

Because her family has other plans for her, Joan and Thomas are kept apart for a good long while, and in that sense the novel is a touching tribute to their steadfast love. And often – too often – the man waiting in the wings is Joan's cousin Ned, the king's eldest son, a fascinating and complicated man. As Joan grows from a naive adolescent to a strong, confident, yet still naive woman, she sees Ned's ruthlessness firsthand, but his good looks and gallant behavior blind her to his darker qualities.

For readers mainly familiar with the “Black Prince” through his heroic military victories, this will be an unexpected interpretation of Ned’s temperament – but it's a convincing one. It's also a risky move to make readers aware of flaws about a character that the heroine doesn't pick up on, and this doesn't always work here.  Readers may find themselves wishing time and again that Joan was more observant.  There are admirable aspects to Joan's nature, though: she seizes what power she can take and makes the best of her circumstances.

Campion's writing style has a poise about it that assures readers that they're in good hands. The detailed historical backdrop, with its knightly tournaments, hawking parties, and glimpses of 14th-century merchant life, feels as rich and sumptuous as the queen's red brocade gown.  Queen Philippa is another woman given more complex treatment here than history remembers.  While she's a loyal wife and mother, her devotion to her children means she's not always a good friend to Joan.

The most noticeable flaw, however, is that the storytelling is so smooth that some potentially emotional moments feel muted. Many characters die horribly of the Black Death, but the true sense of the plague's devastation doesn't penetrate. Likewise, Joan's and Thomas's enduring love story isn't as poignant as it could be, especially early on when they barely know each other. Still, this is a lush, skilled portrait of a courageous woman who unwaveringly pursued a match of her own choosing in an age in which all the odds were against her.

A Triple Knot will be published in July by Broadway/Random House ($16.00, trade pb, 480pp).   I received my ARC from LibraryThing's Early Reviewers.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Guest essay from Chris Pearce: The Peterloo Massacre, Manchester, UK, 1819

Today novelist Chris Pearce is here speaking about the social and political conditions in late Georgian England that led up to the Peterloo Massacre, a defining event in British social history, and how he incorporated these details into his novel A Weaver's Web.  The period illustrations within the post were originally published in his nonfiction book (details below in his bio).  Welcome, Chris!


The Peterloo Massacre, Manchester, UK, 1819
Chris Pearce

What started off as a peaceful meeting of more than 60,000 people at Manchester seeking parliamentary reform turned into what became known as the Peterloo Massacre. About 18 people died and 500 or more were injured. It is regarded as one of the most significant events in British social history and is included in my historical novel, A Weaver’s Web.

The Industrial Revolution started in Manchester, whose population grew at an alarming rate, from 20,000 in 1770 to well over 100,000 by the 1810s. Rural cottage workers could no longer compete with the cotton mills, and people moved to the city in droves from the surrounding countryside seeking work in the new factories. Local government, town planning, hospitals and schools couldn’t keep up, and living and working conditions were appalling. Famine and unemployment were widespread.

Interior of a Manchester cellar.  From George R. Catt,
A Pictorial History of Manchester, 1843.

Tensions between loyalists and reformers over politics and living standards began in about 1789 and led to a series of riots from 1792 to 1795. Disturbances called “food riots” due to high prices of basic foods were common from the mid 1790s. The emphasis turned to wages by 1808, when Parliament rejected a minimum wage, and a two-day protest meeting of 10,000 people at St George’s Field in Manchester resulted in one death and several injuries.

Unrest escalated in the 1810s as people complained about losing their jobs to machinery, high prices, low wages, and lack of parliamentary representation. Lancashire had two members of parliament, but only male landowners could vote and only at Lancaster, population 10,000 and the county’s capital, 50 miles to the north. By then, Manchester was England’s second largest city after London.

A number of meetings calling for parliamentary reform were held in 1819, and they got bigger and noisier, with some attendees going armed, much to the alarm of the magistrates who had to keep law and order at these sessions. Despite the lack of reform, it was the main topic of conversation on the streets, at the market, and in homes and factories. There were huge meetings in Birmingham, Leeds and London too.

Manchester, the Market Place, about 1825

Then, the biggest meeting of all, billed as the greatest gathering the world had ever seen, was to be held at St Peter’s Field, Manchester on 16 August 1819, a Monday. Contingents of hundreds, even thousands, of people marched to the city from dozens of towns as far away as 16 miles to join the tens of thousands of Mancunians heading to the meeting. Their banners included “Annual Parliaments”, Universal Suffrage”, “Unity and Strength”, “Liberty and Fraternity”, “Equal Representation or Death” and “The Royton Female Union”. It was to be a peaceful family day, and leaders made sure no weapons were being carried. 

Crowds poured onto St Peter’s Field from different directions, bands played and people cheered. Four local magistrates were appointed to keep check on events: William Hulton, Rev. C. W. Ethelston, James Norris and Rev. W. R. Hay. A couple of them were uneasy from the start, taking fright at the sheer size of the crowd, their banners and the noise. Soon the main speaker, Henry “Orator” Hunt, made his way through the crowd to the husting. He was unhappy with its position and got some men to move it. This meant the magistrates no longer had a direct line of communication to the constables near the middle.

Hunt started to address the crowd, but the magistrates had already called for the troops. Soon the Manchester Yeomanry, Cheshire Yeomanry and Fifteenth Hussars approached the meeting from side streets. The magistrates told the messengers to tell the yeomanry to move in and arrest Hunt. Many in the crowd were reluctant to let the soldiers through. They then rode their horses directly into the throng, slashing with their sabres. This can be seen on the cover of my novel. Hunt is in white trousers at the center of the platform. The magistrates can be seen at a window at left. The crowd panicked and there was chaos. People lay dead and injured everywhere while luckier demonstrators fled in the direction of their homes. 

A representation of the Manchester reform meeting dispersed by the
Civil and Military Power, Aug. 16th, 1819

The main family in A Weaver’s Web, the Wakefields, attend the meeting. Henry Wakefield is a handloom weaver and was active in the reform movement at Middleton and also Manchester after they moved to the city. His wife, Sarah, is a factory worker and became interested in reform too. They and their five children left their cellar in the morning and walked to the meeting. They held hands near the edge of the gathering for fear of being caught in a crush. But more people came in behind them, and they were soon in the middle of the crowd.

They enjoyed the carnival atmosphere and cheered as Hunt appeared. When things turned nasty, the Wakefields were caught up in it. Henry was knocked to the ground trying to protect his family as a horse rode over them. He got up but was pushed over again. He staggered around looking for them, his face covered in blood and dirt. When he tried to retrace his steps, the constables turned him away and told him to go home. He eventually found his family next door, but his youngest daughter was missing.

Market Street in the 1820s

Henry kept going to reform meetings, but they got smaller and participants argued without achieving much. Henry lost interest and decided the best way forward for the family was for him to start a factory, which led to a whole new set of problems for them.

Within a week or two, the press named the incident the Peterloo Massacre, after the Battle of Waterloo four years earlier. The government cracked down on reform. Nine ringleaders were charged with sedition. Hunt got 30 months’ jail (but later became a member of parliament) and several others were handed lesser sentences. It would be another 13 years before the Great Reform Act of 1832 gave Manchester two members of parliament of its own.


Chris Pearce was born in Surrey, UK and grew up in Melbourne, Australia. He has written a historical novel, A Weaver’s Web, set in the Manchester area of the UK in the early 19th century. After unsuccessfully targeting many literary agents, including one who compared his manuscript to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, he decided to publish it as an ebook. He also has a non-fiction book (print only), Through the Eyes of Thomas Pamphlett: Convict and Castaway, which he plans to publish as an ebook later in 2014. He is writing a book on the history of daylight saving time and has some notes towards a novel set 80 years into the future.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Interview with Antonia Hodgson, author of The Devil in the Marshalsea

Following upon my earlier review of Antonia Hodgson's twisty debut thriller, The Devil in the Marshalsea, today I'm speaking with the author about her characters and setting as part of her blog tour. 


Historical crime novels set in Georgian England, especially during George II’s reign, are comparatively rare things for some reason, so I found the timeframe a refreshing change. What possibilities did you see in the historical setting?

It’s curious, isn’t it, how certain periods have a glamour and popularity while others are so neglected. I think it’s a fascinating time—and strangely familiar, too. London in the 1720s was a bit like Rio or Mumbai today—a huge, expanding city. The greatest city on earth, in fact, with a population of 600,000 souls. At the same time, there was no police force and corruption was absolutely rife. Extreme wealth sat alongside the most desperate poverty. All of these things create tension, suffering... and opportunity.

In the past there was a tendency to see ‘Georgian England’ as steady, pastoral, polite. I blame the wigs—it makes everyone look a bit pompous, even when they’re doing something outrageous. London was glamorous, dangerous and full of contrasts. And very funny too—there was a satirical bite to the age.

As a narrator, Tom is greatly entertaining—he’s willful and rather cheeky, but also honest and honorable. How did you develop his voice?

Tom developed quite naturally, because his character inspired the whole story. It’s very hard to describe the process because it wasn’t a step-by-step, conscious creation. I could say that I started with this idea of a young man who has rebelled against his father... or that he’s a gambler who likes to win without cheating. The truth is I can’t tell you how he developed—it was intuitive. I might as well say he sauntered into my consciousness and put his feet up.

I’m very glad you found him entertaining—Tom has lasted so long in a dangerous world partly because he is good company. But that’s also a curse. Charm alone can get you a long way... and ultimately nowhere.

Obviously nobody expects prison life to be pleasant, but the conditions within the filthy hellhole that was the Marshalsea’s Common Side were shocking. How widely known at the time were the realities?

The information was there, if people wanted to know. Certainly anyone from the ‘lower orders’ could have told them the truth. People used to fight bailiffs in the street—to the death in some cases—rather than be dragged off to gaol. In 1718 a prisoner wrote a poem about the Marshalsea called ‘Hell in Epitome’—it describes the Common Side in detail. It even claims that prisoners were chained to rotting corpses as punishment. I didn’t put that in the novel because it may have been an exaggeration. I have a horrible feeling it wasn’t, though.

In the end it was a government enquiry that forced the truth out into the open. It described the beatings, the starving prisoners, the number of dead bodies pulled out of the cramped and suffocating cells each morning. The enquiry was set up by an MP called James Oglethorpe, after a good friend of his died of smallpox in a debtors’ prison (he’d been forced to share a cell with someone already dying of the highly infectious disease). Oglethorpe campaigned for the report and led the investigation. Sometimes it takes that personal connection to make the truth sink in.

Your female characters can easily hold their own with the men. Are there any whose personalities and stories you especially enjoyed crafting?

I enjoyed writing Kitty Sparks, who is an entirely fictional character. She is a sharp-witted, spirited eighteen-year-old girl trapped in an age where women were considered second-class citizens. Permanently furious and frustrated, in other words.

A lot of the female characters are based on real people who were living in the Marshalsea at the time. Mary Acton, the governor’s wife. Sarah Bradshaw who ran a coffeeshop within the prison. The Marshalsea was a mixed prison, which led to some interesting opportunities.

During your research, did you come across any interesting tidbits or historical characters that you thought about including in the story but were unable to?

Absolutely! But writing historical fiction is as much about what you leave out as what you put in. It can be tempting to find some fascinating detail and reach for the crowbar.

Tom Hawkins narrates The Devil in the Marshalsea. He is a man of his time, writing—as far as he knows—for a reader of his own time. He’s not going to spend five paragraphs describing how a clockwork spit works. More than that, he’s twenty-five and easily bored. This was helpful, in the end. It forced me to make the historical details flow naturally from the story.

No research is wasted however. Even if you don’t use 90% of it, it gives you a confidence and authority when you write.

What was the experience like, working with two editors at different publishing houses (UK and US) simultaneously?

It was great—I’ve thanked them both in the acknowledgements and with good reason. I’m an editor myself (at Little, Brown UK) so naturally I think it’s a vital part of the process! The best editing notes are ones that make you think ‘aha! yes, I did wonder about that…’ Both my editors are very experienced, very perceptive and very thoughtful. I’m extremely lucky, in other words.

Can you reveal anything about the adventures Tom will encounter in the next installment of the series?

I have just handed in the first draft of the new book. It’s set in London again, a few months after The Devil in the Marshalsea. I’m afraid he’s in even worse trouble this time round. He has a talent for it.


Antonia Hodgson is the editor in chief of Little, Brown UK. She lives in London and can see the last fragments of the old city wall from her living room. The Devil in the Marshalsea is her first novel. For more information please visit Antonia Hodgson’s website. You can also find her on Goodreads and Twitter.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Book review: The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton

It’s a pleasure to discover an author who wields language in striking ways, and Burton’s setting and story line are equally singular. In her enticing debut, set in 1680s Amsterdam, she counterbalances her mischievous premise with stark commentary on greed, hypocrisy, and prejudice.

Already puzzled by the indifference of her new husband, merchant-trader Johannes Brandt, 18-year-old Nella feels insulted by his seemingly childish wedding gift: a pricey dollhouse whose tiny rooms replicate the decor and layout of their home. However, she grows intrigued when the furnishings she commissions from a miniaturist reveal uncannily prescient insight into their household.

Full of surprises and layers of secrets, the plot gathers suspense as Nella seeks answers from the enigmatic miniaturist and tension heightens between Johannes and a business associate over unsold sugar. While Nella’s determination and colorful observations are appealing, the inscrutability of her chilly sister-in-law, Marin, deepens the sense of mystery. The interactions between these strong characters and their spirited maid, Cornelia, make this refreshingly different historical novel a standout portrayal of the wide range of women’s ingenuity.

The Miniaturist will be published by Ecco in August ($26.99, hb, 416pp).  This review first appeared in Booklist Online on June 13th.  This is by necessity a short review, but if you want to read even more about the novel, including an interview with the author, it's the focus of Shelf Awareness' Maximum Shelf today.  Also be sure to check out the real Dolls' House of Petronella Oortman (which is the birth name of The Miniaturist's main character) at the Rijksmuseum site in the Netherlands.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Recreating a World, a guest essay by Donis Casey, author of the Alafair Tucker Mysteries

In today's guest essay, novelist Donis Casey, author of Hell With the Lid Blown Off and six earlier novels in the acclaimed Alafair Tucker mystery series set in 1910s Oklahoma and Arizona, covers a variety of good points related to writing authentic historical fiction and capturing all the details of her characters' world.


Recreating a World
Donis Casey

I’m amused at how often people seem to think that whatever is going on this minute is unique in human history. Hardly! People never change. They are us! They just didn’t have cell phones. As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”

My protagonist, Alafair Tucker, lives with her husband, Shaw, and their ten children on a prosperous farm outside of Boynton, Oklahoma, in the 1910s. She never sets out to solve murders, but one or another of her ten lively kids will insist upon getting into trouble, and Alafair is the kind of woman who will do anything, legal or not, for her kids. Alafair is an homage to my foremothers, tough as nails but twice as loving, who did whatever needed to be done whether they were supposed to or not.

Boynton was quite the thriving community back in Alafair’s time. It had two banks, five churches, a newspaper, a brick plant, an oil refinery, four general stores, two hardware houses, a furniture store, a farm implement store, and a big cotton gin. The 1916 Directory of Boynton states, “Altogether Boynton is one of the most progressive cities in the state, and its future is full of brilliant promise.”

It didn’t quite turn out that way. The Great Depression did it in, like it did so many Oklahoma farming communities.

I strive to create as authentic a depiction of this woman’s life in that place and time as humanly possible. What is her daily life like? She doesn’t just run off and try to solve mysteries whenever she wants. She has to fix dinner, do the laundry, weed the garden. I want the reader to feel like Alafair is a real person who has a life that matters, to care about her. I wanted to create a world and make the reader believe in it.

Boynton, Oklahoma, ca. 1915 (given to author by Boynton Historical Society)

Therefore, I do tremendous amounts of research. One would expect this of a historical novelist. The writer has to be really careful not to make egregious mistakes about the time period events, language, clothing, tools, conveyances. What mystery-solving methods are available to my sleuth during her time period? Sometimes mysteries set in the recent past are more difficult to get right than those in the distant past. King Henry VIII doesn’t wear a Rolex. That’s easy. But what about Oxydol Detergent for Alafair in 1915? Levi’s jeans for her husband? (Note: Levi’s were available, but not so much in Oklahoma. I know this because the official historian for the Levi Strauss Company told me so.)

But only a very small percent of the research I do for each book finds its way onto the page. I’m trying to recreate a life in a bygone era, not to write a history book, and it’s amazing how little it takes to add just that perfect touch of authenticity to a story.

Why, then, do I spend so much time learning everything I can about the times, lives, and mores of my characters when I know I’m not going to write about most of it? Because my own familiarity with the era I’m writing about is going to show without my having to make a big deal of it. The characters are going to move naturally through their world without thinking about it, just like we do in our own world. Sometimes it takes research into ways of life one would never have the opportunity to come across today, such as how to scrape ashes out of a cast iron cook stove or clear a blocked oil well with a nitroglycerin torpedo.

Besides, I love to live for a while in a time and place that no longer exists, and explore beliefs that no one believes any more. I think sometimes that there is something of acting in writing fiction. Actors and novelists both have to dig deep to inhabit our characters and make them real.

Boynton, Oklahoma, ca. 1915 (given to author by Boynton Historical Society)

I have written scenes in which one of my characters does something that he absolutely believes is right, but I, Donis Ann Casey, would never consider justified. One of the joys and perhaps one of the great challenges of writing is that you can explore lives, places, times, people, attitudes that are entirely different from your own. The Alafair Tucker Mysteries feature a protagonist who leads a life that couldn’t be less like mine, nor does she believe the things I do. And yet she’s a human being, with the same fears and loves and desires as any woman in any era. I know her intimately. I grew up around her world and loved a lot of people who were just like her.

I wonder sometimes if readers think  I have the same values and ideas as my character Alafair. I used to wonder how like their characters other authors are until I actually started writing fiction. Now I think the answer often is, “not even close.”

I read an interview with Salman Rushdie in which he said he didn’t have to be religious himself in order to understand quite well how a religious person thinks, and not only to understand him, but have great admiration for him. When I write about the Boynton that Alafair Tucker and her family inhabit, I might as well be writing about Atlantis – a place, a time, a way of life that only exists now in the racial memory of its descendants.


Donis Casey is the author of seven Alafair Tucker Mysteries, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, Hornswoggled, The Drop Edge of Yonder, The Sky Took Him, Crying Blood, The Wrong Hill to Die On, and Hell With the Lid Blown Off (Poisoned Pen Press, June 2014). The award-winning series, featuring the sleuthing mother of ten children, is set in Oklahoma and Arizona during the booming 1910s. Donis is a native Oklahoman who now lives in Tempe, Arizona. Readers can enjoy the first chapter of each book on her web site She also blogs biweekly about writing at

From Publishers Weekly's starred review of Hell With the Lid Blown Off: "A huge tornado brings unexpected trouble to the people of Boynton, Okla., in Casey’s excellent seventh Alafair Tucker mystery.... Casey provides an engaging portrait of the close-knit society that was commonly found in the rural Midwest at the time. Alafair Tucker, her large family, and their friends are a pleasure to spend time with."

Friday, June 13, 2014

Book review: Queen of Bedlam, by Laura Purcell

It's about time a new author saw the possibilities in historical novels about Britain's Hanoverian dynasty. The personal lives and politics of the first four King Georges and their families have been neglected in favor of the more glamorous-seeming Tudors and Stuarts, but Laura Purcell is passionately interested in these people and has, fortunately for readers, brought them back into the spotlight.

Her first novel, Queen of Bedlam (previously self-published as God Save the King) concerns the plight of the long-suffering Queen Charlotte and her six daughters after her beloved husband of many years, George III, begins suffering from a mysterious illness that leaves him confused, delusional, and unable to rule. Their story unfolds from the king’s first signs of madness in 1788 through the ups and downs of his malady and finally to the later years of the inevitable regency of his son, the Prince of Wales (later George IV), in 1818.

Although the sadness of the tale is unavoidable, there are many lively moments, and it’s full of well-rendered characters whose interactions held my attention. I empathized with Charlotte, who is forced to endure George’s erratic behavior, including his lusty pursuit of another woman; she comes to dread previously normal events such as sleeping alongside him in bed as much as she fears the anti-monarchical zeal sweeping through nearby France. At the same time, I couldn’t help siding with her restless daughters, who aren’t allowed to wed and who suffer not only their father’s madness but also their mother’s increasing bitterness and jealousy.

Wisely, Purcell chooses just two of their viewpoints to focus on: the younger Charlotte, nicknamed Royal, whose desire to marry and leave the court leads her into a match both problematic and rewarding in turns; and Sophia, daughter number five, whose passion for a socially inappropriate older man leads to trouble. Both young women are strong, likeable, and interesting, and given their intolerable situation, their misguided choices are hardly their fault.

Through their eyes, readers also get to observe their youngest sister, the beautiful Amelia, their father’s favorite; and their brother’s ill-chosen spouse, their cousin Caroline of Brunswick, whose outspoken ways and vulgar appearance makes her an unexpectedly fun distraction in the sisters' lives. How refreshing for a novel to show the much-maligned Caroline in a positive light!

The plot feels repetitive over the novel’s first third, with the king’s condition getting no better and his wife and children continuing to worry and growing more frustrated. However, Purcell doesn’t downplay their circumstances and, especially as the daughters grow older, allows their personalities to emerge as they – with great difficulty – struggle to pursue lives of their choosing.

Readers who grew up reading Jean Plaidy’s Georgian Saga may find themselves, like me, preferring Purcell’s storytelling ability due to her deeper characterizations and more realistic dialogue, among other factors. The author’s website details her plans for additional novels in the Hanoverian Series, each focusing on different women, and I'll be eagerly awaiting them.

Queen of Bedlam was published this week by Myrmidon (£8.99, pb, 432pp).   This review forms part of the author's blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Researching the Historical Novel: Syria, a guest essay by Ann Chamberlin

In today's post, internationally bestselling author Ann Chamberlin takes readers through the on-the-ground research she conducted in Syria for her The Sword and the Well Trilogy, which is set in the 7th century.  It's both a fascinating journey and an informative and moving tribute to the Syrian people, past and present.  The final volume in Ann's series, The Sword and the Well, was published in April (306pp, $25.00 hb/$15.95 pb/$9.99 ebook).


Researching the Historical Novel: Syria
Ann Chamberlin

The Sword and the Well concludes my trilogy set in the early days of Islam. I struggled with the subject for thirty years, over such events that put the material into immediate perspective—and onto the butcher slab several times—such as the Salman Rushdie fetwa and the four or five invasions that my people have waged against the people I worked to sympathize with in its pages. I finally decided to keep the story to my original vision and to self-publish. The concerns raised by all these intervening events colored the view of every editor I approached and made them want to drag the story this way then that, not the way the history and the characters, often my best friends, sent me.

The final act I decided I needed to undertake before publishing was to visit as many of the sites as I could, to check that I had got as much right as possible from book research. I had already visited the Middle East ten times or so, but with the exception of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, nothing I had seen appears in this book. Of course, having worked on an archaeological dig, as I described in my last guest blog with Sarah, I was fully aware of how much effect fifteen hundred years on anything I might see from a tour bus window. I was also aware that present-day Saudi Arabia, Mecca and Medina, were off limits to me.

A worshipper looks down at the Kaaba after night prayers on the roof
of the Masjid al-Haram. Source:  Omar Chatriwala
Licensed through Creative Commons

The massive, glitzy sites of today’s pilgrimage built with petro-dollars wouldn’t have a whole lot in common with the desert oasis into which Muhammad the Prophet, Khalid ibn al-Walīd and the rest were born anyway. The glimpse I once caught from a cruise ship on the Red Sea of an evening coastline strung with oil refineries and tanker docks would do just fine for researching the actual present Saudi Arabia. The ten days I’d spent among the Bedouin in the Sinai desert as a college student had given me as much a flavor as anything I would see, thirty years on, with the effects of Egypt-Palestine big-business smuggling and Salafi politics at work on the traditional society with which I’d first fallen in love.

The major exception to these limitations was Syria. My twelve-year-old heroine Rayah was born in the desert oasis of Tadmor (the Romans called it Palmyra),

Credit: Yvonnefm, Wikimedia Commons

and my hero Khalid ibn al-Walīd spent his final years in exile in the city of Homs. Khalid had conquered Syria from Byzantium in the name of Islam. He’d done the same thing with Iraq and parts of Iran, but this was the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century, and my people, God forgive us, were busy sending these areas beyond the seventh Christian century, “back to the stone age”, although to my mind “the stone age” was infinitely more civilized. Fortunately, no major scenes in my books take place on the eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula. Now some, including my mother and George Bush with his axis of evil rubbish, wanted me to put Syria in the same list of “Places Impossible to Go to Now” (or ever). But as the thought of publishing these books grew in my mind, so did the desire to visit Syria. All these warnings did was to assure me I would have to go alone. I couldn’t buy a travelling companion for love nor money.

In fact, I had actual dreams of a great conflagration consuming the places I’d written of. These dreams told me I had to go now. A year or two would be too late. I actually thought it would be my people again who would cause this conflagration as we’d done to the sites I’d written about in Leaving Eden and my first novel, The Virgin and the Tower. In any case, I could do nothing to stop it. I could only go online to begin my search for places to stay, things to do and visas to get. I may be an intrepid traveler, but I am a menopausal woman, and I do like my nighttime plumbing not down the hall, especially when I know I will definitely get Khalid ibn al-Walīd’s revenge and pack my first aid kit accordingly.

I ended up loving Syria so much, I went twice, one year apart, the second time not to see the sites but to visit the wonderful friends I’d made. One year after my second trip, my son, with my encouragement, also went to Syria where he studied at the U of Damascus and had a volunteer job working with a friend of mine and the UN council on refugees. I was going to visit him near the end of his planned year there. One day, however, he left all his stuff, including his computer, just to spend the night over the border in Beirut in order to renew his visa. He was never allowed back, never retrieved his stuff. Watch the nightly news to see what happened after that, three years on.

At this point, I must apologize for the lack of pictures I myself took in Syria. I am not a techie person, would rather have a thousand words than a picture any day, and I feel that going through the world with a camera in front of your face keeps you from experiencing life without a frame. It has serious colonist overtones of “take the goods for your own profit and run.”

Nonetheless, I received training in a new digital camera from my other son before I left and dutifully took pictures throughout my first tour. I even formed an interesting relationship with an avid photographer and camera shop owner in Tadmor (we spoke French) and three local women who came to get ID photos taken (we spoke Arabic) over said camera. Upon my return to Turkey, however, a young man who wanted to be my agent said he’d take a look at my camera because for some reason I couldn’t bring up the photo I’d just taken of him and my translator whom he was treating abominably. No, he is not “a normal Turk”. He is “a normal grabby would-be agent and cocky young techie.” They exist everywhere, just to warn you. In one move, he erased all my photos. Needless to say, he is not my agent. And I am more confirmed than ever in my belief that photos can steal your soul.

The only photo you can’t find better versions of on the internet was the one I took of the kittens left to die within the fortress of Krak des Chevaliers. And I’d rather have that World Heritage site back the way it was then, before Assad forces bombed the rebel/freedom fighters who’d taken refuge there like medieval crusaders, than that photo.

Krak des Chevaliers.  Source: Wikimedia Commons

I remember sitting in the Istanbul airport having said good-bye to my good friends and fans. An older Syrian woman came and sat by me. She had just come visiting her son and grandchildren in Moscow and was so glad to find someone who spoke Arabic after weeks of Russian and Turkish. I did my best for her and we watched the migrants coming to and fro, plane loads with central Asian faces and Turkic on their tongues. It is a brave new world.

There was a long line when I finally found an ATM in Damascus to take care of the issue of credit card machines being few and far between. Extracting money was a communal effort, one young gentleman helping the older ladies (me, too) enter their PIN numbers when they couldn’t read the western numerals or the Arabic (in my case). This shocks everyone I tell, that I would trust a stranger, especially this one, with my bank information, but I never had half the problems from this transaction I might have had shopping at Target, and I loved the trust and helpful graciousness.

Scenes I remember from my trips:

Church of St. Simeon Stylites.  Credit:  Xvlun.  Source: Wikimedia Commons

I gazed up at the pillar where Simon Stylites stood for thirty-seven years. I viewed the shallow channel cut in the floor below the pillar where his waste would flow and be gathered by the faithful as holy water. A local farmer brought me a bunch of the most gorgeous, tasty green grapes. Even as I ate them, wet with his washing, I knew they would make my coddled stomach sick. But for good manners, I ate them anyway.

I remember young Turqi and his friends in their blue school uniforms in the narrow street of old Aleppo, taking turns with my camera, then his father yelling at him to “Come home.” How many of those bright young faces are displaced? Dead? Who dares to ask?

Mar Musa.  Credit: Franco Pecchio. 
Source: Wikimedia, licensed via Creative Commons

Two friends and I climbed to the desert monastery Mar Musa along with locals carrying bushels of apples to add to the fare the nuns cooked in great kettles, beans and salad and tea for a crowd. The eleventh-century paintings in the chapel have been restored—except those on the wall facing Mecca which remains blank so that Muslims and Christians may worship together in peace in the same space.

Ebla.  Credit:  Effi Schweizer.  Source: Wikimedia Commons

I got to visit the ancient site of Ebla whose massive archive is changing our view of the Near East in the third millennium BCE, which supplied hours of research entertainment in my favorite library. I saw the Aleppo Citadel

Aleppo Citadel.  Credit: Heretiq.  Licensed via Creative Commons

(also bombed),

Ugarit.  Credit: Zunkir.  Licensed via Creative Commons

Ugarit—The only thing I was denied access to was Yarmuk, the site of Khalid’s most famous battle when he defeated the Byzantine army. Scene in my book. Still a field of contention, it’s basically the Golan Heights.

Credit: Freedom's Falcon. Source: Wikimedia Commons

And I hear everything’s been looted from any of those sites not bombed to rubble by desperate people. I was in Syria when the Israelis bombed what they declared was a nuclear facility in the desert beyond Tadmor. I sat with others watching al-Jazirah anxiously. “This is the beginning of the holocaust,” I told myself. I didn’t guess where the biggest danger would really come from.

And then we found a new CD by Lebanese singer Najwa Karam.

Credit: Ahmed Zayer, Wikimedia Commons
Licensed via Creative Commons

We bought all the copies in the tiny closet-sized shop in the old city. The owner played it again, and we danced in the street, my Palestinian-Syrian friend pumping his umbrella in rhythm as rain dripped off the vines growing overhead. You can watch a music video which includes dancing in the street at a much different level than ours.

Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque, public domain photo, Wikimedia Commons

On my visit to the spanking new Sitt Zaynab mosque in a desperately poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus, I had to swaddle myself in a serious black chador which seemed for a much taller woman; it dragged in the puddles. In any case, I did not have to run in it. I didn’t even have to sit; there was no space in the packed women’s section to do so. Your Iranian oil money at work in the glittering tile, gold and mirrors. Iranian tour buses came one after another; Sitt Zaynab is a Shi’ite female saint, granddaughter of the Prophet, a victim of the political wars that overtook the Islamic world shortly after my story ends. I suppose the economics of this site should have given me another jab of prophecy. Today, I’m told, signs abound in this battered neighborhood declaring, “By Hassan and Hussein, Sitt Zaynab will not be captured again.”

Hotel Baron restaurant from the 1940s; public domain photo from Wikimedia

In Tadmor and Aleppo, a major part of the tour was the hotels where Agatha Christie stayed, where she wrote part of Murder on the Orient Express. Where I will stay when I go again. If-- But that’s a big if. Although I saw none of this, Tadmor, they say, is where the government has a prison where thousands have been tortured or simply vanished over the years.

In spite of the rain in Damascus—so heavy that at one point, as we sat in an elegant restaurant on the Street Called Straight, water crept under the French doors and stood two inches deep on the restaurant floor—another image stays with me from these visits. This is passing field after field of crops grown no higher than my knee, then turned brown and brittle with plastic bags caught on every other stem. Syria, once priding itself on being able to send Mediterranean GMO-free crops to the European Union, was an early victim of temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius. Of climate change.

The young men who once worked these fields came to the cities for work, found none and began to grow discontent with the government of Bashar Assad, whose photo graced the rear window of every other car when I was there. Assad is my co-pilot.

Another telling image from our long drive on the desert road heading east was all the cars going the other way. Piled high with worldly possessions, grandmas and children, they came one after another. These were refugees from the mess my people created in neighboring Iraq, their numbers reaching somewhere between one million and three million, nobody’s really sure. Assad took them in on top of the Palestinians of a few decades before. Free education and cheap housing were promised, fine humanitarian goals no doubt. But more than one Syrian I met complained of the effect of this on their own bread and education options. Discontent grew.

I promised I’d describe these problems to my nation when I got home. I tried, but nobody was listening. Or did I not try hard enough?

I insisted, finally, that the city of Homs be included on my itinerary. “Why Homs?” asked my guide. He, a Damascene, was of the opinion that people in Homs were crazy. In fact, “He’s a Homsi,” is colloquial for “He’s crazy.” This is supposed to hark back to the Mongol invasion where the citizens of Homs saved themselves from the fate of every other town between them and the steppe by pretending to be crazy to a man. The Mongols passed on to more lucrative pickings.

My driver certainly thought the Homsi drivers were crazy. I didn’t think they were any worse than any other Syrian driver. But I wasn’t driving, thank God.

Credit: Abdulhadi Najjar. Source: Wikimedia Commons, licensed via Creative Commons

Nonetheless, he braved the crazies to take the crazy (me) to see the tomb of the hero (antihero?) of my book, Khalid ibn al-Walid. It was in a mosque called the Khalidiyyah, as is the neighborhood around it.

Silver scimitars hung from each lamp in this mosque, reflecting the brilliant green lights and marble of the walls. Khalid is known as the Sword of God, and at one point I wanted to have these chandeliers on my cover. I opted for a better choice.

Back at home, as the news reports of the civil war began to center on this neighborhood, I cringed. And then on July 23, 2013, the inevitable happened. Government forces scored a direct hit to the tomb and mosque. Shortly thereafter, I saw shadows of the fighters of Homs in a Sundance documentary entitled Return to Homs.

The men creeping through bombed-out houses to make their way to the barricades in that film spoke brave words (mad words?) “We are the sons of Khalid.” The filmmakers didn’t bother to explain what this genealogy meant, but without explanation, the end that happened within the last month of this writing when Homs fell was clearly visible on those haunted faces in spite of brave words.

What it meant to me is in the pages of my novel, the best I can offer for the people of Syria, on all sides. It proves that historical fiction is not a thing of the past.

Ann Chamberlin
author of The Woman at the Well (2011),
The Sword of God (2012),
and The Sword and the Well (2014)

Saturday, June 07, 2014

A look at Nicola Upson's Fear in the Sunlight

This beautifully written psychological crime novel snuck up on me. For the longest while, I wasn't sure how well this book and I would get on – it's fourth in a series featuring novelist Josephine Tey, and every chapter seemed to introduce a new viewpoint. It was akin to walking into a crowded party where everyone already knew one another. (As it turns out in the case of the novel's characters, this is hardly true.) It was also a strange experience to see a historical author referred to by her pseudonym.  Scottish novelist Elizabeth Mackintosh, an enigmatic figure, wrote a number of mysteries as Tey, including the classic novel beloved by Ricardians, The Daughter of Time.

But I was slowly won over by the lingering moodiness of the tone, which sat in contrast with the idyllic setting of Portmeirion, an Italianate resort village in North Wales, and the alluring glamour of the film industry in the mid-1930s. It's at Portmeirion where a large cast has gathered to celebrate Josephine's 40th birthday, and where Alfred Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, hope to persuade her to let them turn her mystery A Shilling for Candles into a film.  Here, a number of characters, including both Josephine and her friend, Scotland Yard inspector Archie Penrose, meet up with events from their pasts: some welcome and some sinister, all complicated.

The title is perfect; Hitchcock articulates its meaning in the novel, and as with his movies, the author knows the best techniques for evoking feelings of dread that are all the more powerful for being unexpected. If the mystery element appears to take a frustratingly long time to emerge, the title should be kept in mind. There were details of the crimes committed that I found painfully realistic, and difficult to read.  Upson also skillfully illustrates the deep emotions of love and longing, and the sense of grief that permeates the earlier and later sections – set in 1954, two years after Tey's death – is among the most haunting that I've ever read.

Fear in the Sunlight was published by Harper Paperbacks in 2013.  I bought a Kindle copy after getting an email from BookPerk (HarperCollins' e-list for ebook bargains), and I read it on the plane going to and from BEA.  First in the series is An Expert in Murder.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Book review: The Devil in the Marshalsea, by Antonia Hodgson

As promised in the historical note that opens Hodgson’s satisfyingly twisty debut thriller, readers will encounter an eye-opening look at Georgian London’s debtors’ prisons and some authentically colorful swearing within its pages. Tom Hawkins experiences both of these when he’s thrown into the Marshalsea Gaol after too many gambling losses and a near-fatal mugging.

To his surprise, the Marshalsea seems like a miniature town, complete with a tap room, coffeehouse, and barber. “Indeed it reminded me of my old college, save for the iron spikes,” he observes. But after meeting many disreputable characters and hearing screams coming from the gaol’s “Common Side,” where those too broke to afford their upkeep are left to rot, he almost regrets not obeying his estranged father and becoming a clergyman.

Complicating matters further are Samuel Fleet, Tom’s fear-inducing roommate, and conspiracies surrounding a former prisoner whose ghost reportedly roams—and whose murder Tom must solve, or else. The squalid atmosphere is so well detailed that one can almost smell the corruption, and the irrepressibly roguish Tom makes a winning hero.

The Devil in the Marshalsea, first in a new series, will be published by Houghton/Mariner in trade paperback on June 10th (400pp, $15.95).   This review first appeared in Booklist's April 15th issue. The author will shortly be touring the blogosphere with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours, and she'll be stopping by here with an interview on Friday, June 20th.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

In which I read Goodnight June, by Sarah Jio

It's been a while since I've been as emotionally caught up in a book as I was with Sarah Jio's Goodnight June.  Writing with a light touch, she has a gift of reaching deeply into issues that matter to her readers in this case the importance of children's literature, the value of books and bookstores in our technology-driven age, and the complicated bonds between sisters.  Here, she ties all of these themes together with relatable, human characters and a heartfelt tribute to Margaret Wise Brown's classic children's book, Goodnight Moon.

In 2005, June Andersen is a high-powered New York financier responsible for foreclosing on small businesses that have missed too many mortgage payments.  She's the type of person that owners of Mom-and-Pop stores love to hate, for good reason... and although she's very good at her job, her blood pressure is soaring, and she doesn't like what she's become.

When she receives word about the death of her Great-Aunt Ruby back in her hometown of Seattle and learns she's inherited Bluebird Books, the children's bookstore Ruby had founded in the 1940s, June takes her first vacation days in years and flies back home, intending to sell the assets and return to Manhattan as soon as she can.  But as she sorts through old books, papers, and memories at the store, then meets Gavin, owner of the Italian restaurant next door, she starts wondering where her future really lies.

From the beginning, it's clear that the novel will deal with June's personal transformation as she slowly reconnects with everything she had left behind and decides, ultimately, that Ruby's beloved store is worth saving.  Although I had a good feel for the outcome of that part of June's tale, I remained wrapped up in it, and there were many surprises in store, too.  The novel's historical aspect derives from a literary scavenger hunt in which June discovers a series of letters dating from the '40s between Ruby and her good friend, Margaret Wise Brown, in which they share confidences and bounce ideas off one another.  Both women have challenging relationships with their sisters (something June is also experiencing herself), and struggle with pursuing lives of their own choosing despite disapproval or disdain from others.

June's reminiscences about her former closeness with her estranged younger sister, Amy, took me on a nostalgic journey back to the toys and books of my childhood (did anyone else ever have an Easy-Bake Oven or play Old Maid?).  And anyone who thinks that writing for children is a lesser or less worthy accomplishment than composing Highbrow Literature should read this novel for enlightenment. It drew me in continuously with one revelation after another, some predictable and some the opposite.  By the end I was happily overwhelmed by her characters' unceasing efforts to do the right thing for themselves and for one another.

Sarah Jio's Goodnight June was published on May 27th by Plume in trade paperback ($16.00) and on Kindle ($7.99).  Thanks to the author's publicist for dropping a NetGalley widget into my inbox.