Sunday, September 30, 2018

Reading the Past appearing on Tall Poppy Writers' #bloomblogweek

This week is blogger appreciation week on Bloom, the Facebook group for Tall Poppy Writers, a team of 42 female authors who've banded together to meet readers and promote philanthropic projects. I'm grateful to Janie Chang, author of literary fiction set in 20th-century China, for inviting me to participate and contribute a post, and thanks to the rest of the group for their support!  I've been a member of the FB group for the last month and have been enjoying the conversations and camaraderie.

Please stop by the group this week for appearances from me and other book bloggers.  We'll all be posting about our sites and hosting a giveaway.  In my case, I'll be offering three copies of Janie's bestselling novel Dragon Springs Road, contributed by the author, as well as a copy of Frances de Pontes Peebles' The Air You Breathe, which was one of my favorites of 2018 so far.

For more about Tall Poppy Writers, please visit their site at Here are links to my earlier reviews of novels by authors in the group:

Julie Cantrell, Into the Free, set in Depression-era Mississippi
Susan Meissner, As Bright as Heaven, set during the 1918 flu epidemic in Philadelphia
Weina Dai Randel, The Moon in the Palace, about Empress Wu in 7th-century China
Aimie K. Runyan, Daughters of the Night Sky, about the "Night Witches" of WWII, and Promised to the Crown and Duty to the Crown, about the New France settlement of 17th-century Quebec.

Hope to see you online on Facebook!

Monday, September 24, 2018

Love Is Blind by William Boyd, a globe-spanning journey of passion and danger

Moving from Edinburgh in 1894 to the far-flung Andaman Islands in 1906, and smoothly landing in various European cities in between, Boyd’s (Sweet Caress, 2015) affecting novel follows a young Scotsman’s ardent pursuit of a woman and its treacherous consequences.

An appealing though naive protagonist, Brodie Moncur has perfect pitch, a gift he uses as an accomplished piano tuner. He agrees to help manage a Parisian piano showroom, but he hates leaving his siblings behind with their controlling preacher father in their rural village.

Brodie’s quest for a sponsorship arrangement for his employer’s business introduces him to the celebrated pianist John Kilbarron, his shifty brother, Malachi, and John’s mistress, Russian soprano Lika Blum; they all accompany Kilbarron on his concert tours. Brodie falls hard for Lika, which leads to clandestine meetings, a high-stress lifestyle, and, eventually, much worse.

Their relationship feels more like erotic passion than love, but the novel hauntingly depicts how strong emotions can skew one’s perceptions. Boyd beautifully paints the settings and the moods they evoke while sending readers on Brodie’s adventurous, troublesome, and transformative journey.

This review first appeared in Booklist's September 15th issue. Love Is Blind will be published by Knopf on October 9th.  In the UK, it was published by Viking on September 20th.  This is the first novel by Boyd that I've read. While it was a smoothly written and engaging read, the characters' emotions felt a bit distant in places.  If you've read any earlier novels of his, which ones would you recommend?

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Love Song: Frankfort, Michigan, an essay by Lee Zacharias, author of Across the Great Lake

It can be a magical experience to read historical fiction that captures the essence of a place from long ago. In today's guest post, Lee Zacharias writes eloquently about the setting for her new novel and the reasons why she chose it. Coincidentally, Frankfort happens to be a place where I've traveled many times; I look forward to revisiting it by reading Across the Great Lake, which is published today by the University of Wisconsin Press.


Love Song: Frankfort, Michigan
Lee Zacharias

In many ways my new novel, Across the Great Lake, is a love song to a time and place. The setting is more than backdrop. It is the long-lost beloved, the place my narrator Fern yearns for. In fact, the novel began with place; I knew the setting before I knew any of the characters or their stories, that beautiful northwestern Michigan town with its shady streets, gracious old houses, Lake Michigan's crystal-clear water, the pristine beach, steep bluff beyond, most of all the haunting call of the foghorn, now long gone.

But it would be wrong to say I invented the characters simply to populate the novel. They and their stories grew out of that place, just as we are all formed, one way or another, by the places we come from. As Eudora Welty said in her essay "Place in Fiction," it does far more than "furnish a plausible abode for the novel's world of feeling," it "is the ground conductor of all the currents of emotion and belief and moral conviction..." Location serves to make the characters real.

My narrator, Fern, behaves the way she does and feels the way she feels, because of where she comes from, high on a hill above the loveliest of lovely streets in a town that sits on the opposite side of its harbor from what was still in the 1930s the industrial hub of Benzie County, the infinitely less lovely village of Elberta that is home to the apprentice deckhand, Alv, and many of the other sailors. The Frankfort of my novel is the domain of officers, Elberta the realm of iron workers, switch operators, and ordinary sea men.

I visited Frankfort once as a girl, a girl who grew up at the southern end of the lake, among the steel mills and oil refineries of Indiana's Calumet region. No one swam at our beach, which was often littered with dead alewives. The water was polluted. And so when I saw Frankfort I thought it was the most beautiful place I had ever been. To live there would be like living inside a sunlit picture post card.

Lighthouse, Frankfort, Michigan (photo: Mark Johnson)

My reality was a sky dreary with smoke from the mills, a treeless lower middle class street lined with the cramped tract houses that had replaced the fouled prairie. I fell in love with Frankfort because I recognized Elberta, its railyard and asphalt tanks near the beach that stored petroleum products from a refinery no more than ten miles from my house, those tanks that gave the village a distinctive gassy odor. Our feelings about place are as much a part of us as the color of our eyes or shape of our toes, and I hated where I lived and longed to escape.

And so when I was twelve Frankfort became the locus of my other life, the fantasy I wished to live instead of the all-too-real world that seemed to drag out the sentence of childhood and adolescence that bound me to Hammond. In Frankfort I would be able to walk wherever I wanted to go. In Hammond I played in the school band, and every time the director called an evening rehearsal I had to ask for a ride from my father, who always let me know what at inconvenience it was. In Frankfort, I would be one of the teens playing volleyball on the beach instead the awkward pubescent ridiculed by the neighborhood boys. In Frankfort I would be free, not just of Hammond but of myself. Such, I imagined, is the power of place.

And yet Fern is no princess in my fairy tale other life. Tragic things happen to her. She is responsible for another. Though she belongs to a class my teenaged self aspired to, her unconscious sense of privilege contributes to the harm that will haunt the rest of her years, that will transform a lively, adventurous little girl into a woman incapable of fully engaging with her adult life. For her childhood is synonymous with the place that exile denies her. She yearns for Frankfort because it is hers. And as I wrote I yearned with her, but the reason I yearned for Frankfort and the lake my own father once sailed was because they had never been mine. The only way I could claim any part of them was to inhabit her, to write her story as if it were memoir.


photo credit: Traci Arney
Lee Zacharias is the author of a collection of short stories, Helping Muriel Make It Through the Night; three novels, Across the Great Lake, Lessons, and At Random; and a collection of personal essays, The Only Sounds We Make. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council, North Carolina's Sir Walter Raleigh Award, Southern Humanities Review's Theodore Christian Hoepfner Award, Prairie Schooner's Glenna Luschei Award, and a Silver Medal in Creative Nonfiction from the Independent Publisher Book Awards (the IPPYs).

Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals and been recognized by The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Essay, which reprinted her essay "Buzzards" in its 2008 edition. She taught at the University of Arkansas, Princeton University, and the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where she is Emerita Professor of English, as well as many conferences, most recently the Wildacres Writers Workshop. Find her online at

Sunday, September 16, 2018

A visual preview of the fall 2018 season in historical fiction

Fall is almost upon us, bringing with it a new crop of historical novels. Here are ten, chosen purely out of personal interest. Are you planning on reading any of them?  Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

A new retelling of the Trojan War, as seen from the viewpoint of Briseis, a former queen turned captive. Barker has said that this is the novel she hopes she'll be remembered for. Doubleday, Sept. (this one is out now). [see on Goodreads]

The story of Judith Leyster, a painter of the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century, and her ambitions to join the artists' guild in Haarlem. Amberjack, Nov. [see on Goodreads]

Alva Smith Vanderbilt, known in Gilded Age society for her opulent masquerade balls and unstoppable ambition, especially where her daughter was concerned, later became a prominent women's rights supporter. St. Martin's, Oct. [see on Goodreads]

In the 14th century, a Templar's son is sent to a rural English village to solve a mysterious murder and gets caught up in a tangled nest of secrets. Crooked Lane, Nov. [see on Goodreads]

The story of Hercules, acclaimed chef to President Washington in late 18th-century Philadelphia: an enslaved man in a city famed for its principles of liberty. Based on a true story. Arcade, Nov. [see on Goodreads]

The Splendor Before the Dark is part two (after The Confessions of Young Nero) of the outrageous life story of Emperor Nero, told in his own lively voice and seen here in a new and sympathetic light. Berkley, Nov. [see on Goodreads]

I've yet to read one of Grisham's novels, and this one dovetails with my historical fiction interests. It's described as a mixture of legal thriller and Southern Gothic, centering on the mysterious killing of a Mississippi pastor in 1946 by one of his good friends. Doubleday, Oct. [see on Goodreads]

In hopes of a more prosperous life, a young woman travels from China to San Francisco in 1923 to establish a new life with a husband she doesn't know; she also works hard to save an orphan she met en route. Lake Union, Oct. [see on Goodreads]

The story of Liberia's founding in the 19th century, told through the viewpoints of several characters, and with a touch of magical realism. Graywolf, Sept. (out now). [see on Goodreads]

Roy's novel examines mid-20th-century India through the stories of a man who uncovers his artist mother's itinerant life through India and Bali, as he searches for the reasons she left her family behind. Atria, Nov. [see on Goodreads]

Thursday, September 13, 2018

On writing Lone Wolf in Jerusalem, a guest post by Ehud Diskin

In today's essay, Ehud Diskin, a bestselling author in Israel, writes about his reasons for writing historical fiction and the research process for his new novel.  Lone Wolf in Jerusalem was published by Greenleaf Book Group in August.


On Writing Lone Wolf in Jerusalem
Ehud Diskin

I wanted to write the history of Israel in the 1940s prior to the establishment of the state of Israel and to tell about the people who fought hard for it --- to tell the story of the Jews who survived Europe after WWII and came to Israel to establish a Jewish state. I took into consideration that today, a lot of people don’t read history books, and in order to tell the history also to those people, I decided to write a historical novel. I used elements of suspense, action, drama, adventure, and romance, so that it will interest most potential readers.

Originally the book was written in Hebrew, and the fact that it had rapidly became a bestseller proved my intent.

My novel is set in the same time period as Leon Uris’s Exodus. I wrote my novel as someone who knows Israel and its history in the 20th century. I am a seventh generation Israeli. I was born and lived as a child in a besieged Jerusalem, fought in three wars and reached the rank of a colonel.

As a result, I could truly imagine the story of the fictional hero of the book, David Gabinsky, who leads a courageous group of Jewish partisans in Belarus and after the war, makes his way to Jerusalem to help his people find freedom from the British. The characters in the book are fictional, but the history is accurate. The reader finds himself involved with the characters of Jerusalem in those days, and learns through the main characters, the true experiences of people who lived during that time.

When I wrote this book, besides reading many books about that period (there is a bibliography list in the end of the book), I researched and reviewed a lot of documents. In Israel in the 1940s there were three Jewish undergrounds who fought the British. Each of them had a different point of view not only ideologically, but they saw each event differently. I had to research to find out what really happened. I interviewed people who lived at that period; they were in their 80s and 90s. I visited all the places in Jerusalem that I wrote about. I researched the names of the streets in those days, and in the beginning of the book there is a diagram map of Jerusalem related to the relevant period and to the book.

Besides being recently published in English, the novel was also translated in Russian. A Russian reader sent me letter expressing her enthusiasm for the book and why she felt it was an important look at Israel. I am pleased because it shows that the idea of telling the history through a historical novel was successful.


Ehud Diskin was born in Jerusalem. He served as an officer in combat roles during Israel's wars, as detailed in his memoir, Yes, It's Possible, and ended his military career with the rank of colonel. After attending the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he earned a PhD in business management and became the director of the LIBI fund, collecting contributions from all over the world to provide support for the education of soldiers. Later, he left the public sector and became a businessman, establishing several successful enterprises in the United States. Find out more and read reviews of the original edition at

Sunday, September 09, 2018

The Locksmith's Daughter by Karen Brooks, a spy story of Elizabethan London

Australian cover (Harlequin, 2016)
Karen Brooks’ first historical novel, The Brewer’s Tale, charted the travails of a young woman who dared enter a traditional male profession in early 15th-century England, and the repercussions she faced. The Locksmith’s Daughter, the author’s follow-up novel, moves forward a century and a half to Elizabethan times. It follows the intrigue-filled life of Mallory Bright, another talented woman who finds herself in a profession reserved for men. Her role is more covert than that of Brooks’ earlier heroine, Anneke Sheldrake, but it proves to be equally treacherous.

The setting is 1580s London, which Brooks richly evokes through her descriptions of clothing and architecture as well as the characters’ period vocabulary. There are many phrases recognizable from Shakespeare (“Go to,” for instance) and others compelling enough to invite re-use today (“cupshotten,” meaning drunk).

The taut political intrigue of the times is ever-present, too. The religious tolerance of Queen Elizabeth’s earlier reign, her statement against making “windows into men’s souls,” has begun to evaporate in the face of Catholic threats against her realm. No one pursues these perceived traitors as fervently as Sir Francis Walsingham, Her Majesty’s principal secretary and spymaster.

Mallory gets drawn into Walsingham’s network because of a scandal in her recent past. Having just returned to her father’s home after a traumatic would-be elopement, Mallory pretends to be a widow to avoid public rebuke. (On this note, it’s curious to hear others call her “Mistress Mallory” rather than her supposed married name.) Although she was given a good education and learned lock-picking at her father’s knee, her unfortunate romantic decision means she’s now a burden and embarrassment to her parents. Only Caleb, an actor who lodges with their family, seems supportive and understanding.

US Cover (Morrow, 2018)
When her father’s old friend Walsingham comes to test her skills and offers her an opportunity to work for him secretly, she knows it’s the only way forward for her future. Brooks makes Mallory’s circumstances relatable; at first, she soaks up Walsingham’s praise for her accomplishments. However, when she sees Catholics rounded up for doing nothing more than worshipping differently, and the impact later hits far closer to home, she develops ambivalence and then doubt about her role.

As the mysteries from Mallory’s past are slowly revealed, the plot spins into a propulsive, sometimes over-the-top thriller that moves from Walsingham’s lair on Seething Lane (a great and historically accurate name) to the grim Tower of London, and into the company of a lanky nobleman who sailed with Francis Drake and has his own demons to fight. The book’s length may seem intimidating, but it moves fast. It conveys an overall message of tolerance while maintaining the atmosphere of multi-cultural Tudor London and providing a mini-lesson on the intricate art of lock-picking.

The Locksmith's Daughter was recently published in the US by Morrow, but was previously published in the author's home country of Australia by Harlequin (who had provided me access via NetGalley in 2016; my apologies for the delayed appearance of this review).

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Signe Pike's The Lost Queen, about an early British queen and the Arthurian legends

Pike bases her engrossing debut on recent research into the Arthurian legends’ possible Scottish origins. Fiery-haired, strong-willed Languoreth, daughter of King Morken of Goddeu, adores the wild places and pagan rituals at her home at Cadzow Fortress in Strathclyde. However, she resents that her destiny lies in an advantageous marriage rather than training to become a Wisdom Keeper (druid) like her twin brother, Lailoken.

Her story, beginning at age 10, has a slow but compelling build. As she grows into adolescence, danger threatens her livelihood from different sides: the invading Anglo-Saxons are attacking villages, while Christianity’s influence is increasing. Although reluctantly agreeing to wed Rhydderch, the tyrannical High King’s son, Languoreth’s heart remains with the warrior Maelgwn.

Pike’s narrative blends court intrigue, romantic interludes, and gritty violence into a literary brew worth savoring to the dramatic finale. The elements of Celtic mysticism will appeal to fantasy fans looking for a Mists of Avalon–type experience, while the setting remains grounded in sixth-century Scotland’s political realities. Enthusiastically recommended for readers of female-centered historical sagas and those enamored of Arthurian tales.

The Lost Queen, first in a trilogy, was published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster this week.  I read it in June, and the review appeared in August's issue of Booklist.

Monday, September 03, 2018

Il Viaggio: What Inspired My Journey to Write Claire’s Last Secret, a guest post by Marty Ambrose

In today's guest post, Marty Ambrose writes about the background to her new historical mystery, which centers on the "haunted summer" of 1816 – when a group of young people gathered in a large villa by Lake Geneva, creativity was sparked, and considerable drama ensued.  Read on for her account of the circumstances inspiring Claire's Last Secret.


Il Viaggio: What Inspired My Journey to Write Claire’s Last Secret
Marty Ambrose

Byron once said, “I awoke to find myself famous.” – Truly, it is every writer’s dream to be thrust into a world of sudden, unfolding adoration for one’s work. But the inspiration for Claire’s Last Secret was more of a nightmare: I “awoke” during my summer teaching hiatus to find myself with a back injury that left me practically housebound on an island, in between writing projects, and feeling like the world was passing me by.

Even though my husband was my rock, I felt isolated. People get busy. Time moves on. But I was waiting, not sure what was going to happen next. I watched a lot of the History Channel. I texted friends. I binge watched Netflix (loved “Shetland”!). And I read. New books. Old books. Classic books. Whatever books. And, slowly, in spite of the future’s uncertainty, I came to appreciate that I had given the gift of stepping out of life for a while and could just let my imagination run free.

Much of my life, I’ve been a scholar of the Byron/Shelley circle and had a stack of unread books about them piling up in my home office. I happened to pick up Daisy Hay’s volume, The Young Romantics, and learned that she had found a fragment of Claire Clairmont’s (Mary Shelley’s stepsister) journal, saying that the famous Byron/Shelley summer of “free love” in 1816 had created a “perfect hell” for her. Of course, Claire wrote those words when she was almost eighty (something that I was surprised to learn), impoverished, and living in Florence, Italy, having outlived the two great poets and Mary by many decades. Intrigued, I wondered what it would feel like to outlive everyone who had been part of one’s youth. As the lone remaining figure of that famous quartet, she’d been left behind.

In that moment, I bonded with Claire and decided to tell her story with the “voice,” that had not been heard yet, but as a fictional memoir.

As I delved into Claire’s life, pieces came together in my thoughts: her illicit love for Byron, her roller-coaster relationship with Mary and Shelley, and her later years in Italy—and I knew I had to tell her story from two perspectives: the young, reckless Claire and the older-but-wiser Claire. We see her at two stages in her life: when she’s seventeen during the summer of 1816 and when she’s 75, living in Italy as an expatriate. This was quite a challenge for me as a writer because her “young” voice is very different from her “mature” voice; she’s an older and wiser woman in much of the book, but still so influenced by what happened to her in her younger days. Then, there was the mystery of her lost daughter with Byron. Her lovers. Her passion for life. It all coalesced into the kind of genre-bending novel that I’ve always wanted to create. Even with my background in the Romantics, I had to complete a lot more research on Claire, pouring over biographies and savoring her marvelously witty letters. She was a remarkable, but rather elusive person as the “almost famous” member of the group, and I found she inspired me with her independent spirit.

As I wrote the book, I healed after successful back surgery, wrote a grant, and had the amazing opportunity to travel to Geneva and Florence with my hubby to research the book. I awoke to find myself with a new life. Like Claire, I had the chance to see Europe with fresh eyes—in my case as an author moving in a new creative direction with my historical fiction. I saw Castle Chillon on Lake Geneva and walked in the steps of the greatness that passed there before me. I saw Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein manuscript (with Percy’s notes) at the Bodmer Museum. I wandered in the Boboli Gardens in Florence, Italy, and imagined Claire’s final years, looking back but still believing in the future.

What began as a challenging physical injury eventually became my own summer of “awakening” into an entirely new life that inspires me each day: every writer’s dream, indeed.


Marty Ambrose has been a writer most of her life, consumed with the world of literature whether teaching English at Florida Southwestern State College or creating her own fiction. Her writing career has spanned almost fifteen years, with eight published novels for Avalon Books, Kensington Books, Thomas & Mercer—and, now, Severn House.

Two years ago, Marty had the opportunity to apply for a grant that took her to Geneva and Florence to research a new creative direction that builds on her interest in the Romantic poets: historical fiction. Her new book, Claire’s Last Secret, combines memoir and mystery in a genre-bending narrative of the Byron/Shelley “haunted summer,” with Claire Clairmont, as the protagonist/sleuth—the “almost famous” member of the group. The novel spans two eras played out against the backdrop of nineteenth-century Italy and is the first of a trilogy.

Marty lives on an island in Southwest Florida with her husband, former news-anchor, Jim McLaughlin. They are planning a three-week trip to Italy this fall to attend a book festival and research the second book, A Shadowed Fate.

Saturday, September 01, 2018

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah Bird, a novel about the only female Buffalo Soldier

Many historical novels celebrate strong women whose accomplishments went unheralded in their time. Cathy Williams, the first black woman to serve in the U.S. Army, is a prime example.

Bird’s (Above the East China Sea, 2014) fictionalized version of her life begins in 1864, when Yankee general Philip Sheridan burns the Missouri plantation where she is enslaved and takes her as “contraband” to become his cook’s assistant. Cathy is proud of her illustrious African heritage, and her witty voice and down-to-earth honesty enliven her lengthy tale.

After Appomattox, declining a traditional feminine role, she dresses as a man and enlists as “William Cathay.” Bird’s meaty epic provides abundant, intimate details about Cathy’s life as a Buffalo Soldier: her patrols on the western frontier; the racism of her unit’s white commanding officer; and the harassment she endures from her fellow soldiers, who find her self-protective modesty unnatural. She’s also secretly attracted to her fair-minded sergeant.

“If you don’t push, you never move ahead,” she notes, determining never to be unfree again. An admiring novel about a groundbreaking, mentally tough woman.

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen will be published next week by St. Martin's Press; I wrote this review for Booklist's August issue.  Read more about Cathy (sometimes also called Cathay) Williams at the National Park Service website, though be alert to possible spoilers about the basic outline of her life and service.