Friday, January 25, 2019

Fitting In--or Not

Society tends to like people who play by the rules, whatever those rules happen to be at a particular moment. But if everyone played by the rules, the leavening necessary for change would be missing and the benefits of different approaches lost. So many societies also include what we might consider safety valves: roles that exist on the margins, where those who don’t quite fit the current pattern can exist.

Grusha, the heroine of my current work in progress, occupies one such role: as a shaman, she enjoys a higher status than that assigned to her at birth, and she provides a service both essential to those with whom she lives and deeply fulfilling in ways she can’t quite articulate. Her challenge, in the novel, is whether to embrace her new identity or return to a family and country she left behind long ago. 

I explored several other options for women in a blog series I wrote back in 2013, most obviously in “Taking the Veil.” (From there you can click links within the posts to move back in time through the series.) A convent is also the route to independence taken by Hildegard of Bingen, whom I discussed with P. K. Adams in my previous NBHF interview.

Olivia Givens, the protagonist of Terry Gamble’s just-released novel The Eulogist and the subject of my latest interview on New Books in Historical Fiction, doesn’t have such a formal outlet, but she does face a similar problem. As Terry Gamble notes, Olivia “suffers from opinion”—a statement that in the nineteenth century, and perhaps even today, is not a compliment when applied to women. She is not well matched to the only acceptable social role available to her: that of conventional wife and mother.

Yet despite the considerable odds against her, Olivia does find ways to retain her independence. She marries a doctor whom she’s assisted in performing autopsies. She supports her volatile younger brother, who alternates between revivalist preaching and drunken womanizing. She becomes involved, without entirely meaning to, in helping fugitive slaves in Kentucky cross the Ohio River into freedom. Most of all, she survives to tell her story and that of her family, long after the younger generation has moved on and forgotten.

And what a story it is. Olivia, her brothers, and the rest of her social circle are wonderful characters with quirks and strengths galore. They remind us that even though society prefers those who color within the lines, those who don’t are much more fun to read about.

You can find excerpts from the interview on the Literary Hub. But do listen to the whole thing as well. We had to leave out vast chunks to fit into the 1,500-word limit of the transcript.

Kudos, too, to the designer, who produced that gorgeous and evocative cover of a Victorian woman reflected in the river that plays such a huge role in the story.

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

When Olivia Givens and her family leave Ireland in 1819, they have no idea that they are distant victims of a volcanic eruption in Indonesia four years before. They know only that the crops are failing and the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars have led to the loss of their family property. Fifteen-year-old Olivia has a special reason to want to stay: her first crush on a local boy. But no one listens to a young girl in love, and soon Olivia is standing on the shores of the Ohio River with the rest of her Ulster Protestant family. The city of Cincinnati has just come into being, and that, combined with the illness of Erasmus, the family’s youngest child, convince the Givens to end their journey west in Ohio.

Before long, Olivia’s mother has died in childbirth and her father has abandoned his three surviving children to head south on a paddle boat. James, the eldest son, takes responsibility for his brother and sister. But it’s not the easiest job in the world: Olivia has too much independence of thought to fit neatly into the Victorian vision of “the angel in the house,” and Erasmus cares more for drinking, womanizing, and hanging around with revivalist preachers—even preaching himself—than he does about working in James’s growing candle factory.

Meanwhile, right across the river lies the slave state of Kentucky. As the years go by, the Givens family becomes ever more entangled in helping fugitives cross the water to freedom, whatever the cost to themselves, their lives, and even those they strive to protect.

The Eulogist (William Morrow, 2019) opens a window onto a time when the frontier began at the Mississippi and North and South, although divided by no more than a waterway, occupied different mental and social universes. Terry Gamble’s ability to reveal the many sides of complex conflicts and gift for making even difficult characters appealingly human should not be missed.

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 ( 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