Thursday, July 26, 2018

Interview with Lisa Jensen, author of the historical fairy-tale retelling Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge

Lisa Jensen, who I'd spoken with in 2014 about her historical fantasy Alias Hook, has returned to the literary scene with another new twist on a familiar story. The original fairy tale upon which Beast is based should be apparent from the title, but this isn't the familiar Beauty and the Beast story we all know; tweaking the perspective makes all the difference. Opening long before "Beauty" comes on the scene, Beast is seen through the eyes of a young chambermaid, Lucie. Soon after she comes to work at Ch√Ęteau Beaumont, home of the handsome chevalier Jean-Loup, a terrible event spurs her to take revenge — resulting in dramatic transformations involving Lucie, the cruel Jean-Loup, and a beautiful young woman named Rose. The story is set in early 17th-century Burgundy, France, and is geared toward mature YAs and up.  Please read on!

Your previous novel Alias Hook took a new look at the story of Peter Pan, while Beast reworks the traditional Beauty and the Beast fairy tale in new and creative ways. What appeals to you about recasting old stories in a different light?

It usually arises out of my dissatisfaction with the original, and my craving as an author to rewrite it! I always found Captain Hook far more interesting than Peter Pan, so in Alias Hook, I wanted to explore what it must be like for a grown man to be trapped eternally in a world run by beastly little boys.

In the same way, I always adored the Beast character in Beauty and the Beast. But the moment all thinking women dread is when the magnificent, noble Beast turns into a bland, boring handsome prince in the end. Beast does all the work of wooing Beauty. It's Beast she falls in love with. Why should the Prince get the girl?

I thought Beast, in all his soulfulness and sensitivity, deserved to be the hero in his own tale.

While Beast is set in France’s Burgundy region during the reign of “Henri Quatre,” it also successfully conveys the timeless nature of the fairy-tale realm. How and why did you choose the historical period?

Beauty-and-Beast tales (and many other so-called Animal Bridegroom tales) have been around at least since the Greeks. But this particular fairy tale is very French in origin. The first version to be written down was by a French authoress, Mme. de Villeneuve, and published in 1740. It was a bit long and rambling, but the essence of the story was there. A shorter, streamlined adaptation was published by another Frenchwoman, Mme. de Beaumont, in 1757. This is the version of the tale we recognize today.

I had spent some time in the Burgundy region of France, so that was the area I picked. I discovered that everything in rural France looks like a fairy tale, even today! And I decided to use the Henri Quatre period (short window though it was), ca. 1600, because I wanted my book to take place at least 100 years before those other published editions. I think of mine as the origin story from which all future versions of this tale might have evolved.

How did you research the historical setting and locale?

Backwards! I started out with the date, working backwards from the publication dates of those first two version of the story. Then I studied up on what was going on in France around that time. Eh, voila — Henri the Fourth, quite an interesting character in his own right. I decided that my Prince character, Jean-Loup, Chevalier de Beaumont, had earned his knighthood fighting with Henri, then the Prince of Navarre, against the Spanish invaders. And since I was already familiar with the villages and churches of Burgundy, that's where I chose to place the enchanted chateau.

Servants can make insightful narrators; they can observe everything around them while their behavior and feelings often go unobserved by people from the upper classes. At what point during the writing process did you realize that Lucie the chambermaid, rather than Beauty/Rose, had to be the heroine for the story you wanted to tell?

My idea was always to create a heroine worthy of Beast, another woman on the scene who had the sense to fall in love with Beast as he was. So it couldn't be the Beauty character, who is so willing to forget the Beast she says she loves and waltz off with the Prince, a complete stranger! And I always knew the story would be told from Lucie's viewpoint, my protagonist, as we watch her evolve from lowly servant into heroine.

In my story, Beauty (Rose) is more like the antagonist. When she comes to the chateau, the traditional fairy tale plot kicks in. Her appearance interrupts the relationship beginning to develop between Lucie and Beast, and when Lucie realizes Rose has the power to break the spell that created Beast — that Lucie might lose him forever — she'll do anything to try and stop it!

Not to give too much away, but some of the action is seen from the viewpoint of a candlestick. How easy/fun, or how complicated, was it to place her in locations where she could see what was happening?

It was a challenge, but it was also fun! This character narrates the story, in and out of human form, so I had to keep that voice consistently strong from page to page — even during the time the character is inanimate. And the sheer necessity of moving the character around to comment on the action led to some serendipitous moments — as when the silver candlestick is stolen, prompting Beast's enraged reaction! Why does Beast get so angry when the old man plucks a rose from his garden? Now we know!

What was the experience like in writing your first book for a younger audience?

Originally, I wrote this book for adults. I wanted some distance from the fairy tale we all think we remember from childhood, to create a new perspective, a new way of looking at the story. But, as it turned out, a YA editor fell in love with the book and bought it for Candlewick Press. We spent two years editing it to make it age-appropriate (my editor, the intrepid Kaylan Adair, is very thorough). But be warned: there are still so many ways my book is not the Disney Version!

Thanks very much, Lisa!

Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge was published this month in hardcover and ebook by Candlewick Press.

Monday, July 23, 2018

An uneasy inheritance: Rahna Reiko Rizzuto's Shadow Child, set in mid-20th-century America and Japan (plus US/Can giveaway)

Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s second novel has a terrific opening – a small masterpiece of plot and atmosphere – that elicits many questions. The mystery surrounding their answers unspools over the course of this multi-layered, moody, occasionally meandering work.

Sometime in the early 1970s, Hanako (Hana) Swanson returns late to her barren NYC apartment. She expects to find her twin sister, Keiko (Kei), from whom she’s been estranged for six years, waiting for her. Kei had insisted on flying to see Hana, saying she needed to give her a promised inheritance from their mother. What Hana finds, though, is her sister lying in the bathtub, unconscious and bruised. This makes Hana remember seeing a shadowy man in the lobby, someone who did a double-take upon seeing her. Who was he, and was he Kei's attacker?

The sisters had grown up together in a remote Hawaiian village. Hana was known as the good, responsible one, while Kei was the rebel. Their loving mother, Miya, was prone to odd fevers and episodes of mental instability, while their stepfather, Arnie, proved a steadying influence. The girls, whose mirror-image, “hapa haole” (part-white) appearance sets them apart, were once very close, but their interests diverged, and then a tragic incident involving a cave broke their bond for good.

While desperate to learn what happened to her sister, Hana fears revisiting the past. She tells of bearing physical and mental scars testifying to the trauma she suffered.

The plot vibrates with tension throughout. Rizzuto increases the suspense by interspersing Hana’s segments, in which she remembers her unusual childhood, with those of a newlywed named Lillie in California beginning in 1942. Abandoned as a baby, and raised by white parents, Lillie is an American of Japanese ancestry who has just married Donald, a man of similar heritage.

Lillie's dreams of starting married life on the East Coast are set aside when Donald insists that they join his parents in Los Angeles. In the days after Pearl Harbor, however, anyone of Japanese appearance falls under suspicion by the government, and even by former neighbors and friends. “She was a Jap now,” Lillie thinks, and her sudden realization feels piercing: “She’d become an enemy alien, when she had always only been herself.” Not knowing how to speak Japanese, and restricted from travel, Lillie feels trapped.

The question of identity, which sits at the novel’s heart, is an issue that all three women struggle with. How do society’s views affect who you are? If you grow up as the mirror image of someone else, how can your individuality flourish? In the case of Lillie and her daughters, how has Lillie’s traumatic past manifested itself in Hana and Kei, and what is Hana withholding from her narrative? It’s always clear that Lillie and Miya are the same person, and the reason for her transformation, and the identity of the twins’ father, is resolved in a realistic way by the end.

The settings are as vividly rendered as the characters’ psychologies: impersonal and crowded New York City, a small-town Hawaii untouched by tourism, the internment camp at Manzanar, and places darker still, following Lillie’s arrival in unfamiliar Japan. The chapters told from the viewpoint of “Koko” (both girls together, using a nickname created from their own names) are confusing, but effective all the same.

Recommended as a unique look at sisterhood, the aftermath of trauma, and the careful path these women travel to find healing and acceptance.

Shadow Child was published by Grand Central/Hachette in May; I received an ARC from a Shelf Awareness giveaway.

Thanks to the publisher, I have the opportunity to offer a giveaway for readers in the US and Canada: two hardcover copies are up for grabs. Please fill out the form below for a chance to win. One entry per household; void where prohibited. Deadline Sunday, July 29.

Update: The giveaway is over.  Congrats to Canadian readers Linda and Judith!  Your books are on the way.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Russian Revolution, as seen through 12 historical novels

This year (tomorrow, to be exact) marks a century since the execution of Russia's tsar, Nicholas II, and his family in 1918, following the Russian Revolution. Novels set during this tense, violent, chaotic period continue to fascinate for their depictions of a country's history, up-close and wrenchingly personal, during a time of great change. Following are a dozen works of historical fiction set during the period, both new/upcoming and older. Their viewpoints range from Romanov family members and aristocrats whose opulent world falls apart, to ordinary Russians empowered by revolutionary fervor, to men and women simply trying to survive the times as best they can.  Listed below the cover are the perspective each book conveys.

Leonka Sednyov was the kitchen boy who fled from the Romanov family's house of captivity in Ekaterinburg and was one of the last to see them alive; a multi-period mystery. Viking, 2003. [see on Goodreads]

Katya Vogt, a young woman from a Mennonite farming family on the Russian steppes, sees the social order in the country torn apart. Milkweed, 2004. [see on Goodreads]

St. Petersburg's chief police investigator looks into a couple's brutal murder in winter 1917, during the last days of imperial Russia and the immediate lead-up to the revolution. Doubleday, 2003. [see on Goodreads]

This upcoming novel centers on sisters Militza and Anastasia, both Princesses of Montenegro, who are fascinated by the occult and are responsible for bringing Rasputin into the imperial family's circle. Head of Zeus, Aug 2018; also to be published by HarperCollins in the US, Jan. 2019. [see on Goodreads]

Marina Makarova, daughter of a bourgeois St. Petersburg family, falls in love with a Bolshevik poet and observes (and takes part in) many other dramatic events of the time. Little, Brown, 2017. [see on Goodreads] [see my review]

Follett incorporates a variety of viewpoints in this blockbuster epic of WWI and the Russian Revolution: aristocrats, soldiers, ordinary workers, and many more. [see on Goodreads] [see my review]

Grand Duchess Olga, eldest daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra, falls in love with a soldier (a fictional episode) in the days preceding her family's downfall.  Out of print and first published in the 1970s, but worth seeking out. [see on Goodreads]

Maria Feodorovna, who became the mother of Nicholas II, narrates her tumultuous life story, from her youth as a Danish princess through her marriage to the imperial heir and the fall of the Romanov dynasty. Ballantine, July 2018. [see on Goodreads]

Gerty Freely, a young woman in Edwardian England, travels to Moscow to become a middle-class family's governess and gets caught up in the upheaval as the country descends into revolution.  Faber, 2016. [see on Goodreads]

Grand Duchess Anastasia and Anna Anderson, who claimed Anastasia's identity, are the two protagonists (or sole protagonist?) of this multi-stranded historical thriller with the themes of identity and hope. Doubleday, March 2018. [see on Goodreads]

In 1916, Sashenka Zeitlin, an impressionable teenager from a well-off Jewish family, leaves her parents' beliefs behind and joins the Bolshevik movement as a spy, a decision with severe repercussions decades later. Simon & Schuster, 2008. [see on Goodreads]

Mathilde Kschessinska, the petite star of the Russian Imperial Ballet who became mistress to the last tsar, Nicholas II, looks back on her life at age 99.  FSG, 2010. [see my review] [see on Goodreads]

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Charles Finch's The Woman in the Water, a prequel to his long-running Victorian detective series

In this engrossing prequel to the Charles Lenox mysteries, set in 1850, Finch’s amiable aristocratic hero is not yet the distinguished Parliamentarian and private detective who will feature in ten more full-length novels. He has the same brilliantly deductive mind that will serve him well in the future but, as a 23-year-old Oxford grad, he lacks maturity and life experience and is wise enough to know it.

Living in a flat on London’s St. James’s Square, Lenox and his valet, Graham, spend their days clipping crime-related articles from newspapers and seeking patterns that may lead to an initial case. He gets his break after spying a pretentious letter to the editor from a writer bragging about committing the perfect crime. When Lenox spots connections others don’t, and links the letter to the month-old discovery of a woman’s body from a waterlogged trunk, Scotland Yard finally starts paying attention.

This novel offers many pleasures, not least of which is the opportunity to puzzle out the solution to this intricate mystery alongside Lenox. Although as a baronet’s second son, he’s a privileged sort who has no material wants, he swiftly gains the reader’s sympathy. Aside from a few close friends, his social circle thinks he’s crazy for wanting to pursue a career at all, while experienced policemen joke about the “young inspector” and his sidekick valet (it doesn’t help that Lenox pronounces that word with a hard “t”). Lenox is also desperately in love with a female friend, and realized this much too late.

Gently wry humor emerges through Lenox’s banter with Graham, and in how he evades his redoubtable housekeeper’s lengthy to-do list. On the serious side, Lenox faces devastating family news and the emotional impact of a real-life murder investigation. Both newcomers and series regulars should find themselves drawn in.

The Woman in the Water was published by Minotaur, the mystery imprint of St. Martin's Press, in February; I reviewed it for May's Historical Novels Review.

The nice thing about prequels to lengthy series (this is the 1st or 11th, depending on how you look at it) is that if you prefer to read in chronological order, you can easily start here. I've reviewed a number of other books in the series, as follows, plus the author contributed a guest post, When Did the Victorians Drink Their Tea?, back in 2014.

Gone Before Christmas, a mystery short story (2017)
Home By Nightfall (2015)
The Laws of Murder (2014)

Macmillan's website says Finch's upcoming mystery, The Vanishing Man, will be the 2nd in a prequel trilogy. I can't wait.

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Frances McNamara's Death at the Selig Studios, a mystery set amid Chicago's early film industry

The show must go on, as the saying goes – and the “film people” in McNamara’s seventh Emily Cabot mystery take this to extremes, to the heroine’s bafflement.

In this entry, set in 1909, Emily is in her thirties, a married mother of two and lecturer at the University of Chicago. Series regulars, like her friends Detective Whitbread and policeman “Fitz” Fitzgibbons, play major roles, as do the colorful personalities involved with the Selig Polyscope Company, a prominent American motion picture studio at the time. Emily gets drawn into their orbit after learning that her younger brother Alden, to her shock and dismay, is accused of shooting a man to death on the set. Almost as bad, in Emily’s eyes, is that he’d quietly left his job at the Tribune to pen scripts for “Colonel” Selig.

The plot rattles along nicely and is a fine introduction to the film industry’s little-known Windy City roots. While trying to teach her old-enough-to-know-better brother about responsibility and extricate him from a murder charge, Emily and her star-struck children get up close and personal (sometimes too much) with the “pantomimists,” their romantic predicaments, and the secrets they try to hide. The victim, Mr. Hyde, was a censor, and both Chicago’s mayor and Col. Selig seem to want to downplay the crime – the investigations may hold up production – which incenses Emily.

Fictional characters mingle with real-life silent film actors, and since many of the latter are no longer famous names, readers may not realize which is which until they read the helpful afterword. Along the way, Emily visits the sets of The Wizard of Oz, in its earliest surviving version, and two wildlife adventure flicks with real lions and leopards (animal lovers should be alerted about one distressing scene).

There’s a multitude of suspects and no obvious perpetrator; this mystery gets the job done. The only drawback is Emily's attitude. The film-industry setting means she’s out of her element (as the author’s afterword admits): as a progressive social reformer, she has zero appreciation for celluloid “fakery.” She’s occasionally rude to her friends and abrupt with family members, and her overall mood is grumpy. Hopefully by the next volume, her planned vacation to Woods Hole will have restored her good spirits.

Frances McNamara's Death at the Selig Studios is published by Allium Press of Chicago in May; thanks to the publisher for sending a copy at my request.

Here are my reviews of two earlier books in the series:

Death at Hull House, book one, set in 1893.
Death at Pullman, book two, set in 1894.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Interview with E.M. Powell, author of the medieval mystery The King's Justice - plus giveaway

E.M. Powell's latest work of historical crime, The King's Justice, takes place in a Yorkshire village in 1176, during Henry II's reign. Charged with solving a brutal murder are the traveling royal clerk Aelred Barling, who prides himself on his organization and efficiency, and his reluctant assistant, Hugo Stanton.  The local lord claims to have found the culprit, but Hugo isn't so sure. If you loved and still miss the medieval novels of Diana Norman/Ariana Franklin, you'll want to seek out this first in a new series. It combines a gritty murder mystery, unpredictable plotting, intriguing characters, and a wonderful dry wit. I'll be on board for book two, The Monastery Murders, which has a Sept 2018 release date.

Hugo Stanton made his first appearance in your initial series. What inspired you to create a more prominent role for him in The King’s Justice?

The original inspiration came from my publisher, Thomas & Mercer, who are the crime/thriller/mystery imprint of Amazon Publishing. I am extremely fortunate in that as well as working with me on current projects, they also take a great deal of time to discuss future ideas with me. They said that they loved the 12th century world I wrote in for my Fifth Knight medieval thriller novels and wondered if I had ever thought of doing a spin-off series. I hadn’t, but it was a tremendously exciting idea. They told me to go away and have a think and gave me the luxury of time to do so.

That ‘think’ consisted of a great deal of research to see if I could find something that would work for me as a writer as well as the many (wonderful!) people who buy and read my books. And I found the golden nugget. I found that King Henry II reformed the English legal system. He introduced a travelling law court, where his justices would travel the country, hearing cases where the most serious felonies had been committed: robbery, theft—and murder. The dates worked perfectly.

I then wrote up a list of every single character that had appeared in the Fifth Knight series. I had killed off quite a few but there was one stand-out candidate: Hugo Stanton, the young messenger who wasn’t at all a hero but who found the courage to step up when it really mattered.

The laid-back Stanton was teamed up with a new character, the prickly royal clerk, Aelred Barling. I had my pair of sleuths ready to go and investigate murder and mayhem, the first being the brutal murder of a village smith. Fortunately, my publisher really liked the product of my thinking and so The King's Justice was born.

The viewpoint alternates between Stanton and his superior, the clerk Aelred Barling, and their personalities are pretty different. How did you decide on this structure? Did you find either of them easier to work with as a character?

A historical crime novel is still a crime novel. That requires just as much attention as the historical side. Many crime and mystery novels are written in the first person, with one main investigator. While I’m very fond of Stanton, he isn’t an obvious hero. Neither would have he been important enough in medieval society to carry the full weight of the law. I needed a second sleuth who was. So I created the dry, fussy, procedurally-obsessed Aelred Barling. My personal preference is to write deep third person Point of View, and with these two I can switch back and forth. I mentioned being fond of Stanton, but I’m far fonder of Barling. I share many more traits with him—we both like our books, our quiet, our order, our peace and quiet. I suspect my nearest and dearest would say I’m just as irritable as him as well!

I admit I'm partial to Barling as well!  How do you get into the mindset of people living and working in 12th-century England?

The simple answer that every writer of historical fiction would give: research, research, research. We historical writers have to create a credible, believable world and part of that is the mindset of the characters who inhabit it. To get it right, it’s a case of months and months of research. Much of it is reading reliable academic work on the time period and offering up thanks for every knowledgeable historian who has chosen to publish a book that relates to my era. There’s also the joy of trudging through muddy fields to look at yet another 12th century castle, with the long-suffering family in tow.

It’s great that there are many fellow obsessives out there as well. I’ve had lots of contact with re-enactors, those wonderful folk who spend their time recreating 12th century life. They recreate weapons, food, clothing, you name it and are always willing to talk about it. Even better, I can get my hands on it, too.

author E.M. Powell
The novel delves deeply into the legal system and reforms of Henry II, showing them from multiple angles (in the initial scene with the ordeal in particular, the title seemed a bit ironic!). What fascinates you about this subject?

Like Aelred Barling, I find the process of the law utterly fascinating, be that 12th century law or 21st century law. As for Henry’s imposition of law and order, it truly was a novelist’s gift. The King's Justice opens with men accused of a murder who are proclaiming their innocence in a murder case. Forget prosecution and defence lawyers. One way of establishing guilt was to make the accused face the ordeal of water. The accused was tied up and thrown into a pit filled with water. Said water had already been blessed. If the accused sank, they were innocent. If guilty, they floated. It was believed that God had judged them. And if guilty, they were taken from the water and hanged. The King’s punishment for thieves was to have a foot and a hand chopped off. I don’t think many of us today would see this as an acceptable system, but it worked for Henry. Thanks to his travelling justices, he could ensure that that system could reach every corner of his realm.

The story takes many twists that I found hard to predict, which was great. Just when I thought the solution was leaning in one direction, suddenly things changed. When you’re writing, do you know in advance how you want the resolution to come about, or do you find the storyline developing as you go?

Those words are music to a mystery writer’s ears: twists, turns and unpredictability are our Holy Grail! I do know of writers who set off with a story and see where it takes them. That approach has me hyperventilating. I’m a plotter, through and through. I have recently discovered Scrivener, which is simply the best writing tool that I have ever come across. One of the marvellous things about it is that I can write what is essentially two novels in one, which is really what a mystery is. The first is the story of the murderer(s): the Secret Plot. The second is the novel as readers read it on the page. That’s Stanton and Barling’s story, where they’re trying to solve the crime. Fortunately for me, they do!

Thanks very much for answering my questions!

The King's Justice is published in June 2018 by Thomas & Mercer/Amazon Publishing in paperback and ebook (288pp).

About the Author:

E.M. Powell’s historical thriller Fifth Knight novels have been #1 Amazon and Bild bestsellers. The King’s Justice is the first novel in her new Stanton and Barling medieval murder mystery series. She is a contributing editor to International Thriller Writers’ The Big Thrill magazine, blogs for English Historical Fiction Authors and is the social media manager for the Historical Novel Society. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in North-West England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. Find out more by visiting You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.


During the Blog Tour we will be giving away 6 paperback copies of The King’s Justice! To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below.

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– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on July 13th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
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– Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.  Good luck!

The King's Justice