Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Guest Post: How Many Sticks Do You Need For A Sacred Fire? by Susan Spann, Author of TRIAL ON MOUNT KOYA

How Many Sticks Do You Need For a Sacred Fire?
by Susan Spann

Writing historical mystery means balancing a fast-paced, often intricate plot with compelling, historically accurate details. To keep the plot moving, I often have to eliminate the bulk of my research--including many details I find intriguing. Occasionally, however, the decision what to keep and what ends up on the proverbial "cutting room floor" becomes more difficult.

Case in point: the Shingon Buddhist ceremonies in TRIAL ON MOUNT KOYA.

While researching the novel, I spent time on Koyasan, staying in thousand year-old Shingon temples and attending both worship services and the goma (fire ritual) that the priests still perform each morning just after dawn. As with most religious rituals, the goma involves detailed preparations, numerous books, bowls, and implements, and follows a carefully prescribed liturgical pattern. I discussed the ceremony with the priests, observed it closely, and took copious notes (and photographs, and video recordings) to ensure I understood it in detail.

As a result, the first draft of the goma scene in TRIAL ON MOUNT KOYA ran several pages--far too long--and I found myself debating exactly how many sticks I needed to build this particular sacred fire. On one hand, the goma is an integral part of Shingon worship. I needed the ritual in the book, both to create a realistic portrait of Shingon temple life in the 16th century and to advance some character-related elements of the plot. On the other hand, too much detail bogs down the pace and bores the reader. (Never a good idea.)

Deciding which details to keep, and which to cut, seemed difficult until I re-watched the video clips and reviewed my favorite photographs of the goma ceremonies I attended. The photos, in particular, captured the ritual's essence--flickering tongues of fire in a darkened room, the shadow of a Shingon priest on the drum that accompanied his chant, and the clouds of incense I could almost still feel coating the inside of my nose.

These sensory memories set a course for my editing. By focusing on my senses--especially what I heard and smelled--I stripped away the extraneous details, leaving what I hoped would convey the sights and sounds of a dramatic Shingon ritual, wherein wooden prayers are consumed by sacred fire and carried to heaven on incense-laden smoke. While remaining true, and accurate, in the details that remained, my scene no longer contained esoteric dogma, the Sanskrit words most readers would not understand, or heavily descriptive passages that did not advance the plot.

To my surprise, the scene did a better job of conveying the ritual after editing, even though I removed almost three-quarters of the original goma scene. Less really was more--more readable, more evocative, and more successful at conveying the drama and suspense of the fire ritual.

Apparently, you don't need all that many sticks to build a sacred fire after all.


Susan Spann is the 2015 Rocky Mountain FIction Writers' Writer of the Year and the author of six novels in the Shinobi Mystery series. She has a degree in Asian Studies and a lifelong love of Japanese history and culture. She is currently spending a year in Japan, researching her next two novels and climbing Japan's most famous mountains for her first nonfiction book, 100 SUMMITS, scheduled for publication in 2020. She posts photos and stories about her travels in Japan at www.susanspann.com.

Read my review of Susan's novel here. Enter to win a copy of TRIAL ON MOUNT KOYA here!

Monday, July 16, 2018

Review and Giveaway: TRIAL ON MOUNT KOYA: A Hiro Hattori Novel by Susan Spann

Guided by the conviction that men kill for three reasons--power, money, or love--Hiro Hattori, protagonist of Susan Spann's TRIAL ON MOUNT KOYA (Seventh Street Books), races to unravel a disturbing series of murders at a remote Buddhist temple. Sent to deliver a secret message to an Iga ninja residing there, Hiro and Father Matteo become trapped at the monastery by a violent storm. As thunder booms and snow swirls in impenetrable clouds, a murderer begins to pick off the monks one by one, leaving the victims posed as one of the thirteen jusanbutsu, or deities that judge the souls of the dead. Realizing that the number of jusanbutsu matches the number of individuals at temple--including themselves--Hiro and Matteo must unmask murderer and motive before all succumb. Judging love and money as unlikely factors behind murders at an impoverished monastery, Hiro focuses on the power struggles that complicate the monks' attempts to name a new abbot. Only when Matteo becomes the murderer's next target does Hiro recognize the error in his thinking. But how to outwit someone intent on creating a grisly council of the dead?

TRIAL ON MOUNT KOYA succeeds as both compelling mystery and rich historical fiction. The closed situation--a given number of individuals isolated in an inescapable location with an unknown killer among them--keeps tension high and forces the characters into a persistent state of mistrust. The realization that each victim personifies one of the thirteen jusanbutsu only adds to the strain, as survivors attempt to predict who will be next to die and how. The abbot falls victim early on, leaving the monks without a designated leader and exposed to the danger of factions. The presence of a prickly pilgrim allows for the possibility of outside political involvement, and Hiro and Matteo are never above suspicion in the eyes of the monks. The oppressive weather not only heightens the danger by muffling sounds and obscuring sight, but adds the stress of a ticking clock--the murderer obviously intends to complete the monastery's annihilation by storm's end. Spann manipulates these elements of suspense with great finesse, creating a true page-turner of a plot that culminates in an emotionally satisfying and logically convincing conclusion.

Even more notable in this sixth installment of the Shinobi Mysteries is the seamless fusion of psychological insight with cultural history. The murderer's modus operandi vividly exposes readers to Buddist teachings on death and final judgment. Each victim's gruesome pose permits discussion of a particular Buddist avatar, while the entire chain of murders opens discussion of how Buddhism treats the passage of souls from this life to the next. These teachings are integral to understanding the murderer's twisted motivation. None of the earlier Shinobi mysteries delves so far into religious questions, but in TRIAL ON MOUNT KOYA Buddhist and Christian teachings confront each other in a direct and sustained manner. Father Matteo finds himself forced to counter Buddhist teaching with his own Christian convictions and comes directly under suspicion for murdering in the service of a rival religion. Spann treats this clash of philosophies with admirable insight, adding depth to Matteo's character and aspirations even as she humanizes a murderer whose horrific acts have a noble, if ultimately warped, purpose.

Politics simmers below the surface in this latest Shinobi Mystery, allowing questions of a more philosophical bent to bubble to the surface. Yet the underlying threat posed by Japan's feuding overlords remains ever present and ever dangerous to the Portuguese priest and his mission. Hiro cannot afford to let guilt and the heartbreak of lost love cloud his vision as Father Matteo falls into the hands of a murderer struggling to redeem his own disappointed devotion. Ingenious, ambitious, and resoundingly successful, TRIAL ON MOUNT KOYA is Susan Spann's best novel yet.


Susan Spann is the award-winning author of the Shinobi Mystery novels featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Matteo. 

After earing an undergraduate degree in Asian Studies from Tufts University in Boston, Susan earned a law degree.    She currently specializes in intellectual property and business and publishing contracts. Her interest in Japanese history, martial arts, and mystery inspired her to write the Hiro Hattori novels set in sixteenth-century Japan. 

Susan is the 2015 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers' Writer of the Year, a former president of the Northern California Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, and a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, the Historical Novel Society, and the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. She is represented by literary agent Sandra Bond of Bond Literary Agency. 

When not writing or representing clients, Susan enjoys traditional archery, martial arts, photography, hiking, and traveling in Japan. 

For more information, please visit Susan's website. You can also find Susan on Facebook and Twitter (@SusanSpann), where she founded the #PubLaw hashtag to provide legal and business information for writers. 


During the Blog Tour, we will be giving away 5 copies of TRIAL ON MOUNT KOYA! To enter, please use the Gleam form linked below.

--Giveaway endes at 11:59 pm EST on August 8, 2018. You must be 18 or older to enter.
--Giveaway is open to US residents only.
--Only one entry per household.
--All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the system; suspected fraud will be decided upon by the blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
--Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or a new winner is chosen.


Blog Tour Schedule

Tuesday, July 3
Kick Off at Passages to the Past
Wednesday, July 4
Interview at Donna’s Book Blog
Thursday, July 5
Interview at T’s Stuff
Feature at The Bookworm
Friday, July 6
Guest Post at Jathan & Heather
Sunday, July 8
Review at Carole Rae’s Random Ramblings
Tuesday, July 10
Feature at Historical Fiction with Spirit
Wednesday, July 11
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!
Thursday, July 12
Guest Post at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!
Friday, July 13
Review at Jorie Loves a Story
Monday, July 16
Review at Writing the Renaissance
Tuesday, July 17
Guest Post at Writing the Renaissance
Wednesday, July 18
Review at Beth’s Book Nook Blog
Friday, July 20
Feature at Maiden of the Pages
Saturday, July 21
Review at Cup of Sensibility
Tuesday, July 24
Feature at Svetlana’s Reads and Views
Thursday, July 26
Feature at Encouraging Words from the Tea Queen
Friday, July 27
Interview at Dianne Ascroft’s Blog
Monday, July 30
Review at Pursuing Stacie
Wednesday, August 1
Feature at CelticLady’s Reviews
Thursday, August 2
Review at A Book Geek
Friday, August 3
Interview at Jorie Loves a Story
Sunday, August 5
Feature at What Is That Book About
Monday, August 6
Review at Broken Teepee
Wednesday, August 8
Review at Reading the Past


Monday, July 2, 2018

Woman's Work(s): The Poetry of Louise Labé

In 1555, printer Jean de Tournes of Lyon published a small volume of poetry titled, simply enough, EVVRES (WORKS). This innocuous label belied the book’s audacity, for the collection—a proto-feminist dedicatory epistle, a lengthy dialogue between Love and Folly, three elegies, and twenty-four sonnets—was the first of its kind in France: a volume of poetry written by a woman of common status and published under her own name, splashed brazenly across the frontispiece: LOUÏZE LABÉ LIONNOIZE.

How did the daughter and, later, wife of obscure Lyonnais ropemakers rise to become the premiere female poet of the French Renaissance? Few women in sixteenth-century France could read or write; far fewer could lay claim to the classical education requisite for the writing of verse. The fortunate minority with access to private tutors or convent formation belonged overwhelmingly to the noble class. Louise Labé could claim no such privilege, yet somehow she mastered not only written French, but Italian and Latin. So thoroughly did Labé assimilate the works of the ancients and those of her male peers that she transformed their tropes and techniques into a new poetic discourse, one that posited woman as the subject, rather than the object, of desire. A daring literary triumph—and one for which Louise would pay dearly for the rest of her life, with the coin of her reputation.

Labé’s direct affront to the ideals of feminine modesty and reticence made censure inevitable. In the eyes of her contemporaries, a female author was little better than a prostitute. Both put their private selves on public display, one hawking her words, the other her body. Unlike female authors of the noble class, Labé had no powerful man to vouch for her purity, and she eschewed the protection a pseudonym or posthumous publication might afford. Her participation in Lyon’s male literary circles birthed rumors of improper behavior that publication of the EVVRES appeared to validate. Vilified and disparaged as a courtesan by the general public, Labé nevertheless enjoyed the friendship and respect of her male colleagues, who praised her verse and learning in the two dozen poems of the “Hommage à Louise Labé” that rounds out the EVVRES. Now regarded as a leading figure of French poetry, Labé achieved the objective her dedicatory epistle announced: to show men how wrong they’d been to deprive women of the honor and benefit the pursuit of knowledge provided. “[L]ift[ing her head] above the spindle,” Louise Labé dared to claim a public voice for herself and for all women brave enough to speak.

This post first appeared on the blog of P.K. Adams, author of THE GREENEST BRANCH: A Novel of Germany's First Female Physician. P.K.'s blog features guest posts about lesser-known historical women in fiction (or fictional female characters who are not royalty). 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Cover Reveal: THE BLUE by Nancy Bilyeau

It is my privilege today to host the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours THE BLUE Cover Reveal. The latest novel from Nancy Bilyeau, author of the popular Joanna Stafford Tudor series THE CROWN, THE CHALICE, and THE TAPESTRY, will hit the shelves this autumn.

The Blue by Nancy Bilyeau

Publication: Fall 2018
Endeavour Quill
Genre: Historical Fiction

What would you do to possess the most coveted color in the world? The year is 1758, and a headstrong woman artist, 24-year-old Genevieve Planche, is caught up in a high-stakes race to discover the ultimate color, one that threatens to become as deadly as it is lucrative. When Genevieve’s mission is complicated by her falling in love with the chemist behind the formula, she discovers the world of blue is filled with ruthless men and women and how high the stakes really are. The story sweeps readers from the worlds of the silk-weaving refugees of London’s Spitalfields and the luxury-obsessed drawing rooms of Grosvenor Square to the porcelain factory of Derby and, finally, magnificent Sevres Porcelain in the shadow of Versailles. And running through it all: the dangerous allure of the color blue.

"Bilyeau’s sumptuous tale of mystery and intrigue transports the reader into the heart of the 18th century porcelain trade—where the price of beauty was death” E.M. Powell, author of the Stanton & Barling medieval mystery series. 

Praise for Nancy Bilyeau’s Fiction

“Bilyeau deftly weaves extensive historical detail throughout, but the real draw of this suspenseful novel is its juicy blend of lust, murder, conspiracy, and betrayal.” —Review of The Crown published in Oprah, which made the book a pick of the month.

“English history buffs and mystery fans alike will revel in Nancy Bilyeau’s richly detailed sequel to The Crown.” —Parade magazine review of The Chalice

“The story in The Tapestry is fiction, but it is a sheer joy to have Henry’s court recreated with an eye to the reality of its venality, rather than the trendy Wolf Hall airbrushing of its violence and rapacity. The tone is always modern and light, but with none of the clumsy thigh-slapping faux period language. Bilyeau’s writing is effortless, vivid, gripping and poignant, bringing Tudor England to life with sparkling zest. If you want to see the Reformation from the side of the English people rather than the self-serving court, it is tough to do better than this trilogy.” —Review of The Tapestry by Dominic Selwood, published in The Catholic Herald

“As always, Bilyeau has done her historical homework, bringing the drama, and details of Henry VIII’s court to life. You’re basically watching the rise and fall of Catherine Howard, Thomas Cromwell, Walter Hungerford and Thomas Culpepper through Joanna’s eyes. Her private moments with the king were among my favorites in this book. This a true historical thriller. It’s a Tudor novel full of suspense, intrigue, brutality, and death. It’s a well researched page turner. If you’re looking for an exciting historical read, this will be on your list.” —Review of The Tapestry by Sandra Alvarez for Medievalists.net

“Nancy Bilyeau’s passion for history infuses her books and transports us back to the dangerous world of Tudor England. Vivid characters and gripping plots are at the heart of this wonderful trilogy. Warmly recommended!” —Alison Weir, author of The Marriage Game: A Novel of Queen Elizabeth I and many bestsellers

“Nancy Bilyeau’s polished, inventive debut has all the ingredients of the best historical fiction: a broad cast of characters, well-imagined settings, and vivid story-telling… In Joanna Stafford, Bilyeau has given us a memorable character who is prepared to risk her life to save what she most values, while Stafford’s desperate search for a lost religious relic will satisfy even the most ardent mystery fans.” —Deborah Harkness, author of A Discovery of Witches

About the Author 
Nancy Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of InStyle, DuJour, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Good Housekeeping. She is currently a regular contributor to Town & Country and the editor of the digital magazine The Big Thrill. Her screenplays have placed in several prominent industry competitions. Two scripts reached the semi-finalist round of the Nicholl Fellowships of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

A native of the Midwest, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan. THE CROWN, her first novel and an Oprah pick, was published in 2012; the sequel, THE CHALICE, followed in 2013. The third in the trilogy, THE TAPESTRY, was published by Touchstone in 2015. The books have also been published by Orion in the UK and seven other countries. Nancy lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

For more information, please visit Nancy Bilyeau’s website. You can also find her on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

To view the other stops on the Cover Reveal Tour, visit the HFVBT website.

If, like me, you can't wait to read THE BLUE, please add the book to your Goodreads shelf! Here's the link. Let's stir up some buzz about the book!

Friday, May 11, 2018

Guest Post by Mary Sharratt, Author of ECSTASY

by Mary Sharratt
Women who stand out and dare to seize their power have been maligned throughout history. Even today many people are uncomfortable about the very idea of a powerful woman. Witness how Hillary Clinton was demonized in the 2016 presidential campaign. What other U.S. presidential candidate has been called “nasty” by their opponent or had their opponent literally looming over them during a live televised debate? Even women who would never dream of running for political office face every day misogyny and threats of violence for daring to speak out on the internet. It doesn’t matter what the woman has to say—the fact that she has spoken out at all has made her a target.  

I certainly encountered the “such a nasty woman” phenomenon while researching Alma Schindler Mahler, the protagonist of my new novel Ecstasy. Born in Vienna in 1879, Alma Maria Schindler was an accomplished pianist and aspiring composer who gave up her own music as a condition for her marriage to the great composer, Gustav Mahler. Later, after a marital crisis, she returned to composing and published three collections of her songs. She was married to—or had affairs with—some of the greatest creative geniuses of her time, including Gustav Klimt, Walter Gropius, Oskar Kokoschka, and Franz Werfel. She was also a pioneer in the field we now call artistic management and her networking skills benefitted the men she loved. But one would hardly know about her talents and gifts to read the biographies written about her.

Most of the Alma biographies are what Susanne Rode-Breymann, co-editor of the German edition of Alma’s diaries, has called “moralizing scandal biographies.” They focus almost exclusively on the sensationalistic aspects of Alma’s life—namely the fact that she dared to rewrite the feminine life script and claim her sexual freedom. Even the more “scholarly” of these tomes tend to read in places like trashy, voyeuristic novels. The biographers use Alma’s sexuality as a selling point for their books while standing in stern moral judgement of her and having nothing good to say about Alma as a human being, much less as a composer. This lurid focus on Alma’s sexuality, at the expense of all other areas of her life, demeans and degrades her. Alma is reduced to the men she was involved with and how she failed to be the ideal woman for them. Can you even imagine a biographer doing this to a “great man” like Picasso—ignoring his art to condemn him as a terrible husband and serial womanizer?
In my humble opinion, novelists have a much more difficult vocation than biographers. Unlike biographers, I must make Alma compelling and inspire the reader’s empathy. I must offer insight as to why Alma made the choices she did. I must show her in her full humanity. 
At least I know Alma is in good company. Here is a short history of “nasty women” and some excellent books that portray them in all their nuanced, multi-faceted glory.

Mary Magdalene, 1st century CE 

The most influential woman in early Christianity has been distorted beyond recognition as a weeping, humiliated ex-prostitute, despite there being no scriptural evidence to support this depiction. If that were not enough, we have the Da Vinci Code to thank for the most recent flood of new age conspiracy theories surrounding her. All of this obscures Mary’s key importance in the canonical Gospels. As one of Jesus’s closest disciples, she stood by him at the foot of the cross—after his male disciples fled. Present at his tomb, she was first witness to the resurrection. The risen Christ then bade Mary to tell the others the good news. And so she became Apostle to the Apostles. The noncanonical Gospel of Mary reveals her influence in early Christianity when her importance rivaled that of Peter’s. Whether or not she wrote the gospel attributed to her, this document certainly recognizes her authority. However in 590, Pope Gregory I decided to downgrade her by officially proclaiming her a whore. The Catholic Church didn’t recant this position until 1969.
Must read: Mary, Called Magdalene by Margaret George

Empress Wu Zetian, 624 – 705 CE 

The only female emperor in the history of China, Wu rose from humble beginnings as the fourteen-year-old concubine of Emperor Taizong, who was so captivated by her intelligence, he made her his secretary. After his death, Wu should have bowed to social expectation, shaved her head, and disappeared inside a Buddhist nunnery. Instead she married Taizong’s son Gaozong and ruled as empress consort, the true power behind her ineffectual husband’s throne. After Gaozong’s death, Wu ruled as empress dowager and placed first her eldest son and then her second-born son on the throne. When their leadership skills failed to impress her, she forced them to abdicate. From 690 to her death in 705 Wu ruled as emperor in her own name. She founded the Zhou Dynasty, introduced sweeping reforms to benefit her people, and declared herself an incarnation of the Maitreya Buddha. Ever uncomfortable with female leadership, her enemies spread many rumors about her, accusing her of all manner of treachery, including murdering her own baby daughter. After Wu’s death, they tried to erase her legacy, but all in vain. She is now remembered as one of the greatest leaders in Chinese history.

Must read: The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel

Malinche 1501-1551

The most hated woman in Mexican history, Malinche was Hernandez Cortés’s indigenous lover and chief strategist during his annihilation of Muctezuma’s Aztec Empire. Caught between clashing worlds, Malinche was one of twenty women that Tabascan chieftan Potonchan offered Cortés. Regarded initially as nothing more than a sex slave, Malinche soon distinguished herself by her negotiating skills. Fluent in both the Nahuatal languages of the interior and the Mayan languages of the coast, Malinche quickly learned Spanish and became Cortés’s main translator and guide. A complex figure, she played a pivotal role in history, bearing Cortés’s son Martin, the first mestizo of note, and later marrying the Castillian nobleman, Don Juan Xamarmillo. Has Malinche been unfairly slated? Pre-colonial indigenous Mexicans were not one unified people, but a collection of distinct cultures. To many of these people, the Aztec Empire was the hated enemy because it demanded tribute in the form of human sacrifice from subjugated tribes. What if Malinche, a woman of non-Aztec origin, was not a traitor so much as a warrior within her own context?

Must read: Malinche by Laura Esquivel

Mary I of England 1516 - 1558

The first woman to successfully claim the throne of England was the most reviled British monarch of all time. The fact that she burned 283 Protestants as heretics earned her the moniker “Bloody Mary” and history remembers her as the evil foil to her celebrated sister, “Good Queen Bess.” Yet Mary was no bloodier or more brutal than other rulers of her time. As the violence of the Reformation and Counter Reformation swept Europe, countless Catholics and Protestants on the “wrong” side of the sectarian divide were put to death—as were Jews and accused witches. On the plus side, Mary built up the British navy and reformed the militia, paving the way for Elizabeth I’s victory against the Spanish Armada. Used first by her father, Henry VIII, and later by her husband, Philip II of Spain, as a political pawn, Mary had no easy life and died in her forties. If anything, Elizabeth I was such an effective leader because she learned from her sister’s misfortune—Elizabeth made the radical choice to remain a “Virgin Queen” lest some man try to steal away her sovereignty.  

Must read: Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock

Catherine the Great 1729 - 1796

In the 34 years that she ruled the massive Russian Empire, Catherine the Great was the most powerful woman in the world. Born to a Prussian prince, she married into the Romanov family and became the unhappy wife of the unpopular Tsar Peter III. Catherine soon found herself involved in a coup to unseat her husband and install herself as empress. Eight days after abdicating, her husband was assassinated. Contrary to dark rumors, there’s no evidence Catherine was responsible. A highly educated polymath who corresponded with Voltaire and wrote an opera in her spare time, Catherine dragged a country still mired in a medieval mindset into the Enlightenment. Her lovers were many and she made one such paramour the King of Poland. A formidable military leader, she quelled more than a dozen uprisings. But most of her brave deeds have been forgotten—the average person on the street is more likely to know the urban myth that Catherine died having sex with a horse. She actually passed away after suffering a stroke.

Must read: The Winter Queen by Eva Stachniak

Billie Holiday 1915 - 1959 

Despite the fact that she never learned to read music and despite her struggles against racism, misogyny, and poverty, Billie Holiday triumphed to become one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. Over fifty years after her death, her voice remains distinctive and unforgettable. Her 1939 song “Strange Fruit,” about the lynching of an African American man, was so controversial, it couldn’t be played on the radio. A powerful indictment of racism, “Strange Fruit” would become the first protest song of the 20th century. Yet for all her achievements, Holiday’s reputation remains steeped in sensationalism, especially regarding the heroin and alcohol abuse that eventually killed her at the age of 44. Why is she primarily remembered for her addiction and not her ground-breaking brilliance? “You don’t do the same thing when you talk about Sigmund Freud,” contemporary jazz musician Cassandra Wilson has pointed out. “Everyone knows he was a coke addict . . . but we don’t talk about that. We talk about him being the father of psychoanalysis.” (Link to Wilson quote: http://www.poisedmag.com/cassandra-wilson-reflects-on-billie-holiday-at-100/ )

Must read: Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday and William Dufty

Ethel Rosenberg 1915 – 1953 

In 1953 Ethel Rosenberg and her husband Julius were executed by electric chair for betraying U.S. nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. Both Rosenbergs protested their innocence up until their deaths. In the 1930s, Ethel had joined the Young Communist League, which did not help her case. While on trial for espionage in 1951, Ethel endured the heartbreak of having her own brother, himself an admitted spy, testify against her. Her refusal to burst into tears in court was interpreted to prove that she was an unwomanly monster who cared more about communism than her two young children. After the Rosenbergs’ execution, their sons, Michael and Robert, were adopted by Abel Meeropol, activist and writer of the song, “Strange Fruit.” Michael and Robert spent years trying to prove their parents’ innocence until they discovered declassified documents which indicated that their father was indeed involved in espionage. But Ethel’s role in any conspiracy seemed negligible. Her sons unsuccessfully petitioned President Obama to have their mother exonerated.

Must read: The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor

Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history in their full nasty glory. Her novel, Ecstasy, about celebrated bad girl Alma Mahler, was an Amazon Best Book of the Month for April, a Chicago Review of Books Book of the Month, and a New York Post Must Read Book. Visit her website: www.marysharratt.com

Visit all the stops on the ECSTASY by Mary Sharratt Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Review and Giveaway: ECSTASY by Mary Sharratt

Seeking to supplement a famous man's public persona with intimate detail, authors of historical fiction often choose the man's wife to narrate his story. It's not often that the woman herself has the potential to rival her husband's brilliance, but such is the situation Mary Sharratt explores in her latest novel, ECSTASY (HMHBooks, April 2018). Written from the close third-person perspective of Alma Schindler Mahler, wife of composer Gustav Mahler and a gifted composer in her own right, ECSTASY examines Alma's difficult position in turn-of-the-twentienth-century Vienna. In an era and locale where women were still expected to surrender their own aspirations to the duties of marriage and motherhood, Alma suffers tremendous anguish as she attempts to reconcile her musical ambitions with her awe of her husband's genius.

The novel covers the years 1899 to 1911, from Alma's nineteenth summer through the year of Mahler's death. Though Alma would outlive her husband by half a century to lead a colorful, liberated existence in Austria and New York, it is the years she spends in Mahler's shadow that determine the future course of her life. Daughter of a noted painter, Albert Schindler, and stepdaughter of Carl Moll, one of the founding artists of the Vienna Secession, Alma grows up surrounded by artists and intellectuals. Encouraged by her parents, she studies piano and composition and has composed a series of lieder for piano and voice by the time she meets Mahler in 1901. After a whirlwind courtship, she marries the much-older conductor in 1902, only to abandon her studies when Mahler insists there be only one composer in the family. The bulk of the novel details Alma's struggle to subjugate her ambition and desires to the dictates of her husband's artistic life and marital expectations. The demands of motherhood, tragedy, and her husband's work schedule and frequent touring sap Alma of her mental and physical strength until she finds herself at the brink of a breakdown. Only then, having lost her grip on her true self, does she find the courage to engage in behavior that forces Mahler to reevaluate their relationship and the validity of his wife's talent and dreams.

Sharratt faces a difficult task in capturing the essence of this contradictory woman, by turns meek and courageous, passive and pioneering. A fundamental ambivalence defines Alma: she relishes her role as helpmate and muse, facilitator of her husband's genius, even as she increasingly resents how catering to his needs forces her to deny her own. At times, this ambivalence renders her frustratingly submissive; at others, she commits rash, impulsive actions that almost defy explanation. The thread that binds Alma's warring selves together, that creates a whole from contradictory parts, is ecstasy: the ecstasy she experiences listening to her husband's glorious music crash over the concert hall; the elation she finds in furtive composing and amorous dalliance; the rapture she and Mahler share at intimate moments of their difficult but enduring relationship. Just as Mahler incorporates cowbells and hammerblows into symphonies of voice and instrument, to stunning effect, Sharratt probes the limitations and frustrations of Alma's marriage in order to better celebrate the ecstasy of life lived in unbounded appreciation of creative beauty.

Luscious in language and beautiful in execution, ECSTASY is a novel to savor. Though the belle époque world it evokes in brilliant detail might be distant in time, the challenge Alma faces--that of extracting her self from the confines of duty and expectation to relish the fullness of life--is one that women continue to face today. Alma Schindler Mahler--muse, mother, and musician--can help them triumph.

During the Blog Tour we will be giving away a paperback copy of ECSTASY. To enter, please follow the link below.

Giveaway Rules

--Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on May 18, 2018. You must be 18 or older to enter.
--Giveaway is open to US residents only.
--Only one entry per household.
--All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspicion of fraud is decided upon by the blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrants may be disqualified at our discretion.
--Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

MARY SHARRATT is an American writer who has lived in the Pendle region of Lancashire, England, for the past seven years. Her critically-acclaimed novels include SUMMIT AVENUE, THE REAL MINERVA, THE VANISHING POINT, THE DAUGHTERS OF WITCHING HILL (reviewed here), ILLUMINATIONS, and THE DARK LADY'S MASK (reviewed here). Sharratt is also co-editor of the subversive fiction anthology Bitch Lit, a celebration of female antiheroes, strong women who break all the rules. For more information, please visit Mary's website. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads

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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Theft of a Queen's Heart

On Friday, April 13, 2018, a reliquary containing the heart of Anne de Bretagne, queen consort of France, was stolen from the Dobrée Museum in Nantes. Four masked intruders forced their way into the museum, smashed the glass case with an ax, and absconded with the suspended golden reliquary, dating from 1514, along with a statue and dozens of gold coins. Thankfully, only a week later, several of the perpetrators were apprehended and the items recovered in good condition. The reliquary, worth millions of Euros, holds inestimable sentimental and historical importance not only to the citizens of the Nantais region, but to the entire nation.

Anne de Bretagne (1477-1514) is the only woman to have been queen consort of France twice. As heir to the duchy of Brittany, she spent her entire life fighting to preserve the western duchy's independence from the territorial aspirations of the kingdom of France. Forced to marry King Charles VIII of France in 1491 after defeat in battle, her marriage contract expressly stated that the marriage was concluded to ensure peace between the two regions. After Charles died of an accident in 1498, Anne took personal charge of the administration of Brittany. Pressured to marry Charles's successor Louis XII, who was already married, Anne agreed on the unlikely condition that Louis receive an annulment from Rome within one year. Unfortunately for her, the Pope came through, and Anne wed Louis in 1499. Unlike Charles, however, Louis respected Anne's rights as sovereign Duchess and issued decisions in her name. For the rest of her life, Anne strove vigorously to maintain Brittany's independence, for which she earned the love and devotion of the Breton people. Despite her valiant efforts, the duchy passed permanently into French hands when Anne and Louis's eldest daughter, Claude, married Louis's successor, François I, in 1515, the year after Anne's death.

Anne died of a kidney-stone attack at the age of thirty-seven (following sixteen pregnancies between her two husbands). Royal funerary customs of the time called for the partition of the body, allowing the heart, entrails, and bones to be buried in multiple locations. Though her body was to be entombed in the royal necropolis at Saint-Denis, Anne stipulated in her will that her heart be transported to Nantes, her beloved Breton birthplace, and deposited in her parents' tomb. A hinged reliquary was fashioned of fine gold to contain it. The inscription visible in the photograph above reads:

         Ce cueur fut si tres hault 
         Que de la terre aux cieux
         Sa vertu liberalle 
         Acroissoit mieux et mieux.
         Mais Dieu en a reprins
         Sa portion meilleure
         Et ceste part terrestre
         En grand deuil nous demeure.

         This heart was so exalted
         That from Earth to the heavens
         Its bountiful virtue
         Only increased.
         But God took back
         Its best portion
         And this terrestrial part
         Remains with us, in great sorrow.
                    (Translation mine)

The reliquary was delivered to Nantes in March 1514, where it remained until 1792, when it was emptied and sent to Paris to be melted down to fund the Revolution. Miraculously, it escaped this fate, and was returned to Nantes in 1819. It has been housed at the Dobrée Museum, currently undergoing extensive renovation, since 1886.

Fearful that last week's thieves, ignorant of the reliquary's significance, would melt it down for its monetary value, police moved quickly. Using surveillance tapes, they captured two of the four suspects and recovered the reliquary intact. Great is the relief surrounding this quick resolution, for the reliquary is an irreplaceable piece of France's cultural heritage. Anne de Bretagne was not only an astute politician dedicated to preserving the rights of the Breton people, but a generous patron of the arts. She supported writers, including Jean LeMaire de Belges and Jean Marot; musicians like Johannes Ockeghem and Jean Mouton; illuminators like Jean Bourdichon; and tapestry makers, including the weaver of the famous unicorn panels now on display at The Cloisters. Anne's descendants ruled France until 1589. How tragically ironic it would have been if her reliquary, having escaped the melting pot during the republican upheavals of 1789, had succumbed to it now, only to line the pockets of thieves who had little idea of what they had stolen.


You can read more about the theft at The Telegraph (in English) and Franceinfo and Le Point (in French). Wikipedia and Pinterest have a variety of information and images of Anne de Bretagne.