Monday, December 17, 2012

Tribute to Paris

If we are lucky in life, we get to meet and spend years with our soul mate. I am one of the lucky. I met my human soul mate, my partner, twenty years ago, and my canine soul mate, Paris, a Welsh Pembroke corgi, came into our lives twelve and a half years ago, at the age of six weeks.
She was an unexpected gift. Several weeks before our rescue dog Chacha passed away after a long battle with an autoimmune disease which left us grief-stricken and bewildered. We’d only had Chacha a year before she became ill; having expected many more years with her, I was bereft. In mourning and at a loss, we wanted a new dog soon after, but repeated visits to shelters did not yield the right one. Looking back now, I realize we were seeking for a replacement for Chacha, not a new dog at all; she had been a dachshund/corgi mix, and we searched in vain for another like her. As the days went by, I became despondent. My friends and partner rallied around me; one friend finally took it upon herself to locate a litter of corgi puppies in Gilroy. 
I hardly recall the drive down, but I do remember that moment when I first saw Paris—brought to me by her breeder in a milk crate, she was the “runt” of the litter and priced at half of what her siblings had gone for. I paid willingly and returned home with this tiny, beautiful puppy whose markings were startling, perfect delineations of coal black, russet brown and pure white. Her eyes were blue, but would change to a soulful rich brown in time, as would her ears, rising to impressive peaked height, and her chest, which developed a strong breadth and bony ridge that are hallmarks of her breed.  I named her Paris in honor of the city, where my partner and I had planned to go on vacation but canceled our trip due to Chacha’s illness.

Paris was a joyous puppy:  she played, ate and ran around before collapsing wherever she happened to fall to nap, during which we couldn’t move her because then she’d growl and get testy. I’d never raised a pup before and she soon put me to the test, her willfulness and keen intelligence sending me to every puppy book I could get my hands on before I finally enrolled her in a series of obedience classes where she took to training with acuity, earning top marks. The training opened new doors in our relationship; all of a sudden, she looked to me as her guide, and her innate trust healed me of the pain I had suffered for her predecessor. As if she knew how much I needed her, Paris displayed remarkable resiliency and health, though her stomach was her Achilles heel, a legacy of her premature weaning. We overcame the stomach issues with a raw food diet supplemented by a high quality kibble; and lots of exercise.

She was tireless. She loved to hike and we patrolled the hills of our neighboring park twice daily in two-hour walks. Because of her, I met people I’d never have otherwise seen, fellow dog walkers whom I befriended and whose dogs became Paris’s playmates. Eventually we graduated to longer and grander hikes when my partner and I purchased a second home in Lake Tahoe. There, a whole new world filled with adventure burst open for us, as we explored dozens of mountain lakes and trails in our subsequent years together. We even hiked to the top of Mount Tallac at 8,500 feet! Paris may well have been the first corgi to accomplish that feat. And snow - oh, how she loved snow! It didn't matter how cold it was, she rolled and romped and frolicked in the stuff with abandon.
She also adored running water. Though she never swam willingly, at the falls of Taylor Creek she could spend hours knee-deep in crystalline pools, nipping and barking and drenching herself in the cascades. She loved to tear apart pine cones and nibble on the tender seeds inside; squirrels were designed specifically to drive her crazy and the chatter of chipmunks seemed to echo her name, like a network of warning that the pesky corgi was among them. Yet despite her herding instincts, she was invariably kind with other animals; she never harmed another being, including the six feral cats who shared our lives in our garden and whom she saw every day sunning themselves on our deck. It was she in fact who discovered the two once-feral cats who now share our home, finding them huddled under a bridge in the park and barking to alert me that their kittens were tumbling about her feet. Feeding the cats in the park became part of our ritual, as did long naps in the afternoon, sharing bananas and oranges and cheese, and jaunts about town. Paris liked to travel, though she could on occasion get car sick. She went several times with us to visit relatives in Los Angeles and it was always a thrill to find that new park to walk in, that new smell or object to pee on. She was always curious, always ready; she welcomed everything we did, no matter how often we did it, as if it were the first time. Unlike so many of us, she eschewed boredom. If things got slow, she simply dozed off for a while.
We had two near-encounters with death. The first was a savage pit bull attack in the park that she narrowly escaped by rushing to me; I had to beat the dog off her and we were both injured in the process. Paris’s shoulder and ear were torn out; when her fur grew back on her shoulder, it had a new white streak on the site, her battle scar. Her ear mended perfectly, to the vet’s surprise. The second brush was with a marijuana-laced brownie; always a chow-hound, she found it by the barbecue pits one Sunday and gobbled it up before I could stop her. I had no idea it was drugged until two hours later when we had to rush her to the emergency vet because she had lost muscle control and was hallucinating. The vet spent the night shoveling charcoal down her throat to induce vomiting; a very anxious ten hours later, we picked her up, groggy and tired, but thankfully alive.

Both occasions reminded me of the fragility of life and of that unspoken pact between us, that I would see her through to the end. It was easy to forget the pact, because her love taught me that the important thing in life was to be in the moment. And thus we remained until she fell ill with an esophageal disorder shortly before Thanksgiving. The disease was relentless, depriving her of her ability to keep down her food. When dreaded aspiration pneumonia set in on December 4 in the early morning hours, we rushed her to the same emergency vet who had saved her life twice before. There was no saving her this time; I had vowed she must not suffer. Her disease was incurable and so, as she lay in my arms and my partner knelt before her, stroking her face, she left us peacefully, with dignity.

I miss her every day. The initial anguish of her passing overwhelmed me. I finally understood the meaning of the word ‘inconsolable.’ But as time, remorseless and healing, has begun to pass, I find glimmers of joy in the memories of her beautiful face and expressive eyes that always regarded me so intently, in her stub of a tail that wagged so insistently whenever I returned home, no matter how brief my absence, and her solid warmth at my feet when I wrote, reminding me with a nudge of her muzzle that it was time for lunch or a nap or our walk. Though for today I remain lost without her, I know that as time continues to pass my memories will vanquish the sorrow, for I am a better human for having loved her. She was the dog of my soul, you see, and I am lucky to have met her.

Farewell, my sweet Paris. Until we meet again.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


I'm delighted to announce using random number generator, the winner of the SACRED TREASON giveaway is Michelle, True Book Addict. Thank you for everyone who entered; Sourcebooks and I wish we had copies for all of you!

Michelle, please contact me via cwgortner[at]earthlink[dot]net with your address so I can forward your information to the publicist at Sourcebooks.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Guest post from Juliet Grey, author of DAYS OF SPLENDOR< DAYS OF SORROW

I'm delighted to welcome back Juliet Grey, who is currently on tour for DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW, the second novel in her sumptuous trilogy on the life of Marie Antoinette. The Historical Novels Review praises the novel as "[an] engaging voice, coupled with vibrant descriptions . . . really thrusts the reader into the story." Today, Juliet offers this fascinating guest post on the myth and reality of one of history's most misunderstood and defamed queens.  
Please join me in welcoming Juliet Grey!

EXONERATING MARIE ANTOINETTE: Separating Truth from Propaganda

DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW, the second novel in my historical fiction trilogy on the life of Marie Antoinette, focuses on the fifteen years she reigned alongside her husband, Louis XVI, from the death of his grandfather Louis XV in May, 1774, to the days following the violent fall of the Bastille in July 1789.

Paris, 1774. At the tender age of eighteen, Marie Antoinette ascends to the French throne alongside her husband, Louis XVI. But behind the extravagance of the young queen’s elaborate silk gowns and dizzyingly high coiffures, she harbors deeper fears for her future and that of the Bourbon dynasty.From the early growing pains of marriage to the joy of conceiving a child, from her passion for Swedish military attaché Axel von Fersen to the devastating Affair of the Diamond Necklace, Marie Antoinette tries to rise above the gossip and rivalries that encircle her. But as revolution blossoms in America, a much larger threat looms beyond the gilded gates of Versailles—one that could sweep away the French monarchy forever.

Picking up, chronologically, where the first novel in the trilogy, BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE, left off, DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW covers a lot of ground, from Marie Antoinette's early years as queen when the public loved her, to her struggles to consummate her marriage and bear France an heir, to the hedonistic pastimes and pleasures that filled her lonely hours and offered solace and compensation for the one thing she desired most in the world—children—to a scandalous and clandestine romance, to the disastrous "affair of the diamond necklace," which enmeshed her in the greatest con game of the century and although she was innocent, damaged her already tarnished reputation beyond measure.

For more than two centuries, beginning with her reign (as the accusations started during her lifetime), Marie Antoinette has been blamed for France’s ills. Her purported lover, the Swedish diplomat Axel von Fersen wrote to his sister Sophie Piper that she was even blamed for the results of acts of Nature such as bad harvests. If women overspent on their wardrobes she was accused of bankrupting the nation by encouraging them to follow the fashionable trends she set. She was even accused of corrupting the kingdom’s morals because some women took lovers to afford to keep them in costly garments, jewels, and accessories, when their husbands could no longer afford to do so—as if it their extramarital decisions were Marie Antoinette’s personal responsibility!

If I had a nickel for everyone who mistakenly attributes the “Let them eat cake” quote to Marie Antoinette and miscasts her as a monarch who was tone-deaf to the needs of her husband’s subjects, I could afford to live in a penthouse overlooking Central Park.  Those who know me well have witnessed my reaction, which can be anything from a cringe to outright vitriol, especially when the ignorance is perpetrated by a journalist (who should be smart enough to know better) or a politician (regurgitating the propaganda-as-history lesson that he snoozed through in school), flinging mud at his opponent by characterizing him as Marie Antoinette.  It’s an insult to the queen and a complete misread of both her character and of the historical record.  But history as we all know is written by the winners and Marie Antoinette is the French Revolution’s most famous victim, even more  so than her husband Louis XVI, because as queen of France she was a mere consort with no political power whatsoever.

And the truth is that France was broken before Marie Antoinette arrived there at the age of fourteen, already the dauphin’s bride by proxy. The entire court lived large, with each member of the royal family having their own satellite court and entourage. They even had their own separate kitchens. The first Two Estates, the clergy and the nobility (who held the lion's share of the wealth) did not pay taxes; consequently, the Third Estate—everyone else—was forced to foot the bill for just about everything, and when there were natural disasters, such as bad harvests, laborers and tradesmen had nothing to pay. King Louis XV had already emptied the treasury long before Marie Antoinette got there, fighting the Seven Years' War (1756-63). Every time a progressive minister proposed levying taxes on the first Two Estates, the Parlements (the judicial bodies that voted to ratify a king's edicts, and which were comprised of clergy and nobility), voted down the proposal. It was akin to a U.S. President proposing that taxes be raised on the wealthy, and the congressmen and senators who represent the interests of the wealthiest citizens consistently voting down the bill so that the wealthiest citizens continued to be tax exempt and the poorest, who could least afford it, kept getting shafted. And yet the poorest citizens didn't realize that it was the Parlements who were standing in the way of tax relief. So they blamed the king. And they blamed Louis (and Marie Antoinette) because their heads were being filled with propaganda against them.

Additionally, because Marie Antoinette was a foreigner, and, moreover, came from Austria, which had been an enemy of France for 950 years prior to the treaty that paved the way for her marriage, she became the scapegoat. She was even mistrusted by others at court who never endorsed her marriage in the first place. The poor woman couldn't do anything right.  Yes, she spent a lot of money, but so did everyone else at court, especially the king's youngest brother, the comte d'Artois, whose gambling debts were legion. (Artois was detested by the people as well, and he was one of the people falsely accused of being one of Marie Antoinette's lovers). But Marie Antoinette's shopaholicism was not responsible for bankrupting France. The kingdom was already in deep financial straits; several dozen gowns and pairs of shoes barely made a dent in the budget; unfortunately, they were visible signs of extravagance that the people could relate to

France's commitment in 1778 to aid the American colonists in their bid for independence from the British crown also contributed mightily to her financial woes. A series of bad harvests in the late 1780s compounded matters, and those acts of Nature, added to the plans to increase taxes on those who truly didn't have the cash to pay, spurred the commoners to heed the calls to arms from the demagogues who began to foment rebellion. What many people don't realize is that the seeds of the French Revolution were sown from the top down. From the moment she became queen, Marie Antoinette alienated many of the courtiers of the old guard who had been accustomed to certain perquisites during the reign of Louis XV. She detested court etiquette and not only downsized her entourage, but was determined not to surround herself with the "toxic" people who had derided her when she was dauphine, preferring to be waited upon by only a few close friends, people who had not earned their perqs through centuries of service to the crown. So, she began by alienating the aristocracy (some of whom had their own printing presses in their apartments at Versailles), and never imagined that her actions would come back to bite her. Add to that the liberty fever that had imbued the French noblemen who'd served as the commanders of mercenary regiments in North America during America’s War of Independence. These enlightened men had already read the treatises of the 18th c. philosophers such as Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau. They saw that self-governance could work in America and wanted a taste of it themselves.
DAYS OF SPLENDOR, DAYS OF SORROW offers an intimate window into the queen's personal and family life as well as a view of the opulent Bourbon court and the schemers behind the scenes who contributed to the public opinion of Marie Antoinette as the symbol for everything that was wrong with the kingdom. The novel charts the events throughout Marie Antoinette and Louis’s reign that led to the storming of the Bastille.  While it is of course fiction, it is grounded in historical fact, offering a view into the monarchs’ hearts and souls and illuminating the greater truths that lie behind nearly 250 years of spin doctoring. 

Thank you, Juliet! Best of luck with this rich and vibrant novel. To learn more about Juliet and her work, please visit her website.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Giveaway for SACRED TREASON by James Forrester

I'm delighted to offer a giveaway of SACRED TREASON by James Forrester, with the generosity of his US publisher, Sourcebooks.

Set in 1563, rumors against the young Queen Elizabeth have plunged England into a state of fear and suspicion. Despite being descended from treasonous Catholic lineage, William Harley has managed to earn the high-ranking position in the queen’s court, until a late-night knock on the door changes his life. A friend visits William, begging him to hide a puzzling manuscript. It seems harmless, but as William begins to unravel the clues inside, he realizes that he’s been entrusted with a dangerous secret about the queen’s mother, Anne Boleyn – an explosive mix of faith and fear that could tear his family, and the country, apart.

Acclaimed historian Ian Mortimer is well-versed in the drama of Tudor times. A Fellow of Royal Historical Society, his non-fiction handbook The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England was a surprise bestseller in 2009. Inspired by Mortimer’s research in the British National Archives, Sacred Treason is the first installment in an electrifying trilogy set in the tumultuous early years of Elizabethan England. Published under the pseudonym James Forrester, this is the historian’s first novel, combining factual detail with a chilling conspiracy.

To enter the giveaway, please leave a comment here on this post. The giveaway is open to US and Canada residents only. The winner will be announced here on November 5. Please do check back to see if you have won, so we can obtain your mailing address to send the book.

Thank you and good luck to all!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Guest Post from Jeri Westerson, author of BLOOD LANCE

I'm delighted to welcome back Jeri Westerson, author of the Crispin Guest historical noir series. Jeri has received resounding acclaim for her novels; set in 14th century London, her hero, Crispin, is a disgraced knight turned detective, trying to eke out a living while seeking to restore his fortunes. Jeri's stories are full of hard-hitting action and characters with secrets. And there’s the added twist of murder and a relic with mystical powers that always seem to stir things up. In celebration of the release of BLOOD LANCE, the fifth installment in the series, Jeri offers us this guest post about that most iconic of London's attractions: The Bridge.

London Bridge
By Jeri Westerson

What do you think of when you hear the words “London Bridge”? Do you hear the nursery rhyme? You know the one:
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady.

The origins of nursery rhymes are hard to trace and this one is no different. It is likely from a seventeenth century rhyme incorporated with an arch game people played in the Middle Ages, where participants join hands to form an arch with folks dancing under it. At an appropriate part of the rhyme or song, someone is trapped, like musical chairs without the chairs.

No matter the origins, London Bridge itself has been an important part of London’s landscape for almost 2,000 years. The Romans built a bridge across the river Thames where the embankments on both sides of the river were high, and where the indigenous people probably forded the river when the tide was low far before a bridge was ever built.

But a bridge was eventually constructed many times over that same spot for many hundreds of years, well after the Romans left. In Roman times, it probably started off life as a simple wooden bridge. But as Britannia became more important to the empire and as more commerce came through Londinium, a grander wooden bridge was probably erected. Empires fell and England began its many fights for power of the realm. The bridge fell into disrepair and only built up again in order to move troops when the Saxons wanted to assert power. When William the Conqueror arrived in 1066, he rebuilt the bridge yet again, but in 1091, a freak tornado destroyed it. It was once again rebuilt by his son William II but it was again destroyed in 1136, this time by fire, and rebuilt in the mid-twelfth century. Under King Henry II in the latter part of the twelfth century, a monastic guild, the "Brethren of the Bridge", was created to oversee all work on the bridge, and in 1163 the last timber bridge was built. It was in stone ever after that and that made all the difference to commerce for the city.

London was always an important center and capital, and it now had a bridge to match it. London Bridge joined the north bank (where anyone who is anyone lived and worked) with the south bank, or Southwark (where brothels and some of the poorer neighborhoods dwelt. Eventually, in Shakespeare’s day, it was also the side where the theatres were erected, since actors were thought of little better than whores.)
Meanwhile, London’s Bridge—and incidentally, its only bridge—became more and more grand. And you had to pay a toll to cross. Either you paid the Bridge’s toll or you paid a ferryman to ferry you across in a boat. It might be more convenient and more covert to hire a ferryman in the dead of night, particularly if you were up to no good, but the Bridge was mostly the way to go.
Because London was so bustling, space was at a premium. It was tough to expand outward as much of the land surrounding the formerly walled city was pasture and belonged to others, and so they built upward, medieval skyscrapers, if you will, reaching two and sometimes three storeys high situated in crowded canyon-like streets and alleys. And the bridge was not immune to this building. Houses, shops, and even a chapel were erected on the bridge itself, cantilevering its structures over the churning Thames, going two and three storeys high.

When I set out to write my latest Crispin Guest Medieval Noir novel, BLOOD LANCE, I wanted to focus on London Bridge. It was its own city within a city, and in fact, was its own parish. Much of the action takes place on the bridge, including a climactic joust, which was based on real jousts that were held there. London Bridge, with its closed-knit community, suspicious of outsiders, seemed the perfect setting for a murder, and what better murder than a man hurtling into the chilling Thames below? Consequently, the Bridge becomes another character in the story, a stoic parade of stone arches with buildings huddled on its shoulders, fearful of interlopers, and a silent witness to murder.

Thank you, Jeri. Best of luck with the new novel.You can read more about BLOOD LANCE and the other books in Jeri’s series, see discussion guides and read Crispin’s blog at Jeri's website.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Guest post from Mary Sharratt, author of ILLUMINATIONS

I am delighted to welcome Mary Sharratt, author of ILLUMINATIONS, a novel based on the life of the famous Benedictine abbess, healer and mystic, Hildegard von Bingen. Mary is the acclaimed author of several novels, including The Vanishing Point and Daughters of the Witching Hill. In her latest book, she brings to vivid life the travails and triumphs of the 12th century nun who became one of the world's most accomplished women - a composer whose music is still recorded today as well as a skilled healer and powerful philosopher. In celebration of Illuminations' publication, which coincides with Hildegard's elevation as Doctor of the Church, Mary offers us this guest post about her character's astonishing gifts.

Please join me in welcoming Mary Sharratt.

Hildegard the Healer by Mary Sharratt

Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) was a visionary Benedictine abbess and polymath. She composed an entire corpus of sacred music and wrote nine books on subjects as diverse as theology, cosmology, botany, medicine, linguistics, and human sexuality, a prodigious intellectual outpouring that was unprecedented for a 12th-century woman. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine.  Eight hundred and seventy-three years after her death, Hildegard was canonized in May 2012. On October 7, she was elevated to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title reserved for theologians who have significantly impacted Church doctrine. 

But Hildegard was also a physician and healer who developed her own highly original style of medical treatment and holistic dietary philosophy.  Saint Benedict of Nursia (480-543), the founder of her order, expressly forbade the study of medicine, which in his era derived solely from texts written by pagans such as Hippocrates and Galen. Benedict believed that prayer alone must suffice in healing Christians.

By Hildegard’s time, monasteries had become centers of healing and embraced the medical knowledge of the Classical pagan world along with the pioneering work of the Arab and Persian physicians. Nearly every monastic house had its own infirmary, hospice, apothecary, and medicinal garden. Hildegard would have had ample opportunity to train as a physician and apothecarer at Disibodenberg Monastery, a double monastery housing both monks and nuns, where she had lived since the age of eight.

Author photo by Anne Bullen
In his essay, “Hildegard’s Medicine: A Systematic Science of Medieval Europe,” Kevin Anthony Hay suggests that Hildegard trained as an infirmarer at Disibodenberg under the guidance of a senior monk before she later took charge of the infirmary. After she and her nuns left Disibodenberg to found their own community at Rupertsberg, she wrote Causae et Curae, her main medical text, possibly so the new infirmarer at Disibodenberg could benefit from her knowledge and expertise. When designing the new abbey at Rupertsberg, Hildegard made sure to include a medicinal steambath. People throughout her region came to Rupertsberg to receive healing.

In the Middle Ages, women freely practiced the medical arts. The School of Salerno, the first medieval European medical school and the epicenter of Western medical science, included both women instructors and students. One such instructor was the 11th century Trotula whose treatise on women’s health that bears her name, de Trotula, was used for centuries after her death. It was not until the mid- 16th century that European women were formally forbidden to study and practice as physicians.  

Hay believes Hildegard was unique among female practitioners of her time because her medicine didn’t focus solely on female complaints and also because she developed a systematic, scientific, and holistic understanding of medicine that rivaled what was coming out of Salerno, even though she had never received any formal university training. For Hildegard, medicine was an integral part of her religious vocation. Her medicine mirrors her theology—she believed that humans existed as the microcosm within the macrocosm of the universe and, as such, mirrored the splendor of creation. But if one fell into disharmony with the innate wholeness of creation, illness resulted. This could be treated through rest, herbal cures, steam baths, a proper diet, and by making one’s peace with the divine order. She identified precancerous states and developed herbal remedies to treat them before the cancer could develop. Naturopathic doctors in modern Germany still practice “Hildegard Medizin” and work with her dietary philosophy. She was a big fan of spelt bread. She warned that water could be unhealthy to drink and could cause illness, but that beer was most wholesome and pleasing to God. She was credited for discovering the use of hops to preserve beer. 

If you are visiting Hildegard sites in Germany, be sure to stop at the Hildegard Forum, just across the Rhine from the Saint Hildegard Abbey in Eibingen. The Forum is run by religious sisters who offer outreach for the public to learn more about Hildegard, particularly her philosophy of holistic healing and nutrition. They manage a café and restaurant; offer seminars and retreats; and maintain an orchard and a medieval-style herb garden.

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and is a Book of the Month and One Spirit Book Club pick. Visit Mary at her website.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Guest post from Robin Maxwell, author of JANE

I'm thrilled to welcome Robin Maxwell, whose new novel JANE: The Woman Who Loved Tarzan is out today. JANE is a thrilling and evocative telling of the Tarzan legend from Jane's point of view;  officially authorized by the Edgar Rice Burroughs Estate, JANE will transport you into the wilds of Africa on a fantastic journey of self-discovery, danger, love, and adventure. When I was growing up in Spain, I used to go to Saturday matinees to watch old Tarzan movies; I was always entranced by the story. I loved this book because it offers a fresh take on a timeless fable while staying true to the spirit of the original work. Jane Goddall has praised it as "an honest portrayal of the only woman of whom I have been really, really jealous" and Margaret George calls it "a triumph."

 Please join me in welcoming Robin, who offers us this guest post about Jane.

JANE: Queen of the Jungle

When I was growing up in the 60s, of all the characters I watched breathlessly on late night TV, I was most envious of Tarzan’s beloved Jane (from the 1930s feature films starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan). I was also intrigued by Sheena: Queen of the Jungle, starring the leggy blonde Irish McCalla who had her own TV series and ruled her domain without a man.But while Sheena had a better outfit—a seductive little leopard skin number, gold upper-arm bracelet, spear, and that curved horn she’d blow in times of danger, Jane had a full-blown romance in paradise with the hunky (if dumb) Tarzan. So what if she stood—as actresses did in those days—in a sophisticated slouch with hands on hips and was somehow a cosmopolitan lady underneath it all? And who cared that after a scintillating start with her revealing two-piece outfit and a four-minute-long fully nude swimming sequence with Tarzan her tog became a high-necked, brown leather house-dress?
It was all right. The movie-Jane still lived a wild, unfettered life, cavorting with wild animal friends, chasing through one hair-raising adventure after another, and (gasp!) living in sin with a half-naked Adonis.
This was the extent of my girlish jungle fantasy. As I grew into adulthood no other Tarzan movies were remotely satisfying. The one I waited for breathlessly in 1984 (Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes) was the greatest disappointment of them all. This Jane, a delicate, corseted Victorian lady, made her entrance fully halfway through the movie and never put a single toe in Tarzan’s jungle. Sacrilege! All the others were forgettable (or like John and Bo Derek’s Tarzan the Ape Man, downright awful). By the time of Disney’s animated version and its live action Tarzan spoof, George of the Jungle, were released, I was too old too care. Or so I thought.

When the idea of a Tarzan story from Jane’s point of view popped unbidden into my head three years ago, I hadn’t had a single thought about the wild couple in three decades. But the concept hit me hard, then haunted me unceasingly until I took action.I began by reading the Edgar Rice Burroughs books in which Jane appeared (eight of the twenty-four, sometimes as only a minor character). I had decided to base my novel primarily on the first in his series, Tarzan of the Apes, as it dealt with the series’ most iconic issues: the feral boy’s back-story; how his lordly English parents came to be marooned on a West African beach; the tribe of talking apes that raised him; his first meeting with Jane, and the foundation of their love affair.
I admit to being shocked and dismayed by ERB’s characterization of Jane Porter in that first book. She was quite the “Baltimore Belle,” as Alan Hanson wrote in an extensive and erudite essay about Jane’s evolution throughout the novels in which she appeared. She had come to Africa with a treasure hunting party, accompanying her father and attended by her maid, Esmeralda. Here Jane was a wide-eyed, swooning girl, and though she did have one flash of courage in the book—shooting at a lion about to attack—it was followed immediately by Miss Porter fainting dead away.

Her meetings with Tarzan were all too brief, with few words spoken, and the wild man falling instantly in love with her. This young man brought up from the age of one by “anthropoid apes” somehow knew how to kiss Jane on her upturned lips and even wrote her a love note. Eventually, through misunderstandings and twists of fate worthy of Shakespeare, Jane sailed out of Tarzan’s life, leaving him love-struck and forlorn. The ending of Tarzan of the Apes was, to my mind, wholly unsatisfying. It had Tarzan driving an automobile around the American Midwest and saving Jane from a forest fire, then leaving for Africa after giving her up to marry another man for some unfathomable reason, ostensibly “nobility of spirit.”

I learned that Burroughs had been more than a little ambivalent about the female character he had created. While he’d used Jane as the linchpin of the first book, and as a civilizing influence on Tarzan in a couple more (eventually having them marry, making her “Lady Greystoke”) the author actually killed her off in Tarzan the Untamed. Says ERB in a letter to a friend: “…I left Jane dead up to the last gasp and then my publisher and the magazine editor rose up on their hind legs and roared. They said the public would not stand for it…so I had to resurrect the dear lady.” He all but ignored her for eight more novels before returning Jane to the series, finally painting her as a strong, courageous woman adept at “woodcraft” and weapon-making, and capable of surviving alone in the jungle. By Tarzan the Terrible (1921) she thinks as she walk alone and abandoned in the forest, “The parade of cities, the comforts and luxuries of civilization, held forth no allure half as insistent as the glorious freedom of the jungle.”

I was determined that Jane reach this elevated state by the end of my stand-alone novel. And since this was meant to be story from her perspective, I needed to spend sufficient time illuminating her upbringing, circumstances and character before letting her embark on her African adventure. Considering she was an Edwardian girl brought up in an English society stultifying for most females, I gave her a head start—a father who moved mountains to provide his daughter with not just an education, but a vocation: paleoanthropology.
I established Jane as a tomboy and outspoken, rule-breaking, free-thinking “New Woman.” She was an equestrian, proficient archer and skeet shooter, a young lady with big dreams based on the exploits of her personal heroines—outrageous women explorers and adventurers like Mary Kingsley, Annie Smith Peck and Lady Jane Digby. Though a spinster at twenty, my Jane was not immune to lustful daydreams and even experimentation. I felt these traits would allow for modern readers, particularly intelligent female fiction readers, to relate to a protagonist who lived a hundred years ago; make believable the extraordinarily radical shift in her character that was about to occur.

I wanted more than anything a story that bespoke of equality between the sexes. It was vital to me that if Tarzan saved Jane, then Jane would in a different but equally important way, save Tarzan. They would serve as each other’s teachers. The ape man’s character arc would be as sweeping and dramatic as Jane’s. The pair, by the end of my book, would be “fit mates” for one another. To be fair, I had an advantage over both Sheena and Maureen O’Sullivan’s portrayals of Jane. I had a brilliantly detailed, exotic world into which I could set my protagonist down and a boyfriend for her like no other, whose own unique history had been crafted by a master storyteller, and generous permission and authorization to change it at my discretion.

 It was a posthumous gift given me by the late, great Edgar Rice Burroughs. I can only hope that he would approve.

Thank you, Robin! To find out more about Robin, her books, and join in lots of fun activities surrounding the publication of Jane, please visit her website.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Guest post from D.E. Johnson, author of DETROIT BREAKDOWN

I'm delighted to welcome D.E. Johnson, whose new novel DETROIT BREAKDOWN, Book 3 in the Will Anderson Series, was recently published.  In this entry of the acclaimed series, Will Anderson is called to the vast Eloise Insane Asylum outside of Detroit, a city once known as the Paris of the West, where a friend is a patient and now a murder suspect. Certain of his friend's innocence, Will begins an investigation that requires him to become an inmate. While Will endures horrific conditions in his search for the killer, his partners follow the trail of a murder suspect that will become a desperate race to save Will's life. Library Journal gave Detroit Breakdown a starred review, calling it " . . . one of the hot new historicals." 

Please join me in welcoming D.E. as he offers this look at his research into the infamous Eloise Asylum.

Why you won’t find women named ‘Eloise’ in Detroit
Even though the hospital has been closed for thirty years, Eloise still strikes terror in the hearts of men and women in Southeast Michigan. Since 1894 that name has been synonymous with madness. Located outside Detroit, only a few miles from the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Eloise Hospital served as Wayne County’s asylum and poorhouse in one form or another since 1832, when it was founded as the Wayne County Poor House. The facility was expanded throughout the Nineteenth Century to contain the asylum, and in 1903 further expanded for a tubercular sanatorium. From there, the hospital did nothing but grow, eventually swelling to seventy-five buildings on 902 acres, and having as many as 10,000 patients and inmates at one time, with over 2,000 staff members. Eloise had its own farm, cannery, bakery, employee housing, police and fire departments, amusement hall, and train and trolley stations. At one point its sixteen kitchens were serving 30,000 meals daily. Eloise functioned until 1981, when it closed for good. (The psychiatric facility closed in 1979.) More than 7,100 people are buried in the Eloise cemetery in graves identified only by a number.

At Eloise, the patients who were able worked for their dinner. The farms, cannery, bakery, and kitchens were manned (and womanned) by residents, in what would now be considered occupational therapy, but was then considered simply a necessity: the facility had to be self-sufficient because of chronic underfunding.
Why “Eloise?” In 1894 a post office was established at the Wayne County House (as the poorhouse was then known) because of the large volume of mail coming and going from the facility. The U.S. Postal Service required a unique—and short—name for the office, and after dozens of rejected attempts, the President of the Eloise Board suggested his four-year-old daughter’s name for the post office’s title, which was accepted. Had he known that “Eloise” and “insanity” would become synonymous, he likely would have suggested another. While the name wasn’t officially adopted by the various facilities on the grounds until 1911, it immediately became the unofficial term for the hospital.

Eloise was a relatively modern facility, as these things go. They were one of the first to adopt radiation therapy for tuberculosis and got good results with many of the patients. Unfortunately, therapies for the insane for most of its history are hard to classify as modern today. (Of course, that’s not just Eloise. You could find the same treatments at virtually any asylum.) In the early days, “treatment” was essentially immobilization. The patients would be chained to the wall, day in and day out. Therapy was not on the card. An insane asylum’s purpose was to protect society from the mentally ill, with no thought of those incarcerated.

Things changed during the “Progressive Era” (1890s – 1920s). The United States had a social awakening, which showed its hand in many of the advancements of the day, particularly in public responsibility for the less fortunate. This included the mentally ill. Psychiatric treatments began in earnest and ran a gamut of approaches, including electrotherapy (not to be confused with electroshock therapy). Electrotherapy worked by stimulating nerves with a low-level electrical pulse, which typically produced a tingling sensation. Depending on the school of thought, electrodes could be attached to the head or other body part, or the patient could be partially immersed in water that carried a low level electrical current. Electrotherapy isn’t particularly pleasant, but neither is it cruel. The first real shock therapy involved transferring a patient rapidly between a steaming hot bathtub and a freezing tub. The shock would often cause patients to pass out.

In the early Twentieth Century, psychoanalysis became the new fad, as Freud’s theories gained widespread acceptance. Psychiatrists were hired by the Eloise Hospital administration and enjoyed some success with the patients. Later, the story turns darker, as electroshock and prefrontal lobotomies took center stage. Eloise was at the forefront of these therapies, as they were with most “promising” new treatments. It’s easy today to judge them for employing these cruel techniques that caused radical and irreversible harm to the patients, but at the time they were at the forefront of innovation. The surgeons who performed the lobotomies genuinely thought the operation would result in a better life for the patient, and went forward with the best intention.

It’s always a danger to measure history by today’s yardstick. Experience has shown us that the lobotomy was a bad idea, and that electroshock therapy, applied as it was, did more harm than good. But just as with medical authorities today, these doctors were doing the best they could with the information available to them at the time. While it won’t do a bit of good for the patients who suffered at their hands, the doctors deserve at least our understanding. (And woe to you if you don’t expect the same scrutiny to be applied to our medical techniques today. In the future, some of our tried-and-true therapies—including radiation, I’m certain—will be viewed as cruel and barbaric, perpetrated by primitive hacks barely advanced from the barbers of the Middle Ages.)

So what is Eloise Hospital’s legacy? Now only four buildings remain. Three are derelict, one, the Kay Beard Building (formerly “D” Building, which served as Eloise’s administration building from 1925 -1981) serves as the office for the Wayne County Senior Citizens Services. The office occupies a small portion of the main level, leaving the vast majority of the facility empty. The other buildings—the firehouse, dynamo, and bakery—are standing but are uninhabitable.

People of a certain age who drive by the Kay Beard Building remember the patients, often children, who would gather at the fence to get a glimpse at the world outside Eloise’s walls. They remember the strange noises, sometimes human, sometimes animal, often-times indiscernible as either. They remember the relatives who were locked away behind those walls, sometimes never to be seen again.
But mostly they remember that name, the name that has always run chills up their spine—Eloise.

Thank you, D.E. To find out more about D.E. and his novels, please visit his website.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Guest post from Nancy Bilyeau, author of THE CROWN

I'm delighted to welcome Nancy Bilyeau, author of THE CROWN, which has just been released in paperback. This terrific novel about a nun who must abandon her cloister during Henry VIII's turbulent destruction of the monasteries to save her father and discover the truth about an ancient relic has garnered unanimous acclaim and was shortlisted for the prestigious Ellis Peters Award for Best Historical Crime Fiction. The novel's sequel, The Chalice, will be released next year.

Here, Nancy shares with us here her own initiation in Tudor mania, an obsession many of us know well. Please join me in welcoming her.

The Stages of Tudor Mania

People keep asking me why I chose to write a novel set in 16th century England. It’s not perhaps the most obvious source of inspiration. I am an American, growing up in the Midwest and now living in New York City. I’ve worked for magazines like InStyle and Rolling Stone and Ladies’ Home Journal. I adore films and Italian food and ocean beaches. So why am I fixated on a family that ruled England from 1485 to 1603?
I thought it was time to explain.

Launch pad: In the beginning, there were Keith Michell and Glenda Jackson. I watched “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” and “Elizabeth R” on television with my parents in Livonia, Michigan. I was fascinated by the vivid drama of these personalities—the mercurial king, the jostling of the six wives, the courage of Elizabeth.
For a while the stories of this period were everywhere: I saw “Anne of a Thousand Days” and “Mary Queen of Scots” as a double feature in the local cinema. Another classic that I saw on television was “A Man for All Seasons.” But I longed for more of Vanessa Redgrave’s giggling Anne Boleyn—I was just too young for Sir Thomas More’s wisdom, I’m afraid. I began checking out books from the library on the 16th century. I remember a librarian didn’t want me to have a book about the divorce of Catherine of Aragon because it had the word “divorce” in the title and she thought I was too young.

The middle years: Through high school, college and my 20s and 30s, my interest did not wane. I read nonfiction about the 16th century, such as J.J. Scarisbrick’s Henry VIII, Retha Warnicke’s The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn, and Antonia Fraser’s Mary Queen of Scots. I read deeply in historical fiction too, not just stories of the Tudors by authors like Jean Plaidy but Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy and Anya Seton’s Katherine. My favorite of all was Norah Lofts, and I marveled at her ability to write about women ranging from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Hortense de Beauharnais. I read everything I could find by Daphne du Maurier, novels and short stories too. I loved her historical fiction such as Jamaica Inn but I also reveled in her use of suspense.

The crescendo: When I joined a fiction workshop in 2006, I announced that I wished to set my mystery novel in the 16th century. I wanted to unite my two passions: Tudor history and mystery thrillers. Thanks to the success of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, fiction set in Tudor England was on the rise again. I was happy about it but a little disoriented too. For a number of years I’d felt a little off to the side with my thriving library of biographies. Now people were excited about seeing "Elizabeth", with Cate Blanchett and a new series about Henry VIII starring Ray Winstone. I liked both productions but twitched through the historical inaccuracies. And then came "The Tudors" on Showtime, and everybody was talking about Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry. As I wrote my novel over the five years, I felt ambivalent about the exploding trend of Tudor fandom. I laughed when I saw on Facebook a group called “I Was Interested in the Tudors Before They Were Cool.” I joined immediately.

Undying Love, It Seems:  In 2010, after selling “The Crown” to Touchstone Books, I took a break from my magazine jobs to write my second book, a sequel called “The Chalice.” I was accepted to work in a writer’s room in the New York Public Library—the others who’d gained admission were all scholars. Was I worthy to slave away next to the Ph.D.s on something that was really a hobby interest gone wild? It took a few months to realize that yes—I belong here. I have dedicated myself to the study of the 16th century, not just the royals but, since my protagonist is a Dominican novice, the monastic life of the period. I use my journalistic training to exercise judgment on the accuracy of sources. I search through contemporary sources as well as secondary. I want to get it right.

Last summer I traveled to London to meet my British editor at Orion Books and co-agent at Abner Stein (“The Crown” was also published in the U.K. as well as seven other countries.) I couldn’t sleep more than a half-hour on the red-eye flight on Virgin Atlantic—too much turbulence and too small a seat, perhaps. I checked into my hotel at noon, but instead of taking a nap I ran out onto the Strand, exhilarated to be breathing London air. I walked for hours and then, in the late afternoon, I jumped on a tour boat to see the Thames. I was in the last group of the day for the Tower of London, a place that I thrilled to write about in “The Crown” and “The Chalice.”

I’ve wondered occasionally if I will get sick of the 16th century--and then what? But after walking on the Tower green and through the White Tower, making time for royal jewels and instruments of torture, I left and finally sat down to rest at a table outside the Tower wall. The sun was low on the horizon as I ate fish and chips at one of the small shops facing the centuries-old castle keep. I thought of what once went on inside those walls and on those smooth Thames water. And I was completely happy.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Guest post from C.C.Humphreys, author of A PLACE CALLED ARMAGEDDON

I'm delighted to welcome back my friend C.C. Humphreys, who is currently touring for the US release of his new novel A PLACE CALLED ARMAGEDDON. Set in Constantinople in the earth-shattering year of 1453, this is a riveting account of the city's catastrophic fall to the Sultan Mehmet, as seen though the eyes of four lead characters whose lives and fates are entwined with that of the beautiful, doomed city. C.C. has such an eye for detail and voice; he captures the tragedy and drama of this pivotal event in history while never forgetting the human impetus behind it. I'm reading this novel now and am thoroughly entranced.

Please join me in welcoming C.C. Humphreys as he recounts an event that happened while researching this book.

In the cause of research, an Author is assaulted

What is travel without a little danger? I have always been a lucky traveller, rarely had  any problems. Humans are nearly always delightful, kind and generous. I have been given beds when I could not find hotels, food when I was hungry, heard great tales from people whose language I barely understood. 

And yet? The usually great experiences have to be contrasted with something darker to achieve their full brightness, surely? So there was that time in the hill tribe village near the Cambodian border. Another on the streets of Lima. A third beneath the pyramids at Giza…and then there was Istanbul.

It happened like this. I had rendezvoused with my good friend Allan Eastman – film director, history nut, fabulous indulger in life and its pleasures – to explore the city and especially the tale of the great siege of 1453. We both knew the battle well by this stage, and our plan was to walk over the sites, trying to see down the centuries to the men and women who’d fought there, attackers and defenders. We’d get distracted by speculation, possibilities.

So we’d come up from the Golden Gate to a rundown section of the Theodosian walls. To a turret, knocked down by Turkish cannon in 1453, never repaired. There was waste ground behind the ruin we explored, some ramshackle dwellings beyond it. Realizing that we couldn’t walk further along the walls, we were about to retrace our steps when a pack of boys came running across from the houses. Ten of them, they ranged in age from about nine to fourteen.
‘Heh, Mister! Cigarettes! You give!’
We both put up our hands in a pacifying gesture. ‘No, no,’ we said. ‘We don’t have any. Excuse us.’
We tried to move through them. They blocked our path. ‘Money. You give money now.’
‘Don’t think so.’
Hands still raised, smiles fixed, we managed to push through. The boys glowered but didn’t touch us. I thought we were in the clear… until I felt a shove in my back. I turned. A boy was a couple of paces away, glaring at me. I gave him a stare, turned slowly, moved away.
No one followed. We made the road, hailed a cab, went to more populated sections.

That night, back at my pension, I was emptying my bag when I found something unusual in it: a jagged piece of rock that had definitely not been there before. And I realized - it hadn’t been a shove - that boy had shied a stone at me! It had hit my daypack, dropped in… I studied it more closely – and found it wasn’t a rock at all but baked clay over brick. A chunk of the turret that had almost certainly been shattered by a cannon blast, fired by the boy’s ancestors.

Next moment, I was laughing. I had taken shot from a Turk upon the Theodosian Walls! And unlike many a Christian in 1453, I had survived. The rock sits on my desk – and makes me smile every time I look at it.

Thank you, C.C.! To learn more about C.C. Humphreys and his work (he's also a master swordsman and accomplished actor) please visit his website.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Guest post from Gordon Doherty, author of LEGIONARY: VIPER OF THE NORTH

I'm delighted to welcome Gordon Doherty, author of LEGIONARY: VIPER OF THE NORTH. Set during the Gothic Wars of the Roman Empire, this is an exciting and dramatic account of an unexplored time in history. Gordon is praised in his native United Kingdom for his painstaking research and stirring prose. 

Please join me in welcoming him today as he shares this guest post explaining the background and genesis of his work:

The Gothic crossing of the Danube in 376AD is considered a defining moment in history, one that threw the Eastern Roman Empire into turmoil and possibly led to the fall its western counterpart. Some suggest that, in a matter of days, up to one million Goths spilled across the river and into the empire while others estimate more conservatively at around one hundred thousand.  Even at the lower end of the scale, and despite the Goths entering the empire in truce, such a monumental population shift could only ever lead to one thing: War.

Yet, for many hundreds of years prior to the crossings, the Germanic peoples inhabiting the lands immediately outwith the empire had never come together so markedly – in-fighting , tribal pride and Roman subterfuge ensuring they remained politically and militarily fractured. So what provoked the Goths to cross the great river in 376 AD with such unprecedented unity and conviction?

The answer lies far to the east, on the craggy and windswept steppes near modern-day Mongolia. This was the land of a people we have come to know as the Huns. At some point, probably in the 1st century AD, these hardy, nomadic horsemen began an inexorable migration westwards. Some believe they were driven from the east by aggression from the Han Chinese or by a confederation of rival nomadic peoples. Whatever their stimulus, the Huns seemed set on chasing the setting sun, sending entire peoples into flight as they moved west. This triggered what historians now describe as ‘The Great Migration’, a momentous gravitation of population from the east towards Europe. The Huns’ mastery of archery and mounted warfare saw them subjugate almost every tribe they came across in the steppes and then Scythia. The Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, tells how peoples such as the Alani, the Agathyrsi, the Anthropophagi, the Budini, the Geloni, the Melanchaenae and the Neuri all fell under the Hunnic yoke. These tribes were then pressed into service for the Hunnic advance on the next westerly target: Gutthiuda, land of the Goths and the last buffer between the Huns and the Roman Empire.

In late 376 AD, the Gothic armies were fractured, with many rival ‘Judges’ competing for ultimate power. But when the Huns appeared en-masse on their northern borders, these squabbling warlords at last set aside their differences, with Fritigern emerging as their leader. But, caught unawares by such a ferocious army of invaders, the unified Goths quickly realised that they could not stand their ground and fight. So, like every other people who had found themselves in the Huns’ path, the Goths fled for their lives; to the south, to the Danube and to the Eastern Empire. The border legions garrisoning the forts along the River Danube were under-strength, poorly equipped and ill-prepared for any major border activity. Added to that, they found themselves as the guardians of Thracia and Moesia after Emperor Valens had summoned the bulk of the field armies of those provinces to the Persian frontier.

So when Fritigern and a sea of Gothic warriors and families appeared on the northern banks of the Danube appealing for sanctuary, the legions had no option but to allow them entry. Ammianus, writing some years after the event, describes the subsequent Gothic crossing of the Danube as fervent and troubled;
‘The crowd was such that, though the river is the most dangerous in the world . . . a large number tried to swim and were drowned in their struggle against the force of the stream.’
Emperor Valens is thought to have applied some retrospective spin to this tumultuous event, lauding the Goths as ready-made reinforcements for the patchy border legions. In reality, however, it was the first of many dark days for the empire. Famine soon gripped the overpopulated refugee camp and the surrounding Roman settlements. This, combined with a succession of Roman atrocities – including beatings, murders and the selling of Gothic children into slavery in exchange for rotting dog meat – set Fritigern and his people on the march to Marcianople in search of food. Then, at the gates of the city, he was the subject of a bungled assassination attempt by the local Roman commander. With that, the last vestige of Roman-Gothic truce evaporated, and Fritigern rallied his armies to strike back. The Gothic War had begun. What followed would push the Eastern Empire to its breaking point.

The ‘Legionary’ series is set in the Eastern Roman Empire, and follows the adventures of the impoverished border legions stretched across the Danube frontier in these troubled years.  ‘Legionary: Viper of the North’ is the second volume in the series and picks up where the first left off, taking the reader right down to the front ranks and into the eye of the storm, weaving a tale around the Gothic crossings and the chaos that ensued.

Thank you, Gordon! To find out more about Gordon and his books, please visit his website. Gordon's books are available at most online stores both here and in the UK.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Isabella of Castile and Her Myth

Note: This is a revised version of an essay published during my blog tour for THE QUEEN'S VOW.

Isabella of Castile is one of those historical characters who generate strong reactions. When I told my friends that I was writing about her, I heard everything from, “Oh, are you sure you want to tackle her?” to “Didn’t she burn everyone?” to flat-out: “I'd never read a book about her. She was a monster.”

Now, it may seem odd but those reactions excited me. I’ve always been fascinated by famous women with controversial reputations, as evidenced by my previous novels about Catherine de Medici and Juana la Loca, who is Isabella’s daughter. But I must admit that while growing up in Spain all I heard about Isabella (in Spain, she’s properly known as Isabel) was that she was this near-saintly queen who united Aragón and Castile through her marriage to King Ferdinand, conquered Granada, sent Columbus to find the New World, and . . . Well, that was about it. I’d also visited her tomb in Granada as a child, but I was more taken by the lurid fate of her willful daughter, Juana, the queen who went mad out of love— an interest that eventually resulted in my first novel, The Last Queen.

It was while writing my first book that I began my research into Isabella’s life. I focused mainly on her later years and found myself affected by her struggles, even as I deplored her religiously motivated actions. She outlived two of her beloved children only to die at the age of fifty-three, leaving behind a bereaved nation and uncertain future. No one could argue she was both stoic and indefatigable in her commitment to her country. But, I found myself asking, who was she before she became queen? How did this young and inexperienced princess sent to live far from court become the first female ruler of a united Spain? How did her experiences in her youth define and shape her later years? These questions obsessed me, and so I came to realize I had to write more about Isabella.

Nevertheless, when my editor accepted my proposal, I understood that I’d set myself a formidable task. For though Isabella has all the hallmarks of a formidable heroine, she's also shrouded by dark condemnation, often seen as a narrow-minded fanatic who gave rise to the Inquisition and callously evicted the Moors and Jews from Spain. Infamy clings to her name; as history has been revised by more enlightened times, she’s borne the brunt of it. I’d confronted historical calumny before with my characters, however, and my task as a writer is never to judge what happened but rather to try and reveal why. I also try my utmost to not view the past through the prism of the present. The world which Isabella of Castile knew was vastly different from our own, and its contradictions must have shaped her in unexpected ways.

First and foremost, no one can argue that Isabella was exceptional for her era. She's also, like so many of us, a bundle of contradictions.  Publicly and privately, she fought the dictates of society and its prohibitive limitations on women, intent on forging her own path. Nevertheless, she was rather traditional in her outlook on her duty as a wife, yet paradoxically she was a mother who insisted on raising her own children in a time when queens rarely did. She also faced a unique set of circumstances as a ruler that had proven the bane of her predecessors—a fractured kingdom weakened by centuries of strife, overlaid by an uneasy religious amalgam that made Spain both tolerant, and conversely, rife with divisiveness. Isabella inherited a land that was crumbling and in desperate need of unity if it was to survive the hostile encroachments of neighboring powers. Destined to become Spain’s architect, who would guide her new-born country into the Renaissance age, she achieved the impossible. Yet, like many rulers before and after her, she also made tragic mistakes - and those mistakes blackened her reputation irreparably.

The Queen’s Vow portrays the complex, fallible woman behind Isabella’s legend. From her forgotten youth when no one believed she was destined for greatness, to her plunge into the cesspool of her half-brother’s court and the unexpected loss that propelled her into a dramatic fight for her throne, as well as her passion for a prince she was forbidden to wed and courage as a neophyte ruler, which molded her into the queen who changed the world, her story is one of grandeur and passion, triumph, tragedy and sacrifice. It is a story of a princess who defied the odds, of a devoted wife and mother who endured heartbreaking betrayal, and of a devout woman torn between duty to her subjects, her faith and her country. It is a story that I believe the majority of us have never heard.

Was Isabella of Castile everything that has been said about her? Or, has history only given us part of the truth?  I leave you to find out. I sincerely hope you enjoy The Queen’s Vow.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Winner of Ben Kane's SPARTACUS

The random drawing has selected Michelle at True Book Addict as the winner of the free copy of SPARTACUS! Michelle, can you please send me your mailing address via Facebook PM or my e-mail. Congratulations and thanks again to everyone who entered. Ben really appreciates it and we wish we had more copies to give away.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Guest post from Alma Katsu, author of THE RECKONING

I'm delighted to welcome Alma Katsu, author THE RECKONING, the next book in her thrilling trilogy that began with The Taker, a haunting tale of eternal love, betrayal and atonement as a young woman uses magic to bind her faithless lover to her, with tragic consequences. The Taker was chosen by Booklist as one of the top ten debut novels of 2011; The Reckoning has been called “brilliant” by RT Magazine and “beautiful, mesmerizing” by Library Journal. In celebration of The Reckoning's publication, Alma has offered us this fascinating guest post. Please join me in welcoming Alma Katsu!

Historical Polygamist
First, let me thank C.W. for having me on Historical Boys today. It’s a great privilege to get to address his readers. And while I am a great fan of historical novels, I come here feeling like a bit of an impostor because I don’t consider myself a historical novelist. I know I’m not because my publisher told me so. When it came time to suggest artwork for the cover of The Taker, I forwarded jpeg after jpeg of lovely paintings of moody young women in gorgeous gowns until my editor was forced to write back saying something along the lines of, “Your book isn’t a historical and it’s not going to have an oil painting for the cover. Stop sending these to me.”

There’s history to be sure in both my books, The Taker and The Reckoning, but they don’t behave like proper historical novels. C.W., who kindly provided a very nice blurb for The Taker when it came out, put it kindly when he wrote, “The Taker is unlike any novel I have read,” (which delighted me, btw). It’s a very nice way of saying that the book has elements of many genres, not unlike Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander or Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire (but not too much like them, either).

The trilogy follows the story of Lanore McIlvrae, a young woman born in the early 1800s in a remote corner of the Maine territory. She has the misfortune to fall in love with Jonathan St. Andrew, eldest son of the family that owns the logging business that everyone in town depends on. Lanore—or Lanny, as she’s called—comes from a poor family and faces limited prospects, but she’s an intelligent girl and wants more out of life, and this attitude (plus her natural stubbornness) get her expelled from town and sent away to Boston. It’s there that she meets Adair, a mysterious man with otherworldly powers, including the ability to grant eternal life. To become immortal, all you have to do is drink a magical elixir—but there’s a catch: you’ll be bound forever to the one who gave you the potion. Lanny sees this opportunity to get back her faithless lover Jonathan, and gives him the elixir—with tragic results.

The Reckoning and the final book in the trilogy, The Descent, tell the rest of Lanny’s story, following her adventures through history as she tries to atone for the terrible thing she did to the man she loved and come to terms with the terrible, yet terribly compelling, Adair. The secret to his powers isn’t revealed until the very end of the series, when readers will learn if these are gifts from god, a true manifestation of magic, a manipulation of scientific principles or something else entirely. 

If you’re still with me, I’ll get to the historical bits now. The Taker is mostly set in northern Maine and Boston from 1810-1822. The story isn’t tied to a particular real-life person or event, and so I’m often asked why I chose that specific time and place. And the answer is: it just sort of happened. Lanny’s home town in Maine doesn’t even exist, but for the story to work, I needed a place that was cut off from the rest of the world, a miniature kingdom for Jonathan’s family to rule. That area of Maine was perfect, with the endless woods and the great Allagash River invoking the idea of a barrier. I picked years when America was still wild in places but civilized in others. But mostly, I picked New England because at the time the story formed in my brain, I had spent most of my life there, in the area I call “Colonial Ground Zero” near Concord, Massachusetts. I find something very romantic about the area: romantic not in the Valentine’s Day sense but in the sense that it was a time of great promise and potential for America and its settlers. Living around these old houses, you develop affection for the people who toughed it out and created a life for themselves in the wilderness.

As much warmth as I feel for New England, for The Reckoning I left Boston and have the reader travel the rest of the world as we follow Lanny’s life. It’s more like a novel of time travel in that respect, though I think the most direct influence is Orlando, the Virginia Woolf novel (and here I’ll be completely heretical and admit that Sally Potter’s outstanding film adaption was more of a direct influence than the book). We get to spend a few weeks with Lord Byron in Pisa and we get to run guns in the Hindu Kush during Rudyard Kipling’s time. We go back to St. Petersburg not once but twice to commune with Russian mystics. We even return briefly to Maine.

I admire the way some novelists are completely faithful to one time period, or one place, settling in as they would a good, long marriage. As a writer, I find it hard to restrict myself like that: I seem to love nearly all times and places. I love to turn over history they way a gardener turns over earth, amazed at the richness I find. I’ll continue this technique in the last book, The Descent, which comes out in 2013, when I’ll take another turn as a historical polygamist. I have a few ideas for bona fide historical novels and if I can get a contract for them, we’ll if I can behave myself and act like a proper historical monogamist.

Thank you, Alma. To find out more about Alma and her books, please visit her website.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Giveaway for Ben Kane's SPARTACUS!

St Martin's Press and Ben Kane have generously offered a giveaway of SPARTACUS THE GLADIATOR to one lucky reader! You have the choice of a hard copy or e-book. To enter, please leave a comment here.Winners will be announced in July.

One entry only, please. Giveaway is US and Canada only, due to publisher constraints.

Thank you and good luck!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Guest post from Ben Kane, author of SPARTACUS THE GLADIATOR

I'm delighted to welcome Ben Kane back, on his virtual blog tour to promote his new novel, SPARTACUS THE GLADIATOR (St Martin's Press, hardcover, $26.99). Steven Pressfield calls Ben's latest book "Gritty, passionate and a damn good read. Brings Spartacus -and ancient Rome - to vivid, colorful life." I couldn't agree more. I'm currently reading it and am enthralled by Ben's keen sense of the violence and splendor of the era, as well as his sensitive, unique approach to this legendary man.  Today, Ben offers us a guest post on the history behind his work. Please join me in giving a warm welcome to Ben Kane!

Spartacus ― the man, and the history behind the fiction

There are few names in history as recognizable as that of Spartacus. At first glance, this may seem unsurprising. Spartacus’ achievements were truly remarkable. Having been sold into slavery ― we are told by one ancient writer that he deserted from the Roman auxiliaries, but by another that he was innocent of any crime ― he escaped with some seventy others from a gladiator school in Capua, Italy. Through a combination of ingenuity and pure luck, the motley group put to flight not only the first Roman force sent against them, but also the second. Neither set of soldiers were not the Republic’s crack troops, but the second unit outnumbered the gladiators by more than forty to one. Unassailable odds, one would have thought, yet the gladiators prevailed.

Word spread fast. Slaves began running away from their masters to join Spartacus’ band. Soon he had a force of over ten thousand men; within a year, it was quadruple that number, or if some of the sources are to be believed, more than ten times. The gladiators’ breakout had become a full-scale rebellion that saw much of southern Italy laid waste. It sent shockwaves through the corridors of power, and in the two years that followed, Spartacus and his army won at least nine major victories over Roman legions. Ultimately, however, he was defeated.

How is it, then, that for thirteen hundred years after the fall of Rome, he was forgotten? It wasn’t until the 1760s that Spartacus’ memory was resurrected ― in France. This was due to the movement for political freedom that was sweeping Europe, and the frequent slave uprisings that were taking place in the European powers’ overseas colonies. Spartacus’ renown spread far and wide once more. His name was taken up by revolutionaries all over the world. Karl Marx thought of him as a hero. Lenin, and later Stalin, used Spartacus as the ultimate icon of the class struggle, as the model whom the proletariat should emulate. Howard Fast, American author of the bestselling novel, was a Communist who used Spartacus’ struggle in a similar manner. But his appeal was not just to left-wingers. Spartacus crossed the political divide in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan mentioned him as a symbol of the fight for freedom.

So what were the causes of Spartacus’ slide into obscurity after his death? The fact that not a single written word survives from the man himself, or from any of his followers, has to be a major reason. Another is that little over four thousand words survive that mention him – that’s about ten pages of a typical novel. More was written about Spartacus, but sadly it did not survive. Thirdly, Roman scholars chose not to comment too much on this dark chapter in their history. It’s a common feature for great powers to brush the details of their military defeats under the carpet. Human beings prefer to dwell on the glories, the heyday and the wars won. As the saying goes, the victor takes the spoils ― and they also get to write the history.

Was Spartacus really the man we think of today? First, let’s take a look at the world in which he lived. By the first century BC, Rome had conquered all of its potential enemies in the Mediterranean. Its conquests provided a huge influx of wealth into the Republic. At the same time, agriculture was changing, becoming larger-scale. The result was an enormous demand for labour, a need that was satisfied by the import of hundreds of thousands of slaves to Italy. They provided the workforces for the latifundia, or estates that covered much of the countryside.

The human tide of slaves that came from the eastern Mediterranean, from north of the Rhine and Danube rivers, and from the areas beyond the Black Sea. Thrace (roughly, modern-day Bulgaria) was one of the crossroads for this trade, and its people were also subject to enslavement. Other slaves came from northern Europe, from the regions east of the Rhine, and from Gaul. The influx of a huge number of free-born slaves into Italy over a short time had a dramatic effect. One of the least welcome was slave rebellions. Spartacus’ uprising was not the first, but the third, slave war to rock Rome in a turbulent period of only sixty years. The first two took place on Sicily, the first from 135-132 BC, and the second from 104-100 BC. It is ironic that these rebellions, both of which lasted longer than that of Spartacus, have all but been forgotten ― despite being better documented. What’s clear about the first two uprisings is that they were not about ending slavery. Nor was that of Spartacus. What they were about was men and woman, many of whom had been freeborn, seeking to escape their enslavement.

Today, there are few better symbols of the small man’s fight against overwhelming tyranny or brutal oppression than Spartacus. Much of what we think about the man comes from films, TV shows, or novels. Many modern-day portrayals depict Spartacus as a warrior in the fight against evil, even someone who wanted to free all slaves. As I’ve mentioned, the real situation was very different to these depictions. It is all too easy ― yet erroneous ― to place modern sensibilities on people who lived two thousand years ago. Yet life and morals then were totally different. Slaves were part of everyday life. Like washing machines or automobiles, everyone who could afford one, had one. Wealthy slaves had their own slaves. Freeing a favoured slave was common enough, but the idea of ending the practice of slavery would have seemed bizarre to the vast majority. Spartacus was a talented and courageous man, a charismatic and canny general. He worked to his strengths and was adept at exploiting Rome’s weaknesses.

But he was not a man whose burning desire was to free all slaves.

Thank you, Ben! To find out more about Ben and his work, please visit his website.