Friday, August 7, 2020

The Perils of Collecting

Although I was sad to see Elsa Hart moving away from her wonderful series of mystery novels set in early Qing China, it’s always fun to explore a new fictional arena in the hands of such a gifted storyteller. In my latest interview with her for the New Books Network, she discusses why she moved her literary focus west (and a few years earlier), to Queen Anne’s London in 1703.

In fact, The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne is, in a sense, a prequel to Jade Dragon Mountain and its sequels. Dedicated readers of the earlier (and, I hope, ongoing) series will enjoy a cameo appearance by one of the characters; others will appreciate the new book on its own terms.

In short, this is a book about collectors—not the everyday kind who accumulate more owl statues than most people ever imagine needing or aim for a complete set of 1893 coins or stamps. Collectors like Barnaby Mayne grab everything they can find: fossils and ferns, snake skins and pickled body parts, skulls and statuettes. Mayne’s house is less a carefully curated museum than a madhouse of objects stored in and on every available surface and coveted by his fellow collectors all over London.

So when he shows up dead one day, the immediate question becomes what to do with all this stuff. His widow can’t wait to sell it to the highest bidder; solving the crime takes a back seat, in her view. (One imagines Sir Barnaby might not have been the kind of spouse one would miss. On the page he is unremittingly self-centered.) Only Lady Cecily Kay, an amateur botanist mining the collector’s plants for specimens that match those she’s brought back to England, can’t resist the intellectual puzzle of who, exactly, murdered Sir Barnaby and why.

As ever, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Lady Cecily Kay has just returned to England when she encounters Sir Barnaby Mayne. It’s 1703, Queen Anne is on the throne, and London’s coffee houses are buzzing with discussions of everything from science and philosophy to monsters and magic. Of course, Cecily has no plans to join the ongoing conversations; coffee houses bar the door to female visitors, however intelligent and learned. But she has secured something better: an entrĂ©e to the house of the city’s most influential collector, where she can compare her list of previously unknown plants to his rooms filled with specimens and, with luck, identify them.

On Cecily’s first day in the Mayne house, however, Sir Barnaby is stabbed to death. His meek curator confesses to the crime, and even the victim’s widow seems willing to ignore any discrepancies in the evidence. With assistance from Meacan Barlow, an illustrator also living in Sir Barnaby’s house, Cecily sets out to tie up the loose ends on a murder that far too many people would prefer to remain unsolved. Her quest leads her into the shadowy world of London’s collectors, who will stop at nothing to cut out the competition and have no qualms about silencing a pair of nosy women who are coming too close to the truth.

Elsa Hart, the author of the famed Li Du novels, here brings her talent for spinning a great yarn and crafting a compelling mystery to a new place, which—as you will learn in the interview—is in fact her original literary destination, attained at last.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Echoes of the Past

In the history we learn (or, too often, endure) in school, the Renaissance is a shining light at the end of the medieval tunnel, itself an improvement over what came before. The names say it all, don’t they? The Roman Empire dies under the clashing swords of barbarians from the north, plunging Europe into the Dark Ages and a slow climb through that mixture of feudalism and religious monotheism known as the Middle Ages, ending in a burst of cultural creativity characterized as Rebirth.

But rebirth of what? In school we learn about the return to classical learning, the restoration of humanity to the center of our understanding of the universe, a secular approach supposedly recovered from antiquity—as if the ancient Greeks and Romans had no gods and exercised no control over inconvenient naysayers who refused to honor the emperor as divine. We encounter Michelangelo and his David, Leonardo da Vinci and his flying machine (and so much else), Martin Luther and his Ninety-five Theses—and, admittedly, the Borgias, although even they come across as somehow “modern” compared to Charlemagne and bubonic plague.

But as Erika Rummel shows in her interview on New Books in Historical Fiction, and even more clearly in her latest novel, The Road to Gesualdo, which we discuss in that interview, the reality of the Renaissance—even in its Italian birthplace—was a great deal more complicated than the simplistic picture would indicate. And since fiction tends to benefit from forays into the less savory elements of human nature, the result is a fascinating literary journey into the past.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction

The Italian Renaissance introduced—or reintroduced—many valuable concepts to society and culture, giving rise eventually to our modern world. But it was also a time of fierce political infighting, social inequality, the subjugation of women, religious intolerance, belief in witchcraft, and many other elements that are more fun to read about than to experience. In The Road to Gesualdo, Erika Rummel draws on her years as a historian of the sixteenth century to bring this captivating story to life.

When Leonora d’Este, the daughter of the powerful family running the Italian city-state of Ferrara, receives orders from her brother to marry Prince Carlo of Gesualdo, she accepts the arranged match without protest. Her lady-in-waiting, Livia Prevera, does not. Prince Carlo, Livia argues, must have a secret, because the courtiers of Ferrara get quiet whenever his name comes up. Only after the wedding ceremony does Leonora discover that Livia is right. Prince Carlo murdered his first wife and her lover after finding them in bed together, his legal right at the time but an act committed with sufficient savagery to cast doubt on his mental health.

At first, Carlo and Leonora establish a bond through their love of music, but as time goes on, Livia becomes ever more concerned about a series of threats to her own health and, by extension, the future of those she cares about. Meanwhile, Pietro, the man she loves but cannot marry due to poverty on both sides, has been sent to Rome on a mission for Leonora’s brother: to discover whether the Gesualdo family really holds the power the d’Este clan expects and requires. Part of Pietro’s mission involves an arranged marriage with the daughter of a wealthy diplomat. Surrounded by plots and treachery, Livia and Pietro struggle to balance the demands of love, loyalty, and practicality—always hoping that fate will bring them together once more.

Image: Sixteenth-century portrait of Carlo Gesualdo by an unknown artist, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Taking a Vacation

In normal years, July and August are prime time for summer vacations. Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, that is not the case in 2020, but I hope all of you can nonetheless find some room for relaxation amid the lockdowns and quarantines.

For myself, the summer is prime writing time: with a week or two free of constant work-related demands, I can ease into the company of a new set of characters. The end of a workday can be productive in terms of revisions—as are weekends, especially the three- and four-day variety. But there’s nothing like an uninterrupted span of days to get the creative juices flowing. Characters come alive, start nattering in my head at night, and direct the plot in previously unimagined ways that spark new directions and possibilities.

Yet neither of those kind of vacations is the subject of this post. One often overlooked but invaluable tool in producing a finished book is to set a full draft aside for a couple of months, then go back to it with fresh eyes. Complicated explanations, twisty plot points, and characters who suddenly react in a way that is entirely out of character—all these flaws become visible after a writer creates enough space between the world inside her head and the response from a reader whose ability to understand inevitably depends on what actually gets onto the page.

By taking a break, the writer becomes that reader. I’m going through this process now with Song of the Sisters, the third novel in my Songs of Steppe & Forest series, and it’s a wonderfully rewarding experience. Unlike Songs 4, which exists in the ether and requires me to capture it with the author’s equivalent of a butterfly net, Songs 3 has a beginning, a middle, and an end; a protagonist and antagonist(s); a character arc. It’s been read by knowledgeable readers and critiqued from start to finish. I would have sworn it was done except for some last-minute vetting of the wording to avoid repetition and anachronisms.

But coming back to it, I can see that it’s not. I’m finding plot points that don’t connect to those around them, character reactions left over from previous versions, doubled letters or meetings or conversations where one would serve just as well. And that’s not counting the few problems that the fine folks in my writers’ group already picked up but I held off on entering until I had time to read the whole.

It’s a fun exercise and, I hope, will lead in the end to a better book. If you’re a writer who rushes to publish, I strongly recommend that you too take a break in the middle. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? If your novel was perfect to start with, it won’t become less perfect over time.

But few novels are perfect at the end of the rough draft—or even the fourth draft. For those that aren’t, a vacation or two can work wonders.

And because it’s July, and with the help of our wonderful Five Directions Press cover designer, Courtney J. Hall, we now have a final cover for Song of the Sisters that I not only love but that reflects a crucial incident in the story, here is my “Christmas in July” cover reveal. The book itself should be available in January 2021.

Well, unless I make good use of that Christmas vacation …

And if you need a book cover (romance preferred, whether historical, romantic suspense, contemporary, or other), you can find Courtney’s terms and portfolio at The Magenta Quill.

Images: cat on beach purchased on subscription from; butterfly public domain via Wikimedia Commons; cover design property of C. P. Lesley, Courtney J. Hall, and Five Directions Press.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Bookshelf, Summer 2020

Heather Bell Adams, The Good Luck Stone (Haywire Books, June 2020)
Yet another WWII novel, but this one’s twist is that it begins with Audrey, a ninety-year-old woman still living semi-independently in her Savannah mansion. Her family hires a part-time caretaker, Laurel, and the two women establish a rapport—until Audrey disappears. Only then does it gradually become clear that Audrey has harbored a secret since her years as a nurse in the South Pacific and needs to face the truth to find peace. I’ll feature Heather Adams’ answers to my questions on this blog in early fall, but you can find the book already on Amazon; it came out last month.

Elsa Hart, The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne (Minotaur Books, 2020)
A departure—perhaps better characterized as a sidestep—from Jade Dragon Mountain and its sequels, a series I love. Here Hart, a young and talented mystery writer with a real gift for laying out the clues yet surprising me anyway, follows one of her characters west and back in time, to Queen Anne’s London in 1703.

Sir Barnaby Mayne, a noted collector of pretty much any bizarre object he can lay his hands on, is found stabbed in his study. His curator confesses to the crime, and the authorities are happy to let it go. Even the dead man’s widow asks no questions, but Lady Cecily Kay and her childhood friend Meacan Barlow are determined to find out the truth, even when the quest places their own lives at risk. I’ll be talking with Hart on New Books in Historical Fiction in early August.

Laurie R. King, Riviera Gold (Bantam, 2020)
In this latest installment of another historical mystery series that I love, Sherlock Holmes and his much younger wife, Mary Russell, travel to the French Riviera, not far from Monte Carlo. There they re-encounter their housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, who left England under a cloud a few books back and, lo and behold, has managed to attract new trouble to herself.

The joy of this series is Mary—Sherlock’s match in intellect, daring, and courage—and her relationship with her aging husband. Although their interactions often seem more business-like than passionate (and involve an element of competition), Mary and Holmes are so perfectly matched that their love for each other is never in doubt. The book came out last month, and I’m just waiting for a gap in my reading schedule before tearing into it with glee.

Gill Paul, Jackie and Maria (William Morrow, 2020)
I enjoyed this author’s The Secret Wife and The Lost Daughter, which told semi-fantastical stories about how two of the Romanov princesses might have escaped Bolshevik bullets and bayonets and in the process explored the lives of Russians who escaped the revolution and who didn’t.

Here Paul turns her focus to Jackie Bouvier Kennedy and the opera star Maria Callas—united, if that’s the right word, by their sequential attraction to Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipping magnate. These fascinating stories to some extent took place in the background of my childhood, although mostly in ways I didn’t recognize then. A Q&A with Gill Paul should appear on this blog around the middle of August, when William Morrow releases the book.

Bryn Turnbull, The Woman before Wallis (MIRA Books, 2020)
It would be hard to grow up in the English-speaking Western world without at some point hearing about Wallis Simpson and how she convinced the English king Edward VIII to abdicate his throne to marry her, a divorced woman. But Wallis was merely the most successful of a string of lovers that Edward, known to his family and friends as David, maintained during his tenure as Prince of Wales.

This new novel, due out next week, follows the story of Thelma, Lady Furness, whose twin sister, Gloria, married Reggie Vanderbilt and gave birth to the fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt. Thelma, an American divorced at a young age, was delighted to attract the attention of Viscount Furness, even if marriage to him meant moving to a drafty estate in England and acquiring two stepchildren. But once she gets there, she learns that her husband thinks nothing of affairs with other women. When the Prince of Wales falls in love with her, Lord Furness steps aside, and their marriage slowly crumbles. When Thelma introduces Prince David to Wallis Simpson, that relationship suffers as well. But it’s the escalating conflict between Thelma’s sister and their mother that really forces Thelma to define what matters most. I finished this compelling story last week, but I include it here because I will interview Bryn Turnbull for New Books in Historical Fiction in mid-August.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Interview with James Ross

I’ve been conducting a lot of author interviews recently, the happy result of having been offered more good books than I can reasonably fit into my podcast schedule. Today I’m featuring James Ross, whose historical novel Hunting Teddy Roosevelt is due for release at the end of July. It’s not exactly a mystery, in that we learn the identity of the intended killer and the reasons behind the assassination attempt against the former US president early on: the unknowns are rather how the crime will take place, if it does—and, since this is a novel instead of a history book—whether the would-be assassin will succeed.

There are contemporary overlaps to Ross’s story as well. Teddy Roosevelt’s decision to wipe out as much African wildlife as possible for the sake of the Smithsonian Institute and New York’s Natural History Museum now seems both ecologically disastrous and (unwittingly) offensive in its approach to what we now call the Third World. And as we discuss at the end of the interview, in the wake of the recent protests in the United States, the same Natural History Museum has removed its commemorative statue to Roosevelt because of its colonialist elements.

But the only way to overcome the shortcomings of our past is to face them, and the fact that these problems continue to exist in our present make this novel even more of a necessary and compelling read. So read on to find out more. Some of the answers may surprise you.

You have an interesting history. How did you come to write fiction?

I wrote my first book in college. I’m publishing my first one, Hunting Teddy Roosevelt, the same year I start to collect social security. It’s been a long haul. One of the reasons it took so long is that the common (and often only) advice given to new writers when I was starting out was to follow Hemingway's dictum: “Begin with one true sentence.” I did and, over the next decade, wrote a trunk full of manuscripts before realizing that without plot, characterization, drama, and other fundamentals of good storytelling, several hundred pages of true sentences are unreadable and unpublishable. Fortunately, and with the help of an excellent writing group called NovelPro, I finally learned the basic blocking and tackling of fiction and have made steady progress since then.

And what made you want to tell a story about Teddy Roosevelt, especially in the year after he stepped down from the presidency?

Quite by accident, I came across a 1909 Italian newspaper that contained an account of the arrest of an anarchist who had allegedly attacked Roosevelt with a knife while he was traveling by ship to Europe on his way to Africa. Today, we’re all too familiar with attempts to kill office seekers and office holders, but in 1909 Roosevelt was out of power and on his way to a part of the world that routinely killed 80% or more of the reckless adventurers who went off to challenge its jungles and deserts. So this obscure Italian newspaper account of a shipboard attempt on Roosevelt’s life raised some interesting questions. Among them: Why would someone go to the trouble of trying to kill an ex-office holder on his way to some place that was likely to kill him anyway? Who would do it? And how did an attempt to kill Teddy Roosevelt not make it into any American newspaper, history book, or Roosevelt biography? Was the story suppressed? And if so, by whom and how?

Hunting Teddy Roosevelt is a fictional attempt to answer these questions. And while I’m not a historian, I hope my book gives professional historians a decent head start on an intriguing mystery.

Why has Roosevelt gone to Africa, and what is he leaving behind?

Honoring George Washington’s precedent of declining to run for a third consecutive term, Roosevelt left office in March 1909 and turned the presidency over to his successor, William Howard Taft, with the promise to stay out of the public eye for a year to give Taft a chance to be his own man. To keep that promise, Roosevelt left America to lead the largest African safari ever assembled: 260 men and 20 tons of supplies and equipment, with the objective of gathering specimens of African game animals for the Smithsonian and New York Museum of Natural History.

Unknown to Roosevelt, the Smithsonian raised much of the safari’s funding from J. P. Morgan, the richest private citizen of that era. Morgan was happy to underwrite the cost of keeping Roosevelt out of the country for a year if that would give him time to work with the more business-savvy Taft administration to undo Roosevelt’s anti-business legislation. Morgan’s toast on TR’s departure was a pithy (and revealing): “America expects every lion to do its duty.”

Roosevelt was a larger-than-life character in an age that spawned more than its share: hero of the Spanish American War for leading a band of Badlands cowboys on a daring cavalry charge up San Juan Hill, Cuba; police commissioner of the City of New York, responsible for ending rampant police corruption and breaking the grip of Tammany Hall on New York politics; at age forty-three, the youngest president of the United States—who dismantled monopolies in railroad, oil, and other industries; won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering an end to the Russo-Japanese War; and used a “speak softly but carry a big stick” foreign policy to ignite a revolution in Panama that secured for the United States the right to build a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

But Roosevelt’s aggressive style and controversial accomplishments created enemies as well as admirers, and first among them was J. P. Morgan. Morgan blamed Roosevelt’s assault on business monopolies (then known as trusts) for triggering the stock market panic of 1907 that nearly destroyed the country’s financial system. The Federal Reserve Bank did not then exist, and only Morgan’s daring use of his entire personal fortune to prop up the largest failing banks saved the country from financial collapse. The US economy had become as strong as any in Europe, but it was vulnerable to periodic booms and busts. Morgan’s view was that if the country was to realize the promise of its natural advantages, it must have modern and efficient business structures: a national bank, a national railroad, and an end to wasteful competition in basic commodities. Europe was once again headed toward war, and if America could avoid entanglement, it would have a chance to fulfill its destiny as the dominant global power with all the attendant rewards. But only if it could get its economic house in order; and only if that madman, Teddy Roosevelt, could be kept permanently away from the throttles of power.

Somewhere in that mix is the answer to the questions of who, why, and how?

On the trip, he runs into a childhood sweetheart—indeed, his first love, Maggie Dunn, an intrepid newspaper reporter who reminded me of Nellie Bly. What causes her to accept this assignment?

Maggie is a serious journalist, and she wants to cover serious stories—like the resurgence of slavery in the Sudan, Belgian colonial atrocities in the Congo, and German preparations for war in East Africa. But she has to make a living. To do that, she takes on an assignment for the sensationalist Hearst newspapers (the Fox News/National Enquirer of its time) to cover the colorful ex-president’s gargantuan safari as a means of getting her to Africa and paying her expenses while she pursues her serious journalism.

And what can you tell us about Jimmy Dooley?

Jimmy Dooley is a fictional character, loosely based on my paternal grandfather, an uneducated Irish tough who lived by his wits in the hardscrabble environment of turn-of-the-century New York. He had a brief career as a professional boxer, fighting under the name Tiger Ross. I only knew him later in life, but even in his 70s, he was as hard as a floor, with lean, ropy muscles and a permanent scowl. If he told you to hand over your wallet, you’d do it fast, no questions asked.

Teddy Roosevelt has been in the news lately because of the New York Museum of Natural History’s decision to take down his statue. Do you see any connection between this decision and your novel?

If Teddy Roosevelt was alive today, he’d help pull down that statue. He hated the idea of monuments to politicians. In fact, it was his expressed wish (ignored after his death) that no statue or other monument be erected of him. The one outside the New York Museum of Natural History is appalling: TR astride a whacking great horse with supplicant African and Native Americans below. TR would have been outraged and embarrassed.

This book has just come out. Are you already working on something new?

Yes! I’ve just signed a three-book contract with the mystery publisher Level Best Books. The first novel, Coldwater Revenge, is about two brothers involved with the same woman and the problems that ensue when they discover she’s a murderess and one brother begins to suspect the other of helping her cover it up. It’s due out in April 2022. The second and third books in the series should come out in April 2023 an 2024, respectively.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!

James Ross has been at various times a Peace Corps volunteer, a Congressional staffer, and a Wall Street lawyer. His short fiction has appeared in numerous literary publications, he has appeared as a guest storyteller on the Moth Main Stage, and his short story “Aux Secours” has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He is a frequent contributor to, and occasional winner of, the Jackson, Wyoming, live storytelling competition, Cabin Fever Story Slam. Find out more about him at