Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Today I am pleased to participate in friend Marci Jefferson's cover release blog tour and contest. Her novel, GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN, A NOVEL OF FRANCES STUART, will release on February 11, 2014 from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press. If you pre-order this week and comment on Marci's blog, you'll be entered in a drawing for a pair of sterling silver pearl-drop earrings like the ones Frances wears on the book's elegant cover (be prepared to present your receipt).


Impoverished and exiled to the French countryside after the overthrow of the English Crown, Frances Stuart survives merely by her blood-relation to the Stuart Royals. But in 1660, the Restoration of Stuart Monarchy in England returns her family to favor. Frances discards threadbare gowns and springs to gilded Fontainebleau Palace, where she soon catches King Louis XIV’s eye. But Frances is no ordinary court beauty, she has Stuart secrets to keep and people to protect. The king turns vengeful when she rejects his offer to become his Official Mistress. He banishes her to England with orders to seduce King Charles II and stop a war.

Armed in pearls and silk, Frances maneuvers through the political turbulence of Whitehall Palace, but still can’t afford to stir a scandal. Her tactic to inspire King Charles to greatness captivates him. He believes her love can make him an honest man and even chooses Frances to pose as Britannia for England’s coins. Frances survives the Great Fire, the Great Plague, and the debauchery of the Restoration Court, yet loses her heart to the very king she must control. Until she is forced to choose between love or war.

On the eve of England’s Glorious Revolution, James II forces Frances to decide whether to remain loyal to her Stuart heritage or, like England, make her stand for Liberty. Her portrait as Britannia is minted on every copper coin. There she remains for generations, an enduring symbol of Britain’s independent spirit and her own struggle for freedom.


"In her wonderfully evocative debut, Girl on the Golden Coin, Marci Jefferson recreates the fascinating story of Frances Stuart, whose influence over England's Charles II became the talk of a nation. As vibrant and delightful as the woman it's based on, Girl on the Golden Coin is a jewel of a novel!"
—Michelle Moran, New York Times bestselling author of The Second Empress and Madame Tussaud 

"Beauty is not always a blessing, as young Frances Stuart finds out when her lovely face pits her between the desires and politics of rival kings Louis XIV and Charles II. Frances makes an appealing heroine, by turns wary and passionate, sophisticated and innocent, as she matures from destitute young pawn to the majestic duchess whose figure would grace Britain's coins for centuries. Her struggles to support her loved ones, uncover her family secrets, and somehow find a life of her own amid the snake-pit courts of the Sun King and the Merry Monarch make for lively, entertaining reading in this lush Restoration novel by debut author Marci Jefferson."
—Kate Quinn, New York Times bestselling author of Mistress of Rome

"Girl on the Golden Coin is a fantastic novel. I couldn’t put it down. The plot is fast-paced and compelling, with intriguing characters, lush settings and captivating narrative voice. Jefferson’s debut paints an intriguing portrait of Frances Stuart, a novel worthy of the determined, golden spirit of the woman whose face became the model for Britannia herself."
—Susan Spann, author of Claws of the Cat


Barnes & Noble




Monday, July 29, 2013

Review: THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY by C.W. Gortner

THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY, Book 2 of C.W. Gortner's THE SPYMASTER CHRONICLES, provides an engrossing and entertaining escape into an England on the cusp of staggering change and the life of the man who can temper the blow.

It's the winter of 1554 and Mary Tudor has ascended to the throne, in no small part thanks to the efforts of Brendan Prescott, who in Book 1 of the series destroyed the Duke of Northumberland and foiled his plans to steal the crown. Queen Mary, rumored to be negotiating a marriage with Catholic Prince Philip of Spain, summons her Protestant sister Elizabeth to court and forbids her to leave. Elizabeth's protector William Cecil suspects that the Imperial ambassador, in whom Mary has placed unwavering trust, seeks Elizabeth's death in order to secure the succession for Mary and Philip's children. The spymaster also fears that Elizabeth has been drawn, willingly or not, into a plot with another claimant to the throne. Cecil challenges Brendan to return to court under his old alias and stop the ambassador. Ever loyal to Elizabeth, Brendan accepts the mission. The job ahead of him will not only test his skills as a spy, his fragile sense of self, and his personal loyalties, but his love for the woman he leaves behind.

THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY is C.W. Gortner at his best: an intriguing, well-paced plot; a lush setting replete with historically accurate details; convincing characters who continually reveal new facets of themselves. CONSPIRACY takes a lesser-known moment in Tudor history--the very first years of Queen Mary's reign--and elaborates the political situation in a clear and understandable manner so that the reader never feels lost or confused by the characters' emerging loyalties and objectives. Even better, Gortner intertwines Brendan's personal story with that of the larger situation in such a way that the suspense of each builds and feeds off the other.

Both Brendan and Queen Mary are on quests to define themselves. Brendan, having discovered part of the secret of his birth in the first book, learns even more in this one. The burden of his identity weighs upon him, especially when it becomes evident that he could use the knowledge to influence the greater course of events. Although loyal to Elizabeth, he feels a certain bond to Mary, and hopes to reconcile the two sisters. Mary, newly on the throne, is still finding her way. Despite her ties to her sister, she has come under the relentless influence of the Imperial ambassador, who feeds her hopes of restoring the Catholic faith to England. As she weighs a marriage with Spanish Prince Philip, Mary must decide whether her family loyalty, her Catholic faith, or her devotion to England will tip the scale. The looming question of Elizabeth's fate throws Mary and Brendan together and forces them to confront and decide their own destinies.

Gortner admitted to me how much fun he had writing this book, and his enjoyment is evident on every page. At total ease with Brendan's voice, Gortner writes his tale with an engaging naturalness. Loyal and true, brave and at times refreshingly foolhardy, Brendan Prescott captured my heart in this satisfying sequel. I had as much fun reading Brendan as Gortner did writing him, and I look forward to the next installment of THE SPYMASTER CHRONICLES.

C.W. Gornter holds an MFA in Writing, with an emphasis in Renaissance Studies. Raised in Spain and half Spanish by birth, he currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He welcomes readers and is always available for reader group chats. Please visit him at his website for more information.

I reviewed Book I, THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY, in 2011.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"Ignorance est mère de tous les maux."
Ignorance is the mother of all evils.

François Rabelais (1494-1553), French writer and humanist
Le Cinquiesme Livre (1562; attributed)

Friday, July 19, 2013

Guest Post by Susan Spann, Author of CLAWS OF THE CAT

Today Susan Spann, author of the just-released historical mystery CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur), discusses the women of the "floating world," entertainers who led independent lives outside medieval Japan's standard class structure. 


Subversion or Submersion: The Women of Japan's 
"Floating World"
by Susan Spann

“Liberated women” isn’t the first expression that comes to mind when discussing the Renaissance. Yet, comparatively speaking, some Renaissance-era Japanese women were quite independent indeed.

Medieval Japanese culture split along class-based lines, with the samurai nobility at the top of the social structure and the “untouchable” eta (tanners, executioners, and people who dealt with the dead) at the bottom. Farmers and merchants filled the middle rungs of the social ladder.

But there was another social group, largely composed of women, which stood outside the standard class structure altogether: the entertainers and business people of Japan’s pleasure districts, also known as the “floating world.”

Ukiyo, usually translated “floating world,” was a Japanese sub-culture that existed outside the everyday patterns and social rules. The very word “ukiyo” conjured images of an impermanent but lovely world filled with fleeting beauty and entertainments which allowed a participant or observer (usually male) the chance to shed his day-to-day responsibilities and cares.

Most of the entertainers who worked in this world were female, and most of the businesses there were owned by women. Famous geishas often purchased teahouses upon retirement, and those who could not afford a teahouse usually became dance or music teachers—and, therefore, small business owners.

These businesses were unique because, unlike the women who worked in their husbands’ shops or labored on family farms, the women of the floating world owned their business directly, usually with no male supervision.

Patrons of the entertainment districts were overwhelmingly male and usually, though not always, well-to-do. Their wives and female relatives lived very different lives from the savvy women of the entertainment districts, and yet, to the medieval Japanese male, this presented no problem or conflict because a wife and an entertainer filled very different social roles.

In Medieval Japan, a wife’s duty was bearing children and managing her husband’s household. Most upper-class women were literate, a necessity because women often kept the books of account in families of the merchant and samurai classes.

Samurai women often trained with at least one weapon, usually either the naginata (a bladed staff similar to the European glaive) or the kaiken (a kind of dagger). Although women didn’t usually join their husbands in battle, a samurai woman was expected to have the skills to defend herself and her house with lethal force if necessary. In rare occasions, samurai women did become warriors, known as onna-bugeisha.

Merchants’ wives often helped in the family shop, either selling goods or working “behind the scenes” in various ways. Like samurai women, females of the merchant class were literate, but secondary to husbands (and sons) in the family hierarchy.

But the primary role of women in any social class was taking care of her home, her husband, and her children. Women outside the floating world rarely owned property, or businesses, and though a wife could inherit her husband’s property on his death it was far more common for a man to leave his estate to his son (with the expectation, usually followed, that the heir would take care of his mother as long as she lived).

Men went to the entertainment districts to enjoy performances and companionship, which sometimes included sexual encounters, but not always. Contrary to popular belief, most geishas were not prostitutes. They were specialists in song, dance and conversation. Most of the time, their visitors spent the evening drinking tea, discussing art or politics, and watching as the women sang or danced. In contrast to a wife, whose role was focused on family, an entertainer’s job was to offer an interesting performance or conversation.

Ironically, an entertainer’s independence was part of her allure.

The sexism and lack of equality which characterized medieval Europe definitely existed in Japan. Women as a whole were considered inferior to men, and the wife/entertainer dichotomy reinforced traditional, male-dominated gender roles. That said, medieval Japanese women were not without power or opportunities on an individual level.

And within the floating world, the women called the shots.


Susan Spann is a transactional attorney and former law school professor whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. CLAWS OF THE CAT, her debut shinobi mystery featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori, released on July 16, 2013, from Minotaur Books (for more information visit: http://us.macmillan.com/clawsofthecat/SusanSpann). Susan has a deep interest in Asian culture and has studied Mandarin and Japanese. Her hobbies include Asian cooking, fencing, traditional archery, martial arts, rock climbing, and horseback riding, and she keeps a marine aquarium where she raises seahorses and rare corals. You can find Susan online at http://www.susanspann.com, or on Twitter @SusanSpann.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Review: CLAWS OF THE CAT by Susan Spann

How much do you know about sixteenth century history outside the borders of Europe? If you're like me, surprisingly (and embarrassingly) little. As a remedy, I recommend a just-published historical mystery that opens up the exotic, fascinating world of sixteenth century Japan.

Susan Spann's debut mystery novel CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur/St. Martin's Press) whisks the reader away to the land of ninjas, teahouses, samurai and missionaries:

When a samurai is brutally murdered in a Kyoto teahouse, master ninja Hiro Hattori has just three days to find the killer before the dead man's vengeful son kills both the beautiful geisha accused of the crime and Father Mateo, the Jesuit priest that Hiro has pledged his own life to protect. The investigation plunges Hiro and Father Mateo into the dangerous waters of Kyoto's floating world, where they quickly learn that everyone from an elusive teahouse owner to the dead man's dishonored brother has a motive to keep the samurai's death a mystery.

Writing with the spare beauty of an oriental flower arrangement, Spann spins an enthralling tale of murder, jealousy, love and honor whose drama is heightened by the ominous pressure of the imposed time constraint. The well-constructed plot cleverly seeds clues and false leads throughout the narrative, keeping the reader engaged, actively analyzing evidence, and racing to solve the mystery in time to save selfless Father Mateo. The ending, although not entirely unanticipated, culminates in an emotionally powerful scene that opposes the Asian notion of honor with that of Western justice.

Beyond its well-wrought plot, CLAWS eclipses the average murder mystery in two other areas: the vibrancy of its historical setting and the depth its characterization. Spann, an attorney with a degree in Asian studies, recreates in vivid and precise detail locales and customs specific to medieval Japan. The reader finds herself stepping through gliding rice-paper doors in a typical Japanese house, strolling paths of raked gravel on the grounds of Buddhist temples, and shouldering crowds on the congested streets of the mercantile quarter. She listens to the song of geishas while drinking ritually prepared tea, quakes in a pit of white sand before the magistrate's desk, and mourns at the funeral of a samurai nobleman. Spann never clogs the narrative with long passages of description or explanation but weaves succinct and evocative sensory and cultural details directly into the unfolding action. The fact that Father Mateo (a Portuguese foreigner who has only been in Japan a matter of months) often needs help understanding Japanese traditions requires native Hiro, the viewpoint character, to notice and elucidate things that he normally would hardly find worthy of mention--all to the great benefit of the reader.

Spann reveals just enough of her characters' back history to explain the present action, but never more. The sense that each character has a complicated and intriguing story of his or her own permeates every scene. For example, the reader knows Hiro is a samurai masquerading as a ninja, but doesn't know how Hiro came by such training or why, and by whom, he has been assigned to protect the priest. Likewise, the reader knows nothing of Father Mateo's past in Portugal nor what motivated him to become a missionary in Japan. Even minor characters, such as Ginjiro, the sake-sodden monk, and Luis, the Portuguese merchant who lives at the rectory, promise to tell captivating tales, if given the chance. The reader is on a quest not only to solve the murder but to piece together the mosaic of these hidden lives and histories. Spann's unique characters inspire compassion in their flawed particularity--I even sympathized with the murderer, despite the evil deed! This satisfying novel is as much--if not more--about the relationship of the characters to each other and to their pasts as it is about discovering who committed the crime. Spann dispenses her revelations at times and in doses that leave the reader panting for more.

I urge readers who normally would not reach for a mystery (and I include myself among them!) to give CLAWS OF THE CAT a try. As one of Susan's critique partners, I can assure you she is thoroughly knowledgeable and immensely passionate about Japanese culture and history. And if you enjoy CLAWS, you're in for a long, delightful ride--Susan has many more stories to tell about the world and characters she introduces in this remarkable debut novel.

You can find out more about Susan Spann and CLAWS OF THE CAT at her website. Be sure to return here tomorrow for Susan's guest post about the powerful women of Japan's "floating world."

Friday, July 12, 2013

Cover Reveal: BECOMING JOSEPHINE by Heather Webb

Friend and author Heather Webb's debut novel, BECOMING JOSEPHINE, will be published by Penguin/Plume on December 31, 2013. I was honored to be one of the beta readers for Heather's novel, an exciting read which traces the rise of Creole beauty Rose Tascher from impoverished plantation daughter to Empress of France. Today Heather reveals the novel's cover and invites readers to stop by her blog to enter a gift card giveaway.

Heather writes: BECOMING JOSEPHINE is my debut historical about Napoleon’s empress, a woman in search of eternal love and stability, and ultimately her search for self. It releases December 31, 2013 from Plume/Penguin. Stop by my blog Between the Sheets and leave a comment for a chance to win a $20 gift card to Barnes & Noble or a $20 gift card to Amazon. Pre-order my novel (present a receipt) and win a Josephine hand mirror with a velvet bag.

Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, or Amazon

Rose Tascher sails from her Martinique plantation to Paris to trade her Creole black magic culture for love and adventure. She arrives exultant to follow her dreams of attending Court with Alexandre, her elegant aristocrat and soldier husband. But Alexandre dashes her hopes and abandons her amid the tumult of the French Revolution.

Through her savoir faire, Rose secures her footing in high society, reveling in handsome men and glitzy balls—until the heads of her friends begin to roll.

After narrowly escaping death in the blood-drenched cells of Les Carmes prison, she reinvents herself as Josephine, a socialite of status and power. Yet her youth is fading, and Josephine must choose between a precarious independence and the love of an awkward suitor. Little does she know, he would become the most powerful man of his century--Napoleon Bonaparte.
BECOMING JOSEPHINE is a novel of one woman’s journey to find eternal love and stability, and ultimately to find herself.

BECOMING JOSEPHINE has been featured in a Wall Street Journal piece on the popularity of historical fiction featuring the wives of famous men.

“Heather Webb’s epic novel captivates from its opening in a turbulent plantation society in the Caribbean, to the dramatic rise of one of France’s most fascinating women: Josephine Bonaparte. Perfectly balancing history and story, character and setting, detail and pathos, Becoming Josephine marks a debut as bewitching as its protagonist." –Erika Robuck, author of HEMINGWAY'S GIRL

“With vivid characters and rich historical detail, Heather Webb has portrayed in Josephine a true heroine of great heart, admirable strength, and inspiring courage whose quest is that of women everywhere: to find, and claim, oneself.”--Sherry Jones, bestselling author of THE JEWEL OF MEDINA

“Josephine's warmth and complexity comes to vibrant life in this fascinating novel rich with vivid historical detail."—Teresa Grant, author of THE PARIS AFFAIR

"Vivid and passionate, BECOMING JOSEPHINE captures the fiery spirit of the woman who stole Napoleon’s heart and enchanted an empire. –Susan Spann, author of CLAWS OF THE CAT

“Spellbinding . . . Heather Webb’s novel takes us behind the mask of the Josephine we thought we knew.” –Christy English, author of HOW TO TAME A WILLFUL WIFE and TO BE QUEEN

“Enchanting prose takes the reader on an unforgettable journey . . . Captivating young Rose springs from the lush beauty of her family's sugar plantation in Martinique to shine in the eighteenth century elegance of Parisian salon society. When France is torn by revolution, not even the blood-bathed terror of imprisonment can break her spirit.” –Marci Jefferson, author of GIRL ON THE GOLD COIN

Monday, July 1, 2013

Why Blog? Benefits of Blogging for an Author of Fiction

Back from a wonderful weekend at the 2013 Historical Novel Society Conference, where I moderated a panel discussion on blogging. "Virtual Salon: The Historical Fiction Blog" brought together five experienced panelists to discuss the role of blogging in the historical fiction community and to share insight on how to create and maintain a successful blog. I examined what needs blogging fulfills for a writer of historical fiction and how an author benefits from maintaining a blog. As promised, I've posted my remarks below.


Today, writers hear over and over the importance of having an “internet presence.” We are warned that interested agents will immediately Google us, as will readers who hope to “connect” with authors of the books they love. This internet presence should, at the bare minimum, consist of an attractive and up-to-date website that lists an author’s books, biography, appearances, and contact information. But a website is static, one- sided. To engage fully with the reading public and benefit from the exposure the internet offers, an author should consider a blog, a discussion site featuring discrete entries called “posts” about topics of the author’s choosing.

A discussion necessarily involves more than one person. In the past, discussions of books and literature often took place in a salon, where writers, critics and readers gathered in person. Nowadays, this interaction often takes place virtually, through the medium of a blog. This afternoon we will examine blogging from the three vantage points of the “blogging triangle”: author, reader and reviewer. Each of these participants approaches blogging with different needs and expectations; each benefits in different ways from reading or maintaining a blog. The interaction of writer, reader and reviewer through blogs helps make the historical fiction community the vibrant place that it is.

Let’s begin with the author. What needs might prompt an author to start blogging? One of the strongest is the need for community. Many authors turn to blogging because it provides an antidote to the solitary activity of writing. Blogging provides a way for a writer to engage her readers and other writers in an active exchange of ideas. She can propose topics, express her opinion on them, and through the comments on her blog discover and respond to what her readers think. Other needs blogging fulfills for an author might include the desire to share interesting research, the need to contribute to the marketing one’s book, and a wish to provide an accurate picture of the person behind the books.

The benefits of blogging for a fiction author are many and change as the author advances in her career. Most don’t require much explanation. Maintaining and updating a blog builds discipline, forcing a writer to write to a schedule and within a pre- determined framework. It sharpens writing skills and helps an author develop her voice. It provides a forum for her to share and discuss the historical research that underlies her novel. It familiarizes her with readers’ tastes and interests, information that can be of great value in crafting future books. Blogging can also be a way of “paying it forward,” of helping new writers by offering advice based on one’s own experience in navigating the publishing world, or by reviewing and publicizing other author’s works.

Two benefits of blogging are particularly valuable at the outset of a writer’s career. First, blogging allows an new author to establish credibility. By maintaining a blog that offers reliable, interesting content, a writer of historical fiction establishes herself as an expert in her niche. With each post, she builds her credibility and strengthens her reputation as a trustworthy historian and skillful writer. Readers grow to value her insights and opinions. If a writer is able to create this trust through a blog before her novel is published, readers will be eager to purchase the book once it comes out. Secondly, blogging helps a writer build both her audience and her professional network. Posts on historical topics (rather than simply literary or publishing ones) will draw hits from a wide range of individuals, from students to teachers to specialists to random web surfers, all of whom might be tempted to pick up the novel of a blogger they admire. Blogs allow readers to get a feel for an author’s interests and writing style and anticipate new releases. Blog names are easy for them to pass on to acquaintances who might find an author’s work interesting. As for building a professional network, a generous blogger who reviews others’ books, celebrates others’ successes, and comments on colleagues’ blogs, will benefit both professionally and personally from the new contacts and friendships she makes. These bonds will prove invaluable when the time comes to ask for blurbs, publicize new releases, and learn “inside information” about the publishing world.


The session continued as follows:

Deborah Swift spoke on the blog reader's needs and benefits.
Amy Bruno followed with the book reviewer's needs and benefits.
Deborah explored how to find a niche and establish your voice.
Heather Webb spoke on effective blogging strategies: finding topics of interest, scheduling, blog layout.
Amy provided additional strategies: contests, blog-hops, reviews.
Heather Rieseck discussed blogging etiquette and ethical guidelines.
Heather Webb examined how to expand your audience.
Heather Rieseck explored how to measure your blog's success.

You can find a summary of Heather Webb's remarks on her blog. Deborah Swift explains why she maintains four blogs. If you are interested in purchasing an audio recording of the session, you can do so here.

Thank you to the conference board for inviting us to speak and to all who attended and gave us such marvelous feedback! It was a great experience for us and we hope we were able to provide some useful advice.