Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Amy Snow by Tracy Rees, a delightful and engrossing Victorian-era debut

Last year, Tracy Rees’ debut novel won Richard and Judy’s “search for a bestseller” competition. Completely engrossing, it was a worthy selection.

Set in England in 1848, it’s full of romance and mystery, taking the form of a scavenger hunt in which the heroine, Amy Snow, follows a trail left behind in letters by her late friend and mentor, ebullient heiress Aurelia Vennaway. Seventeen-year-old Amy owes her life to Aurelia, who had found her as a newborn, abandoned in the snow on her wealthy family’s Surrey estate.

Lord and Lady Vennaway had acceded to their daughter’s wishes in letting Amy grow up at Hatville Court but always resented her presence. Before Aurelia’s tragic early death from a heart ailment, she developed a clever way of ensuring Amy’s future livelihood while broadening her social horizons – and attempting to make up for her family’s hateful behavior.

The clues Amy finds (some of which take time to figure out) lead her around the country, introduce her to fascinating people, and prove that the kindness, love, and the family life she craves exist outside of Aurelia’s sheltering wings. Along the way, she learns surprising revelations about Aurelia and a lot about herself. Amy’s journey – and, consequently, the novel’s structure – may be contrived, but the author wisely makes her aware of it. The obligations of her mission chafe from time to time, as does her burden of secrecy, especially when enticing alternatives present themselves.

While the story is fanciful in spots, Amy Snow is written with warmth and attention to detail, particularly on Victorian geography and modes of travel. Best of all, it offers a tenderly poignant portrait of true friendship, a rare thing that both young women rightly treasure.

Amy Snow was published by Quercus earlier this year in paperback (£7.99, 551pp).  Don't be put off by the page count since it moves very quickly!  This was a personal purchase that I reviewed for August's Historical Novels Review.  For now you'll have to get it from the UK, but I hope a US publisher will pick it up.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Karen White's The Sound of Glass: Southern warmth, family reconciliation, and a creepy mystery

As a fan of Karen White’s Tradd Street series, which mixes quirky characters with family lore and Southern ghosts, I’ve been migrating over to her standalone works as well. They’re equally as enjoyable, although more serious in tone and issue-driven. Recounting a woman’s journey to recharge her unsettled life, her latest is also a creepy mystery wrapped in Southern style – and a book that had me dreaming of vacationing along the picturesque Carolina coast.

The dread-inducing opening poses many questions, and answers are revealed over the course of this smartly constructed novel. In 1955, Edith Heyward sets aside an unusual art project when an explosion tears through the skies above her home in Beaufort, South Carolina. Among the debris falling from above is a battered brown suitcase, which lands in Edith’s garden. It contains news so devastating that Edith can barely react when she learns her husband was killed in a car crash that same night.

Flashbacks to Edith’s later life appear throughout the main storylines, which are seen from the viewpoints of Merritt, widow of Edith’s grandson, Cal; and Loralee, the young stepmother Merritt hasn’t seen for years, a sassy Alabama native with big hair and perfect makeup. After Merritt drives from Maine down to Beaufort after inheriting Edith’s house, she’s obliged to take in Loralee and her ten-year-old son, Merritt’s half-brother – and she also learns about the past that Cal kept hidden.

Merritt’s gradual warming up to life is a delight to witness, and Loralee is hardly the stereotypical airhead Merritt thinks she is. While I wished for more emphasis on the history and less obvious imparting of important life lessons, I still found The Sound of Glass an affecting story about love, reconciliation, and the dangerous patterns that blight families over generations.

The Sound of Glass was published in May by NAL ($26.95/C$32.00, hardcover, 432pp).  Thanks to the publisher for granting me NetGalley access.  This review first appeared in the Historical Novels Review's August issue.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Interview with Marci Jefferson, author of Enchantress of Paris

Marci Jefferson's Enchantress of Paris re-creates the early life of Marie Mancini, one of the seven "Mazarinettes" the nieces of Cardinal Mazarin, Louis XIV's Chief Minister.  Marie's determination to stay true to herself and her love for King Louis caused a scandal at the French royal court in the mid-17th century.  Full of vivid descriptions of the gorgeous decor and clothing of the time, it's an involving story of romance, power, and the quest for personal liberty.  I also appreciated how the novel held me in Marie's world, keeping up the suspense over whether she and Louis might marry, despite my knowing that history records otherwise.  I'm grateful that Marci was willing to answer my questions in the following interview. 

All five of the Mancini sisters led fascinating lives, but what led you to choose Marie as your novel’s heroine?

Yes, each Mancini sister is fascinating in her own right, and I’d love to write more stories about them. I cannot resist historical women who struggled against the established order. Marie simply fought a more dramatic battle than her sisters (with the exception of Hortense). Marie’s stout belief in true love and her refusal to comply with her greedy uncle, Cardinal Mazarin, nearly got her killed. There is every indication that King Louis was truly in love with her. I just became fascinated by her personality; you might even say she enchanted me!

What draws you to write about historical characters from the 17th century?

In the seventeenth century, the world was on the brink. The Protestant Reformation was underway, the absolute power of kings was in question, there was an emerging sense of personal liberty taking seed in the minds of the people. The main powers were colorful people, and because the globe had not yet been thoroughly explored, their stakes were high. It is an era rich with literary opportunities, but there is one more reason I love writing about it…the clothes were prettier then than at any other time!

As a literary sort myself, I thought the scenes in which Marie and the king tease one another and form a bond over reading a book were a lot of fun. Were they based on something that actually happened? If not, how did that subplot originate?

One of King Louis’ courtiers compared the hold that Marie Mancini had over the king to the hold that the Sorceress Armida held over Rinaldo in the popular sixteenth century epic titled Jerusalem Liberated. Therefore, comparing Marie and Louis to these literary characters, and letting them share the book in my novel, seemed natural. Fortunately, a savvy librarian (such as yourself!) obtained an English translation of Jerusalem Liberated for me - it is a wonderful piece of literature. The author was Italian poet Torquato Tasso, so Marie, who was very well-read, would have been familiar with his work.

I was fascinated to learn that Marie wrote a memoir as well as astrological almanacs. How unusual was this for a woman of her time?

Very unusual! Scholars look to Marie as one of only a handful of women who published in that century. Interestingly, her sister Hortense is one of the other females who published.

Enchantress of Paris showed me an aspect of Louis XIV’s life that was new to me – his youth, when he didn’t yet have the confidence to rule – and introduced me to some lesser-known characters from French history. What were some intriguing things you learned about the characters or era in the course of your research?

My first novel, Girl on the Golden Coin, was set in England, where the characters and plot were both heavily influenced by the protestant reformation and England’s independence from the rest of Europe. France was still Catholic, and the Catholic Church in Rome still controlled much of the politics of Europe. Power is one of the main themes in both of my novels, so learning about the power structure in France was new for me.

In the novel, King Louis believes that Marie can help make him a better man and king. Do you feel that she accomplished this?

Absolutely. The people who have heard of Marie Mancini before now may only know her as the woman King Louis did not marry. But Cardinal Mazarin died before she was married off in Rome, and King Louis wanted her to stay in France. People don’t realize that Marie had the opportunity to refuse her marriage and stay with King Louis as his mistress. In studying her life, I believe she rejected King Louis because he failed to use his own power and stand up for her when he had the chance. King Louis learned his lesson. He not only came to utilize his own power, he expanded it, and then he kept everyone around him under his strict control.

How was the writing process for your second novel different from the process for Girl on the Golden Coin?

I took a leisurely eight years to hone my writing skills and compose Girl on the Golden Coin, where Enchantress of Paris took only nine months! I followed the same process of historical research, but the writing itself came quickly this time (thankfully). I think this is partly because Marie leapt out of history for me. Marie was bold and daring, much easier to figure out, where Frances Stuart had been discreet and secretive.


Enchantress of Paris is published on August 4th by Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press ($25.99/C$29.99, hardcover, 318pp).  See also my review for Girl on the Golden Coin, Marci Jefferson's previous novel.  Visit her website at www.marcijefferson.com.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Stranger than Fiction: a guest post by Susan Spann, author of the Shinobi Mysteries

Happy Monday!  Susan Spann, author of the Shinobi mysteries, is here today with a post about her recent visit to Japan and the unexpected surprises that happen during the research process.


Stranger than Fiction
Susan Spann

I set my Shinobi Mysteries in 16th century Japan because I love to travel in the pages of the books I read, and that goes doubly for the ones I write. Each book transports me to another place and time, and lets me “see” a host of strange and exotic things.

Research is an important part of writing historical novels. (Any novels, really. Both the devil and the bad reviews are mostly in the details…) Since my mysteries take place in a time and place that no longer exist, most of my research happens on the pages of a book. Sometimes, however, it’s possible to visit the places I write about, and on the truly special occasions, the truth proves even stranger than my fiction.

Last month I traveled to Japan for a research trip. I spent the second day at Fushimi Inari Taisha, the most important of the Shinto shrines dedicated to Inari Okami, god of foxes, rice, tea, fertility, swordsmiths, merchants, and good fortune. (Inari gets around.)

Fushimi Inari lies on Mount Inari, just south of Kyoto. Thousands of red, sacred torii gates line the path that leads to the top of the mountain. The torii symbolize passing from a worldly space to a sacred one, and Fushimi Inari is famous for the number and size of its gates. In some places, they even form a tunnel.

Many visitors don’t make the three-hour climb to the top of the mountain, but I’m featuring the shrine in an upcoming novel, so up I went. About halfway to the top, I noticed a sign and an earthen path leading off into the trees. Of course, I followed…

…and ended up at an ancient sub-shrine dedicated not to Inari, but to the guardian dragons of Japan:

I’ve always loved dragons, and knew they featured in Japanese mythology. In fact, that upcoming book I mentioned involves not only Fushimi Inari, but also dragon mythology.

And when I wrote it…I had no idea a dragon sub-shrine existed on Mount Inari.

Yet there it was. The dragons were waiting exactly where I needed them for the novel I’m preparing to write.

One of the most amazing parts of writing involves the “miraculous” facts that show up where you need them and often, when you least expect them. For example, a character needs a certain type of weapon or tool, and—to my surprise—the research supports the plot point. As an author, I normally establish a basic plot and then do most of the research before I write.

The order of operations helps me ensure I don’t put something…like a dragon shrine…into a book where it doesn’t belong. That’s particularly important in the historical context, and when the author is writing stories set in a “real” time and place. I take the history seriously, and I’ve changed subplots and story points if the history won’t support them. For example, my first Shinobi Mystery, Claws of the Cat, involved the murder of a retired samurai general in a teahouse. The female entertainers who worked in those teahouses are now called “geisha,” but that word did not exist in the 16th century, when my books are set. Instead, I used the historically accurate word, “entertainer,” which is what the women now called “geishas” were called in 1564. The change cost me a little in terms of rapid recognition for my characters, but accuracy is worth the extra effort.

One of my goals for this trip to Japan was learning whether the dragon mythology mingled with the Shinto shrines in a way that would work for my upcoming subplot. But never in my wildest dreams did I expect to find a dragon shrine on the very mountain where that book takes place.

It’s not the first time research has uncovered a startling surprise that helped my work—but I have to admit, Inari did me a favor this time around.

Have you ever had a pleasant surprise arise in the course of your work? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!


Susan Spann acquired her love of books and reading during her preschool days in Santa Monica, California. As a child she read everything from National Geographic to Agatha Christie. In high school, she once turned a short-story assignment into a full-length fantasy novel (which, fortunately, will never see the light of day).

A yearning to experience different cultures sent Susan to Tufts University in Boston, where she immersed herself in the history and culture of China and Japan. After earning an undergraduate degree in Asian Studies, Susan diverted to law school. She returned to California to practice law, where her continuing love of books has led her to specialize in intellectual property, business and publishing contracts.

Susan’s interest in Japanese history, martial arts, and mystery inspired her to write the Shinobi Mystery series featuring Hiro Hattori, a sixteenth-century ninja who brings murderers to justice with the help of Father Mateo, a Portuguese Jesuit priest. When not writing or representing clients, Susan enjoys traditional archery, martial arts, horseback riding, online gaming, and raising seahorses and rare corals in her highly distracting marine aquarium. Susan lives in Sacramento with her husband, son, three cats, one bird, and a multitude of assorted aquatic creatures.

For more information please visit Susan Spann’s website and blog. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.  (All images in this post are owned by Susan Spann.)

About Flask of the Drunken Master:

August 1565: When a rival artisan turns up dead outside Ginjiro’s brewery, and all the evidence implicates the brewer, master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit Father Mateo must find the killer before the magistrate executes Ginjiro and seizes the brewery, leaving his wife and daughter destitute. A missing merchant, a vicious debt collector, and a female moneylender join Ginjiro and the victim’s spendthrift son on the suspect list. But with Kyoto on alert in the wake of the shogun’s recent death, a rival shinobi on the prowl, and samurai threatening Hiro and Father Mateo at every turn, Ginjiro’s life is not the only one in danger.

Will Hiro and Father Mateo unravel the clues in time to save Ginjiro’s life, or will the shadows gathering over Kyoto consume the detectives as well as the brewer?

Flask of the Drunken Master (St. Martin's Press, July 2015, 304pp, hardcover and ebook) is the latest entry in Susan Spann’s thrilling 16th century Japanese mystery series, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and Jesuit Father Mateo. Check out other stops along her blog tour.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Tudor fiction without the famous

Let's face it: books about Henry VIII, his six queens, and other relatives (like Lady Jane Grey and Mary Queen of Scots) draw a lot of attention.  On the Goodreads list for best books about Tudor England, you have to scroll down well past #100 before you'll find much of anything else.

After posting a review of Jane Borodale's The Knot on Tuesday, I got to thinking about other historical novels I've read that are set in Tudor England (1485-1603) but which feature lesser-known personalities or fictional characters, and which take place away from the royal court.

While novels featuring royalty are a longtime interest, I also enjoy reading about daily life at the time and the impact of major historical events on average citizens.  Below are examples of "Tudor fiction without the famous" that I've reviewed, as well as others I've come across.

Valerie Anand's The House of Allerbrook, a standalone sequel to The House of Lanyon, is a family saga set mostly on Exmoor in Somerset in the 16th century.

Jenny Barden's two historical novels, Mistress of the Sea and The Lost Duchess, set partly in England and partly in the New World, are romantic adventure novels that evoke maritime exploration during the Elizabethan Golden Age.

The Miracle at St. Bruno's, first in the Daughters of England series by Philippa Carr, takes place in 1530s London. Philippa Carr was a pseudonym used by Eleanor Hibbert, who also wrote as Victoria Holt and Jean Plaidy.

The Wise Woman by Philippa Gregory is a dark novel of jealousy and the supernatural set in County Durham in the 1530s.

Time's Echo, a time-slip novel by Pamela Hartshorne, contains marvelous details of Elizabethan-era York.  I understand her subsequent novels The Memory of Midnight and The Edge of Dark fall into the same category.

Mary M. Luke's out of print novel The Nonsuch Lure is a time-slip focusing on the Coddington family, who were forced to relocate after Henry VIII decided to build Nonsuch Palace on their lands in Surrey.

Jeri Westerson's Roses in the Tempest imagines a chaste romance between a woman who becomes a nun and her childhood friend, a Tudor-era courtier, at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. There are some court scenes, but it mostly takes place in a village in Staffordshire.

And some other titles worth a mention:

Nancy Bilyeau's Joanna Stafford series (The Crown, The Chalice, The Tapestry) features a Dominican nun's determination to survive the political and religious changes transforming her world.  The last volume finds Joanna in the midst of the Tudor court.

Sarah Kennedy, author of The Altarpiece and City of Ladies (and the upcoming The King's Sisters), has guest-posted here about nuns and mothers as well as mystery plays in Henry VIII's England.

Gallows Wedding by Rhona Martin, the first winner of the Historical Novel Prize in Memory of Georgette Heyer, is a novel of witchcraft and doomed love set in Henry VIII's time.

Green Darkness by Anya Seton, which I'd read ages ago, is a classic novel of reincarnation set in the England of Edward VI (son of Henry VIII) and 20th-century England.

What else can you recommend along these same lines?  That is, Tudor times, non-famous characters.

Note: I've based the title of this post off the HNS conference session entitled "Historical Fiction Without the Famous" (see Mary Tod's blog A Writer of History for more), although from what I understand, that session focused on novels with fictional characters.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A man of science in Elizabethan England: Jane Borodale's The Knot

It feels like I haven't been reviewing as many books here this summer as usual.  This isn't because I haven't been reading and writing, though; quite the opposite!  In the past couple of months I've turned in five reviews for Booklist and seven for the Historical Novels Review, and I'll republish most of them once they've appeared in the magazines.

After those deadlines had passed, I had a chance to pick up a novel that's been sitting on my shelves way too long.  I first wrote about Jane Borodale's The Knot in a preview post back in January 2012.  For those who love the Tudor era but seek out characters beyond the usual range of court personalities, this contemplative novel will be a refreshing change.

It's based on the known facts about Henry Lyte, a prosperous landowner living at Lytes Cary in Somerset in the 1560s and 1570s.  A painstaking observer of the natural world, Lyte takes it upon himself to translate a Dutch herbal into English.  His purpose is noble: he wants to make the material available more widely, to those who can't afford physicians' fees, and so "that they can fetch this knowledge out of strange tongues," as the epigraph states.

It's also the story of the elaborate herb garden he designs and creates – regretfully, there's no trace left of it today – and of his second wife Frances and their growing family, his servants, and his professional acquaintances, who interact with him, support him, and serve as unwelcome distractions from his book, which has become an obsession.

Borodale brings readers deep into Henry's mind as he wanders around his estate, ponders the English equivalents for plants described in the Dutch herbal, tries to oversee the smooth running of his estate, and deals with his fault-finding stepmother, whom he detests.  

His marriage to Frances is contented enough, so he believes, although her behavior frequently bemuses him. Frances comes from London, and Henry fails to understand her lack of interest in the minutiae of gardening or her fear that the region will flood.  "It's like walking on bodies," Frances says about the moist, uneven ground of the Somerset Levels.  Plus, there are occasional murmurings and questions around the countryside about the death of Henry's first wife, Anys, or so he thinks – he hasn't heard them firsthand.  I detected a sense of guilt at play here, and wondered about what really happened.

Lyte is the head of his household, and everyone knows it and respects it, in keeping with the times.  Still, I enjoyed seeing the moments of spirited defiance against his wishes, like when his longtime gardener, Tobias Mote, dares to express his own opinions (because he is always right), or when Frances finds an expensive new hobby.  Although everything is seen through Henry's eyes, the story is written so that readers can see others' viewpoints even if Henry's too oblivious to notice them.  This would be a very different book if told from Frances' perspective!

The Knot can be read as a well-wrought biographical novel, a vibrant portrait of an upper-class Elizabethan household and the science of its age, and as a morality tale of sorts.  While few readers will likely be as entranced by the plethora of botanical detail as Henry is, it's all presented beautifully.

The Knot was published in the UK by HarperPress in 2012; this was a personal purchase. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

An intense human story of a natural disaster: Vanessa Lafaye's Summertime (Under a Dark Summer Sky)

Vanessa Lafaye’s Summertime – or, in the US, Under a Dark Summer Sky – is an engaging summer read with a social bite. The isolated setting of Heron Key in Florida in 1935 is a hotbed of racial tensions, some overt and others quietly simmering and waiting to boil over.

Two generations after the end of slavery, the community’s annual Independence Day barbecue remains a segregated event, although "no one could partition the sky when those fireworks went up.”

Stress levels are already high, with over 200 unruly WWI veterans taking up residence in shacks while they repair a bridge as part of a public works project. When Hilda Kincaid, an unhappy white woman, is found badly beaten in the early hours of July 5th, Henry Roberts, a black veteran who’s finally returned home, is eyed as a suspect. The lack of motive hardly seems to matter.

The human drama takes center stage from the get-go, and following the events in the characters’ lives compels further reading. There are a lot of them to track, and while a few minor characters feel a bit fuzzy, most spring from the page with their individual personalities.

Eighteen summertimes is a long time to carry a torch for someone, but Missy Douglas, the Kincaids’ maid and nanny, has waited that long for her old friend Henry to come back from the war. She finds him profoundly changed, worn down by life, and doesn’t know if she and their town can compete with his memories of Europe – where he had a lover who didn't care about his skin color. All isn’t well in the Kincaids’ marriage, and hasn’t been from the start.  The veterans, black and white, already irked about their promised wartime bonuses being postponed, don’t mix well with the locals.

When one of the biggest tropical cyclones on record strikes the Keys soon after, the rush to survive brings out many extremes in human nature.

The writing is so accomplished that it’s hard to believe this is Lafaye’s debut. For those who like their historical fiction entrenched in a specific time and place, it will be an intense and unsettling read.

Summertime was published in the UK by Orion in paperback in May (£7.99, 368pp).  Under a Dark Summer Sky, its US title, was published in June by Sourcebooks Landmark ($14.99, 390pp).  Thanks to Orion for sending a review copy my way.