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.



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.
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.

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, or her historical blog, History Undressed, You can follow her on Twitter: @EKHistoricalFic, Facebook:, and Instagram @ElizaKnightFiction.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Review: THE BLUE by Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau's latest historical mystery, THE BLUE (Endeavor Quill, December 3), offers readers refreshingly different fare: a foray into the fascinating world of eighteenth century porcelain production and its obsessive quest for beauty.

Genevieve Planché, the English-born daughter of French Huguenots, has artistic talent but lacks the training necessary to become a history painter. Such training--as potential mentors repeat whenever she approaches them--exceeds the capabilities of women. Chafing under societal restrictions that limit her to painting flowers on silk, Geneviève hardly hesitates when Sir Gabriel Courtenay, a mysterious nobleman with curious connections, offers to send her to Venice to study art. The price? The secret formula for a vibrant new blue reportedly under development at the Derby Porcelain Works, England's premier porcelain manufactory. Derby is banking on the new blue pigment to lift their product and reputation above the exquisite porcelain of Sèvres, France. Courtenay's offer entices Genevieve to accept a position as a decorator at Derby, and with few scruples, she sets about learning the secret of the new blue. Losing her heart to the brilliant young chemist working on the formula only complicates matters, and soon Genevieve finds herself embroiled in a dangerous plot that crosses borders and redefines loyalties and liberty.

[photo credit]
THE BLUE's particular strength lies in its convincing evocation of the porcelain phenomenon of the mid-18th century as the basis for dynamic intrigue. Bilyeau skillfully works her extensive research on the history and techniques of porcelain production into Genevieve's education, first at the hand of Sir Gabriel and later on-site at the Derby and Sèvres manufactories. Benefitting from Genevieve's lessons, the reader learns fascinating facts about the origins of porcelain and its development into a luxury commodity. With a good portion of the novel's action set in the manufactories themselves, the reader witnesesses not only the conditions and methods of production, but the severe safeguards companies employed in order to protect their commercial advantage. Bilyeau's mastery of her subject allows her to weave an intricate, compelling plot that hinges on industrial espionage without ignoring broader social issues. Her characters' obsessions and the risks they take to satisfy them capture the contemporary craze for expensive goods during an era of economic uncertainty. The question of the injustice of the rich spending hundreds of pounds on a painted plate while the poor starve gives Genevieve's personal strugges a gravitas that the character herself is quick to recognize.

[photo credit]
For Genevieve never hesitates to take a vocal stand against oppression, be it religious, economic, or social, and her dedication to her ideals entails significant personal sacrifice. As a Huguenot, she carries a deep antipathy to France's Catholic king, whose persecution of her co-religionists forced them to flee their homeland. Her outrage against this injustice endangers her mission and future when her search for the blue leads her to Sèvres. As a working class artisan, Genevieve sides with her radical fiancé Denis, who instigates violent uprisings among the Spitalfields silkworkers to demand better working conditions. Her relationship with Denis turns her into an outcast in the Spitalfields community and costs her her job as a silk painter. As a female artist, Genevieve argues against the proprieties and prejudices that deny talented women necessary training. Disdaining decoration, she aspires to paint the realities of street and workplace as an impetus for reform. Her exclusion by the male artistic establishment leaves her no option but to embark on a morally questionable mission, one that she does not hesitate to embrace in order to pursue her vocation. With insight and finesse, Bilyeau creates in Genevieve Planché a protagonist readers won't soon forget: a spirited, determined woman willing to confront injustice head-on in her fight for a better world.

Fans of Nancy Bilyeau's Tudor trilogy (THE CROWN, THE CHALICE, and THE TAPESTRY) will not be disappointed with her latest endeavor. Thought-provoking at times and entertaining throughout, THE BLUE deserves a spot at the top of every historical fiction lover's To-Be-Read pile.


Nancy Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of InStyle, DuJour, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Good Housekeeping. She is currently the deputy editor of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at City University of New York and a regular contributor to Town & Country, Purist, and The Vintage News.

A native of the Midwest, she earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan. THE CROWN, her fist novel and an Oprah pick, was published in 2012; the sequel, THE CHALICE, followed in 2013. The third in the trilogy, THE TAPESTRY, was published by Touchstone in 2015. Her fourth novel, THE BLUE, will be publishing on December 3, 2018.

Nancey lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

Visit Nancy's website or follow her on Twitter under the handle @tudorscribe.

Ten signed copies of THE BLUE are currently up for grabs in a Goodreads giveaway ending December 1, 2018. Click here to enter.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Guest Post: "Ohio Renaissance" by Martha Conway, Author of THE UNDERGROUND RIVER

Ohio Renaissance

Guest Post by Martha Conway,

In sixteenth century Ohio, there were no newspapers or printing presses, no mills or grindstones, no churches or cathedrals. There weren’t even any brick chimneys. The Native Americans who lived in the area included Chippewa, Ottawa, and Kickapoo. A few French explorers and missionaries wandered about, as well as a handful of European immigrants who were mainly fur traders or coureur de bois, backwoodsmen. In the Great Lakes region, more than a dozen Native American tribes collectively called themselves Wendat and formed what was known as the Huron Confederacy. Many of these lived along the Ohio River, too.

In the seventeenth century, the Beaver Wars (think Iroquois against everyone else) drove everyone out of Ohio for nearly one hundred years. That’s right, for nearly one hundred years the area was virtually empty of people. Can’t imagine that happening in Europe!

The Ohio River that I wrote about in my novel The Underground River— which takes place two centuries later — was a vastly different place. However, these changes had only taken place very recently. Until the turn of the nineteenth century, the river traffic was still mostly canoes. Slowly, European settlers came in with their keel boats and flatboats and barges. In 1793, Jacob Meyers started the first passenger keelboat service between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, and in 1798 John Fitch built the first steamboat on the Ohio River.

In 1830, an actor/director named William Chapman built the first “Floating Theatre” on the Ohio River: a rectangular shed (the theatre) nailed onto a barge, which he poled downriver. His theatre troupe was comprised of his wife and eight children—a nineteenth century Partridge Family!—all of whom sang, danced, acted, and played at least two musical instruments.

They stopped in the little towns along the way, giving performances to people who did not get much in the way of entertainment in their lives. Since cash was scarce, the men and women (and children, at a reduced rate) often paid for their tickets with food, such as pies or wild game.

Chapman, a Londoner who trained in Drury Lane, shocked the rural townsfolk by having a painted drop curtain featuring a woman’s bare foot cooling in a stream. The local constable made him paint that over! He also had to contend with Yellow Fever and audiences so rustic that they sometimes didn’t understand what they were seeing was make believe. Before 1900, the showboat programs were mostly vaudeville: singers, dancers, comics, novelty acts, and the occasional short sketch or scene.

To me, the riverboat scene on the Ohio River is especially poignant because it was so short lived. Steamboats weren’t a regular feature of water travel until 1815 or so, and yet by 1845 railroads had begun their ascendancy. By the Civil War, the railroads were the preferred mode of travel.

What initially drew me to write about this period, however, was not so much the romance of water travel (although that was part of it), but the community that William Chapman and others fostered. When you go from town to town, you get to see how others live. And yet, there was tension, too. At the time of my novel (1838) the Ohio River was the natural division between the slave-holding South and the free North. This made for some conflict—which is always good for drama.

In fact, in pre-Civil War America, many slaves referred to the Ohio River as the River Jordan, a biblical name that represented freedom. Cross the Ohio River from Kentucky to Ohio (so low sometimes in summer that in parts you could wade across it), and you became free. If, that is, you weren’t caught afterwards by slave hunters; there is one of those in my novel, too.

I am from Ohio, and yet I learned more about the state and the river when I researched this novel than I ever did in my state history classes in grade school! I am amazed at the variety of what we would now call lifestyles. Ohio means “Great River” in the Seneca language, and it is.

Martha Conway grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, the sixth of seven daughters. Her first novel was nominated for an Edgar Award, and she has won several awards for her historical fiction, including an Independent Book Publishers Award and the North American Book Award for Historical Fiction. Her short fiction has been published in the Iowa Review, Massachusetts Review, Carolina Quarterly, Folio, Epoch, The Quarterly, and other journals. She has received a California Arts Council Fellowship for Creative Writing, and has reviewed books for the Iowa Review and the San Francisco Chronicle. She now lives in San Francisco, and is an instructor of creative writing for Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program and UC Berkeley Extension. She is the author of THE UNDERGROUND RIVER.

For more information, please visit Martha Conway’s website. You can also find her on FacebookTwitterInstagram, and Goodreads.



During the Blog Tour, we will be giving away 5 custom-made coffee mugs. To enter, please use the Gleam link below.

--Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on July 26th.  You must be 18 or older to enter.
--Giveaway is open to US residents only.
--Only one entry per household.
--All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspicion of fraud will be decided uon by the blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrans may be disqualified at our discretion.
--Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or a new winner will be chosen.


Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Review and Giveaway: THE UNDERGROUND RIVER by Martha Conway

Geographical boundaries are rarely as precise as they appear on a map, and moral boundaries can be just as fluid. Martha Conway's new novel, THE UNDERGROUND RIVER (Touchstone, June 2018), explores these truths with creative and compelling verve. Set in 1838 on a floating theater boat traveling down the Ohio River--the watery boundary dividing slave territory from free--the novel traces its characters' journeys from ignorance to understanding, aloofness to connection, ambivalence to conviction. As the boat docks for performances in seemingly interchangeable towns on both sides of the river, protagonist May Bedloe learns that appearance does not always correspond with reality--and that this discrepancy, far from being perfidious, often serves admirable ends.

Much of the novel's force and charm derives from May's idiosyncracies. A twenty-two year old orphan, May works as her actress cousin's dresser, designing, sewing, and caring for Comfort's costumes as the pair travels from gig to gig. Blunt to a fault and awkward in company--modern medicine would place May somewhere on the autism spectrum--May is generally content with her behind-the-scenes role. When a steamboat explosion destroys the costumes and changes the course of Comfort's career, May is forced to fend for herself for the very first time. To secure employment, she lends money borrowed from Comfort's abolitionist benefactress to Hugo Cushing, owner of a floating theater boat in need of repairs. May joins Hugo's troupe, and though her forthright tongue and literal-mindedness often land her in trouble, her skills, as well as her devotion to the enterprise, soon earn her the actors' acceptance. Drawn especially to Leo, the free black boatman who never dares disembark on the river's southern shore, and to Captain Hugo, struggling under the weight of responsibility and grief over his sister's death, May quickly adapts to life on the riverboat and blossoms beyond the confines of her cousin's shadow.

Yet all too soon, Comfort and her benefactress reappear, disrupting paradise. Demanding repayment of her loan, Mrs. Howard proposes that May work off her debt by delivering slave children to freedom on the northern bank of the river. Unable to refuse, May embarks on a series of dangerous, illegal missions that she must hide from her friends. Compassion vies with prudence as she tries to balance the needs of her charges against the safety of the troupe. At times, she must lie outright--an ever-difficult task--to protect or to deceive; at others, she must use her bluntness to misdirect or to persuade. Her struggle is keen and leads to disaster, but through it May finds courage she never knew she possessed, allies she never suspected, and a purpose she'd never imagined. Ever uneasy in her new role, May demonstrates that reluctant foot soldiers can be as effective as brash warriors in the righting of social wrongs--a much appreciated nuance that protects her from a predictable and potentially unconvincing transformation.

With its novel premise, unique setting, endearing protagonist, and gut-wrenching dilemmas, THE UNDERGROUND RIVER is a delightful, thought-compelling read. Just as the actors of the Floating Theater teach May to embrace the possibilities of believing something that isn't "true," Martha Conway convinces her readers of the marvelous power of fiction to convey truths worthy of contemplation. "There is always a surprise at the end," Hugo warns May midway through the story, and that surprise might just be this: the realization that truth originates and abides in the unrelenting conflict between imagination and reality.

Martha Conway grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, the sixth of seven daughters. Her first novel was nominated for an Edgar Award, and she has won several awards for her historical fiction, including an Independent Book Publishers Award and the North American Book Award for Historical Fiction. Her short fiction has been published in the Iowa Review, Massachusetts Review, Carolina Quarterly, Folio, Epoch, The Quarterly, and other journals. She has received a California Arts Council Fellowship for Creative Writing, and has reviewed books for the Iowa Review and the San Francisco Chronicle. She now lives in San Francisco, and is an instructor of creative writing for Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program and UC Berkeley Extension. She is the author of THE UNDERGROUND RIVER.

For more information, please visit Martha Conway’s website. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.



During the Blog Tour, we will be giving away 5 custom-made coffee mugs. To enter, please use the Gleam link below.

--Giveaway ends at 11:59 pm EST on July 26th.  You must be 18 or older to enter.
--Giveaway is open to US residents only.
--Only one entry per household.
--All giveaway entrants agree to be honest and not cheat the systems; any suspicion of fraud will be decided uon by the blog/site owner and the sponsor, and entrans may be disqualified at our discretion.
--Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or a new winner will be chosen.

The Underground River

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Monday, July 16, 2018

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Blog Tour Schedule

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