Saturday, October 29, 2016


Belatedly...a giveaway winner announcement!

The winner of Dido's Crown is ... Ulrika F.!

Congrats! There are no more giveaways at the moment, but a few more coming up in the next few weeks!

Friday, October 28, 2016

Weekend reads and recovering slowly

We have been a plague house for weeks, and I'm finally feeling human again (ish -- I've got a kidney infection so I'm miserable in a different way!). Sadly, Unabridged Toddler has gotten the virus, so I anticipate lots of cuddling and kids books in my future.

I'm working my way through Jessa Crispin's essay-ish memoir-ish book, The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries. It's a little bit like a blog or diary, with lots of bookish nerdiness and crazy international travel. Lots of vicarious living for me. Stalled out on my fiction reading: my work book club selected a book I've already read, and I'm not just hooked by any of the ARCs floating around me.

What are you reading this weekend?

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Interview with the authors of A Song of War

The historical author collaborative called the H Team released their newest, A Song of War, a fantastically emotional, violent, and human look at the Trojan War. (My review!) I'm delighted to share my interview with authors Christian Cameron, Libbie Hawker, Kate Quinn, Vicky Alvear Shecter, Stephanie Thornton, SJA Turney, and Russell Whitfield. (You'll never guess what the working title of this book was!) And be sure to check out some of the other blogs on the tour for a giveaway!

How did you all decide which characters/POVs to write? Did any of you end up swapping or changing?

Simon: That seemed to just kind of fall into place. I think that everyone who joined the project already had either a specific character or event they wanted to cover. I know for me as a mainly Roman writer, Aeneas was an obvious choice.

Christian: I always wanted to write Achilles. I think I begged. I hope I wasn't too effusive. :) But as I looked at the project, and thought about how much and how often war is romanticized, I realized I wanted to show war from an outsider's eyes. I think Briseis usually gets short shrift in faction, and I've always loved the legend on the isle of Lesvos that Sappho was descended from Briseis.

Stephanie: I briefly considered writing from the point of view of Polyxena, one of Priam’s youngest children, but then I saw Cassandra’s name on the list. I was a little intimidated because I knew exactly how I wanted to portray the famous seer, but wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge. She’s definitely the most unique narrator I’ve ever written!

Kate: The Iliad’s cast is so huge, there were more than enough characters to pick from. We all beelined for our favorites, and since everyone had different favorites, we never really had to arm-wrestle. I wanted Andromache from the start because she’s always been my favorite survivor of the Trojan War . . . and Hellenus because he could be an Everyman in this cast of mighty heroes.

Vicky: There was a bit of adjustment on my end. I originally wanted to write Patroklus and Achilles but Chris Cameron had a vision for tackling it, so we did a little maneuvering. It was a good thing too, because Chris’s retelling is brilliant in so many ways. Russell wanted Agamemnon and by the time the dust cleared, Odysseus was really the only one left for me. It was a good thing I didn’t stop to think it because I probably would have been too intimidated to volunteer to write him otherwise. But everyone’s fresh and exciting characterizations really helped as.

Did anyone use food, music, scents, or that kind of thing to evoke the mood as they wrote?

Libbie: I always like to use as many sensory experiences as I can in all my writing. I find it’s the best way to draw readers into the scene, the action, and into the POV character himself/herself.

Simon: I always write to music, and have a very eclectic taste. For scenes of epic bloodletting little for me beats crashing Scandinavian metal, while for quiet, thoughtful, introspective moments, Pink Floyd is my go to band. Good job I never added AC/DC’s ‘Big Balls’ to my playlist, or "A Song of War" could have been a very different book.

Christian: I always write to music; in this case, to the soundtrack from 'La Grande Balletza'. And I'm a method writer; I eat the food and try and do some of the things... never driven a chariot, though, but I have driven some carts :)

Stephanie: For a while I was contemplating some hands-on research regarding how to best preserve eyeballs, which really would have been a mood-setter. Fortunately for my husband and daughter, I decided to forego all that in lieu of some online research that’s probably landed me on every government watch list I wasn’t already on.

Kate: I did listen to the “Troy” soundtrack, just for kicks. Skipping the Josh Groban pop song stuck on the end, which I think of as Homer vs. American Idol (Homer lost).

Russ: I have a massive collection of film soundtracks and these are required listening for anything that I write. I’ve actually got a bootleg copy of the rejected “Troy” soundtrack which I think is miles better than the one they used in the end. Aside from that, there’s one I kept listening to for Agamemnon’s melancholic bits; “Host of Seraphim” by “Dead Can Dance” – it’s a really haunting piece of music. I’m not sure that anyone used food for inspiration, but I have it on good authority that everyone ended up drinking vast quantities of wine.

Was anyone surprised by something--a character’s response, a scene, etc.--as they were writing?

Simon: Like the group in general, I wanted to portray what has come down to us as a fantastic, legendary tale in explicable, realistic terms. I expected to struggle a great deal with doing that to Aeneas’ tale, given how often he encounters Gods, magic and ghosts. What really surprised me in my tale was how seamlessly and easily all the weirdness of epic Greece can be otherwise explained if you slip into the mindset of the character. Oh, and Christian Cameron, who is quite the most knowledgeable man I’ve ever met when it comes to Greece, surprised me several times with fascinating and obscure tidbits of history.

Vicky: Researching Odysseus, I was shocked to discover that the ancients were really ambivalent about him! There were many ancient observers who disliked his penchant for trickery and outsmarting the competition rather than outfighting them. Then I discovered that Homer often paired Diomedes and Odysseus together and that Diomedes often got the credit for their joint successes. It helped me understand Odysseus’ frustration at being both relied upon to come up with creative solutions, while also being disparaged for them.

Russ: Chris Cameron threw me a curveball when he did his story from Bresies’s point of view and not Achilles himself. I loved how she saw Achilles and the little character tics he gave this great warrior (the laugh in particular). For my part, I have to say that Agamemnon was really tough at first because he’s portrayed in virtually every telling of the tale as a colossal tool. To be fair, he’s a colossal tool in my story too, but I really wanted to find the thing that made him tic – I mean, no one ever gets up in the morning plotting how evil they can be for the sake of it. For me it was all about how he (as he sees it) was forced to sacrifice the daughter he loved coupled with endless, grinding, grubby siege where all their notions of honour go out the window. Achilles is a pain in his arse – I imagined that this would be kind of like an elite special forces operator trying tell a 5 star general how to run the war. It’s not like Agamemnon can stand up to Achilles in a fight, but he believes Achilles has no grasp of grand strategy. Trouble is… grand strategy is intensely boring to bronze age superheroes who just want to go out, slay and come back with loads of booty in time for wine, singing and bragging about how great they are.

Christian: I was surprised by the intensity of my Briseis's contempt for the war she was watching. I'm a boy's own writer! Is this what I really think about war? I remember a friend's mum when I was kid; an African American lady who had marched with Rev Martin Luther King in Selma. She was watching two southern universities play football on TV. Her daughter asked who was winning. 'I hope they both lose,' she replied. It was the tone of her contempt that stung me, and informed me; that gave me the tone for Briseis, I think... but I was still surprised.

Any hilarious bloopers that can be shared?

Libbie: Before we settled on an official title, we were using the working title “Commando Sex Raid.” We operated under that title for quite some time, so we were shooting serious notes and conversations back and forth to each other, all with “Commando Sex Raid” in the subject lines of our emails. I really hope nobody was out writing in a coffee shop or a similar public place, because the risk of an innocent bystander peeking over your shoulder and seeing you busily typing away in an email chain with THAT in the subject line is too mortifying to contemplate.

Vicky: I don’t know that there were bloopers per se, but I personally enjoyed the detailed conversations about the viscosity issues involved in the difficulties of preserving an eyeball!

Russ: None of us apart from Chris could spell “Phthia.”

Kate: Nope. I was reduced at one point to writing "Phthoweveryouf*ckingspellit."

Christian: I'll just limit myself to the 'Commando Sex Raid' note above. Splorted some coffee in context.

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My thanks to the members of the H Team for their thoughtful answers. Learn more about them:

CHRISTIAN CAMERON was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1962. He grew up in Rockport, Massachusetts, Iowa City, Iowa,Christian Cameron and Rochester, New York, where he attended McQuaid Jesuit High School and later graduated from the University of Rochester with a degree in history. After the longest undergraduate degree on record (1980-87), he joined the United States Navy, where he served as an intelligence officer and as a backseater in S-3 Vikings in the First Gulf War, in Somalia, and elsewhere. After a dozen years of service, he became a full time writer in 2000. He lives in Toronto (that’s Ontario, in Canada) with his wife Sarah and their daughter Beatrice, currently age four. And a half.

LIBBIE HAWKER was born in Rexburg, Idaho and divided her childhood between Eastern Idaho’s rural environs and the greater Seattle area. She presently lives in Seattle, but has also been a resident of Salt Lake City, Utah; Bellingham, Washington; and Tacoma, Washington. She loves to write about character and place, and is inspired by the bleak natural beauty of the Rocky Mountain region and by the fascinating history of the Puget Sound. After three years of trying to break into the publishing industry with her various books under two different pen names, Libbie finally turned her back on the mainstream publishing industry and embraced independent publishing. She now writes her self-published fiction full-time, and enjoys the fact that the writing career she always dreamed of having is fully under her own control.

KATE QUINN is a native of southern California. She attended Boston University, where she earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Classical Voice. A lifelong history buff, she has written four novels in the Empress of Rome Saga, and two books in the Italian Renaissance detailing the early years of the infamous Borgia clan. All have been translated into multiple languages. Kate has succumbed to the blogging bug, and keeps a blog filled with trivia, pet peeves, and interesting facts about historical fiction. She and her husband now live in Maryland with two black dogs named Caesar and Calpurnia, and her interests include opera, action movies, cooking, and the Boston Red Sox.

VICKY ALVEAR SHECTER is the author of the young adult novel, Cleopatra’s Moon (Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2011), based on the life of Cleopatra’s only daughter. She is also the author of two award-winning biographies for kids on Alexander the Great and Cleopatra. She is a docent at the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Antiquities at Emory University in Atlanta. The LA Times calls Cleopatra’s Moon, “magical” and “impressive.” Publisher’s Weekly said it was “fascinating” and “highly memorable.” The Wall Street Journal called it “absorbing.”

STEPHANIE THORNTON is a writer and history teacher who has been obsessed with infamous women from ancient history since she was twelve. She lives with her husband and daughter in Alaska, where she is at work on her next novel. Her novels, The Secret History: A Novel of Empress Theodora, Daughter of the Gods: A Novel of Ancient Egypt, The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan, and The Conqueror’s Wife: A Novel of Alexander the Great, tell the stories of history’s forgotten women.

SJA TURNEY lives with his wife, son and daughter, and two (close approximations of) dogs in rural North Yorkshire. Marius’ Mules was his first full length novel. Being a fan of Roman history, SJA decided to combine his love of writing and love of the classical world. Marius’ Mules was followed two years later by Interregnum – an attempt to create a new fantasy story still with a heavy flavour of Rome.These have been followed by numerous sequels, with three books in the fantasy ‘Tales of the Empire’ series and five in the bestselling ‘Marius’ Mules’ one. 2013 has seen the first book in a 15th century trilogy – ‘The Thief’s Tale’ – and will also witness several side projects seeing the light of day.

RUSSELL WHITFIELD was born in Shepherds Bush in 1971. An only child, he was raised in Hounslow, West London, but has since escaped to Ham in Surrey. Gladiatrix was Russ’s first novel, published in 2008 by Myrmidon Books. The sequel, Roma Victrix, continues the adventures Lysandra, the Spartan gladiatrix, and a third book, Imperatrix, sees Lysandra stepping out of the arena and onto the field of battle.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Book Review: A Song of War by Various

Title: A Song of War
Author: Christian Cameron, Libbie Hawker, Kate Quinn, Vicky Alvear Shecter, Stephanie Thornton, SJA Turney, and Russell Whitfield

First line: Shall I sing to you of Troy?

Review: It is no secret that I'm a huge fan of the writing collective known as the H Team -- a group of authors who have produced three collaborative historical novels, the first being A Day of Fire and the second being A Year of Ravens. This offering is their third, and it's their meatiest, bloodiest, and most emotional yet.

The fall of Troy takes place over a decade, and the authors of this collection manage to cover the scope of the conflict without losing tension and drama. They took a story that I always perceived as being rather male-heavy, combat-heavy, and honor-heavy, and presented it as a deeply emotional, psychological, and human tale, one told through the viewpoints of five men and four women, and I was really moved and surprised as I read.

In their telling, the collective decided to forgo the mythic, god-meddling basis for the conflict, and so everything that unfolds is due to human foible and folly: greed, envy, pride, selfishness, a mistaken sense of honor. Helen ends up their villain -- tough, calculating, determined to be free -- and even when she's unrepentant, I couldn't help but like her. (She is one of the many figures who isn't presented with her own POV piece, which I actually enjoyed. We none of us get to find out just what exactly she thinks and feels. Is she a monster? A tragic figure? Both!)

The inimitable Kate Quinn opens the collection beautifully, not only setting the stage for this horrific conflict, but introducing many of the key players through the eyes of her narrators, Trojans Andromache and Hellenus. To my delight, Quinn and co-author Stephanie Thornton, who pens Cassandra's chapter, decided to cast twins Cassandra and Hellenus as biracial, a small tweak I found very meaningful and greatly appreciated.

Cassandra has always been a favorite of mine, and I loved Thornton's take on the frustrated prophetess, a woman driven to madness when everyone ignores her.

Russell Whitfield's offering, from Agamemnon's point of view, lingers with me still as a particularly poignant and imaginative piece. Ostensibly a villain, Whitfield rather successful evoked in me some empathy and pity for the beleaguered king, and offered a humanizing look at why these warriors still pursued this seemingly futile war.

Christian Cameron and Libbie Hawker both presented female warriors in their pieces -- Cameron with Briseis, Achilles' war prize taken by Agamemnon; and Hawker with Penthislea, the Amazon warrior who captures Achilles' heart. I confess I'm one to gloss over fight scenes, but Cameron's chariot scene is so cinematic, it's breathtaking. In both cases, I was grateful to see women as soldiers in ways that felt authentic rather than intrusive or anachronistic.

Hawker also imagines Philoctetes, owner of Hercules' bow and Paris' killer, as a gay man, and in her author's note she writes about how important it was for her to present a gay character as a hero. This small change, like that of Hellenus and Cassandra, hardly alters the original story yet makes the reading of it so much more rich and interesting.

Odysseus -- who I suspect will be a fan favorite -- is charming throughout the entire book, and Vicky Alvear Shecter's chapter from his point of view is bitterly funny and achingly sad, and it sets up the tragic conclusion, written by SJA Turney, beautifully. Turney, and by extension his Aeneas, have the unenviable task of wrapping up all these disparate threads, and noble Aeneas proves perfect for the task.

Another knockout read, one that is more battle-oriented than I am normally drawn to, but stuffed full of delicious emotional drama and angst. I didn't want to linger with the conflict anymore, and yet I still felt intense loss leaving everyone, a credit to the authors for creating such wonderful, evocative figures.

Genre: Fiction (Historical / Ancient Era / Iliad / Trojan War / Turkey / Greece)
Publisher/Publication Date: Knight Media, LLC (10/18/16)
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

Monday, October 10, 2016

Author Interview: Julie K. Rose

Last week I reviewed Julie K. Rose's Dido's Crown, her 1930s historical novel set in Tunisia. It's an action-filled yet emotional story of three friends who find themselves embroiled in a dark, complicated conspiracy that touches on their experiences in World War I and their other relationships. (Check out my review for the international giveaway.)

I'm thrilled to share my interview with Julie about this book!

Was Dido's Crown the original title of your book?

Yes, most definitely — once I decided to finally give it a title. Forever and ever, I just referred to the book as "Mary". But when the concept of Dido's Crown in the book became clear, the title couldn't be anything else.

As you were writing Dido's Crown, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

There's a scene toward the end of the book that I didn't know was coming. When I realized what was going to happen, I put off writing it for days. I won't say much more for fear of spoilers, but I will say I cried my eyes out as I wrote it. That's never happened to me before.

Did you use any music, food, scents, or other inspiration to help you evoke setting as you were writing Dido's Crown?

I primarily used music to get me in the right mindset. I can only write to atmospheric music or soundtracks (I went on and on about it in this video) but I definitely used this soundtrack to get me into the Maghreb in the 1930s.
  • Tunisia Azaan (adhan)
  • "Ya habibi taala" by Asmahan
  • "Vingt Et Vingt" by Mireille
  • "Puisque Vous Partez En Voyage" by Mireille
  • "You're the Top" by Cole Porter (sung by Cole Porter!)
  • "Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind" by Ken "Snakehips" Johnson & His West Indian Dance Band
  • "The Sheik of Araby" by Ken "Snakehips" Johnson & His West Indian Dance Band
  • "Stompin' At the Savoy" by Chick Webb & His Orchestra
  • "Rock It for Me" by Chick Webb & His Orchestra
  • "You Showed Me the Way" by Chick Webb & His Orchestra
  • "Devoting My Time to You" by Chick Webb & His Orchestra
This playlist is available on Spotify

Read any good books recently?

YES. Landmarks by Robert Macfarlane. Here's the blurb from Goodreads:
Landmarks is Robert Macfarlane's joyous meditation on words, landscape and the relationship between the two.

Words are grained into our landscapes, and landscapes are grained into our words. Landmarks is about the power of language to shape our sense of place. It is a field guide to the literature of nature, and a glossary containing thousands of remarkable words used in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales to describe land, nature and weather.
I absolutely loved his The Old Ways and this book is, if possible, even more wonderful. His writing is clever and beautiful and fiercely intelligent and startlingly passionate. Chapter Six, "The Tunnel of Swords and Axes", is in my top five chapters in any book of all time. It's an incredibly moving chapter, written with skill and love and precision.

I want to grab everyone I meet and tell them about this book and beg them to read it.

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My thanks to Ms. Rose for her time and her thoughtful responses. You can learn more about her and her books on her website, and connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Goodreads.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Book Review: Dido’s Crown by Julie K. Rose

Title: Dido’s Crown
Author: Julie K. Rose

First line: Everything in the ancient port town in Bizerte dazzled: the white stuccoed buildings, the shimmering golden sand, the bleached sails of the dhows, the shocking turquoise of the Mediterranean.

Review: I read Rose's previous novel, Oleanna, about four years ago, and I still think about it. So it probably goes without saying that I've been on pins and needles for her next release.

This book couldn't be any more different than Oleanna, but it's just as enjoyable.  The elements in Oleanna that I loved are present in Dido's Crown: a strong sense of place, wonderfully deep relationships between the characters, and a heroine who is both classically "strong" and also delightfully human. (She realizes she's drooled in her sleep at one point!)

Set in 1930s Tunisia, the novel follows a handful of British academics who, through their service in World War I, have become embroiled in a complicated espionage case from over a decade ago. Will and Tom are reunited with their mentor's daughter, Mary, who accidentally become involved thanks to her duplicitous husband.

Mary, who has been trying to ignore her disastrous marriage by attending Grand Prix races and partying, is forced to face her own secrets but those of her family, too, all while trying to stay alive and one step ahead of those who want the small package she possesses.
How silly and small her life had been: petty jealousies and fast cars and tutoring scholars who didn't respect her, and lately (and frustratingly) who looked right through her. All the while, the truth of her life hovered beyond her vision, tangled and hidden. (p119)
The story opens rather explosively and moves at a brisk clip; between the locale, the plot's who-has-double-crossed-who? mysteries, and rather fierce women, I was reminded of Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and Raymond Chandler (but with modern sensibilities). Muslim and gay characters are fully realized in a way they weren't in '30s and '40s films and literature, and our femme fatales don't fall apart with one smoldering look from an alpha male.

This novel introduced me to the fascinating and creepy numbers station, AM radio broadcasts used by spies to send each other encrypted messages, and Rose uses their mysterious existence rather cleverly in this story.

There's an extensive glossary and a delightful, 12-page Author's Note with details and trivia about the history featured in this novel.

Armchair escape at its best, Dido's Crown is an exciting adventure story with surprisingly rich and deep emotional threads and glorious descriptions of exotic Tunisia. It's the kind of read that demands a weekend, because you won't want to stop. My only wish was that it was longer; I would have loved more of Mary and her circle, but what time we do have with them is wonderful.

Genre: Fiction (Historical / 1930s / 1910s / Tunisia / World War I / Espionage)
Publication Date: 9/29/2016
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction

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I'm thrilled to offer one paperback copy of Dido's Crown to one lucky reader! To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers; ends 10/21. See additional rules on my Giveaway page.