Friday, October 25, 2013

Weekend reads and going silent...

Apologies to all for the lack of interaction -- my sabbatical started last week and it was a bit hectic leading up to it!

I was in a wedding last weekend (congrats Tracy and Matt!) and I spent most of this week doing errands in anticipation of leaving!

Tomorrow my wife and I drive about two hours northwest to the small Berkshire-ish town where I'll be living for five weeks.  (This will be the longest stretch in almost a decade that I'll be living alone!)  I'm excited and a bit anxious (will I get work done? will it suck the worst? will I be lonely and waste time on Facebook? etc.) but really eager to practice some intentional quiet time -- and of course, get novel writing. 

My weekend reads are, needless to say, a bit in flux.  I'll be doing more research reading but will settle down with Avery Hays' The Sixth when I need something not related to 1850s Kansas.

I owe many comments and emails and I'm sorry again for being so inconsistent -- once I'm settled, I'll have a schedule of being online and will get back to folks.  I plan to share reviews for the next few weeks as well -- I'm sure I'll be looking for reasons to avoid writing! --  and I'll be checking and commenting on blogs as well.

What are you reading this weekend?

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Interview with Deborah Swift

Yesterday I reviewed Deborah Swift's rich novel of early 17th century Spain, A Divided Inheritance. I'm delighted to share this interview with Ms. Swift, who talks in wonderful detail about this book, her writing process, and what she's reading.  Be sure to enter the international giveaway for a copy of A Divided Inheritance!

Was A Divided Inheritance the original title of your book?

No. Apparently it is very common for titles to be changed by publishers. The original title was The Swordmistress of Seville. The publishers felt that a reference to swords positioned the book either as a man’s book or as a fantasy, so we worked together to come up with another title and A Divided Inheritance was the result. There is a strong male character in the book as well as a strong female character so actually, I wouldn’t mind a few more male readers! I had originally been wary of anything with ‘inheritance’ in the title, although it was an obvious choice given what happens in the novel, because I didn’t want the book confused with A Dangerous Inheritance by Alison Weir. But I do think A Divided Inheritance works very well for the book, so I’m happy with it, even though it is a more static title than my original one. I have to say, publishers often know their markets and readers’ tastes better than the writer does. After all, Gone with the Wind was originally titled ‘Mules in Horses’ Harness.’

As you were writing A Divided Inheritance, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

I think all my characters surprised me at one time or another! I was surprised by the vigour of some of my ‘bit part’ characters. Often when writing, I am so concerned with the journeys of my main characters, that the minor ones can be a breath of fresh air and a delight. The reader too gets a break from the intensity of the main character’s experience. A Divided Inheritance is an epic book with action straddling England and Spain, so it covers a lot of ground - Elspet Leviston has to travel from staid Jacobean London to Golden Age Seville. So I loved writing the scene where the young King Phillip III of Spain bullies his priest, (I don’t usually write Kings or royalty, so I was surprised how much I enjoyed that) and I loved writing all the male characters training at the Spanish sword school, not to mention the handsome Senor Alvarez. I also got very fond of Husain, the little Morisco boy who wants to learn to fight like the men. He turned out to be awkward and badly-behaved at the worst possible time, just like real kids are!

The tagline on your website is 'History is full of ordinary people with extraordinary stories'. Where do you find these extraordinary stories?

It’s a bit of a mystery to me too! It’s usually a snippet or thread I have read somewhere. I came across a picture in a book of two men fighting with rapiers on a strange grid-like pattern. The book was actually about the Golden Section, but these men were dressed in late Elizabethan or Early Stuart costume and the marking on the floor looked like a magical diagram. My interest piqued, I looked up in the back of the book where the illustration was from and discovered it was from a book called 'Academy of the Sword', a 1630 manual of fencing from that era that was still in print. So I got hold of the manual to find their training method was unique and quite extraordinary.

I had originally thought of doing something set around the Gunpowder Plot in London, with a lace-trader’s daughter. I was still fascinated by the fact that so many women were employed in the lace industry in the 17th century, yet it was completely controlled by men, who had no idea of fashion or interest in women’s clothing. Somehow the two stories wouldn’t let go, and I wove them together through an inheritance. It was only once I’d started researching that I found the real crux of the book, the forced expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain, which only Elspet who had lost everything in a botched inheritance, could understand.

One of the elements I'm most struck by in your books is the wonderful sense of place you evoke -- how do you do it?

That’s a lovely compliment! I think it is because as a writer I need to be anchored in the setting before my characters can feel real. For historical fiction the sensation of being there comes through describing equally the things that are the same as today and the things that are different. You need both to make it live in the reader’s mind – for example the sound of rain on roofs, which we all know the sound of, put together with slippery cobbles which we may not have any experience of but can imagine. I worked as a set designer for many years in theatre and TV so for me the background is not just background, but something that provides the characters with the most opportunities for action. Moving backgrounds are great – disintegrating buildings, people on horseback – if the background can shift or move like a character, so much the better.

In a previous interview with me, you mentioned Taiko Drumming as a hobby. How does music shape the way you write?

I need silence when I’m writing, and my ideal writing environment would be totally silent. (Ha! -I wish!) But I do love music and use it as part of my research to generate a mood or atmosphere. Whilst writing A Divided Inheritance I had to create a scene where the flamenco guitar moves someone to near tears, and another scene where one of the characters dances Flamenco. So I had to listen to a lot of Spanish guitar and Flamenco music to be able to find the right vocabulary to convey the specific flavour of the music. And I love all sorts of music in my leisure time, including the drumming – I have very eclectic tastes!

Read any good books recently?

I was massively impressed by Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens, a historical set in the courts of Louis XIV, and telling the story of Charlotte-Rose de La Force - the woman who first wrote down Rapunzel.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Swift for her thoughtful responses. You can learn more about her and her books at her website, and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of A Divided Inheritance to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 11/8.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A Divided Inheritance by Deborah Swift

Title: A Divided Inheritance
Author: Deborah Swift

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 17th Century / Lace / Swordsmanship / Spain / Expulsion of the Moriscos)
Publisher/Publication Date: Pan MacMillan (10/23/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: In 1609, a young Englishwoman learns of a secret cousin who inherits the family lace business she anticipated running and finds herself following him to Spain.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Eh -- I'm not wild about it.

I'm reminded of...: Lynn Cullen, Sandra Gulland

First line: Magdalena was afraid to sleep in case she did not wake.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy if you enjoy meaty historical novels that don't feature royals,

Why did I get this book?: I loved Swift's previous novel, The Gilded Lily.

Review: This was one of those historical novels that leave you breathless; it's so much more that the blurb suggests. Deborah Swift impressed me with her novel The Gilded Lily -- I loved the setting, the heroine, the evocative articulation of the era -- and in A Divided Inheritance, she does it again.

Set in 1609, the novel follows Elspet Leviston, a young woman with a miserly father who runs a successful lace business. Smart and committed, Elspet hopes to one day continue her father's legacy after she marries, but that dream is derailed when Zachary Deane, a long-lost cousin, suddenly appears. Elspet's father makes it clear Zachary will be heir to the company, despite Zachary's obvious disinterest in the business. Only after Zachary is arrested for fighting -- Elspet's cousin is passionate about swordplay -- does her father decides to send him on a Grand Tour in hopes of educating the young man. But days after Zachary leaves, Elspet's father dies, and she goes after Zachary in hopes of wresting the business from his hands.

In the end, however, this isn't a novel of inheritance rights or family squabbles. Zachary goes to Seville, Spain, studying the art of swordfighting at a Spanish academy, when the edict ordering the expulsion of the Spanish Muslims or moriscos is signed. Bustling, glorious Seville is a cosmopolitan city with a diverse population, and many of Zachary's acquaintances are Muslims or moriscos. Despite his disinterest in getting embroiled in anything outside of his practice with the sword, Zachary finds himself having to act.

While this might sound complicated, Swift conveys the various threads easily and expertly. I'm not a fan of swords or sword-fighting (in most novels, I kind of gloss over the fighting scenes), but Swift manages to articulate the artistry and physicality of every move so that I could see it in my mind's eye.

As with The Gilded Lily, the unfamiliar 17th century comes alive in her prose without being weighted down by the dreaded infodump. I felt immersed. There are wonderful layers to the novel, be it the freedom to worship (Zachary and Elspet are secret Catholics in London, but can worship openly in Spain) or the freedom to pursue one's aspirations, and I found much in the story to relate to even though I've never had the urge to fence.

This was a surprising novel -- the arc of the story is so much greater, more rich, than the blurb allows -- and those who enjoy characters that aren't immediately easy to like will want this one. There's armchair escape to Seville, as well, and action in spades. At nearly 500 pages, this book races every moment, and I couldn't put it down.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Interview with Michelle Diener

I'm delighted to share my third interview with author Michelle Diener. I reviewed her delightful Banquet of Lies yesterday and I'm thrilled she answered my questions about this book and her charming heroine Giselle.  Be sure to enter the giveaway to win a copy of Banquet of Lies!

Was Banquet of Lies the original title of your book?

Yes. For once, the title the book started with was the one it kept. :)

As you were writing Banquet of Lies, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Yes. The character of the Duke of Wittaker. I had a certain character in mind for him, and had him in a couple of scenes that just didn't work. I eventually had to completely re-imagine him and his role, and I think the book was far stronger for that.

Where did the character of Giselle -- Banquet of Lies' chef-slash-spy -- come from?

I've had her in mind since 2005, so a long time. I started the book all those years ago, but I didn't have a strong enough motive for her to go into hiding as a cook. It took a lot of time and thought to come up with the plot I did. My original thought was to write a book about the sexual and gender inequality of the era as personified by the master / servant relationship, and its propensity to abuse. I wanted to twist that around by having the hero acutely aware of the situation, and trying to balance his attraction with his knowledge that he is walking a very fine line. Giselle needed to be a particular kind of person for this to work, and I enjoyed bringing her to life.

You've written about 19th century South Africa, Tudor Europe, and Regency London. Why these eras? Are there any other eras you're tempted to write about?

I love all history. I think there is something unique and interesting about all of the various eras, and I am a bit like a magpie, and get distracted by something shiny and interesting which I stumble across, no matter when it is set. I will definitely be working on something set in the inter-war period, which I really find almost more Machiavellian than the Renaissance period.

Read any good books recently?

I'm reading an excellent research book on the inter-war period now, called Between the Wars 1919-1939: The Cartoonist's Vision by Roy Douglas, which studies the social as well as the political climate between the wars by looking at political cartoons. I'm thoroughly enjoying it.

*** *** ***

My thanks to Ms. Diener for her time and answers.   You can learn more about her and her books by checking out her website, or connecting with her on Facebook and Twitter.


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Banquet of Lies to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 11/8.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Banquet of Lies by Michelle Diener

Title: Banquet of Lies
Author: Michelle Diener

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 19th Century / Espionage / Food & Culinary Arts/
Publisher/Publication Date: Gallery Books (10/22/2013)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Rating: Liked a good deal, if not loved!
Did I finish?: I did, in a day.
One-sentence summary: A young noblewoman disguises herself as a French chef to hide from a murderer and deliver a sensitive political document.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Alas, I don't -- I feel like I'm looking at a Barbie doll or mannequin -- there's something plastic-y about the model. Given the emphasis on food and cooking, it's a shame there isn't a more foodie cover!

I'm reminded of...: Karen Harper, Lauren Willig

First line: "I hear from the Countess de Salisburg that you collect recipes, Miss Barrington?"

Am... I grateful Diener includes recipes for some of the meals she mentions in her book?: YES, especially the unfamiliar Reine Claude jam. (Reine Claudes are also known as greengage plums, apparently, and now I am obsessed with finding one!)

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you love novels with a foodie bent.

Why did I get this book?: I'm in love with Diener's heroines.

Review: Michelle Diener is among my favorite historical novelists. I've read four of her five published novels and just adored them all -- and this one is no exception.

The novel opens in Stockholm, Sweden in February 1812. Giselle 'Gigi' Barrington is at a dinner party, explaining that while her father travels Europe documenting fairy tales and myths, she collects local recipes and, to the horror of the guest she's speaking with, makes them at home. ('With the servants?', gasps the woman.) After confirming she makes them only with her male chef, Gigi excuses herself to find her father -- and stumbles upon him being murdered.

Fleeing Stockholm with an important document, Gigi goes into hiding as a French chef to avoid being captured by her father's murderer. She takes employment with a young Lord, Jonathan Aldridge, a bachelor with a small household who lives near her childhood home. The chance to hide will give her, Gigi hopes, time to decide what to do with her father's secret document.

All this occurs in the first 50 pages; the remaining 300 pages are a mixture of sumptuous meals, amateur espionage, upstairs/downstairs shenanigans, and a little romance. I adored every page of it.

This book, as with Diener's other novels, features a heroine that charmed me from the first page. Competent without feeling anachronistically independent, Gigi is a heroine I loved to follow, and in this book, I was particularly captivated.

The narrative is speedy and warm -- I read this in about one day, unable and unwilling to put it down -- and despite a cast of about six players major players (Gigi, her employer, her downstairs colleagues, visiting nobles) I found it easy to keep track of everyone. Those sensitive to Mary Sue heroines might find Lord Aldridge's fascination with Gigi to be tiresome, but as I was equally enamored of her, it didn't bother me. I liked the romantic tension between them: they were technically peers but publicly of different classes.

Speaking of class, Diener manages that skillful balance of providing an entertaining story with an awareness of the social and cultural norms that shape and affect the story. As a woman of class and means, Gigi shouldn't be in her kitchen -- that's a job for the servants -- but it becomes a kind of twee game in the eyes of the ton if Gigi works with her male chef in recreating foreign recipes. That juxtaposition -- cooking as an art versus cooking as a kind of labor -- intrigued me and fans of cooking television will particularly enjoy this novel for that awareness.

Those who love Napoleonic-era romantic spy stories (I'm thinking Lauren Willig) will want to get this book as well as anyone who enjoys a good foodie novel. (Diener shares a number of the recipes from the novel, thankfully!) While there are some characters from The Emperor’s Conspiracy in this novel, it is in no way a sequel, and I enjoyed it without having read The Emperor’s Conspiracy. If you're new to Diener, get this book; if you're familiar with her, definitely pick this one up!

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Banquet of Lies to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US readers only, ends 11/8.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Cars and Girls

Title: Cars and Girls
Author: Pankhearst Writers Collection (Madeline Harvey, Evangeline Jennings, Zoë Spencer,Tee Tyson)

Genre: Fiction (Short Stories / Contemporary / Noir / Southern US / Midwest US / Crime / Murder / Motherhood)
Publisher/Publication Date: Pankhearst (5/24/2013)
Source: The publisher

Rating: Looooooooooooooooooooved. A favorite of 2013.
Did I finish?: Oh hell yes.
One-sentence summary: Four dark, devastating stories of bad ass women, their bad ass cars, and their bad ass problem solving skills.
Reading Challenges: E-book

Do I like the cover?: Love it. It is exactly what I want for this volume and could be any one of the heroines.

First line: Today is the day I get my freedom., from 'Road Runner'

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Buy, buy, buy (currently $3.99 for an ebook) if you like bad ass women, fast cars, over-the-top action films with seriously messed up settings.

Why did I get this book?: I love noir and I especially love women in noir.

Review: I don't even know where to start with this review other than to say I loved every word of this book.

This volume of four brutal short stories depict a wide range of heroines: a monied Brit finishing off a deranged family acquaintance; a Nebraskan ex-con with a seriously effed up childhood and an equally serious grudge; an Arkansas waitress determined to protect her sister from the violence of the local boys; and a Southern hitwoman on the run with a minxy Miami bombshell.

I can't recall reading a book with this level of twisted moodiness, unabashed violence, and evocative ambiance featuring dangerous heroines in the lead (usually it's men who get this kind of fun!).  Megan Abbott comes close, but I find her fiction is more homage-y of classic pulp and noir, while this collection leans toward Drive and Quentin Tarantino's films.

Each story has a different flavor, but the writing is fast, punchy, gritty, wild.  The reader is immediately plunged into the action, no preamble, and I was literally breathless at the end of each story. The book is full of fabulous lines, evocative and pretty and wrong -- Crossing the lobby, heels clicking against the tiles like an angry Geiger counter, something out of place catches my eyes. (from 'Crown Victoria' by Evangeline Jennings, p131) -- and despite their violence, I loved every single one of our heroines.  (But I'm a sucker for a good anti-hero.)

Highly, highly recommended -- this is a favorite of 2013 -- this book is great for dirty, diverting evenings or weekends. If you like gritty, gruesome, and gorgeous, get this collection. Pankearst is new to me but I'm hooked; there's a sequel to this volume in the works and I can.not.wait.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Interview with Mary Sharratt

Last year I read Mary Sharratt's exceptional novel, Illuminations. Set in 12th century Germany, it's a stunning, devastating, and mesmerizing account of Hildegard von Bingen, one of the Catholic Church's most dynamic visionaries. I'm thrilled to share my interview with Ms. Sharratt, so read on to learn more about her book, her writing, and what she does when she's not writing.  Be sure to enter the international giveaway to win a copy!

What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

As a very young child I wrote stories about horses and my best friend and the adventures we had together. I one of the more memorable plots, there was only one horse to ride so my poor friend was stuck riding a cow and hanging on to its horns!

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

I love to shut out the world for a few hours, play classical music, switch off the phone and email, and just be with my manuscript. Pure bliss!

Was Illuminations the original title of your book?

Yes, Illuminations was the original title because I think it works on so many levels. There were the illuminations made under Hildegard’s artistic directions during her own lifetime to illustrate her profound visions. Then there’s the actual divine illumination she experienced during her visions. She referred to God as the Living Light.

For me as an author, writing about Hildegard has been a deep process of inner illumination, as I followed her journey from utter darkness and subjugation as a child anchorite to the blinding light of her visionary experiences and the light she gave to the world as a healer, composer, theologian, reformer, and polymath. She opened up an illuminating path that continues to inspire people from all spiritual and religious traditions, especially women.

As you were writing Illuminations, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

The very complex bond Hildegard shared with her protégée and right-hand woman Richardis von Stade and with Richardis’s very powerful and wealthy mother surprised me. Without these women’s support, we might not be talking about Hildegard today.

According to your bio, you lived for twelve years in Germany. How did place influence this book?

Hildegard has long been a cultural icon in Germany and not just for religious people, but for feminists, medievalists, natural health enthusiasts, and lovers of ancient music. Her influence runs there runs deep. Naturopathic doctors practice “Hildegard Medicine” based on her healing principles and there are even Hildegard cookbooks. While teaching in Austria at a school run by Ursuline nuns, I worked under a headmistress named Sister Hildegard who was as broadminded and intelligent as her saintly namesake.

While writing the book, I revisited all the Hildegard sites around Bingen and Disibodenberg. Just being in that lush, green, fertile landscape brings Hildegard’s vision of Viriditas, of the sacred greening power manifest in the natural world, to vivid life.

The nuns at St. Hildegard’s Abbey keep her traditions alive today.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I love to travel and to ride my beautiful Welsh mare who has many strong opinions about all kinds of things.

Read any good books recently?

I just started Nancy Bilyeau’s marvelous book, The Crown, about a Dominican nun in Tudor England.

*** *** ***


I'm thrilled to offer one paperback copy of Illuminations to a lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers, ends 11/1.

Be sure to check out the other blogs on the tour for more opportunities to win a copy!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Mailbox Monday, October 14

It appears I haven't done a Mailbox Monday since August!  The host for October is Gina @ Book Dragon's Lair.

So here's the massive haul so far! To learn about any book, click the cover -- it'll open to the GoodReads page in a new tab/window.

What did you get this week?

For Review

Book cover: The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure book cover: while beauty slept by elizabeth blackwell

book title: The art of getting started by Lee crutchly book cover: isabella by colin falconer

book cover: to the letter by simon garfield Book cover: Marching to Zion by Mary Glickman

book cover: electra by kerry greenwood Book cover: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

book cover: the hunter and other stories by dashiell hammett Book cover: The spirit keeper by K.B. Laugheed

book cover: prisoner of the riviera by janice law book cover: madam by cari lynn

book cover: the ghost of mary celeste by valerie martin book cover: I shall be near to you by erin lindsay mccabe

Book cover: In Pursuit by Sharman Burson Ramsey book cover: the harem midwife by roberta rich

book view: writers between the covers by shannon mckenna shmidt and joni rendon book cover: the poisoned island by lloyd shepherd

book cover: a little history of literature by john sutherland Book cover: A Divided Inheritance by Deborah Swift

Book cover: I Kiss Your Hands Many Times by Marianne Szegedy-Maszak book cover: the harlot's tale by sam thomas

book cover: bella wallis by brian thompson book cover: becoming josephine by heather webb

Book cover: Mother of Rain by Karen Spears Zacharias


book cover: a tale without a name by penelope s. delta book cover: letters to isabella stewart gardner by henry james

book cover: I was jack mortimer by alexander lernet-holenia book cover: the necklace by guy de maupssant; the pearls by isak dinesen

book cover: love in a bottle by antal szerb

Thanks to Pushkin Press


book cover: india black in the city of light by carol k. carr

Yay, a new India Black short!

Book cover: Contagious by Jonah Berger book cover: elite by mark w. harris

Book cover: The passion conversation

Some books for work. Yay!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Read-a-Thon: Hours 1 through 3 plus spine poetry!

 So far, I've 'finished' only one book, and I suppose it's a bit of a cheat: my wife has been reading Pride and Prejudice aloud to me for the last month, and so we spent this morning finishing it.  She read, and I noshed on nutella waffles and sipped coffee.  Quite the lady of leisure!

Now my wife is off doing some home-y chores and I'm feeling a tad bit guilty.  So I'm dithering a bit -- doing a few read-a-thon challenges -- before I settle down to some more reading.

To the right is my contribution to the Spine Poetry mini-challenge.  

For those of you participating in Read-a-Thon, what are you reading?  I'm going to do my second 'cheat' and finish up yesterday's read, Cars and Girls, and then pick up something new.