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Friday, December 30, 2022

And What a Year It's Been

I’m not sure I’ve ever been so glad to see a year approach its ending as I am to say goodbye to 2022. The year began with a beloved elderly family member going missing (fortunately, he was found before anything bad happened to him) and slogged along from there. A massive project that clogged my work schedule and delayed everything that followed until the beginning of this month, a second crisis (which also ended better than it might have), and an apparently endless series of tasks associated with moving that elderly family member into assisted living left me so tense that three days after my annual Christmas break began, I was just starting to realize that I am on vacation and can get up late or do nothing if I like.

Of course, even this year was not all disruption and chaos. I made the acquaintance of numerous lovely authors through written and podcast conversations; I received an unexpected payment from the New Books Network for ten years of interviews; I had some fascinating outside editing jobs; I acquired several new colleagues whom I enjoy working with; I got a clean bill of health on various issues that had cropped up since the pandemic began; I avoided getting Covid; and my husband and I adopted two gorgeous kittens who are a perfect joy—our older cat doesn’t agree, but that’s a subject for another post.



And last but not least, I finished another novel, the fifth in my Songs of Steppe & Forest series. Song of the Storyteller will be available in early January, as previously announced, and it was a huge amount of fun to write. I also made headway on the next book, and hope to get farther during this break. There are a couple of looming plot holes to fill and two sets of comments from my invaluable writers’ group to address (character inconsistencies, mostly). At the moment, both the story and its main protagonists feel very distant, but regular writing will fix that, and nothing else now stands in the way.

So that’s my year, in a nutshell. Let’s ring out the old, ring in the new, raise a glass of something bubbly, and hope for a less stressful 2023!

 
 
Images: Stressed face, Happy New Year, purchased via subscription from clipart.com; kittens © 2022 C. P. Lesley
 

Friday, December 23, 2022

Interview with Darcie Wilde

One of the interesting trends I’ve noticed in the last couple of years (although it’s been developing for much longer than that) has been a diversion of fiction set in Regency Britain from pure historical romance to mysteries, some of them quite gritty in their exploration of the slums and class differences that were as much a part of early nineteenth-century British society as the extravagant parties favored by the haut ton and the bucolic settings of Jane Austen’s novels.

Darcie Wilde’s Rosalind Thorne (now renamed A Useful Woman) series exemplifies this trend in its own particular way. Her heroine, as explained below, exists at the edges of aristocratic society, where she belongs by birth but not wealth. That gives her access to the drawing rooms of the rich and famous, but always as an outsider hired to perform a particular function. Ladylike to a fault, Rosalind combines a mastery of conventional behavior with an independent spirit and an observant eye. Read on to find out more, then seek out not just The Secret of the Lost Pearls—which releases on December 27, next Tuesday—but the earlier books in the series. Although you can read the books in any order, you will get the best appreciation for the various relationships and the fewest spoilers if you start at the beginning and go from there.

This is the sixth of your mysteries featuring Miss Rosalind Thorne. I’ve enjoyed all the ones I’ve read, and I tend to think of them as examples of what might have happened to Lizzie Bennet if she hadn’t married Darcy. How did you come up with this particular take on Regency society?

First of all, thank you for inviting me to your blog! My take on the Regency actually comes—and I should probably apologize for what I’m about to say, but—straight out of Austen. Jane Austen and her contemporaries were very much responsible for creating the modern novel. Like Austen, they dealt with women’s lives, with money, family, love, status, success, and failure. The lives, loves, and travels of all these women are fascinating as well, as were the various reasons they wrote. Some of them were world travelers, some of them were ladies at court, some of them were writing to save their families from ruin. These background stories are worthy of novels in and of themselves. So, in addition to the Great Jane, I’m drawing on this huge, rich mix of fact and fiction to create my Regency world.

Tell us a bit about Rosalind herself—her personality and what makes her the ideal heroine for your novels.

Rosalind is a member of London’s high society. She’s a bit above Lizzie Bennet on the ladder, but she’s in what gets called “distressed circumstances,” because her father abandoned his family. She’s got no money, so she’s got to make shift to make a living for herself, and she’s become a kind of personal assistant to society ladies. Only, while she was busy arranging a social calendar, she also wound up having to solve a murder.

Rosalind has had opportunities to follow the path expected of young society women during the Regency. What does it tell us about her that she ultimately embraces the moniker of “a useful woman” (and what does that mean)?

I found the concept of “the useful woman,” in a book written in 1826 by (deep breath), Lady Marianna Spencer Stanhope Hudson. It was titled Almack’s. In its day, this book was a huge, scandalous tell-all about a specific group of society women who ran London’s most famous and most exclusive ballroom. It was the place you wanted to go to see and be seen by potential marriage partners. Anyway, in the middle of this book, there’s one paragraph where one character is talking about another and saying “she’s really become such a useful woman.” It’s only a couple of lines. But the idea was that if a single woman had fallen on hard times, her better-off friends would start inviting her to their houses to stay, sometimes for months. In return, she’d do things for them like help with their correspondence, organize their social schedules, make calls for them, and generally make herself useful. In return, she’d get free room and board for the duration of her stay, she’d also get to use the carriage and be invited to all the parties, so she could still be a part of society, even if she couldn’t really afford it. 

 



I had never heard of anything like this before, and I immediately said “This is the character I want to write about!” and that was when Rosalind came into being.

Now, Rosalind takes this concept three or four steps further. The problems she helps her ladies with are not only organizing social functions, but things like blackmail, and, of course, murder.

Adam Harkness assists Rosalind in the cases she chooses to take. How would you describe him and his role in the books? What makes him a good partner for Rosalind?

Adam is an officer at the Bow Street police station, so he’s got a lot of investigative experience of his own. But what makes him perfect for Rosalind is he understands and respects her. They also have complimentary freedoms. As a Bow Street “runner,” Adam doesn’t have access to the kind of aristocratic homes and lives Rosalind does, and that can be a real problem if he has to investigate a murder in high society. Rosalind, on the other hand, is limited in her movements simply because she’s a woman, whereas Adam has a lot of freedom, to, say, be out late at night on his own. So, the pair of them have plenty of ways they can each help each other out of (or into) trouble.

Please set up the mystery in this sixth novel. Who is Bethany Douglas, and why does she seek out Rosalind’s services?

Bethany is a distant acquaintance of Rosalind. Beth is happily married to a man from a rich family, but she’s also got a set of extremely problematic relatives; her mother’s a hypochondriac, her father drinks, one sister is relentlessly anti-social, the other ran away with a ne’er-do-well and is now back, claiming that the ne’er-do-well is dead. And as if that wasn’t enough, it now looks like the extremely valuable heirloom necklace her husband’s family gave her as a wedding present has been stolen, possibly by a member of her problematic family. She needs Rosalind to find out what happened to the pearls and get them back without creating any kind of scandal. And from there, things get a little complicated…

There is an implied tip of the hat here to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which also supplies the epigraphs to most of the chapters—specifically to the relationship between Lydia and Wickham. What made you want to include that element?

I’d recently rewatched my favorite version of Pride and Prejudice (for the record, it’s the 1995 version with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth), and I got to thinking about Lydia and Wickham, and about the fact that it really must have been tough for the younger sisters in the Bennett family. They must have been so tired of always being compared to their entirely amazingly perfect older sisters. As I thought about it, I wondered what would have happened if instead of Lydia just being a silly little girl with no moral compass, Lydia was a schemer, and what if she went to Wickham and they together hatched the plan to run away and blackmail Darcy into paying to get Lydia married or returned home. Okay, in my version, she’d still have no moral compass, but she’d also have some guts, and some smarts.

The pearls mentioned in the title are a quite remarkable piece of jewelry. Describe them for us, please.

I love jewelry, so I had a lot of fun creating that necklace. In the Regency, it was pearls, not diamonds, that were considered the most precious gem. The necklace itself is three strings of pearls—two white and one black, with one large drop pearl in a gold and diamond setting as a pendant.

Will Rosalind and Adam continue their adventures? Where can we expect them to go next?

As a matter of fact, I’m just finishing their next book. This time the mystery hits closer to home than their other adventures have, and both Rosalind and Adam will find themselves having to make some very consequential decisions about what they want for their futures, and their relationship.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Thank you for inviting me!



Darcie Wilde is the author of five previous historical mysteries featuring Miss Rosalind Thorne and as many historical romances. Find out more about her at http://www.darciewilderomancecom.



Images: The First Quadrille at Almack’s and Portrait of Princess Dorothea Lieven, a patroness of Almack’s,  wife of a prominent Russian diplomat, and acquaintance of Rosalind Thorne public domain via Wikimedia Commons; portrait of Darcie Wilde © Chris Amos.




Friday, December 16, 2022

Moving Forward

Just about two weeks from now, I will press the button that officially releases my latest Russian novel, Song of the Storyteller, into the world. The book has been ready for a month, but I learned the hard way that late November/early December is not a good time to publish something new. The demands of Christmas shopping slow everything to a crawl, and even purchasing author copies can take five times as long as normal. Not to mention that the general flood of new releases tends to overwhelm those of us who don’t have the luxury of a big publisher with a fully staffed publicity department at our backs.

No, January—when people have recovered from the holiday madness, perhaps received e-devices of some kind as presents, and (at least in my part of the world) are looking at months of chilly days and long, dark evenings—is a much better time to launch a new book. So this post is a prequel of things to come, not an actual announcement.

Some books are fun to write: they flow like mountain water from the fingers onto the screen; their characters cooperate with interesting takes on things and problems that anyone can relate to, naturally sharing their views with the author because that’s who they are. Other novels have to be hauled, howling and protesting (or, more often, squirreling their secrets away like so many October hazelnuts), into the light.

I’ve had a couple of the latter in this series, as well as some of the former. Juliana (Song of the Siren) was desperate to tell her story; I could barely keep up with the flood of information she poured into my head from morning to night. Grusha (Song of the Shaman) and Darya (Song of the Sisters) were the shy sort; for different reasons, it took me a long time to find the strength at the center of each of them and coax it out to a place where I could see it. Solomonida (Song of the Sinner) had a strong character from the beginning, as well as an interesting problem, but complicating her situation enough to create a compelling story took a lot of work.
 

Then came Lyuba: Lyuba the storyteller, the natural, the heroine I’ve always dreamed of writing. Self-aware even at sixteen, with a fiery temperament offset by her sharp observation of others and of social convention, Lyuba is determined to wrest what she wants from life in the same way as she plots her fairy tales and takes mental notes for the family saga that we know from The Shattered Drum she will one day write. And the situation she faces is both historically real (except for her part in it, of course) and tailor-made for fiction.



In December 1546, Grand Prince Ivan of Russia (soon to be known as Tsar Ivan the Terrible) decided to marry. He too was sixteen, and for various reasons it was decided that he would select a bride from among his own aristocracy rather than make a diplomatic marriage with a foreign princess. A call went out to all the principalities under Moscow’s control, demanding the nobles present their daughters to the government servitors sent to the provincial towns to make the initial selection. Those girls (we don’t know how many), as well as others representing the great Moscow families, were investigated and gradually winnowed to a small group, from whom Ivan selected a bride. Anyone who has read any of my previous Russian novels can guess that Lyuba’s father would leap at this opportunity like a man-sized salmon.

The summoning of potential brides in itself was not uncommon. Ivan’s father had held such a bride show twice, and later tsars continued the practice until Peter the Great abolished it in the eighteenth century as too medieval and Russian. But what makes it perfect for fiction is that the families who got their girls into the contest took it with deadly seriousness—and I do mean deadly. Candidates were poisoned, girls suddenly developed mysterious ailments that lasted just long enough for them to be given the boot, skeletons were dragged out of closets and shoved back into them. Lyuba and her best friend, Anna, are right to wonder if they will make it out of the Kremlin alive.

And they don’t want any part of the contest. Each of them is in love with a young man she cannot have, and neither has any interest in becoming Russia’s first tsaritsa. And if that seems strange, in a world where so many young girls dream of becoming princesses, well, really, would you want to be the wife of Ivan the Terrible?

I should note that while I was working on the final revisions for this novel, Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. As I write this post, that war continues, and for those of us who have spent our adult lives studying the long and complex history of that region, it feels as if the world has shifted on its axis. Given Russia’s current status as an international pariah, even to write sympathetically about the country’s past in a novel is a source of confusion and doubt. The tragedy of lives lost, infrastructure destroyed, childhoods fractured, injuries inflicted, cold and hunger endured makes Lyuba’s struggles trivial.

But I also know that many Russians are equally horrified by the actions of their government—indeed, many Russians have Ukrainian family members. And that is why I nonetheless hope that my fiction can, if nothing else, reveal some of the political assumptions, historical realities, and beliefs about Russia’s place in the world that continue, even five centuries later, to influence its actions.

Among other things, those actions are based on the lie that Ukraine is, and always has been, a part of Russia. The same justification was given for the annexation of Crimea. But my novels take place at a time when neither Crimea nor Ukraine was considered part of Muscovy. Perhaps that is one contribution they can make to the discussion.

You can find out more about Lyuba’s story at https://www.fivedirectionspress.com/song-of-the-storyteller. Meanwhile, I will be returning my fictional focus to Anna, the center of the next novel and, alas, another of those heroines who requires a gentle touch and lots of patience if she’s to find her way into the light.

Image: Grigory Sedov, Tsar Alexei Choosing a Bride (1882), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, December 9, 2022

Money, Beauty, and the Power of Music

I had heard of C. W. Gortner as a writer of Tudor-era historical fiction long before I actually had the opportunity to read one of his books. That one, The Romanov Empress, had nothing to do with the Tudors (Gortner, who has a Master’s in Renaissance history, had long since moved on from the sixteenth century) and everything to do with my other great academic love: the history of Russia and the Soviet Union more generally. But by the time I read it, I had already agreed to let Jennifer Eremeeva have the fun of interviewing Gortner for the New Books Network.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and I received a pitch for his next book, The First Actress, about Sarah Bernhardt. The novel—more or less contemporaneous with The Romanov Empress, which focuses on Marie Fyodorovna, the Danish princess who became the mother of Nicholas II—arrived at another moment when I had no space in my interviewing schedule, but we set up a written Q&A for this blog. So when I received a message from this year’s publicist about the release of Gortner’s The American Adventuress—featuring Jennie Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill—I was determined to move heaven and earth, if need be, to talk to Gortner for New Books in Historical Fiction. That interview went live yesterday. It was a fun conversation, very revealing about Jennie and her world, and the novel is already in print, so give it a listen and then read the book. It’s the perfect time of year, after all, to dive into an enchanting saga about glittering society parties, royal liaisons, and aristocratic scandals that can show up even The Crown.

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

From Lucrezia Borgia to Marlene Dietrich, Empress Marie Fyodorovna of Russia, and most recently the actress Sarah Bernhardt, C. W. Gortner has made a career out of finding strong, fascinating, real-life heroines for his novels. In The American Adventuress, he focuses his attention on Jennie Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill.

From the moment we first meet her as a sassy and defiant twelve-year-old schoolgirl, Jennie charts her own course—to the consternation of her more conventional but in some ways wiser mother. Her father—an entrepreneur hovering on the edge of elite New York society—adores and supports this second daughter whose character so resembles his own, but some shady business dealings and a long-term affair with Jennie’s piano teacher eventually undermine his marriage. Jennie’s mother flees with her three daughters to Paris, where the girls complete their education. Then the Franco-Prussian War begins, and the family moves to London and safety.

 

There Jennie makes the acquaintance of an odd-looking but charming and intelligent young man, Lord Randolph Churchill, who proposes marriage almost right away. Jennie falls madly in love, and soon they are courting in earnest despite opposition from both their families.


A gifted pianist, a beauty, a free spirit, and a loving if often-distant mother, Jennie lives life to the hilt: spending extravagantly, flirting outrageously, neglecting her children, and breaking convention in ways that defy our views of the constraints placed on Victorian women. But whatever her faults, Jennie herself is unforgettable, and it is Gortner’s achievement that he brings her so vividly to life.

Images: Jennie Jerome in 1880, with her two sisters, and with Lord Randolph Churchill in 1874—all public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, December 2, 2022

Interview with Rosemary Simpson

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I love finding a new series, especially one that explores elements of history less well known to me. Rosemary Simpson’s Gilded Age Mysteries came to my attention with book 7, set at Niagara Falls at a time when it was threatened by industrialization and the accompanying pollution.

Having read the latest installment, I was sufficiently intrigued to go back to the beginning to learn more about society heiress Prudence MacKenzie and her ex-Pinkerton investigative partner, Geoffrey Hunter. It’s a lovely series, well worth your time. Read on to find out what their creator has to say.



Death at the Falls is the seventh of your Gilded Age Mysteries. What attracts you to late nineteenth-century New York high society, broadly defined?

The late 1880s and early 1890s are a time that very much resembles our own age. Women’s issues are coming to the fore, and the wealth disparity between the very rich and the very poor has created enclaves of luxury and power alongside tenements of unrelieved poverty and disease. New inventions are becoming a part of everyday life: the telephone, electricity, elevators, experiments with horseless carriages. Railroads crisscross the country, making transportation rapid, affordable, and safe. Corrupt political machines dominate city, state, and national governments. High finance is controlled by a very few unscrupulous men who dominate the banking houses and stock exchanges. Advances are being made in medicine, but the poor are victims of diseases such as diphtheria, whooping cough, tuberculosis, typhus, and scarlet fever.

Seemingly oblivious to the harsh realities of most working lives, New York society in the Gilded Age whirls through rigidly exclusive rounds of balls, debutante presentations, nights at the opera, dinners at restaurants such as Delmonico’s. Women spend their days making social calls and being fitted for gowns that typically cost more than a laborer can earn in a lifetime. Men lose themselves in business, clubs, cigars, and mistresses.

Prudence MacKenzie and Geoffrey Hunter allow me to write about both worlds, about high society and the criminal underbelly of New York City. I’m also fascinated by what I learn as I take my characters out of their comfortable milieus and into places and situations most individuals of their wealth and social backgrounds would never dream of going.

 


Prudence MacKenzie is one of your two main characters. When we first meet her in What the Dead Leave Behind, she’s not in a good place, as we would say today. Describe her situation at that point in time.

Prudence’s father, a famous and well-respected judge in New York City, has died recently, leaving his daughter all of his considerable wealth. She is engaged to be married to a man she’s known since childhood. It’s not exactly a love match, but she trusts and admires him. The book opens in March 1888, during the night of possibly the worst snowstorm ever to have blanketed the east coast. Prudence’s fiancĂ© is one of its victims—or was he murdered? Laudanum administered by a greedy and unscrupulous stepmother nearly robs Prudence of her fortune and her freedom. Only when she meets and engages the services of an ex-Pinkerton Southerner does it look like she’s found someone who can help her fight the laudanum addiction, foil the plots of her avaricious stepmother, and forge a new life for herself outside the confines of Gilded Age society.

How has she grown or changed as the series progresses?


Prudence’s decision to become an inquiry agent in the firm of Hunter and MacKenzie, Investigative Law, is an enormously daring step for a young woman of her age and social rank. She has to learn the detective skills that her partner mastered during his career in the Pinkertons and fend for herself in some of the seediest and most dangerous neighborhoods of the city while maintaining the social contacts that allow her to solve crimes that society would rather cover up. She becomes more self-confident with every case and more attracted to dangerous situations that a seasoned detective would avoid. She’s also falling in love with her partner, although she tries her best to deny it. Marriage means subservience during the Gilded Age, and she’s just taking her first steps toward independence.  

What can you tell us about Geoffrey Hunter, your hero?

Geoffrey Hunter comes from a wealthy North Carolina plantation family that owned thousands of acres of land and hundreds of slaves before the Civil War. Too young to have fought in the war, he was sent north to an exclusive boys’ school where his Yankee education clashed with his father’s politics. Geoffrey left the South and his family to join the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, settling in New York City when he became disillusioned with some of the agency’s clientele and anti-labor tactics. He lives in a luxurious apartment at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, one of the city’s most prestigious establishments. Like Prudence, he’s independently wealthy but bored by the society life he’s expected to live. He’s in love with Prudence, but stepping cautiously, knowing that to move too quickly might seem threatening to a young woman tasting newfound freedom from male dominance.



What takes Prudence and Geoffrey to Niagara Falls? What do they find once they get there?

Prudence and Geoffrey are asked by Prudence’s English aunt to help a friend of hers with a legal case whose details Lady Rotherton deliberately leaves vague. Prudence, who has just passed the bar—only the second woman to be admitted to the practice of law in New York State—is eager to test her legal skills. What they find is a complicated family drama in which a grandmother denies the legitimacy of her son’s daughter in order to retain control of the family fortune. As the deaths mount up, the case becomes more complex. Old jealousies mingle with corruption, greed, and the fortunes to be made as Niagara changes from a sleepy little tourist town to a mecca for development.

The Niagara they encounter is, to put it politely, in transition to the place we know today. How would you describe it in 1890?

Niagara in 1890 is on the cusp of massive development in hydroelectricity as well as tourism. It had been a favorite vacation spot for many years, but until legislation created the Niagara Reservation in 1885 on the American side and the Niagara Parks Commission on the Canadian side, the three spectacular waterfalls and the surrounding land were exploited by private speculators who had little or no regard for the preservation of the area’s natural beauty. Contemporary pictures show factories spewing debris and wastewater over the cliffs and into the Niagara River. Everything costs money, even peering through a knothole in the wooden fences erected to block the view. Things improved for tourists once Frederick Law Olmsted’s design for a free public park became reality, but the power of the falls remained a magnet for the new and fiercely competitive electric power companies.



And last but not least, who is Crazy Louie?

Crazy Louie is an entirely fictional character who dreams of being the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and live to tell about it. The stunt, if successful, would make him world famous. He’s been experimenting with different woods, various barrel shapes, and animal passengers for years now. Louie is an oddball character of whom Niagarans are rather fond, but nobody knows where he gets the money for his experiments.

What are you working on now?

I’ve just completed Death Wears a Hidden Face, Gilded Age Mystery #8, to be published by Kensington in November 2023. Prudence and Geoffrey must solve a murder that takes them into Chinatown, where they encounter a culture neither has experienced before. The historical base of the book is the effect that the prejudicial Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 had on the population of Chinese laborers who had been recruited to work in the California gold fields and build the transcontinental railroad. I’ve started the research for Gilded Age Mystery #9, which takes place in the New York City world of vaudeville and legitimate theater. No title yet!
    
Thank you so much for answering my questions!


Rosemary Simpson is the author of the Gilded Age Mysteries and two stand-alone historical novels, The Seven Hills of Paradise and Dreams and Shadows. Find out more about her at https://RosemarySimpsonBooks.com


Images: “The Protectors of Our Industry," Puck  cartoon showing various robber barons riding on the backs of workers; hand-colored lithograph of the Niagara suspension bridge (1856), crossed repeatedly by Prudence and Geoffrey in their attempt to solve this case; and Horseshoe Falls, Canada (1869)—all public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Photograph of Rosemary Simpson © Richard H. Simpson.






Friday, November 25, 2022

Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot

Although I write about the sixteenth century myself, I’m glad to see the publishing world’s obsession with Tudor England stretching to include the years that followed the death of Elizabeth I. Nicola Cornick’s latest novel, The Winter Garden, begins in the last decade of Elizabeth’s reign but centers around the 1605 plot to assassinate King James I, the formerly Catholic James VI of Scotland who converted to Protestantism to take the English crown and unite his  country with its southern neighbor. Catholics, who had been much discriminated against under the Tudors—despite Elizabeth’s reputation for religious tolerance, as Cornick notes in our New Books Network interview —hoped for better treatment under James only to suffer disappointment. The Gunpowder Plot was their revenge.

But the personalities involved were far more complex and fascinating than the clichés passed down about them, as personalities always are. Cornick brings them vividly to life, exploring an unsolved mystery of who betrayed the plotters at the last minute and contrasting their lives with her modern heroine, Lucy Brown, who becomes caught up in their problems even as she struggles to find a solution to her own. Read on to find out more.



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


In her novels, Nicola Cornick blends a modern perspective with a historical mystery and a paranormal connection between the two. The Winter Garden revolves around the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605, known to every British schoolchild as the origin of Guy Fawkes Day, celebrated on November 5 with fireworks, bonfires, and bobbing for apples, among other things.

In the contemporary portion of the novel, Lucy, an internationally renowned concert violinist, has suffered a health crisis that strips her of her ability to perform. Facing the death of her career, she takes the opportunity to recover at a rural English estate. There she experiences bizarre dreams in which she appears to inhabit the body of a Tudor-era woman named Catherine, even as she is increasingly pulled into a relationship with Finn, an archeologist working on the gardens of the estate.



Alongside this modern story, we follow the events leading up to the Gunpowder Plot, told by Anne Catesby, the mother of the main conspirator. At first, past and present seem far apart, but as the novel progresses, the links between them become clearer and stronger. Anne and Lucy are both strong, determined women fighting circumstances beyond their control—for very different reasons—and they hold our attention to equal degree as they variously navigate the origins of the Gunpowder Plot, the fate of the Knights Hospitaller, and the discovery of a long-hidden treasure in a Tudor garden.


Images: Contemporary engraving of eight of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, including Robert Catesby and the anonymous letter that reported them to the authorities public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Two Steps Forward?

About a month ago, I announced the entry into our family of two kittens. Almost five weeks later, I am happy to report that the boys are settling in just fine. They’ve recovered from their initial funk—hardly surprising once we realized we may have been the first strangers they had encountered, and strangers who packed them up and took them to a completely unfamiliar place, at that. They have learned to trust us to feed them and play with them and welcome their snuggling with us at night. And they have spread out through the house from that one room where they spent their first week. They’ve even acquired a few likes on TikTok, although of course they don’t know that.

 

Which is all to the good, I think we can agree. So why the question mark in my title? Well, that’s because we already had a cat, as I mentioned in my previous post: a fourteen-year-old female named Mahal, who was once a feral kitten, and her reaction was always something we couldn’t predict. I had hoped that she might see the kittens, because they are still about one-quarter her size, as non-threatening. She once came into the house as a kitten, after all, and the then-resident cats accepted her with little fanfare and no fireworks; she might have done the same.

She might have, but she didn’t. The arrival of newcomers, no matter how small, appears to have thrown her back into the rules of feral kittenhood—fight or flight. For the first week, she ignored the babies entirely. She spent the second mostly in isolation, emerging only to use the litter box and eat the occasional meal. By the third, she had shifted into “this shall not stand” mode, with hissing and scratching, interspersed with retreats to her special hiding place.

She does have cause for complaint. Given half a chance, the kittens eat her food and drink her water, even though they have food of their own and water that is exactly the same. But the toys they love, the cat condo, even the sisal scratching post are things in which Mahal lost interest long ago. And we live in a spread-out ranch house, one where three cats could easily share space without interacting much, especially when Mahal has rarely claimed entire rooms as her own.



Through constant monitoring and as-needed squirts of water, we have prevented conflict from escalating, but the kittens have learned to give her a wide berth whenever she walks down the hall. On the rare occasions when we leave the house, we still shut them back in that original room to protect them. I’ve gotten better at keeping one eye on the coffee grinder and the other on Mahal, but the need to follow her around really cuts into my morning prep time.

Still, there are moments of hope. Several times over the last few days, Mahal has managed to relax in the family room without constantly watching for kittens. She has patrolled the house and even entered rooms where they are without fluffing out her tail and slinking like one of the Mission Impossible agents entering an enemy fortress. She no longer reacts every time little paws thunder through the living room. I can imagine a time when she might accept that they are here to stay.

Don’t misunderstand me. I know why Mahal reacts as she does. She is a cat, and she sees the kittens as intruders she didn’t ask for or want. I’m sure she’ll come round eventually. But until that happens, I plan to keep that water squirter handy and give her lots of treats and pets when she manages to avoid “flight or fight.”

May we hope even to see a version of this one day? (That’s Mahal on the right, with the older cats who welcomed her.) Be sure that I'll post it if we do!

Photographs of the family cats © 2010–2022 C. P. Lesley.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Interview with A. E. Wasserman

As must be clear by now, I am not a natural on social media. But one element of my limited involvement in Facebook, in particular, that has brought me joy is the opportunity to connect with other writers whose work I might otherwise never have encountered. A. E. Wasserman—the author of a historical mystery series featuring Lord Langsford, a rather troubled but gifted and personable British nobleman, as well as many other novels—is one example.

I first encountered Lord Langsford in The Notorious Black Bart 1883: The Journey Back, Wasserman’s delightful and light-hearted attempt at recreating a dime novel. I then moved forward in time, through books set in 1884, 1885, 1886, and 1888. I enjoyed them all, and I am delighted that their author agreed to answer my questions. Her 1887 The Day They Turned Off the Water has just come out, but by reading on, you will also find out more about Langsford, his series, and how it came to be.  

You mention in your author’s note that you’ve been writing fiction since you were fourteen. How did you come up with the central character of this series, Lord Langsford?

Originally, I had a tale to tell, and sadly, it was turning out to be a very boring one. I didn’t like it; I knew my readers wouldn’t. I was struggling. Then one night at 2 am (I write at night) this person elbowed his way into a carriage, barging into the scene. Interrupting.

I couldn’t see this rude stranger very well. Old? Young? Fat? Skinny? He was very blurry. But I kept writing, and he slowly came into focus: peerage; young, handsome, a full six-feet, trim with a short-cropped beard and stylish mustache. As I got to know him, I soon realized the story needed this strong personality, Langsford. In fact, he took over the entire book—carried it so well that he was the one who started the Mystery Series. It’s all his fault.

Later, an intuit, after reading the first book, told me I was channeling a real person from long ago. Who knows? Certainly interesting to contemplate.

But I do know this: Langsford is much smarter than I.

What can you tell us about Langsford himself?

At the young age of eighteen, Langsford inherited his title and fortune from his father. He feels the pressure to carry on, have an heir, preserve the family fortune for future generations. He is a caring, sensitive sort, handsome, a dashing figure, but he struggles with who he is, what he wants, and what he must do.

Langsford is in love with someone he can never marry—remember, it is the Victorian Era, when everything and everyone must be perfect and anything less must be concealed (as opposed to now, when everything is revealed—often TMI). Thus Langsford proceeds to do and be what society expects him to do and be. He goes against his basic nature, but he has no choice, in spite of his ever-present internal conflict. It’s the Victorian Era.

The series alternates between full-length novels featuring Langsford and novellas that focus on other characters in your story world. What do you gain from varying your approach in this way?

The even-numbered years are full novels: 1884 No Boundaries, 1886 Ties That Bind, and 1888 The Dead & The Desperate. The odd years are spin-off novellas that ended up being written because readers wanted to know more about what happened to other characters—the “rest of their stories,” if you will. They weren’t willing to let go—the readers, I mean. And I suspect the characters weren’t either. There are many touchpoints between all the characters in the full novels. The feedback from readers regarding the novellas has been positive, and I’m glad to tell more stories about these secondary characters.

1887 is, like the other novels set in odd-numbered years, one of the books where Langsford is present only in the background. Introduce us, please, to Sally and explain her past association with Langsford.

One must go back to the novel 1886 Ties That Bind, where Langsford, visiting San Francisco, accidentally crosses paths with Miss Sally Baxter, a beautiful ranch gal who packs a pistol in her purse. This creates an exciting juxtaposition with an English Lord and a California rancher.

Sally is a force to be reckoned with, and Langsford is often dumbstruck by her. She certainly is outside any Victorian boundaries he is familiar with. Although taking place during the same years, the “Old West” is far not only in distance from Victorian London but from London’s society as well. To say much more about Sally and Langsford, well, sorry. Spoilers.



Who is Jake, and how does he get himself into trouble that affects Sally as well?

Jake owns and runs the Double Bar Ranch. When a gunman with a bad attitude shuts off the water source, an altercation between Jake and the bad guy ends up with the gunman dead. This sets off a story with exciting twists and turns and a lot of angst.

Remember Sally, the ranch gal with the pistol in her purse? Her parents originally owned the Double Bar Ranch, and now she and Jake do. It’s up to Sally to prove Jake’s innocence before he is found guilty and hanged, and the ranch lost. Can she? Will she?

Say a few words, please, about the importance of water in Jake and Sally’s world, especially at this moment in time.

Water was, and still is, the true “gold” in California. Rains and snows are seasonal with long dry summers. Today, as in 1887, irrigation canals and “ditches” deliver water from the rivers flowing with melted snows from high up in the Sierra Mountains.

As a matter of fact, when we had our horse ranch in the Sierras, there was a “ditch” (5 ft wide x 3 ft deep) that had been hand-dug in 1895. People in California depended, and still do, on canals and ditches. Water laws have evolved over the last 135 years, but the need for water continues.

An important—and often unsettling—element in this novel is the racism directed at Native Americans and other people of color by nineteenth-century white society. Explain, please, who Kacha is and how discrimination worsens his situation—and Jake’s.

Historical fiction provides a natural compare/contrast between “then” and “now.”

Settlers were mainly Europeans who expected everyone to look and act just like them. Anyone else was deemed uncivilized, and the indigenous peoples weren’t considered “humans.” With both their numbers and technology, settlers and miners overpowered the tribes.

Kacha is a Tachi-Yokut, part of a group of tribes that ranged throughout California’s Central Valley and up into the Sierras, including the location where our ranch was. Because Kacha was present during the incident between Jake and the gunman, he was arrested. The law did not consider Kacha a person; he had zero rights—he couldn’t even testify for Jake. He was just a “digger injun.”

Border Collies play an important role in your novels and in your life. Please tell us a bit about that element of your work.

Every book has a Border Collie tucked within its pages, just as every book has a horse on its cover—a nod to all the beloved beasts I’ve had in my life. I’ve had both Border Collies and dressage horses for years, and I’ve written for both dog and horse magazines, often having my own column. Writing has been interwoven all along.

Today my current Border Collie, Topper, is my muse. As a matter of fact, he was actually born along the Settler’s Ditch that first appears in 1886 Ties That Bind. Did Langsford lead me to this nine-week-old pup? Who knows? Topper isn’t saying.

Topper and I hike high in the mountains where he “herds words” to me. I get most of my ideas when we are together on a 9,000-foot mountain. You can find him on Facebook as Topper The Muse. He now has a seven-month-old (unrelated) “sister,” Tess, who is whip-smart and keeps us both on our toes.




This novel has just appeared. Are you already working on the next, and if so, can you tell us anything about it?

I am always working on the “next” book. In fact, there are six more books either floating in my head, or as rough-drafts.

Book 4 in the Langsford Mystery Series is underway. I may just have a double helix plot going, with a dead guy along with some political criminals threading their way through it. We shall see what Langsford decides.

Sally proved to be such a strong character, that I’ve been told she needs her own “series,” so I may just do a trilogy with her. There definitely is a lot of “story” that swirls around Sally.

Finally there is a two-part saga set in the 1770s. I am working with an Irish historian on this tale. It is based on a delicious true story of an Irish lad, age fourteen, who was kidnapped by American Colonial sailors and dragged aboard their ship. When they land in Philadelphia, he jumps ship and runs—right into the American Revolution.

Do you think Border Collie Tess is helping Topper herd all these my way? I am “double-teamed.” Now for time to write them all!

Thank you so much for answering my questions!


A. E. Wasserman is the author of the Langsford Mysteries, starting with 1884 No Boundaries. Find out more about her, her books, and Topper the Muse at https://aewasserman.com.

Images: photograph of the Kings River, central to the plot of 1887 The Day They Turned Off the Water, and line drawing of Tulare Lake in 1875 both public domain via Wikimedia Commons; photograph of Topper herding words © A. E. Wasserman; photograph of A. E. Wasserman and Topper the Muse © Pamela Corey, Fur Family Photos, LA.




Friday, November 4, 2022

Bookshelf, Fall 2022

Another season, another review of the current state of my groaning bookcases. This is just a small sampling of the books I am enjoying or expect soon to enjoy as early fall gives way to November and the arrival of cold weather, if not actual winter. As it happens, they are all historical fiction, and three are historical mysteries. This is, of course, because I read extensively for my podcast, now officially ten years old. But I do read contemporary fiction as well. Most important from my point of view, I have reduced my reading of other people’s novels to proof Song of the Storyteller, the next book in my ongoing series, for publication early next year. 

More on that soon. For now, here are some lovely books to enliven those lengthening evenings.

Nicola Cornick, The Winter Garden
(Graydon House Books, 2022)
As a child in the UK, I loved the fireworks and bobbing for apples and such that commemorated the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Guy Fawkes Day on November 5 is similar to Halloween in the US. This, the latest of Nicola Cornick’s dual-time novels, casts a very different, more revealing eye on the tensions that led to a Catholic attack on Parliament that would have destroyed a Catholic king if it had succeeded. 

In the present, a violinist stripped of her performing ability by a virus struggles to find peace at a rural English estate where a pair of brothers have been trying to restore a lost Tudor garden. In the past, a determined woman does her best to prevent her son from taking a path that might destroy their entire family. Both stories are beautifully told, gripping, and believable, and I’ll be talking with Cornick next week for the New Books Network.


C. W. Gortner, The American Adventuress
(William Morrow, 2022)
I’ve enjoyed several of Gortner’s novels by now, and this latest is no exception. He has a gift for finding real-life women who have been overlooked or undervalued and revealing them in all their dramatic complexity. Here his subject is Jennie Jerome, the American heiress who became the mother of Winston Churchill as well as one of the many paramours of Bertie, Prince of Wales—the future King Edward VII of England. Jennie is by turns imperious, vulnerable, loving, self-centered, resolute, and blind to the negative impact of her own choices, but she is never less than magnificent. I look forward to chatting with her creator in December.



Anne Perry, A Christmas Deliverance
(Ballantine Books, 2022)
This one didn’t arrive in time for my holiday roundup three weeks ago, which is too bad. I have loved Anne Perry’s Thomas Pitt and Inspector Monk novels for many years, and I enjoyed the predecessor to this novella—last year’s A Christmas Legacy.

In this new one, a doctor who has worked his way up from poverty and a young girl he rescues fight to treat patients while the doctor who owns the clinic investigates a potentially abusive situation. I have no particular plans to cover it except through a NetGalley review, but I’ll have fun reading it even so.

 

Irina Shapiro, Murder in Highgate
(Merlin Press, 2022)
Ninth in the Redmond & Haze mystery series, this novel has been on my tablet for a while as I cleared other books for interviews and blog posts—many of them listed here. If you haven’t encountered the series before, definitely start with the first, Murder in the Crypt, and follow them forward to avoid spoilers in the developing friendship between Jason, the earl of Redmond, and Daniel Haze. 

Redmond is a US Civil War surgeon and a reluctant peer, so he assists Haze, an English police officer who has moved from London to the countryside at the beginning of the series, with post mortems and sleuthing. The books are fast-paced and intricately plotted, giving an excellent return on the investment of a reader’s time. You can find out more about the series from my interview with the author earlier this year.


Rosemary Simpson, Death, Diamonds, and Deception
(Kensington Books, 2020)
Rosemary Simpson is another writer whose work had escaped me until her publicist dropped the latest in this, her Gilded Age Mystery series, on my doorstep a few months back. In preparation for a blog Q&A with Simpson right after Thanksgiving—#7 in the series, Death at Niagara Falls will be published on November 29—I read the first and third novels when they were on sale earlier this year.

This is the fifth, and I look forward to finding out more about the high-society heiress Prudence Mackenzie, her ex-Pinkerton sleuthing partner Geoffrey Hunter, and especially her autocratic Aunt Gillian, who in true Gilded Age fashion married into the English aristocracy as Lady Rotherton and has now returned to her native New York to assist—not to say torment—Prudence in finding a suitable husband. Naturally, those plans go awry, and soon Mackenzie and Hunter are knee-deep in jewel theft and murder.


Friday, October 28, 2022

The Housekeeper's Little Grey Cells

My mother was a huge fan of Agatha Christie. I grew up around those novels—often in multiple copies, because the publishers changed the titles over the years, and it wasn’t always clear which novels were new and which recycled, so to speak. Although my personal favorite was always Dorothy L. Sayers, especially after Harriet Vane joined Lord Peter in Strong Poison, I happily devoured every one of Christie’s classics that I could get my hands on.

I wasn’t quite sure, when Kensington Books pitched me on an interview with Colleen Cambridge, that a new series based on Agatha Christie’s fictional housekeeper was really a good idea. How could the new books compete with the old?

But having read two, I can say that they do. In some ways they even surpass the originals by redirecting their focus to the “downstairs”—that is, the servants, whom Phyllida manages with the sometimes assistance/sometimes animosity of Mallowan Hall’s butler, Mr. Dobble. It all gives the story a modern twist that is very refreshing. So don’t just indulge yourself. Listen to our interview at the New Books Network to find out more about this project before diving in.

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

Agatha Christie hardly needs an introduction. The Queen of Mystery has reigned since the 1920s, and the recent release of films based on her books shows that her popularity is in no danger of waning anytime soon. It takes a certain audacity to create an amateur detective who, while managing Christie’s household, outpaces her employer in solving crimes. But Colleen Cambridge pulls off this task with aplomb. In a nod to one of Christie’s best-known and most highly regarded novels, the series opens with a body in the library at Mallowan Hall, the rural estate where the author lives with her second husband.

Phyllida—who admires Hercule Poirot, Christie’s most famous creation—seeks to apply his principles of detection to that dead body in the library, and she succeeds admirably. When the second book, A Trace of Poison, begins, Phyllida is organizing a village celebration aimed at raising the necessary funds to repair the roof of an orphanage run by the local Catholic church. Four famous mystery writers—Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, Anthony Berkeley, and Christie herself—have agreed to sign copies of their books and to award a short-story prize guaranteeing international publication to one lucky local writer. But at the reception on the first evening, someone is murdered. The stolid but unimaginative police are called in, and again it is up to Phyllida to find out what really happened.

There can be few things more fun to write than fiction about other writers, and it’s clear that Cambridge is having a blast with every tongue-in-cheek reference. The crimes are inventive, the solutions satisfying, but at least as interesting are Phyllida’s interactions with her staff and the villagers of Listleigh. She has her flaws, and we learn early on that she has secrets. At the same time, she is observant, caring, perceptive, and daring, and watching her figure out the clues that befuddle even the police is pure joy.

Friday, October 21, 2022

New Friends

As hinted in my previous post, the composition of our household has changed since I last wrote. This was a planned expansion, and a happy one. In fact, we’ve been waiting six weeks for the latest additions to our cat family to grow to an age where they could leave their mother. But on Saturday, Sir Percy and I drove south to collect them. It was a beautiful fall day, the leaves just starting to turn, and once we left the highway, a lovely drive along quiet country roads. We met the breeder and her cats—until then, Covid and distance meant that all contact took place through text messaging and video calls—and an hour or so later were back in the car, heading home with two silent kittens in a carrier.

Now, those who follow my Instagram and TikTok posts will know that I am currently enjoying a mystery series featuring a large orange tabby named Max, who with his friends solves a series of crimes and has the capacity to communicate with some of his humans (as well as many other gifts not shared with most cats, such as the ability to read and even to surf the Web on a touch screen). It’s a delightful series, however improbable, and one of the books features a trio of kittens left in a box on Max’s doorstep, to the great dismay of him and his pals. Kittens are so cute, you see, and so rambunctious and unruly and disrespectful of older cats and their body parts, especially those delightfully twitchy tails. Of course, by the end of the novel, Max has made his peace with these tiny invaders. What happens beyond that, it would be unfair to reveal.

I read this novel twice during the six weeks of waiting, as a way of mentally preparing myself for the possible effects of introducing two newcomers to my adorable but aging matron, Mahal. Would she welcome the arrival of the kittens she had never had the chance to have? Or would she feel threatened? Either was possible. This isn’t the first time I’ve brought a kitten into my family, but the last introduction was Mahal herself, almost fourteen years ago. And I’ve lived with enough cats over the years to know that each combination is different.


What I hadn’t quite counted on was that these two kittens are nothing like their unruly fictional counterparts. They are certainly lovable and cute as the proverbial buttons, and as each day passes they are warming up to us a little more. But they are not rambunctious, and they don’t act as if they own the place—at least, not yet. They are brothers, the only two in their litter, and within moments of their exit from the cat carrier I realized that from their perspective what happened on Saturday was an unmitigated disaster.

One can hardly blame them for seeing it that way. They woke up that morning with their mother and another female cat who acted as a second mother, as well as a human they had known since birth. Then two strangers showed up, and before long they were stuck in a cage, heading who knew where. And when the cage door opened, there they were, in a place they didn’t recognize. No mother, no second mother, no familiar territory, no people except those two strangers. They had only each other, and until this morning, when the seal point ventured out of the small room that has housed them since their arrival, each of them has stayed within sight, sound, and (mostly) touch of his twin. Meanwhile, Sir Percy and I have made frequent visits, done our best to ensure their comfort, induced them with little success to relax enough to play, and supplied as much petting as they will accept. We can guess that at night they come out and run around, because the food gets eaten and toys mysteriously change their locations between midnight and morning, but we don’t hear them or see those nocturnal activities. (Cats are, of course, nocturnal by nature.)


What they don’t know is that at the place they left their second mother has given birth to another litter, and their own mother, after a couple of days of calling for them, has turned her attention to the new batch of babies. But since we don’t speak cat, as Max’s human does, that bitter truth will remain forever hidden from them.

Mahal, so far as we can tell, doesn’t yet know that her three years of solitude have ended. We’ve kept them apart because the kittens have enough to deal with—although if Mahal accepts them readily, she can offer the kind of comfort that only another cat can provide. And she may, because she spent her first eleven years with our sweet Jahan and has shown signs of loneliness ever since his passing. That bridge has still to be crossed, but we can hope that the introduction, when it inevitably occurs, will go well. Siamese love to snuggle together, and that’s exactly what the little ones need right now.

So stay tuned for updates. Meanwhile, I will continue to follow the adventures of Max and his friends—even as I monitor the very different situation developing in my own home.