Friday, August 29, 2014

They dressed as men and went to war

We've been seeing many new historical novels about brave women who went to war in male disguise. All six of the novels below have publication dates in 2014 or 2015, and I can't think of a single event or benchmark title that got this mini-trend rolling, other than maybe an increased interest in women's history in general.  I've also been pondering earlier novels that fit this category and haven't come up with much, other than Sharyn McCrumb's 2003 release Ghost Riders, which had Civil War soldier Malinda Blalock (a historical figure) as a character.  Can you think of others?

These novels aren't fanciful in premise.  In actuality, there were many women who disguised their sex and fought in the US Civil War and in earlier battles, but recognition of and pride in their accomplishments has often been long in coming.  These works of fiction, some of which are based on the lives of specific historical women, help to spread word about their deeds and heroism in the popular consciousness.

A young woman who had been fighting for the Union in disguise has to hide her loyalties after she's wounded and gets trapped behind Confederate lines.  RiverNorth, June 2014.

A rare novel that looks at this scenario from the Confederate side, as two Southern sisters enlist in the Confederate army as new recruits, their secret known only to one another.  The co-authors are sisters as well.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 2015. 

Her husband being too weak to go to war, an Indiana farm wife dons male garb and marches off to fight for the Union.  I'll have a review of this new literary novel shortly.  Little Brown, September 2014.

Believing her place is with her newly-wed husband, Rosetta Wakefield secretly follows him into the Union ranks, fighting alongside him and proving her worth in battle.  Loosely based on the life of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman.  Crown, January 2014; out in paperback in September, with a beautiful new cover.

This novel about Massachusetts heroine Deborah Sampson shows her external and internal transformations during her service in the Revolutionary War.  See my review of Revolutionary as well as Alex Myers' guest post here.  Simon & Schuster, January 2014.

From the author of the 4-book Far Western Civil War series comes a new novel about Emma Edmonds, who signed on with the 2nd Michigan Volunteers under the name Frank Thompson.  BookView Cafe, April 2014.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Venturing into teen historical fiction: A guest essay by Deborah Swift

I'm glad to welcome Deborah Swift to my site today for a guest post.  I've positively reviewed three of her earlier novels here: The Lady's Slipper, The Gilded Lily, and A Divided Inheritance, all set in the 17th century.  With her latest release, she stays in the same time frame but has moved over to the Young Adult arena, although I'm told adult readers will enjoy Shadow on the Highway too.  I've already bought my copy and look forward to reading it.  In the following essay, she explores the adjustments that were needed to gear her writing to a teen audience.


Venturing into Teen Historical Fiction
Deborah Swift 

I’ve been writing novels set in the seventeenth century for adults for quite a few years. During my research, I’ve often come across young women aged between fourteen and eighteen, and yet expected to run a household, accept adult responsibilities, marry and bear children. That was the way of life back then. When writing for adults, these heroines of 14 or 15 years of age seem unlikely – far too young to have such maturity. Yet for today’s teen readers of that age, the same characters can appear too mature, too ensconced in an adult life.

As Eliza Graham points out in her excellent article on Historical Fiction Connection, teenagers were not a separate group with their own rules and identity until the twentieth century.

I pondered on this on and off, as I’m sure it is a problem many historical fiction writers have grappled with, but I came to no definitive answer. Usually, if the character is too young to be behaving in a certain way by our modern standards, I’ll try not to mention her age in years, but just refer to her as ‘young’, for example. Or better, try to make sure the milieu in which she lives, supports and describes such a maturity.

When I came across the history of Lady Katherine Fanshawe – married at fourteen, and a highwaywoman (if we believe the legend) by eighteen, I was attracted to the story, but unsure exactly who would read it. The theme sounded as though it might be attractive to teenagers so I thought I would try writing for a younger age-group. I looked in my local bookshops for examples of historical fiction designed for readers 14 plus, and could find very few. This year at least, readers of that age, according to the bookstore owner, want fantasy and sorcery. To my relief, my local library (hooray!) yielded a much better and more varied stock, and I was able to plunge in, and try to see what creating a younger ‘voice’ might mean for me as a writer. Teen readers, like adult readers, I’m sure are of all different tastes.

What was immediately apparent was that the tone would have to be different from my adult novels. To create a younger voice, my characters would need to be more vibrant, less world-weary and more impetuous. Old-fashioned language would need to be replaced with something more direct. Shadow on the Highway feels more ‘modern’ than my other books, not least in the fact I had to find creative ways to reproduce seventeenth century versions of ‘OMG!’ I hope I have still kept some period authenticity. Immersing myself in the idealism of young people in the 17th century, led me to the Diggers – an early example of an alternative lifestyle, and one I thought might resonate with ecologically aware young readers today. (Read more about them here.)

An added difficulty for me was that the book would need to be shorter – it would be a rare teen that made it to the end of one of my other 500 page books (though I’m sure there are exceptions, including most of us writers when we were younger)! Fortunately the historical material neatly divides into three sections, and there are three main characters, so I thought the story might work as a trilogy. But a trilogy has its own three act structure, and the first book is necessarily quieter, building the bedrock for the rest of the action. With this in mind, the risk is, that if nobody enjoys the first book, it might founder at first base, and then I’d feel awkward spending time writing two more that nobody wants!

Books where I admired the creation of the teenage voice were Phillip Pullman’s Ruby in the Smoke, where the voice was lively and opinionated, something I wanted for my character Lady Katherine. I very much admired Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, but was aware that my book was not going to be quite so literary and was set a lot further in the past. I turned to Cassandra Clare’s books such as The Clockwork Princess, which had the right tone, but these books veer away from a purely historical setting with their steampunk approach. Here are some other authors with historical settings I enjoyed: Brian Jacques, Eva Ibbotson, Victoria Lamb, Celia Rees, Ann Turnbull, Anna Godbersen amongst others. If I was to highlight one I particularly liked, I would go for The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd, which had an outstanding sense of time and place.

Writing historical fiction for teens is every bit as demanding as writing for adults, more so, as my teen beta readers were frighteningly direct in their assessment. Some quite frankly didn’t like it. Some got bored. An immense amount of world-building has to go on in the head of the reader for historical fiction to work, and not all readers have a mental image bank yet that they can draw on to help them create the scene in their heads. But when you get a great response it is equally direct – and immensely rewarding. Especially when you have introduced them to a whole new genre of reading. I hope many adults will try some of these books too, after all, as Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent trilogy says, “I think everyone’s got a little teenager inside of them still, and you just have to work to help yourself access that teenager.”


Deborah Swift used to work in the theatre and at the BBC as a set and costume designer, before studying for an MA in Creative Writing in 2007. She lives in a beautiful area of Lancashire near the Lake District National Park. She is the author of The Lady’s Slipper and is a member of the Historical Writers Association, the Historical Novel Society, and the Romantic Novelists Association.

For more information, please visit Deborah’s website. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Shadow on the Highway was published in July in paperback and as an ebook (see Amazon UK or Amazon US). 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Book review: Lisette's List, by Susan Vreeland

In her moving latest novel, set in Provence between 1937 and 1948, Vreeland explores the power of art and how painters help us interpret our world. This involving work also traces one young woman’s maturation as she adjusts to a new life.

Although Lisette Roux resents leaving Paris with her husband, André, to care for his grandfather Pascal, she loves hearing Pascal reminisce about Pissarro and Cézanne. Their paintings and others, which hang on his walls, have immense personal and monetary value, so André conceals them before leaving to fight. Alone during wartime, Lisette endures tragedy and hardships while developing close friendships; they, and her mission to recover the paintings, drive her on.

The stunning countryside, with its ochre mines, fragrant orchards, and cold mistral, is passionately depicted, and Vreeland is an informed guide to the Impressionist through Modernist movements. The book’s most touching moments, though, intertwine art with human connections, such as how the love between Marc and Bella Chagall—in hiding from the Nazis in Provence—is evoked through his work.

Lisette's List is published tomorrow in hardcover by Random House ($27, 410pp).  This review first appeared in Booklist's July issue.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The background to Finding Fortune, an essay by Pippa Goodhart

Today British writer Pippa Goodhart speaks about the family artifacts and subsequent research that inspired Finding Fortune, her children's historical novel set at the time of the Klondike Gold Rush.  Please read on!


The Background to Finding Fortune
Pippa Goodhart

When I was a child I would watch my mother getting ready to go out to occasional parties. It didn’t often happen, and my mother didn’t have a great range of jewellery to choose from. But she did have one ring which she would add to the wedding ring and engagement rings on her fingers, and this is it...

It is a Victorian ring made of gold, and holding a stone in which there is a splash of gold, just as nature laid it down. The ring had been given to my mother, Christine, by her mother, Dorothy, who had been given it by her mother, Florence, who had been given it by her mother, Polly, who had been given it by her brother, William James, when he came back from the Klondike Gold Rush. Here are Polly (who was blind) with daughter Florence. 

What, and when, was the Klondike Gold Rush? I began researching, and what an amazing historical moment of madness it was! Fur trappers came upon great quantities of gold in the far north-east of Canada in 1896, and, when the summer thaw let them travel into Seattle in early 1897 the newspapers picked-up on the story of scruffy men arriving with suitcases and jam jars and pockets full of gold, apparently there for the taking. Over a hundred thousand people from all over the world then made the heroic/stupid journey to that remote place. Some found fortunes. Many more of them didn’t.

So a story began to grow in my mind. Ida’s lovely Ma has died, and now she and her father are being told what direction their lives should take by a domineering Grandmama. Ida is to go to boarding school, and Fa is to travel to some place in the Empire where he can make himself a living. Fa is going to try his luck in the Klondike … and Ida is determined to run away and go with him.

I had a wonderful time researching. There are photographs showing men and women dressed in adventuring outfits, posed in studios before they set off, and then hollow-eyed and desperate on trails lined with dead horses and hit with avalanches. I also found this book:

…selling cheaply because its cover is ‘worn and scuffed’ to such an extent that you can hardly read that it is The Chicago Record’s Guide For Gold Seekers, published in 1897. Inside are pristine pages, some clearly not even opened before. There are maps, there are boat routes and prices, there are instructions on how to extract gold, and there are long lists of all the equipment and food and clothing that you should take with you into that wild place, just short of the Arctic, where, of course, supplies are cut off for the long frozen dark winter months. That book must surely have gone to the Klondike in somebody’s ‘outfit’! I was handling a book that had lived the adventure of the Gold Rush! Gosh, I do love research!

That research soon showed that the bulk of Ida’s story would be taken-up with the journey to get to Dawson and the Klondike area. By boat from England to the east coast of Canada, across Canada by train, down to Seattle to buy supplies, then a rickety and overfilled ship up the west coast to the tent encampment at Dyea before beginning the notorious Chilkoot Pass trail into the mountains. 

Then building a boat and waiting for the thaw, until the race amongst the thousands to get down the river in time to find a patch of land to search for gold before winter hit again.

Unusually, with this story I began writing before I knew what the ending would be. I didn’t know whether or not Ida and Fa would find gold. If they did, that would feel a bit too easy, and very different from the experiences of most of the ‘Argonauts’. But if they didn’t find gold, wouldn’t that feel an anti-climax for the story after all those months and thousands of miles of travelling? As I wrote, this story seemed to take on a life of its own. I was chasing after it, writing it down, rather than having to drag it along as you do with some stories. The story development and ending just revealed itself, taking me by surprise! If you want to know how, then you’ll have to read the story!

Footnote: The book’s cover shows a silhouette of Ida against a background provided by a board game from 1897, which the publisher cleverly found, showing mountains and claims and Indians and Gold Rush people, moose, dogs, and more.

PS: My lovely Mum has now given that ring to me. And, yes, it does appear in the story.


Finding Fortune was published by Catnip Publishing in 2013 (trade pb, 251pp).  Visit the author's website at

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book review: Liberty Silk, by Kate Beaufoy

When I first read the catalog description for Kate Beaufoy’s Liberty Silk, I’d pegged it for a traditional saga about independent 20th-century women, one which would whisk me away to stylish locales and eras and make for an agreeable diversion over a summer afternoon or two.

What I got was much more. I was wowed by this book: by the author’s sparkling language, the wistful ambiance, the stunning settings, and the genuineness of its heroines. Although I enjoy historical novels about glitz and glamour, they often have a heartlessness at their core which keeps me at a distance. This isn’t the case here. The main characters, each of whom is very different, have a vulnerability that remains with them despite the life-changing experiences they endure.

The story intertwines the stories of three women from adjacent generations. Born into a wealthy London family, Jessie Beaufoy follows her heart and marries a handsome artist, only to have him abandon her on the final day of their honeymoon in Finistère on the Brittany coast. An eternal romantic, Jessie is despondent and longs to find him again – but her reduced circumstances and the corresponding shame persuade her to accept a role as muse to a famous painter in postwar Paris and on the Riviera.

Twenty years later, gregarious Baba MacLeod escapes London for a career in Hollywood, reinventing herself as an actor’s personal assistant and, later, as film star Lisa La Touche. Although she becomes a household name, she’s devastated by the rampant hypocrisy and the codes of conduct she’s obliged to adhere to. Finally, in the mid-1960s, Cat leaves her beloved parents in rural Connemara, Ireland, to become a war photographer.

Threaded like a silver chain through both Jessie’s and Lisa’s stories is the theme of how women’s freedom is held in check by men. Only Cat, living through the more relaxed social norms of the 1960s, has the opportunity to direct her life as she chooses.

And, yes – the dress on the cover. One other element linking the women is a custom-designed crepe de Chine gown from Liberty of London that’s “tiered like a Grecian tunic: a classic Doric column when one stood still in motion, a swirl of colour – primrose and geranium and cornflower blue and moss green.” Although it doesn’t play a large role in the story, it comes to symbolize where they came from as well as their connectedness.

Liberty Silk is high-class literary entertainment. The author was inspired by letters sent home from Paris and Italy by Jessie Beaufoy, her grandmother, who must have been a remarkable woman. Her novel makes for a beautiful homage to the real-life Jessie and to all women who aim to follow their dreams.

The novel was published as a paperback original by Transworld Ireland in July (£6.99, 496pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy at my request.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The inspiration behind the women of The Vintner's Daughter, an essay by Kristen Harnisch

In today's guest essay, Kristen Harnisch tells us more about the real-life women who inspired the female characters in her debut novel, The Vintner's Daughter, which I reviewed earlier this month.

The Inspiration behind the Women of The Vintner’s Daughter
Kristen Harnisch

The mother, daughters, midwife, wine maven, and the harlot of The Vintner’s Daughter were inspired by the real women of the time, and in some cases, shaped by the constraints of the late-nineteenth century societies in which they lived.

Sara Thibault, the book’s heroine, struggles to reclaim her family’s Loire Valley vineyard and the life that was stolen from her. Her tenacity and grit were inspired by three women wine-making pioneers of the late 1800s: the Duchesse de Fitz-James, a Frenchwoman who touted the benefits of using American rootstock to replant French vines decimated by the phylloxera louse; Josephine Tyschon, a widowed mother who built and ran the 55-acre Tyschon Winery in St. Helena (now Freemark Abbey); and J.C. Weinberger, the only California woman to win a silver medal at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris for her wine. Sara is passionate and daring, and when author Roberta Rich praised the novel by predicting it would “invoke inevitable comparisons to Gone with the Wind,” I recognized that Sara does indeed share these traits with Miss Scarlett O’Hara. Why are these women so connected to their land and willing to risk everything to salvage it? Because it’s fruitful, predictable, and, as Sara hastens to point out, “It does not disappoint.”

Marguerite Thibault (Sara’s “Maman”), and Sara’s sister Lydia, serve as able foils to Sara. Maman lived through the German occupation of nearby Tours in 1870, and waited anxiously for her new husband to return from fighting the Prussians in 1871—she has endured her share of uncertainty. Her failure to protect her daughters after their father’s death is rooted in fear: her fear of being alone, and her fear of having to start over with nothing.

Although Lydia is the eldest of the two sisters, she is vain and flirtatious, and more concerned about her marriage to the village rogue than the preservation of her father’s beloved vineyard. Despite their differences, Sara and Lydia have shared their childhood and care for each other deeply—they are “two sides of the same coin, one minted for practicality, the other for pageantry.” Maman and Lydia are essential to moving the plot forward. If Lydia had not blindly given herself to Bastien Lemieux, or Maman had ensured her daughters’ safety early on, Sara’s life would not have taken such drastic turns.

Marie Chevreau, the Manhattan midwife and single mother—cast aside by the same man who married and mistreated Sara’s sister—is a go-getter. Her character, in this novel and in its sequel—The California Wife—was inspired by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree from an American school (in 1849), and who later founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, the school Marie attends. For Marie, a life free of romantic entanglement is the key to her success as a midwife, until the sequel, when her involvement with one of her medical college professors threatens to derail her ambitions.

author Kristen Harnisch
(credit: Alix Martinez Photography)
What can I say about Linnette Cross, the novel’s harlot? She’s a working woman, just like Sara, Marie and Aurora, yet she’s not entirely jaded. She harbors a passion not only for a particular man, but for the plight of the disenfranchised, and the Chinese immigrants, who were frequent victims of bigotry. She started at the infamous Clinton Street House, a real and flourishing brothel in Napa’s history, and she possesses a keen knowledge of her place in the world. However, Linnette has a soulful side, and in the novel’s sequel, we will see it blossom.

Aurora Thierry, I have to admit, is my favorite secondary character. When I was researching the story of Josephine Tyschon, I learned that she enjoyed driving her carriage at top speed, just for the thrill of it (and perhaps to irritate her many critics). Aurora Thierry would absolutely do the same. Aurora is a widow, and a self-made expert in winegrowing, herbal remedies, and husbandry, and she quickly becomes Sara’s surrogate mother when our heroine arrives in Napa. Everyone needs a friend when they come to a new town and who better than a Winchester rifle-toting, straight-talking, fiery, redheaded suffragette?

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the women in my own life—my mother, sister, aunts, cousins and friends—who also inspire my characters’ personalities and the way they handle the obstacles they face. The most joyful part of being a writer, for me, is breathing life into my creations, dwelling in their company, learning their idiosyncrasies, and testing their mettle in new and exciting ways.


The Vintner's Daughter is published this month in the US in trade pb by She Writes Press ($16.95) and in Canada by HarperCollins Canada ($22.95).  Visit her website at

Saturday, August 16, 2014

1933 and 2014: A look at then and now, an essay by Michael Murphy, author of The Yankee Club

Please help me welcome Michael Murphy, author of the newly published Prohibition-era suspense novel The Yankee Club, who's stopping by with an essay which makes a detailed comparison between 1933 and today.


1933 and 2014: A Look at Then and Now
Michael Murphy

My historical mystery, The Yankee Club, takes place in New York City, 1933. Prohibition has been a failure and has led to the growth of organized crime. Banks have failed; twelve million people are out of work. Homes are lost, and hopes are dashed. A polarized society turns to politicians offering extreme views.

I wrote The Yankee Club, a mystery inspired by actual events, as an homage to classics of the Golden Age of Mysteries during the 1920s and '30s. A Goodreads reviewer, Susan Johnson said, “It’s like reading one of the witty 1930s movies where the humor offsets the darkness and you root for the characters. You could almost imagine Dashiell Hammett writing the book.”

As much as I enjoyed writing the novel, I couldn’t escape the similarities between events of 1933 and life in America today. Many will say back then we were in a Great Depression and today we’re working out of the 2008 recession. One definition of a recession I heard is “when my neighbor has lost their job.” A depression is when “I’ve lost my job.”

Today, the unemployment rate continues at record levels, and banks have failed. Dreams of owning a home, which used to be a given, are now out of reach for many. Plenty of people work two jobs to make ends meet. Politicians point fingers at past leaders and each other. Promises are offered, but few solutions are ever enacted. One can’t ignore comparisons between then and now:

Comparisons between then and now how well segments of the country have responded to economic crises of each generation. Charities provided soup kitchens in 1933 and today provide homeless shelters and job training. Our country rose from the depths of the Great Depression. Things have improved since the recession hit in 2008, and a glimpse of history tells me we’ll recover from that as well.

Followers of this blog enjoy historical fiction for many reasons. Readers and authors of historical fiction often compare people and events with life today, so my novel is not unique in this regard.

The Yankee Club has been described as a rollicking mystery. I’m proud of the novel; the story, the mystery, the introduction of Jake and Laura who appear next in All That Glitters. But I’m also pleased I was able to craft a historical novel that provides readers with a glimpse into the past as well as a reminder of the present.


Michael Murphy's The Yankee Club is published this week by Random House Alibi in ebook format ($2.99; see links for Kindle and Nook).  For more information, visit the author's website and his \Mystery & History blog.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Book review: The Vintner's Daughter, by Kristen Harnisch

Harnisch’s satisfying first novel draws readers into two glorious locations, France’s Loire Valley and California’s Napa Valley, with an intermediary stop in New York’s Lower East Side. The timeframe is the late 19th century, and as might be guessed, the characters are involved in wine production.

This industry is shown literally from the ground up: from the land best suited to different grapes and vine inspections through the harvest, pressing, storage (barrels vs. the more newfangled bottles), and sales and distribution. Her thorough presentation also delves into the winemaker’s natural enemies: not only phylloxera infestations and competitors’ cheaply priced vintages but also the temperance movement sweeping across 1890s America.

These instructive details don’t overwhelm the story, fortunately, resulting in a fast-moving romantic saga about two independent, ambitious people hoping to succeed in winemaking. In the French village of Vouvray, Sara Thibault is a vintner’s daughter who wants to be a vigneronne in her own right. After her father is killed while out seeking a buyer to give him a fair price for his wine, the Thibaults find it hard to make ends meet.

Their vineyard falls into rival hands after Sara’s older sister, Lydia, marries Bastien Lemieux, a cruel man who’s easily recognizable as the novel’s villain. After Sara takes a drastic step to save herself and her sister, they escape to America. Sara’s search for a winemaking career eventually sets her on the path to Napa – where she crosses paths with Bastien’s reputed ne’er-do-well brother, Philippe, who owns a sizeable vineyard. Although sparks fly between them, he doesn’t recognize her from Vouvray or know her role in his brother’s death.

There is some stiffness in the dialogue early on, but the pair’s complicated love story plays out realistically, and the regional landscape is beautifully described. This relaxing summer read offers an enjoyable armchair voyage to wine country.

This review first appeared in August's Historical Novels ReviewThe Vintner's Daughter is published this month in the US in trade pb by She Writes Press ($16.95) and in Canada by HarperCollins Canada ($22.95).  Kristen Harnisch will be stopping by next Monday with an essay about the inspiration behind her novel's female characters.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Laura Morelli's The Gondola Maker: a smooth, romantic journey through Renaissance Venice

Laura Morelli’s The Gondola Maker intertwines a trio of love stories: a man’s devotion to his longtime occupation, gondola craftsmanship; his strong affection for Venice, the city of his birth; and his longing for a striking young noblewoman he glimpses in a painting.

The year is 1581. Luca Vianello wasn’t meant to be the heir to his father’s highly respected gondola workshop, but the accidental death of his older brother, who died years ago as a toddler, means his family has high prospects for him. The novel, which he narrates, opens with a dramatic scene that exemplifies societal expectations in the Most Serene Republic and the harsh penalties for those who fail to abide by its moral standards.

From within a large crowd, Luca watches as one of his father’s gondolas is burnt on a pyre, as part of the severe punishment for a foul-mouthed gondolier who disturbed the peace and insulted the wrong person. The man himself is sentenced to ten years as a galley slave.

Through Luca’s observant eyes, readers get an up-close look at the activities within the Vianello squero, or boatyard: the delicate carving of the wood, the selection of the ribs that form the different sections of each gondola, the varnishing and lacquering of the finished product. Morelli is an art historian, and her dedication to authenticity and interest in the gondola maker’s skill inform her work.

Despite their low status, gondoliers play an important part in Venetian life, and it’s enlightening to read about boatmen’s roles as driver and messenger – many Venetians would find it hard to conduct business without them – and the silent language they use to communicate with each other.

Against this classically romantic backdrop, the author creates a beautifully written tale about a young man’s pursuit of a life away from his hereditary duty – and the love for the craft that keeps calling him back. Following a pair of tragedies, Luca is forced to start over on a new path, one which eventually propels him into the company of a talented artist and of a green-eyed beauty whose portrait is being painted. All of Luca’s passions converge in his decision to restore a decrepit old gondola of his grandfather’s creation to its original, seaworthy state.

The plot is filled with descriptions of building façades, navigating and securing gondolas as they glide along the Grand Canal, and people’s dress and appearance. The pacing can be leisurely as a consequence, although all of these details are interesting to read about. While all of the action is seen Luca's viewpoint, the narrative also succeeds in evoking the restrictive, tough lives of women at this place and time.

Just like the gondolas themselves, the language is polished and smooth, and the story is worth reading for its depiction of a segment of society not often placed front and center. Kudos to the author, as well, for providing an atypical ending appropriate to her setting and characters.

The Gondola Maker was self-published this past March (301pp, including bibliography; $9.99 ebook, $16.49 trade pb, $29.99 hb).  Thanks to the author for sending me a copy at my request.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Out of Order: A guest essay by Ken Kuhlken on writing his Tom Hickey series

In reading historical fiction, it greatly interests me to see how characters act and react within their settings, and I also enjoy learning how authors choose what to write about.  The following essay by Ken Kuhlken, whose historical mystery The Good Know Nothing is out this week from Poisoned Pen Press, provides insight into the thought process behind writing his series and developing his characters within that series. Please read on to learn more.


Out of Order
Ken Kuhlken
People ask, "Why the heck didn't your Tom Hickey novels get published in chronological order?"

It's a fair question. From first to last, the books are set in 1943, 1942, 1950, 1971, 1979, 1926, and 1936. When asked why this nonsensical strategy, up to now, I've answered, "Beats me" or, if I felt expansive, "Beats me, it just happened that way."

But the invitation to write this post prompted some deeper thinking, and I've concluded that the reason for the peculiar order comes from the way my mind works, from my priorities. What intrigues me most about stories is characters, people. Settings, especially from the past, I also find intriguing. But people are what most puzzle me and excite my curiosity.

While thinking about this, something I hadn't recognized before came clear: The order in which I wrote the books in my series was simply a product of the same mind that chose my college subjects, a major in literature and a minor in history.

Most of my college reading was novels. And novels, at least the ones called literature, are most often character studies. No doubt those of us drawn to literature are trying to fill some gaps in our understanding of people, especially ourselves. We're like those who choose psychology except we prefer imagination over analysis.

Mary Pickford, mentioned in the series
as the employer of Tom Hickey's mother
On account of the way my mind works, my Tom Hickey series got created and grew like this: The Loud Adios (set in 1943) actually began with the setting, inspired by my fascination with Tijuana and with the WW II period. I can see Tijuana from my backyard and use to spend more than my share of time there. And my high school best friend's mother, who resembled Tom Hickey's antagonist Cynthia Jones, told us dozens of stories about the war years on both sides of the San Diego-Tijuana border.

As soon as I sat down to write about Tijuana during WW II, Tom Hickey came to mind, as an MP at the border. He didn't become a (in civilian life) private investigator until I decided to enter him into the St. Martin's Best First Private Eye novel contest.

Not long after I won that contest, I took my teenaged kids and two of their friends to Lake Tahoe, and one afternoon the antics of four teenagers caused me to ditch them, for the sake of what sanity remained. I left them in the motel and walked on the beach. At first I worried about what they would break and how much I'd get billed. Then I wondered how did Tom Hickey land in the fix he finds himself in during The Loud Adios.

William Randolph Hearst, who appears
in The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles
and The Good Know Nothing

Lake Tahoe is a magical place. About a trip to Tahoe, Mark Twain commented, "This is the air the angels breathe." Well, out of the heavenly air came a fairly complete version of The Venus Deal (1942). And by the time I returned to the motel, I had wondered about, and gotten the answer to, what became of a romance The Loud Adios introduces. The answer is in The Angel Gang (1950), of which the primary setting is on the shore of Lake Tahoe.

Quite a while after those books came out, I got to dreaming about the Hickeys again, and especially about the fate of a new character who enters the world during The Angel Gang. So I wrote that story, The Do-Re-Mi (1971) and during the process discovered Tom's older son, who charmed me so completely, I needed to write a whole book about him: The Vagabond Virgins (1979).

Next, because Tom Hickey played only supporting character roles in the last two books and I had learned to appreciate him more than ever, I found myself asking what in his parentage and youth had played into his development. Out of those questions came The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles (1926) and The Good Know Nothing (1936).

Marion Davies, who appears
in The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles
and The Good Know Nothing
And while working on these latest two books, I have fallen for Florence, Tom's bright, lovely, and wild-spirited sister. So I'm considering a book that centers on her. Maybe I'll set it in San Francisco's North Beach during the 1950s Beat era, another time and place I'd love to return to and explore.

All the times and places of the novels are ones I'm fascinated by. 1920s Los Angeles; 1930s all over the southwest; the WWII years along the border; Lake Tahoe when the gambling mobs were moving in; the hippie years in Northern California; and Baja California when the party that had tyrannized Mexico since their revolution began to implode.

So, it appears my stories, and the order in which I write them, come from an obsession with following characters to places and times I want to live in, learn about, and resurrect for my readers.

Now I'm especially glad that The Good Know Nothing is available, because it fills a gap in Tom's story. Now people can read in an orderly chronological fashion about Tom and a cast of dozens throughout the transformation of California from a frontier into the world's trendsetter.

Finally, from a wandering mind comes sensible order.


Ken Kuhlken's short stories, features, essays and columns have appeared in Esquire and dozens of other magazines and anthologies, been honorably mentioned in Best American Short Stories, and earned a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.

His novels have been widely praised and honored by awards such as the Ernest Hemingway Best First Novel, the St. Martin's/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Novel, and the Shamus Best Novel. His latest, The Good Know Nothing, a Tom Hickey California crime novel, was released on August 5.

Get the whole story at:

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Historical novel spine art!

Regular readers of this blog know I love examining historical fiction cover art: admiring it, criticizing it, judging its appropriateness for the book and the genre, even tracking when it's reused.

That said, I haven't written before about the creative and gorgeous spine art I've been seeing on some historical novels, so I thought I'd dedicate a post to it.  Because many works of historical fiction are lengthy reads, publishers and designers have been taking advantage of the added real estate to create art that will make their titles stand out on a crowded shelf.  Let's face it, there are a lot of books vying for readers' attention, so they'll do what they can to grab us.  And it works!

Here are some examples of what I'm talking about from my own collection; I gathered together some good ones and put them all on the same shelf.

You can enlarge the photo at the top of the page to get a close-up view.

Sometimes the designers replicate the images on the front cover in miniature, giving readers a good sense of the full design and using it to set a mood even when the book is shelved spine-out:

From Polygon (UK)

From Howard Books / Simon & Schuster (USA)

And at other times, they create a similar design that elegantly complements the rest of the jacket.

From Douglas & McIntyre (Canada)

From Allison & Busby (UK). 
No jacket; the art is printed directly on the book. Very cool.

Would any of these designs entice you to pull the books off the shelf and read what they're about?

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Marschel Paul's The Spirit Room, a novel of cultural fads and women's lives in 1850s New York

The “spirit room” of the title, a rented space above a milliner’s shop in Geneva, New York, is a place where deceptions are initiated and innocence is lost. In Marschel Paul’s engrossing coming-of-age epic, set in the late 1850s, Isabelle “Izzie” Benton is seventeen and her sister Clara thirteen when their family moves to the Finger Lakes town. After their mother’s death – by drowning, possibly a suicide – their opportunistic father sees his chance to make money by forcing his daughters into the latest cultural craze. He sets them up as mediums, like the celebrated Fox Sisters, and they learn the best tricks for duping gullible audiences.

Their rise in popularity in the local Spiritualist community marks only the beginning of their adventures. If dealing with pressure from their controlling Papa isn’t enough, Izzie and Clara must protect Clara’s twin, Billy, from his abuse and care for their youngest sister, Euphora. At the same time, other men start noticing the attractive young women. Then a sudden decision made by Izzie pulls the sisters apart and leads them both into dark, shocking situations as they struggle to gain independence and find each other again. Revealing any more would dampen the pleasures of this unpredictable, wildly entertaining tale.

The historical atmosphere intriguingly combines small-town quaintness and mid-19th century fads and trends – “reform dress,” suffrage meetings, institutes for water-cure therapy – with a sobering look at women’s experiences. Paul doesn’t draw back from depicting the adult circumstances her sympathetic heroines face, and their stories have added poignancy because their viewpoints remain appropriate to their ages while their eyes open to the world’s realities.

Delightful period idioms make the background even more convincing, and although the novel is almost 600 pages long, the pacing never drags. The editing and production are top-notch, too. This is a fabulous read for fans of American women’s history.

The Spirit Room was self-published under the Wasteland Press imprint in 2013 ($19.95, trade pb, 587pp, or $2.99 on Kindle).  This review first appeared in the Historical Novel Society's indie review section in August 2014; as part of the guidelines, reviewers are asked to comment on layout and production quality. 

This novel was a personal purchase which had sat on my shelf for about a year until I picked it up on a whim last month and got drawn into the story immediately.  I volunteered to write up a review for it, which indie managing editor Helen Hollick accepted, and she also made it an Editors' Choice title for the quarter.  I should also add that despite the characters' ages, this is definitely adult fiction.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Fun facts about the prehistoric painted caves of France: A guest essay by Glenn Cooper

Today's guest post from bestselling thriller writer Glenn Cooper takes us way back into humankind's past and to a small and long-hidden corner of southwestern France: the painted caves of Lascaux.


Fun Facts About the Prehistoric Painted Caves of France
Glenn Cooper

The painted caves of France and their magnificent wall art are bottomless pits of fascination which have kept scholars busy for decades trying to unlock their secrets. They give us an unusually intimate window into the psyche of our distant ancestors. The paintings speak to their attitudes about their place in the natural world and perhaps their conception of the supernatural. In researching The Tenth Chamber, I re-learned things I’d forgotten from my days as an archaeology student and picked up quite a few new learnings. Here are some entertaining facts I’d like to share.

At the time when much of the cave art was produced in Europe, about 20-30,000 years ago, there were probably no more than 5,000 people alive at any given time. That’s a number perilously close to zero. One or two more environmental challenges could have wiped out all our direct ancestors, and where would that have left us?

Cave art mainly depicts large mammals which were the primary food source of the Cro-Magnon, early modern man. Horses, bears, roe deer, bison, antelopes, lions, some life-sized, were all expressively painted, often in full gallop. Fish are occasionally seen and birds, such as owls appear. However, humans figures are extremely rare—there is a single human at Lascaux Cave, and he is little more than a stick figure hunting a beautifully drawn bison. It is a puzzle why man ignored his fellow man when it came to art.

While drawings of humans are uncommon, stencils of human hands are very common indeed. Large sections of limestone can be found covered in arrays of red-stenciled hands. Experimental archaeologists have shown that the stencils were produced by placing powdered pigment into the mouth and blowing it over a hand which has been stretched out on the limestone. The significance of the stencils are unclear but it’s marvelous that we can literally see the hands and fingers of the artists.

Some cave art from the Upper Paleolithic period is no more than simple line drawings or etchings into limestone. However, other paintings are rich in bold swaths of color, a palette of reds, yellows, browns, and blacks. The colored paints were derived from natural pigments easily found in the surrounding environs. Iron oxides were turned into reds, ochre became yellows, and orange, manganese was used for black. Most of the paintings were made deep in the caves, far from natural light. The artists used simple lamps. A piece of limestone was hollowed and a lump of animal fat was placed inside along with slow-burning twigs, like juniper. Once lit with an ember, they would have burned for an hour or more.

Most of the painted caves were found serendipitously by local people, not by organized archaeological expeditions. Lascaux Cave, for example, was found by four boys and their dog, Robot in 1940. They were looking for a mythical tunnel under the Vézère River said to contain treasure when they came upon a depression caused by a fallen tree. Underneath the sink hole was a deep hole which proved to be the entrance to Lascaux.

At Lascaux, years of unfettered access by scholars and tourists caused near catastrophe. First a green mold was introduced which began to blur and fuzz the paintings. More recently white calcite patches, the result of excess CO2 from the lungs of visitors threatened the paintings. Lascaux is now sealed to allow the scientific community the opportunity to take a time-out and find solutions. Expert monitors enter the cave only a few hours a year to take photos and collect data. Fortunately, an excellent replica cave, Lascaux II, is open to the public.

It’s a near certainty that there are amazing painted caves in France and elsewhere which have not yet been discovered. As recently as 1994, a magnificent new cave was discovered in Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc in the Ardèche region of France. The art at Chauvet Cave is earlier than Lascaux by 12,000 years and is in many ways even more magnificent. I absolutely believe that before too long yet another cave will be discovered in much the way my protagonists discover the fictional Ruac Cave in The Tenth Chamber.

About The Tenth Chamber

From the thriller writer, Glenn Cooper, whose books have sold six million copies and have been top-ten bestsellers, comes a novel which draws on the author’s background in medicine and archaeology to create a riveting page-turner.

Abbey of Ruac, rural France – A medieval script is discovered hidden behind an antique bookcase. Badly damaged, it is sent to Paris for restoration, and there literary historian Hugo Pineau begins to read the startling fourteenth-century text. Within its pages lies a fanciful tale of a painted cave and the secrets it contains – and a rudimentary map showing its position close to the abbey. Intrigued, Hugo enlists the help of archaeologist Luc Simard and the two men go exploring.

When they discover a vast network of prehistoric caves, buried deep within the cliffs, they realize that they’ve stumbled across something extraordinary. And at the very core of the labyrinth lies the most astonishing chamber of all, just as the manuscript chronicled. Aware of the significance of their discovery, they set up camp with a team of experts, determined to bring their find to the world. But as they begin to unlock the ancient secrets the cavern holds, they find themselves at the centre of a dangerous game. One ‘accidental’ death leads to another. And it seems that someone will stop at nothing to protect the enigma of the tenth chamber.

About the author:

Glenn Cooper has a degree in archaeology from Harvard and practiced medicine as an infectious diseases specialist. He was the CEO of a biotechnology company for almost twenty years, has written numerous screenplays and has produced three independent feature films. His novels have sold six million copies in thirty-one languages. He lives in Gilford, New Hampshire.


Saturday, August 02, 2014

Book review: Randi Davenport's The End of Always

“Men everywhere and the world belonged to them, and always had, and always would, and the very fact of this blinded them to the rest of us.” Such is the powerless environment faced by Davenport’s vulnerable heroine, 17-year-old Marie Reehs, who yearns to free herself from her family’s long-standing cycle of domestic abuse. Her story unfolds in a small town and in the woodlands of early 20th-century southeastern Wisconsin, whose laws didn’t favor women. Its history and geography feel realistic, but more importantly, it achieves an emotional authenticity that rings devastatingly true. Marie’s plight isn’t unusual, and many women today will see their situations reflected in hers.

Incorporating vivid sensory details and old fairy tales from the German island of Rügen, Davenport’s prose has a dark, mysterious quality as she reveals Marie’s tale, which is based on her great-grandmother’s life. The middle daughter in a poor immigrant family, Marie observes her father’s controlling, violent ways and knows that, unless she escapes, decisions about her life will always be made without her approval. After a bloody “accident” steals her mother from her, Marie is made to work in a nearby laundry under her employer’s uncomfortable stares. With her older sister Martha echoing her father’s harsh policies, Marie has no one to turn to – so can’t help falling for handsome August Bethke, whose German accent makes her feel at home. She doesn’t realize how little she knows about him until she’s trapped.

The novel affectingly explores the inner lives of women who hope so desperately for love that they’ll accept anything in its guise – and shows that other women who see abuse and do nothing are contributors to these destructive patterns. Due to its subject, the text is hard to read at long stretches, but it leaves a strong impact and offers a hopeful message that needs to be heard.

The End of Always was published by Twelve, an imprint of Hachette, in May at $25.00/C$28.00 (hardback, 324pp).  This review first appeared in August's Historical Novels Review

I chose this book since I seek out Midwestern settings as well as family sagas.  It takes place in and around Waukesha, Wisconsin, also the setting for the "Slender Man" attempted killing of a 12-year-old girl, allegedly by her two classmates.  This horrible crime hit the national news while I was reading the book, which made it an even more emotional reading experience.  The publisher's blurb calls the novel "a gripping reminder of America's love affair with violence."  Sadly, yes.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Cup of Blood by Jeri Westerson, an exceptional mystery of 14th-century London

He shook his head. “It’s a wretched thing, Gilbert. Poor man. Dying and not a soul aware of it.”

Crispin Guest, the disgraced knight and investigator-for-hire known as the Tracker in London of 1384, is perplexed. How did a man pass away in plain view in a boisterous tavern without anyone knowing, not even Crispin? The mystery deepens when he discovers the deceased was a Knight Templar, an order forcibly disbanded decades earlier.

Crispin’s curiosity about the murder leads to run-ins with an old nemesis, Sheriff Wynchecombe their barbed banter is hilarious and draws him into a tangled and dangerous web involving the anti-pope’s henchmen, the seductive damosel Lady Vivienne, and a quest for an elusive and ancient cup. Things get unexpectedly personal for him, too. The more involved Crispin gets, the more he’s forced to revisit and re-evaluate events from his past.

And then there’s the plucky, ginger-haired Jack Tucker, an 11-year-old boy he catches snipping purses at the tavern. Crispin says he doesn’t need a servant, but Jack’s a smart kid who’s been living on the streets much too long.

Crispin is an attractively brooding hero whose sarcastic wit enlivens the narrative. Still unrepentant about the treasonous act against Richard II that cost him his lands and title seven years ago, he’s nonetheless a man of honor who wants to see justice served. And although he’s susceptible to the lavender-scented wiles of Lady Vivienne, his heart remains with a woman he can’t have.

The complex, swift-moving plot unfolds against a realistically detailed atmosphere of 14th-century London, from Crispin’s simple residence in the crowded Shambles to the elegant halls of court he once knew well. The setting comes alive with the ringing of church and market bells, mysterious encounters in dark medieval alleyways, and much drinking of wine.

First written over a decade ago, when grails and Templars were popping up around every corner thanks to Dan Brown, Cup of Blood didn’t succeed in finding a publisher then but an editor at St. Martin’s Press was so intrigued by the characters that he asked to read another novel about them (which became book 1, Veil of Lies). After the six-book series was dropped last year, Westerson dusted off this tale of Crispin and Jack’s first meeting and early adventures, re-edited it, and self-published it as a prequel.

It would be hard to improve on this exceptional historical mystery. Whether you’re approaching the Crispin Guest series as a seasoned veteran or as a newcomer, this latest entry is great fun to read.

Cup of Blood was published this month by Old London Press in paperback ($13.99, 310pp) and as an e-book ($5.99).  Thanks to the author for sending me an e-galley at my request.