Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Writing and historical thought: They didn't think like we did 100 years ago, a guest post by Stephanie Carroll

Stephanie Carroll, author of A White Room, is my guest at the blog today.  She's here with an essay about a concept that's vitally important for all historical novelists and their readers: the fact that people's ways of thinking have changed over time.

A White Room (Unhinged Books, May), set in Missouri in 1900, uses magical realism to evoke the plight of a young wife who feels entrapped by her unsatisfying marriage and suffocatingly close-knit community and who yearns to break free and create a fulfilling life for herself—if she dares. An e-galley arrived in my inbox while I was on a deadline for a review assignment, and I didn't intend to start it right away... but after reading the first few pages, I was completely caught up in the story and carried my Kindle around with me until I read to the end.  I enjoyed the small-town Midwestern setting, the twistingly unpredictable plot, the Gothic creepiness of Emeline and John's house, and the message it offered on women's self-empowerment.

Thanks to the author, we have a giveaway at the end, for US readers. Welcome, Stephanie!


Writing and Historical Thought:
They Didn't Think Like We Did 100 Years Ago
by Stephanie Carroll

I recently watched Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows when something struck me. Watson, played by Jude Law, says to Holmes, played by Robert Downey Jr., that he didn’t just want a wife, he wanted “a relationship.”

I paused at that. Wait a second. I don’t think the concept of “a relationship” as we know it today was around in the nineteenth century. Marriages were entered into for monetary reasons, to combine families, elevate rank, and for the need to survive. Further, in the past, people didn’t think of love the way we do now. Life wasn’t all about finding one’s true love. Love was something that grew in a marriage with time, if you were lucky.

“I know you’re scared, but Emma, this is what people do. You get married. You have children.”
“You don’t have to.”
“Yes, I do.” His face hardened. “If I lived out on my own and didn’t get married, I would starve to death, but not before traipsing around in trousers full of holes.”
I held back a giggle. “What?”
“I don’t know how to do any of the ‘secret’ stuff you and Mother do. If someone threw me in a kitchen with everything I needed and a set of detailed instructions, I’d cook my own hand.”
A White Room, page 32

Now, occasionally people would wed for affectionate reasons, and this was a growing trend at the time. Still, they didn’t have this concept of “a relationship,” which in Watson’s use clearly is a modern-day reference to a partnership that involves equal give-and-take to maintain a healthy dynamic. That’s a product of late twentieth-century psychology.

credit aqsahu via photopin cc
I’m not dissing Sherlock Holmes. I love those movies, and really those movies are commercial blockbusters, so that level of historical fine-tuning isn’t what the audience wants or expects. I’m just using that as an example of a modern-day concept that hasn’t always been that way.

Finding happiness is another idea that has changed over time. For many historical people, like in the Dark Ages for example, the idea that one strives for happiness in life—ha! Why do you think the original fairy tales often times ended with some gore? Life was hard, physical pain was the norm, a huge percentage of children didn’t live past five years of age, a simple bacterial infection could easily be fatal, and the average lifespan was far shorter.

I didn’t want to tell a poor woman she was pregnant.
I couldn’t imagine the news being anything other than bad, as the woman would either already have too many mouths to feed or be so thin and unhealthy that pregnancy would likely be a death sentence. Death was a risk with pregnancy even with the healthiest of women. Even upper-class women with the finest physicians were at risk of dying during childbirth.
—A White Room, page 261

Freedom, war, government, political correctness, religion, heaven, survival, the meaning of life, birth, sex, contraception, medicine, illness, the universe... and I could go on and on about topics that people thought differently about at different times.

While it’s not a big deal for a Robert Downey Jr. movie, for most historical fiction audiences that kind of accuracy is not only desired but expected. Readers will stop reading if pulled out of the story by something that makes them think: that wouldn’t have happened. Television and movies can get away with it because they keep moving regardless of the audience’s doubt. Books, on the other hand, can lose an audience completely if the reader has a reason to stop.

Historical fiction writers often focus on the tangible facts as opposed to the abstract, so historical thought can be a pitfall. However, it really doesn’t take much of a different approach as far as research goes. It’s just a matter of being aware that thought changes over time and applying the research appropriately.

Sure, we as writers or historians cannot possibly know the exact thoughts of historical people, but we do know enough to create historical characters that will satisfy the reader. Primary sources are extremely useful for this, like diaries and letters where people bare their souls. Newspaper will reveal the current events and discoveries that were on people’s minds. Secondary sources are also useful for learning general beliefs as well as societal and cultural norms.

“What’s that?” Lottie asked.
“It’s to kill germs,” I said.
“What are germs?”
“Germs—they make you sick.”
“Oh, yes,” Oliver said. “I heard ’bout ’em. They on everything, too. People get ’em off of telegraphs and from books and sich.”
“No.” Lottie clasped a hand to her chest, fingers splayed out.
—A White Room, page 188

Further, even though you cannot know the specific thoughts of historical people, you can be confident that there are some modes of thinking all people have regardless of the time period. Judging, self-righteousness, self-consciousness, guilt, embarrassment, generalizations (as in: I never win), exaggeration, and pity are all examples of inner thoughts we all have. It’s just the context that will change throughout history.

I observed her ring finger—bare. My Aunt Cheryl once told me that the only well-off women who weren’t married and worked were ugly, dumb, or otherwise defective. However, Miss McKenzie had a heart-shaped face with bright brown eyes, pronounced cheekbones, and pink lips.
—A White Room, page 203

Credit: brizzlebornandbred via photopin cc

The most difficult thing about writing historical thought is dealing with the fact that modern-day readers adhere to modern-day thought. Regardless of your accuracy, if your reader doesn’t believe something, it will have the same effect as a mistake. In my original manuscript, I had my main character wondering about what was going to happen on her wedding night. Almost every single reader said it was unbelievable for a woman of her age to know nothing of sex. It didn’t matter that it was a common occurrence that I’d read in Victorian letters – readers didn’t believe it.

Another difficult task is writing historical thought for readers who adhere to modern-day political correctness. This is something that every writer has to figure out for themselves as far as how important it is to his or her story to be accurate or to risk offense.

“It’s all right.” I reached out to touch his hand, giant and moist.
He flinched and pulled back. I knew it was unacceptable for a colored man to touch a white woman …
—A White Room, page 175

And finally, read up on the history of thought.

Yeah, I’m not just making this up – it’s an area of historical study!

And I’ve got the links to Amazon books to prove it!

A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living by Luc Ferry

Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud by Peter Watson

A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future by Charles Van Doren

The History of Christian Thought by Jonathan Hill

Freud and Beyond: A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought by Stephen A. Mitchell & M. J. Black

A History of Freedom of Thought by J. B. Bury and H. J. Blackham

A History of Western Political Thought by J. S. McClelland and Dr J S Mcclelland

About the Author

As a reporter and community editor, Stephanie Carroll earned first place awards from the National Newspaper Association and from the Nevada Press Association. Stephanie holds degrees in history and social science. She graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Fresno.

Her dark and magical writing is inspired by the classic authors Charlotte Perkins Gilman (The Yellow Wallpaper), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden), and Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights).

Stephanie writes The Unhinged Historian blog, exploring the dark side of the Victorian Era and Gilded Age, and Unhinged & Empowered Navy Wives for conquering those little moments that make Navy Wives feel crazy. Stephanie lives in California, where her husband is stationed with the U.S. Navy. Her website is www.stephaniecarroll.net.

A White Room is her debut novel.

Find Stephanie Carroll

Stephanie Carroll’s Blogs

Advance Praise for A White Room 

“A novel of grit, independence, and determination ... An intelligent story, well told.”
—Renée Thompson, author of The Plume Hunter and The Bridge at Valentine

“The best historical fiction makes you forget it’s fiction and forget it’s historical. Reminiscent of The Yellow Wallpaper … the thoughtful, intricate story Carroll relates is absolutely mesmerizing.”
—Eileen Walsh, Ph.D. U.S. Women’s History, University of San Diego

About A White Room

At the close of the Victorian Era, society still expected middle-class women to be “the angels of the house,” even as a select few strived to become something more. In this time of change, Emeline Evans dreamed of becoming a nurse. But when her father dies unexpectedly, Emeline sacrifices her ambitions and rescues her family from destitution by marrying John Dorr, a reserved lawyer who can provide for her family.

John moves Emeline to the remote Missouri town of Labellum and into an unusual house where her sorrow and uneasiness edge toward madness. Furniture twists and turns before her eyes, people stare out at her from empty rooms, and the house itself conspires against her. The doctor diagnoses hysteria, but the treatment merely reinforces the house’s grip on her mind.

Emeline only finds solace after pursuing an opportunity to serve the poor as an unlicensed nurse. Yet in order to bring comfort to the needy she must secretly defy her husband, whose employer viciously hunts down and prosecutes unlicensed practitioners. Although women are no longer burned at the stake in 1900, disobedience is a symptom of psychological defect, and hysterical women must be controlled.

A novel of madness and secrets, A White Room presents a fantastical glimpse into the forgotten cult of domesticity, where one’s own home could become a prison and a woman has to be willing to risk everything to be free.

Available in Print $14.99 and
eBook $3.99 (Kindle, Nook, Sony, e-pub)

Amazon - Barnes & Noble - Sony - Kobo - Inktera - Smashwords - Apple’s iBooks


For a chance to win a copy of The White Room (US entries only), please fill out the following form.  Deadline Monday, August 5th.

This giveaway is now closed.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Jennifer McVeigh's The Fever Tree, about a woman's self-awakening in 1880s South Africa

“It’s not an unusual story, really – only the details set it apart,” remarks Dr. Edwin Matthews to our heroine, Frances, describing how he found himself living on the expansive South African plains in 1880. His words could apply equally well to the plot of Jennifer McVeigh’s poignant debut.

Novels that follow a woman’s path to maturity are hardly groundbreaking, but Frances – well, she’s a complicated person who has more growing up to do than most. Lonely and self-absorbed, she makes so many wretched mistakes that it’s difficult to identify with her even while her plight elicits sympathy.

The Fever Tree places this challenging protagonist in a beautifully rendered setting and follows her transformative journey in expressive language that lets readers judge her and her situation for themselves. It’s these many rich specifics that make the novel stand out.

A Londoner brought up with every privilege, Frances Irvine finds herself penniless and alone following her father’s bad investments and sudden, early death. She has only two choices for her future, both equally undesirable.  She can either join her Irish aunt’s household as a nursemaid, or marry Edwin, a distant relation, and establish a new life with him in South Africa, where he works as a physician.

Although Edwin’s aloofness repels her, Frances grudgingly accepts his proposal. However, after meeting charismatic, ambitious William Westbrook on the long voyage to the Cape, she basks in his attentions and plans for her life to take a different course.

Moving between the isolation of a remote cottage on the veldt and the rough-and-tumble diamond mining operation at Kimberley, with its pervasive corruption, greed, and horrific racial inequities, the novel reaches a climax when word spreads about smallpox among the local population – which, if it were true, would have devastating economic impact on the mines and investors.

Frances finds herself caught between Edwin’s noble pursuit of the truth about the epidemic and her continual desire for William. Her growing appreciation for the land around her drives her story on, although she refuses to adapt to her new circumstances and often sees the worst in people who mean her well.  Her skewed outlook on her world becomes more obvious as the plot unfolds. Still, her deep character arc makes the denouement all the more powerful.

Scenes in which the red, dusty Karoo region blossoms into life are gloriously envisioned, and the novel amply fulfills its promise of an enticing romantic adventure in an exotic, faraway land. At the same time, it's an eye-opening account about the brutal consequences of imperialism.  In many ways it’s reminiscent of W. Somerset Maugham’s A Painted Veil, but with a more hopeful and rewarding ending.

The Fever Tree was published by Putnam/Amy Einhorn in April ($25.95, hb, 432pp). In the UK, the publisher is Penguin (£7.99, pb).  Thanks to the publisher for providing me a review copy at my request.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Researching the lives of women of the Middle East, a guest post by Janice Weizman - plus giveaway

During my celebration of Small Press Month in March, Janice Weizman's The Wayward Moon was one of the titles I'd highlighted in a showcase of new historical novels from small and independent presses.  I'm happy to welcome Janice to Reading the Past today.  She has contributed a personal essay detailing how she got the idea to write about a young Jewish woman living through the Golden Age of Islam as well as her research into the historical background.  The unique concept and setting of The Wayward Moon interested me so much that I'd bought a copy several months ago, and I'm looking forward to reading it.  Thanks to the generosity of the author, we have a giveaway opportunity, too, for US readers.


Researching the Lives of Women of the Middle East
Janice Weizman

The year is 854. As the only daughter of a respected physician, Rahel, a young woman living in the Babylonian town of Sura, lives a comfortable and sheltered life, helping her father in his work and dreaming of marriage and a family of her own. On the day she is to meet her fiancé for the first time, Rahel bathes in the town bathhouse, dresses in white, lines her eyes with kohl and colors her lips. Then, as she’s about to perfume herself with rosewater, a crazed assailant bursts into her home and stabs her father. In a wild rush of self defense, Rahel murders the assailant. And then she must flee. With the help of her servant, she disguises herself as a boy and takes to the roads.

Her adventure will take her to places she’s never imagined: to a life as a kitchen slave in the home of a wealthy Muslim merchant, to a remote Christian monastery, and to a wayside inn for travelers, where she meets a foreign traveler from the far west. As she makes her way through the fascinating and dangerous roads of Mesopotamia, Rahel, who has never lacked for anything, must learn how to survive on her own. So begins The Wayward Moon, my historical novel set in the 9th-century Middle East.

People often ask me how I conceived and researched this story –  very appropriate questions in light of the fact that I was born and raised in Toronto and there is very little in my background that prepared me to write it. The answer begins in the best of places – with my own curiosity.

I moved to Israel when I was nineteen, almost thirty years ago. I had always been curious about our Arab neighbors – about their culture, their history, and about the Muslim religion. I loved visiting local archeological sights, many of them within an hour or two of my home. And I enjoyed discovering other aspects of Arab culture – the music, the markets, the literature, the food.

But it was only about 10 years ago, when the phenomenon of suicide bombings emerged, that I felt a need to acquire a deeper understanding about Islam. Following the events of 9/11, I enrolled in a course entitled The History of Islam. It doesn’t often happen that something captures your imagination so fully that you are inspired to create a work of your own, but that is what happened to me.

As we read and discussed the development of Islam – from the tribes of Arabia to the cosmopolitan centers of Damascus and, Baghdad, I discovered a side of Islam that I had not known about. In its Golden Age (750-1250 AD), Islam was one of the world’s most sophisticated cultures, one which valued scholarship, music and poetry, scientific inquiry, and theological debate. I was intrigued to learn that it was in this period that Arab scholars, many of them Christian, translated the classical works of the Greeks, Romans, and others into Arabic, and then went on to engage with and develop new ideas about philosophy, alchemy, medicine, architecture, mathematics, astronomy and optics. The city of Baghdad, with its palaces, markets, hospitals and libraries, was the center of this explosion of learning, commerce and creativity.

As I learned more, I wondered about the lives of women in this society. Except for mothers or desired lovers, they are almost absent from the texts that have come down to us. Uneducated, illiterate, denied all freedom of movement, and forced to consign every aspect of their physical/sexual lives to the will of others, there is nonetheless no doubt that they were there, partaking in the life of their communities from the sidelines.

What would have happened, I wondered, if a woman of this time were suddenly free of all constraint? If she had no father or brothers to protect, or limit her? If she was given the opportunity to study, to use her mind, to develop her abilities? What if she were free to travel where she wished? If she slowly discovered what it means to have autonomy over your sexual experiences and relationships?

author Janice Weizman
The word “research” conjures up visions of long days at the library and hours in front of a computer screen. But much of the research I did for The Wayward Moon felt more like an adventure. As the story of Rahel took root in my mind, I had to augment what I had learned about Islam with all I knew of life in the Middle East. I sought out the sites of ancient churches, mosques, monasteries and inns. I recalled tours of old cities in Turkey, Egypt and Morocco, and revisited local markets, landscapes, religious schools and public squares. I read books by women from Arab countries, considering not only their stories, but their values, attitudes, conflicts and joys. I read Arab love poetry, listened to traditional Middle Eastern music, and studied classic works of Persian art. But above all, I listened to the sounds, words and rhythms of the languages of the Middle East, Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac. And as I opened my eyes and my ears, a vision of what the life of my heroine might have been like emerged.

One of the great things about writing and reading historical fiction is that it leads us to consider our own times from a different angle. How does our culture shape the way we see ourselves? Is there really such a thing as choice? How can anyone realize their full potential in a place that refuses to recognize it?

It is my hope that the novel not only provides a great reading experience, but also offers readers a new way of thinking about the opportunities, and limitations, of our own culture.


Janice Weizman's The Wayward Moon was published by Yotzeret Publishing in September 2012 ($14.95 trade pb/$9.99 Kindle, 328pp).  The novel was recently awarded Gold Medals in the Independent Publisher Book Awards and the Midwest Book Awards. For more information, see the author's website or the novel's pages at Goodreads and Amazon.

For a chance to win a copy of The Wayward Moon (US entries), please fill out the form below.  Deadline Monday, August 5th.

This giveaway has expired; thanks to all who entered.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Katherine Webb's A Half Forgotten Song, a haunting mystery set in 1930s and modern Dorset

This wasn't a novel that caught me right away.  The prose felt languid and almost dreamlike in the beginning, in keeping with the slow-to-change pacing of daily life in the seaside community in Dorset where it's set. After the first hundred pages or so, though, I found myself caught in its web and put it down only with difficulty.  

A Half Forgotten Song tells two intertwining stories spaced over 70 years apart, and the seamless transitions heighten the sense that the past still exerts a strong hold on the present.

Zach is the owner of a failing art gallery in Bath who's feeling listless after his ex-wife takes their daughter to live in America. When he travels to the village of Blacknowle in Dorset in search of material for a book he's writing on bohemian artist Charles Aubrey, who summered there with his French-Moroccan mistress and two daughters in the '30s, Zach feels he's struck gold after he meets an elderly woman.

Dimity Hatcher was once the subject of many Aubrey portraits, and she informs Zach that she and Charles had had a grand love affair years ago. Dimity doesn't trust many people, but after Zach passes a test she gives him, she decides to tell him some of her story (but not nearly all).

Back in the pre-war years, the girl nicknamed "Mitzy" Hatcher sees a new world open up before her when the Aubreys come to vacation in Blacknowle, attracted by its beauty and quaintness. However, what the Aubreys see as old-fashioned charm is, for Mitzy, depressing poverty. Neglected by her alcoholic mother, who crafts herbal remedies and makes extra money as a prostitute, Mitzy is already an outcast in her community and quickly latches onto the Aubreys particularly when Charles's artistic gaze falls upon her.

Despondent as Zach is, he doesn't run away from or even question some very odd circumstances he encounters in Blacknowle, such as when Mitzy asks him for some things that would seem like obvious ingredients for a witch's spell. (His potential love interest, Hannah Brock, also lives in absolute squalor; there's a reason behind it, but still.) His lack of reaction requires some suspension of disbelief.

However, this added creepiness sets the right tone for gradual revelations of the darkness in Mitzy's past, and a multi-layered tale about an intense artist, an impressionable young woman, and how a girlhood crush can spiral into an unhealthy, destructive obsession. The revelations at the end are unexpected, astonishing, and definitely worth waiting for.

A Half Forgotten Song was published in May by Harper ($14.99, pb, 496pp).  I read it two weekends ago from the UK edition, pictured above, which I'd purchased online last year (Orion, 2012, £7.99).

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Goddesses, priestesses and princesses: feminine power within Etruscan society, a guest post by Elisabeth Storrs

I'm so pleased to welcome novelist Elisabeth Storrs to Reading the Past.  Back in 2010, I reviewed her first novel, The Wedding Shroud, about a young Roman woman in the 5th century BC who marries an Etruscan nobleman to seal an alliance between their warring cities.  As part of my review, I had written: "With her page-turning story, Storrs revivifies a long-ago past while reminding us that it’s a place utterly unlike the world we know: the mark of a skilled historical novelist."

Elisabeth's new novel The Golden Dice (Cornelian Press, 2013) continues the story of Caecilia and her husband, Vel Mastarna.  It begins seven years after The Wedding Shroud ends so can be read as a sequel, but I'm told it also works well as a standalone novel.  I'll be reviewing it here in due course.  Today, to whet our appetites for the book, she has contributed an original post about women's power in ancient Etruria.  Her essay and accompanying illustrations open a window on a little-known but fascinating culture.  Welcome, Elisabeth!

Please read to the end, too, for a chance to win an e-book copy of The Golden Dice (open internationally).


Goddesses, Priestesses and Princesses:
Feminine Power within Etruscan Society

Elisabeth Storrs

The Vestal Virgins of Rome are famous. These six priestesses were entrusted with keeping alight the eternal flame of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth. The College of Vestals wielded great influence in matters of state but they were cloistered from society and denied the opportunity to marry and bear children until after they had served the order for thirty years. Apart from the Vestal Virgins, Roman women did not preside over religious ceremonies nor did they hold high office.

Vestal Virgin

Historians contend that an Etruscan woman could hold the title of a high priestess called an hatrencu. It is believed such priestesses belonged to a sacred college devoted to a female cult dedicated to the fertility of families and marriage. Unlike the Vestals, however, they joined such an order as matrons rather than maidens sworn to an oath of chastity. Interestingly, there is even one tomb where hatrencus have been buried together in one chamber rather than with their families.

The attire of a Vestal Virgin was unique. She wore distinctive robes, woollen headbands and a veil, and her hair was specially dressed in six braids. Votive statuettes have been found of Etruscan women wearing a peculiar garb believed to characterise those of a priestess as well. This consisted of a sleeved tunic reaching to her ankle boots. A heavy mantle with a tasselled triangular end hung over her back. Often her shawl-like cloak was pinned at the shoulder with a large brooch similar to those worn by male Etruscan soothsayers, and her hair was covered by a clinging veil placed low across the forehead and tied by a ribbon knotted at the back of her head.

Etruscan priestess

In 1861 the German historian Bachofen propounded a theory that Etruscan society was a matriarchy where identity passed through the female line. His theories were extensively discussed in feminist circles in the 1970s with research undertaken into the cult of the great mother goddess. Indeed, the first deities to be mentioned in Etruscan inscriptions are Turan, the goddess of love and fertility, (better known as Venus or Aphrodite) together with Aritimi (Artemis) who was associated in Etruria with the Mistress of Animals, a goddess also worshipped in the Near East.

In support of his claim, Bachofen examined the legend of Tanaquil, a talented prophetess who became the queen of the first Etruscan king of Rome. She exercised tremendous influence and gave real meaning to the saying: ‘the power behind the throne.’ There was also support for his theory due to the existence of many lavish tombs dedicated to women with inscriptions acknowledging both male and female bloodlines. Compare this to a Roman woman who only bore her father’s name in feminine form, and who was not generally commemorated after death.

Present-day historians have discounted Bachofen’s theory because there are no inscriptions denoting Etruscan women as a monarch or chief magistrate. Nor is a man ever described as the ‘husband of’ a woman which would suggest the wife held a dominant role. However there was no separation between church and state in Etruscan society. Those who governed also fulfilled a religious role as a priest. Given this, the fact Etruscan women could be priestesses establishes the eminent role they played in that world. Accordingly, there may well be seeds of truth in the legend of Queen Tanaquil who was honoured as both a seer and an advisor to her royal husband. Indeed, the extensive treasure found in graves of Etruscan women points to the conclusion that the wives and daughters of the prominent elite were viewed as ‘princesses’.

Etruscan gold diadem

One particular sarcophagus confirms the high rank held by women in Etruria. On its lid, an aged man and woman lie beneath a mantle. Their intimate embrace not only portrays their devotion but also symbolises how the power of their union can ward off evil after death. Although the casket portrays both husband and wife, it only holds the body of the woman. She is simply described as Ramtha Visnai, wife of Arnth Tetnies.

Ramtha Visnai and Arnth Tetnies

On one side of the sarcophagus is carved a scene of a procession believed to portray the journey of the couple to the afterlife. Attendants walk behind both husband and wife. Arnth’s carry symbols of his magistracy – a horn, ivory chair and rod; Ramtha’s servants carry libation vessels for mixing wine and water. These symbols are associated with priestesses who served the Etruscan wine god Fufluns (Greek Dionysus). The couple are depicted holding hands. Here is a coffin celebrating the life of a loving wife whose rank was as respected as her husband’s. And the scene also bears witness to Ramtha’s desire to meet her spouse as an equal after death.

Journey to the afterlife – Ramtha Visnai and Arnth Tetnies

Perhaps the most impressive evidence of the respect afforded to Etruscan women is the fact they were worshipped as part of an ancestor cult. Seated on thrones, statues of both male and female heads of clans stand guard over those who have been entombed. These images give testament to the understanding that the soul of the deceased could turn into a deity who returned to watch over the living. In effect, a high ranked matron of a clan was not only a princess but also a goddess – an ultimate display of feminine power.

The Tales of Ancient Rome series chronicles the events of a ten-year siege between Rome and the Etruscan city of Veii after the marriage of a young Roman girl, Caecilia, to an Etruscan nobleman, Vel Mastarna. The first book, The Wedding Shroud, ends when war is declared. Newly released, The Golden Dice continues the story seven years later at the height of the conflict. In addition to following the Roman treaty bride, Caecilia (who is now the matriarch of the wealthy House of Mastarna), two other strong female characters are introduced: Semni, a young Etruscan girl, and Pinna, a Roman tomb whore. Past readers of The Wedding Shroud will enjoy visiting Etruria again while others might like to venture into this world for the first time to learn how three women of the ancient world endure a war.

You will find more information on the background to Elisabeth’s books in this post on her blog, Triclinium. The Wedding Shroud and The Golden Dice are available on Amazon or via other retailers listed on her website. And Elisabeth would love to connect with you on Facebook and Twitter.

Description of The Golden Dice:

During a ten-year siege between two age-old enemies, three women follow very different paths to survive:

Caecilia, a young Roman woman, forsakes her city by marrying the Etruscan Vel Mastarna, exposing herself to the enmity of his people and the hatred of the Romans who consider her a traitoress…

Semni, a reckless Etruscan girl, becomes a servant in the House of Mastarna, embroiling herself in schemes that threaten Caecilia's children and her own chance for romance…

Pinna, a tomb whore, uses blackmail to escape her grim life and gain the attention of Rome's greatest general, choosing between her love for him and her loyalty to another…

In this second volume in the Tales of Ancient Rome series, the lives of women in war are explored together with the sexuality, religion, and politics of Roman and Etruscan cultures, two great civilizations of ancient history.

Elisabeth Storrs has long held an interest in the history, myths and legends of the ancient world. She is an Australian author and graduated from the University of Sydney in Arts Law, having studied Classics. She lives with her husband and two sons in Sydney and over the years has worked as a solicitor, corporate lawyer, governance consultant and business writer. The Wedding Shroud was judged runner-up in the international 2012 Sharp Writ Book Awards for general fiction.


Giveaway Contest

Thanks to the author, we have a giveaway opportunity.  One e-book copy of The Golden Dice (mobi, epub, or pdf) will be sent to a randomly selected blog winner.  Please fill out the form below to enter; deadline Monday, August 5th.  This contest is open internationally.  Good luck!

This giveaway has expired; thanks to all who entered.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Contest winners, and upcoming blog events

Thanks to everyone who entered the giveaways for Gillian Bagwell's Venus in Winter and Gary Schanbacher's Crossing Purgatory.  The winners have been selected, with the help of the random number generator at random.org:

Venus in Winter will be going out to Jennifer D. and international winner Lynn F.
Crossing Purgatory will be going out to Katharine O.

Congratulations to the three winners, and hope you'll enjoy the books!

Over the next week, I'll be featuring more guest posts and giveaways, and here's a preview of what will be coming up:

  • Victoria Wilcox will be here with a post about Inheritance, her new novel about Doc Holliday's Southern roots (reviewed yesterday)
  • Elisabeth Storrs, author of The Wedding Shroud (reviewed here in 2010) and The Golden Dice, will be speaking about feminine power in Etruscan society
  • Janice Weizman, author of The Wayward Moon, will talk about researching women's lives in the 9th-century Middle East
  • Stephanie Carroll, author of A White Room, a novel of female repression and self-determination set in small-town Missouri in 1900, will have an essay about historical thought from a century ago.
I'm looking forward to featuring these posts, which cover a nice range of historical eras and locales.  Hope you'll enjoy following along, too.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Book review: Victoria Wilcox's Inheritance (Southern Son, The Saga of Doc Holliday, Book One)

Victoria Wilcox’s Inheritance begins a trilogy about Doc Holliday, a figure from Wild West lore whose name has been linked for over 100 years with the Earp brothers and the 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral. This first volume reveals his little-known origins as a son of the Old South: a sensitive yet hot-tempered young man whose early life, in the hands of this talented storyteller, proves every bit as fascinating as his legend.

The story opens with a ten-year-old John Henry Holliday attending his grandfather's funeral in 1862 Georgia, taking pride in his “distant Irish ancestors who had fought English invaders” and looking up to his father, a Confederate major who battled Yankee oppression. It concludes in 1873, with John Henry on the run from the law and turning westward towards the future.

The tale of his intervening years is full of incident and meticulously detailed – one gets the feeling that very little about his early life has been omitted – but the telling never drags. Dentistry may not sound like the most exciting subject, but Wilcox even makes Holliday's time in dental school sound interesting! The afterword reveals that she based her novel on 18 years of research, and it serves to support and direct the narrative without weighing it down.

Three things shape John Henry into the man he will become: the death from consumption of his beloved mother, who believes in the value of education and from whom he learns his moral lessons; his father’s coldness and too-sudden remarriage to a pretty neighbor; and John Henry’s touching yet hopeless love for his Catholic cousin, Mattie Holliday, a sweet and passionate young woman who was the model for Melanie in Gone with the Wind. (Margaret Mitchell was one of Mattie’s cousins from a different branch, and Mitchell’s fiery Irish-American grandmother, on whom she based the character of Scarlett, makes some memorable appearances, too.)

The importance of family as the center of Southern life is apparent from the first pages, with the genealogical chart and lengthy cast of characters, most of whom are relatives. No need to be wary of this, though, since all of the relationships among "John Henry's people" are clearly presented.

The scenes change along with John Henry’s travels, from his birthplace of Griffin in central Georgia to gas-lit Atlanta streets to the tiny, remote wilderness of Valdosta, and from the bustling sophistication of Philadelphia to the breweries, steamboats, and gambling dens of St. Louis, where he meets an attractive woman who will loom large in his later years.

But even in the big city with all its distractions, when spring arrives he can’t help but long for Georgia, “where the air would be lazy-sweet with a smell of honeysuckle to it, and the azaleas would be blooming pink and white and wild among the pines.”

Both place and time are deftly evoked. John Henry grows up as the only living child of a wealthy Southern family whose fortunes decline after the Civil War and who are forced to reinvent themselves during Reconstruction.The era’s deeply ingrained racism isn't comfortable to read about, and neither are some of John Henry’s attitudes and actions.

Historical novels should provide an honest reflection of their times, and this just one of many things that Inheritance does very well. In all, it accomplishes what it sets out to do provide an intimate look at the younger Doc Holliday and the Southern roots which formed him and his story is completely absorbing. For those enamored of Western legends, Gone with the Wind, or American history in general, this grand epic will be a must-read.


Inheritance was published by Knox Robinson in hardcover in May ($27.99, £19.99, €26.99, 349pp).  For more information, see the author's website at http://victoriawilcoxbooks.com or its reviews on Goodreads, where it has a solid 4.93 rating out of 5.  

Friday, July 19, 2013

Bits and pieces

A short news round-up for Friday afternoon.

Over at the Historical Novel Society website, I have a new interview with Jessica Brockmole, author of Letters from Skye, in which she talks about traveling to Scotland and sensing its history all around her, using the OED to create authentic voices for her characters, why the fine art of letter writing is the latest rage, and more.

The Langum Charitable Trust has announced the shortlisted titles from the first half of 2013 for the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction.  They are:

- Kent Wascom, The Blood of Heaven (Grove Press) - my review here
- Gary Schanbacher, Crossing Purgatory (Pegasus Books) - the author's guest post here, with a chance for US readers to win a signed copy through 7/22/13
- Christine Wade, Seven Locks (Atria/Simon & Schuster) - my review here
- Philipp Meyer, The Son (Ecco/HarperCollins) - which hasn't appeared on this blog before, but I do have an ARC I'm hoping to get to!

I've begun adding titles to the HNS's list of forthcoming books for 2014.  This is going to be a long-term work in progress, but quite a few titles through next April are listed now.

And lastly, for anyone curious about the person writing this blog, my local paper, the Journal-Gazette and Times-Courier, has an interview with me about my site and interests in historical fiction. The piece was written by Beth Heldebrandt, editorial writer at EIU's Booth Library, with photo by library photographer Bev Cruse.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Book review: A Treacherous Paradise, by Henning Mankell

In 1904, Hanna Lundmark, a young widow from poverty-stricken northern Sweden, arrives in Lourenço Marques, a coastal town in Portuguese East Africa. Following a series of unexpected events, she becomes the owner of a prosperous brothel of black prostitutes.

Her new environment proves difficult to navigate, particularly its blatant racism. Nobody knows what to make of a rich white businesswoman, either.

Black-white relations, evoked with subtle skill and mordant humor, are marked by mutual incomprehension and fear, and Hanna’s attempts at friendliness and generosity toward her employees are met with unnatural silences. When she obeys her conscience and makes a gutsy decision against bigotry, the plot takes turns at once surprising and not.

Mankell, Scandinavian crime fiction’s brightest star, structures his latest around a true story from turn-of-the-century Mozambique. Considerable suspense derives from the tense atmosphere and the fact that neither Hanna nor the reader knows quite what will happen next. The tragic effects of colonialism in this divided land emerge slowly via a succession of shocking reveals.

This powerful work boasts a courageous, well-drawn heroine and makes its points without stridency or didacticism. Since it’s written by Mankell, an author of such high stature, it should get the large audience it deserves.

A Treacherous Paradise was published by Knopf in July ($26.95, 384pp).  This starred review appeared in Booklist's June 1st issue.

A few additional comments:

(1) This is a book I'd wanted to read, so I was seriously excited when it showed up in the mail.

(2) I've never read Mankell's Kurt Wallander mysteries so can't make the comparison.  The other trade reviews I've seen are positive, but there are some other grumpy reviewers out there who seem upset that this one's not like the Wallander books.  Maybe it's just me, but I don't think authors should have to write the same type of book all the time.

(3) Look closely at the cover design.  Then look again.  Does the woman have her eyes closed, or is she gazing off to her right?  It's very cleverly done.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Historical novel or novel set in history? A guest post by Gary Schanbacher, author of Crossing Purgatory

Gary Schanbacher is stopping by the blog today with a thought-provoking essay that touches on the nature and definition of historical fiction.  His novel Crossing Purgatory, literary fiction set on the Great Plains in the pre-Civil War era, was published in June by Pegasus Books (hb, $25.95). There's a giveaway opportunity at the end, too, for American readers.  Welcome, Gary!


 Historical Novel, or Novel Set in History?
Gary Schanbacher

When I first began making reading appearances for my novel, Crossing Purgatory, I was initially surprised by questions about the process and challenge of writing historical fiction. In retrospect, the questions were perfectly reasonable since my novel chronicles the journey of a young man who takes to the Santa Fe Trail in the spring of 1858. But, until actually asked the questions, I’d thought of the book as a novel that “happened” to be set in history rather than a historical novel.

Some of you must be thinking: Huh? I’m sure in part the distinction I made was self-deception, pure and simple. I don’t think I’d ever intentionally set out to write historical fiction. I am not a historian by training, and the prospect of researching seemed daunting to the point of writer paralysis. Somewhere in my subconscious I must have found it less intimidating to think in terms of writing about characters in conflict during a particular point in time rather than a “period piece.” My novel had only to be historically “plausible,” rather than factual. Of course, once I became immersed in story, setting, and era, by necessity the research followed. Would my protagonist carry a musket or a rifle? Flintlock or percussion cap? What kind of hat would he wear? How many miles would he travel in a day? And on, and on. But the initial self-deception allowed me to begin writing my novel, and it got me past the point of no return.

On some level, however, the distinction between a historical novel and a novel set in history may be real, and I think it has to do with narrative emphasis. When I finish a book I usually ask myself a few questions. Was I entertained, educated, or both? What about the book might remain with me over time? Do the characters or the events create the lasting impact? Are the characters and events historically factual or fictional, or a mix of both?

For me, the more linked a book is to historically factual characters and events, the more firmly I categorize it as historical fiction. A book dealing with purely fictional characters and imaginary events set during a particular era, I tend to classify as a novel set in history. The difference? Although Crossing Purgatory is intended to evoke a specific time and place, the plot and all major characters are products of my imagination. It would be a very different book if set in 1958 rather than 1858, but probably not different at all if set in 1859 or 1860. Likewise, would it really matter if Lonesome Dove were set in 1877 or 1875 rather than 1876? What matters is that it does a wonderful job of evoking an era and of developing the relationship between two unforgettable men of the old West. In contrast, it would have mattered, very much so, if Stephen Harrigan decided to set the central event of The Gates of the Alamo in 1846 rather than 1836.

All fiction reading is on some level entertainment. Sometimes I feel like a roller coaster ride (think spy thriller), and sometimes I feel like sinking into the Sunday Times crossword puzzle (think Moby Dick). Similarly, at times I enjoy reading fictional recreation of actual events lived by actual characters (what I call historical fiction), and at other times I enjoy letting fictional characters roam freely, endure imaginary challenges and interactions that evoke a sense of time and place unconstrained by historical event (novel set in history).


Gary Schanbacher’s short story collection, Migration Patterns, received a PEN/Hemingway Honorable Mention for distinguished first works of fiction and won the Colorado Book Award, The High Plains First Book Award, and the Eric Hoffer General Fiction Award. Publishers Weekly calls his new novel, Crossing Purgatory, “a visceral and triumphant saga of the Old West,” and in a starred review Booklist refers to Schanbacher as “a gifted writer whose prose is always elegant, whether describing the land, a winter storm, or the inner life of his characters.” Visit his website at http://garyschanbacher.com.

For your chance to win a signed copy of Crossing Purgatory, thanks to the generosity of the author, please fill out the form below.  US readers only; deadline Monday, July 22nd. 

This giveaway has expired; thanks to all who entered.

Friday, July 12, 2013

An interview with Gillian Bagwell, author of Venus in Winter - plus giveaway

Today I have the pleasure of hosting historical novelist Gillian Bagwell for a Q&A.  Venus in Winter, her third novel, spans over three decades in the life of Bess of Hardwick, who rose to become one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in Elizabethan England via her successive marriages to four men of progressively higher status.  In Gillian's lively interpretation, Bess is an immensely likeable young woman who gradually becomes accustomed to the customs and dangerous political realities of life at the court of Henry VIII and his successors. 

Please read to the end, as we have a giveaway opportunity.  Two copies are up for grabs; the publisher will send out a copy to a US reader, while I'll send a 2nd copy out to a randomly selected international reader.


Do you remember where you first came across Bess of Hardwick’s story? What made her such an irresistible subject?

I don't remember when I first heard of Bess of Hardwick. I had come across references to her here and there in my reading about 16th-century England, and she sounded interesting but I didn't know much about her.

My second novel, The September Queen, was the first fictional account of the story of Jane Lane, who helped the young Charles II escape after the Battle of Worcester, and when I began thinking about what to write next, I hoped to find another subject who hadn't been written about over and over. Queens and mistresses tend to be the historical women that people know about, but finding Jane's story made me sure there must be more fascinating women out there.

Bess of Hardwick, ca. 1550s
I recalled Bess's name, and a very little research made me excited about telling her story. She knew just about everyone of any importance in England in the second half of the 16th century and was involved in or an observer of many historic events.

Venus in Winter follows Bess over three marriages, stopping right before her fourth, and spans about 40 years. Were there segments of her life that weren’t as well documented, and which were more challenging to research or write about?

As was the case with my first two heroines, Nell Gwynn and Jane Lane, not much specific is known about Bess's early years. David Durant's biography begins with Bess's second marriage, when she was nineteen. Maud Stepney Rawlins's Bess of Hardwick and Her Circle dispenses with her first two marriages and the first thirty years of her life in ten pages, and another twelve pages takes Bess to the age of thirty-seven and the death of her third husband. Even Bess's most recent biography, Mary Lovell's Bess of Hardwick: Empire Builder, takes only two hundred out of almost five hundred pages to bring Bess to the age of forty in 1567, when my book ends.

I used what facts were known about Bess's early life: the names and approximate ages of her parents and siblings; the fact that she spent her childhood at what was then Hardwick Manor; her father's death when she was a baby and the subsequent taking over of the property by the Court of Wards; her stepfather's imprisonment for debt; her becoming a lady in waiting to Lady Zouche around the age of twelve; her marriage to young Robert Barlow, who was also in the Zouche household; and her joining the household of Frances Grey after her she was widowed at the age of sixteen.

Based on those bits of information, I had to conjecture quite a lot about what she might have experienced. Coincidentally, Henry VIII signed the contract to marry Anne of Cleves on October 4, 1539, which was likely Bess's twelfth birthday, according to Mary Lovell. Bess probably entered Lady Zouche's service around that time, and as both Lady Zouche and her husband had served Anne Boleyn and were known at court, and Sir George became a gentleman pensioner to Henry VIII in about 1540, it didn't seem unreasonable to send Bess to London with them so she could observe Henry VIII's marriages to Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard.

Possibly Anne Gainsford,
Lady Zouche
(Hans Holbein the Younger)
Bess's friend Elisabeth Brooke, who later married William Parr and became the Marchioness of Northampton, was first noted at court as a maid of honor to Catherine Howard. I don't know when they met, but to avoid inventing a fictional character who then disappears, I put Elisabeth Brooke into Lady Zouche's household, creating a plausible bridge for Bess's acquaintance with Catherine Howard, who arrived at court as a maid of honor to Anne of Cleves and was probably only a couple of years older than Bess.

Much more is known about Bess after the time of her second marriage, to Sir William Cavendish, who was about twenty years older than she was and already quite prominent when he married her.

The dialogue in Venus in Winter is clear and understandable to the modern ear, yet the word choices and syntax also give a good sense of the period. Does your experience in the theatre influence how you craft your characters’ speech?

Yes, I've found that my years in theatre as an actress and director are very helpful in writing historical dialogue. I've read so much material from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries that the language sounds natural to me. And while I don't necessarily read dialogue aloud while writing, I do kind of hear it my head and have an instinctive sense of whether I could say the lines and make them believeble. This helps me avoid language that's too contemporary or faux-period, I hope!

I think that judicious use of period words and expressions and syntax can give a good flavor of the period without being distracting. When I was writing The Darling Strumpet, I had a great time using period slang, and contrasting Nell's speech with that of more upper class people. I would have liked to do another draft of Venus just to incorporate a little more flavor of the period in the dialogue, but I ran out of time.

Bess divides her time between life at court and her homes in the countryside (I particularly liked the descriptions of the natural beauty around Chatsworth in Derbyshire). Did any locales stand out as more memorable or enjoyable to write about – or to visit in person?

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make a trip to England for this book. I've spent a lot of time in London and some time traveling around other parts of the country, and had to rely on those experiences and long-distance research. Fortunately, there's so much information, including historical images and maps and Google Maps and Google Earth, that it's possible to learn a lot without leaving home.

Of course, very little of 16th-century London remains except the layout of the streets. One of Bess's houses was in Newgate Street, which I actually know quite well, as I regularly walked from the Bank underground station along Cheapside and Newgate Street to near Smithfield when my mother was in St. Bartholomew's Hospital. (The hospital existed in Bess's time, but of course in a much different form than now.) Fellow historical fiction author J.D. Davies was kind enough to take loads of pictures when he visited Hardwick Hall and send them to me, and that helped with writing the prologue and epilogue.

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

Bess and her family spend a fair bit of time occupied by money problems, from her childhood woes with her stepfather in debtor’s prison to disputes over her dower rights from her first marriage, and more. You don’t often see issues related to finance and legal proceedings in Tudor-era fiction, even though it’s important for understanding day-to-day life at the time. Everything was very clearly explained, but how complex were these issues to research and untangle?

I'm so glad you found the events clear, because they were kind of a bear to understand and put in the story without lots of explanation! Mary Lovell's biography of Bess explains these issues pretty well, especially the situation with the Court of Wards and its control of estates inherited by minor children. I did have to do some digging to figure out where Bess's early suit would have been held and who would have presided over it, and then make some conjecture about what the specifics of her experience would have been like. Bess was so astute about money and so businesslike, that I thought it was important to get into some specifics that showed her developing those abilities.

She went to court several times in her life, which was very unusual for a woman. I think her second husband, Sir William Cavendish, who was a very able administrator and very well connected, probably taught her a lot. Someone must have helped her with that first suit about her dower rights when she was only sixteen or seventeen, and in the novel, I have Sir William be that person, as it's in keeping with what I know about him and a good opportunity for them to get to know each other.

Frances Grey, Lady Dorset, is one of the more intriguing secondary characters. She proves herself a good and generous friend to Bess, but she doesn’t show the same kindness to her oldest daughter, Jane. How did you develop Frances’ character and her relationship with Jane?

Frances Grey (nee Brandon)
I relied on biographies of Bess and Jane as well as other books about the period and the important players of the time in writing Frances's character. Bess's second marriage took place at Bradgate Park, the Grey family home, and Frances gave Bess jewelry and probably introduced her to her second husband, so it's clear that she must have had some regard and affection for Bess.

There seems to be a fair amount of evidence that Jane Grey's parents were extremely ambitious for Jane, even at the expense of her own desires and happiness, and their ambition ultimately cost her life.

Jane told her schoolmaster Roger Ascham that she couldn't seem to please her parents no matter what she did, and that they "cruelly threatened" her, "sometimes with pinches, nips, and bobs [smacks]" so that she thought herself "in hell" until she could go to her tutor John Aylmer. Some of her biographers seem to doubt that she was really badly treated or that Frances was as bad as she sounds, but those words are pretty convincing to me, and I had her speak them to Bess, who is grateful for Frances's kindness to her but heartbroken that Jane, who she loves, is so little valued and so unhappy.

The heroines of your three historicals have all been strong women who associate closely with royalty (in different ways) although they aren’t royal themselves. Why do you enjoy writing from this viewpoint?

Part of the reason is that I have sought out characters that haven't been written about so much that everyone knows about them and it's hard to make their stories fresh. At the same time, women at or near the top of society are the ones whose lives are best documented. Undoubtedly there were many middle class and working class women who led interesting lives, but didn't leave much of a record.

Women who were associated with royalty were also in a position to participate in or observe compelling and important historical events, and I think readers might relate more to their perspective as relative outsiders than they do to the thoughts of a queen. And of course female lead characters seem to work better than men, or at least that's what my agent says, so that eliminates the kings and princes themselves, and leaves the women around them.

Charles II and Jane Lane, riding to Bristol (Isaac Fuller)

You’ve moved a little further back in time with this book, from the 17th century to the 16th,, and from the Stuarts to the Tudors. Was this a fairly easy shift for you to make?

Yes and no. I learned about Jane Lane in the course of researching The Darling Strumpet, and had Charles II tell Nell Gwynn a little about his escape after the Battle of Worcester, but there was no way to do that story justice. When my agent was getting ready to submit Darling Strumpet, she asked me to come up with some ideas for a second book, and that was one of them.

I thought that since I knew a lot about 17th-century England already and that even some of the same characters would appear in both books, it would be easy to write The September Queen. I was wrong! There's a big difference between knowing a fair amount of the general history, and saying, okay, it's July 30, 1651--what specifically is happening on this day? How does it affect my character and what is she doing?

Also, writing The September Queen involved learning a lot about the English Civil Wars, all the efforts to restore Charles II to the throne before the actual Restoration, and long stretches of time in the courts of Paris and The Hague, with lots of people I knew nothing about. Similarly, I know a fair amount about the 16th century generally, partly as a result of my long interest in Shakespeare and many years performing at Renaissance Faires, but Bess of Hardwick lived through periods of incredible turmoil, and to tell her story I had to learn a lot of very specific information about the reigns of each of the Tudor monarchs, the people around them, and the ins and outs of very complicated events involving politics, changes in religion, and numerous changes of regime.

Can you reveal anything about what you might be working on next?

I don't have a contract yet for what I hope to write next, but I can say it's somewhat of a departure from my first three books, though it involves historical events and real people. And someday I'd like to write a novel about Bess's second forty years!


Gillian Bagwell's novel about Bess of Hardwick, Venus in Winter, was released on July 2 by Berkley ($16.00, pb, 448pp).

To find links to Gillian's other posts related to the book, please follow her on Twitter @gillianbagwell, on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/gillianbagwell, or visit her website, www.gillianbagwell.com.

To enter the giveaway for a copy of Venus in Winter, please fill out the following form.  Two copies are up for grabs: one for the US and one international.  Deadline Friday, July 19th.  Best of luck!

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Judging books by their setting: The case of the literary Western

Here are three ARCs I picked up in the ALA exhibit hall last weekend.  First up is Kathleen Kent's The Outcasts (Little, Brown, Oct), a women's adventure story set in Texas after the Civil War.  Next is Leila Meacham's Somerset (Grand Central, Nov), a 600-page multigenerational epic spanning 150 years of southern and western history and the long-awaited prequel to the author's bestselling Roses.  Finally we have Ivan Doig's Sweet Thunder (Riverhead, Aug), about a newspaperman's battle for justice for local miners in 1920s Montana.

All three authors have a large and eager following, based on their previous successes.  These three novels have been highly anticipated (and not just by me!).  And all three are set in the late 19th to early 20th-century West.

Some readers naturally gravitate towards Western fiction, while others may need quite a bit more persuading to try it or an added hook.  Such as a famous name or event, for example, or the promise of a new installment in a well-loved series.  The American West isn't perceived to be glamorous, especially compared to fiction set in royal courts or grand English manor houses, and Western novels are often dismissed as overfamiliar or formulaic.  As a book review editor, I admit I often have difficulty finding readers willing to consider them.

I dislike stereotypes in any type of fiction, Westerns included; that said, the exploration and settlement of the West are an integral part of American history that I enjoy reading and learning more about.  These novels can offer exciting stories of adventure, independence, and discovery.  In addition, I tend to read for plot, language, and character as much as setting, and I've seen how a talented storyteller can draw me into a novel and make me care about what happens regardless of where it takes place.  Note the cover design of The Outcasts, too; it's a clever way to catch the attention of readers who like other novels about strong women in history.

While I was contemplating this topic as the subject of a blog post, the July issue of NoveList's RA News arrived in my inbox.  It has a few additional articles that focus on Westerns: both the stereotypes that surround them and the promises they offer.  Reading lists are included, too.

Are you looking forward to reading any of the three novels shown above?  Do you have any other thoughts about Western settings you'd like to share?

Friday, July 05, 2013

Review of Blood & Beauty: The Borgias, by Sarah Dunant

Sarah Dunant has written three acclaimed novels of Renaissance Italy in which she consciously narrowed her focus to the long-concealed stories of ordinary women on the margins rather than following what she termed the “historical celebrity version of life.” Now, in a noteworthy switch, we’re presented with Blood & Beauty, which centers on perhaps the most grasping and notorious celebrities of the era. The Borgia name instantly evokes images of glorious wealth and even more glorious power, corruption, poison, and incest.

So we might approach this current book believing it to be a significant departure. In addition to climbing on a new bandwagon by fictionalizing famous real-life leaders, her canvas has broadened. It encompasses the names many readers know well, first and foremost the ruthlessly ambitious Spanish-born Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI), patriarch not only to his beloved illegitimate children but to Catholic believers worldwide.

But looking beyond them, it also presents an overarching portrait of the European political scene, including the changing alliances and deadly jockeying for supremacy among Rome, Naples, Milan, France, and Spain. This is the grand sweep of history, moving from the epic to the personal and back.

As Alexander uses his progeny as pawns to further his dynastic goals, they clash with the rulers of other Italian city-states and with one another. Their interactions are what push the plot forward. They are Juan, the eldest, his father’s loyal and self-important favorite; Cesare, charismatic, astute, callously ambitious, and overprotective of the beautiful sister he adores too much; Jofré, less complex and more childlike than his older siblings; and young Lucrezia, an ardently devout romantic who, over the ten-year span of the novel, becomes torn between her family’s orders and her own desires.

An unlikely cardinal, with his very worldly appetites, Cesare follows most closely in his father’s shoes. He has a lot of on-page time, with not much change to his personality. His presence gets somewhat wearing after a while, but the conclusion proves he has some surprises up his sleeve. There are no caricatures here, and he and his siblings’ personas reflect contemporary research much more than their infamous legends.

The novel uses a true omniscient viewpoint, a technique difficult to master – and for the most part it succeeds. Dunant’s perspective swoops from person to person and place to place, allowing insight into major as well as minor characters, from papal messenger Pedro Calderón to Ludovico Sforza, the Borgias’ Milanese foe, to the physician treating Cesare for the “French disease.” Every sentence has her sharp intelligence behind it and showcases her trademark dedication to detail.

There are times, though, when she draws far back from the main plotlines to speak to readers about the historical context. While these informative segments are narrated with flair and drama, they can be dense, and they also break up the reading experience. At these times, the story feels less a character-driven work than a history-driven one.

Emerging gradually from amidst the multiple story strands is a shining thread of feminine empowerment. This isn’t meant in the modern sense, but in the more subtle, quietly crafty, behind-the-scenes ways open to women of the era. Alexander and Cesare may hold the heaviest reins of power in Blood & Beauty, but its women are its moral center. Lucrezia’s transformation from unguarded innocent to shrewd game-player is the novel’s most compelling aspect. She, her practical and straight-talking mother Vannozza dei Catanei, and tough warrior-woman Caterina Sforza are brilliant characters whose survival instincts we can’t help but admire. Although each suffers significant losses, that doesn’t make their triumphs any less sweet.

As always, Dunant is perfectly at home in her setting. The atmosphere is decadent and dangerous in equal measure, with descriptions emphasizing the tightly knotted themes of art, politics, and faith. “Most men need to be overwhelmed in order to appreciate the divine. That is Rome’s job,” observes Alexander, in one of many classic lines, while gazing at the awe-inspiring splendor of the Sistine Chapel.

From different angles, all of the novels in her earlier trilogy (The Birth of Venus, In the Company of the Courtesan, and Sacred Hearts) spoke of the influential power of the family during the Italian Renaissance. This latest work is no different; the Borgias simply bring this motif unavoidably front and center. Complex, perceptive, and erudite, and with magnificent, strong women: this is what we’ve come to expect from Dunant. Those who reveled in all the details of this colorful historical era, too, will find even more of it to enjoy here. On the whole, maybe Blood & Beauty isn’t such a huge departure for her after all.


Blood & Beauty: The Borgias will be published on July 16th by Random House in the US ($27.00, hb, 528pp).  It was published in the UK by Virago (£16.99, hb) on July 2nd.  Thanks to the publisher and Goodreads for an ARC of this book; this was a First Reads win.