Friday, October 27, 2017

Dark Lady

As many of us will remember from high-school English classes or those obligatory surveys of the greats of world literature, the poet and playwright William Shakespeare dedicated a series of sonnets to a mysterious “dark lady.” Like Shakespeare himself, the identity of this poet’s muse has long been debated, not least because the Dark Lady sonnets (nos. 127–154) are somewhat mixed in their portrayal of their subject. So mixed, in fact, that one of the scholarly arguments insists that the Dark Lady was in fact a young man (a serious stretch, in my view—why can’t a dark-haired lady, beautiful or not, attract love?).

Still, what is one to make of lines such as these, from Sonnet 130, which may be the most famous of the group? “My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun; / Coral is far more red, than her lips red: / If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun; / If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.” (Quotations from 

Not a description likely to warm the heart of any beloved, even with the final two lines to soften the blow: “And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare, / As any she belied with false compare.”

The next one begins: “Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art, / As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel,” another charge hardly offset by the next two lines—“For well thou know’st to my dear doting heart, / Thou are the fairest and most precious jewel.” We have to hope that the Dark Lady had a sense of humor equal to her musical skills, extolled in Sonnet 129.

It’s fun to imagine the kind of woman who would have appealed to Shakespeare, as well as how she might have experienced the poet’s love and responded to these simultaneously gorgeous and problematic lines. In my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction I discuss the life of Emilia Bassano Lanyer, one of the more credible candidates for the position of Dark Lady and the protagonist of Charlene Ball’s wonderful new novel of the same name. So tune in and listen. We swear you’ll enjoy it more than high-school English.

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

Emilia Bassano loves many things: music, poetry, Latin, herbs. Born to a family of Italian musicians living in sixteenth-century London, Emilia benefits from early fostering in the household of a countess, where she acquires a love of books along with a top-flight education. A terrible assault leaves Emilia convinced she can never marry, and she becomes the mistress of a much older nobleman—Lord Hunsdon, the son of Mary Boleyn and King Henry VIII. Lord Hunsdon offers security, comfort, love, and protection from being dubbed a “masterless maid,” an illegal status in Elizabethan England. Emilia repays him with affection and respect, but it is when she meets the poet and playwright William Shakespeare that she discovers her passion: not only for the poet but for poetry itself.

In Dark Lady, Charlene Ball builds on the true story of a remarkable woman, one of Europe’s early feminists as well as the possible model for the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets—reimagining and enhancing Emilia’s biography with her own copious knowledge of the period and the literature. The result is a fascinating glimpse of a world that at times appears reassuringly past and at others all too jarringly present.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Listening Ears

It’s a cliché to say that truth is stranger than fiction or, in the more down-home version, “you can’t make this stuff up.” Yet as a historian and a historical novelist, I find it endlessly amazing and delightful to realize just how true the cliché can be. Not only does history in general provide an endless series of dramatic plot points to enhance my books—women warriors, bandit chieftains, nomadic raiders, squabbling royals, fanatic monks, sorceresses, poisoners—but once in a while it throws up something I had not even imagined was possible.

Such was the discovery of sixteenth-century spy chambers during an archaeological investigation in Moscow. I saw the reference first on Pinterest, of all places, and set off at once in search of more information. Sure enough, to cut a long story short, in April 2017 a group of scholars working in the center of Moscow discovered hidden listening chambers masquerading as storerooms, probably for food, in the surviving remnants of Moscow’s second ring of walls. For various reasons, they concluded that the chambers must have been present as part of the original construction, which took place in the time period in which my Legends novels are set—1535–1539, to be precise—at the orders of Grand Princess Elena Glinskaya, the mother of the future Ivan the Terrible. Ivan came to the throne at the age of three, and his mother ruled on his behalf from 1533 to her death in 1538.

Now, you need to know a couple of things about these walls. The first ring surrounds the Moscow Kremlin; although the seventeenth-century tsars gussied up the towers with gingerbread turrets and the like, the basic structure was built for military defense, under the direction of Italian architects, in the late fifteenth century. It hasn’t changed much since except for regular repairs and the application of coats of stucco or paint to suit the aesthetic tastes of different time periods.

The second ring surrounded what was originally the trading quarter outside the Kremlin, an area now called the Kitaigorod. It extends out from today’s Red Square, then a moat and a marketplace, and it is the area where most of my characters live. By the 1530s, noble families were already moving out of the Kremlin in search of more space for their orchards and armories and what not, so they settled in the Kitaigorod, pushing the small merchants further out in a Muscovite version of gentrification.

By the time Elena and her advisers decided the city needed a second ring to protect it, artillery had become a major concern. So the Kitaigorod walls were built to withstand serious firepower. Designed by the Italian architect Pietro Annibale—who later fled to Livonia complaining that the grand princes and grand princess had refused him permission to leave the Russian lands, a not uncommon complaint from foreigners who came to offer their services—these walls stood for four hundred years. They’d be there today if Stalin hadn’t decided to blow them up with TNT to make room for some of the ugliest office buildings the world has ever produced. He allowed two small fragments to remain, and remain they do, impregnable as ever. Unless a future ruler comes along with more TNT, they’ll probably still be visible when the Last Trumpet sounds.

But even Stalin couldn’t destroy the foundations, and that’s where the archaeologists decided to dig. Whether their decision had to do with the current government’s reputed plans to rebuild the ancient wall, I don’t know. But I do know that they discovered vaulted chambers, hidden under the wall, that were acoustically designed in such a way that someone standing in the chamber could listen to what was going on outside without those under surveillance having any idea that they could be overheard.

The question is: what were they used for? The official explanation, as presented on the Internet, is that people defending the city could listen to attackers and deduce what they might do next. Really? I’m a military commander from, say, Poland, and I decide to launch an attack on Moscow. I travel the whole way there, dragging artillery and siege engines and horses, somehow defeating people left and right; I scale an embankment higher than my head; I stand at the base of a wall six meters high with guys on top raining arrows and cannonballs and tar and boiling oil down on my head—and then I stop for a little confab on what would be the best way to take the city?

I don’t think so. Even for defenders, it’s a questionable strategy. Surely they need to be manning the walls, not listening at keyholes, however cunningly designed.

With the help of my fellow Muscovite historians, I have developed an alternative explanation as to who the listeners may have been who haunted those chambers and why. But you’ll have to wait for Song of the Siren to find out what it is. In the meantime, feel free to leave a comment with your own ideas as to what may have been going on. Just remember, to quote another cliché, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose—that is, “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”

Images: Elena Glinskaya, forensic facial reconstruction by S. Nikitin, 1999, © 2008 Shakko; portion of the Kitaigorod wall, Moscow, © Kmorozov, both CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. (The sign attached to the wall advertises a sushi bar, café, and restaurant, thus underlining modern perceptions of the wall as just another part of the central Moscow commercial district.)

Friday, October 13, 2017

Interview with Liza Perrat

I have written before about the writers’ cooperative Triskele Books, whom we at Five Directions Press consider friends as well as respected fellow authors. So it’s a special pleasure today to interview Liza Perrat of Triskele about her new e-book box set, which combines her three historical fiction novels set in the French village of Lucie-sur-Vionne. These are lovely books, filled with drama and conflict, that trace the lives of three quite different women facing very different problems yet bound not only by a talisman passed down from mother to daughter over the centuries but also by their determination to find a satisfying place for themselves in a larger world.

In addition to the written Q&A here, don’t miss my podcast interview with Liza for New Books in Historical Fiction, where we talk about Blood Rose Angel and the series at greater length.

Your Bone Angel Trilogy explores the lives of three women in a single French village at different times. Tell us briefly about these time periods and what drew you to the idea of focusing on one village from the 14th to the 20th centuries.

I live in a rural French village and one Sunday walk along the riverbank I came across a small stone cross commemorating the drowning of two peasant children in the 18th century. I wanted to know more about them: to give them names, a family, a village, an identity. The children had died in the years leading up to the French Revolution, so that seemed the most obvious setting: the peasants versus the aristocracy—on the small scale of my story, paralleled with the larger, real-life scale. A dramatic backdrop for the dramatic event of their drowning. This was the inspiration for the first in the series, Spirit of Lost Angels.

Once this book was finished, I realized there were more stories to tell about the village of Lucie-sur-Vionne and the farmhouse (L’Auberge des Anges). Hence  two more books, set in different historical eras.

For the second in the series, Wolfsangel, a visit to the town of Oradour-sur-Glane and learning of the tragic WWII crime that occurred there inspired me to set that book during the Nazi occupation of WWII, featuring the descendants of the family in Spirit of Lost Angels.

By  the time I reached the third novel, I’d become intrigued with the medieval period. So the bubonic plague seemed a logical choice for the setting of Blood Rose Angel: one woman fighting against the village, symbolizing the people of the world battling against the greater enemy of the Black Death. I set this one in an earlier time period as I also wanted to explore the origins of the bone angel talisman that links the protagonists in each book.

Victoire, the heroine of Spirit of Lost Angels, lives during the French Revolution. Who is she, and what essential conflict does she face?

Victoire Charpentier is a poor village girl, and when her mother is executed for witchcraft and her father killed by a noble, she is forced to leave her village of Lucie-sur-Vionne to work as a domestic servant in Paris, where revolution is brewing. Despite suffering terrible abuse under the ancien régime, which incites her to join the revolutionary force gripping France, Victoire vows that one day she will rise above her peasant roots.

The second heroine, Céleste, lives during World War II, another very dramatic period in French history. What is the central story of her novel, Wolfsangel?

It is 1943, and German soldiers have occupied Lucie-sur-Vionne. As the villagers pursue treacherous schemes to swindle the enemy, Céleste embarks on her own perilous mission as her passion for a Reich officer flourishes. But when loved ones are deported to concentration camps, Céleste is drawn to the adventure and danger of the French Resistance. Eventually, she will be forced to choose: her love for the German officer or her fight for France.

The decision she makes will shadow the remainder of her days.

Last but not least, Héloïse, another strong woman, must cope with the arrival in Europe of bubonic plague—the disease we now call the Black Death. She is a healer, but the appearance of this previously unknown disease causes social problems as well as physical ones. What kinds of problems does Héloïse have to confront in addition to the plague itself?

When she became a healer-midwife, Héloïse swore to care for and heal the sick, whatever the conditions. However, it is the 14th century, and a wife must obey her husband. When Héloïse’s husband forbids her to treat plague victims, sparks ignite between them. Héloïse must also battle the villagers’ suspicions that she herself cursed Lucie-sur-Vionne with the Black Death, which is killing everyone. Héloïse’s healing gift has become her curse.

The three women are also bound by an amulet, the bone angel of the title. What inspired this element of the series?

I wanted to have a timeless, mystical, and mysterious  link between the women, down through the ages. And something distinctly feminine, not an object a man would wear or own. So these three stories feature the journeys of strong female protagonists, as well as the journey, and eventually the origin, of this bone-sculpted angel talisman. 


The Bone Angel Trilogy is available as a box set for Kindle, at an introductory price of $5.99, and in print as individual volumes. To find out more about Liza Perrat and her books, check her website, like her on Facebook, and follow her on Twitter. You can also find her on GoodReads, Google Plus, and Pinterest through the links on her site.

Liza Perrat grew up in Australia, where she practiced as a general nurse and midwife. She has been living in France for over twenty years and works as a part-time medical translator and a novelist. She is the author of the The Bone Angel Trilogy, a historical series. Her latest book, The Silent Kookaburra, is a psychological suspense novel set in 1970s Australia.

Liza is a co-founder and member of the writers’ collective Triskele Books and reviews books for Book Muse.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Singing the Blues

There’s a lot of talk at present about bringing back the manufacturing jobs that once allowed a man with a high-school education to support himself and his family in reasonable comfort. Wiley Cash’s new novel, The Last Ballad, reminds us that before the labor union movement of the 1920s and 1930s, manufacturing was far from the cure for all ills affecting working men and women. On the contrary: it paid minimal wages for days of backbreaking or mind-numbing work, with harsh penalties for everything from missing a shift to stopping the production line.

Six days a week, Ella May Wiggins treks two miles to work twelve-hour night shifts in a cotton mill. Seventy-two hours a week for not much more than a dollar a day, but Ella May has no choice. Her husband has skipped town, not for the first time, leaving her with three small children and a baby on the way. She’s already lost a son to whooping cough, and when her daughter falls sick of the same ailment, Ella May takes a chance and skips her shift to stay with the child. She almost loses her job. Even much smaller violations of the rules, like walking away from her spindle for a few minutes, lead to her pay being docked—and this in one of the town’s more progressive factories. So it’s small wonder that Ella May responds when labor organizers come down from the North to encourage workers to strike for better conditions and salaries that might keep body and soul together.

The story goes back and forth in time—parts told by Ella’s now grown daughter Lilly in 2005, others reflecting the viewpoints of seven other characters, including Ella herself, and going back as far as 1918. The stories interweave and unfold, creating a multifaceted picture of desperation and tension, conflict and commitment, Lilly’s nostalgia and loss. Child labor, race relations, inequality, and much more become personal, specific, beautiful in its uncompromising, searing prose. Here, for example, is Ella driving for the first time: 

“She thought of a book she’d read when she was a girl, The Time Machine, one of the few books her mother had had in the stringhouse at the lumber camp. She remembered how the machine had allowed the Time Traveler to go back millions of years, and she imagined herself doing that now as she rocketed through space in what felt like the middle of the night.... She didn’t want to go back millions of years. She just wanted to go back far enough to find herself as the young girl who’d never left home, whose mother and father were both still alive, whose children somehow existed in the world as well and would be waiting for her on the porch at the lumber camp.”  

Based on a true story—the Loray Mill strike of 1929 in Gastonia, North Carolina, one of the few communist-led strikes in US history—The Last Ballad explores factory life in the 1920s from the perspectives of both workers and owners. But the heart of the story is Ella May Wiggins, a forgotten woman who put her life on the line to help others like herself achieve a better life but whose fellow townspeople—the author’s grandparents among them—long buried the memory not only of Ella but of the movement for which she fought.