Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Review: THE GIANT by Laura Morelli



One of the greatest challenges in writing a historical novel about a figure as colossal as Michelangelo is finding the proper angle from which to view him, a perspective that will provide a dramatic narrative arc as well as insight into the man beneath the reputation. In her newly published novel, THE GIANT, art historian Laura Morelli examines Michelangelo's creation of the iconic statue of David, commissioned by the city of Florence in 1501, through the eyes of his friend and collaborator Jacopo Torni (1476-1526). The novel's deliciously ambiguous title captures the multiple avenues of exploration this inspired choice of perspective opens. "The Giant" is, of course, the statue of David, which, at 17 feet, towers three times the height of a man. The sobriquet also refers to Michelangelo himself, a sculptor whose skills and vision far exceed those of the vast majority of artists. Yet, beyond the historical person, "The Giant" refers to the looming construct of "Michelangelo" in Jacopo's mind. "The Giant" is a talented rival whose focus, achievement, and fame forever dwarf and inhibit Jacopo's own accomplishment. As Michelangelo labors to free David from the marble block, Jacopo wrestles to escape the self-doubt and insecurity that haunt him in the shadow of his gifted friend.

Photo credit: Maksim Sokolov
Narrated in Jacopo's engaging, first-person voice, THE GIANT is as much, if not more, his story as it is Michelangelo's. The narrative revolves around the gigantic slab of marble that has lain, abandoned, in the cathedral precinct for decades. When the city fathers announce a contest to carve a figure from the stone, Jacopo invites Michelangelo back from Rome to collaborate with him on an entry. Although Jacopo's suggestions influence Michelangelo's designs, Michelangelo submits a proposal in his own name and wins the commission. He withdraws, surly and alone, into a high wooden pen to work on the statue in private, while Jacopo, ever the fun-loving, garrulous prankster, fritters away his sister's dowry and his own self-worth at the gambling table, waiting to be invited to help. Slowly, meticulously, Michelangelo's tools rasp away at the marble, giving exquisite form to the beauty of his vision. Just as steadily, and with as much painful effort, frustration and circumstance chip away at Jacopo's resistance, urging him to abandon his sloth and free his own talent from unreasonable expectations. With Michelangelo's unexpected help, Jacopo learns that he can either wallow, unproductive and overlooked, in envy, or use it as a spur toward greatness. It is a choice all creatives face as they contemplate the grand achievements of the artists that have preceded them.

Photo credit: Bruce Stokes
Based on a true story and replete with the details of technique and historical context that only an expert in the field can provide, Laura Morelli's THE GIANT provides a fascinating, satisfying account of the creation of one of the Renaissance's most revered works of art. Its convincing evocation of the vibrant artistic culture of early sixteenth century Florence reveals that, for many an artist, the most exacting challenge is not competing against other creators, but inspiring the reluctant self. Highly recommended.

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Laura Morelli holds a PhD in art history from Yale University and is the author of fiction and nonfiction inspired by the history of art. She has taught college students in the United States and Italy, and has developed lessons for TED-Ed. Her flagship shopping guidebook, Made in Italy, has led travelers off the beaten track for more than two decades. Her award-winning historical novels include The Painter's Apprentice, The Gondola Maker, and The Night Portrait: A Novel of WWII and da Vinci's Italy. Learn more at lauramorelli.com. Laura's books are available for purchase here.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Winner of Karen Odden's A TRACE OF DECEIT



And the winner of Karen Odden's A TRACE OF DECEIT, chosen by random number from amongst the comments, is...

KIM McCOY

Contact me at the blog email with your postal address, Kim, and Karen will mail you a copy of her book. I hope you enjoy it! If you do, posting a short review or rating the book online will really help Karen.

Thanks to all who took part in the drawing, and to Karen and William Morrow Books for participating in this giveaway.

A TRACE OF DECEIT can be purchased at your local bookseller or from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound and bookstores everywhere.

Happy reading!

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Book Giveaway: A TRACE OF DECEIT by Karen Odden

In her recent interview, Karen Odden touched upon her latest heroine, Annabel Rowe, as well as research and backstory for her third novel, A TRACE OF DECEIT. Now she is offering a copy of this book to one lucky blog reader, drawn at random. Contest rules are outlined below. But first, a look at Karen's story:


A TRACE OF DECEIT
by Karen Odden
William Morrow Paperbacks
12/17/2019
416 pages

A young painter digs beneath the veneer of Victorian London's art world to learn the truth behind her brother's murder...

Edwin is dead. That's what Inspector Matthew Hallam of Scotland Yard tells Annabel Rowe when she discovers him searching her brother's flat for clues. While the news is shocking, Annabel can't say it's wholly unexpected, given Edwin's past as a dissolute risk-taker and art forger, although he swore he'd reformed. After years spent blaming his reckless behavior for their parents' deaths, Annabel is now faced with the question of who murdered him--because Edwin's death was both violent and deliberate. A valuable French painting he'd been restoring for an auction house is missing from his studio: find the painting, find the murderer. But the owner of the artwork claims it was destroyed in a warehouse fire years ago.

As a painter at the prestigious Slade School of Art and as Edwin's closet relative, Annabel make the case that she is crucial to Matthew's investigation. But in their search for the painting, Matthew and Annabel trace a path of deceit and viciousness that reaches far beyond the elegant rooms of the auction house, into an underworld of politics, corruption, and secrets someone will kill to keep.

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For a chance to win Karen Odden's latest Victorian Mystery, A TRACE OF DECEIT (William Morrow, 2019), comment once on this post between now and 11 pm PST on Friday, June 5, 2020. A winner will be chosen by random number generator from among the entries. The winner's name will be posted on this blog by noon PST on Saturday, June 6, 2020. Check back then! Contest open to readers in the continental United States. Good luck!

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A TRACE OF DECEIT can be purchased from HarperCollins, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, and at local booksellers everywhere. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Interview with Karen Odden, author of A TRACE OF DECEIT

When I visited my intrepid agent Josh Getzler at HGLiterary last June, he offered me, as a parting gift, a selection of novels that he had represented. The blue cover of A DANGEROUS DUET (William Morrow, 2018), a Victorian mystery written by Karen Odden, immediately caught my eye. I so enjoyed reading it that when I recently saw Karen promoting her latest release, A TRACE OF DECEIT (William Morrow, 2019), I reached out to her on social media. Turns out we have a lot in common (besides our industrious and generous agent!). Like me, Karen has a doctorate in literature and writes novels set in the era of her academic specialty. Unlike me, she has been published three times over and has another book in the pipeline. She graciously agreed to answer some questions about her background, her novels, and her writing career. Sample her expertise and engaging voice in the interview below, and you'll be eager to read her exceptional mysteries for yourself. I know I can't wait to get my hands on A TRACE OF DECEIT!


1. Your three books all take place in London during the Victorian era (1870s). How did you become interested in this time period? Why does it fascinate you so? 

Years ago, I wrote my PhD dissertation at NYU on Victorian railway disasters. It probably seems odd to most of us, but people were obsessed with them—sort of the way we’re riveted by computer hacking or terrorism. Accounts of train wrecks appeared in novels, medical literature, newspaper accounts, parliamentary papers, legal trial reports, and so on. In order to understand their power in the public imagination, I studied Victorian literature and history, especially London during Queen Victoria’s era, 1837-1901.

But as I researched, the 1870s became my favorite decade because so much changed so rapidly in the social, economic, and political spheres. It was like someone set loose a rollercoaster car! Some of this is because literacy rates were rising, so people wrote, read, and talked about social issues more. But many of the debates of the 1850s and 1860s led to a swath of new laws in the 1870s. For example, traditionally under British law, a married woman was “covered” by her husband. This meant she could not vote, hold her own money, initiate a contract or divorce, or inherit property. In 1870, as a result of the Married Woman’s Property Act, for the first time, a woman could earn and keep her wages (shocking, I know!) and she could inherit property up to £200. It was one small but significant reversal of a huge social inequality. The Elementary Education Act of 1870 finally made education mandatory for all children ages 6-12. A series of safety and labor laws were passed to protect works in the mills and factories. Furthermore, new institutions such as the Slade School of Art (founded 1871) were opening to women. And the Franco-Prussian War (1871) tipped the balance of power in continental Europe from France to newly-united Germany—with results that we’d continue to see well into the twentieth century. Yet all this change occurred during a decade that was smack in the middle of the longest stable reign in British history. I find that so interesting.

2. What sparks a new book for you first—a character, a situation, or a setting? How do you work to construct a mystery plot? 

At the heart of each of my novels is a story I read or heard that clutched at me and refused to let go. As I researched railways, I found descriptions of people climbing out of burning carriages, horses trapped and screaming in stock cars, railway surgeons faced with hundreds of patients lying in the surrounding fields. So a railway disaster became the propelling event in A Lady in the Smoke. Similarly, when I was researching for A Dangerous Duet, I discovered the brilliant pianist Fanny Dickens (Charles’s older sister) was forced to leave the Royal Academy because she could no longer afford tuition. There were no opportunities for Fanny to make the money—and even if she earned it, she could have been forced to hand it over to her father to pay the family’s debts. It felt horribly unfair to me. A Trace of Deceit was shaped by painful stories of addiction, told to me by friends. And my next book is about the brutality of the African slave and ivory trades in the 1870s. In 2013, I read a book that included accounts of how Belgian agents would seize African women and children and put them in cages with no food or water, freeing them only when their husbands or fathers brought back the requisite 70 pounds of rubber. Now, seven years later, I’ll put this story to use.

3. Do you travel for your research? What has been your most thrilling discovery?

I had been to London a few times, even before I started writing books set there. My most thrilling discovery was Wilton’s Music Hall in Whitechapel—not far from where the Ripper murders took place. It is (so far as I know) the only standing Victorian Music Hall in London, and it’s an amazing space. If you’ve seen Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows with Robert Downey, Jr., you’ve seen Wilton’s. As Sherlock, Downey is chased all over the theater by a Cossack.

Photo credit: http://www.wiltons.org.uk
Wilton’s was created in the mid-1800s by John Wilton, who joined together three houses in Graces Alley to make the music hall. As I walked through the doors, I could smell the hops, and I tripped over a nail in the wooden floorboards. I went downstairs and prowled around the basement with its uneven floors and plaster coming off the bricks. Then I came up and looked at the music hall itself—the U-shaped room, painted blue, with gilt and turned pillars. Instantly, I could see Nell in her piano alcove, and the setting for my story began to feel solid.

Photo credit: Karen Odden

Photo credit: Karen Odden
That trip, I also went to the Royal Academy of Music, where I found the 1820s class roster with Fanny Dickens’s name and a plaque with information about her. The music hall industry arose too late for Fanny, but by the 1850s there were dozens of halls in London willing to pay for talent—though men made twice what women did. And so was born the story of the pianist Nell Hallam, who needs to earn money for her tuition at the Academy and dresses as a man to take a position in a Soho music hall.


4. Inspector Matthew Hallam, the brother of the protagonist in your previous book A DANGEROUS DUET, reappears as a main character in A TRACE OF DECEIT. Are you building a series featuring Matthew? Does Nell, the protagonist of DUET, figure in TRACE?

Nell appears incidentally in A Trace of Deceit, but I don’t want to do a “series” in the usual way. I do have a few secondary overlapping characters—particularly Tom Flynn, my shrewd, straight-talking writer for the (fictional) London newspaper, the Falcon. He is based on my high school English teacher, who was the first person who told me I could write.

Frankly, I don’t trust myself to keep a protagonist interesting (or to stay interested in her!) to the same degree, after her first book, when the “big” issue from her past is resolved. Besides, I’m a research junkie. I’ve explored railways, music halls, the London art and auction world, and now the African ivory trade … and assuming there’s a fifth book, I want to move on to another aspect of Victorian London.


5. What do you love most about your new heroine, Annabel Rowe? How does she frustrate you? 

I love Annabel because she cares. She cares about her brother Edwin’s well-being. She cares about honoring his memory by finding out who he was before he died. She cares about telling the truth in her paintings—representing people as they really are, rather than some idealized version.

I wouldn’t say she frustrated me, necessarily … maybe she should have! But from the outset, I knew how she had to change. As a child, Annabel grew up the fourth person in a house with a very intense triangle: her father was fiercely ambitious for Edwin, who resented his father’s demands, and her mother ran interference. Annabel was always the observer because as a child, it was safer. Even as an adult, her habit of observing kept her out of the fray, and it worked (up to a point) for becoming a painter. But over the course of the novel, she has to learn how being solely an onlooker limits her. She needs to find a way to deepen her engagement with the world, or she will never become the painter she could be … and she won’t solve Edwin’s murder.

6. What authors inspired you to become a mystery writer? How does their work influence yours? 

As a child, my family spent every Sunday out at my grandparents’ house where my parents played bridge and I was left to scavenge in my grandmother’s library. There I found all kinds of books—bodice rippers, mysteries, suspense! I was probably around eleven when I found Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, and Daphne DuMaurier, and I’d say they were my first “adult” mysteries. (I had already torn through Nancy Drew, etc.) I loved the way these three women authors created vivid settings, fashioned young women characters who weren’t superheroes but seemed to have something in common with me, and had plots that wove together past tragedies and present events. I also loved how a single murder and a personal desire for truth could spin suspense for an entire book. A plot didn’t need to have fast cars and exploding buildings and bloodbaths to be a page-turner. The suspense for me came through the small scenes, the interactions among characters. Over the years, I realize I’m drawn to books that have some of these qualities—Tana French’s books and Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves are books I reread every year or two. As far as being influenced, I like to think my books place the reader in Victorian London, where they will hear “Oranges and Lemons” from the church bells and smell the tallow from the chandler’s shop. And my protagonists, young women amateur sleuths, all have to learn something from their past in order to move forward in their present, and to solve the mystery in front of them.

7. You have now published three mystery novels. What have you learned over the course of these three books? Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? 

Oh gosh. I could write a book just on what I’ve learned! But I’ll pick two things that stand out. First, it’s great to start with a clear plot idea (a railway crash, say). But I’ve come to realize the importance of spending hours and hours on backstories for my characters—even the minor ones. Then, after I write the first draft, I go back to my backstories and revise them, which in turn deepens my manuscript. I have separate pages for each character, and I write their histories from their point-of-view, although that information doesn’t all make it into the novel. The codicil to “backstories are vital” is that although backstories need to be in my head, they don’t need to be in my book.

Second, after writing, I trim. By my third or fourth draft, the manuscript is about 120,000 words—and then, when I feel my manuscript is “done” as far as plot and character, and all the details fit, and I love it exactly the way it is, I slash 20,000 words out. It inevitably makes a leaner, cleaner manuscript—and reducing redundancy, or even omitting a few lines here and there leaves room for the reader to fill in. Readers feel more engaged when they have to do some of the work … and I’ve learned to trust my readers. They’re smart.


8. What has been the most exciting moment of your writing career so far? Have you ever been ready to throw in the towel? What made you persevere? 

Eight years ago, before I found my agent, I nearly gave up. I’d been working on the manuscript for A Lady in the Smoke, and some YA manuscripts, for years. I just couldn’t find an agent to take more than a passing interest, and though I’d taken classes and read books on writing, I didn’t know what was wrong with them. I remember talking to my friend Jody Hallam (for whom Matthew Hallam is named) about how incredibly discouraged I was, and how I could write for another ten years and still get nowhere. The uncertainty was terrible. She urged me to find a free-lance editor before I gave up. Another friend, also a writer, recommended someone who helped me get the manuscript in shape for submission—and I sent it out to ten agents I found on Publisher’s Marketplace. I heard back from eight, and two eventually offered representation.

Like Annabel (and all my heroines) I had something to learn: I need feedback at various stages. My advice is to find a strong critique group, or a mentor who will work one-on-one, if that suits you. Join organizations such as Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, who have resources to help you. And of course, keep writing.

The thing is, even if I had never found an agent or a publisher, I’d write anyway. I have dozens of notebooks and piles of manuscript pages and drafts of articles and essays that will probably never see the light of day. A friend asked me once, “Don’t you ever want to take a day off from writing?” I replied that it’s sort of like brushing my teeth; I could skip a day, but it doesn’t feel good. Honestly, I love writing more than I hate failing at it. And my reading and writing has brought me to a community with so many lovely, smart, talented readers, librarians, bloggers, booksellers, and writers that even if I never publish another book, I’ve won.

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Karen Odden served as an Associate Lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and taught classes in English language and literature at New York University and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. She has contributed essays and chapters to books and journals, including Studies in the Novel, Journal of Victorian Culture, and Victorian Crime, Madness, and Sensation; for ten years, she served as an Assistant Editor for the academic journal, Victorian Literature and Culture (Cambridge UP); and she has written introductions for Barnes and Noble's Classics Series editions of books by Dickens and Trollope. Prior to receiving her Ph.D. in English, she worked as an Editorial Assistant at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and McGraw-Hill, as a Media Buyer for Christie's Auction House in New York, and as a bartender at the airport in Rochester, where she learned how to stop being shy. She is a member of SCBWI and Mystery Writers of America. Her first book, A Lady in the Smoke, was a USA Today Bestseller and won the 2017 New Mexico-Arizona award for eBook Fiction. Her second book, from William Morrow/Harper Collins, is A Dangerous Duet, which won the New Mexico-Arizona book award for Historical Fiction in 2019; and her third Victorian mystery, A Trace of Deceit, was published in December 2019. 

Karen currently resides in Scottsdale, Arizona with her husband, her two children, and her ridiculously cute beagle, Rosy.

Learn more about Karen and her books by visiting her website.


Tuesday, April 28, 2020

6 Essential Truths about Editing a Novel, Learned the Hard Way

Revision is one of the most exhilarating and, at the same time, daunting aspects of writing a novel. Although typing “The End” does mark an important milestone—after all, you just created an entire world out of nothing—“The Beginning of the End” might be a more fitting tag. A successful novel must satisfy on so many levels (language, logic, characterization, world-building, theme) that is can take multiple passes get everything working together to maximal effect.

I recently finished revising, for the umpteenth time, a novel that I wrote over five years ago. Back then, after several rounds of revision, I sincerely believed the novel represented my best effort and could not be improved in any significant way.

How wrong I was!


The current version of this novel is so much stronger that I’m embarrassed I ever thought those earlier versions any good. In many ways, this latest version hardly resembles those earlier incarnations at all.

When I began writing fiction, I had no idea how important—and lengthy—the revision process was. Since I’m a plotter who writes very slowly, agonizing over every sentence, I naturally considered those sentences, and the chapters they comprised, more or less “finished” once I squeezed them onto the paper. However, once I started critiquing the work of other writers and seeing how their manuscripts evolved and strengthened over multiple drafts, my resistance to editing softened. I’ll now be the first to admit that only through extensive serial revisions can a novel reach its fullest, most satisfying potential.

Experience has taught me these truths about editing:

1. You can’t know the real story until you have the entire thing down on paper.

No matter how carefully you plan out your story ahead of time, new ideas surface during the act of drafting. The more you write, the more you discover about your story and characters. It is difficult to know exactly what you are working with until the entire mess is down on paper. Only at that point can you see the relationship of the parts to each other and to the whole. Over time, I’ve learned it's much more effective and artistically freeing to plow through the initial drafts of a story, focusing on plot and character development without getting hung up subtler issues, especially language. Once you’ve got a mass of lumpy brown clay on your wheel, you can begin to spin and tease and shape it into something beautiful.

2. If you have misgivings about some aspect of your story, don’t ignore them.

Listen to your heart, as the old song advised. If, once you have your initial draft on paper, something doesn’t feel right, figure out what it is and fix it. Don’t be afraid to change things up just because you wrote them a certain way first time around. I see now that in earlier versions of my novel, I had forced the plot in a certain direction because the story had too many characters. I had to distribute motivations and actions among them all, making it very difficult to fit all the pieces together in the end. I managed to do it, but this forced resolution never rang true. Removing a couple of characters crystalized motivations and allowed the resolution to evolve in a more natural and convincing way. I would have saved much time and mental anguish if I’d admitted earlier on that those characters, intriguing though they were, unnecessarily complicated the plot.

3. Focus on one particular issue per revision.

A single edit doesn’t have to fix every problem in a manuscript. Often, it is more helpful to read through a manuscript several times, focusing on different aspects with each read. For example, read through first for plot continuity and plausibility problems. Strengthen characterization on a second read. On a third, find ways to clarify theme. One of my last revisions, for example, focused solely on deepening a certain relationship in order to achieve a more emotionally satisfying dénouement. Although it is difficult not to polish as you go, try to save language tweaking for the final edit, after all cuts and additions have been made. You don’t want to waste time fixing awkward phrasing or repetitive wording in passages that might disappear for other reasons.

4. Other eyes are crucial in determining what's wrong with or missing from a manuscript.

After working on a novel for years, it is difficult to have enough distance to assess its flaws. A trusted reader, be it a well-read friend, a critique partner, or a skilled agent, can uncover issues and make suggestions that could lift your manuscript from good to great. It can be useful to have different people read subsequent drafts, so that their impressions are always fresh and not colored by what they remember from before.

5. Less is more.

This truth, the hardest for me to learn, is now the mantra I repeat over and over as I review my material. It is easy to locate and excise superfluous adjectives and adverbs, repetitive phrasing, and wordy transitions. However, less obvious things can bog down a manuscript: excessive internal thought, projection of future events, detailed stage direction, unnecessary description, filler dialogue. Over-explaining, my particular weakness, can also bloat a draft. Trust the reader to fill in gaps and make connections—readers want to play an active role in the construction of sense. The goal of editing it to remove the dross so that the gold can shine.

6. It can always be better.

Now, instead of dreading revision, I look forward to it. I embrace it as a challenge, rather than evidence of failure. It is exciting to see a strong, engaging text emerge from a flabby mass of words and ideas. Though he spoke of sculpting, Michelangelo's words capture the purpose and joy of editing:

"I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free." 


Free the angels in your own work! Happy editing.

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Do you have any editing tips or techniques to share?


Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Review: THE LOST DAUGHTER by Gill Paul



THE LOST DAUGHTER by Gill Paul (William Morrow 2019) is a richly textured, emotionally resonant novel that transforms a tantalizing historical "what if" question into a riveting journey of self-discovery and healing. A dual timeline narrative, THE LOST DAUGHTER structures itself around two premises: that Maria Nikolaevna, the nineteen year-old daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, survives the horrific execution of her family in 1918, and that, fifty years later in Australia, a young woman of Russian-Chinese descent inherits mysterious items that, she will eventually discover, belonged to Maria at the time of her execution. Two stories unfold: one told from the perspective of Maria as she builds a new, anonymous life in post-tsarist Russia, and the other from that of Val Scott, a young mother determined to escape her abusive marriage and create a future for herself and her daughter. Val's surly and taciturn father, Russian emigré Irwin Scott, links the two narrative threads together. As Val works to identify the strange objects and uncaptioned photographs her father stashed in a safety deposit box, she slowly uncovers the mystery of his checkered past. Her quest to understand what he'd always hidden from her frees her from pain and blame and opens the way to a future she'd never before imagined.


The novel's strength lies in its sympathetic depiction of two women struggling to triumph over the violence and misfortune in their lives. Maria and Val follow reverse, yet complimentary, trajectories. One of the last Tsar's several daughters, Maria lives a life of luxury and familial affection until the Bolshevik Revolution robs her of her wealth and security. Violence tears her from the heart of her family and thrusts her into a life of poverty and complete dependence on the charity and reticence of strangers. Val, on the other hand, has enjoyed little security in her life. Raised by a cold and distant father after the unexplained disappearance of her mother, she finds herself bullied and physically abused by her controlling husband. To protect her young daughter, Val must escape her marriage and begin anew with few skills and little money. Whereas Maria, in order to construct a safe future for herself and her children, must completely and utterly renounce her past, Val can only establish a secure life for herself and her daughter by piecing together the mysterious fragments of her parents' stories and claiming their past as her own. Both woman painfully learn how the past, in unlikely ways, intrudes on the present and shapes it in ways not foreseen. Ultimately, both discover that the sole remedy to the chaos that threatens to engulf them is devotion to those they love.


Readers of historical fiction will savor the wide swath of well-researched Russian history, both tsarist and communist, that Paul presents with convincing detail. (The chapters set during the Siege of Lenigrad are particularly moving.) Readers of contempory women's fiction will appreciate the protagonists' courage and resourcefulness as they struggle to overcome challenges. Both readers will relish the novel's emotional insight and poignancy. THE LOST DAUGHTER supremely illustrates the power of a dual narrative to draw the modern reader into dialogue with the past. As a new Russia emerges from the ruins of the old, Gill Paul's two protagonists rise from the rubble of personal destruction in a twisty and ultimately satisfying quest for identity and self-determination.

*****
Gill Paul’s historical novels have reached the top of the USA Today, Toronto Globe & Mail and UK kindle charts, and been translated into twenty languages. She specializes in relatively recent history, mostly 20th century, and enjoys re-evaluating real historical characters and trying to get inside their heads.

Gill also writes historical non-fiction, including A History of Medicine in 50 Objects and series of Love Stories. Published around the world, this series includes Royal Love Stories, World War I Love Stories and Titanic Love Stories.

Gill was born in Scotland and grew up there, apart from an eventful year at school in the US when she was ten. She studied Medicine at Glasgow University, then English Literature and History (she was a student for a long time), before moving to London to work in publishing. Her first novel was written at weekends, but she has now given up the ‘day job’ to write fiction full-time. She also writes short stories for magazines and speaks at libraries and literary festivals about subjects ranging from the British royal family to the Romanovs, and about writing itself.

Gill swims year-round in an open-air pond – “It’s good for you so long as it doesn’t kill you”– and loves travelling whenever and wherever she can.

To learn more about Gill Paul and her books, visit her website.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Beware the Ghost of the Grand-Veneur!



You're stealing through the Forest of Fontainebleau at dusk, a thick carpet of pine needles and fallen leaves muffling your footsteps, your breath rising in wispy clouds of white. The full moon peaks through the mist, bouncing off menacing piles of boulders, deepening shadows that obscure the dangerous maws of caves and the beasts that lurk within them. Owls hoot, frogs croak, unseen vermin skitter through the underbrush. Suddenly, new noises pierce the night: the thudding of hooves, the barking of dogs. The sounds grow louder and louder as they approach. The long, sad cry of a horn shreds the air, and before you appears a hunter, dressed in black, mounted on an all-black steed. A pack of dogs, eyes flaming like coals, mill, snarling and yapping, about the horse's legs. As the horse rears, forelegs flailing, the hunter stares down at you with blank, black eyes. He blasts his horn again, and as quickly as they appeared, horse, rider, and dogs vanish into the mist, leaving no trace of their presence but the chill that settles deep in your heart.

The Fantôme du Grand-Veneur, the Ghost of the Head Huntsman, has just appeared to deliver a grave warning: something dire is about to happen. Your own death, most likely. Heart pounding in terror, you flee, wishing you'd never set foot in the forest.

The ghost of the Grand-Veneur, also known as "le Chasseur Noir" (The Black Hunter), has been appearing in the Fôret de Fontainebleau, the dense forest of oak and pine that surrounds the château, for centuries. Tradition holds that the ghost is the spirit of a royal huntsman who was assassinated during the reign of François I and now roams the forest during the night with his pack of dogs. He appears during times of trouble to foretell tragic events. Numerous kings, including François himself, Charles IX, Henri IV, and Louis XIV, reportedly encountered him. The phantom announced an early death to Louis XVI and the assassination of the duc de Berry. Napoléon I received a visit on the eve of his abdication.

In a letter dated September 25, 1598, the diplomat Jacques Bongars recounts how the Chasseur Noir appeared to Henri IV during a hunt and warned him to "mend his ways":

On dit que le Roi retournant de la chasse en sa maison de Fontainebleau à dix heures du soir a entendu un chasseur qui faisait grand bruit. On assure même qu'il appelait ses chiens par leur nom (...) Le Roi étant entré dans le Château, fit venir les plus vieux des habitants du Bourg, pour savoir d'eux ce que ce pourrait être. Ils lui répondirent qu'on voyait paraître quelquefois, au milieu de la nuit, un Chasseur à cheval, avec sept ou huit chiens, qui courent la forêt, comme en chassant sans blesser personne. 


They say that the King, returning from the hunt to his home at Fontainebleau at ten o'clock at night, heard a hunter making a great noise. People swear he was calling his dogs by name... The King, having entered the palace, summoned the oldest inhabitants of the town, to learn from them what it might have been. They told him that sometimes people saw appear, in the middle of the night, a hunter on a horse, with seven or eight dogs, galloping through the forest as if hunting, without hurting anyone.

The Chasseur Noir appeared to Henri IV once again, this time with grave consequences. The king was hunting deer in the woods, and had stopped to dine with his mistress Gabrielle d'Estrées and several courtiers. The sound of dogs and horns arose nearby. The king sent his man Bassompierre to investigate. A quarter of an hour later, Bassompierre returned, greatly shaken. The Chasseur had spoken to him, telling him to warn the king that if he didn't repudiate his mistress that very day, a great misfortune would befall her. The king laughed off the Chasseur's prediction. Three days later, Gabrielle d'Estrées died of hideous convulsions.

Either the Grand-Veneur truly had prophetic powers, or his myth served as a convenient cover for a poisoning plot. The latter seems more likely.

In any case, don't ignore the Grand-Veneur's warning, should he appear in your path!

*****

Sources:

"Qui était vraiment le Chasseur Noir de la forêt de Fontainebleau?" BFMTV, 07/23/2017.
"Petit Promenade en Foret de Fontainebleau" Rando sac au dos--par Bleausard, 3/9/14
"La légende du chasseur noir de la forêt de Fontainebleau," Fontainebleau-Photo.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

"Writing About the Romanovs": Guest Post by Gill Paul, Author of THE LOST DAUGHTER

I'm excited to welcome Gill Paul to the blog today to talk about her latest novel, THE LOST DAUGHTER, recently released from William Morrow. I'm about a hundred pages in, and can assure you that this is a story you won't want to miss! A dual-timeline tale exploring the mystery of what truly happened to the Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna of Russia, daughter of the last Tsar, Gill's novel recounts the Romanov's tragic history with a captivaing blend of emotional sensitivity and narrative ingenuity.


Writing About the Romanovs
by Gill Paul

Why write a fictional account of the murder of the Romanovs when the historical facts are so dramatic and compelling? Yacob Yurovsky, leader of the execution squad, left detailed testimonies about the night of July16th, 1918. According to him, the shots the killers fired ricocheted off jewels the four daughters had sewn into the seams of their clothing, wounding but not killing them. They lay moaning in pain and shock, on a floor slippery with the blood of their mother, father and younger brother, as well as four servants who shared their fate. Then the murderers finished them off with vicious bayonet thrusts as they huddled together screaming in terror.

Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, with Alexei,photographed in 1910.Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The Romanovs were right up there amongst the wealthiest families of all time, closely related to most other European royals, and that gives their fate a fairy-tale dimension. There were no wicked stepmothers or scary ogres, but Nicholas and Alexandra were blinkered and unable to respond to the wind of change in Russia. They weren't lighting cigars with hundred-rouble notes, as cartoons depicted them, but there were priceless Fabergé eggs, the no-expense-spared royal yacht and train, and all those glittering palaces, while their people starved. It wasn't evil but it certainly wasn't smart.

Their children were blameless, though. The elder daughters worked as nurses during the war and helped refugees; the younger ones cut bandages and visited the wounded. They were naïve, devout young women, living the life they had been born into.

The Ekaterinburg basement.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
As a novelist, I couldn't resist trying to imagine how it felt to be them, through the sixteen months of house arrest, in conditions that became increasingly terrifying, and then during that last half hour in the Ekaterinburg basement. With fiction you can intensify the tragedy by letting readers relate to them as individuals. I've ventured into areas biographers can't go by giving the sisters dialogue, emotions and thoughts and a little bit of alternative 'What if?' history.

In fairy stories, princesses wait passively for rescue, and the common trope is that beautiful innocents are saved, Cinderella by her prince, Snow White by the seven dwarfs. In the 21st century we like our heroines to be braver and more in control of their fates, like Captain Marvel. Either way, the Romanovs got the wrong ending and it offends our story sense. Perhaps that is why novelists keep returning to them, as if in the retelling we can somehow make things right.

**********
Gill Paul's historical novels have reached the top of the USA Today, Toronto Globe & Mail and Kindle charts, and been translated into twenty languages. They include two novels about the Romanovs: The Lost Daughter, which has just been published by William Morrow, and The Secret Wife, which came out in 2016. Other novels include Women and Children First, set on the Titanic, and Another Woman's Husband, about mysterious links between Wallis Simpson and Princess Diana. Gill also writes historical non-fiction, including A History Of Medicine In 50 Objects. She lives in London, where she is working on her tenth novel and swims daily in an outdoor pond. Learn more about Gill Paul and her books at her website.

You can order THE LOST DAUGHTER from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and independent booksellers everywhere.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Gill Paul's THE LOST DAUGHTER, available today!

Today I am pleased to announce the publication of Gill Paul's THE LOST DAUGHTER, a novel of the Romanovs, out today from William Morrow. From Gill's website:


1918. With the country they once ruled turned against them, the future of Russia’s imperial family hangs in the balance. When middle daughter Maria Romanova captivates two of the guards, it will lead to a fateful choice between right and wrong. Fifty-five years later . . . Val rushes to her father’s bedside when she hears of his troubling end-of-life confession: ‘I didn’t want to kill her.’ As she unravels the secrets behind her mother’s disappearance when she was twelve years old, she finds herself caught up in one of the world’s greatest mysteries.

Reviewers have called THE LOST DAUGHTER "as rich in historical detail as it is captivating" (Heatworld); "deeply moving, but never without hope" (Woman's Weekly); "a brilliantly emotional read" (Woman’s Own).

I met Gill Paul for the first time this past June at the Historical Novel Society Conference. She is a lovely person and quite an accomplished author. THE LOST DAUGHTER is her ninth novel. Gill also publishes nonfiction and short stories. You can learn more about Gill and her books at her website.

Gill will be back here on September 4 with a special guest post. Be sure to return then! In the meantime, you can find THE LOST DAUGHTER at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and independent bookstores everywhere. I can't wait to dig into it myself. Happy reading!

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Review: THE LOST HISTORY OF DREAMS by Kris Waldherr


In an early chapter of Kris Waldherr's debut novel, THE LOST HISTORY OF DREAMS (Atria, April 2019), protagonist Robert Highstead, a frustrated writer turned post-mortem daguerrotypist, can hardly contain his excitement at opening an unfamiliar book. "Books were easy, unlike people," the narrator reveals, mirroring Robert's thoughts. "Writing them, however, was another matter."

If writing this remarkable novel was difficult for Walherr, she has deftly disguised the strain. From its unique premise to its elegant language to its cleverly nested and emotionally satisfying plot, THE LOST HISTORY OF DREAMS is captivating work worthy of a seasoned novelist. Recasting Ovid's story of Orpheus and Euridyce in an eerily Gothic context, Waldherr creates a sweeping tale of love and loss, of beauty and obsession, of guilt and grief that totter to the brink of madness, and of deliverance that soars on the wings of doves.

Trapped in a tragic marriage, Robert Highstead abandons his academic career to capture images of deceased strangers. At the request of his estranged brother, he undertakes a decidedly curious task: that of returning the embalmed body of a distant cousin, the famed poet Hugh de Bonne, to the poet's estate for burial. Hugh desired to be laid to rest beside his beloved wife and muse, Ada, in the stained-glass chapel he had built years earlier to house her remains. The key to this chapel, locked since Ada's death and an object of intense interest to the cult-like fans of Hugh's poems, is in the possession of Ada's niece, Isabelle, who lives on the now-decrepit estate. A recluse who bides in perpetual mourning for her aunt, Isabelle refuses to honor Hugh's final request unless Robert agrees to record--and publish--the true story of Hugh and Ada's marriage. Desperate to complete his task, Robert agrees. Over the course of five nights, Isabelle recounts a tale that undermines the carefully constructed chimera of Hugh's poetic fictions and draws teller and listener into an explosive confrontation with truth and with each other.

The tragedy of Robert and Sida's marriage, the mystery of Isabelle's identity, the machinations of the Seekers of the Lost Dream, the validity of the love immortalized in Hugh's poems: Waldherr masterfully handles these numerous plot threads, playing with patterns and echoes and parallels until the distinctions between past and present, fact and fiction, truth and falsehood collapse. All love stories are ghost stories, she repeatedly reminds the reader, as characters struggle to free themselves from the grip of lost love and the anguish of unfulfilled promise. Words and art ultimately serve as both liberator and prison, for it is only by immersing himself in Isabelle's story that Robert can revise the course of his own.

Readers of Waldherr's novel will experience the same thrill that Robert feels when he opens Hugh's book of poems for the first time. THE LOST HISTORY OF DREAMS is not an easy book, but it is an immensely gratifying one, whose images and ideas will linger long after the cover closes.

**********

Kris Waldherr is the acclaimed author of Bad Princess, Doomed Queens, The Book of Goddesses, The Lost History of Dreams and other publications that celebrate story with art and words. An accomplished illustrator and visual artist, Kris is the creator of the Goddess Tarot, which has a quarter of a million copies in print. Learn more about Kris and her work at her website.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Cover Reveal: RIBBONS OF SCARLET: A Novel of the French Revolution's Women

Several of my friends co-authored this new novel on the women of the French Revolution. I can't wait to read it! Coming in October, but available for pre-order today.



Six bestselling and award-winning authors bring to life a breathtaking epic novel illuminating the hopes, desires, and destinies of princesses and peasants, harlots and wives, fanatics and philosophers—six unforgettable women whose paths cross during one of the most tumultuous and transformative events in history: the French Revolution.
RIBBONS OF SCARLET: A Novel of the French Revolution, releases October 1st, 2019! Check out the amazing cover below and pre-order your copy today!

About RIBBONS OF SCARLET: A Novel of the French Revolution (Coming October 1, 2019)
Ribbons of Scarlet is a timely story of the power of women to start a revolution—and change the world.
In late eighteenth-century France, women do not have a place in politics. But as the tide of revolution rises, women from gilded salons to the streets of Paris decide otherwise—upending a world order that has long oppressed them.
Blue-blooded Sophie de Grouchy believes in democracy, education, and equal rights for women, and marries the only man in Paris who agrees. Emboldened to fight the injustices of King Louis XVI, Sophie aims to prove that an educated populace can govern itself--but one of her students, fruit-seller Louise Audu, is hungrier for bread and vengeance than learning. When the Bastille falls and Louise leads a women’s march to Versailles, the monarchy is forced to bend, but not without a fight. The king’s pious sister Princess Elisabeth takes a stand to defend her brother, spirit her family to safety, and restore the old order, even at the risk of her head.
But when fanatics use the newspapers to twist the revolution’s ideals into a new tyranny, even the women who toppled the monarchy are threatened by the guillotine. Putting her faith in the pen, brilliant political wife Manon Roland tries to write a way out of France’s blood-soaked Reign of Terror while pike-bearing Pauline Leon and steely Charlotte Corday embrace violence as the only way to save the nation. With justice corrupted by revenge, all the women must make impossible choices to survive--unless unlikely heroine and courtesan’s daughter Emilie de Sainte-Amaranthe can sway the man who controls France’s fate: the fearsome Robespierre.

✭✭✭ PRE-ORDER YOUR COPY OF RIBBONS OF SCARLET TODAY✭✭✭
Amazon https://amzn.to/2sk49mV

  

About Kate Quinn:
Kate Quinn is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of historical fiction. A native of southern California, she attended Boston University where she earned a Bachelor's and Master's degree in Classical Voice. She has written four novels in the Empress of Rome Saga, and two books in the Italian Renaissance, before turning to the 20th century with "The Alice Network" and "The Huntress." All have been translated into multiple languages. Kate and her husband now live in San Diego with two rescue dogs named Caesar and Calpurnia, and her interests include opera, action movies, cooking, and the Boston Red Sox.


About Stephanie Dray:

Stephanie Dray is a New York TimesWall Street Journal & USA Today bestselling author of historical women's fiction. Her award-winning work has been translated into eight languages and tops lists for the most anticipated reads of the year. She lives near the nation's capital with her husband, cats, and history books.
Website http://www.stephaniedray.com/
  
About Laura Kamoie:

New York TimesWall Street Journal, and USA Today bestselling author of historical fiction, Laura Kamoie has always been fascinated by the people, stories, and physical presence of the past, which led her to a lifetime of historical and archaeological study and training. She holds a doctoral degree in early American history from The College of William and Mary, published two non-fiction books on early America, and most recently held the position of Associate Professor of History at the U.S. Naval Academy before transitioning to a full-time career writing genre fiction. She is the author of AMERICA'S FIRST DAUGHTER and MY DEAR HAMILTON, co-authored with Stephanie Dray, allowing her the exciting opportunity to combine her love of history with her passion for storytelling. Laura lives among the colonial charm of Annapolis, Maryland with her husband and two daughters. www.LauraKamoie.com


About Sophie Perinot:
Sophie Perinot is an award-winning, multi-published author of female-centered historical fiction, who holds both a Bachelors in History and a law degree. With two previous books set in France—during the 13th and 16th centuries—Sophie has a passion for French history that began more than thirty years ago when she first explored the storied châteaux of the Loire Valley.  She lives in the Washington DC metropolitan area with her husband, children and a small menagerie of pets.

About Heather Webb:
Heather Webb is the award-winning and international bestselling author of six historical novels set in France, including the upcoming Meet Me in Monaco, set to the backdrop of Grace Kelly’s wedding releasing in summer 2019, and Ribbons of Scarlet, a novel of the French Revolution’s women in Oct 2019. In 2015, Rodin’s Lover was selected as a Goodreads Top Pick, and in 2017, Last Christmas in Paris became a Globe & Mail bestseller and also won the 2018 Women’s Fiction Writers Association STAR Award. Her works have received national starred reviews, and have been sold in over a dozen countries worldwide. When not writing, you may find Heather collecting cookbooks or looking for excuses to travel. She lives in New England with her family and one feisty rabbit.

About E. Knight:
E. KNIGHT is a USA Today bestselling author of rip-your-heart-out historical women’s fiction that crosses the landscapes of Europe. Her love of history began as a young girl when she traipsed the halls of Versailles and ran through the fields in Southern France. She can still remember standing before the great golden palace, and imagining what life must have been like. She is the owner of the acclaimed blog History Undressed. Eliza lives in Maryland atop a small mountain with a knight, three princesses and two very naughty newfies. Visit Eliza at www.eknightauthor.com/eknight, or her historical blog, History Undressed, www.historyundressed.com. You can follow her on Twitter: @EKHistoricalFic, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/EKnightAuthor, and Instagram @ElizaKnightFiction.