Thursday, October 30, 2014

My 1000th blog post! Ten new and upcoming historicals that caught my interest

This post marks 1000 entries on this blog. It's a big milestone, and not one I had been thinking about when I started it back in 2006.  For this entry, I thought I'd showcase just 10 new and forthcoming historical novels that caught my attention and which I look forward to reading in the coming year.  They're nearly all by women (well, 9 1/2 of them are by women), so I hope those looking for a more balanced gender mix will indulge me this time.

I'll be offering more previews in the next little while, and if you'd like an even longer list, check out the Historical Novel Society's forthcoming titles for 2015, which I've been busily updating.

I'd buy this one for the cover alone.  (I've been trying to figure out if it's a reworking of this painting by Joseph Stieler, from Ludwig I of Bavaria's Gallery of Beauties.) Berg's latest novel will take an intimate look at unconventional, mold-breaking 19th-century French writer George Sand, who was born with the name Aurore Dupin.  Ballantine, April 2015.

The saga of three sisters from a family of glassblowers in a small village in late 19th-century Germany, not a setting you see much of.  I bought this as a Kindle First title earlier this month. AmazonCrossing, November 2014.

It's about time a publisher saw the wisdom of republishing Valerie Fitzgerald's only novel, a classic epic of love and war set in India during the British Raj. It won the Historical Novel Prize in Memory of Georgette Heyer back in 1981, and back in 2010, I said it was a "prime candidate for reissue." It has a gorgeous new cover design, and since this is a massive (800pp) trade paperback, I hope they've enlarged the typeface.  Head of Zeus, January 2015 (the date keeps shifting, but this is what Amazon UK has now).

Here is another novel whose enticing cover says buy me, and Kearsley's name on a new novel has the same effect for many readers.  It's a romantic time-slip novel that moves between the 1700s and today, the two periods linked by the journal of a woman holding Jacobite beliefs.  Sourcebooks, April 2015.

Sarah Lark is the pseudonym for a German writer whose epic historical "landscape novels" are bestsellers in Spain.  I own three books in her New Zealand series and have always meant to get to them.  Her newest English-language translation takes place in tropical Jamaica in the early 18th century and features a young Englishwoman hoping to improve conditions for her sugar-planter husband's slaves.  Bastei Entertainment, October 2014 (ebook only).

To my mind, few writers combine a homey setting and bone-chilling creepiness like Rett MacPherson.  Her Torie O'Shea genealogical mysteries set in a present-day Missouri river town were auto-buys for me in hardcover.  Her newest book is a true historical about an old crime resurfacing in 1950s West Virginia.  It may be a departure from Torie, but I can't wait to read it. Word Posse, October 2014.

Michelle Moran always chooses intriguing subjects that few other writers have touched.  Her upcoming Rebel Queen looks at the famed military exploits of Lakshmi, the Rani of Jhansi, who fights to defend her people against the British in the mid-19th century.  Touchstone, March 2015.

The Siege Winter (US) or The Winter Siege (UK) whichever title you go by, what you need to know is that this is brilliant historical writer Diana Norman/Ariana Franklin's final novel, completed by her daughter after her death.  It's a standalone set in the English Fens in the 12th century, a setting Franklin has made her own many times over.  I'll be reading this soon for review.  It's out in the UK now from Bantam, but the US publisher is William Morrow, February 2015.

Because the author is Charles Todd (a mother-son writing team), we know this is a twisty historical crime novel, which makes the title a bit unsettling.  Which is great.  This prequel of sorts to Todd's long-running series brings readers back to 1914 and Scotland Yard detective Ian Rutledge's past, before the traumatic wartime service that will leave him a shell-shocked veteran.  I'm reading this now on Edelweiss.  William Morrow, January 2015.

This debut novel piqued my interest from the original Publishers Marketplace blurb since it promised to bring the traditional family saga (my favorite type of novel) to a less familiar setting. Moving from 19th-century China to 1960s Hawaii, this multi-generational novel features a Chinese-Hawaiian shipping family with a multitude of secrets. Harper, April 2015.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Book review: The Laws of Murder, by Charles Finch

London, January 1876: Charles Lenox’s new detective agency has just opened for business. Having left Parliament to revive his favorite pastime on a professional basis, he hopes his previous successes and old contacts will attract new clientele. However, when he and the agency start receiving bad press, he worries he’s become a liability and is letting his three partners down.

Then, when a member of Scotland Yard pulls him in to solve the killing of one of their own, an erstwhile friend and ally of his, Lenox finds himself involved in a trio of interlinked mysteries that echo back to an incident from his past. The scene where the body is found, a beautiful street leading into Regent's Park, appears disturbingly familiar to him.

Lenox is a gentleman whose views reflect his time. A devoted husband who adores his young daughter, Sophia, he heeds the rules of the era but also wonders at the logic of a society that will let him vote but not her. He is a proud, careful man who hesitates to tell his wife, Lady Jane, about his career woes but still feels much better for having shared his problems with her. Lenox also struggles with being “in trade” – for the agency to survive, he needs to be paid for his work. All of these facets combine to make him a very human character.

The plot unfolds swiftly, and the tension runs high. One shocking revelation follows another, but Lenox untangles the multiple strands in a logical fashion; the story moves with assurance that all will be solved in the end. There’s a fair amount of wit, too, especially thanks to his French partner’s go-getter nephew, who speaks amusingly imperfect English.

The Laws of Murder features Lenox’s eighth outing, but with sufficient backstory woven into the initial pages, it stands alone with confidence. If you haven’t been introduced to this exceptional series before, this is the prime time to discover it.

The Laws of Murder will be published on November 11th by Minotaur/St. Martin's Press ($25.99 / Can$29.99, 290pp).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC.  For US readers interested in winning a copy for themselves, see the giveaway form below the author's guest post yesterday

Monday, October 27, 2014

Guest post from Charles Finch: When did the Victorians drink their tea? (plus giveaway)

Welcome to the latest stop on Charles Finch's Whodunnit blog tour, in which the author has been dropping by different sites to write about the who, what, where, when, and why of mystery novels.  It's fitting for a historical fiction blog to feature his "When" essay, no?  (See the links within this post for the earlier stops.)

Readers in the US also have a chance to win a copy of The Laws of Murder, his latest Charles Lenox mystery set in Victorian London, thanks to Minotaur Books.  You can find the entry form at the end of this post.  For more information about the series, including a special quiz, see the dedicated landing page at Minotaur.  I'll also have a review of the new novel up later this week, and suffice it to say that I thought it was excellent.


The Whodunnit Tour: "When"
Charles Finch

When did the Victorians drink their tea?

The answer’s not as straightforward as you might think. For one thing, our idea of “high tea” is wrong – a recent innovation, like big modern white weddings. The later you took tea in Victorian England, in fact, the lower the class you belonged to. (In many parts of working-class Britain, the evening meal is still actually called “tea” for that reason.) For the upper classes, it was “afternoon tea,” and until very late in the nineteenth century it was only accompanied by a biscuit or two, something fortifying, rather than the waterfall of cakes and sandwiches and pastries with which we now associate it.

Though, to their credit, the Cornish were drinking their tea with scones, clotted cream, and strawberry jam, the most delicious combination of foodstuffs mankind has yet dreamed up, early in the 1800s. It’s the clotted cream, not the milk in the tea, that gives that west country meal its name, by the way – cream tea.

Then there were laborers, who took tea throughout the day, made as strong as possible (very strong tea in England is still called “builder’s tea”) so that they would stay energetic through the impossibly long hours that Victorian workers were expected to work, fourteen and fifteen hours on end; or on the other end of the spectrum, the ladies of Queen Victoria’s court, who in the morning took a few weak cups of “Grey’s tea,” or what we now call Earl Grey.

author Charles Finch
(credit: Alix Smith)
And coffee! Early in the series of Victorian mystery novels I write, Charles Lenox, the detective, drank tea exclusively. Then, some time around 2009, I started drinking coffee myself, and it began to sneak without my permission into the books – a cup here or there when a character was exhausted. Now it’s here for good, Lenox’s morning drink, though coffee was more common in coffeehouses and in the navy than in private homes, in the 1860s. I guess it’s just that as I drink my own coffee I can’t seem to help myself from giving my characters some. Very generous of me.

As I’ve written the blogs of this “Whodunnit” blog tour – Who, What, Where, and now this one, “When” – I’ve tried to look at some of the big themes and choices that make up a historical mystery. Tea is a decidedly small subject, by contrast; but it’s also what defines, for me, the when of my books. I started writing the series with a book set in 1865, A Beautiful Blue Death, and by the most recent entry, The Laws of Murder, it’s 1876. In that decade a great deal happened in the public sphere. But if you really want to go back and feel the texture of life, you have to think about little things. The joy of writing these books, which are also the type of books I read, is in details, not in big, top-heavy bouts of history. I can’t read biographies. I don’t much like long volumes of history. Those are books about people that assign them the traits of history, not the traits of life. I would trade every treaty Victoria signed for a letter in which she describes one of her dogs. That’s where you’ll find it, for me – the when that can make a novel come so alive that your tea goes cold, forgotten on the table next to you.


Charles Finch is a graduate of Yale and Oxford. He is the author of the Charles Lenox mysteries. His first novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, was nominated for an Agatha Award and was named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007, one of only five mystery novels on the list. He lives in Chicago.

The following giveaway for a copy of The Laws of Murder is open to US readers.  Deadline Monday, November 3rd.  One entry per person; void where prohibited.  The winner will be announced here on Tuesday 11/4.  Good luck!

Update:  Congratulations to winner Helen G! I've sent you an email. Hope you'll enjoy the book!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A creepy country house gothic with a creepy hero

The Winter Folly, one of the choices in my recent gallery of new country house novels, is a massive, juicy gothic saga.  A splashy beach read, but with chills an intriguing combination.  I barely noticed its 500-page length and gobbled it up in just over a day. 

Unfortunately, the clueless behavior of its modern-day heroine and its warped interpersonal relationships made the book hard to digest.

This is a dual-stranded story, with one thread set in the '60s, the other set a generation later, in the present.  Both offered some shocking surprises I didn't see coming.  One concluded in a satisfactory enough manner, albeit with some High Drama along the way.  As for the other...

In 1965 England, the sheltered, young Alexandra Crewe agrees to an arranged marriage but quickly comes to regret it.  Her love affair with an old friend, Nicky Stirling, leads her to become the unexpected mistress of Fort Stirling, a castle in Dorset which loomed large in her childhood.  Alexandra's toddler son, John, nearly tumbles to the ground while climbing the ruined old tower on the property, and other horrors are still to come.  The historical backdrop doesn't come through strongly, but I can't say anything felt out of place, either.

Delilah Stirling, Alexandra's daughter-in-law, is the novel's second heroine.  Much younger than John, she becomes his second wife after a whirlwind romance and settles in with him at the castle, but she isn't entirely easy about the decision.  There's some mystery in his past that inexplicably turns her seemingly thoughtful and beloved John, who she barely knows, into a brusque, controlling man.

She quits her London job at his request (without too much objection) and isn't permitted to make the house her own.  The dusty attic, full of old trunks and secrets, is "the only place in the house that she was allowed free rein."  John has lost his taste for socializing, so Delilah is essentially isolated.  He also pressures Delilah to get pregnant.  He laughs at her contemptuously when she tries to help him with his problems.  Good thing their sex life is so amazing, because that makes it all worth it.

With so much time on her hands, she determines to uncover the trauma in his past.  Why is there no trace of his beautiful mother after 1974?  What terrible things happened at the old folly?  There are rumors that it was the scene of a suicide...

Suspense increases as the two stories, told in alternating chapters for the most part, wind together more closely.  I was curious about the underlying mystery, and it's for this reason that I had trouble setting the novel aside.  Two-thirds of the way through, though, we have this, from Delilah's viewpoint:

"For the first time, she wondered if her marriage had been a mistake.  John had been so awful to her lately and it seemed that despite all her efforts and all her love, her marriage was crumbling ... Can I still save it? she wondered.  Do I have the strength?  Can I fix him?  But, more than that, she wondered if she still wanted to."

I kept thinking:  Delilah, hon, your husband is a manipulative creep.  Your marriage isn't healthy.  You can't "fix him."  This isn't the way it works in real life.  You need to get away.

Let me also say that this isn't paranormal fiction.  If it was, maybe I could have bought into more of Delilah's storyline.  As it was, though, its resolution left me utterly disappointed.

The Winter Folly was published by Pan in 2014; this was a personal purchase.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

E. B. Moore's An Unseemly Wife: A different look at the American westward migration

In 1867, two visitors to Aaron Holtz's central Pennsylvania farm stop by to tell him enticing tales of free land out west.  With four young children and another on the way, he can't resist the opportunity to provide a prosperous future for his family even though he and his wife, Ruth, already have a happy, plentiful life.  To her shock and dismay, and even greater fear, Ruth gets pulled into Aaron's daring plan to uproot their family and livelihood and travel to distant Idaho by Conestoga wagon alongside a group of strangers.

This isn't your typical novel about a family's 19th-century westward migration, for Ruth, Aaron, and their "littles" are all members of a tight-knit Amish community.  Ruth has never so much as crossed to the other side of Lancaster County before, let alone spoken to one of the "English."  A dutiful wife who obeys the husband she loves, Ruth does her best to ready herself and her children for the months-long trek.  Knowing that they risk attack by Indians if they travel alone, she sees her forced interaction with non-Amish settlers as "one evil warding off a greater evil."

I found myself unprepared for this novel's emotional heft.  Moore renders her heroine's physical and inner journeys with sensitivity and great depth, giving readers a sense of how wrenching it is for Ruth to disobey the Ordnung followed by the Plain People and leave everything she knows for parts and places unknown.  Through wagon mishaps, illness, personal betrayal, and periods of even more intense darkness, Ruth already a tough woman who had been "childbearer, cook, housekeeper, milker, horse trainer, sheep shearer, gardener, plowman, field hand" develops even greater strength and an independence that would have been previously unthinkable.  I very much enjoyed the poetic writing style but also wanted to turn the pages quickly to see where Ruth's journey was leading her.  This is a hard-hitting, courageous book.

An Unseemly Wife was published by NAL this month in trade paperback ($15.00 / Can$17.00, 320pp), including discussion questions and a Q&A with the author. I had picked up an ARC at a library conference earlier this summer and was also granted access via NetGalley.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Mañana Means Heaven, the story of the "Mexican girl" from Jack Kerouac's On the Road

Legendary Beat writer Jack Kerouac passed away in the wee hours of the morning on Tuesday, October 21st, forty-five years ago.  His autobiographical novel On the Road, chronicling his restlessness and search for identity on a cross-country trip he took in the late '40s, is perhaps his best-known work today; it's still widely read and studied in American classrooms.

One of his most memorable characters from that work is "Terry, the Mexican girl," a migrant farm worker from California's central agricultural region who he met at a bus station in Bakersfield when she was trying to escape her abusive husband.  She had left her two children behind, temporarily, in an attempt to earn some money and set up a new life for herself first.  In the book, Terry and Jack's fictional persona, "Sal Paradise," have a passionate two-week affair that plays out in Los Angeles and in the migrant labor camps of the San Joaquin Valley before they part and move on with their separate lives.

Some years back, poet, performance artist, and writer Tim Z. Hernandez, an admirer of Kerouac's, had begun writing a novel about Bea Franco, the real-life inspiration for "Terry."  Scholars knew her name (and her family members' names) from his journals and her letters to him, but she was otherwise lost to literary historyThat is, until Hernandez got stuck during the writing process and decided to do some firsthand research on his subject.

He looked around in public records, phoned around to area cemeteries, and even hired a private investigator... but got nowhere.  This is where the story really gets fascinating.

From a 2013 piece from Public Radio International:

"The private investigator said to me before we parted ways, 'In all my years of experience, dead people are very easy to find. It's people who are alive that are difficult to find. Have you ever thought that she was alive?'" said Hernandez. 

Hernandez ended up finding Beatrice (Renteria) Franco Kozera, who was nearly 90 and living with her daughter just a mile or so from his hometown.  Neither she nor her children had known about Jack Kerouac's subsequent fame, or that she was immortalized in his novel or that they themselves had been mentioned in numerous biographies and works of literary criticism.

His award-winning novel, Mañana Means Heaven, is an intermingling of fiction and fact, based on his native knowledge of the region and interviews with Bea toward the end of her life.  It's an unusual historical novel in that it couldn't have been written with such depth and meaning without the cooperation of its subject.  A photo of Bea (circa 1942) appears on the novel's cover.

You can read more about the story in an interview with the author from the Fresno Bee.

I read Mañana Means Heaven this past summer, and much of it has stayed with me. No knowledge of Kerouac or his work is needed; Bea is the focus here, and Hernandez demonstrates that her version of their story is an equally important contribution to the historical American experience.  In 1947, when they meet, Jack is an aspiring writer whose background and sensitive outlook makes him different from the men Bea knows from the campo.  In the company of the man she calls "Jackie," she dares to dream of a life in which poverty doesn't weigh her down, but she feels torn between him and her love for her innocent children.  It's an emotional story, both honest and melancholy, and yet hopeful at the same time.  The setting isn't one that was familiar to me personally, but the portrayals felt so true that I was able to identify with Bea every step of the way.  I highly recommend it.

Mañana Means Heaven was published by the University of Arizona Press in 2013.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Wynfield's Kingdom: The making of a Neo-Victorian child hero, a guest essay by Marina J. Neary

Marina Julia Neary is here today with an essay about a literary archetype that appears in classic Victorian literature as well as in one of her own novels.  She also details her experience in seeing characters she created come to life on stage.  Details and photos below.


Wynfield's Kingdom:
The Making of a Neo-Victorian Child Hero
Marina Julia Neary

When I started writing the first draft of what became Wynfield's Kingdom at the age of fifteen, I did not realize I was trying to create a Neo-Victorian child hero or resurrect an archetype that was so prominent in 19th-century literature. That term was not familiar to me at the time. I read a lot of literature but not a lot of literary criticism. I just knew what type of character I gravitated towards, and it was never the romantic brooding leading man. It was the spunky, street-smart, barricade-climbing child who navigates between social classes without belonging to either one of them and yet sympathizing with everyone, even his enemies.

They have impressive survival skills, yet paradoxically their self-preservation instinct seems to go out the window when they are presented with an opportunity to show off their heroism. They don't have to be saintly or altruistic, but they do possess a benevolent streak, meaning they do not bully those who are weaker, though they do derive a certain amount of pleasure of provoking authority figures.

We are talking about Gavroche Thenardier in Les Miserables and the lesser-known Jehan Frollo in Notre-Dame de Paris. In British literature we have a string of similar characters in Charles Dickens' novels, one of the most prominent being Oliver Twist. Over the decades, cinematic and theatrical directors have exploited these characters for sentimental purposes, simplifying them, making them one-dimensional, somehow more palatable to general audiences and, as result, somewhat cartoonish. Thanks to Boublil and Schönberg, I can no longer think of Gavroche without hearing "Little People" in my head. My hands itch to choke the performer. One of Hugo's most intriguing child characters has been reduced to a cute homeless puppy. A big part of Gavroche's cuteness is that he dies young.

Now imagine if Gavroche had not died on the barricades. Imagine if he had lived into his mid-twenties. Would he still be adorable and endearing? Or would he have turned into his father? The possibilities are numerous. Maybe Hugo had a good reason to kill his young hero before he had a chance to become a disappointment to his fellow-characters as well as the readers.

Little by little I started toying with the idea of evolving a child hero. At the age of twenty-seven I resurrected an old manuscript from the bottom of my hard drive and decided to reshape the protagonist, incorporating some of the archetypal elements, putting my own decorative twists on the classic frame. This is where the term Neo-Victorian comes into play a contemporary author reinventing and reimagining the 19th century. It was also an opportunity for me to engage my dark sense of humor to the fullest.

The result is before your very eyes. Meet Wynfield Grant the king of London slums, an overgrown street urchin, whose maturity level is that of a ten-year-old. A former gang member, savagely beaten for insubordination by the ringleader, he is taken in by a sociopath physician who had lost his medical license. The child blossoms into a romantic opium addict who steals and resells revolvers, puts on comedy skits at taverns and plays darts with his simpleton mates who look up to him for leadership. Immaturity, by the way, is a potent psychological defense mechanism. If you manage to convince yourself that you are still ten years old, the burden of your semi-criminal existence becomes a little easier to bear.

Wynfield's Kingdom, published in 2009 by Fireship Press, brought me modest critical acclaim. I ended up on the cover of the First Edition magazine in the UK and featured in the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal in Wales. There is a theatrical version of the same story, only told from Victor Hugo's perspective. The play opened in Greenwich in 2008 and was subsequently acquired by Heuer Publishing for licensing and distribution.

I am happy to share some of the most illustrative photos from the production. The character of Wynfield was brought to life by a talented young actor, John Noel, who is now gaining prominence on the stages of New York City. It was one of the most transformative and empowering experiences for me as a writer to see the character I conceived in high-school fleshed out on stage fifteen years later. Wynfield, my child-hero, became real to the audiences.


Marina Julia Neary's Wynfield's Kingdom was published by Fireship Press in 2009 and re-released in 2013 in paperback and ebook with an attractive new cover (at top). 

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Illusionists by Rosie Thomas, a sojourn into the Victorian theatre world

Thomas’ follow-up to her wide-ranging romantic epic, The Kashmir Shawl (2013), takes place within the narrower confines of the Victorian theatrical world but is equally gripping. In 1885, when the charismatic Devil Wix meets Carlo Boldoni, a dwarf with undeniable magical skills, they become a dynamic team whose “box trick” electrifies audiences at a shabby venue in London’s Strand. Devil has grand ambitions, though—“to transform the Palmyra Theatre into a palace of illusions... it should be a place of wonderment.

The darkly compelling Devil, an unrepentant gambler with a haunted past, grabs readers’ attention from page one. Surrounding him is a varied cast that includes Heinrich Bayer, who unnervingly treats his mechanical dance partner like a real woman, and Eliza Dunlop, a smart, courageous artist’s model hoping for a starring role in Devil’s life. While the background details on stage magic and the theater business are captivating, Devil and Eliza’s ardent love story is the book’s emotional heart, and the ever-changing connections among all its intriguing performers fill it with genuine life and vitality.

The Illusionists was published by Overlook Press in hardcover in July ($27.95, 480pp).  This review first appeared in the June 15th issue of Booklist.

Some additional comments:

- Rosie Thomas is a prolific UK author who has worked with a variety of styles and settings.  Her earlier The Kashmir Shawl (reviewed here in 2012) won the Romantic Novelists' Association award for best epic romance, but The Illusionists isn't the same type of book.

- Although the British cover for The Illusionists (at right) is gorgeous and no doubt has the book flying off the shelves, I think the US version (at top) fits the tone of the story more appropriately.  Note the differences in color, subject matter, and font.

- The publisher's description for this novel has errors.  The novel takes place in the year 1885, not 1870, and Devil's partner is Carlo Boldoni, not Bonomi. The mistakes have crept into many other reviews, alas.  Naturally, the author's website has it right.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Ten new country house sagas filled with drama and family secrets

Possible subtitles for this post:  What to read while waiting for (1) Downton Abbey Season 5 to be shown in the US, or (2) Kate Morton's next book to be published.  Here's a short gallery of "house" sagas published in various locales throughout the English-speaking world the US, UK, Ireland, and Australia that I came across recently. 

Although I love this type of novel, I've only read one of them so far and will talk about it at greater length below.  Please chime in and add a comment if you've read any of the rest and can recommend them (or not!).

A forbidding-sounding title for a historically-based novel centering on the last conviction for witchcraft in Ireland, which took place in 1711.  Poolbeg, July 2014.

In this English saga set between the late 19th century and WWI, an ambitious fish merchant does his best to ensure that his daughter Annabel marries into money.  Per the author's intro, her setting was inspired by Gunby Hall and Gardens in Lincolnshire, which appears on the cover.  Pan, August 2014.

The second novel by the acclaimed author of The Sea House revolves around two couples in Derbyshire; secrets dating from the WWII era erupt when their children decide to marry.  The setting sweeps from England to Valencia to Madrid.  Corvus, September 2014.

An Upstairs/Downstairs-style saga set in County Durham before WWI, featuring a young woman who becomes assistant cook at Easterleigh Hall while dreaming of a better life.  Arrow, October 2014.

At an English seaside town in 1965, a runaway gets caught up in discovering secrets dating from the '20s, when a young man came to stay with his cousin at Castaway House.  I featured this in an earlier post and have since bought a copy.  Penguin UK, September 2014.

A remote island in Scotland's Outer Hebrides is the setting for an early 20th-century love triangle between a renowned painter, his much younger wife, and his unacknowledged son. Old secrets get stirred up, along with century-old tensions about land tenancy, when the last living heir to Bhalla House comes to the island in 2010 to assess the ruined property and decide whether it's worth restoring.

Never having heard of the novel before, I grabbed a copy at Waterstones in York in early September and spent my vacation reading it instead of the books I'd brought with me.  The stunning, almost eerie atmosphere, full of the cries of wild birds and the rush of the blue-gray sea, is a character in itself. As often happens with multi-period novels, the historical strand is the most compelling (the modern thread suffers from a female protagonist with little agency), but it's still very much worth reading.  Freight Books (Scotland), March 2014.

A modern-day Irish couple uncover a crime dating from the turn of the century in the course of shooting a docudrama set at Armstrong House during its "golden age."  Poolbeg Press (Ireland), September 2013.

Australia's Blue Mountains are the setting for this expansive saga about 1940s-era artist Rupert Partridge, called "the devil of Australian art," the mystery surrounding the tragic deaths of his wife and daughter, and a modern photographer, Rupert's granddaughter, who's charged with writing a book about his home, Currawong Manor.  This looks to be in the vein of the author's twisty gothic saga Poet's Cottage.  Pan Macmillan Australia, May 2014.

Two women, two eras (1933 and the turn of the century), and a house full of secrets. Fiercombe Manor in rural Gloucestershire is the scene for mystery and tragedy.  The publisher is gearing this novel toward fans of Rebecca and The Little Stranger.  The UK title is The Girl in the Photograph. Harper, February 2015; Penguin UK, January 2015.

A folly, in architectural terms, is a building designed primarily for decorative purposes.  Lulu Taylor's novel spans two generations and has two strands, one set in the '60s and the other in the present day, and deals with a beautiful old castle, an old folly that's supposed to be bad luck, and the ramifications of an illicit love affair.  Pan (UK), December 2013.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Book review: Night of a Thousand Stars, by Deanna Raybourn

One thing that must be said about Deanna Raybourn’s heroines: they lead thrilling lives. As they succumb to the allure of suspenseful mysteries and unusual locales, they draw readers vicariously along with them.

English-born socialite Poppy Hammond has a knack for finding adventure. One might even say it’s in her blood. After a surprisingly witty curate calling himself Sebastian Cantrip helps her flee her wedding to a stuffy aristocrat she doesn’t love, Poppy feels obligated to seek him out and thank him properly, only to find that he’s left England on a mysterious journey to the Holy Land.

Sensing he might be in trouble – which feels like an excuse – she finds a way to pursue him there, taking a convenient position as secretary to an elderly army colonel who’s traveling to Damascus to write his memoirs. Her formidable lady’s maid, Masterman, worries (rightly) about her safety and secretly arranges to follow her trail.

Throughout this entertaining romantic adventure, almost no one is who they seem, and Raybourn keeps us guessing about who they really are. Damascus in 1920 is an ancient, multicultural city that sits on the brink of revolution against the French ruling class. The cuisine is scrumptious and the exotic scent of jasmine pervasive, and Poppy is nearly seduced by it all. She also grows curious about two men who seek out her company: Hugh, her employer’s sexy valet, and the handsome Armand, Comte de Courtempierre, who has a slightly smarmy air to him.

As Poppy gets progressively closer to discovering Sebastian’s whereabouts, the danger level increases. She also learns more about the plight of aviatrix Evangeline Starke, the protagonist of Raybourn’s previous novel, City of Jasmine, who was believed to have gone missing in the desert. The way it’s written, those who haven’t read the earlier book should be curious about it rather than lost.

Although Poppy’s instincts are generally good, and her dialogue is sharp and clever, her spontaneity sometimes lets her down. Granted, she’s led a comparatively sheltered life, but Sebastian in particular is very tolerant of her impetuous nature. The enigmatic Masterman steals the show from her on more than one occasion; she's a fabulous character who deserves a book of her own.

While imperfect in several respects – the ending in particular is over the top – Night of a Thousand Stars offers witty escapism to a fascinating setting not often seen in fiction.

Night of a Thousand Stars was published this month by Harlequin MIRA (368pp, $14.95 pb / $10.99 ebook).  Thanks to the publisher for granting me NetGalley access.  This review forms part of a blog tour via Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ashley Weaver's Murder at the Brightwell, a classy '30s murder mystery

Historical fiction writers are in the midst of a grand affair with the interwar years of the ‘20s and ‘30s, an era that gave rise to what’s been called the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Populating many of these stories were high-born protagonists caught in situations that obliged them to turn amateur sleuth; the novels’ plots unfolded in a fashion designed to draw in inquisitive readers via logically planted clues and multiple red herrings.

Ashley Weaver’s debut, Murder at the Brightwell, pays homage to these classics with its retro ambiance and subtle wit, yet at the same time it feels remarkably fresh and vibrant. The heroine, the trippingly-named Amory Ames, has a confidence that springs from her wealthy background and skill in social situations, but she’s less certain about one important facet of her life: her playboy husband Milo’s true feelings about her.

In 1932, Amory’s former fiancé, Gil Trent, invites her to take a trip to a Kentish seaside resort.  Seeing that Milo often does his own thing without bothering to consult her, she decides to accept.  Gil hopes that Amory, due to her own unstable marital state, will be the perfect person to convince his sister, Emmeline, that the man she hopes to wed, the slick womanizer Rupert Howe, is bad news. And perhaps Gil and Amory might rekindle what they once had… the same thought no doubt sits in the back of both their minds.

With its white marble floors and ritzy furnishings, the Brightwell Hotel is a scene of gracious sophistication, but while the remaining vacationers in Gil’s loosely gathered party – insipid socialites, unhappy couples, others with secrets to hide – aren’t the most pleasant company for Amory, they make for a great cast of characters for a murder mystery. After Amory spies Rupert’s body lying at the base of a cliff, Gil is carted off as a suspect, leaving Amory to clear his name – with the surprising help of a new arrival, Milo, who may simply see the investigation as an amusing distraction. Or maybe he really wants Amory back?

With her assured attitude and determination, Amory is a bright spot amid a sea of upper-class insouciance, and it’s entertaining to watch her developing rapport with the straitlaced cop assigned to the case (and his probing curiosity about her ever-changing marital situation). Weaver, a librarian by profession, brings a sense of classy ’30s style to her first novel, which is a winner in every respect, and one especially recommended to fans of Agatha Christie, Nicola Upson, and other writers of traditional mysteries.

Murder at the Brightwell was published by Minotaur Books this month ($24.99 / Can$28.99, hardcover, 325pp).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy at my request.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Interview with Judith Starkston, author of Hand of Fire

Judith Starkston's Hand of Fire has been garnering praise throughout the blogging community, and for good reason.  It's an accessible, historically authentic, and emotionally intense retelling of the Trojan War as seen from the viewpoint of Briseis, a young woman who finds herself at the center of the drama but who wasn't given a significant voice by the Greek epic poet Homer. To my mind, Judith's novel exemplifies the value that small presses have in the industry; they let wonderful stories like these be heard.

If you're not familiar with ancient Greece or with the cast of Homer's Iliad, there's no need to worry; no prior knowledge is needed either for the novel or for this interview, for that matter. I hope you'll enjoy reading it.

Your interest in classical literature and culture is longstanding. What first ignited your passion for this field?

In college I fell into the welcome clutches of a small band of young, enthusiastic and especially brilliant classics professors—they lit the torch. But how I fell into this fruitful study is downright silly. I was sitting in a freshman orientation meeting and heard an English professor say the one thing he’d change about his life was that he would have studied ancient Greek. I suppose to a clueless freshman enrolling in Greek sounded like the way to ensure a lifetime of happiness—and it has! The semester I read the Iliad in Greek I became permanently hooked on the poem. I believe it’s the most humane piece of literature ever composed. Reading the Iliad continues to grant epiphanies of understanding into the human condition every time I open my worn copy—even though college was a long time ago! To my perpetual surprise, the Iliad was the favorite of the majority of my high school students every year I taught it.

The mythological story of the Trojan War has been told and retold many times in fiction, with each novelist offering her or his own interpretation. Why do you think the story has exerted such a pull on writers and their audiences?

I think there are two parts to the answer.

Part one, it’s Homer—he sang this tale so profoundly and yet so accessibly that it has been grabbing everyone ever since. My high school students are a testament to that. I tried to hold onto the resonant quality of Homer’s version of the Trojan story when I wrote Hand of Fire. Homer created a few perfect vignettes of women in the Iliad, but women weren’t his focus. I wanted to shift the lens so we saw it through the central female character, Briseis. That meant a new version of the tale, but I didn’t want to lose Homer, although I should say, no one needs to have read the Iliad to enjoy Hand of Fire. I needed to know Homer, but my readers don’t.

The second part of why the Trojan story exerts such a pull is the story itself. No matter who tells it, the elements of entertainment and enthrallment are built in. Heroic warriors take their attack to the gates of a legendary city in order to achieve greatness and the only immortality available to men—fame, but these men find instead that they cannot resolve their own conflicts among themselves. We can all believe that very human dynamic, and what a backdrop for it—battles of glistening armor and colliding chariots, and a city that seems almost golden as it beckons to these warriors.

Then, introduce the defenders of home and hearth, the equally heroic Trojan warriors, show us their wives and their infants. Bring death close to these innocents. Now light a passion between a captive woman, Briseis, and the greatest of the Greeks, Achilles, that flames into uncontrollable danger when Achilles loses her to his hated rival. Then throw in friendship so deep and profound that a half-immortal man can’t recover himself when he loses that friend, not until an aged father reminds him how to be a human being not a god. Love, war, passion, friendship, heroism, all the elements that make a great story, time and again. All there, handed to a writer like me on a gorgeous platter of myth and legend. The pull is intrinsic.

Fully half of the novel takes place on Lyrnessos, before Briseis leaves with Achilles and his fellow warriors. Was this a deliberate decision, to give equal attention to her earlier life as a priestess and her later life away from her homeland?

Briseis, we are told in the tradition, is a princess of Lyrnessos (not a daughter of Priam as people have been led to believe by Hollywood). Lyrnessos is a city allied to Troy somewhere on the far side of Mount Ida. Or so the Homeric and surrounding mythic tradition says. No site identified as Lyrnessos has been excavated, and Briseis may have been a figment of Homer’s imagination. I focused on Briseis because a question had bothered me for many years as I taught the Iliad. While Briseis triggers the central conflict in the poem, she gets only a few mentions and in those, one of the key ideas Homer suggests is that she loves Achilles. That had never made sense to me. Achilles has killed her husband and brothers and destroyed her city. So why the love between Briseis and Achilles?

The answer to me lay in who Briseis was before she met Achilles. There had to be so much that connected them that those bonds would create a bridge over the unthinkable grief he’s caused her. I found those commonalities in two ways. We’re fortunate in the last decade or so to have access to translations of cuneiform tablets excavated from archaeological sites of cities sharing the same cultural and religious traditions as Briseis’s people. Troy was located on the Western coast of what is now Turkey. To the east of Troy in Briseis’s age lay the powerful Hittite Empire, which left us these large clay libraries. Many of the tablets describe the role of healing priestess that I gave to my Briseis. As a healer and a singer of sacred tales—both activities Achilles was famous for along with his fighting prowess—she stepped out of the historical record as this believable lover of Achilles. But no modern audience is familiar with this “job” of healing priestess, so I did some world and character building so that this exotic place and time would feel familiar to my readers and along the way showed how Briseis responds to crises and stress.

Also, I found a way to connect Achilles and Briseis mystically before they came face to face—he’s half-immortal and she’s a priestess, so this was very natural to their story despite being “fantasy” in some ways. I won’t spill too much, but suffice to say, in the Hittite myths there’s a very Achilles-like god whom I am convinced served as the model for much of what became the Homeric Achilles. I wove that Hittite god into my story to create a spiritual connection between my two unlikely lovers. So the first half, back in Lyrnessos, isn’t “prelude” but integral to the love story, even as the physical first meeting has not yet occurred. Also, although this is a tale of love, it doesn’t have a traditional romance arc. It’s Briseis’s story first and foremost, not Achilles and hers as a couple. She enters the stage alone, struggles to define herself and she steps off the stage not as a “happily ever after” romance would do it. She needed some room to grow before the outsized Achilles filled the space.

By the way, Achilles is a psychological mess, so I really needed a young lady skilled in therapeutic healing or she’d have gone nuts being in love with him! Imagine if your mother had plopped you in a magical fire that made you mostly but not quite immortal and then ditched you when her magic failed. Yikes! (It was fun introducing readers to that myth in the novel.) My heart always goes out to Achilles and I wanted him to have a lover who could understand his fragmented psyche and make him happy for at least a time. Both Briseis’s healing knowledge and her mystic physical connection made that possible.

The personal relationships that the people of Lyrnessos have with the goddess Kamrusepa, the rites performed by healing priestesses like Briseis and her mother, and the important roles these women play in society come through clearly in your descriptions. How did you re-create this aspect of your heroine’s life?

The rites and the important roles of women come directly from the written record found in the cuneiform libraries of these people. Actually these aspects all come in exacting detail, sometimes pages upon pages of it for a single rite or role (far more than would ever be incorporated into good fiction). I was surprised but pleased at how influential these women were—literate and leaders of their communities. It felt as though the Briseis of my imagination had been quietly sitting there in the historical record waiting for me to “dig” her out. It must be said, however, that the tablets make for dry reading—none of the emotions or connectedness to the gods are explicitly there. It’s implied by the fullness of activity, the sometimes heart-rending content of prayers, and the devotion of lives to the gods, but it isn’t revealed fully. I had to fill out those implications with the imaginative process. I also felt my characters’ connection to the gods in some of the beautiful artifacts such as libation cups and divine statues. This artwork often mirrors the soul of the artisan and reflects this society’s attitudes about the relationship between gods and mortals.

Queen Hatepa’s maid, Maira, was one of my favorite secondary characters, due to her intelligence and resilience. How did you develop her role in the story?

author Judith Starkston
She was such a delightful accident. Her character wasn’t present in early drafts and her much expanded role came very late. She started as an “extra” and grew into one of my favorites also. She kept insisting that she could make a problematic scene work, that she could be the friend, often silent, that Briseis so deeply needed. Sometimes it feels as if characters are actually alive independently of my imagination—with Maira that was so true. When I tried to explain Briseis’s epiphany about her connection to Kamrusepa, I found the only way I could express it was through Maira’s response. She let me “say” what needed saying without a word but with a resonance. I must have gone back into the novel five or six times adding Maira layers in. The surprising information she shares with Briseis toward the end, came as a surprise to me also. Maira helped me so much with a theme I hadn’t known I was going to write about, but that became central to the novel: the theme of women’s resilience in the face of personal violence against them. I couldn’t have said what my soul needed to if Maira hadn’t shown that kind of strength. Briseis needed someone who’d been there with her.

Could you provide some background to your depiction of the immortals? Although they don’t have direct speaking roles, not really, they have a definite presence in the novel that conveys their mystery as well as their influence and occasional powerlessness against fate. I particularly admired the portrayal of Thetis, the water imagery associated with her, and how she watches over her son Achilles from afar.

I’m so glad you like my Thetis. She’s a primordial force to be reckoned with, not a “sea nymph” to be dismissed as so often people think. In the myths she took on all the gods when they tried to overthrow Zeus and she has the powers at her command to defeat them all. So I included this imagery and myth of her great power because it does such a great job of making us believe that Achilles, her son, is indeed larger than life, an invincible warrior. And if such a seemingly omnipotent being as Thetis can’t save her son from death, then that maternal grief can convincingly resonate in my readers’ hearts. If even she can’t save her child, what hope do we moms and dads have to protect our children? No one wants to think of losing a child, but for us to imagine thinking of that, bearing that for eternity, as she must, causes us to weep with her in a universal lament for this worst of all sorrows. That’s the kind of resonance that I borrowed from Homer. I love the water imagery, which she shares with her son Achilles. Water is limitless in its fluidity and is the hardest of all forces to control when it rages. Yet it appears so life-sustaining and benign—perfect for such a goddess and a merciless warrior who was also a healer and poet.

Were there any cultural artifacts or other discoveries you came across during the writing process that were so compelling that you knew you had to use them in your book?

There’s a silver rhyton libation cup in the Metropolitan Museum. It’s shaped like a kneeling stag with branching horns, a checked collar and then an elaborate freeze of priests making a sacrifice to the gods. Before I’d travelled to Turkey, I’d come upon this cup. Briseis’s goddess, Kamrusepa, is said to hold the stag as her sacred animal and divinities are often depicted as standing on the back of a stag in Hittite iconography, so this exquisite piece lit my imagination immediately. Briseis lifts this cup at the festival to Kamrusepa when she is visited by a crucial mystical vision. Her goddess was there in her hands.

In your author’s note, you mention traveling to Turkey for research. What insights did you pick up there that you may not have otherwise known?

The many Turkish museum collections are inspiring for populating Briseis’s world with real objects. The archaeologists and the sites they showed me were full of crucial information that I wove into my novel. But most important, I think, is the experience of the real landscapes of my book. A good story places the reader concretely into its world. When you’re writing about the Bronze Age every building or city is a hypothetical reconstruction based on a lot of complicated scholarly research. I needed to throw myself into the natural landscape without that filter. Mount Ida and surrounding areas—that is Briseis’s beloved world—have been established as a national park so I could walk and explore all through this area. Tiny villages survive that have houses with stone and mud brick walls like their Bronze Age compatriots. I needed to experience the dramatic waterfall and glimpses of the crystal blue Aegean from Ida’s peak to be able to write from the heart. I am so grateful I had that opportunity.


Judith Starkston writes historical fiction and mysteries set in Troy and the Hittite Empire. Ms. Starkston is a classicist (B.A. University of California, Santa Cruz, M.A. Cornell University) who taught high school English, Latin and humanities. She and her husband have two grown children and live in Arizona with their golden retriever Socrates. Hand of Fire is her debut novel.

Find an excerpt, Q&A, book reviews, ancient recipes, historical background as well as on-going information about the historical fiction community on Starkston’s website.

Hand of Fire was published by Fireship Press in September ($17.50 trade pb, $5.50 ebook).  This interview marks part of the author's virtual tour.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Philip Freeman's Saint Brigid's Bones, an appealing mystery of early Ireland

It wasn’t a matter of who could have gotten into the chest – everyone had access to the church day and night – but who would dare to do such a terrible thing. To steal the bones of Brigid was an unthinkable blasphemy.

With his accessible debut set in historical Ireland and featuring a determined female detective, Philip Freeman joins the company of longtime mystery writers Peter Tremayne and Cora Harrison. Saint Brigid’s Bones takes place even further back in the past than their works, though, at a time when Christianity had just established a foothold.

In 6th-century Kildare, ten years after the death of the woman who will become one of Ireland’s patron saints, the monastery she founded is in an uproar.

Brigid’s bones have vanished from the chest where they’re kept, and if the relics aren’t found by her holy day in February, three months away, visits from pilgrims will dwindle, and the community will lose critical food and income. Their newly built church at Sleaty was just destroyed in an accidental fire, which compounds their financial woes.

The redoubtable abbess, Sister Anna, asks young Sister Deirdre to take charge of the investigation, even though some people blame her for the fire at Sleaty (Deirdre had fallen asleep while praying with a candle burning at the altar). With her status as an Irish noblewoman of Druid heritage and her education as a professional bard, she has connections the others lack. The many suspects of the crime include the abbot of a competing monastery, which has much stricter rules for nuns, and the greedy sons of King Dúnlaing, who covet Kildare’s land.

This novel would be an excellent choice for newcomers to historical mysteries or to its early Irish setting. There is some exposition masked as dialogue in the very beginning, but Sister Deirdre has a friendly narrative voice that guides readers over the hills of the picturesque countryside and into the homes of its residents as she conducts her inquiry. With its achievements in literacy, music, and medicine, her Kildare seems a very enlightened place – but also a religiously diverse one where shocking pagan rites still occur.

Despite all her training, Sister Deirdre has the tendency to throw herself unnecessarily into danger, and her invented background, which draws in many aspects of Irish society at the time, feels a little too convenient. She and her best friend Sister Dari make for a good team, though, and revelations about her personal history make her an even more intriguing character. The author holds a Ph.D. in Classics and Celtic Studies, and his new series – featuring many real-life figures and grounded in the complex history of its times – is off to a promising start.

Saint Brigid’s Bones will be published by Pegasus in hardcover next week ($24.95, 224pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Cattle Kate: The Woman Behind the Legend, an essay by Jana Bommersbach

Using the tools at their disposal, historical novelists can help rehabilitate the reputations of real-life figures who were treated unfairly by history.  In the case of Ella Watson, "treated unfairly" is a big understatement.  After reading this powerful essay, I could see why Jana Bommersbach felt obligated to tell her story.


Cattle Kate:  The Woman Behind the Legend
Jana Bommersbach

I feel like an idiot admitting I was snookered by the legend of “Cattle Kate” as just a dirty rustler and a filthy whore.

It took me a while to figure out every single thing about that enduring western legend was a lie.

She wasn't a rustler. She wasn't a whore. And she'd never been called “Cattle Kate” until she was dead and they needed an excuse.

Her real name was Ella Watson. She was a 29-year-old homesteader—one of the few female homesteaders in the territories. She had 160-acres along Horse Creek in the Sweetwater Valley of Wyoming Territory—until some of her powerful cattlemen neighbors strung her up with her husband on July 20, 1889. And then to exonerate themselves, they turned to the powerful Wyoming Stock Growers Association who fed the Cheyenne press a fanciful and ridiculous story about how awful this woman was and why she “had to die for the good of the country.”

For a century, history insisted it had the story right—to this day, some still believe it. But I'm just the latest to see the truth behind this horrifying legend; to agree, as one historian put it, that this was “the most revolting crime in the entire annals of the West.”

My first historical novel, Cattle Kate, published in October by Poisoned Pen Press, helps set the record straight. It lets Ella Watson tell her own life story. I didn't think at first that I'd write the whole book in first person, but I knew from the moment I started that the first sentence was Ella saying, “I never thought I'd die like this.”

Because it was that sentence that sent me on the five-year journey that became this book.

I was reading a historical novel on my mother's garden patio in Hankinson, North Dakota the summer of 2009 when I thought someone said that sentence out loud. I put my book down and looked around, but it was just me and the birds and rabbits. The sentence had come from inside my head. “Oh my God,” I said out loud. “That's exactly what Ella would have said.”

I had started researching the story of Ella Watson earlier that year, hoping to write a non-fiction book. But my agents and publishers in New York weren't interested. So I'd put it on the back burner and went off to spend the summer with my family.

But then that sentence came into my head and by the end of the summer, I was in Wyoming hounding everyone who knew anything about this story, knowing it should be a historical novel.

My biggest surprise was this: I thought my book would revolve around the disgusting murder of Ella Watson. It doesn't. It revolves around the incredible life she led. And of course, that makes her murder all the more tragic. But when I first got into this project, I had no idea I was dealing with a woman whose legend doesn't hold a candle to the truth.

My first clue was when I discovered she'd bucked society decorum and divorced her first, abusive husband on Feb. 14, 1884—and then broke the rules one more time by demanding her maiden name back. “I walked out of that courthouse a happy woman for the first time in a long time. I pressed my hands against my heart and beamed, like I'd just gotten the best Valentine's present ever.”

Then I discovered she went west by herself—not with a father or brother or husband—but on her own. Why? “Pa, I want to own my own land, like you and Grandpapa. I want my own cabin and my own crops and my own herd. There's not many places a woman could have all that for herself, but Wyoming Territory is one of them. Women can even vote out there, Pa. Imagine that.”

I discovered that this Canadian-born woman had filed to become an American citizen. That she was raising a boy. That she was cooking meals in her husband's roadhouse to earn a living. That she'd bought 28 cows for the below-rock-bottom price of $1 a head. (And the chapter that imagines how she did that makes everyone laugh.) Oh yes, I discovered she'd blindsided the stock growers and got herself a brand under their noses.

One of my favorite scenes is about the boy she was raising: “He had me forever the day we were in the garden, tying up the tomatoes. All of a sudden, I felt the swish of the hoe behind me. 'Got him!' Gene yelled like he'd won a prize. I turned around to see him holding up a long rattlesnake. I tripped over myself running to the cabin. Gene got the hiccups, he laughed so hard. “Ma, don't worry, I wouldn't let him get you!' he yelled at me as he flung the snake away. That long, slender body sailed through the air, making wavy patterns in the sky and it was the first time in my life that a snake ever looked beautiful to me. I guess that means anything can be precious the first time you're ever called Ma.”

I found evidence of her kindness and caring, of her dreams and aspirations, of her friendship with a Shoshone band that came by regularly, camping out at the stream near her cabin.

The Wyoming State Museum in Cheyenne has the beautiful beaded moccasins she had just gotten from her Indian friends the day she was murdered—she kicked them off as she strangled to death at the end of a cowboy's rope. And then I learned about her husband. The Cheyenne papers labeled him her “pimp.” In reality, James Averell was as successful a settler as you'd find—appointed postmaster by President Grover Cleveland, notary public by Wyoming Gov. Thomas Moonlight and a justice of the peace by the Carbon County Board of Commissioners.

When you plough through all the gunk and lies they heaped on this couple, and get down to what really happened, it not only breaks your heart, but you have to agree with former Wyoming Sen. Joseph C. O'Mahoney who suggested her life story should be entitled: “The Homesteaders' Heroine, Cattle Kate, and the Land Grabbers in the West.”

I came to love this woman. To respect her. To admire her. To hurt for her, and in the end, to grieve for her.

There were many times during the writing of this book that I'd say, “Ella, how would you have handled this?” She never actually answered me, but darn if I wouldn't stumble across something that at least gave me a clue.

But I am pretty certain about one thing. One day I wrote, “And now, in the 125th anniversary of her murder, her true story is finally told.” That was supposed to be the last sentence. But then, my fingers added this: “If Ella Watson could, she'd say, 'It's about time'.”'


credit: Lisa Garcia
Jana Bommersbach is one of Arizona's most acclaimed journalists. The Arizona Press Club has recognized her lifetime of achievement with its highest honor: The Distinguished Service Award. And the Society of Professional Journalists have inducted her into the Order of the Silver Key as an "inspiration to the state's media community." She has been Arizona Journalist of the Year and twice was recognized as the nation's top city magazine columnist. Jana is a communications expert who has won accolades in every phase of her career: journalist, author, broadcaster and speaker.  Her debut novel, Cattle Kate, is published today by Poisoned Pen Press in hardcover ($24.95) and trade paperback ($14.95).  Visit her website at

Friday, October 03, 2014

Who was the real Macbeth? A guest post by Catherine Wells

For today's post, author Catherine Wells takes us back to 11th-century Scotland, examining the history behind the legend of Macbeth to come up with a more realistic image of the man and his times—one which she has also dramatized in her first historical novel, Macbeatha.


Who Was the Real Macbeth?
by Catherine Wells

Historians have known for some time that the historical Scottish king Macbeth (variously spelled Maelbeatha, Makepath, and Macbeatha) was not quite the blackguard Shakespeare portrayed. To give Will his due, he was using the best sources available to him at the time, although he was more concerned with the drama of the piece than with historical accuracy. But the Macbeth who succeeded Duncan as King of Scots was probably a very good king who kept the peace (mostly) and was responsible for humanitarian legislation. He ruled for 17 years and was succeeded, not by Malcolm Canmore, but by his step-son Lulach.

How did the tale get so twisted? There are several reasons, not the least being that history is written by the victors—in this case, the English who backed Malcolm Canmore. They viewed Macbeth through the lens of their own culture, and to top things off, in the 17th century they conducted a purge of all literature written in Gaelic. If there were records of Macbeth written by his own people during or soon after his lifetime, they have been lost. What was recorded centuries later was heavily influenced by oral tradition and classic Celtic exaggera—ah, storytelling.

To reverse the filter a bit, we must understand that in Celtic cultures, a righ or king was not normally succeeded by his son. Succession sometimes went to a brother or a nephew, but more often leadership passed back and forth between two royal houses. A king selected his tanist, his successor, from among the able warriors of the alternate house. Frequently the tanist got impatient and challenged the king, resulting in an average tenure of five or six years.

Malcolm II was a notable exception. Upon coming to power, he eliminated potential tanists in the alternate royal house and ruled the Scots for thirty years. He named his own grandson Duncan as his successor, in defiance of accepted tradition.

Add to the mix a sharp division between the northern and southern Scots. Both royal houses came from the south, and just how far their rule extended over their northern brethren is questionable. In fact, Irish annals that refer to the “King of Scots” generally mean the ruler of the northern province of Moray, rather than the “high king” sitting in Scone. Several battles are recorded between the northern and southern branches, with the south rarely the victor.

Macbeth was of the House of Loarn, which had been a royal house in a bygone era and continued to rule in Moray. (Yes, Ross was part of Moray at the time.) He is called the mormaer or steward of Moray, indicating allegiance to Malcolm II, but remember this allegiance was sometimes hard to enforce. Some king lists show Macbeth as being another grandson of Malcolm II, although these lists were compiled late and may have been altered to force the appearance of patrilineal succession. When Macbeth defeated Duncan in battle—not by treachery—he claimed the kingship in his own name and that of his wife, Gruoch. Gruoch belonged to the second royal house, the one that should have taken over from Malcolm II.

Was Macbeth driven by “ambition that o’erleaps itself,” as Shakespeare would have it? We will never know. But we do know that Duncan had a poor track record as king. Prior to his defeat by Macbeth, he led a disastrous battle against the English at Durham where 3000 Scots died. This was a warrior culture, and a king's power was based on the size of his army. This was not a standing army, but a war band called up for each campaign. After a defeat like Durham, it is questionable whether mormaers and sub-kings were willing to support Duncan in his military endeavors.

The King of Scots, or the High King, had to be elected by his peers and confirmed by the Church. Because Macbeth was duly installed in the office, we assume he had the support of the tribal and ecclesiastic leaders. And because he held Scotland’s borders for 14 years, we assume he maintained that support, including the ability to muster troops to defend those borders. But in 1054, Duncan’s son Malcolm Canmore (Malcolm "Big Head"), backed by Siward of Northumbria and the English king, invaded Scotland and struck a serious blow to the reigning king.

The battle took place outside Dundee. Dunsinane is an old hill fort a short distance away, and we’re not sure why it became associated with Macbeth’s defeat. The English claimed victory, but they withdrew, and it is uncertain if Malcolm Canmore acquired any power or status at this point. Three years later, Macbeth either died or was mortally wounded in a small skirmish outside the village of Lumphanan in northern Scotland. Had he retreated to his home province of Moray after Dundee? Was the kingship in question for three years? We simply don’t know.

We do know that Lulach, his wife’s son from her first marriage, succeeded Macbeth as King of Scots. Lulach was killed by Malcolm Canmore or his followers a year later, and the implication is that treachery was involved. Malcolm Canmore, who had been raised in the English court, brought English ways and English governance to Scotland. The era of Celtic High Kings was over.

All this was affected by a variety of cultures and political events during the early 11th century. If you’d like to know more about them, and see an extrapolated biography of Macbeth, please visit my website: And if you’d like to read a terrific fictional interpretation of the man and his life, I hope you’ll pick up my novel Macbeatha.


Catherine Wells is the author of numerous novels and short stories. Her works include "Mother Grimm," a finalist for the 1997 Philip K. Dick Award, and the Coconino trilogy, both available from Phoenix Pick. Her short stories have appeared in Analog, Asimov’s Magazine of Science Fiction, and Intergalactic Medicine Show, as well as anthologies such as “Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse.” "Macbeatha" is her first foray into historical fiction. Read about her latest works and where her novels can be purchased at

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Kader Abdolah's The King, a parable of politics in 19th-century Persia

This new novel from Iranian Dutch author Abdolah is written as an extended parable, and important moral lessons will be found within. That said, they are presented smoothly and not without compassion for the many characters.

The king of the title is Shah Naser, a nineteenth-century Persian monarch torn between his power-hungry mother, who encourages him to emulate his dictatorial forebears, and his forward-thinking vizier, who has ambitious plans for modernizing the country’s technological infrastructure, education, and health care, among other things.

Although the shah is fascinated by newfangled inventions like the telegraph, he remains woefully distanced from his impoverished populace, preferring to spend time with his cat and large harem and increase his personal wealth. This leaves Persia susceptible to foreign interests—British, French, and Russian—seeking control of its land and natural resources.

The direct, unadorned style makes for a fast-paced, entertaining tale about Iran’s internal and external power struggles during an era of significant change. In addition, the novel provides instructive background on the growing political influence of the country’s ayatollahs.

The King was published by New Directions in August in hardcover (352pp, $24.95).  The novel was translated from the Dutch by Nancy Forest-Flier.  This review first appeared in Booklist's 9/1 issue.  Receiving this book for assignment was a pleasant surprise, since I enjoy reading literature in translation and learning more about less familiar periods of history.  I also didn't realize, until finding a mention on the website of the author's Dutch publisher just now, that his great-great-grandfather was Mirza Kabir, Shah Naser's reform-minded vizier.