Friday, May 24, 2019

The Discipline of Outlining

As I mentioned a couple of months ago, I’ve been discussing the possibility of a joint writing project with P. K. Adams, aka Patrycja Podrazik. It seemed too good a coincidence of interests to waste: how many other authors in the United States have written novels set during the reigns of King Sigismund (Zygmunt) the Old of Poland and his co-ruling son, Sigismund Augustus (Zygmunt August)? How many other novelists could even name the major figures at the sixteenth-century Polish-Lithuanian court?

 

Well, now that Song of the Shaman has had its final revisions, although it won’t appear until early next year, and Patrycja’s Silent Water is close to publication, we’re getting serious about our joint project. Silent Water takes place almost twenty-five years earlier than my Song of the Siren, starting right after the marriage of Bona Sforza to Sigismund the Old in 1518. Still, a quarter-century is not much of a difference when we’re talking about events 450 years in the past, and Patrycja is a lovely writer, so if you enjoy my novels, you should definitely seek out hers. Silent Water is a murder mystery, much more puzzle than gore—and let’s just say that Juliana and Felix would feel quite at home in its world.

By now, you’re probably wondering what all this has to with outlining. Or was I just losing it when I came up with the post title? I have, after all, written before about why I seldom outline my novels, not least because it rarely turns out to be a worthwhile use of my writing time. Sure, I like to establish a goal my characters can aim for, and I certainly put some effort into figuring out who they are and what they want. But beyond that, I like to throw them into the thick of the action and see what they do and say; that’s how I find out who they are and, as a result, figure out where the story needs to go to reach that predetermined goal and how it can realistically get there.

Which is fine for me, of course, but for collaboration the free-form approach doesn’t work so well. As co-writers, Patrycja and I need to decide who’ll write what and where to start, not to mention where we’re heading and what paths to take. Even the research is shared, because she knows more about Poland and I about Muscovy. So there’s not much point in duplicating our efforts, especially since she reads Polish whereas I read Russian, meaning that each of us has access to sources barred to the other. In short, we have to plan, because the “tumble into the story and see where it goes” approach is likely to take us both into a thick forest where we wander about in circles with no hope of reaching our destination.


Patrycja, bless her, is a far more disciplined writer than I am (perhaps that’s why she can write murder mysteries, whereas my books tend to orient themselves to espionage and romance). So we’re constructing an outline—in the literary sense of paragraphs telling a story that will ultimately run to ten or even twenty pages, not the 1.A.b.* one-page wonder most of us learned in middle school. We worked out the main points over the phone; we hope to meet in person soon to flesh things out; meanwhile, we go back and forth via e-mail as suits our individual work and writing schedules. Right at this moment, the ball is in my court, which explains why this topic is on my mind.

So far it’s been fun, as I think about how Character A would respond to Plot Point B or strip in Cultural Information C to explain what makes Plot Point B possible. Kind of like my usual free-form writing without the dialogue and detailed settings. And I’m sure it’s a good exercise, for me as well as for our project.

Will I be able to stick to the outline once the writing starts? Ah, that’s much more difficult to predict. If I do, it will certainly be a first. I have to hope I don’t drive Patrycja crazy with my stops and starts and rethinks. But if the outline is strong enough, maybe I’ll get the dithering out in the planning stages and learn something new—about writing and about myself. So wish me luck!

As for the project itself, it’s new and barely formed, so we want to keep it under wraps for a while. Let’s just say that it will be a murder mystery—the first of three, if all goes well—and it will involve not only Russians and Poles but a few wandering Englishmen. The ship depicted at the top of the post might be considered a clue. Gotta appeal to that Tudor fan base somehow....

While you’re waiting, check out Patrycja’s two-part series on Hildegard of Bingen, The Greenest Branch and The Column of Burning Spices. Silent Water will be available for preorder on June 15 (release date August 6), but you can get a sneak peek of the prologue on P. K. Adams’ website, as well as information about the earlier books. And while you’re there, check out the lovely review she wrote (unasked!) about The Shattered Drum. You can see why we decided that we might just be kindred novel-writing souls.

Images: 16th-century painting of The Great Harry, an English carrack, by an unknown artist; Marcello Bacciarelli, Portrait of Sigismund I the Old (1768–71). Both
public domain because of the date of their creation, via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, May 17, 2019

The Power of Conscience

What would you do to protect your friends and family from danger? This is the question that confronts Deborah Tyler and her stepbrother-in-law Nels Anderson in Ann Weisgarber’s new novel, The Glovemaker. As Weisgarber explains in our interview  for New Books in Historical Fiction, the small community of Junction, Utah—eight families, including Deborah’s—often receives fugitives from the law.

Most of the men are God-fearing Mormons, avoiding trial and certain conviction for the plural marriages that were not crimes when they entered into such arrangements. But a woman alone can never feel certain about the intentions of a stranger pounding at her door—especially in the middle of winter, when no ordinary traveler, polygamist or otherwise, wants to brave the icy rocks and treacherous blizzards that lie between Junction and the rest of Utah Territory.

Even if the visitor is harmless, aiding his escape puts the person who responds to him at risk. So the community exists in a web of secrets in which every member takes a chance on behalf of the others but resists sharing information, so that all concerned can honestly declare their innocence of any wrongdoing.

Balanced on this fulcrum of truth and lies, caring and concealing, responsibility and lawbreaking, Deborah and Nels seek a way to protect themselves and those they love. But as the situation slips ever farther from their control and they find out more about what drove their visitor and his pursuer, they confront a deeper and more timeless question: when does an enemy become just another person who needs help?

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


When a strange man knocks on Deborah Tyler’s door one January evening in 1888, she faces a difficult decision. She can guess that her visitor is a criminal, because who else would travel to her isolated Utah community in the dead of winter? And her husband, who normally handles such situations, left home five months ago and has not returned. She is tempted not to answer, but that will only send the unwanted traveler to the next house in Junction, endangering her younger sister and her sister’s children.

Besides, most of the criminals who arrive on Deborah’s doorstep are not thieves or murderers but polygamists evading arrest for what the US government has recently outlawed as a felony. Deborah has little sympathy for plural marriage or the men who practice it, but she is a loyal Mormon who distrusts those inclined to persecute her faith and cares about the families left destitute when their breadwinners flee.

Deborah makes her choice. But the next day, a federal marshal arrives in pursuit. Threatened with prosecution for aiding and abetting a felon, Deborah fights to protect herself, her community, and those she loves from unpredictable consequences that draw her ever deeper into a web of secrets and lies.

The Glovemaker (Skyhorse Publishing, 2019) asks important questions about love and loyalty, faith and independence, the power of love and of family. And through Deborah and her struggles, Ann Weisgarber brings vividly to life the joys and terrors of life in a small, isolated community on the US frontier, the moral compromises we all face, and the capacity of one strong woman to adapt in a time of rapid change.

Friday, May 10, 2019

The Other Front

As I’ve mentioned a few times over the past year, World War II is having its “moment” in terms of historical novels. Admittedly, as the number of shows on the History Channel and nonfiction works attests, World War II has never failed to attract interest from either scholars or the general public. But in the first five years of my podcast, I rarely received pitches for books set during the war. These days, it seems to be the background for every other book that heads my way.

Now, admittedly, I’ve loved some of the books: Gwen Katz’s Among the Red Stars and Kate Quinn’s The Huntress, in particular—both of which explore the lives of the Soviet women pilots who fought so effectively from their flimsy biplanes that their enemies called them the “Night Witches.” Many other authors have also found new and surprising takes on this well-worn subject. Almost without exception, though, the WWII novels that crossed my desk in the last fifteen months or so have focused on the European side of the conflict.


Not so the two I’m chatting about today. Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared (Hanover Square Press, 2019) and Kirsty Manning’s The Song of the Jade Lily (William Morrow, 2019) have little in common except a dual-time framework in which a young person searches for hidden information about what happened to his/her family during the war and a release date this month. But both explore the war on the Pacific Front and how it affected women who became caught up in the dangers of living in occupied territory.

Much of How We Disappeared takes place in Singapore, not a location we in the United States often think about in terms of WWII, between 1941 and 1945. This part of the story follows the life of Wang Di, eldest daughter of a Chinese family that emigrated to escape poverty and whose homeland has since fallen under Japanese control. Her name means “Hope for a Brother,” a constant reminder that she can never equal in importance the sons her parents eventually produce. Even so, her family protects her from the invading Japanese army, first by trying to arrange a marriage for her and later by keeping her within the confines of their house, until one drastic mistake leads to Wang Di’s capture. A seventeen-year-old virgin, she is loaded onto a truck, carted away to a house, and forced into service as a “comfort woman.” From then until the end of the war, Wang Di never knows whether she will survive the night, or whether she wants to.

This harrowing tale is interwoven with a second story from 2012, in which Kevin, aged twelve, learns of a secret from his dying grandmother. In this more contemporary thread, we also see Wang Di in old age. She has a secret of her own to unravel: where her recently deceased husband went every year on February 12. Her secret and Kevin’s are connected—by the personality of Wang Di, of course, but also by the immediate and long-term effects of occupation by a hostile power.


The Song of the Jade Lily, in contrast, takes place mostly in Shanghai. A twenties-something financial whiz named Alexandra accepts a job there, in part to get away from a disintegrating relationship with her boyfriend. Alexandra, of Chinese descent, grew up in the care of her Jewish grandparents, Romy and Wilhelm. After Wilhelm’s death, Alexandra moves to Shanghai, where she makes use of the opportunity thus offered to solve the mystery of her mother’s past and therefore her own. But we readers watch the story unfold from 1938 through 1954, interspersed with moments when Alexandra searches for or stumbles over one truth or another.

Because I was a friend of the writer Annabel Liu, who lived in Shanghai as a child, I knew in general about the Japanese occupation of the city and the suffering inflicted on the local population. What I didn’t know was that right before and during the war Shanghai was one of the few places that freely accepted Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution in Europe. Romy and her fictional family are among these refugees.

Not long after the novel opens, Romy loses one brother to murder during Vienna’s version of Kristallnacht and another to the concentration camp at Dachau, although the family members have no idea what conditions in the camp are like and continue to hope that the second son can join them. Meanwhile, they settle into their new home, making friends with Dr. Ho and his two children, Li and Jian—all of whom will play vital roles in Romy’s life.

Here too, the invasion of the Japanese Army threatens to upset the refugees’ hopes for a better future. Romy’s father, a doctor, manages to remain in practice, although as the war drags on, he finds it ever more difficult to secure the medical supplies his patients need. Romy’s fate is kinder than Wang Di’s: she pursues an education and acquires training in both Western and traditional Chinese medicine. Even so, the tendrils of war are everywhere, and they entangle her friends Li and Jian, as well as another friend—Nina, also a refugee—in ways that sweep Romy, too, into the web of power and its abuses.

To say more about either novel would give too much away. Both are well thought through, interesting, nicely written, and innovative in the sense that they look beyond the European theater and recognize that the horrors of World War II didn’t stop at Paris, London, or Stalingrad. Personally, I preferred Song of the Jade Lily, in part because what happens to Wang Di in How We Disappeared—although wholly supported by the historical evidence—is so wrenching and heart-breaking that the problems addressed in the contemporary story pale by comparison. It’s not that the problems are small in themselves—on the contrary. But they can’t quite measure up to the complete dehumanization inflicted on the innocent Wang Di. It might, in the end, have worked better to let her story stand alone. In that sense, the two halves of Jade Lily achieve a better balance.

Your reaction, however, may be just the opposite. Certainly you can’t go wrong with either of these books. If nothing else, you will discover a side of World War II that you may not have imagined. And that’s always a good thing, right?

My thanks to Shara Alexander and Maria Silva, the publicists who sent me copies of these novels with no obligation on me to post a review. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely my own.

And as I’ve mentioned before, if you have been my friend on Facebook but have not liked my author page (@C. P. Lesley), that will be the main venue for my writing-related posts going forward. I’ve deactivated my Catriona Lesley account, so if you search for it, you will not see my profile. Other pages to follow are @Five Directions Press and @NB Historical Fiction. Twitter links remain the same.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Investigating the Qing

I first discovered Elsa Hart’s novels through my friend Ann Kleimola, who has made so many wonderful suggestions for how to improve first my Legends of the Five Directions and now my Songs of Steppe & Forest novels. “You have to read Jade Dragon Mountain,” she wrote. (I’m paraphrasing: that was the gist of her e-mail, not the text.)

To be honest, I’m pretty sure she’d recommended both Jade Dragon Mountain and Elsa Hart when the novel first came out in 2016. I’d meant to follow up, but too many books got in the way, and by the time I cleared the pile, I’d forgotten about this one. But when she mentioned it again, I went after it right away, purchased it as an e-book, and ... devoured it within three days. I was hooked. 


I tracked down Elsa and talked her into an interview about the third book, City of Ink. Meanwhile, she sent me the second in the series as well. I read The White Mirror and loved it even more than Jade Dragon Mountain, if that’s possible—not least because it takes place in the mountains separating China from Tibet, a terrain my steppe nomads would appreciate. I can now attest that City of Ink is even better than its predecessors. So you can imagine how much time will lapse between my learning that book 4 has arrived and my starting it—yes, zero minutes would be an excellent guess.

So what makes this series so special? First, there’s the setting, which is unusual yet brought so vividly to life that I felt I could look out the window and see the locked bamboo gates and the exhausted examination candidates lining up, eyes red and quill pens in hand. Second, the characters—always crucial for me—especially Li Du, the calm and thoughtful but persistent librarian detective, and his friend Hamza, a very different and much more dramatic figure who makes his way along the Silk Road through the power of his storytelling. Individual characters in each mystery are also deeply thought out, with believable and often conflicting motives. Third is Li’s own story, which we understand in greater depth with each book. 


But fourth and supreme are the puzzles, some of the best I’ve seen and essential to every good mystery novel. It’s rare for an author to give me all the clues yet fool me three times in a row, but Elsa Hart has managed to do exactly that. So listen to our interview, but don’t expect spoilers. Then read the series, in order. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

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

If there is one thing more fun than discovering a new (to oneself) author, it is discovering a new author with a series already well underway. In City of Ink  (Minotaur Books, 2018), the third of Elsa Hart’s mystery novels set in early eighteenth-century China during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor and featuring former imperial librarian Li Du and his storytelling friend Hamza, Li has returned to his former home of Beijing.

His intention is to learn more about the events that led to his own exile from the capital years before, the result of guilt by association. But he soon discovers that the imperial library has been closed since his departure, and to make ends meet, he takes a job with his former brother-in-law, in charge of the North Borough Office. When, on the eve of the imperial examinations, a young woman is murdered at a tile factory in the North Borough, Li accompanies the investigator to the scene of the crime. The case appears clear-cut, since the victim turns out to be the wife of the tile-factory owner, and she is found with a man whom everyone assumes to be her lover. Clearly, this is a crime of passion, committed by the jealous husband. The authorities rush to endorse this explanation, since crimes of passion are not punishable under the law and the whole matter can be neatly swept under the rug before the imperial examinations begin.

But no case associated with Li Du is ever what it seems. As he and Hamza chase the real solution through the locked alleys of Beijing and past the city walls into the surrounding territory, Hart’s richly informed, beautifully detailed, and wonderfully complex yet satisfying story plays out against the backdrop of early Qing China, with its rebels, dynasts, foreign visitors, and ordinary folk with conflicting motives—not to mention Li Du’s own troubled past.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Lost Worlds

For the last couple of months, I’ve been working with fellow Five Directions Press author and New Books in Fantasy host Gabrielle Mathieu as she revises her latest novel, Girl of Fire, for publication. It’s a historical fantasy set on a planet other than our own—somewhat medieval, somewhat magical, but not directly connected to anything on Earth. In return, she’s been helping me with Song of the Shaman, due out next year.

One question we keep batting back and forth is where the boundary lies between too much and not enough information. But that question is really a subset of world building. How does an author convey the rules and substance of a world outside the reader’s experience? More specifically, how does one convey information without stopping the action cold?

Obviously, authors of science fiction and fantasy have to deal with world building. But so do historical novelists. By definition, a world that existed decades or centuries before we were born lies outside our experience. How do we make it real for ourselves, then communicate that reality to our readers?


We research, of course. We read documents and studies; we search the Internet for images; we visit museums or watch films and TV shows to get a sense of the physical objects associated with the period; we look for diaries and letters and, if we’re lucky and aren’t working on an era too far in the past, talk to people who lived then. We can’t expect to shed our modern perspectives entirely, but we can, and should, do our best to explore the differences between past approaches to life and present ones.

All fine and good. The difficulty lies in the doing. Lengthy descriptions deflect attention from the story, and as a general rule people don’t talk about things they take for granted (known among authors as the “You know, Bob,” problem—as in having a character say something like, “You know, Bob, that girl who grew up in our house—the daughter of Mom and Dad?—she’s our sister”). No, really? Who’d have guessed?

But if people don’t say things that seem self-evident to them, they do interact with their environments pretty much nonstop. And those actions and assumptions reveal a lot about how characters believe their world should work and therefore how they perceive its underlying rules. These assumptions inform even the most basic details of characters’ lives. And detail is the best way to convey them. Let’s take a simple example. 



A character picks up a cup and notices it’s empty. He looks around for something to fill it. What will he choose: wine, beer, milk, tea, cider from his own orchard? The choice reveals something personal about this character’s tastes, but also about his circumstances and values—whether he’s wealthy or poor, whether he lives on the land or not, the part of the world he calls home or the possibility of trade or even the time period, since tea and wine and cider weren’t always available everywhere. The drinking vessel, too, tells a tale: a crystal glass conveys a quite different message from a goblet chased with gold or a cup roughly formed from unfired clay.

Perhaps the cup is cracked. The character could try to fix it herself or summon a repair person or, moving up the social ladder, ring the bell to call someone else to summon the repair person. That person may race to respond to the summons, if it comes from a wealthy household known for its generosity, or shrug and dismiss it out of hand. After all, she’s worked for this person before and it didn’t go well. 

If she accepts the job, she must travel to the house—hut? castle? apartment? cottage?—by whatever means of transport characterizes that society. She may go quickly or slowly, motivated by urgency or reluctance, respect or disdain. She may believe she has no choice but to obey. She may jump at the chance to prove her skill. She may want to undercut the better-known or more senior artisan in town. Each motive has different consequences and reveals different assumptions about this character’s place in the larger society.

Characters will also have views about how the cup ended up empty or broken, which they can share with other characters or, if they don’t trust those around them or anticipate ridicule, keep to themselves. Careless servants? Mischievous house elves? Thirsty children? The interpretations say a lot without elaboration.

That’s just one routine element of life, but there are many. How often have you said, to yourself or someone else, the equivalent of “Oh, it would rain on my special day!” or “Of course all the traffic signals were red. I was running late!” Well, characters can do that too. Some may blame the weather, others their own sins; some call on God, whereas others perform spells or ride winged horses into spiritual realms. Still others favor logic and deride all statements of otherworldly intervention.

The mental explanations your creations provide or the dialogue they exchange reveal how they think: no detailed explanations needed. Ground a setting or an experience or even the weather in a character’s unique view of the world, and you can get a lot of information out in chunks so small and painless that readers won’t even notice them going down.

And when those options fail, you can always fall back on that old chestnut, the “fish out of water.” People inside a family, a group, or a society don’t ask basic questions about how it operates—although you can throw them a curve ball in the plot that will force them to re-examine what they think they know. But those from outside the sub-world—whether they are young and uninformed, elderly and forgetful, or accustomed to operating by different rules—must seek explanations for behavior that puzzles them if they are to succeed at their goals. And the people who have to deal with those newcomers will ask questions too, if only at the level of “why on earth didn’t you” [fill in the blank].
So break it up, make it personal, and above all, keep it relevant to your characters’ concerns of the moment. That’s how you get around the dreaded information dump and bring a lost world to life.
 
For an example of an author who handles this task particularly well, read Elsa Hart’s mystery series, set in early Qing China and discussed in my latest interview on New Books in Historical Fiction. It went up too late for a discussion in this week’s post, but check back next Friday to find out more.

Images: Khokhloma ware © 2009 Politkaner; Goblet © 2013 Jonathan Cardy; Clay cups © 2017 Sidheeq; Waterford crystal glass © 2008 TR001—all Creative Commons 3.0 or 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

And as I’ve mentioned before, if you have been my friend on Facebook but have not liked my author page (@C. P. Lesley), that will be the main venue for my writing-related posts going forward. I’ve deactivated my Catriona Lesley account, so if you search for it, you will not see my profile. Other pages to follow are @Five Directions Press and @NB Historical Fiction. Twitter links remain the same.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Good Night, Sweet Prince

I lost a dear friend this week. I’d known him since he was two months old. He was born in Chicago, and he entered my life in August 2001. In that time before 9/11, when it never occurred to us that anyone could be so evil as to turn a plane full of innocent passengers into a weapon, we thought nothing of having him flown from the Midwest to the East Coast. Sir Percy and I drove to the local airport to collect him. He was in a closed-off area, so we opened his carrier. I can still remember how he walked out, his little legs trembling with anxiety. Even so, he came straight to us, ready to love and to trust a pair of strangers who knelt waiting to welcome him.

Jahan, you see, was a cat. But not just any cat. He was the King of Cats—in his own mind and ours. A Seal Point Siamese with a powerful yowl and an equally strong sense of his own presence in our home and in our hearts. He lived with us for more than seventeen years—until last Saturday, when those same legs trembled so much they could no longer support him: the effect of muscle loss, kidney disease, a thyroid tumor, and, as we discovered close to the end, another tumor in his belly that sucked all the nutrients from his body, including his heart. Throughout those seventeen years, he acted as self-appointed host to our guests, our unswerving companion, our resident acrobat and sometime clown, and the teacher of younger cats who entered our household, temporarily or to live. We will miss him more than he can know.

There is, of course, a twist that reflects the reality of pet ownership. Despite the glowing rhetoric about crossing Rainbow Bridges and the like, Jahan’s long life didn’t end because of the laws of nature or because God called him home (although his atrial fibrillation might have caused that soon enough). It ended because his family and his wonderfully supportive veterinarians decided that to keep him longer would cause a degree of suffering that was no longer justified by the quality of his life. In four and a half decades of cat ownership, Sir Percy and I have once made that call too soon and once too late, but this time I think we got it right. 


So it’s not the old, sick, incapacitated Jahan whose life I wish we could have extended for a few more months, weeks, or even days—the one who could no longer walk without staggering and sometimes not then. That Jahan is, I hope and believe, in a happier place—one where pain and discomfort can no longer trouble him.

No, the Jahan for whom I grieve is that kitten from the carrier who slipped under our covers the first evening and slept with us every night after that, including his last. It’s the adult Jahan who could reach the top of our eight-foot cabinets in two leaps (he's the one on the right), who would not think of jumping on the counter or the table to steal Sir Percy’s bacon but did not hesitate to grab it with an outstretched claw and knock it to the floor, who waited for my interviews to start before yelling at the squirrels outside or announcing his arrival (step by step) as he came up my office stairs, who sat in front of my computer screen every afternoon at 4:30 pm just in case that was the day I would forget to feed him, who tolerated the twice-daily pills and the twice-weekly trips to the vet for fluids so long as he got treats afterward, and who sat on my lap each morning while I tackled the crossword puzzle, gazing at the paper as if he could read the clues. If he were here, I would hug him and cry into his fur, and he would stare at me, not understanding but tolerating my human emotions without judging them.

But he’s not here, and he never will be again. It’s the end of an era, one that began when both he and I were much younger, and in that sense his departure also marks the inexorable passage of time. I have only memories and photographs of him now. So here I include several of those I’ve posted on this blog over the years, as well as one from ten years ago, when he was in his heyday. And as Horatio says to Hamlet, “Good night, sweet prince, and may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”



And thank you to all the doctors and staff at our local veterinary hospital, who made his last day as painless as possible.


Images © 2008-18 C. P. Lesley.

As I mentioned last week, if you have been my friend on Facebook but have not liked my author page (@C. P. Lesley), that will be the main venue for my writing-related posts going forward. I’ve deactivated my Catriona Lesley account, so if you search for it, you will not see my profile. Other pages to follow are @Five Directions Press and @NB Historical Fiction. Twitter links remain the same.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Bookshelf, April 2019

It’s been four months since my last bookshelf post, and I’ve made it through most of the November and December listings, with two exceptions. I’m still looking forward to Ann Weisbarger’s The Glovemaker, which is next in my interview list after Elsa Hart’s City of Ink, and Adrienne Celt’s Invitation to a Bonfire, which we rescheduled to late June to follow the book’s release in paperback.

Meanwhile, a whole new group of titles has appeared, meaning that I have little time to read anything but books for interviews (oral and written), books for blog posts, and books for myself and other Five Directions Press writers. But don’t think for a minute that I’m complaining: having major presses send historical novels unasked is a lovely place to be! So, here’s the current lineup, with at least three more August titles waiting in the wings for a later post.

The deluge of World War II books continues. Three have landed on my desk recently, two of them scheduled for release in May and exploring the impact of the war on countries in the Pacific Front. Right now, I’m reading Jing-Jing Lee’s harrowing debut novel, How We Disappeared, set in Singapore, where a young woman is wrenched away from her family and forced into service as a “comfort woman” in 1942. Like Kirsty Manning’s The Song of the Jade Lily, much of which takes place in Shanghai in 1939, How We Disappeared contrasts its wartime story with a more contemporary perspective—here a twelve-year-old boy watching his grandmother die in 2000; in Song of the Jade Lily, a young woman visiting her grandparents in 2016. I’ll be writing more about them together on the blog in early May.

A third May release also employs a dual-time perspective and addresses one of the long-term effects of the war: the stationing of US troops in Japan, here in 1957. A love affair between a Japanese teenager and an American sailor ends in an unwanted pregnancy, and the consequences ripple down to the present. I’ll be talking with Ana Johns about The Woman in the White Kimono for New Books in Historical Fiction at the end of May.

But not every book that crosses my desk is set in World War II. One of my great delights this year has been the discovery of Elsa Hart’s mystery series set in early eighteenth-century China, during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor. Starting with Jade Dragon Mountain and continuing with The White Mirror and last year’s City of Ink, the series follows the adventures of a former imperial librarian named Li Du and his friend Hamza, a storyteller who travels the Silk Road. In City of Ink, the topic of my next interview, Li Du has returned to Beijing, looking for answers to the incident that led to his own exile from the capital five years before. When the wife of a tile-factory owner is found murdered alongside a man assumed to be her lover, Li Du becomes involved in an official capacity, charged with determining whether this really is, as it appears to be, a crime of passion. Hart does a wonderful job of crafting richly detailed, deeply satisfying solutions to her mysteries, blending political, historical, religious, and cultural explanations into a seamless whole. I can’t wait to talk to her, never mind for the arrival of the next book in her series.

Another pleasant surprise is Lauren Willig’s The Summer Country, set in mid-nineteenth-century Barbados. I’ve been a fan of Willig’s writing ever since her first book, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, but due to other commitments, including those listed above, I’ve rather fallen by the wayside as she’s finished, altogether, twelve Pink Carnation novels, The Ashford Affair, The English Wife, and two co-written books. I’m very much looking forward to catching up on her work before interviewing her in mid-July. This latest novel follows Emily Dawson, a vicar’s daughter and poor relation to a well-off merchant family, as she inherits a sugar plantation that, when she reaches the island, she discovers has been burned and abandoned. As Emily struggles to learn what happened and why her grandfather never told anyone in his family about the plantation’s existence, she stumbles into a thicket of secrets that, as the back cover puts it “challenge everything she thought she knew about her family, their legacy, and herself.”

Last but not least, although it’s due for release only in late August and should really be listed with those books, is Gill Paul’s The Lost Daughter, about the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, focusing on the last days of Grand Duchess Maria, the third daughter of the tsar. A follow-up to 2016’s The Secret Wife, about Maria’s older sister Tatiana, The Lost Daughter is another dual-time story in which a woman sets out to discover (in 1973), the meaning behind her father’s deathbed confession, “I didn’t want to kill her.” Although we now know, thanks to DNA evidence, that in fact no member of the tsar’s immediate family escaped the slaughter in Ekaterinburg, including Maria and the better-known Anastasia, I’m still drawn to novels set in Russia at any time—for obvious reasons—so I will definitely cover this one, although probably in a written Q&A, given that my interview schedule is already packed into the fall.

On another note, if you have been connected with me on Facebook but have not liked my author page (@C. P. Lesley), now would be a good time, as I am making some changes there, and that will be the main venue for any writing-related posts. Other pages to follow are @Five Directions Press and NB Historical Fiction. Twitter links remain the same.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Changing Times

It’s hard to believe, for those of us who lived through them, that the 1960s now qualify as historical fiction. In fact, not much makes a person—especially a historian—feel older faster than the recognition that her own life has become history while she was too busy living it to notice.

But like it or not, that’s where we are. The Historical Novel Society defines historical fiction as stories set fifty or more years before the time of writing, and as of today, that means 1969. Which, as it happens, is when The Swooping Magpie, the second of Liza Perrat’s Australian family dramas, opens.

Although the Sixties stand out—if younger generations even remember them—for the Moon Walk and Hippies, rock music and soul, drug use and protests against the war in Vietnam—the real impact of that decade was at once deeper and more subtle. Young people raised by stay-at-home housewives and, in the case of girls, told to look for an economically stable husband who could support them and their children in comfort while he worked long hours suddenly encountered a world of changing standards and opportunities they had never believed were possible. But the new rules didn’t reach everywhere at the same time or the same rate, and the old stigmas tended to remain in place long after the behaviors they’d been intended to curb fell by the wayside.

This is the situation that affects Lindsay Townsend, heroine of The Swooping Magpie. Like so many young women, Lindsay—fifteen at the earliest point in the story, sixteen when we meet her six months later—has reached an age where she can begin to imagine life outside her parents’ household. She does well at school; she’s attractive and popular; she expects to pass her exams and go to college, although she’s just as happy to hang out at the beach and flirt with surfer boys.

But Lindsay also has a secret: a hard-working but brutal father and a passive mother who subsists on too little happiness and too many pills. A classic 1950s family sit com without the comedy. As the only child of these miserable parents, Lindsay hides her need for love and affirmation behind a facade of self-confidence and a determination to chart her own course. Her pursuit of an older man throws her right into the maelstrom of the Sexual Revolution. Then the adults take over, forcing her prematurely into decisions she’s not equipped to make. Her story brings life to a real scandal that swept up too many girls like her.

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


Lindsay Townsend is doing well at her high school in Wollongong, Australia. She’s pretty and popular and smart enough that she can spend as much time at the beach as she does hunched over her books. Only she knows that the confident self she projects to her friends and fellow students conceals life with an abusive father and a mother determined to keep the peace at all costs. When Lindsay’s handsome young gym teacher takes an interest in her, she lacks both the maturity to resist and the experience she needs to protect herself from harm. Soon she’s caught up in a scandal, facing pressure from the adult world to accept a decision no teenage girl should have to make.

In The Swooping Magpie (Triskele Books, 2019), the second of a trilogy set in southeastern Australia, Liza Perrat explores in gritty, compelling prose the rapid social changes of the 1960s and 1970s and the tragedy, loss, and grief that the collision between rules and reality sometimes caused.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Characters in Conflict


In my recent New Books in Historical Fiction (NBHF) interview with Joan Neuberger, professor of history at the University of Texas, Austin, she talks about Sergei Eisenstein’s attempt, in his Ivan the Terrible film trilogy (1946), to create what Eisenstein himself called a “Bach fugue on power.”

By this phrase Eisenstein referred to his use of secondary characters as variations that illuminate the approach to power taken by his main protagonist, Ivan IV “the Terrible”—who in this metaphor represents the theme. To show the conflicts that drive Ivan, Eisenstein externalizes them (no interior dialogue in cinema!) by creating other characters who embody elements of these conflicts and allowing Ivan to argue with them, oppose them, overcome them, and at times yield to or accept them.

We’ll get to some examples in a moment, but what makes this idea interesting to me—enough that I decided to write about it—is that a version of Eisenstein’s fugue appears in many novels, stage plays, and films. In Ivan the Terrible the fugue is focused on power because power—its temptations, uses, misuses, and ultimate costs—is the underlying moral theme of Eisenstein’s trilogy. But the same phenomenon can occur around other themes: love, vengeance, justice, truth, and honor, to name just a few.

So how does the fugue work in Eisenstein’s films? In brief, as Joan and I discuss during the interview, he creates a pair of characters (actually multiple pairs, but let’s not get too complicated) who are presented as close boyhood friends of Ivan’s: Prince Andrei Kurbsky and Fyodor Kolychev (yes, the same family name that appears in my Legends novels; they were a real boyar clan, although everyone who bears that name in my novels is fictional).


In pursuit of his goal, Eisenstein—who had studied as many historical studies of Ivan the Terrible as he could get his hands on—had to distort history to some degree. That’s one way we know he was making a deliberate artistic choice. Both Kurbsky and Kolychev were real people, but only Kurbsky was of the same generation as Ivan and eligible for the role of boyhood friend. Even then, evidence of such early friendship is lacking.

Kolychev, in contrast, ran away from the court to take monastic vows under the name Filipp in 1537, when he was about thirty years old (Ivan was six). He then spent much of his time until 1566 as abbot of the famed Solovki Monastery in the White Sea. Only when the Russian Orthodox Church appointed him as metropolitan of Moscow did he return to the capital. 


But no matter. In Eisenstein’s understanding, Kurbsky and Kolychev mirror Ivan in different ways. Kurbsky wants the same things Ivan does, but for himself. He woos Ivan’s wife, he yearns for Ivan’s crown, and when he doesn’t get those things, he abandons Russia for its western neighbor, Poland-Lithuania, hoping for advancement there. Kurbsky doesn’t object to Ivan’s goals, only to watching someone else take the spoils.  


 Filipp, in contrast, wants nothing more than to retire from the court altogether. When Ivan lures him by dangling the power represented by the metropolitanate, Filipp gives in to temptation but also formulates a moral argument against Ivan’s excesses. Although he doesn’t succeed in deflecting Ivan onto a better moral path—at least not for long—he “gets into Ivan’s head,” as we might say today, causing Ivan to doubt himself and unleashing the extravagant bouts of repentance that punctuate the tsar’s descent into ever more extreme abuses of power, even after Ivan reverts to the crudest method of silencing his former friend: ordering Filipp’s strangulation.

Eisenstein makes similar use of other characters. Ivan’s aunt, who bears little or no resemblance to the historical princess of Staritsa, wants power too, but for her son more than herself—although we all know who will wield that power if she gets it, because her son is presented as a buffoon. Like Ivan’s wife, his aunt cares about relationships, something Ivan has no compunction about destroying. That wife adores him, although she can’t quite resist Kurbsky’s seductive gaze. The members of Ivan’s private army adore him too, even as their homosocial extravaganzas introduce elements of gender diversity that intertwine with the theme of power in the persons of King Sigismund of Poland and the (never filmed) Queen Elizabeth I of England, whom the historical Ivan IV once petitioned for asylum and whose lady-in-waiting he sought to marry.




It’s a clever tactic, and it works, even though the exaggerated acting and cinematography often seem cartoonish today. But the deeper point is that a quick look reveals a similar process at work in many works of fiction, cinematic and otherwise. In Song of the Siren, for example, the fundamental question is how to handle past and present injuries. Juliana has physical damage caused by smallpox, but the real hurt lies in her soul, the result of decisions made by others when she was very young. Felix, in contrast, has a clear physical disability, which does affect his sense of himself and his worth but is largely offset by the support of a loving family, a comfortable lifestyle, and a rewarding career. Alexei’s wounds are largely laid out and resolved in the previous series, but the effect of those wounds on his past relationship with Juliana enliven their interactions here. Koshkin goes about the world in blinders, oblivious to the damage he inflicts on himself and others. I could draw such parallels for any of my novels.

In this sense, stories involve casts of characters rather than individuals: a kind of hive mind that gives rise to distinct and credible people who happen to be working on different facets of a single problem. That reality, more than anything else, blends a series of solo performances into a single connected whole.


And if you’d like to learn more about the fugue of characters in Song of the Siren, including why I wrote it and which parts are fiction and which not, you can hear me talking about the book with Galit Gottlieb on New Books in Literature. Transcript and interview also on the Literary Hub as of Friday, Mar. 29, 2019: https://lithub.com/spying-on-diplomats-through-the-big-red-kremlin-walls/.

Screen shots from Sergei Eisenstein, Ivan the Terrible, parts 1 and 2: Andrei Kurbsky swearing allegiance; Metropolitan Filipp (Fyodor Kolychev) taking a stand; the members of Ivan the Terrible's private army celebrating together.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Filming for Joseph the Terrible

In its early years, the Bolshevik regime wanted to burst all the bounds and set off in new directions—political, social, and cultural. The Communists aimed to create a new world and a new Soviet Man, and nothing from the past could get in the way of that bright future.

But by the 1930s, as Joan Neuberger reminds us in her interview on New Books in Historical Fiction, Joseph Stalin had second thoughts about the wisdom of tearing down the old to build the new. As tensions between the Third Reich and the USSR escalated, he ordered the revival—in a new, socialist garb—of heroes from the imperial and earlier periods. Including, somewhat improbably, Ivan IV “the Terrible” (r. 1533–84), the first tsar of the lands then called Rus. As part of this campaign, in January 1941 (just five months before Hitler’s army invaded the Soviet Union) Stalin ordered Sergei Eisenstein to direct an epic tale depicting how, against all opposition, Tsar Ivan created the Great Russian State.

The results were not quite what Stalin expected. Eisenstein, a master filmmaker from that early period of cultural experimentation who believed that history (personal and state) proceeded in spirals and bisexuality was humanity’s natural state, dove headfirst into Ivan’s troubled childhood—the subject of my Legends and Songs of Steppe & Forest series—looking for clues to Ivan’s psyche. What made him terrible (that is, terrifying—it’s an old translation using a word that has changed its meaning since the mid-sixteenth century), in effect. 




And Eisenstein found answers, which he then put on the screen, with the result that the first part of his trilogy was acclaimed, the second banned, and the third never filmed. Joan Neuberger explains how, and why, all of that happened. It’s a portrait of tyranny, exposed and experienced, and definitely well worth your time. Because it also shines a light on how great works of art are created, including historical fiction.

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


Most of the time, this podcast focuses on the products of those who create historical fiction—specifically, novels. But what goes into producing a work of historical fiction—especially in a dictatorship where the wrong choice, or even the right choice at the wrong moment, can send the unwitting author to the Gulag? And what if the creator is not an unknown toiling in the dark to produce manuscripts “for the desk drawer,” as the Soviet literati used to say, but the nation’s foremost filmmaker operating at the personal behest of Joseph Stalin? Such is the dilemma that faces Sergei Eisenstein in 1941, when he begins his unfinished trilogy Ivan the Terrible, an epic ordered by the Soviet government to glorify the Russian past and justify state terror. 



Often written off, especially in the West, as a toady to Stalin, Eisenstein—as Joan Neuberger  nimbly shows in her new and fascinating study, This Thing of Darkness: Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible in Stalin’s Russia (Cornell University Press, 2019)—approached his complicated and risky project with a mixture of enthusiasm and caution. Over the course of five years, despite complaints about budget overflows and production delays, through exile and war and shifts in the party line, personal conflicts and health problems, Eisenstein skillfully alternated between tactics of submission and defiance in support of his idiosyncratic but richly textured portrayal of a tortured autocrat whose childhood traumas led him to ever more extreme exercises of power, even as his excesses stripped him of friends and family, leaving him alone against the endless, unstoppable waves—of progress? of the future? of his own battered conscience? Only the viewer can decide.

Part I won the Stalin Prize, the USSR’s highest honor, although not without controversy. Stalin personally banned Part II before release, and Eisenstein died with Part III unfinished. In this master work about a master filmmaker, Neuberger shines a light on all three. In doing so, she highlights the many decisions any author must make while balancing historical accuracy against dramatic potential and character motivation against a verifiable past. Fortunately, for most of us the stakes are nowhere near as high as they were for Sergei Eisenstein.


Images: Screen shots of Ivan IV “the Terrible” (Nikolai Cherkasov) and King Sigismund II Augustus of Poland-Lithuania (Pavel Massalsky) from Sergei Eisenstein, Ivan the Terrible. Reproduced according to the fair use doctrine.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Off to the Races

With Song of the Siren (Songs of Steppe & Forest 1) making its way in the world, and Songs 2 with its beta readers, waiting for critique and a final polish (or three), I have time on my hands to consider what’s next in this series. From the moment I started this project, I knew that I wanted to write at least one novel about the two Sheremetev sisters, linked to Nasan in several ways but most simply by having lived next door to her throughout most of her time in Moscow.

Indeed, the inspiration to tell their story was what caused me to undertake Songs of Steppe & Forest in the first place, even if I then chose to explore the lives of Juliana and Grusha first. So theirs was the book I sat down to plan as soon as I had sent Song of the Shaman off by print and e-mail.

Now, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, “plan” is something of a misnomer when it comes to my writing. Whether I put a lot of work into the planning stage or hardly any, when I sit down at my computer, the same thing happens: the story takes on a life of its own, and within five pages (on average), the characters have headed off happily in whatever direction pleases them while I watch, listen, and record.

That said, these days I do find it useful to construct a set of character profiles and a list of potential story events before diving in. Not because I know who my people really are or how they’ll get where they’re going—what fun is that?—but because it helps to have an ongoing sense of where they’ll end up and some reminders of what’s happening in the historical background so that if they head off into the woods and get lost, I can haul them out again in short order.

It’s also easier to see, when a story is a list of eighteen to twenty events instead of 300 pages, whether it has enough conflict and drama to sustain a novel. Same thing with the characters: if their goals are weak or poorly defined and their personalities one-sided, they need more work even before they get a chance to strut their stuff on the page.


So for the last couple of weekends, this is what I’ve been doing with Songs 3—and, as it turns out, Songs 4, because I realized early on that the book would become too complicated and diffuse if I had to follow both sisters at the same time, especially if I attempted overlapping first-person narratives. Hence Song of the Sisters (3) will set up a series of conflicts, of which it will resolve about half. The rest can percolate into the newly titled sequel, Song of the Sinner, and find their resolution there.


Which brings me to what I’ve discovered about the Sheremetev sisters so far. The older sister—Solomonida, now thirty-one—appeared quite often in bit parts throughout Legends of the Five Directions, so readers of that series will recognize her. After a disastrous marriage to Daniil Kolychev’s brutish cousin Semyon, Solomonida secured a divorce when Semyon fell foul of the government, and ever since she’s been refusing to enter a convent—the proper fate of a divorced or widowed woman in her culture. Her excuse is that she needs to bring up her daughter, Anna, and see her suitably settled, but the truth is that Solomonida hasn’t the slightest interest in taking monastic vows and never will.

Not so her half-sister Darya, who has successfully dodged one potential marriage partner and has devoted her last five years to caring for her and Solomonida’s bedridden father. She won’t be as familiar to readers, as she made only a cameo appearance in The Golden Lynx. Here, with her father gone, a male cousin shows up at the door intent on taking possession of the sisters’ estate. He’s determined to marry Darya off, even if it means wedding her himself, and she can attain her dearest wish—the opposite of Solomonida’s, for Darya longs to become a nun—only if she defies a lifetime of training in the virtues of female obedience. Even Solomonida can’t understand why Darya would prefer to retire from the world, and the one person in whom she does confide turns out to have ulterior motives.
 

Is that enough to get started, even with the addition of the complicated politics roiling the Russian court in the summer and fall of 1543? I think not quite. A heroine who refuses to speak up for herself, even in defense of her own best interests, strikes me as too passive to carry a book. If nothing else, there’s a danger she’ll bore me to tears. So even though I’ve written an opening scene, I have a few more rounds of character wrestling to do before I really stand back and let the imaginary people take over. But it won’t be long, because I can already sense them chomping at the bit, eager to hear the sound of the gate releasing them to race. And if they turn out like Juliana and Grusha, I can expect them to give me quite a run for my money.



If any of you missed my post on Elena Glinskaya, her death, and the surprising results of her recent exhumation, it went up again this week on the history blog Not Even Past. Big thanks to Joan Neuberger, who runs the site, and from whom you’ll hear more next week.


And thanks, too, to G. P. Gottlieb, who interviewed me today for New Books in Literature. Stay tuned for that link, where you can find out more about Song of the Siren, as well as some of its predecessors.


Images: Konstantin Makovsky, The Young Nun; Sergei Solomko, Young Woman in a Hat; and Sergei Solomko, In Pursuit of Happiness, all public domain via Wikiart.org.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Familiar Spirits

A late and short post today, due to the combination of a manuscript that had to get done (work, not novel-related) and the dreaded annual performance self-assessment, transferred to the Web this year for maximum inconvenience. I love almost every part of my job, but filling in meaningless forms is one element I can do without. It’s not as if the people I work with will fail to notice if I suddenly go AWOL and nothing gets done.

Still, I did have some fun this week—in addition to the manuscript, which was fascinating, and an interview with Joan Neuberger about her new book on Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible film trilogy, which should go up on New Books in Historical Fiction sometime next week or the week after.

On which, the Literary Hub put up a transcript of last week’s interview with Kate Quinn just yesterday, and you can find that here: . Wonderful picture of the Soviet women pilots who play such an important role in Quinn’s book.




 But the main point of today’s post is Stacey Halls’ new book, The Familiars, released on February 19. (The same day as Song of the Siren, as it happens.) It looks at what we might consider the British equivalent of the Salem Witch Trials, held in or near Pendle Hill in Lancashire, in 1612, and it asks a question to which anyone with a knowledge of Stalin’s show trials can relate: Why would someone confess to a crime that she knows will lead to her execution? Did the witches really believe in their own power? Did they just give in to outside pressure or despair at the certain knowledge that they could not expect acquittal? Were threats made against those they loved?

The story is told from the perspective of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a historical character who although she has been married for several years (despite being only seventeen) and has started three pregnancies, has not given birth to a living child. Now she is pregnant again, and she comes across a letter from her doctor to her husband, warning him that this, her fourth pregnancy, will kill her.

Understandably distraught, Fleetwood runs from the house. In her own woods, she encounters a young woman named Alice Gray, a skilled midwife and herbalist who agrees to help Fleetwood birth her child without sacrificing her own life. But as accusations of witchcraft sweep up the local wise women and a friend of Fleetwood’s husband takes it as his mission to stamp out all potential witches in the area, Alice’s skill with plants brings her under suspicion.

As neighbors and family members turn against one another, the situation becomes ever more dangerous. Even Fleetwood’s relationship with her dog leaves her open to accusations of consorting with a “familiar”—a servant of the Devil in animal form. When Alice is arrested, Fleetwood fights to save her, but the odds are stacked against them. And as Fleetwood’s pregnancy develops, her already troubled marriage continues to disintegrate.

This beautifully written debut novel asks hard questions, but its style is fluid and compelling, its characters—especially Fleetwood and Alice—sympathetic with no trace of sentiment. Definitely a find.

My thanks to Shara Alexander of MIRA Books, who sent me a review copy of this novel with no obligation on me to post a review. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely my own.


And to all my female readers, Happy International Women’s Day!


Friday, March 1, 2019

Hunters and Hunted

To find a new angle on a topic as saturated with fictional and nonfictional treatments as World War II is a challenge for any author. As Kate Quinn mentions during my most recent New Books in Historical Fiction interview, the war is garnering a great deal of attention at the moment, perhaps because the last members of the generation that lived and fought through it are passing away.

It’s all the more remarkable, therefore, that Quinn does uncover such an angle in her latest novel, The Huntress, released earlier this week. In fact, it would be fair to say that she uncovers three or four different angles, which perhaps explains why her book provides such a good read.

The first detour from conventional approaches to World War II is Quinn’s decision to focus on a female war criminal, not one of the usual leaders or even camp guards, and to pick up her story at the moment when she goes on the run to escape arrest and prosecution at Nuremberg. After an initial short scene from the point of view of this character, the Huntress of the title, we move to the perspective of Jordan, a seventeen-year-old American presented with a new stepmother and stepsister. It’s 1946, and Jordan, a typical American schoolgirl with no direct experience of the war—or, indeed, much experience of life—represents another new angle on the story.

Jordan’s new family members appear to conceal more than a few secrets and sometimes behave in puzzling ways. But what fugitive from the war zone doesn’t have memories she’d rather forget? And the new stepmother is, on the whole, loving and kind. She revitalizes Jordan’s lonely father and even supports Jordan’s own desire to attend college and become a photographer. The new stepsister is even more adorable, winning Jordan’s heart from the moment of their first meeting. Jordan chides herself for her suspicious nature and tries to push her sense of something “off” into a back corner of her mind where it belongs.

This brings me to the third and fourth elements that set this novel apart. From Jordan’s introduction to her new stepmother, we move forward four years to make the acquaintance of Ian Graham, a British war correspondent turned war crimes investigator, who’s intent on tracking down the Huntress and bringing her to justice, not least for the murder of his brother. He receives assistance from his green-card wife, Nina Markova—a former lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force bomber regiment known to its enemies as the Night Witches. Because Nina, it turns out, is the only survivor of the Huntress’s atrocities and thus the only person who can identify their quarry by sight. And how that happened takes us back to Nina’s girlhood on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia and forward through her military career and the sequence of events that lead to her encounter with the Huntress.

To say more would be to give away too many details of this wonderfully complex and beautifully realized story. Suffice it to say that the overlapping threads all come together in a satisfying conclusion. So listen to the interview, read the transcript, and most of all, buy the book. You won’t regret it.

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


When we think of World War II, we envision a catastrophe of massive proportions: millions killed in concentration camps, on the battlefield, during bombing raids and in the nuclear explosions that ended the war. But World War II can also be seen as a vast collection of small catastrophes—a dozen executions or experiments here, a casual act of antisemitism or cruelty there—committed by otherwise ordinary people who either had no moral compass to start with or lost their bearings in an environment that brought out the worst in them. That insight drives The Huntress (William Morrow, 2019), Kate Quinn’s fast-moving, compelling mystery about Nazi hunters in the decade after VJ Day.

Ian Graham, a British war correspondent, is chasing an escaped Nazi known only as die J├Ągerin, the Huntress. He is determined to see her tried for her crimes, and his motives are both professional and personal: she murdered his younger brother, as well as a dozen Polish children. With the help of the intrepid Nina Markova, former lieutenant of the Night Witches and the only survivor who can identify the Huntress by sight, Ian follows his quarry’s trail across the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, in Boston, seventeen-year-old Jordan McBride welcomes Anneliese, soon renamed Anna—the love interest her lonely father brings home. A budding photographer, Jordan wants first and foremost to go to college, a goal that Anna supports but Jordan’s father overrules. He considers higher education unnecessary for a young woman in 1946, especially one with marriage plans in her future. But the camera does not lie, and Jordan’s photographs soon raise questions about what Anna really left behind when she fled Europe the year before. And before long, Jordan has to wonder why Anna seems so eager to get her new stepdaughter out of the house.