Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A trip back to the colorful, troubled 1960s

My library's in the process of running a semester-long program and exhibit series, "Revolutionary Decade," focusing on the 1960s.  It includes film screenings, panel discussions with Eastern Illinois University faculty and students, even an extravaganza of music and dance that will include a costume contest.  (I'll be attending, but not as a model)

Because I have a partiality towards historical fiction (probably no big surprise), I decided to put together a book display featuring fiction set during the decade.

While I was getting the display ready, I'd remembered Richard Sharp's guest post about the '60s as an important new frontier for historical fiction (which is one of my favorite essays on this site) as well as the conversation it provoked.  By now, a good part of the '60s fits the traditional 50-year-lookback definition for the genre, but some readers believe this time frame is just too recent.  Whatever your feelings, I wanted to pull together a collection of novels evoking the diverse experiences of people living through the political and social changes of the era.

For a list of the titles as well as annotations, plus some groovy book covers, there's also an accompanying online exhibit.

A couple of the books were written at the time they were set, so the list has a good mix of historical and classic fiction.  I've been observing how well the display is holding up and filling in gaps when it looks too picked over.  Although it hasn't been as immensely popular as the Downton Abbey display I arranged earlier this year, it's seen a lot of checkout activity, so it's been doing its job at making the novels (and the era) more visible.

Monday, September 29, 2014

New Perspectives on Old Stories, a guest post by David Ebsworth, author of The Kraals of Ulundi: A Novel of the Zulu War

David Ebsworth (the pen name of Liverpool-born writer, Dave McCall) has contributed an essay on the background to his third novel, The Kraals of Ulundi, and the reason that he chose some unusual perspectives to tell the story of the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War.


New Perspectives on Old Stories
David Ebsworth

I was filled with doubts during the eight months that it took me to write Kraals. Everybody had warned me not to write an “Africa” story. ‘Africa stories don’t sell any more,’ seemed to be the general advice. But most of my stories are those that I wished somebody else had already written – yet which so far seem to have been overlooked. And this tale of the Zulu War’s second half was high on my list. So I was delighted when, on publication, the Historical Novel Society reviewed the book as an Editor’s Choice and described it as “an accomplished, rich, beautifully produced and very rewarding read that brings a lesser-known era of history to life” – though I was even more delighted when the review picked up on the new perspectives with which the novel may help the period to be viewed.

As it happens, this marks the 50th anniversary of that iconic 1964 movie, Zulu, starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker, as well as several thousand Zulus. It’s a beautiful piece of cinematography, produced jointly by Cy Endfield and Baker himself. It tells the story of the heroic and successful 1879 defence of the Rorke’s Drift mission station by 179 British soldiers against an attack of 4,000 Zulus, as a result of which eleven of the defenders were awarded the Victoria Cross. Yet, at the same time, and just a few miles away, on the slopes of the mountain called Isandlwana, the British army was suffering one of the worst defeats in its history, as 1,500 of their soldiers were massacred by the rest of the Zulu army, more than 20,000 warriors. And this action became the basis for a second film, Zulu Dawn, released in 1979.

Isandlwana with a British cairn marking a grave from the Battle of Isandlwana

But those events took place during the first few weeks of the war – and the war then dragged on for a further six months. And while there has been a fair amount of excellent non-fiction written about the rest of the Zulu War, the subject remains virtually untouched by fiction writers – even though it covers some astonishing episodes. First, when news of Isandlwana reached Britain several weeks later, the reaction of the public was unexpected. The invasion of Zululand had not been endorsed by Queen or Parliament, and people were outraged that it had been undertaken as an overt land-grab by colonial officials in South Africa, almost without provocation. Within months, groups of Zulu warriors were being brought to England to appear on the London stage and to be fêted on the streets of the Empire’s capital. The massacre could not go unpunished, of course, so reinforcements were sent out, and these included the French Prince Imperial, Louis Napoleon, Bonaparte’s great-nephew. Louis was killed there, in a Zulu ambush on 1st June 1879 – a monumental catastrophe for Queen Victoria that had repercussions all of its own.

The Prince Imperial

There were more battles, victories and disasters for both sides. And the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, was eventually captured in yet another bizarre series of incidents that finally drew the conflict to a close, even though its legacy still rebounds through South Africa’s contemporary politics.

It was a story that I couldn’t ignore. But the more I researched, the more I looked in vain for novels that told the Zulus’ side, or dealt with the six months after Rorke’s Drift, or explained why Britain was fighting the independent and friendly kingdom of Zululand at all. So I began to consider telling my tale from different perspectives. First, and most controversially, a semi-fictional Zulu Warrior, Shaba kaNdabuko. Second, a historical character, the British lieutenant, Jahleel Brenton Carey. Third, a purely fictional renegade white trader, William McTeague, who spans both the British and Zulu cultures. And fourth, the three women who stand alongside them and create the catalyst for much of the book’s interaction.

Naturally, it was the Zulu perspective that gave me both the greatest pain and the greatest pleasure. Long hours studying the culture of this extraordinary people, and learning some of their isiZulu language. And then a trip to South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal region – a beautiful part of the world – where I was able to talk with present-day Zulus still using oral tradition to pass down memories of the conflict, as well as their enigmatic relationship and affinity with the British, evident still today, exactly as it was when the Great Farini organized his Zulu Shows at the London theatres in 1879. And in KwaZulu-Natal I was also lucky to meet Mabusi Kgwete, who used her own considerable skills to help me finalise the book’s isiZulu Glossary and Pronunciation Guide.

As the Historical Novel Society review points out, the use of Zulu words in the text may seem daunting, although on most occasions they are simply there as additional colour, rather than being essential to understanding and, overall, “they were a well-placed constant reminder of perspective and showed how different were the two cultures that clashed with each other.”

I like to say that Kraals is the novel which picks up the story of the Zulu war where Michael Caine left off. But I hope that maybe readers will come away from the book’s closing paragraphs with the view that, in fact, it really picks up the tale from the perspective of the Zulus themselves.

Cosi, cosi yaphela! 


David Ebsworth has published three novels: The Jacobites’ Apprentice, Finalist in the Historical Novel Society’s 2014 Indie Award; The Assassin’s Mark, set during the Spanish Civil War; and The Kraals of Ulundi: A Novel of the Zulu War. Each of these books has been the recipient of the coveted B.R.A.G. Medallion for independent authors.

More details of David’s work are available on his website: http://www.davidebsworth.com.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Communications in Wartime: Between the Lines, a guest essay by Deborah Lawrenson

I'm pleased to welcome Deborah Lawrenson here today.  Several years ago I reviewed her first US release, The Lantern, a Gothic mystery steeped in the atmosphere of rural Provence, and enjoyed it very much.  Her new novel The Sea Garden was published by HarperCollins this June, and while readers will recognize one of the characters from The Lantern, it also stands alone.  The Sea Garden contains three stories in one; one strand is present-day, while the others take place during WWII.  She has contributed an informed, sobering essay about the secret activities and immense courage of wireless operators in wartime.


Communications in Wartime: Between the Lines
Deborah Lawrenson

By 1943, the life expectancy of a wireless operator working for the French resistance and the British agents on the ground in Nazi-occupied France was down to six weeks. Sending and receiving vital messages between the sharp end and London to organize secret drops of agents and weapons, and provide the link between sabotage operations, was dangerous work.

Wireless signals were highly susceptible to detection, as were the aerials that had to be disguised as washing lines, or hoisted into trees. Hidden away, the operator tapped out messages in Morse and then waited for responses. This might take hours, but twenty minutes on air was enough to provide a signal that could be pinpointed by the enemy. Each transmission required sheer dogged bravery.

SOE wireless set, disguised in suitcase

Communication, or the lack of it, is the unifying theme in my novel based on these events, The Sea Garden: coded wireless messages; torch signals; lighthouse beams; braille; the human senses, especially that of smell; information withheld; misinformation; differences in language; subconscious understanding.

The book is structured as a triptych so that the three distinct parts mirror the oblique connections between underground cells during wartime, when security was paramount and the best defence was limited knowledge of the activities of others in the organization. If you were captured, you had no knowledge that could endanger others. Different stories overlap but none are known to all those involved. It is only afterwards, sometimes many years later, that connections can be made.

Each section of The Sea Garden focuses on a strong, resourceful young woman being tested. In the title story, Ellie is a landscape gardener commissioned to work on a memorial garden on an island off the south coast of France, caught up in a history she has never known. In The Lavender Field, blind Marthe has to find new ways of communicating during wartime, and changes her life in the process. A Shadow Life follows Iris in bomb-blasted London, as she works behind the scenes recruiting and preparing the agents for their missions in France, and evaluating their wireless messages from enemy territory.

The starting point for Iris’s story was the real-life figure of Vera Atkins, the senior woman officer at SOE’s French Section in London (Mavis Acton, in my novel). A strong woman who provoked strong reactions, Vera Atkins was recruiting women for these risky operations, a fact that would have horrified the public, had it been known at the time.

What also seems inconceivable now is that despite the part women were playing in these do-or-die missions, the opinions and instincts of the women who worked in the secret London office were routinely disregarded as being of little value – a misjudgment that was to have grave consequences.

Silk scarf map and receiver

In the closing months of 1943, several of the wireless operators on the ground in France were becoming slapdash. Their messages back to London were missing their security checks, innocuous words like “Salut” and “Adieu” that had been agreed would show all was well. It was clear to London that operations were progressing to plan, so the only explanation was that the signalers were lax. Head of French Section, Maurice Buckmaster shot back furious volleys of Morse across the Channel, and the next messages settled down, carefully following instructions.

But some of the backroom women on the SOE staff were concerned. They compared notes as they met in the ladies’ washroom, and soon pieced together a worrying picture. Other sections – dealing with agents in Holland and Belgium – had also noticed irregularities which had been dismissed as unimportant. In some instances, personal questions had been asked of the wireless operators to ascertain if there was a problem, and the clumsy replies had been unsatisfactory but excused by the necessity of transmitting as quickly as possible.

SOE wireless set

Call it women’s intuition, or more potently, a subconscious understanding of nuance in language, but the young women joining the dots in the washroom were not convinced. The obvious explanation – that these transmissions carried warnings – was being dismissed. Yet no one in authority wanted to hear their protests. It was not their place to question or make waves; the men were in charge, and they knew what they were doing. 

Many months later came a message from France that made the blood run cold. It thanked London for the large deliveries of arms and ammunition and the invaluable help with insight into British intentions. It was signed: The Gestapo.

French resistants and radio operator on the ground

Many of the wireless operators had in fact been captured, several picked up from the landing grounds of secret flights organized by signals that had come in to radio sets that were already in the hands of the Germans. They were being held at Gestapo headquarters in Paris and forced to send and receive transmissions from there – London had been communicating directly with the Nazis in what became known with grim irony as “The Radio Game”.

When the radio operators were no longer useful they were executed or sent to concentrations camps. Few survived. It only made it worse that the linguistic signals that all was not well had indeed been picked up – but had gone unheeded.


Deborah Lawrenson spent her childhood moving around the world with diplomatic service parents, from Kuwait to China, Belgium, Luxembourg and Singapore. She graduated from Cambridge University and worked as a journalist in London.

She is the author of six previous novels, including The Art of Falling and Songs of Blue and Gold, inspired by the life of writer-traveller Lawrence Durrell, though The Lantern was the first to be published in the USA.

Deborah is married with a daughter, and spends as much time as possible at a crumbling hamlet in Provence, France.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Book review: Silent Murders by Mary Miley, a mystery of '20s Hollywood

Mary Miley’s smart and snappy follow-up to The Impersonator draws readers back to the glory days of America’s silent film industry, when attractive starlets dreamed of their big break, illicit booze flowed freely at exclusive gatherings, almost everyone in the business feared the coming of “talkies,” and, as the observant heroine Jessie Beckett tells us, “no one but cactuses lived in remote Beverly Hills.”

In 1925, America’s blonde and petite sweetheart, Mary Pickford, and her debonair husband Douglas Fairbanks reign as queen and king of Hollywood at their jointly run studio and at their Tudor-style mansion known as Pickfair. Having wrapped up her role as a rich heiress, as told in Miley’s previous book, Jessie aims to make a new start by taking on her former character’s name for real and relocating to L.A. She can hardly believe it when she, a mere script girl, gets asked to step in as Fairbanks’ assistant and when famed director Bruno Heilmann invites her to a party (as a guest, to her amazement, not as hired help).

When Heilmann and an old friend of Jessie’s mother are found murdered the morning after in their homes, though, Jessie gets nervous. The victims have little in common besides the party and Jessie herself, but maybe they share a killer as well. Fairbanks knows that in these difficult years following the Fatty Arbuckle incident, the industry may not survive another morality scandal, so Jessie gets asked to do damage control – which leads to yet more trouble.

This is more of a traditional mystery than The Impersonator, since it lacks the suspenseful dread of discovery that Jessie endured throughout that novel. That said, there’s little that's traditional about Jessie herself, much as she’d like to pretend otherwise. Having grown up in vaudeville, her street-smarts and creative talent for deception are part of who she is. Her saucy narrative voice makes her good company, and there are two men who’d definitely agree with that – one a perceptive WWI vet who may be that rarity in corrupt L.A., an honest policeman, and the other an old flame from Portland who’s Jessie’s match in deceit and then some.

It all makes for fun entertainment, one with well-integrated appearances by both familiar and lesser-known names from the era, like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford’s two high-maintenance siblings, newcomer Gary Cooper, and his former Montana neighbor-turned-Hollywood-ingénue, Jessie’s good friend Myrna Loy.

Silent Murders was published this week by Minotaur in hardcover ($25.99/C$29.99, 311pp, incl. historical note).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Whole Lotta Shakespeare Going On: A guest essay by Lois Leveen

Author Lois Leveen is here today with an essay about the contemporary relevance of William Shakespeare's plays and how modern audiences are continuing to respond to his characters and themes. Her second novel, Juliet's Nurse, set in 14th-century Verona, Italy, and imagining the events from Romeo and Juliet from a new perspective, was published yesterday by Atria/Emily Bestler in hardcover.

Whole Lotta Shakespeare Going On
Lois Leveen

I've spent the last couple of years in isolated obsession with the Bard. My new novel, Juliet's Nurse, imagines the fourteen years leading up to the events in Romeo and Juliet, as told by the character who has the third largest number of lines in William Shakespeare's play. Although much of my research focused on fourteenth-century Italy (in which the novel is set), I always kept my edition of Romeo and Juliet within arm's reach while writing, so I could cull from the characters, lines, settings, and scenes Shakespeare provided. Yet even as I wove material from Shakespeare throughout the novel, I was careful to craft Juliet's Nurse so that a reader wouldn't need to know anything about the play to enjoy the book. After all, I thought, Shakespeare can seem daunting, and I didn't want readers to be intimidated.

But a funny thing happened once the novel was done: I looked up from my manuscript, broadened my focus beyond my own copy of Romeo and Juliet, and suddenly realized Shakespeare was everywhere. Visiting the Helsinki City Museum shop, I happened upon a graphic novel version of Romeo and Juliet. Watching the 1960s TV sitcom The Odd Couple, I recognized three Shakespeare allusions in two episodes. While a professor friend and I sat discussing Shakespeare in the Chinese garden in downtown Portland, Oregon, passersby who overheard us kept stopping to share stories about particular Shakespeare productions they'd seen, or to advocate for characters who were their personal favorites. When I read from Juliet's Nurse at a small cabaret-style gathering last spring, the woman whose turn onstage came after mine responded by reciting from memory the entire Shakespeare scene I'd riffed on. Soon other performers and audience members began offering Shakespeare lines and speeches that they knew by heart.

Romeo & Julia - Finnish graphic novel (credit: Lois Leveen)

Perhaps the most serendipitous Shakespeare concurrence for me is the Complete Works Project. Seventeen theater companies in the city where I live—ranging from the most established performing arts venues to shoestring-budget groups who perform wherever they can find space—have committed to staging every Shakespeare play within two years. This feat requires an intense level of coordination across organizations, for a period stretching from April 2014 (the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth) through April 2016 (the 400th anniversary of his death). Thanks to their efforts, this summer I was attending as many as four plays a week, including many I'd never seen or read before, and others I hadn't been exposed to in years.

As a writer who'd been riffing on a single Shakespeare play, watching so many of his works was revealing. His plots can be convoluted, and his characters sometimes have abrupt changes of heart that challenge believability. But his language – line after line that are so beautiful, biting, witty, memorable! Turns out, we all know more Shakespeare than we realize, because he shaped the English language in profound ways. But what impressed me most were the audiences, particularly at the many free performances put on in parks across the city. 

One park, two plays, many Portlanders atttending (credit: Lois Leveen)

Children under the age of two remained mesmerized for three hours. Teens skateboarding by stopped to watch. An older couple walking past with their Labrador retriever lingered until the dog got restless, then returned twenty minutes later without the dog to catch the final act. (Other dogs sat happily through entire performances). Technically, we were all groundlings, but the viewers sporting an array of tattoos, mohawks, and body piercings cheek-by-jowl with those who had wheelchairs, walkers, or bottles of expensive Chardonnay nestled within high-end picnic baskets testified to the Bard's astoundingly broad appeal. I was especially impressed at how the actors handled lines that strike audiences today as misogynistic, anti-Semitic, or racist; to admire and love Shakespeare doesn't mean we should ignore what he got wrong. 

Portland families, mesmerized by William Shakespeare (credit: Lois Leveen)

Recognizing the ubiquitous appeal of Shakespeare was reassuring to me as I waited for Juliet's Nurse to be released. In the months to come, I'll have the chance to talk about his work, and how it influenced me, with readers around the world. One city has already chosen the book for its Community-Wide Read, timed to coincide with Valentine's Day – a perfect season for re-examining the world's most famous love story. But the library director and I are planning a series of events that extend well beyond the conventional "Why I Wrote This Book" author talk. There will be a program about medieval and Renaissance Italian art and architecture, a mother-daughter reading group, classroom writing workshops for high school and college students and teachers, perhaps a session in which actors coach community members as they take their turn at speaking Shakespeare's lines—and my own. It's always a thrill for me to engage audiences in discussions about themes like love, loss, suffering, and hope that run through my novels. But it's especially exciting to bring new perspectives to cultural conversations we're already having, thanks to Shakespeare.

I'm delighted to be reminded in so many ways that Shakespeare can be inviting, rather than intimidating. Finding so much Shakespeare in the world around me provides an important lesson about not writing off anyone's ability to appreciate his work, or mine.

Author bio:

Author Lois Leveen
(Credit: John Melville Bishop)
Award-winning author Lois Leveen dwells in the spaces where literature and history meet. In addition to the historical novels Juliet's Nurse and The Secrets of Mary Bowser she has written prose and poetry appearing in numerous literary and scholarly journals, as well as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post, Bitch magazine, The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and on NPR. A former faculty member at UCLA and Reed College, Lois gives talks about writing and history at universities, museums, and libraries around the country. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with two cats, one Canadian, and 60,000 honeybees. Visit her online at www.LoisLeveen.com and Facebook.com/LoisLeveen.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Book review: Gutenberg's Apprentice, by Alix Christie

This gorgeously written debut, set in the cathedral city of fifteenth-century Mainz, dramatizes the creation of the Gutenberg Bible in a story that devotees of book history and authentic historical fiction will relish.

When scribe Peter Schoeffer gets called home from Paris by his foster father, Johann Fust, to be trained by the headstrong, brilliant Johann Gutenberg in the groundbreaking art of movable-type printing, he is resentful and apprehensive. With a confident hand, Christie illuminates the daily life and religious mindset of late medieval Germany as Peter grapples with new ideas. In an era that sees manuscript copying as an act of spiritual communion, is the mass production of letters blasphemous or an efficient way of spreading God’s word?

As tensions flare between the wealthy archbishop and the reform-minded pope, and as local guilds rise in power, Gutenberg establishes a secret workshop where he, Peter, and Fust, his financial backer, become an unstoppable trio. Readers are offered a captivating view of early printing techniques and the obstacles encountered over the several years in which each successive line of the Bible is inked onto vellum and paper.

An inspiring tale of ambition, camaraderie, betrayal, and cultural transformation based on actual events and people, this wonderful novel fully inhabits its age.


I wrote this starred review for Booklist's August issue, based on an e-galley available from Edelweiss, which goes to show that the power of the written word remains constant despite the continuing evolution of technology.  I've since received a hardcover copy in the mail, and it's a beautiful physical specimen, too.  

Gutenberg's Apprentice is published today by Harper (hardcover, $27.99, 416pp) and in the UK by Headline (£13.99).  You can also watch a video in which the author describes why she calls the development of the Gutenberg Bible "the world's first tech start-up."

Monday, September 22, 2014

Book review: The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, by Kim Rendfeld

Kim Rendfeld’s second historical novel (following The Cross and the Dragon) takes the form of a quest-adventure, but not of the type you’d expect. Rather than centering on a single man or woman on a mission, it features a family of farmers, a devoted mother and her son and daughter, on their journeys together and separately. While their original goal is to regain possession of the home they lost to war, their search expands to include something more intangible and valuable: personal freedom. Finally, the setting is one that’s rarely seen in fiction, the Frankish realm in the late 8th century, as seen from the viewpoint of the king’s enemies, the beleaguered Westphalian Saxons.

The clear writing style should reassure anyone concerned about the unfamiliar setting, and readers are plunged into the action from the first page. Following signs of a Frankish invasion, Leova and her children Sunwynn and Deorlaf flee into the nearby woods while the men stay and defend their village. After the battle ends, their husband and father, Derwine, is found slain, and the holy Irminsul, an oaken pillar symbolizing the power of the Saxon gods, has been destroyed. Their situation worsens further when a cruel relative tricks them into slavery.

Over seven years, each member of the trio reacts in different ways to their new low status, trying stay together as they’re sold or traded to different masters and mistresses, some tolerant and some cruel. They aren’t static characters, and this is just one of the novel’s strengths. Sunwynn grows into a beautiful young woman hemmed in by her circumstances; Deorlaf becomes restless and seeks revenge on his family’s captors. As they mature, the story provides them with viewpoints of their own. Some of their mother’s choices make them uneasy, but Leova acts as she does to ensure their survival.

Good historical fiction can serve as a bridge between our time and days long past. With its beliefs in protective charms and forest nixies, the Saxons’ culture feels vastly different from our own, but everyone will recognize a mother’s fear and strength. Children of this time need to know the world’s realities, and Leova doesn't spare her son the truth about why they need to escape Eresburg: “If we return home now, the invaders will rape me and Sunwynn – and jam their rods up your backside.” In contrast, some other elements are toned down.  There’s quite a lot of muttered cursing in the novel, which will please those looking for a profanity-free read; others may find themselves curious about the presumably more colorful expressions that were omitted.

The plot smoothly winds through Charlemagne’s vast empire, from devastated Eresburg above the Diemel River in central Germany to the royal court at Aachen to a church in Rennes, in the March of Brittany. Details on the changing scenery and customs are well integrated. Although the conflicting religious beliefs of the time are highlighted, over time the novel becomes less a story about the Saxon gods’ failed power and more a tale about the strength of individuals and families – and the power of love to heal wounds. This makes The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar not only an authentic-feeling representation of a distant era but one relevant to here and now.

The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar was published by Fireship Press in August in paperback ($18.50, 376pp) and as an e-book ($5.50).  I received a NetGalley copy of this title for review.  See the publisher's website for more stops on the virtual tour.


To read the first chapters of either novel or learn more about Kim, visit kimrendfeld.com. You’re also welcome to visit her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, like her on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Chris Nickson's The Crooked Spire, and visits to modern and medieval Chesterfield

On our UK trip last week, we ended up staying one night in the market town of Chesterfield in Derbyshire only by happenstance.  I'd looked on a map and noticed it was close to Hardwick Hall, which I wanted to visit, so I made a reservation at an inn close by the town center.  Off we went.

While we were walking around the shops of downtown Chesterfield on our way back from dinner, Mark noticed something unusual in the distance.  "Isn't that spire crooked?" he asked me.  I agreed, and we both looked at the oddly twisted spire for a minute, the image jogging my memory slightly.  Then I opened my Kindle on the flight home to Chicago and remembered why it was familiar.  It seems I had bought Chris Nickson's new medieval mystery a few months ago, and what do you know.  There was that spire again. 

Of course I had to read the book right then and there.

The Crooked Spire opens in the year 1360 as John, a talented carpenter, arrives in Chesterfield looking for work.  He comes with experience he'd previously worked on York's famous Minster so, after some tests of his abilities with wood, he gets taken on as part of a team of craftsmen who'll be reinforcing the ceiling of St. Mary's church before installing the tall, heavy spire.

But after he discovers a corpse on the floor of the church tower early one morning, the coroner eyes John with suspicion. It's risky to be a stranger in town when murder is afoot.  John isn't without friends, though.  They include a young boy, Walter, who takes to him as a father figure of sorts; Walter's pretty older sister, Katherine; and the kindly Widow Martha, who offers John a place to stay in her lodging house on Walter's recommendation.

The novel offers a fully-formed picture of English medieval life as seen from the viewpoint of ordinary people; there are no royals in sight here.  Nickson's scene-setting and character development are both well done.  I liked spending time with John as he walked along Chesterfield's bustling streets after a hard but rewarding day of labor and as he dined on his landlady's delicately spiced meals at her home on Knifesmithgate (a street I remember seeing on my own travels).

All the while, I was introduced to legal matters of the era and the ins and outs of church architecture. For example, as the one who found the body, John has to pay the coroner a fee, which hardly seems fair.  That's bureaucracy for you.  But despite the dangers John faces, there's an underlying acknowledgment that he and other folks are the lucky ones. The Black Death is only twelve years past, and the pestilence had killed John's own parents and an abundance of others.  If the townspeople seek out what enjoyment they can in life, who can blame them?

The body count rises as the plot proceeds, since the original murder isn't an isolated incident at all.  John impresses the coroner with his quick mind, something unexpected in an ordinary laborer.  His  investigative techniques are logical, if not always terribly sophisticated.  To find one probable murderer, he and Walter look for a man wearing bloodstained clothing but that does get the job done.  John's admirable pursuit of the truth not only leads him to reevaluate his life but turns up a tightly woven web of corruption.  It all concludes on a satisfying note.

And for those like me who wondered how the crooked spire of the title might have come to be... there are explanations in that regard, too.

The novel left me wishing I'd seen more of Chesterfield in person, but since this is the first book in a planned series, I'll definitely be back to spend more time there.

The Crooked Spire was published in late 2013 by The Mystery Press at £8.99/$13.95 in paperback (264pp) or you can do as I did and snag it for $3.79 as a Kindle book.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Thank You, Wimsey: A guest essay from Bernadette Pajer - plus US giveaway

Historical novelists can potentially run into a sticky dilemma when they write about real-life people with living descendants.  Bernadette Pajer's story in this regard is different than the usual, and I hope you'll enjoy her essay about how she was introduced to Professor Joseph M. Taylor of the University of Washington.

Bernadette's fast-paced Professor Bradshaw mystery series, from Poisoned Pen Press, is set amid the academic scientific community in early 20th-century Seattle; The Edison Effect is the fourth and latest volume.  I grew curious about the series not only because I like historical mysteries but because both of my parents are math professors, just like Joseph Taylor.  There also aren't many historical novels that delve into the history of science and technology.  I've already read the first series volume, A Spark of Death (on sale for 99 cents in e-format) and enjoyed not only the mystery plot but also getting to know her protagonist, Professor Bradshaw of the UW, and his lovable son, Justin.  The  details on electrical engineering are fascinating and fully accessible to readers without a science background.

There's a giveaway opportunity to accompany Bernadette's essay, for US-based readers.  One lucky blog reader will receive a signed copy of book 1, A Spark of Death, plus a new copy of her latest, The Edison Effect.  (While each mystery stands alone, the author recommends reading book 1 first for familiarity with the characters and their relationships.)  Fill out the form at the end for a chance to win.
Thank You, Wimsey.
By Bernadette Pajer

I have Lord Peter Wimsey to thank for a true-life character in The Edison Effect. In the wonderful way that all things are connected, Wimsey's enduring popularity led to the Taproot Theater in Seattle putting on a production of Gaudy Night, which led to them hosting a panel of mystery authors to discuss Wimsey and Sayers and mysteries in general, which led to me being a guest, and to a man named George Myers, who is a Taproot board member and mystery fan, being in the audience, which then led to George emailing me about his great-great-grandfather Joseph M. Taylor, who just happened to be the University of Washington's first math professor and first Observatory Director, and who we both soon felt must surely be a good friend of my fictional Professor Bradshaw.

It's weird and wonderful the way fact and fiction can mingle on the page of novels, and also in real life. For many authors and their readers, fictional characters are as real as any flesh-and-blood person. We often know fictional characters better than we know our own families. We're certainly more understanding and tolerant of them. Perhaps it's because we get to see what's in their minds and hearts, helping us better understand their actions. Or perhaps it's because when we tire of them, we can simply close the book and walk away. Although, as Bradshaw's creator, I don't feel I ever truly walk away from him. He's with me the way my child is with me, even when we're separated.

Once George, by way of Wimsey, gave me the gift of his ancestor, I began to research this fascinating fellow. You can see by his photo that he was a likeable sort, gregarious, and outgoing. Quite unlike my reticent, reclusive Professor Bradshaw, and so the perfect mentor for him. I learned that Taylor had the honor of laying the cornerstone on the new campus, July 4, 1894. That building still stands today and is called Denny Hall. In the early days, it was called the Administration Building, and it's where, in the basement laboratories, my Professor Bradshaw works with his electrical engineering students. Those basement labs really existed, by the way, and at the turn of the last century, a dozen or so students worked with what was then an exciting new field, building Tesla coils, wireless transmitters, and dynamo machines (electric generators).

The Professor Bradshaw Mysteries are set more than a hundred years ago. “Seattle in the time of Tesla” is the slug line often used to describe them. This hundred-year gap makes it quite easy for me to sometimes incorporate real people into the stories without fear of retribution or offense. Not that I ever have characters with real-life counterparts do anything wicked, at least not anymore wicked than history recorded them doing. Thomas Edison appears in The Edison Effect. He was easy to characterize since so much has been written about him, and I enjoyed revealing his lesser-known dark side.

But characterizing Joseph Taylor was different. He wasn't someone I plucked from the history books, he was given to me by his very own great-great grandson. Taylor's descendants would be reading this book and my characterization of their relative. While I could have been intimidated by this, I wasn't. There was just something about Taylor's smile, the crinkle of his eyes, that told me he would get a kick out of being featured in a traditional whodunit. His smile let me relax and enjoy myself. I learned he was an author himself, with several non-fiction books to his credit, including The History and Government of Washington, published in 1898. He was a Freemason and an Odd Fellow, and he dedicated much of his life to helping improve the lives of others. I think I would have liked Professor Taylor very much. I know Professor Bradshaw is grateful to count him as a friend and mentor, just as I'm grateful to now count his great-great grandson George Myers, as a new yet already dear friend.

The UW's Jacobsen Observatory, site of the author's book launch on 9/27
(Professor's Taylor's descendants will be in attendance)

Bernadette Pajer's Professor Bradshaw Mysteries have been called "deft, highly entertaining" by Publishers Weekly and "a great series" by the Portland Review of Books. She's a University of Washington graduate, and a proud member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Northwest Science Writers, the Washington Academy of Sciences, and the Seattle7Writers.org. Research is her favorite activity, and she happily delves into Pacific Northwest history and the early days of electrical invention as she plots Professor Bradshaw's investigations.

Website: http://bernadettepajer.com
FB: https://www.facebook.com/ProfessorBradshaw
Twitter: @BradshawMystery

NOTE: The giveaway is now over.  Congratulations to Mary C, and thanks to all who entered!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Historical novels seen at English historical sites

Although it may not have been apparent from this blog, I just got back from two weeks' vacation in England – Mark's and my first extended trip in some time.  We flew into Heathrow, rented a car, and drove north, stopping at York, Durham, Alnwick, then Berwick upon Tweed, England's most northerly town... and then we turned around and headed back south, with an excursion to Hardwick Hall near Chesterfield.

I found it noteworthy that historical fiction had a presence in most of the gift shops at the historical sites we visited, whether they were managed by the National Trust, English Heritage, or a more local organizing body.  What better way to continue to experience the atmosphere of a historical locale than to read a novel set there?

Here are some examples.

At the Beamish Open Air Museum in County Durham, the shop had numerous copies of Janet MacLeod Trotter's historical sagas set in England's North East.  This was a fabulous and large site, with restored buildings dating from the Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, and WWII eras, as well as costumed interpreters. We spent most of a day wandering around here.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that Bernard Cornwell's Saxon novels about Uhtred of Bebbanburg were in evidence at the shop at Bamburgh Castle.

The shop at Lindisfarne Priory offered a selection of historical novels set in and around monasteries and abbeys, such as Cassandra Clark's medieval mysteries about the Abbess of Meaux.  The Holy Island is accessible by causeway only at low tide, which gave us a few hours to explore the area last Monday morning.  It's definitely worth a trip.

The Chesters Roman Fort and Museum, near Chollerford in Northumberland, hosts the well-preserved ruins of a British Roman cavalry fort; it's located on Hadrian's Wall.  The gift shop at this site sold the historical adventure novels of Ben Kane and Simon Scarrow.

Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, the grand Elizabethan-era country house commissioned by powerful noblewoman Bess of Hardwick, had a nice array of books in its shop, below, including novels by Philippa Gregory and C.J. Sansom.  There was plenty of historical nonfiction about Tudor notables, too.

As a result, many visitors to these historical landmarks will be introduced to historical fiction and popular history.  I don't recall seeing this happening to such an extent on my last trip to the UK two years ago.  If this is a new trend, I hope it continues.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Book review: The Secret Life of Violet Grant, by Beatriz Williams

This smashing summer read introduces two ambitious career women living fifty years apart: Violet Schuyler Grant, an American atomic physicist in WWI-era Oxford and Berlin; and her great-niece, Vivian Schuyler, who defies her posh family to work at a magazine in 1960s Manhattan. While Violet’s courage, drive, and vulnerability make her a worthy heroine, Vivian’s cheeky and whip-smart voice steals the show.

The younger Schuyler gets caught up in a tantalizing mystery when a shabby old valise addressed to Violet shows up in her mail. Vivian also finds romance – a complicated one – with “Doctor Paul,” the dreamy surgeon she meets at the post office. Rumored to have murdered her husband and run off with her lover during the Great War, Violet hasn’t been mentioned chez Schuyler for decades, so Vivian is startled to learn of her existence – even more so when she pries the suitcase open and reads what’s inside.

As Vivian digs into her shadowy relative’s life, with the hopes of writing a dishy story that will be her big break, Violet’s tale of her disastrous marriage and risky affair with her husband’s former student unfolds in parallel. Brilliant but inexperienced with men, Violet is flattered by the attention of her older mentor, Dr. Walter Grant, whom she weds. Her dismay and fear are palpable when she discovers his controlling nature and infidelity.

Williams confidently re-creates both New York in the freewheeling ‘60s and the growing tension of prewar Europe, and she amps up the suspense as Violet’s situation gets desperate. Vivian’s commendable loyalty to her uber-rich friend Gogo adds interest, but the novel’s best part is simply watching the fabulous and always fashionably dressed Vivs in action. By the time she daringly acknowledges the plot’s big coincidence, she already has readers eating out of her hand. It satisfies on many levels, and it’s also immense fun.

The Secret Life of Violet Grant was published in June by Putnam in hardcover (436pp, $26.95 / Can$31.00).  This review first appeared in August's Historical Novels Review.  I loved the author's first book, Overseas, and thought this one was great as well, though the style is somewhat different.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Metifs, Meameloucs, Railway Cars, and The Cottoncrest Curse: An essay by Michael H. Rubin

Lawyer, professor, musician, speaker, and now debut novelist Michael H. Rubin is here with an original essay about the implications of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision by the U.S. Supreme Court and the role it plays in his new The Cottoncrest Curse, a legal thriller that intertwines fictional and historical characters.

Metifs, Meameloucs, Railway Cars,
and The Cottoncrest Curse

By Michael H. Rubin

In The Cottoncrest Curse, a series of gruesome deaths ignite feuds that burn a path from the cotton fields to the courthouse steps, from the moss-draped bayous of Cajun country to the bordellos of 19th-century New Orleans, from the Civil War era to the Civil Rights era and across the Jim Crow decades to the Freedom Marches of the 1960s.

At the heart of the story is the apparent suicide of an elderly Confederate Colonel who, two decades after the end of the Civil War, viciously slit the throat of his beautiful young wife and then fatally shot himself. But his death was not the first suicide of an owner of the Cottoncrest Plantation, and it was not to be the last…Or was this a double homicide, and are the deaths of the plantation’s owners across the decades linked? Suspicion for the murder of the colonel and his wife falls upon Jake Gold, an itinerant peddler who trades razor-sharp knives for local furs and who has many deep secrets to conceal.

So, what are metifs and meamaloucs, and how are they and railway cars involved in The Cottoncrest Curse?

The Cottoncrest Curse explores the dangers inherent in preconceived stereotypes. The infamous Jim Crow laws, which propel the action in The Cottoncrest Curse, were built on the fallacious stereotype that blacks were inherently inferior to whites. The Jim Crow laws were given validity by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, the separate-but-equal case. Plessy arose, however, not as a way to oppress blacks but rather as a test case to vindicate their rights, and a number of characters in The Cottoncrest Curse are involved in the Plessy case.

Jim Crow laws resulted in legalized discrimination against blacks. These laws didn’t merely mandate segregation and unequal treatment of those who “appeared” to be “black.” They attempted to parse bloodlines, so that even if one’s parents and grandparents were “white,” an individual was still considered “black” because of his or her distant ancestors. Louisiana even had terms to describe these bloodlines. Discrimination was legal against “metifs” — those who had just one black great-grandparent — or even “meameloucs” — those with just one black great-great grandparent.

Louis Martinet, a black lawyer who lived in the late 1800s and who appears in The Cottoncrest Curse, came up with a brilliant idea. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawed slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited states from making or enforcing any laws that would “abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” Yet, Louisiana had passed a law prohibiting blacks and whites from sitting in the same railway cars, relegating blacks to separate cars.

Martinet believed that separate was inherently unequal, and so he recruited Homer Plessy to be a plaintiff. Both Martinet and Plessy were light-skinned; in fact, both could passe blanc — pass for white — if they wanted to, but neither did. Both were proud of their black heritage.

Homer Plessy boarded a railway train in New Orleans bound for the Louisiana town of Covington and deliberately sat in the “white” car. When the conductor came to take his ticket, Homer did not merely hand it to him and attempt to passe blanc. Rather, Homer, who was a metif, boldly spoke up, declaring that he was “a Negro.” He was promptly arrested, as Homer and Martinet had anticipated, and the case challenging the mandatory separation of whites and blacks was underway.

The result, however, was not what Homer Plessy, Louis Martinet, and a host of others had hoped it would be. The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the statute, recognizing that to strike it down would undermine all the Jim Crow laws, and the United States Supreme Court affirmed the ruling with its infamous “separate but equal” pronouncement. It was not until 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education was decided, that Plessy was overturned by Brown’s famous statement that separate is inherently unequal.

While Jake Gold, the protagonist in The Cottoncrest Curse, is fictional, many historical figures — like Louis Martinet and Homer Plessy — are key to the plot. I wanted to create a page-turning thriller that was firmly grounded in historical events, and I’m pleased by the reception it has received so far, with Publishers Weekly calling it a “gripping debut mystery” and James Carville deeming it a “powerful epic” that is “expertly composed in both its historical content and beautifully constructed scenery.”

I hope readers will enjoy reading The Cottoncrest Curse as much as I enjoyed doing the historical research and writing the novel.

About Michael H. Rubin

Michael H. Rubin has conquered many worlds, and now he is branching out into new territory – fiction.

Rubin is a former professional jazz pianist and composer who has played in the New Orleans French Quarter and a former television and radio host. He is an accomplished lawyer who helps manage a law firm that has offices stretching from California to Florida and from Texas and Louisiana to New York.

He has served as an adjunct law professor at the Louisiana State University Law School for more than 30 years, and is a nationally known speaker whose talks on topics such as legal ethics, negotiations, appellate advocacy, real estate, finance and trial tactics have been widely praised throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Rubin has presented more than 375 major lectures and papers. He is an author, co-author, and contributing writer of 13 legal books and more than 30 articles for law reviews and periodicals, and his writings have been cited as authoritative by state and federal courts, including state supreme courts and federal appellate courts.

His latest legal book is Louisiana Security Devices: A Précis (Lexis/Nexis 2011), and his first novel, The Cottoncrest Curse is a legal thriller and multi-generational saga to be published September 10, 2014 by the award-winning LSU Press. The novel will be available nationwide in bookstores and as an e-book.

Friday, September 05, 2014

A short review: Neverhome, by Laird Hunt

Although historical novelists have been slow to honor the brave women who fought in America’s wars disguised as men, several, including Erin Lindsay McCabe and Alex Myers, have recently remedied this oversight. Hunt joins their strong ranks with an enthralling novel about an Indiana farm wife who leaves her husband in 1862 to become a Union soldier; she has her own reasons why.

Don’t expect instructive details on how “Ash Thompson” pulls off this masquerade. Instead, Hunt’s is an exquisitely wrought vision of the terrible ravages of war—on the land, on the human body, and on the mind—as encountered by a tough, clever woman.

As she marches from camp and into battle, into unfamiliar Southern towns and across woodland filled with intermingled blue and gray dead, she bests others and is herself bested. Her journey’s every step is finely rendered in an authentic rural dialect. Readers will encounter eye-opening surprises in both her future and progressively revealed past while avidly living each moment alongside her, marveling at her determination and amazing courage.

Neverhome will be published by Little, Brown on September 7th in hardcover (256pp, $26.95). This review first appeared in Booklist's September 1st issue.  Looking for subject-based "readalikes" for Neverhome?  I've listed some in my post from this past Friday.  There's plenty of action in this novel, though it also falls within the realm of literary fiction, so fans of Cold Mountain and its ilk should find it of interest as well.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Historical fiction vs. historical fantasy: Which is it? A guest post by Maggie Anton

Maggie Anton's guest post today is perfect for readers like me who enjoy learning about trends in historical fiction and seeing where subgroups within the genre meet and overlap.  Here she discusses the fluid borders between historical fiction and historical fantasy, and how the novels in her Rav Hisda's Daughter duo might possibly be categorized.  Book 1: Apprentice and Book 2: Enchantress both take place in a fascinating but underutilized historical setting, 4th-century Babylonia, and cover a vital period in Jewish history.  Welcome, Maggie!


Historical Fiction vs. Historical Fantasy: Which Is It?
Maggie Anton

I’ve noticed a debate in online historical fiction groups about the difference between a historical novel and a historical fantasy. On first glance, the difference is clear. A historical novel is set during a historical period on Earth, with real historical details as to politics (names of rulers), technology levels, and clothing styles. Definitive examples include Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies and Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. Even novels such as Gone with the Wind, where the characters didn't exist and there is no proof that the plotline really happened, are considered historical fiction. However adding an element that could not happen in the real world – such as vampires, dragons, ghosts, or sorcery – makes it historical fantasy as long as the action takes place on Earth. Recent popular examples include Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke and The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. But I don’t think these genres are quite so clear-cut. During most of human history, everyone believed in things that we moderns say do not exist, just as things exist today that our ancestors would consider magic.

What happens when a novelist living during those olden days writes about earlier times? I doubt Thomas Malory considered his Le Morte d’Arthur a fantasy, nor did Homer when writing The Odyssey. The earliest historical fiction included ghost stories and fairy tales, which nobody separated from legends that did not depend upon the supernatural. Stories set in ancient China often included dragons as characters, the assumption being that these great beasts either died out or are in hiding.

How about when a modern novelist tackles these ancient days of yore? When does a historical novel become a historical fantasy? In my Rashi’s Daughters trilogy, which takes place in medieval France, characters accept that illness came from foul air or bad food, but might also be the result of demon attacks or divine punishment. Precautions against these include actions we would call superstitions, such as wearing amulets or avoiding certain activities on “unlucky” days. I detailed many of these “magical” practices, but left it up to the reader whether they actually worked. As far as I was concerned, I was writing historical fiction authentic for its time period.

My Rav Hisda’s Daughter duo, Apprentice and Enchantress, takes place in 4th-century Babylonia, where no one doubted that "magic" was real (the word “magic” comes from Magi, Zoroastrian priests who were part of the ruling Persian hierarchy). Most of my characters are members of the community of rabbis who created the Talmud, the text that has been the source of Jewish law and tradition for 1500 years. But the Talmud is more than a corpus of complicated legal arguments. Tales abound of rabbis, and sorceresses, who perform actual magic.

I wrote both books from the heroine’s first person POV, which meant that I, the purported author, believed just like everyone else that misfortunes such as disease, miscarriage and premature death were caused by demons, sorcerers’ curses, and the Evil Eye. She/I also believed that these problems could be cured or prevented by spells inscribed by skilled healers on amulets and incantation bowls.

In Apprentice, my heroine trains to become one of these healers. All the incantations I include are authentic, that is from archaeological evidence and ancient magic manuals. Some are found in the Talmud itself. Though the techniques she learns would certainly be considered magic today, I tried to stay on the historical fiction side rather than cross into fantasy. My heroine sensed, not saw, the angels who made her incantations work. When her father cast a spell to control the wind, the wind might have changed direction on its own rather than him having caused it to do so. When she suffers a near-fatal illness, she dreams of the hero’s battling the Angel of Death to save her.

With Enchantress, rather than pussyfooting at the border, I charged fully into fantasy. My hero consults with ghosts, creates a golem, and resurrects another rabbi – all as described in the Talmud. My heroine conjures Ashmedai the Demon King, uses a magic ring to speak with animals, and creates food from nothing – again, magic described in the Talmud.

So it would appear that my novel is a historical fantasy. Except that my characters are pious historical figures whose actions are documented in religious texts. How do we classify historical novels with saints or Biblical figures who perform miracles? One person's miracle can be seen as magic by someone else. What about divine, or angelic, intervention?

Here’s another thing to ponder. The very definition of magic assumes that it doesn’t work, but the kind of healing magic that Rav Hisda’s daughter and her enchantress colleagues practiced may very well have worked. We know today that the placebo effect is real, even when the patient knows it’s a placebo. So casting a spell that calls upon angels to force the demons afflicting a person to flee might indeed make the person better. The same for chanting psalms in the sickroom.

In fact, one of her “magic” procedures, that of saying an incantation while washing one’s hands three times to protect against demons in the privy, would certainly work. Substitute “bacteria and viruses” for “demons” and you have one of the best prophylactic practices in modern medicine.

These days we agree that vampires, golems and jinn do not exist except in the realm of fantasy. But over 75% of Americans believe in angels and many people have sensed the spirit of a recently deceased loved one. And whether sorcery exists depends on how you define it. Personally, I think microwaves and wireless Internet are pretty magical.

Hopefully everyone understands the difference between Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, but even reviewers may not agree about novels at the fuzzy border where something supernatural makes an appearance. That leaves it up to readers to learn more about the plot and decide for themselves if a particular book might be one they’d enjoy – exactly as they did before this dichotomy.

Which is one of the reasons websites such as Reading the Past are necessary.


Maggie Anton was born Margaret Antonofsky in Los Angeles, California, where she still resides. Raised in a secular, socialist household, she reached adulthood with little knowledge of her Jewish religion. In 1992 Anton joined a women's Talmud class taught by Rachel Adler, now a professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. To her surprise, she fell in love with Talmud, a passion that has continued unabated for twenty years. Intrigued that the great Talmudic scholar Rashi had no sons, only daughters, Anton researched the family and decided to write novels about them. Thus the award-winning trilogy, Rashi's Daughters, was born, to be followed by National Jewish Book Award finalist, Rav Hisda's Daughter: Apprentice. Still studying women and Talmud, Anton has lectured throughout North America and Israel about the history behind her novels. You can follow her blog and contact her at her website, http://www.maggieanton.com.