Tuesday, March 31, 2015

New & upcoming historical novels in celebration of Women's History Month, part 2

Here's part two of my gallery of historical novels by women, about women - just finished under the wire, since March is almost over.  Part 1 can be found here.

Marci Jefferson's second novel (after Girl on the Golden Coin) is about Marie Mancini, one of the famous nieces of the ruthlessly powerful Cardinal Mazarin in the Sun King's court.  Thomas Dunne, May.

Mackin's newest historical title will introduce readers to a little-known woman who deserves recognition: Beatrix Ferrand, a pioneering landscape architect whose passion for gardens is fixed after a European tour.  Her "good family" includes her aunt, writer Edith Wharton.  NAL, June.

McLain's followup to the bestseller and book club hit The Paris Wife centers on Beryl Markham, noted aviator, adventurer, and memoirist (West with the Night) in colonial Kenya.  And yes, she was also known for her love affair with Denys Finch Hatton (among others).  Ballantine, August.

Turn-of-the-century Puerto Rico is the setting for this new novel about Afro-Cuban midwife Ana Belén Opaku and the male-centered society that women were forced to endure in this time and place.  Booktrope, February.

It's not easy being the daughter of Catherine de Médicis, Queen of France. Perinot moves to a new publisher and to hardcover format with her second novel, a tale of Princess Margot, who's caught between family loyalty and a forbidden love at a time of religious turmoil.  Thomas Dunne, December.

From the bestselling author of Wench comes a new novel, set in the post-Civil War era, about two women and one man who move to Chicago in search of new possibilities now that slavery has been abolished.  Amistad, May.

Eliza Redgold (pseudonym of writer and academic Dr. Elizabeth Reid Boyd) takes us back to 11th-century Coventry, England, when Lady Godiva takes a drastic step to protest unfair taxation against Mercia's people.  St. Martin's Griffin, July.

Robuck's latest literary-focused novel examines the marriage of artist Sophia Peabody and writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the many challenges they faced before and after their enduring marriage. NAL, May.

I loved Thornton's previous novel The Tiger Queens so am eagerly anticipating her end-of-year release, which looks at the women surrounding Alexander the Great.  NAL, December.

When I read and reviews Williams' The Secret Life of Violet Grant (which was a lot of fun), I hadn't realized it was first in what will be a trilogy about the Schuyler sisters. The heroine of this one is Christina "Tiny" Hardcastle, Vivian's sister, whose picture-perfect society life begins to unravel during the summer of 1966.  Putnam, June.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Maureen Gibbon's Paris Red: a bold, observant novel of Manet's most famous model

Victorine Louise Meurent, the young woman who posed for Édouard Manet’s innovative, scandalous painting Olympia, among others, is placed at the center of Gibbon’s observant work.

In 1862, after an unnamed stranger enters the lives of Victorine and her close friend, Denise, and begins a teasing, charged relationship with them both, she takes a courageous step, leaving behind her impoverished existence as a silver burnisher to pursue him solo.

It becomes clear that she’s his match in sensuality—which surprises and pleases him—and her boldness serves them both well in her role as his model. Their affair is undeniably erotic, yet one of Paris Red ’s strengths lies in its unexpected status as a tale of artistic rather than sexual awakening.

Although only 17 to his thirtysomething, Victorine is no naive ingenue, and her involvement with Manet and his world serves as her entrée into a new way of envisioning and experiencing life. Full of animated scenes of working-class Paris in the 1860s, Gibbon’s color-rich prose moves with the deliberate urgency of brushstrokes on canvas.

Maureen Gibbon's Paris Red will be published on April 20th by W. W. Norton (hardcover, $24.95, 224pp).  This review first appeared in March 15th's Booklist.

Victorine Meurent (1844-1927) posed for numerous works by Manet, including the famous Le Déjeuner Sur l’Herbe (1863).  What isn't as well known is that she became a noted artist in her own right, exhibiting her work at Paris's Salon in 1876, although only one of her paintings has survived.  Read more about her in Kathryn Hughes' 2013 article for the Telegraph, "Manet's Forgotten Muse," and in the Guardian, V. R. Main's "The Naked Truth."

For more on Paris Red, Stephanie Renee dos Santos has a new review and interview with Maureen Gibbon at her blog, Love of Art in Historical Fiction.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Giveaway winners, blog feedback, and some links

Thanks to everyone who entered my 9th anniversary giveaway last week.  It was great to see so many entries, and I loved reading your comments - it felt like it was my real birthday!

First, the giveaway winners:

Fiercombe Manor will be going to Martha E.
Girl on the Golden Coin will be going to Mary Jane H.
My Name is Resolute will be going to Maria G.
The Siege Winter will be going to Tiffany K. (update; original winner did not respond)

Emails have been sent to all the winners.  Please respond within a week to claim your prize, and hope you'll enjoy your books.

As for what readers said they enjoyed most and would like to see more of, just to summarize briefly:  there were a number of people who mentioned the reviews and posts of forthcoming books, which I'll plan on doing more of this year, in addition to some themed lists.  If you have a request for a specific subject for a themed list, feel free to leave me a comment or send me an email, and see what I can do.  I also think it's cool that some of you are using the preview posts to take to the library or place library hold requests. The feedback you've all provided has been very helpful for me in seeing what you're interested in.  I appreciate every comment and will have to think of something special to do next year for the 10th.

More reviews will be posted soon, but in the meanwhile:

The Walter Scott Prize shortlist has been announced, with seven titles out of the original 15 longlisted titles remaining in contention.  They are:

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis
The Lie by Helen Dunmore
Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre
In the Wolf's Mouth by Adam Foulds
Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut
A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie
The Ten Thousand Things by John Spurling

More from the BBC, and at the History Girls blog, Elizabeth Laird, a member of the judging panel, has concise overviews of all seven books.  Also, Larry at the excellent blog Novel Historian has been providing critical reviews of some of the shortlisted and longlisted titles, as well as other works of historical fiction.

I've been slowly updating the HNS Forthcoming Books page for 2015, which now has info listed through next January - though it's especially incomplete for the later months.  Also at the Historical Novel Society site, Fiona Sheppard maintains a similar list of children's and YA titles, and she's found details on new titles coming out over the next 12 months.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Book review, with historical notes: A Slant of Light, by Jeffrey Lent

A somber and breathtaking Hardyesque vision of a little-known American past, Lent’s newest epic unfolds with the assured timelessness of a classic. The setting is New York’s Finger Lakes region, a land of agrarian bounty where peculiar religious movements once took root.

Mystery surrounds the murders of Amos Wheeler and his lover, Bethany Hopeton, by her husband, Malcolm, after he returns from the Civil War. It’s not easy for anyone, Malcolm especially, to cope with his dreadful act.

Also affected are Harlan, the Hopetons’ hired boy, and August, a caring man who shelters Harlan and his sister. Several interlocking secrets (Why does Harlan remain loyal to Malcolm? What was Bethany’s true nature?) are skillfully untangled both by looking backward and moving ahead.

There’s an overabundance of detail on farming, but many sentences demand rereading for their sheer beauty, and each love story—some tragic, others newly born—has a poignant emotional charge. Lent offers eloquent insight into what makes his characters tick, yet enough unknowns remain to keep the novel unpredictable through the final pages.

Jeffrey Lent's A Slant of Light will be published in early April by Bloomsbury USA (hardcover, $27, 368pp).  This review first appeared in Booklist's February 15th issue.

Some other notes:

More specifically, the novel takes place in Yates County, New York, in the 1860s.  If Lent's characters were real, they could have known my ancestors, who settled in the region in the early 1800s and were still living there during the Civil War.  I've visited in person, and it's beautiful country.

The hilly farmland of Italy, New York, on a hazy day in August 2001; photo by me

Many towns and villages of Yates County have colorful names with interesting histories, among them Milo, Jerusalem, Dundee, Penn Yan, and Italy, which sits across the county line from the town of Naples in Ontario County.

When you do genealogy research in an area, you get to know what records exist and where, the layout of the towns, people's traditional occupations, churches, and naming traditions... but you don't always absorb the cultural history in detail.  In that sense, I'm grateful to Lent's novel for giving me further perspective on a truly fascinating slice of history and breathing life into it.

There are references throughout the novel to someone called the Public Friend, a religious figure whose beliefs still provide guidance on daily living, even decades after her death. The Kirkus reviewer called her "a female divine clearly modeled on the Shakers’ Mother Ann Lee." While it's true that her teachings were shaped by those of Ann Lee, she isn't fictional.

The Public Friend—who was also called the Universal Friend—is a historical figure who influenced religious thought in New England, Pennsylvania, and western New York in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  An evangelical preacher, her birth name was Jemima Wilkinson, although she didn't answer to that name after a near-fatal illness and her subsequent religious awakening.  After some wanderings, in 1794 she and her followers settled in a hamlet she called "the new Jerusalem."

The Yates County Office of Public History has much more on her and the utopian community she founded.  Upstate New York was the crucible for many early American reform movements, some better known than others, and it was a treat to see one of them depicted in a new work of fiction.

Friday, March 20, 2015

A gallery of new and recent historical novels by Australasian women writers

Now that I have a new sun porch, and thus more room for bookcases in the house, I've set aside one shelf for historical novels from Australasian authors and publishers.  Just because most are hard to find in this corner of the world – I don't let 10,000 miles stand between me and a book I want to read.

The margins on this blog are pretty narrow, so I also have a larger image of the shelf linked up.

Because they can be expensive to obtain in print, I get a fair number of these titles on Kindle, also.  I'm always interested in discovering new historical fiction writers and being transported via fiction to new locales.  I've also been following along with the Australian Women Writers' Challenge in an attempt to keep up with what's coming out and may join the challenge myself next year.

Which brings me around to the topic of the Historical Novel Society's first Australasian conference, which kicked off yesterday in Sydney.  This is a significant and very exciting undertaking, and I extend my congrats to the organizers for their hard work in pulling everything together.  I wish I was there in person and hope all attendees are having a wonderful time.

Since I've been celebrating Women's History Month here at the blog, this seems like a good time to showcase historical novels by Australasian women authors.  The books (15 in all) are set all over the place, and since there are a lot of them, I'm just giving brief notes on the settings of each.  For those like me who don't live in the region, I recommend Fishpond.com for print editions (they offer free shipping worldwide) and also suggest checking your local Amazon to see if Kindle editions are for sale.  

Also, since I don't have the opportunity to see these books in stores locally, there are going to be many titles I'm missing.  Please feel free to recommend others in the comments so we can all add them to our TBRs. 

The inner workings of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's White House, seen through the eyes of a teacher who gets a job with the First Lady.  Hachette Australia, July 2014.

A female brewer strives to make a go of her profession in medieval England.  Harlequin MIRA Australia, October 2014.


Third in Challinor's Convict Girls series, this is the story of three women determined to make new lives for themselves after being transported to Sydney Town in 1830.  HarperCollins Australia, November 2014.

This Victorian-set novel focuses on the disintegrating marriage of Sir George Grey: explorer, governor of South Australia, and later governor of New Zealand.  Random House New Zealand, forthcoming July 2015.

A dual-time saga set amidst the Australian goldfields in the 1860s and in the present, and featuring a young woman with paranormal abilities.  Harlequin MIRA Australia, March 2014; ebook out this month (with this cover).

Set in early 19th-century Germany, the story of Dortchen Wild, who fell in love with Wilhelm Grimm, one of the famous scholars who collected old fairy tales -- and Dortchen's many contributions to the Grimm brothers' endeavor. Random House Australia, March 2013.  A US edition of this book will be out in July, but here's the original Australian cover.

The latest entry in the mystery series involving Rowland Sinclair, artist and gentleman in pre-WWII Australia; secrets from his past may affect him personally.  Pantera Press, 2014.

A time-slip novel set in the beautiful Scottish borders region, set now and in medieval times. It's also newly out from Atria in the US (this is the original cover).  Simon & Schuster Australia, April 2015.

A love story between two unconventional people, set in Sydney during the Depression years.  Macmillan Australia, May 2014.

This saga traces the journeys of four individuals who "confront the complexity of being Moriori, Maori, and Pakeha" (of European descent) in 1880s New Zealand and a century later.  Vintage Books New Zealand, March 2014.

Martyn's home ground is medieval England, and her newest centers on two strong women from the Wars of the Roses:  Elysabeth Woodville, the future wife of Edward IV, and his cousin Kate Neville.  Harlequin MIRA Australia, August 2014.

An epic WWI-era saga involving three families living on the rural outskirts of Sydney.  Thanks to Yvonne from A Darn Good Read for alerting me to this book.  Harlequin MIRA Australia, March 2015.

Winner of the Australian/Vogel's Literary Award in 2014, this literary novel follows a Japanese doctor  as he's interned as an enemy alien in WWII Australia.  Allen & Unwin, April 2014.

Sawyer has written a number of well-received historical epics, but this is her first historical mystery, a police procedural set in the countryside of 18th-century France.  I believe this is self-published via Amazon, February 2015.


An Irish-Australian family saga in which secrets dating from WWI reverberate into the present.  Macmillan Australia, March 2015.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

From the archives: The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswanathan, a saga of 20th-century India

With an assured voice and a deep understanding of her characters’ moral values, Viswanathan breathes life into the social changes that swept through early- to-mid-twentieth-century Tamil Nadu, India.

In 1896 10-year-old Sivakami becomes the child bride of a healer predicted to die young. Left a widow at 18, she dutifully obeys her Brahmin heritage’s millennia-old customs—strict rules dictating her appearance, food preparations, even whom she may speak with or touch.

Sivakami devotes her life to her family, but her decisions on daughter Thangam’s marriage and son Vairum’s secular education occasionally have heartbreaking results.  Janaki, Sivakami’s similarly conservative granddaughter, later grows to adulthood in an India that comes to view Brahmins not as a proud, mutually supportive people but as racially pure bigots—an opinion her uncle Vairum shares.

Despite the saga’s length, there are no dull moments or extraneous scenes. Most impressively, Viswanathan immerses readers in the realities of the caste system from both sides; in telling a universal story of generational differences on a personal level, she makes a vanished world feel completely authentic. Superbly done.

Padma Viswanathan's The Toss of a Lemon was published in paperback by Mariner in 2009 (trade pb, 636pp).  It's out of print in hard copy but readily available used, at PaperbackSwap, and through your local library. You can also buy it as an ebook now ($9.99 on Kindle).  This review first appeared in Booklist in August 2008.

To mix things up while I put together another long gallery of titles, and figuring readers would be interested in hearing about excellent historical novels even if they aren't new releases, I decided I'd post from time to time about older titles that are worth seeking out.  This one definitely is, and it's also a perfect choice for Women's History Month.  The author, who is Canadian, based her saga on family stories told by her grandmother about her own grandmother's life.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Reading the Past's 9th anniversary celebration: reflections and giveaway

It's hard to believe that another blogiversary has come along.  Reading the Past turns nine this month.  I've thoroughly enjoyed chatting about historical fiction with everyone who visits this site.  Thank you all for reading! 

The past nine years have seen numerous changes in the book blogosphere.  Many blogger friends have moved on to other interests, while new readers and bloggers have joined in.  Reading challenges are still hanging in there but aren't as prevalent as they used to be.  Comments are down overall, so I'm appreciative of readers who choose to comment, and I aim to respond to them all.

With regard to this blog specifically, I've implemented a few changes since the start of the year.  For one, I decided to concentrate on content that I'd written myself, so you'll be seeing a higher percentage of new reviews and previews of forthcoming books.  You may have noticed there have been fewer guest posts.  I'm proud to have published the guest essays that I have and am grateful to all of the authors for their contributions.  They have all offered a firsthand perspective on writing and researching historical fiction, and there have been some excellent pieces submitted.

However, with the number of requests I was receiving, the time involved in responding to emails, scheduling, and layout for the essays I accepted was more than I could handle.  I'm still debating a policy on guest posts going forward and would welcome people's thoughts on this.  With the wide range of historical novels available to readers, I prefer not to feature the same authors too frequently, so if I do decide to start accepting more guest posts, it'll be with this in mind.  I do have a couple of previously arranged essays coming up in the next couple of months, from some terrific historical novelists, and I look forward to including their words here.

I plan to do the occasional giveaway as well, focusing on those books I've read myself and can personally recommend.

Which brings me to today's celebration.  Over the past two months, I've received extra copies of the following four books, all previously reviewed here, so I thought I'd share the wealth.

(1)  Fiercombe Manor, by Kate Riordan (new ARC)
(2)  Girl on the Golden Coin, by Marci Jefferson (new in pb)
(3)  My Name Is Resolute, by Nancy E. Turner (new in pb)
(4)  The Siege Winter, by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman (new ARC)

The hyperlinked titles lead to my reviews.  Please fill out the form below for a chance to win.  Each book will have a different winner; one entry per person, please.  International entrants are welcome.  Deadline Sunday, March 22nd.  Good luck!

Update:  The giveaway has ended. Thanks to all who entered.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

New & upcoming historical novels in celebration of Women's History Month, part 1

March is widely known as Women's History Month.  In acknowledgment and celebration of the lives and accomplishments of women throughout history, I'm putting together several guides to new and upcoming historical novels by and about women.  To which one might respond: that's nice, but this blog already features women's stories a lot.  Very true!  However, because time doesn't permit me to read and review everything that catches my attention, I wanted to highlight a collection of titles that personally intrigued me.

Here are twelve initial selections, in order by author surname.  At least one more post in this series will be going online this month.  Please let me know of any other recommended titles in the comments. 

A young woman's life enclosed in a small cell within a village church in 13th-century England proves to be surprisingly intense and dramatic.  FSG, May.

She was fated to be known in myth and legend as Helen of Troy, but in this inspired retelling of her early life, Helen aims to flee her predestined life with the help of Theseus, the son of Poseidon. Lake Union, April.

The setting is 13th-century Bohemia, which is fabulous in itself, but also of interest is the storyline: a young woman, possibly with supernatural abilities, becomes the personal healer to King Ottakar while figuring out the mystery of her origins.  Pegasus, November.

The Australian author's first mainstream historical novel depicts Napoleonic France from the viewpoint of an English baronet's daughter who becomes an unwitting spy.  William Morrow, June 30.

The first novel in Courtney's Queens of the Conquest trilogy, which I've been highly anticipating, focuses on Edyth, the granddaughter of Lady Godiva, and her unexpected path to power during the last days of Saxon England.  Macmillan UK, May.


Curry's debut novel traces the life of Sai Jinhua, a late 19th-century courtesan who left a controversial legacy due to her role in influencing China's relationship with the West. Dutton, September.

Dallas, a favorite chronicler of western fiction about strong women, sets her newest novel in a small Colorado mining town in 1880, when a trusted midwife must defend herself against a murder charge.
St. Martin's, September 30.

Sensuality, decadence, and self-discovery as a young Italian woman in 1913 Buenos Aires disguises herself as a man to pursue her dream of playing the violin in a troupe of tango musicians.  Knopf, July.

A new novel from Sara Donati, who's been absent from the literary scene for a few years, is reason to celebrate in itself.  Here she continues her family saga with two young women, both physicians in 1880s New York, who are forced to make tough life decisions.  Berkley, September.

From the author of Queenmaker, Wisdom's Daughter, and Delilah, three compelling and historically authentic novels of biblical women, comes a re-interpretation of the ancient story of Vashti and Esther in the court of King Ahasuerus.  St. Martin's, September.


Subtitled "a novel of love and rebellion," this is the love story of Katharina von Bora, a nun in 16th-century Germany who fled her cloistered life, and Martin Luther, leader in the Protestant Reformation.  Hedlund is an acclaimed inspirational historical novelist.  WaterBrook, October.

Hoffman's literary novel recounts the little-known story of impressionist painter Camille Pissarro's mother, Rachel, a Jew growing up on the isle of St. Thomas in the early 19th century.  Simon & Schuster, August.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Alexis Landau's The Empire of the Senses, an absorbing saga about a mixed-faith family in WWI and late '20s Berlin

A top-notch literary saga with a gripping plotline, Landau’s debut explores the complex questions of loyalty and ethnic identity in its depiction of a mixed-faith family living through social change during WWI and late 1920s Berlin.

Lev Pearlmutter and his gentile wife, Josephine, have a strained relationship even before he enlists. When he returns, having been emotionally transformed by his service in a close-knit Russian village, he has more reason to regret his marriage, but he loves his two children, Franz and Vicki.  Lev always considers himself more German than Jewish, and by 1927, they are a family of affluence that mixes well in society, or so it seems.

However, disconnection from their heritage affects each of the Pearlmutters differently. Even as anti-Semitic sentiment increases, ebullient Vicki is romantically drawn to a Jewish man. For Franz, a repressed gay man desperate for belonging, generational rebellion manifests itself in a particularly insidious way.

Each perfectly crafted individual is fully involved in the surrounding world. In Landau’s hands, even a simple trip to the barber, in which Lev muses on his own and the country’s problems, becomes meaningful and illustrative of the novel’s themes. The characters’ actions and thoughts are so three-dimensionally human that readers may forget they’re reading fiction and not experiencing their real lives alongside them.

The Empire of the Senses will be published on March 17th by Pantheon (hb, 496pp, $27.95).  This starred review first appeared in Booklist's January issue.  Back in December, I had listed it as one of a dozen favorite historical novels that I'd read in 2014; I wanted to hold off reposting the review until the publication date was closer. 

The publisher's blurb states:  "Unlike most historical novels of this kind, The Empire of the Senses is not about the Holocaust but rather about the brew that led to it, and about why it was unimaginable to ordinary people like Lev and his wife."  An accurate assessment, imho.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Book review: Sandra Byrd, Mist of Midnight

With her latest novel, Sandra Byrd switches from stories of Tudor ladies-in-waiting to a Victorian gothic romance, presented here with several new twists.

She elevates the traditional form of the “woman-in-danger” mystery by adding period-appropriate religious concerns and details on India’s diverse cultural heritage – and by crafting a courageous heroine with hidden talents who’s capable of saving herself.

When Miss Rebecca Ravenshaw returns to England in 1858, the sole survivor of her family after her missionary parents were killed in the Indian mutiny, she confronts an unusual dilemma.

A distant relative, Captain Luke Whitfield, has taken up residence at her family home of Headbourne House in Hampshire, England, believing himself to be the rightful heir. Even worse, everyone thinks Rebecca is an imposter. A young woman with an Indian maid had previously assumed Rebecca’s name and inheritance, died unexpectedly months later, and was buried in a lonely grave on the Headbourne estate at midnight. Who was she?

Rebecca knows she has a tough road ahead to prove her identity, but she isn’t without confidence. “That someone had posed as me, and was now dead, was truly startling, but I had been through much worse in the Uprising,” she says. Her mother had educated her well, and she knows that safeguarding her home is her responsibility.

As she awaits formal proof of her claim to Headbourne to arrive from India, which could take months, she must depend on the charity of the handsome, kind Captain Whitfield. She must also navigate through a sea of uncertainty – especially regarding her social-climbing French maid and Whitfield himself – to decide who she to trust, learn who the young imposter was, and why and how she died.

All of the novel’s mysteries, these and others, are resolved in a satisfying way. The religious references are naturally inserted, and the romance is warmly sensual without being explicit. The story also impresses upon readers that in this time and place, when women’s financial security and personal happiness were so dependent on the type of men they married, choosing the right husband was such an important decision – and required an immense leap of faith. Recommended for readers who enjoy a strong historical flavor with their gothic romances.

Mist of Midnight is published by Howard Books/Simon & Schuster this month (trade pb, 384pp, $14.99).  This is first in a new series entitled Daughters of Hampshire, and I'll be reading the rest, too.

Thanks to the publisher for enabling my access to the e-ARC via Edelweiss.  This review is part of the book's virtual tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Creating a Mosaic: Adventures in Research and Writing, an essay by Margaret Redfern

Margaret Redfern, whose novel Flint I highly recommended back in 2009, is here with an essay that takes readers through the often serendipitous research process involved in writing her latest book.  Flint told the story of two brothers, Will and Ned, making their way across 13th-century England to Wales as part of King Edward I's campaign to build fortresses in the land he plans to subjugate, and the second book is set two generations later.  In The Storyteller's Granddaughter, which begins in Turkey in 1336, a young woman encounters numerous adventures and obstacles as she makes her way to England in search of Will, her storyteller grandfather.

Margaret's own journey in search of details on how her characters lived is equally fascinating, and she has provided many gorgeous photos of historic sites in Turkey.  Flint was published by Honno in 2009 (£6.99), and The Storyteller's Granddaughter, also published by Honno (£8.99), appeared in 2014. 


Creating a Mosaic: Adventures in Research and Writing
Margaret Redfern

The process of writing – my writing – is a bit like creating a mosaic: lots of little coloured stones that have to be shaped and ordered to create an imagined picture. So where do these 'stones' come from? I wanted to separate this into 'headings', nice and orderly, but it doesn't work that way. Everything is interconnected. Maybe serendipity plays a part, or synchronicity...

The Storyteller's Granddaughter (SGD) is a sequel to Flint, 60 years later but flicking back in time to various points in the characters' stories, that ill-assorted group of travellers heading for Antalya and the autumn sailing to Venice. There’s more of Will's story, the narrator of Flint.

Flint’s central theme was of music, in the Welsh bardic tradition; SGD's is storytelling, in the Chaucerian tradition, but also the more ancient tradition of the Welsh bards and Oghuz Turks.

Everyone has a story to tell: everyone has secrets.

At the end of Flint Will, the legendary storyteller, says, 'for all I know I've a brat or two in this world.' So the idea for a sequel came about, sixty years from the end of Flint, two generations later. The central character is the granddaughter of Will, but where Will told stories, the granddaughter elicits them from those around her.

The setting is Turkey, a country I've known since the early 1970s: then (my first teaching job in a girls’ lise in Adana) it was the old southern Turkey of dancing bears in the street and nomads coming down in camel train from the mountains in September for the cotton harvest…

My travellers came in through this gateway. Walled, then, of course. The
fountain is just beyond, in the process of being excavated.

I made a special recce in 2012 to Antalya, and a pilgrimage to Konya and the Turkish Lakes. Antalya and that part of the coast is now very much in the 21st century, with dual carriageway and heaving traffic – until you are inside the Kaleici, the Walled City, and then you are in the Antalya that Kazan and Dafydd and their friends visit. Inland, Beyşehir (SGD uses its old name of Viranşehir, which itself means ‘the desolate city’) is old world, almost the 1970s Turkey of my memory. The Eşrefoğlu Mosque is real, a remarkable – and rare – wooden mosque over 700 years old.

Inside Eşrefoğlu Mosque
Turkey retains the same hospitality I remember from my first time there, and that described by the traveller Ibn Battuta, the Man from Tangiers, in his Travels, 1325 – 1354. He travelled further and for longer than Marco Polo, and his account of Turkey is first-hand evidence. I gave Ibn Battuta a walk-on part, and Dafydd became the translator Battuta mentions, the one who leaves him in Turkey.

Eşrefoğlu Mosque, Taken from the women's gallery

Jehann Yperman is another ‘real person’. I wanted a character with a harelip: Rémi. I Googled ‘medieval harelip’ and came up with the name of Jehann Yperman. He is remarkable, and so sadly bypassed. His books on surgery – written by choice in Flemish not Latin – deserve recognition. At the time I met a check-out girl in my local Tesco. I saw the unmistakeable lines of harelip reparation. She was more than happy to talk about her operation, her speech therapy…and so, synchronicity being alive and well, I was able to think through the life of my character Rémi, minus the speech therapy. A battered copy of Medieval Prose came in handy too; it had a section on the elaborate hand signs used by Benedictine monks.

Couldn't resist this one, looking westwards from Antalya.
Freya Stark explored those mountains.

There was a problem. I'd chosen a time which is an eye-blink in Turkish history. After the end of the Seljuk Empire but at the very beginning of the Ottoman Empire, for less than 100 years, Turkey was governed by beyliks of small 'states'. It’s a piece of history too complicated to tell tourists and casual historians. I've always liked 'in-between' times and places, but now there seemed little information.

Not a very inspiring photo, but this is the water pool in the mosque. There
is a light well above and a Turkish couple explained to me (in Turkish!)
that the stars were reflected in the water, and astronomers could thus study
the heavens.

And here is where synchronicity again comes knocking: Cambridge University Press had just published a History of Turkey, and volume 1 covered 'my time'. A million blessings on the head of Kate Flett, the editor, and also for her own book, with the snappy title of European and Islamic Trade in the Early Ottoman State. From that, it was a tiny step to find Nomads in Archaeology by Roger Cribb.

Another book that was bedtime reading was Peter Brears' fantastic Cooking and Dining in Medieval England. I had met Peter Brears in Bangor at a weekend symposium, The Impact of Edward I's Castles in Wales, just in time for the final draft of Flint. Brears must have been finalising his book as it was published soon after, in time for my research on SGD.

Another connection to that is the annual Lincoln Christmas Market. Last year I found the spice stall in the Bishop's Palace. Fabulous. I'd puzzled over Grains of Paradise and here they were, also the long black pepper I'd never heard of and that was going out of fashion in the 14th century. It tastes quite different from peppercorns.

Me doing the Turkish bit, head covered with Turkish shawl - a modern one
though I have traditional white muslin ones with beautiful beaded edges -
some of them over 40 years old now.

Food is important because 1315-1322 in Europe were years of terrible weather, bad harvests, animal fatalities, starvation and death for thousands. I was researching this in 2010, when we had a desperate winter and spring and a sodden summer. The first haymaking was in August; cereal crops were ruined; root crops rotted; there was talk of a grain price-hike, shortages…how did those people of the 14th century survive?

Dai the Welshman is the grandson of Dic, the rescuer at the Mawddach Falls in Flint. He has no gift for storytelling. He says, 'my Welsh tongue is tied if I try'. This is a reference to an ancient Welsh poem. Throughout Flint and SGD, I include ‘implags’ – implanted plagiarisms – references to other writers as part of the narrative. Not plagiarism but a nod to ghosts, and a tease for the reader. I love the idea, and include references not only to Dede Korkut but old Welsh verse, the Bible, Nasreddin Hodja, the Mevlana – all these as well as the chapter headings. (The same is true of Flint but that also references the symbolism of numbers.) Mostly we learn Dai’s story from others, and from the narrative, and his thoughts. He is a mystery: he seems quiet but others call him ‘dangerous’. He is a compassionate man with a terrible past. It is compassion that forces him to tell Kazan and Niko part of his story, and even then we learn of it partly through his memory, not his words, and partly through the other characters who lived in those famine years.

Beysehir - the Viransehir of the story - lakeside with boats and reeds.

The girl Kazan is the central character, the Storyteller's granddaughter. I deliberately didn’t give her a name at first. It's an ancient idea that you have to earn your name. She was named Sophia after her Nene (Turkish), her Nain (north Wales), her Nan (northern England), but she's never called Sophia. Her mother's name was Çiçek (Turkish); Fflur (Welsh); Flower (English). The connection is with the old stories of the Oghuz Turks, and the story of Bamsi Beyrek and the Lady Çiçek who can out-ride and out-shoot and out-wrestle any man except Bamsi Beyrek. I wanted some of the old traditions of storytelling, interspersing the prose with song or verse. It's a Welsh bardic tradition, prose studded with englyns, and also a Turkish tradition. Kazan is a male name, from the stories of the Oghuz Turks.

The road along the lakeside leading to Egirdir (old name is Egridir)

There was a problem of the clichéd girl masquerading as a boy, and how to explode it. She could not travel alone so I questioned where she would sleep; go to the loo; wash, because this was the hamam tradition of Anatolia and not mucky England. I used this problem to create an intimacy between Dafydd and Kazan. There is a very useful and informative website on the hans of Turkey (www.turkishhan.org) that proved an invaluable guide – I got to visit some of the real ones too, as well as the virtual.

Konya - the Mevlana museum and centre - easily identified by the turquoise
tower/dome which replaced the original after the time of SGD

As well as ‘real people’ having ‘walk-on’ parts, there is the influence of the travellers’ tales and the astonishing maps, especially the Mappa Mundi held at Hereford Cathedral. Created by a Lincolnshire man, ‘Richard of Haldingham or Lafford' (Holdingham or Sleaford) recent research suggests a date of about 1300. There may have been a second map kept in Lincoln – certainly Lincoln is clearly depicted on the map, Steep Hill, houses, cathedral. I saw the Mappa Mundi for the first time a few years ago; a small group of us were standing there in awe and the woman next to me said, 'Is that it?' The rest of us became a lynching squad.

Blue the Fenman is not blue with Lincolnshire woad because it wasn't a centre for woad-making back in the 14th century. I had fun with his dialect. It was not possible to keep it purely 'fenland', so it is an amalgam of Lincolnshire dialects, trying to avoid obvious anachronism but trying also to include superstition, such as the ‘shivery spiders’ as an antidote to fever.

Konya skyline, looking towards the two breast-shaped mountains.

One other connection amongst so many not noted here is that of Ontario. I was staying over Christmas and the New Year with my son and Canadian daughter-in-law. I had already found that the best book ever on the history of Flanders was in Chatham Ontario Library. Now I realised that a different country means different websites and there was a report on the Toronto archaeological excavation of Alahan, that site in Turkey that I longed to explore but knew I couldn’t, and that Kazan and her Nene visited to reap herbs, and where she found the amethyst ring that was listed in archaeological finds from an excavation, Chatham library ordered the entire report, express from Toronto, and it arrived on the eve of my departure. Skim reading and note taking has never been so rapid. But what a find!

Synchronicity is alive and well.

Margaret Redfern, February 2015

(Margaret Redfern’s last book in the ‘Storyteller’ series, The Heart Remembers, is to be published by Honno in August 2015)