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 clich├ęs 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

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.