Friday, September 2, 2016

Review and Giveaway: TIME AND REGRET by M. K. Tod

In M. K. Tod's third novel, TIME AND REGRET (Lake Union), a ticking-clock mystery provides the link between two narratives set in different eras. In March 1991, Grace Hansen, a just-divorced single mom trying to determine a new course for her life, finds a tackle box in her attic. The box contains mementos gathered by her beloved grandfather, Martin Devlin, over the course of his deployment in France during the First World War. Included among the bullet casings, brass buttons, and photographs are Martin's wartime diaries, accompanied by a curious note: "To my dearest Grace, read carefully. I never should have taken them. Love always, Grandpa." Reading the diaries, however, fails to identify the object of her grandfather's regrets. Intrigued by the puzzle she knows her grandfather is depending on her to solve, Grace decides to retrace his steps in France, certain that visiting the battlefields and cities where Martin was stationed will provide the clues she needs.

Martin's past sets the itinerary for Grace's journey. Tod weaves entries from Martin's diaries into Grace's first person account of her travels in northwestern France. In addition, the author introduces chapters narrated from Martin's unique perspective. This powerful combination of dramatic action and Martin's own musings eloquently depicts the effects of the horrors of war on a conscientious, honorable man. The reader watches Martin spiral into deep depression and unchecked rage as he witnesses the deaths of the men he commands and the friends he loves. Tod channels her extensive research on life in the trenches and the larger objectives of the war into a realistic yet touching portrait of a single psyche struggling to remain true to honor and duty in the face of senseless brutality. By asking Grace to rectify the crime he committed at his lowest point, Martin seeks forgiveness for his failing and offers her the key she needs to understand the family's thorny dynamics.

As she struggles to decipher her grandfather's secret and later, to make amends for his actions, Grace's life becomes increasingly complicated. Martin's secret has far-reaching effects. It becomes a point of contention between Grace and her imperious grandmother, who profited from her husband's actions. It threatens to destroy Grace's burgeoning relationship with charming museum director Pierre Auffret. It places Grace's very life in danger, as third parties trail and threaten her in order to recover the diaries and abscond with prize. The difficulties and dangers Grace faces help her to sort out her future and regain her self-possession after the heartache and uncertainties of her divorce. As Martin spirals downwards, Grace engages in an upward climb, garnering the courage to make difficult choices and acknowledge the validity of her dreams and desires. Her ultimate success in undoing Martin's wrong proves doubly powerful--not only does Grace redeem her beloved grandfather and correct a longstanding injustice, but she saves herself and opens a future she'd never imagined possible.

TIME AND REGRET successfully melds elements of women's fiction, historical fiction, and traditional mystery into an entertaining and satisfying read. A competent historian and skillful storyteller, M. K. Tod should certainly harbor no regrets in sharing this highly engaging tale with a broad audience.


To read other reviews and an excerpt of TIME AND REGRET and an interview with M. K. Tod, please follow this link to the France Book Tours blog tour home page.


To enter the drawing to win one of five print copies of TIME AND REGRET, please follow this link below. Contest open internationally.


M. K. Tod began writing in 2005 while living as an expat in Hong Kong. What started as an interest in her grandparents' lives turned into a full-time occupation writing historical fiction. In addition to writing historical novels, she blogs about reading and writing at, reviews books for the Historical Novel Society and the Washington Independent Review of Books, as has conducted three highly respected reader surveys. She lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and is the mother of two adult children.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Interview with Susan Spann, Author of THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER

Today I welcome my friend Susan Spann, author of the popular Shinobi Mystery series set in sixteenth century Japan. Susan has just published the fourth novel in the series. In THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER (which I reviewed yesterday), master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo investigate the murder of an actor's daughter from the Kyoto theater district--an investigation that soon reveals a mysterious golden coin, a forbidden love affair, a missing mask, and a dangerous link to corruption that leaves both Hiro and Father Mateo running for their lives. I hope the following interview with Susan will have you running to your nearest bookstore for a copy of THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER as soon as you reach the end!

THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER is set in the theater district of sixteenth-century Kyoto, with actors as primary characters. What about this milieu particularly appealed to you as a rich setting for a historical mystery?

Medieval Japanese culture was multifaceted, with each social or mercantile group coexisting but also living distinctly separately from the others. I love exploring a different aspect of the culture in every book, and the theater world had such fascinating customs that I wanted to bring it to life. For example, the custom that only men could act on the stage made women far less prominent in the acting guilds than they often were among merchant families. The idea that an actor’s daughter might not accept her societal role—and what might happen to her as a result—intrigued me, and that in turn gave birth to THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER.

What is your favorite scene from THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER and why? Which scene was the most difficult to write?

My favorite scene is one that actually didn’t appear in the original manuscript. My fabulous agent, Sandra Bond, read the completed story before we sent it on to my editor, Dan Mayer, at Seventh Street Books. When she finished reading, she sent me an email that basically said, “it’s great . . . but it needs another death.” Without giving away too much (or any spoilers) I added a scene in which Hiro and Father Mateo have to deal with an unexpected (and unwanted) body.

All of the scenes involving the victim’s family were difficult to write, because of their high emotional charge. The victim was a teenaged girl, and portraying that loss realistically was difficult, both in the writing and on an emotional level.

Last year you were able to travel to Japan for research. How have your descriptions benefitted from your sensory experience of Japan? Did cultural or historical discoveries influence the trajectory of your plot?

I adore Japan, and spending time there definitely impacts my novels. The biggest benefit is walking in the footsteps of my characters—seeing the temples and shrines that form the settings of many scenes in the novel helps me set the scenery in a more realistic and accurate way. For example, visiting Fushimi Inari shrine helped me recreate the nō play that takes place near the base of Mt. Inari in THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER.

I spent a lot of time researching nō theater and the performers’ customs, particularly the treatment of the special, often sacred masks the performers wore on stage. Although most of that research did not make it onto the page, my fascination with masks did inspire and influence one of the story’s major subplots.

Since I’ve never written a mystery, I’d love to hear how you construct one. Do you begin from a forward-looking “what if” sort of question or work backwards from a desired end result? Do you layer in different characters’ reactions and alibis in subsequent drafts or do you have most things worked out before you begin? As you write, how do you judge whether misdirection and red herrings are working?

Since I write series mystery, I already have my detectives and their basic world in mind before I start each book. Because of that, I normally start with the setting and work from there. THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER is unusual, because it was originally supposed to be set among the outcaste classes—butchers and tanners—but I switched it to a theater book about halfway through the initial draft when I realized my original setting wouldn’t work for the plot I had in mind. (Fortunately, I already knew I wanted to write a theater book, so it was more a matter of overlaying the theater on the existing skeleton than a total rewrite.)

With most of my mysteries, including next year’s BETRAYAL AT IGA, I start with a setting—for that book, the mountain village that’s home to my detective’s Iga ninja clan—and then decide what kind of death would likely occur in that particular time and place. Since the Iga ninjas were assassins, and Hiro and Father Mateo are traveling there to keep the peace during tense negotiations with the rival Koga clan, the most alarming death I could imagine was the murder of the Koga ambassador, by poison, under conditions that made it look as if the Iga clan was responsible for his death. The rest of the plot, the suspects, and the story grew from there.

I write an 8-10 page outline before I start drafting, and most of the alibis, red herrings, and major clues get figured out at the outline stage. Once I start writing, however, the outline always changes. New characters show up unexpectedly, existing characters act in ways I hadn’t anticipated, and I often discover subplots and additional clues as I go along.

Hiro and Father Mateo have worked together now through four novels. How has their relationship changed since the first book? What obstacle/character flaw/cultural restriction poses the greatest threat to their friendship? Do you foresee a time when their mutual trust might become sorely tested?

Hiro and Father Mateo’s relationship has definitely deepened, and their friendship strengthened substantially, since CLAWS OF THE CAT. They’ve begun to trust one another more, which allows me to share more about them with readers (through their communications). Their different perspectives—Hiro’s pragmatism and Father Mateo’s faith—continue to be stumbling blocks on occasion, but their growing mutual respect allows them to get along despite their differences.

Their mutual trust will absolutely be tested in future books, starting with the next installment, BETRAYAL OF IGA.

Of the numerous secondary characters who populate your novels, which intrigues you the most? Has any character turned out very different from what you first envisioned?

I love writing secondary characters, because they can be so unique and so different—and because I don’t necessarily have to bring them back in every book. Many of them do surprise me, mainly by becoming more important to the story than I originally anticipated. In THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER, my favorite secondary character is the victim’s younger brother, Haru. The scene in which he saves a giant Japanese beetle runs a close second for my favorite scene in the book.

THE NINJA’S DAUGHTER is your fourth published novel. How have you progressed as a writer since penning the first, CLAWS OF THE CAT? How do you challenge yourself to improve and grow, especially within the confines of a series?

I try to improve my craft with every book I write (and hopefully, I succeed!). My dialogue skills have definitely improved since CLAWS OF THE CAT, and I think my characters have more depth now, too. I’ve learned to tap into deeper emotions, which was important for THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER.

From a series perspective, I don’t let myself get away with repeating tricks. Each novel has to involve a different kind of murder, in a different setting, and my ninja detective, Hiro, has to use a different kind of ninja skill or tool in every book. In the future installments, I’ll also be putting my medieval Japanese spin on a few classic mystery tropes, like the “locked room murder”—but presented in a fresh, new way.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers, especially in today’s difficult market?

To quote the movie GALAXY QUEST: “Never give up—Never surrender.” Publishing is difficult, and the journey to publication can be long, hard, and apparently never-ending. It took me ten years and five full manuscripts to find my agent and secure my first publishing deal. Many times, I wondered if the effort was worth it or if I should just give up. The problem is, you never know if the last rejection really was the last one, and the next response you receive might be the “yes” that you’ve been waiting for.

My advice is keep writing, keep believing, and keep pushing forward. As soon as you finish one book, start the next one. Each manuscript you write will make you stronger, and bring you that much closer to fulfillment of your dream.

You can learn more about Susan Spann and her books at her website.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Review: THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER: A Hiro Hattori Novel by Susan Spann

Exciting as it is to discover a new author's works, it can be even more satisfying to watch a favorite author's novels grow richer and ever more compelling. Susan Spann takes her Shinobi Mysteries to a new level with this fourth installment, THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER, newly released from Seventh Street Books. Spann sets ninja detective Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo on a quest to identify the killer of an actor's daughter found strangled on a riverbank in sixteenth century Kyoto, Japan. As the men question suspects and seek motives, Spann probes the pair's pasts and scrutinizes their deepening friendship. Tantalizing glimpses of Hiro's and Mateo's inner lives enhance the novel's well-constructed plot and endow the story with an emotional richness the series' earlier books lacked.

From the back cover: When an actor's daughter is murdered on the banks of Kyoto's Kamo River, master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo are the victim's only hope for justice. As political tensions rise in the wake of the shogun's recent death and rival samurai threaten war, the Kyoto police forbid an investigation of the killing, to keep the peace. Undeterred, Hiro and Father Mateo undertake a secret investigation into the exclusive world of Kyoto's theater guilds, where nothing, and no one, is as it seems. Their investigation soon reveals a mysterious golden coin, a forbidden love affair, a missing mask, and a dangerous link to corruption that leaves both Hiro and Father Mateo running for their lives.

Of particular interest and importance to this book is its theatrical setting. Although their vocation required them to interact with members of the upper classes, Japanese society of the time viewed actors as social outcasts, individually dispensable and subject to strict rules of etiquette. Within a troupe itself, an actor's position and duties were determined by age, skill, and sex. Choosing an actor's daughter--the lowest of the low--as the murder victim allows Spann to not only expose her readers to a fascinating milieu, but to examine questions of personal dignity and self-determination--questions upon which Father Mateo's Christian worldview sets him in direct oppostion to Hiro's cultural mores. Plunged into a world where masks are continually donned then shed, Hiro and Mateo find their own masks--the habitual personas they've adopted to survive--beginning to slip. The murdered girl's similarity to someone in Father Mateo's past affects him deeply and causes him to reveal to Hiro memories long suppressed; Hiro, though displaying an assassin's ruthlessness when circumstances require it (and they do), finds himself questioning long-held assumptions and betraying a compassion his sardonic veneer cannot completely hide. No longer deniable, the influence of each man on the other lends a certain piquancy to their interactions and an added dimension to their investigation, which seeks to reclaim the dignity of a woman robbed of the destiny she struggled to forge.

Spann's handles the large cast of characters and intricate plot with deft assurance, taking care to insert the immediate mystery into the overarching political conflict without overwhelming it. Likewise, she provides enough context from the previous books to orient new readers without boring dedicated fans (or spoiling the earlier tales' reveals). Hiro's wry perspective and dry humor provide a delicious counterbalance to Father Mateo's honest earnestness and selfless dedication to saving souls. If you've yet to read a Hiro Hattori mystery, you're in for a treat; if you've enjoyed the earlier installments, you'll find THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER particularly satisfying--even as it leaves you hungry for Hiro's next adventure.

Susan Spann has published three previous novels in the Shinobi Mystery series: CLAWS OF THE CAT, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, and FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER. She has a lifelong love of Japanese history and culture. When not writing, Susan works as a transactional attorney and raises seahorses in her marine aquarium. You can learn more about Susan and her books at her website.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Review: AT THE EDGE OF SUMMER by Jessica Brockmole

Summer is now in full swing, but there's no better time to read Jessica Brockmole's latest historical novel, AT THE EDGE OF SUMMER (Ballantine). Set in France during the years 1911 to 1919, it offers a poignant story of love and self-discovery amid the turmoil of war and explores the power of art to heal broken souls.

With her artist mother, Maud, having abandoned the family four years earlier and her scholarly grandfather traveling the world in search of obscure dialects, fifteen year-old Clare Ross is left little more than an orphan when her father dies unexpectedly in Scotland. Clare faces a lonely future with only servants for companions until Rowena Crépet, her mother's best friend from art school, whisks her off to Mille Mots, the Crépets' shabby but comfortable manor house in France. Consoled by the Crépets' warm welcome and the bright, unfamiliar colors of the French countryside, Clare slowly begins to heal. The Crépet's tennis-loving son, nineteen year-old Luc, returns from his studies in Paris each weekend to spend time with Clare. Together they steal treats from the kitchen, rove the countryside, draw--and fall in love.

Love, however, is not easy for either of them. Repeatedly abandoned by those closest to her, Clare finds it difficult to trust; she overreacts to perceived slights directed at herself or at her wayward mother. Luc, standing on the brink of his adult life, struggles with his growing feelings for the younger, vulnerable girl. In contrast to Clare, Luc trusts far too easily, as the series of tragic incidents involving a German friend of his will ultimately prove. Just when it seems Clare and Luc might indeed find their way into each other's arms and hearts, events and distance separate them. For a time, they correspond by letter, but ultimately lose track of each other. Chance--and art--will bring them together again, yet each has been so shaped by circumstance that their reunion, on a romantic level, is far from assured. Battle has robbed Luc of trust in himself and others; it up to Clare this time to find a way to draw him from his cave of pain.

Brockmole alternates between Clare's and Luc's perspectives in structuring her tale, offering insights into each character's mind and providing the reader the factual framework behind their frequent misunderstandings. The author employs her knack for letter writing, honed in her immensely popular debut novel LETTERS FROM SKYE (Ballantine, 2013), to good effect in the long stretches of novel where distance separates Clare and Luc. The characters' correspondence skillfully captures the bashful hesitancies and unfulfilled yearnings of a young couple exploring the terrain of love for the very first time. Brockmole grounds her characters' emotional journey squarely in history, constructing a central conflict that pits the duties of national allegiance against the ties of friendship and trust. This betrayal leads the reader into the Parisian studio of sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd, whose staff creates lifelike masks for soldiers disfigured by chemicals or wounds during the war--a fascinating and, for me, unfamiliar place. Although I was a bit disappointed the plot did not more fully exploit the thread of Clare's search for her mother, I found AT THE EDGE OF SUMMER to be a solid and satisfying follow-up to LETTERS FROM SKYE and a perfect summer read.

Jessica Brockmole's first novel, the internationally bestselling LETTERS FROM SKYE, was named one of the best books of 2013 by Publishers Weekly. Her novella "Something Worth Landing For" appears in FALL OF POPPIES: Stories of Love and the Great War (William Morrow, 2016). She lives in northern Indiana with her husband, two children, and far too many books. You can learn more about Jessica and her books at her website.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Review: PROMISED TO THE CROWN by Aimie K. Runyan

Years ago, Nicole Macé's novel MARIE CARDUNER, FILLE DU ROY, written in French, introduced me to the fascinating history of the filles du roy, the eight hundred young French women who emigrated to Canada between 1663 and 1673 under the sponsorship of Louis XIV in order to find husbands and increase the population of New France. Intrigued by the world Macé evoked, I searched for other novels on the topic, only to discover the story of the filles du roy virtually unknown to English-language readers. Aimie K. Runyan's lovely novel, PROMISED TO THE CROWN, released today from Kensington, is the novel I had searched for back then. As the first volume in the DAUGHTERS OF NEW FRANCE series, it guarantees that the filles' story will reach a broad, and appreciative, audience.

PROMISED TO THE CROWN follows the plight of three filles who board ship for Québec and an uncertain future: Rose Barré, a well-born orphan relegated to a charity hospital after being abused by her guardian; Elisabeth Martin, a Parisian baker fleeing a scheming mother and an unwanted match; and Nicole Deschamps, a Norman farmer's daughter escaping rural poverty and a broken heart. During the long weeks at sea, the women develop a deep friendship that will sustain them through the joys and vicissitudes of life in the New World. Once arrived, they lodge in a convent where they learn the skills needed for life on the frontier and mingle with the settlement's eligible bachelors at carefully chaperoned receptions. Marriages eventually follow; each of the three women embraces, with varying amounts of enthusiasm, the challenges and opportunities their choice of husband entails. Runyan deftly weaves their personal hardships, tragedies, and blessings into a seamless narrative by alternating between their three perspectives by chapter. The resultant story chronicles not only the women's personal histories, but the evolution of a friendship that never would have been possible within the restrictive social framework of Old France.

Within its well-researched historical framework and convincing seventeenth century setting, PROMISED TO THE CROWN is a moving celebration of feminine friendship and strength. Elisabeth, Nicole, and Rose face uncertain, dangerous situations with a fortitude they never realized they possessed. Each turns to the others for advice in solving problems, support in grieving shattered dreams, and companionship in sharing good fortune. No matter what cruelties life in the northern settlement throws at them--and these trials are many and severe--the friends help each other overcome and prosper. More than once I wished misunderstanding, disapproval, or even betrayal might test their friendship; for all they face external hardships, nothing ever disturbs their cozy circle of comfort and unquestioning approbation. But the love Elisbeth, Nicole, and Rose share is hardly insular; in healing them of past hurts and traumas, it allows their circle of warmth to expand to include others in need of generous validation. Letting go of old resentments and forgiving the individuals they fled allows all three women to embrace a truly new life on New France's distant shores.

Sound in craft and big in heart, PROMISED TO THE CROWN offers convincing testimony to the courage of our continent's early settlers, the role of female friendship in creating vibrant community, and ability of love to heal brokenness of spirit. The filles du roy have found a gifted spokesperson in Aimie K. Runyan. I eagerly await forthcoming volumes of THE DAUGHTERS OF NEW FRANCE series.

For more than a decade, Aimie K. Runyan taught French to high schoolers, with stints into English, Public Speaking, and Competitive Forensics. When she's not writing or wrangling her wayward toddlers, she enjoys hiking, baking, sewing (especially costumes), music (especially live), theater, movies, and all things sacred unto Nerd Culture. 

Aimie is proud to be a member of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, Pikes Peak Writers, and the Women's Fictions Writers Association.

For more information about Aimie and her books, visit her website.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Review: THE SERPENT'S CROWN: A Novel of Medieval Cyprus by Hana Samek Norton

Readers eager for a sweeping historical novel with the flavor and complexity of a Dorothy Dunnett tale need look no further than THE SERPENT'S CROWN by Hana Samek Norton. Recently released by Cuidono, an independent press dedicated to publishing quality historical fiction, THE SERPENT'S CROWN continues the adventures of Juliana de Charnais and Guérin de LaSalle, scion of a minor branch of the powerful Lusignan family descended from the mythical enchantress Mélusine. The action of the novel moves from medieval Poitou in France to the Levant and back again as it seeks to answer Juliana's question, "What does a marriage make?" Cautioned by the example of Mélusine's marriage to her husband's ancestor and witnessing the treacherous net of ambitious unions that define the power structure of outre-mer, Juliana's physical search for her absent husband takes on intriguing philosophical and emotional overtones.

Troubled with doubt over the canonical legitimacy of their marriage (Guérin had been betrothed to another as a child) and desperately in love with her husband although she would never admit it, former novice Juliana devotes herself to their infant daughter Eleanor and to finding her place among her husband's people in Poitou. But then a messenger arrives from the Knights Templar in Jerusalem, summoning Guérin to the Levant to shore up the crown of his cousin Aiméry de Lusignan, King of Cyprus. Guérin abandons Juliana, and soon after his departure, his father assumes custody of Eleanor. Distraught at her loss and seeing no other way to reclaim her child, Juliana travels to Cyprus to bring Guérin home. Her task is far from easy: Guérin has become deeply emmeshed in the convoluted plots and complicated loyalties of the interrelated Frankish families that seek hegemony over Jerusalem and Cyprus. Juliana must rely on wits and inner strength to survive the treachery that threatens not only to upset the balance of power in the Levant, but to destroy her marriage. As she works to outmaneuver shadowy agents intent on wresting the kingdom from Aiméry's young son Hugh, she is forced to confront her own inability to trust her husband and the difficulties she has ordering marriage's conflicting duties and purposes.

Norton does a marvelous job recreating the opulent, treacherous world of outre-mer as the arena for Juliana's growth. The author's descriptions of the physical setting are replete with sensory detail, from the taste of grapes and olive oil to the haunting beauty of tumbled classical ruins. She keeps the reader grounded amid the complicated politics and factional interests of the families competing to rule the Holy Land, the details of which might overwhelm those with little previous knowledge of the place and time. Within this broader framework, Norton creates unique characters whose particular aims and foibles generate fast-paced yet often subtle action laced with delicious twists. I did occasionally feel a bit lost trying to follow cryptic conversations and understand veiled motives, but disparate plot elements ultimately came together in satisfying fashion. Norton admirably meets what can be a difficult challenge for writers of historical fiction: the interweaving of the main characters' personal conflict and the broader political intrigue into an absorbing and gratifying whole.

THE SERPENT'S CROWN is the sequel to THE SIXTH SENSE, published by Plume in 2010. Although I thoroughly appreciated CROWN on its own, I suspect my understanding of the dynamics of the relationship between Juliana and Guérin would have benefitted from having read the previous novel. I sometimes wished for a deeper understanding of why Juliana fights her love for Guérin and mistrusts him for so long. The sequel sketches in the facts of the couple's early history but not much in the way of its emotional contours. Nevertheless, I rooted for Juliana and Guérin throughout and hoped that by the end of the novel they would not only be able to answer the question "What does a marriage make?" but live out that answer together.

Hana Samek Norton grew up in the former Czechoslovakia exploring the ruins of castles and cloisters where she became captivated by history and historical fiction. She later earned history degrees from the University of Western Ontario and the University of New Mexico. She currently lives in New Mexico, where she works as a consultant and occasionally teaches. THE SERPENT'S CROWN is her second novel. You can learn more about Hana and her books at her website. THE SERPENT'S CROWN may be purchased directly from Cuidono Press or from Amazon.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter Wishes


Famed Renaissance artist Léonard Limousin painted this image of the Resurrection of Christ in enamel on copper in 1553 as an altarpiece for the Sainte Chappelle in Paris. Installed on Assumption Day in 1553, the painting adorned the Sainte Chappelle until the Revolution. It was moved to the Louvre in 1816. Note the intertwined H and D emblem of Henri II and his mistress Diane de Poitiers emblazoned in the border.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Review: FALL OF POPPIES: Stories of Love and the Great War (William Morrow)

Riding high on the current wave of interest in the Great War, FALL OF POPPIES (William Morrow, March 1) offers lovers of historical fiction a poignant array of stories from some of the genre’s most popular writers. The nine-story collection explores the panoply of emotions that gripped the war-weary world on Armistice Day, dramatizing the effect of the end of conflict on those who survived to see it. Like the blood-red ceramic poppies planted in the moat of the Tower of London to commemorate the war’s fallen soldiers, each story pays tribute, through the evocative, emotional power of fiction, to the soldiers and civilians that experienced the relief, joy, grief, and hope that swept over Europe and America on that long-awaited day.

FALL OF POPPIES includes stories by Jessica Brockmole, Hazel Gaynor, Evangeline Holland, Marci Jefferson, Kate Kerrigan, Jennifer Robson, Heather Webb, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig. Each story exhibits the sound, vivid writing expected of established authors. Linked only by Armistice Day as a point of reference, the collection presents a broad range of characters, settings, and conflicts. The selections move from an Allied hospital in Belgium to a coffee plantation in Kenya to the nightclubs of Paris to a museum in Dublin. Novice pilots, generous sculptors, vengeful mothers, and conscientious objectors all search to make sense of their disrupted lives and disordered worlds. The fallen are mourned as new births are celebrated; aspirations die through tragic mistakes even as happy coincidence opens unimagined futures; destruction and upheaval force change and forge opportunity. It is hope that unites and animates these characters on their disparate paths: the hope of finding their missing, of hugging their beloved, of living another messy, uncertain, yet glorious day. Victim and victor alike struggle to build a future from the ruins of the past, a future all the stronger and more beautiful for the suffering endured along the way.

Readers will appreciate the individual stories for varied reasons, be it unforgettable characters (Webb’s devastated mother, Brockmole’s selfless pilot, Gaynor’s dedicated midwife), unique voice (William’s idealistic airman, Holland’s cautious cabaret dancer), heartrending conflict (Kerrigan’s ill-fated Irish/English romance, Willig’s disastrous misunderstanding), or distinctive historical content (Robson’s masks for the maimed, Jefferson’s underground nurses). Fans of particular authors will be more than satisfied by their favorites’ contributions and grateful for the introduction to the other authors’ work. An engaging, electrifying read, FALL OF POPPIES channels broader questions of love and loss through the prism of the Great War and demonstrates with convincing aplomb why historical fiction enjoys its current appeal.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Best Reads of 2015

I almost made it to my goal of reading 35 novels by the end of 2015... if I finish THE NIGHTINGALE by midnight tonight, I will have completed 33. If I include the completed but not yet published manuscripts I've read and critiqued for fellow writers, then I easily met my mark. I read many great books this year, some old, some new, and many written by friends (which makes compiling a list of favorites even more difficult and, frankly, rather awkward). In compiling my list of standout reads for 2015, I decided to exclude novels written by authors with whom I have a personal connection. I list those novels, along with links to reviews I wrote for them, below.  They were all wonderful books, and I encourage readers to pick them up, if they haven't already.

From among the remaining books I read, these were my favorites of 2015, in no particular order:

by Antoine Laurain, translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce
(2014; translated 2015)

A delightful story of a Parisian bookseller who finds a lost handbag on the street and puzzles together the owner's identity from the jumble of possessions inside it. A red notebook that contains the anonymous woman's jottings spurs the bookseller's desire to find her. Witty and romantic without being the least bit sappy, this beautifully translated novel examines the notions of nostalgia, regret, and serendipity with flair and charm.

by Laila Lalami

The Moor's Account

The imagined memoirs of the first black explorer of  America, a Moroccan slave named Estebanico, this compelling novel recounts the doomed Narvaez expedition to Florida in 1527-28. Only four men out of an original 600 survived the series of disasters that befell the Spanish party. Estabanico was one of the lucky ones, yet he received only one line, a mention of his name and origin, in the official account of the group's adventures. This Pulitzer Prize-listed novel gives Estebanico a voice and offers a new perspective on the European drive to colonize the New World.

by Ha Jin

The Crazed

In the months surrounding the Tiananmen Square massacre, student Jian Wan cares for his mentor Professor Yang, a respected teacher of literature who suffers a debilitating stroke. Are the professor's wild ravings the product of his diseased mind, or does his disability provide him cover to speak truths too dangerous to articulate? Exposed to disturbing ideas that he had trained himself not to contemplate, Jian Wan is forced to question his predetermined path. This remarkable portrait of late twentieth century Chinese society exposes the political pressures that oppressed an entire generation of scholars and activists.

by Benjamin Johncock

The Last Pilot

This stark novel recreates the early days of the U.S. space program through the eyes of Jim Harrison, an Air Force test pilot. Used to cheating death on a daily basis, Jim finds his courage and authority challenged when unexpected tragedy blindsides his young family. With his marriage and career on the line, Jim must come to terms with loss, grief, and the realization that the traits that make him an ace pilot are not necessarily those of a successful father and husband. A beautiful, emotionally intense novel of hope, courage, and forgiveness.

by Kathy and Becky Hepinstall

Sisters of Shiloh

When her husband is killed in the battle of Antietam, Libby vows to kill one Union soldier for every year of his too-short life. Disguised in her husband's clothes, she enlists in the Confederate army. Josephine, desperate to protect her grief-crazed sister, joins her. As Thomas and Joseph, the two sisters battle through the final days of the war, with Libby falling into madness and Josephine falling in love with a fellow soldier who thinks she's a man. A beautiful tribute to the tie that binds sisters and the hope that sustains victims of war.

by Katy Simpson Smith

The Story of Land and Sea

An intricate, poetic novel about the love between parent and child set in a small coastal town at the end of the American Revolution. Told in three parts, the novel explores several generations of a family forced to endure the difficult circumstances of war, kidnapping, and slavery. A quiet novel that pays rich dividends to the reader who savors it to the end.

by Donal Ryan

The Thing About December

Set in Ireland, this novel recounts a year in the life of Johnsey Cunliffe, an innocent, simple young man who, after the death of his overprotective parents, becomes the victim of greed as avaricious townsfolk attempt to cheat him of his valuable farm. Deeply moving and at times unsettling, this novel celebrates the resilience of the human spirit as a lonely, limited man struggles to make sense of the world.


Friends and colleagues published the following novels, all of which I read and greatly enjoyed this year. Please click on the links provided to read the reviews I wrote for them at the time of publication.

by Heather Webb (2015)
Rodin's Lover

by Susan Spann (2015)

Flask of the Drunken Master: A Shinobi Mystery (Shinobi Mystery, #3)

by Marci Jefferson (2015)

Enchantress of Paris: A Novel of the Sun King’s Court

by Michelle Moran (2015)

by C.W. Gortner (2015)

Mademoiselle Chanel

by Nancy Bilyeau (2015)

The Tapestry (Joanna Stafford, #3)

by Patricia Bracewell (2015)

The Price of Blood (The Emma of Normandy Trilogy, #2)

by Sophie Perinot (2015)

Médicis Daughter: A Novel of Marguerite de Valois

That wraps up 2015! Here's to more good reading in 2016. Happy New Year!

Monday, December 21, 2015

16th Century Christmas Trees

In 1521, the town clerk of Sélestat, a city in the Alsace region of France, made the following entry in the account register:

photo credit: Sé même 4 schillings aux gardes forestiers pour surveiller les mais à partir de la Saint Thomas

...likewise 4 shillings to the forest wardens for guarding the fir trees from St. Thomas's Day on

Historians now consider these words to be the first written mention of the Christmas tree. In the old liturgical cycle, St. Thomas's Day was celebrated on December 21, the night of the winter solstice. The fact that the town paid wardens to watch over the forest's trees from this night through Christmas indicates the trees were in danger of being cut down for decoration. Evidence of payment to the wardens for this period has also been found in the registers for 1546, 1555, and 1557, as well a schedule of fines set for those caught stealing a tree.

photo credit
In the 15th and 16th centuries, the faithful erected fir trees outside churches for use in Christmas mystery plays. The story of Adam and Eve required Eve to pluck fruit from a tree, and as fruit trees were bare at this time of year, fir trees stood substitute. Red apples adorned the green branches along with white unconsecrated hosts, representing the cycle of temptation and redemption. Given that the town needed to provide special protection to the forest trees during the Christmas season, it is not unreasonable to conclude that individuals might wish to decorate their own trees at home.

photo credit:
By 1600, city fathers erected a Christmas tree at the Hôtel de Ville. In a chronicle preserved with the account registers at Sélestat's Bibliothèque humaniste, the master of ceremonies of the time describes the ceremony surrounding the transport and presentation of the tree by the forest wardens, the process of its decoration, and the custom whereby the children of municipal employees would shake the tree's branches in order to dislodge sweet treats.

Each Christmas season, Sélestat organizes an exhibition in the nave of the Église Saint-Georges entitled "Christmas Tree Decorations Since 1521." Ten fir trees hang suspended from the ceiling, each displaying a different step in the evolution of the Christmas tree from the sixteenth century to the present day. The town celebrates the season with elaborate festivities: a Christmas village, special concerts, and, not surprisingly, a Christmas tree decorating contest.

I just finished decorating my own tree:

At least now I understand the significance of those red plastic apples I hung upon it!

Merry Christmas!

(This post originally appeared in December 2014.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Interview: Sophie Perinot, author of MÉDICIS DAUGHTER

Today I welcome Sophie Perinot, whose novel MÉDICIS DAUGHTER has just been published by St. Martin's Press. The novel (which I reviewed yesterday) recounts the story of Marguerite, the Valois princess who comes of age during the turmoil of the French Wars of Religion. Here, Sophie sheds some light on the writing of the book and the history it portrays.

1. What inspired you to write about Marguerite de Valois and how does your portrayal of her flow from or differ from previous fictional portrayals, be they literary (Alexandre Dumas), film (Patrice Chéreau), or television (Reign)? How difficult was it to work in the shadow of these other depictions?

My desire to explore the Valois court and Marguerite specifically actually originates with Dumas. I am a devotee of this grandfather of historical fiction. I can still remember the first time I read his work and how his ability to write fast-paced compelling stories of adventure and romance captivated me. When I read MARGUERITE DE VALOIS (more popularly known as LA REINE MARGOT) the novel made a special connection. The more times that I re-read it, the more convinced I became that Marguerite deserved a fuller depiction and a more historically based (Dumas was quite open about playing fast and loose with history) exploration. MÉDICIS DAUGHTER is the direct result of that conviction.

Although my desire to tell Margot’s story flows from Dumas, I never felt burdened by him or by any other portrayal of the Valois Court. I never felt in anyone’s shadow. My fiction reflects two primary things: my research and my personal sense of theme and story. So I don’t think of my depiction of the Valois court as competing with Chéreau’s, Dumas’ or anyone else’s. That is one of the wonderful things about historical dramas (whether in books, on TV or in film), they allow each creator to filter and to form—to not just recount history, but to shape narrative in a manner that is meaningful to them personally, as well as to audiences.

I’d like to think my results can stand up to the creations of others though. I recently got a review that thrilled me to the bone when it said: “Dumas's LA REINE MARGOT may have been the first novel to immortalize this indomitable French Queen, but the version of the queen in MÉDICIS DAUGHTER is the most realistic and believable I've yet come across."

2. The relationship between Marguerite and her mother Catherine de Médicis sits at the center of the book--why? What, specifically, about their relationship intrigued you the most?

I chose to focus on the Margot-Catherine relationship because the mother-daughter bond is such a seminal one in the lives of most women. I mean, doesn’t every daughter desire both to please her mother and find a separate existence from that powerful influencer? Margot is certainly no exception. Early on I wrote the following on my desk blotter: “The mother-daughter relationship is always perilous. Now imagine your mother was Catherine de Médicis.” That’s a pretty scary thought—and a very creatively inspiring one!

The most intriguing thing about this particular relationship is that of all Catherine’s children, Margot may have the most like her. Margot was certainly the strongest. Yet despite Margot’s intellect, her strong health and the gift of premonition that she shared with her mother, Catherine never really seemed to like this youngest daughter much. In fact it is reported that Catherine once told Margot she was “born in an evil day."

I came to believe that if Catherine had invested the type of time and energy in Margot that she did in Anjou, the Queen would have been richly rewarded. Even without her mother’s attentions Margot turned out to be a pretty savvy political operator.

3. The Valois, as a waning royal house, was slandered by its political adversaries and suffered a certain degree of prejudice in historical accounts of the time. What measures do you take in your novel to temper this bias? Was it difficult to judge the truthfulness of your historical sources? 

I don’t think this problem is limited to situations where there is an overt bias. In fact knowing there was one—that the Valois had many enemies who created contemporary sources with a particular agenda—was helpful because at least then I, as researcher, knew exactly what I was dealing with. Everyone, whether propagandist, memoirist or historian, comes at the “facts” and the “truths” of history with baggage. For many generations objectivity wasn’t even the goal of “H”istorians. Sometimes patronage drove perspective. For example, Catherine de Médicis had favorite chroniclers of the Court (like Brantôme), and you can bet Catherine wasn’t looking for an unbiased account. Sometimes the perspective of a historian is less overtly driven. It may come from their life experiences, opinions or, and this is still true today, from the desire to make a point or intellectual argument that will put him/her into the spotlight in their his/her discipline. So no matter what source we are reading—primary or secondary—it behooves us to be aware of possible filters.

Fortunately as writers of historical fiction (as opposed to academic historians) we are allowed to filter things as well—through our narrative structure, the points-of-view of our characters, etc. Ultimately story drives historical fiction. And author’s notes exist so we can own the decisions and judgments we make in weaving those stories.

4. What insights did you glean into Marguerite or her family from her memoir, published in 1628? Did the existence of this memoir help or hinder you? 

I find memoirs fascinating. I mean knowing how someone choses to curate their own life is as interesting as the life itself. That is particularly true when you are writing from a character’s point of view in the first person. I needed to be Margot, to see the world as Margot saw it. Her memoir was invaluable to me in this.

Margot was not attempting to provide a “just the facts” story of her history in the “letters” that comprise her memoir. By the time she sat down to write of her life, this last-of-the-Valois had very specific needs. She was being held at the Château d’Usson, and, after 1592, the annulment of her marriage to Henri of Navarre, now Henri IV King of France, was under negotiation. So what Margot included and excluded would have been purposeful. She clearly does not include everything she remembered. For example, she claims to have no recollection of much of the court’s Grand Progress in the 1560s—a claim that is hardly credible given that the trip lasted more than two years and involved the sort of sights and events that would surely have impacted an impressionable young woman. In addition, many of the key players from the early years of her life were dead. Margot had the opportunity to portray them without rebuttal. Yet in a number of cases she was quite charitable. For example, Margot called her brother Charles “the only stay and support of my life; a brother from whose hands I never received anything but good.” That is absolutely revisionist history. Trust me. So Margot’s decisions in constructing her memoir illuminated not only her actions and the actions of those around her but her thought process and political judgments. They gave me something that no secondary source could have.

5. Which scene was the most difficult to write? Which scene was the most fun to concoct?

My novel includes the infamous and bloody Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. In many ways those scenes were the most difficult to craft. Not because of the violence—but because we are a society that has largely become insensible to violence. I ultimately decided that the best way to convey the horror and despair that the massacre must have inspired in someone of conscience witnessing it first hand was to keep my images small and personal. Margot is encountering slaughter in the halls of the palace she calls home. She is observing it at close range, involving individuals she recognizes—people she has dined with, perhaps even danced with—in the roles of both victims and perpetrators. I think sometimes in most overwhelming moments of our lives we become focused, even fixated, on very small details. We remember what was on the radio the day we took the call saying someone we cared for had been killed in an accident for example. So I worked hard to distill Margot’s experiences, especially the next day when she is forced to ride out into the streets while they are still choked with the bodies of the dead.

When it came to fun, nothing beat the scenes between Margot and her cousin Henri of Navarre. They are so wrong together, such opposites, that something very right comes of it. There is always repartee when they are together. And later there is camaraderie, a chemistry touched by exasperation, which I really enjoyed.

6. If you could write a novel about one of the other characters in the book, who would you choose and why?

The Valois court offers an embarrassment of riches—so many fascinating individuals and so many years of violence and conflict yet to come. I’d love to write more about the entire cast of characters. If I did a sequel to MÉDICIS DAUGHTER, the POV I’d most like to add would be Margot’s cousin/husband, Henri of Navarre. Henri’s philosophy and perspective is so very different than that of his wife that he would add a marvelous counterpoint. But why stop at two voices? A royal court is an ensemble cast waiting to take the stage, so if I approached the Valois again it would be a riot to do TV mini-series style treatment—multiple points of view, serpentine subplots.


Sophie Perinot is the author of THE SISTER QUEENS and one of six contributing authors of A DAY OF FIRE: A NOVEL OF POMPEII. A former attorney, Perinot is now a full-time writer. She lives in Great Falls, Virginia with her three children, three cats, one dog and one husband.

An active member of the Historical Novel Society, Sophie has attended all of the group's North American Conferences and served as a panelist multiple times. Find her among the literary Twitterati as @Lit_gal or on Facebook.