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


Monday, July 2, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Cover Reveal: THE BLUE by Nancy Bilyeau

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

The Blue by Nancy Bilyeau

Publication: Fall 2018
Endeavour Quill
Genre: Historical Fiction

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

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

Praise for Nancy Bilyeau’s Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 11, 2018

Guest Post by Mary Sharratt, Author of ECSTASY

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

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

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

Mary Magdalene, 1st century CE 

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

Empress Wu Zetian, 624 – 705 CE 

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

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

Malinche 1501-1551

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

Must read: Malinche by Laura Esquivel

Mary I of England 1516 - 1558

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

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

Catherine the Great 1729 - 1796

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

Must read: The Winter Queen by Eva Stachniak

Billie Holiday 1915 - 1959 

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

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

Ethel Rosenberg 1915 – 1953 

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

Must read: The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor

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

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