Friday, January 18, 2019

Royal Wedding Revisited

No, I’m not writing about Meghan Markle or Kate Middleton or even Princess Diana, lovely as those weddings were to watch—in whole or as highlights—on television. This wedding took place before I (and, I’d assume, most of you) were born, in November 1947, when Princess Elizabeth of Great Britain, twenty-one years old and not destined to assume the throne for another half-decade, married Lieutenant Phillip Mountbatten of the Greek royal house. Britain was still suffering from the destruction inflicted by World War II, with food, clothing, and fuel strictly rationed. If any country needed an excuse to party, the United Kingdom did in those years.

Decades later, when I married Sir Percy, my mother still recalled with fondness the garden parties held as part of the national celebration that marked the royal wedding. Among other details, she remembered the dress that Princess Elizabeth wore, purchased with ration coupons but a glory to behold: a glamorous creation of off-white satin covered with embroidered roses, sheaves of wheat, and other symbols of good luck and fertility. Pearls and beads surrounded the appliqués. A long train, similarly embroidered, fell from the princess’s shoulders and extended behind her down the aisle. To this day, the dress, a triumph of British couture, remains on display at Buckingham Palace.

So when the publicists at William Morrow offered me an advance review copy of Jennifer Robson’s new novel, The Gown (released December 31, 2018), how could I resist? I had no room in my interview schedule, alas, because I would love to discuss this novel with its author. I dove in a few nights ago and devoured it faster than a pint of peppermint stick ice cream, my all-time favorite. And this even though I have to struggle to produce a decent chain stitch of my own.

What makes the book so entrancing? Well, there are the descriptions of the gown itself, of course. The attention paid to the seamstresses who produced this work of art in six weeks draws readers in with its detail without overwhelming us. But the bigger pull comes from the story and, as is always the case for me, the characters, whose secrets I want to discover and whose life choices I’ve become all too caught up in. When you find yourself telling a fictional character she’d be making a mistake if she did that, it’s safe to say you’re over-involved.

The novel begins with Ann, the main character, returning home after dark to the council house she shares with her sister-in-law, Milly. It’s the end of January 1947, and Ann works for the London fashion house run by Norman Hartnell, the man who dresses the women of the royal family. Ann has just received a gift of white heather from the queen (the woman we know as the Queen Mother, at this point still the wife of King George VI) in gratitude for the Hartnell seamstresses’ work. Ann plans to plant the heather in her tiny back yard, reclaimed from the Victory Gardens necessary to feed people during the recent war.

The action soon switches to Miriam, a refuge from France and survivor of the infamous concentration camp Ravensbrück. Miriam, a skilled embroiderer, has just arrived in England. She bears a reference from Christian Dior, but that’s not enough to land her a job. Within a short period of time, though, Miriam ends up at Norman Hartnell’s and becomes Ann’s new roommate after Milly takes off for Canada, where she has family.

Fast forward to 2016, where Heather Mackenzie of Toronto has just lost her grandmother Nan and discovers a curious legacy: a box with Heather’s name on it containing a set of exquisite appliqué flowers that, thanks to the Internet, she soon identifies as identical to those on Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress. How is this possible, when Nan had never mentioned embroidery, let alone a past in dressmaking or a job at Norman Hartnell’s? When Heather’s position as a journalist is abruptly terminated as the result of a corporate takeover, she decides to take part of her severance pay, travel to London, and find out.

And we’re off, following these crisscrossing paths through time and across space as the lives of the three women—Ann, Miriam, and Heather—intersect and separate. Somehow the princess’s wedding gown lies at the heart of the mystery, but how churlish it would be for me to deprive you of the pleasure of discovering the answer. Instead, I urge you to read the novel yourself and find out. If you enjoy books about resilient women, female friendships, royal weddings, or the unsung art of the needle, I promise you won’t regret the choice. You can also learn more about the book and author at Jennifer Robson’s website.
 

Please note that although William Morrow sent me this novel for consideration as the host of New Books in Historical Fiction, the views expressed in this post are my own. I had no obligation to review the book,  and any review I write in any venue reflects my honest opinion of the work.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Healing with Herbs

As someone who writes about the many ways in which women could find fulfillment even in medieval and early modern societies that often didn’t respect their intellect, strength, or capacity for learning, I was naturally drawn to The Greenest Branch, the first half of P. K. Adams’ two-part novel about Hildegard of Bingen. I was happy to chat with her for the New Books Network, and although we held the conversation back in November 2018, the interview went live just this past Wednesday. That’s because the completion of the tale, The Column of Burning Spices, has just gone on preorder in the Kindle Store and will be released February 1.

Hildegard was many things: anchoress, abbess, mystic, theologian, musician, and healer. She mastered the medical theory of her day (early twelfth century), most of which had come down, virtually unchanged, from classical Greece. But Hildegard went beyond the textbooks, gathering herbal remedies and and testing them on real patients. She recorded her observations in her Physica, now available in English translation. I consulted her book at length while writing The Swan Princess and its sequels. It contains a kind of distilled folk wisdom that provided a great counterpart to Galen and Dioscorides, both known in the Muslim world as well as in Europe. It was my respect for Hildegard’s intellectual rigor that made me want to read her story in more detail. The Greenest Branch more than fulfilled my expectations and in fact taught me a good deal about this impressive woman.

Only after I agreed to conduct the interview did I discover that P. K. Adams, now that she’s done with Hildegard, is planning a three-part series of mystery novels set in the sixteenth-century court of Sigismund (Zygmunt) “the Old” of Poland and his son, Sigismund Augustus (Zygmunt August). Queen Bona Sforza—who plays a minor but vital role in The Shattered Drum and a secondary role in my own February 2019 release, Song of the Siren—also makes a memorable appearance in Adams’ next novel, Silent Water.

And because it seems just too deliciously coincidental for words that our novels, which we brought to life quite independently of each other, should overlap in this way, P. K. and I have decided to join forces on at least one novel-to-be. Exactly what form our collaboration will take remains to be seen, but be sure I’ll update you as the plans develop. After all, how many people in the United States know anything about the extraordinary humanistic Renaissance culture that characterized the courts of the two Sigismunds? Can’t let an opportunity like that go to waste!


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

The twelfth-century German abbess Hildegard of Bingen was a remarkable woman by any standards. Known for her musical compositions and mystical prayers, Hildegard was also Germany’s first recognized female physician. The daughter of minor nobility, she entered the convent in childhood as a tithe from her parents. Excited by the prospect of acquiring an education, then a goal unattainable for girls outside a convent, Hildegard suffers a setback when she confronts the strict seclusion imposed on nuns by the anchorage of St. Disibod and its ascetic magistra, Jutta of Sponheim. But relief comes from the company of Volmar, a fellow oblate who like Hildegard loves to sneak out of the abbey and walk in the nearby woods, and Brother Wigbert, the monastery’s infirmarian. It’s through the teaching of Brother Wigbert that Hildegard discovers her affinity for medicine.

Alas, not every member of the abbey hierarchy believes that young women should spend time outside the walls of the anchorage, and as political threats from the outside world intensify and Hildegard’s detractors rise higher in the administration, she must fight for her right to practice medicine—and to express her opinion at all. In this charmingly personal account, P. K. Adams explores the first part of Hildegard’s life, the richly developed characters who influenced her, and the factors that gave her the strength to define her own dream and pursue it to fulfillment despite opposition from a society determined to keep her in her place. The story begun in The Greenest Branch (Iron Knight Press, 2018) concludes in The Column of Burning Spices (Iron Knight Press, 2019), where Hildegard leaves the Abbey of St. Disibod to found a convent of her own.

Friday, January 4, 2019

That Time Again


The year 2018 turned out to be a great writing/publishing year for me. I completed two novels, gave one a thorough revision, entered minor revisions to two more, and produced a pair of e-book box sets for people who like to read entire series on their tablets. I also made significant progress on a third novel, which has reached complete rough draft status as of this week. All of which raises the question of whether I can—or should even try—to top myself in the year to come.

Well, probably not. I do have to earn my living, after all. But it never hurts to set a few goals besides the usual weight loss and exercise targets that seem to be both perennial and cyclical (yes, for me too!). So here, with comments, is a list of what I hope to achieve as a writer in 2019.

(1) Publish Song of the Siren (Songs of Steppe & Forest 1), on schedule in late February. This novel, which follows the life of Roxelana from the Legends of the Five Directions series at the Polish court in the early 1540s, is ready except for one last read-through, minor corrections, upload, and check.

(2) Produce a final manuscript of Song of the Shaman (Songs 2) and sketch out book 3, Song of the Sisters. At the moment, I see the novels in this series coming out annually and have plans for one or two additional books, for a possible total of five. But it’s a more free-form series than Legends and can grow as ideas present themselves. Song of the Shaman follows the attempts of Grusha, another Legends character, to balance her Russian heritage with life in a steppe horde. I hope to have it ready for publication by the end of the year, so that it can appear in or around February 2020.

(3) Conduct twelve New Books in Historical Fiction interviews. One never knows what the future will bring, of course, but since I already have eleven interviews scheduled between January and August, this should be doable. Some great candidates, too—both known (some very well known) and less familiar. Also remember to check the Literary Hub (http://lithub.com) on Fridays for featured New Books Network (NBN) interviews. (Hint: enter “new books network” in the search box at top right of the main page to go straight there.) Not all of them will be historical fiction, by any means, but you can expect to find great conversations on many topics, including G. P. Gottlieb’s New Books in Literature, Gabrielle Mathieu’s New Books in Fantasy and Adventure, and Rob Wolf’s New Books in Science Fiction. There is also a full range of nonfiction podcasts under the NBN umbrella. Both fiction and nonfiction interviews are perfect accompaniments to those exercise sessions we’re all going to complete in 2019.

(4) Typeset/proof, produce e-books, and in some cases edit Five Directions Press titles scheduled for 2019. The exact lineup is still in play, but in addition to Song of the Siren (historical fiction/romance), lovers of historical fantasy should look for the first book in Gabrielle Mathieu’s new series, Berona’s Quest. Girl of Fire will come out in the late spring or summer.

(5) Stay current with online marketing efforts and outreach. This goal combines several from previous years, as marketing in a twenty-first-century environment changes rapidly and constantly. At a minimum, I plan to keep up my weekly blog posts, maintain my website and the Five Directions Press website, and participate regularly if not every month in such group features as “Books We Loved” and “Five Directions Press Authors Dish.” I’m also reassessing my engagement with social media, focusing on platforms and posts that work at the expense of those that seem to have little or no effect. Alas, with all these writing projects, something’s got to give, and daily visits to Facebook may be that thing. But I do have friends there with whom I’d like to keep in touch, so I’ll still be around—just less often.

And as always, I wish everyone a splendid new year, with love and success and happiness for you and those you love!


Image: 30402582 from Clipart.com.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Farewell, 2018

Incredibly, 2018 is on its way out the door, and this is my last post before the new year rolls in at midnight on Monday. So, in the spirit of the new year and new beginnings, here’s my annual roundup of what I have and haven’t accomplished since January. Check back next week for the goals for 2019. Meanwhile, Happy New Year, everyone!

Below are the writing and publishing goals I set for 2018. Just to mix things up a bit, I’ll give a quick summary of how well I completed them as part of each task. 



(1) Completing my Legends of the Five Directions series with the publication of The Shattered Drum—done, and as they say in job performance evaluations, exceeded, since I also revised The Golden Lynx to make it more friendly to a YA readership and foreshadow events that arise only later in the series, as well as producing two e-book box sets covering books 1–3 and 4–5 of the series.

(2) Producing a rough draft for Song of the Siren, first in my new series, Songs of Steppe & Forest—also set in Russia and the neighboring lands but in the 1540s—which explores individual women’s stories, told in the first person, mostly outside the traditional boundaries of marriage and motherhood—also completed and exceeded. In fact, Siren has gone through several revisions, been typeset and corrected, and is due to appear in late February. I’m also well on my way to completing the rough draft of Songs 2, Song of the Shaman, and hope to have a full text next week, although I expect to go through several more rounds before I have a final manuscript.

(3) Conducting twelve New Books in Historical Fiction interviews—despite a rocky start to 2018 and a few bumps along the way, I did find enough willing authors to put out twelve interviews by the middle of December, as well as additional written Q&A conversations that appeared on my blog throughout the year. Many thanks to all of them for their help!

(4) Maintaining my website and the Five Directions Press website—which means keeping track of the “Books We Loved” posts, expanding the number of titles available, and keeping the news & events page up to date. With plenty of help from my fellow authors, we did produce twelve monthly “Books We Loved” posts, a steady stream of new titles, and up-to-date news. We also added a new monthly feature, “Five Directions Press Authors Dish” about topics both personal and authorial, near the end of the year. My own website gets less attention (only so many hours in the day), but I did figure out how to restore the cross-postings from my blog and updated everything for the publication of The Shattered Drum.

(5) Typesetting/proofing, producing e-books, and in some cases editing the Five Directions Press titles scheduled for 2018—Chains of Silver, The Falcon Soars, The Shattered Drum, and A Holiday Gift, more or less in that order. Although we ended up substituting Joan Schweighardt’s Before We Died for A Holiday Gift, which is still in process, Five Directions Press did publish four titles in 2018 and is on track for anywhere from two to five in 2019.

 
(6) Posting to this blog every Friday—yep, made it so, as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise would say. I also passed 100,000 views  in the second half of the year, which I thought was pretty cool.

(7) Staying active on social media as a way of connecting with and supporting other writers, especially the authors associated with Five Directions Press, as well as reaching readers—well, this one definitely had mixed results, not least because social media themselves fell under scrutiny in 2018. I did better with guest posts on other people’s blogs. Nevertheless, I did manage to get on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest at least three times a week for most of the year with blog links or on behalf of Five Directions Press and New Books in Historical Fiction, even though I also closed out my Google Plus account during its recent security breach. I’m taking a vacation from social media at the moment to maximize my writing time, but I expect to be back on a regular basis starting January 4, 2019.


What about you? How well did you do?

Friday, December 21, 2018

Bookshelf, Dec. 2018

I’ve been on vacation all week, so with most of my Christmas preparations behind me, I’m focused on finishing the rough draft of Song of the Shaman, book 2 in my Songs of Steppe & Forest series (book 1, Song of the Siren, will appear in late February 2019). As a result, I’m not thinking about reading very much—other than my own drafts and Terry Gamble’s The Eulogist, which will be the subject of a New Books in Historical Fiction interview in mid- to late January.

But I do have more than a few books waiting in the queue. Here’s the list for December. And if you need some last-minute Christmas gifts, books are always a good idea!

 

Adrienne Celt, Invitation to a Bonfire
A young student fleeing the post-revolution Soviet Union circa 1920 winds up in a New England girls’ school, where she becomes something of a curiosity to the locals, as they are to her. The arrival of a married professor, another émigré Russian and a famous author, sets off a love triangle with the usual unpredictable consequences. Based on the known marital troubles of Vladimir Nabokov—and perhaps his novel Lolita—so how could a Russianist like me resist? The hard-cover is already out; I plan to talk to the author around the time of the paperback release in May.

 

Jennifer Robson, The Gown
Fans of the film Phantom Thread, of whom I’m one, will welcome this literary exploration of the postwar UK fashion industry and one of its most famous productions: the wedding gown in which the future Queen Elizabeth II married Prince Philip in 1947. A dual-time story, The Gown focuses on the women who produced the hand-embroidered flowers that made the dress a priceless treasure. As someone who grew up hearing her mother’s memories of this exquisite gown, which circulated around the country after the wedding, I’m looking forward to finding out more about its creation. Due out on New Year’s Eve.



Joan Neuberger, This Thing of Darkness
Not historical fiction, this one, but a historical study of the many decisions that went into the creation of Sergei Eisenstein’s famed three-part film Ivan the Terrible (Eisenstein had time to finish only two of the three parts before his death, and of those only the first was released, although the second is available on YouTube). The 1940s were a difficult time to make any film in the USSR, especially one commandeered and monitored by Joseph Stalin, and Neuberger traces the process by which Eisenstein balanced his cinematic vision against historical sources and political reality. I plan to interview the author in March 2019, the month after the book’s release, for the New Books Network.


Liza Perrat, The Swooping Magpie
Second in a series of suspenseful family novels set in 1960s and 1970s Australia, this book is not a sequel to The Silent Kookaburra but a stand-alone tale that explores similar themes. A sixteen-year-old from a troubled family falls for a sexy schoolteacher, with—as one might expect—life-changing consequences. Based on a true-life case and the very real turmoil that racked Australia as conservative morality clashed with the sexual revolution, this story, released in November 2018,
is a welcome development from a writer whose work I’ve always enjoyed in the past. Another interview scheduled for March.

 

Ann Weisgarber, The Glovemaker
This novel opens in Utah’s Mormon country in January 1888. Sister Deborah, a married woman awaiting her husband’s long-delayed return, opens her door to find a strange man on her threshold. A fellow Mormon, he is also a fugitive from justice, and his pursuers won’t hesitate to punish anyone who shelters him. His crime? Deborah suspects polygamy, which the US government has outlawed and is actively trying to stamp out in Utah but the Mormon Church still supports. Forced to choose between her safety and the demands of her religion, Deborah has only seconds to decide. Due in February 2019, and I plan to interview the author in April or May.