Monday, September 22, 2014

Book review: The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, by Kim Rendfeld

Kim Rendfeld’s second historical novel (following The Cross and the Dragon) takes the form of a quest-adventure, but not of the type you’d expect. Rather than centering on a single man or woman on a mission, it features a family of farmers, a devoted mother and her son and daughter, on their journeys together and separately. While their original goal is to regain possession of the home they lost to war, their search expands to include something more intangible and valuable: personal freedom. Finally, the setting is one that’s rarely seen in fiction, the Frankish realm in the late 8th century, as seen from the viewpoint of the king’s enemies, the beleaguered Westphalian Saxons.

The clear writing style should reassure anyone concerned about the unfamiliar setting, and readers are plunged into the action from the first page. Following signs of a Frankish invasion, Leova and her children Sunwynn and Deorlaf flee into the nearby woods while the men stay and defend their village. After the battle ends, their husband and father, Derwine, is found slain, and the holy Irminsul, an oaken pillar symbolizing the power of the Saxon gods, has been destroyed. Their situation worsens further when a cruel relative tricks them into slavery.

Over seven years, each member of the trio reacts in different ways to their new low status, trying stay together as they’re sold or traded to different masters and mistresses, some tolerant and some cruel. They aren’t static characters, and this is just one of the novel’s strengths. Sunwynn grows into a beautiful young woman hemmed in by her circumstances; Deorlaf becomes restless and seeks revenge on his family’s captors. As they mature, the story provides them with viewpoints of their own. Some of their mother’s choices make them uneasy, but Leova acts as she does to ensure their survival.

Good historical fiction can serve as a bridge between our time and days long past. With its beliefs in protective charms and forest nixies, the Saxons’ culture feels vastly different from our own, but everyone will recognize a mother’s fear and strength. Children of this time need to know the world’s realities, and Leova doesn't spare her son the truth about why they need to escape Eresburg: “If we return home now, the invaders will rape me and Sunwynn – and jam their rods up your backside.” In contrast, some other elements are toned down.  There’s quite a lot of muttered cursing in the novel, which will please those looking for a profanity-free read; others may find themselves curious about the presumably more colorful expressions that were omitted.

The plot smoothly winds through Charlemagne’s vast empire, from devastated Eresburg above the Diemel River in central Germany to the royal court at Aachen to a church in Rennes, in the March of Brittany. Details on the changing scenery and customs are well integrated. Although the conflicting religious beliefs of the time are highlighted, over time the novel becomes less a story about the Saxon gods’ failed power and more a tale about the strength of individuals and families – and the power of love to heal wounds. This makes The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar not only an authentic-feeling representation of a distant era but one relevant to here and now.

The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar was published by Fireship Press in August in paperback ($18.50, 376pp) and as an e-book ($5.50).  I received a NetGalley copy of this title for review.  See the publisher's website for more stops on the virtual tour.


To read the first chapters of either novel or learn more about Kim, visit You’re also welcome to visit her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at, like her on Facebook at, follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Chris Nickson's The Crooked Spire, and visits to modern and medieval Chesterfield

On our UK trip last week, we ended up staying one night in the market town of Chesterfield in Derbyshire only by happenstance.  I'd looked on a map and noticed it was close to Hardwick Hall, which I wanted to visit, so I made a reservation at an inn close by the town center.  Off we went.

While we were walking around the shops of downtown Chesterfield on our way back from dinner, Mark noticed something unusual in the distance.  "Isn't that spire crooked?" he asked me.  I agreed, and we both looked at the oddly twisted spire for a minute, the image jogging my memory slightly.  Then I opened my Kindle on the flight home to Chicago and remembered why it was familiar.  It seems I had bought Chris Nickson's new medieval mystery a few months ago, and what do you know.  There was that spire again. 

Of course I had to read the book right then and there.

The Crooked Spire opens in the year 1360 as John, a talented carpenter, arrives in Chesterfield looking for work.  He comes with experience he'd previously worked on York's famous Minster so, after some tests of his abilities with wood, he gets taken on as part of a team of craftsmen who'll be reinforcing the ceiling of St. Mary's church before installing the tall, heavy spire.

But after he discovers a corpse on the floor of the church tower early one morning, the coroner eyes John with suspicion. It's risky to be a stranger in town when murder is afoot.  John isn't without friends, though.  They include a young boy, Walter, who takes to him as a father figure of sorts; Walter's pretty older sister, Katherine; and the kindly Widow Martha, who offers John a place to stay in her lodging house on Walter's recommendation.

The novel offers a fully-formed picture of English medieval life as seen from the viewpoint of ordinary people; there are no royals in sight here.  Nickson's scene-setting and character development are both well done.  I liked spending time with John as he walked along Chesterfield's bustling streets after a hard but rewarding day of labor and as he dined on his landlady's delicately spiced meals at her home on Knifesmithgate (a street I remember seeing on my own travels).

All the while, I was introduced to legal matters of the era and the ins and outs of church architecture. For example, as the one who found the body, John has to pay the coroner a fee, which hardly seems fair.  That's bureaucracy for you.  But despite the dangers John faces, there's an underlying acknowledgment that he and other folks are the lucky ones. The Black Death is only twelve years past, and the pestilence had killed John's own parents and an abundance of others.  If the townspeople seek out what enjoyment they can in life, who can blame them?

The body count rises as the plot proceeds, since the original murder isn't an isolated incident at all.  John impresses the coroner with his quick mind, something unexpected in an ordinary laborer.  His  investigative techniques are logical, if not always terribly sophisticated.  To find one probable murderer, he and Walter look for a man wearing bloodstained clothing but that does get the job done.  John's admirable pursuit of the truth not only leads him to reevaluate his life but turns up a tightly woven web of corruption.  It all concludes on a satisfying note.

And for those like me who wondered how the crooked spire of the title might have come to be... there are explanations in that regard, too.

The novel left me wishing I'd seen more of Chesterfield in person, but since this is the first book in a planned series, I'll definitely be back to spend more time there.

The Crooked Spire was published in late 2013 by The Mystery Press at £8.99/$13.95 in paperback (264pp) or you can do as I did and snag it for $3.79 as a Kindle book.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Thank You, Wimsey: A guest essay from Bernadette Pajer - plus US giveaway

Historical novelists can potentially run into a sticky dilemma when they write about real-life people with living descendants.  Bernadette Pajer's story in this regard is different than the usual, and I hope you'll enjoy her essay about how she was introduced to Professor Joseph M. Taylor of the University of Washington.

Bernadette's fast-paced Professor Bradshaw mystery series, from Poisoned Pen Press, is set amid the academic scientific community in early 20th-century Seattle; The Edison Effect is the fourth and latest volume.  I grew curious about the series not only because I like historical mysteries but because both of my parents are math professors, just like Joseph Taylor.  There also aren't many historical novels that delve into the history of science and technology.  I've already read the first series volume, A Spark of Death (on sale for 99 cents in e-format) and enjoyed not only the mystery plot but also getting to know her protagonist, Professor Bradshaw of the UW, and his lovable son, Justin.  The  details on electrical engineering are fascinating and fully accessible to readers without a science background.

There's a giveaway opportunity to accompany Bernadette's essay, for US-based readers.  One lucky blog reader will receive a signed copy of book 1, A Spark of Death, plus a new copy of her latest, The Edison Effect.  (While each mystery stands alone, the author recommends reading book 1 first for familiarity with the characters and their relationships.)  Fill out the form at the end for a chance to win.
Thank You, Wimsey.
By Bernadette Pajer

I have Lord Peter Wimsey to thank for a true-life character in The Edison Effect. In the wonderful way that all things are connected, Wimsey's enduring popularity led to the Taproot Theater in Seattle putting on a production of Gaudy Night, which led to them hosting a panel of mystery authors to discuss Wimsey and Sayers and mysteries in general, which led to me being a guest, and to a man named George Myers, who is a Taproot board member and mystery fan, being in the audience, which then led to George emailing me about his great-great-grandfather Joseph M. Taylor, who just happened to be the University of Washington's first math professor and first Observatory Director, and who we both soon felt must surely be a good friend of my fictional Professor Bradshaw.

It's weird and wonderful the way fact and fiction can mingle on the page of novels, and also in real life. For many authors and their readers, fictional characters are as real as any flesh-and-blood person. We often know fictional characters better than we know our own families. We're certainly more understanding and tolerant of them. Perhaps it's because we get to see what's in their minds and hearts, helping us better understand their actions. Or perhaps it's because when we tire of them, we can simply close the book and walk away. Although, as Bradshaw's creator, I don't feel I ever truly walk away from him. He's with me the way my child is with me, even when we're separated.

Once George, by way of Wimsey, gave me the gift of his ancestor, I began to research this fascinating fellow. You can see by his photo that he was a likeable sort, gregarious, and outgoing. Quite unlike my reticent, reclusive Professor Bradshaw, and so the perfect mentor for him. I learned that Taylor had the honor of laying the cornerstone on the new campus, July 4, 1894. That building still stands today and is called Denny Hall. In the early days, it was called the Administration Building, and it's where, in the basement laboratories, my Professor Bradshaw works with his electrical engineering students. Those basement labs really existed, by the way, and at the turn of the last century, a dozen or so students worked with what was then an exciting new field, building Tesla coils, wireless transmitters, and dynamo machines (electric generators).

The Professor Bradshaw Mysteries are set more than a hundred years ago. “Seattle in the time of Tesla” is the slug line often used to describe them. This hundred-year gap makes it quite easy for me to sometimes incorporate real people into the stories without fear of retribution or offense. Not that I ever have characters with real-life counterparts do anything wicked, at least not anymore wicked than history recorded them doing. Thomas Edison appears in The Edison Effect. He was easy to characterize since so much has been written about him, and I enjoyed revealing his lesser-known dark side.

But characterizing Joseph Taylor was different. He wasn't someone I plucked from the history books, he was given to me by his very own great-great grandson. Taylor's descendants would be reading this book and my characterization of their relative. While I could have been intimidated by this, I wasn't. There was just something about Taylor's smile, the crinkle of his eyes, that told me he would get a kick out of being featured in a traditional whodunit. His smile let me relax and enjoy myself. I learned he was an author himself, with several non-fiction books to his credit, including The History and Government of Washington, published in 1898. He was a Freemason and an Odd Fellow, and he dedicated much of his life to helping improve the lives of others. I think I would have liked Professor Taylor very much. I know Professor Bradshaw is grateful to count him as a friend and mentor, just as I'm grateful to now count his great-great grandson George Myers, as a new yet already dear friend.

The UW's Jacobsen Observatory, site of the author's book launch on 9/27
(Professor's Taylor's descendants will be in attendance)

Bernadette Pajer's Professor Bradshaw Mysteries have been called "deft, highly entertaining" by Publishers Weekly and "a great series" by the Portland Review of Books. She's a University of Washington graduate, and a proud member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, Northwest Science Writers, the Washington Academy of Sciences, and the Research is her favorite activity, and she happily delves into Pacific Northwest history and the early days of electrical invention as she plots Professor Bradshaw's investigations.

Twitter: @BradshawMystery

And for the giveaway opportunity (open to US readers only):

Please fill out the form below for a chance to win a copy of book 1 and book 4 of the Professor Bradshaw Mystery Series.  One entry per person, please.  Deadline Friday, 9/26.  Good luck!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Historical novels seen at English historical sites

Although it may not have been apparent from this blog, I just got back from two weeks' vacation in England – Mark's and my first extended trip in some time.  We flew into Heathrow, rented a car, and drove north, stopping at York, Durham, Alnwick, then Berwick upon Tweed, England's most northerly town... and then we turned around and headed back south, with an excursion to Hardwick Hall near Chesterfield.

I found it noteworthy that historical fiction had a presence in most of the gift shops at the historical sites we visited, whether they were managed by the National Trust, English Heritage, or a more local organizing body.  What better way to continue to experience the atmosphere of a historical locale than to read a novel set there?

Here are some examples.

At the Beamish Open Air Museum in County Durham, the shop had numerous copies of Janet MacLeod Trotter's historical sagas set in England's North East.  This was a fabulous and large site, with restored buildings dating from the Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, and WWII eras, as well as costumed interpreters. We spent most of a day wandering around here.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that Bernard Cornwell's Saxon novels about Uhtred of Bebbanburg were in evidence at the shop at Bamburgh Castle.

The shop at Lindisfarne Priory offered a selection of historical novels set in and around monasteries and abbeys, such as Cassandra Clark's medieval mysteries about the Abbess of Meaux.  The Holy Island is accessible by causeway only at low tide, which gave us a few hours to explore the area last Monday morning.  It's definitely worth a trip.

The Chesters Roman Fort and Museum, near Chollerford in Northumberland, hosts the well-preserved ruins of a British Roman cavalry fort; it's located on Hadrian's Wall.  The gift shop at this site sold the historical adventure novels of Ben Kane and Simon Scarrow.

Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, the grand Elizabethan-era country house commissioned by powerful noblewoman Bess of Hardwick, had a nice array of books in its shop, below, including novels by Philippa Gregory and C.J. Sansom.  There was plenty of historical nonfiction about Tudor notables, too.

As a result, many visitors to these historical landmarks will be introduced to historical fiction and popular history.  I don't recall seeing this happening to such an extent on my last trip to the UK two years ago.  If this is a new trend, I hope it continues.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Book review: The Secret Life of Violet Grant, by Beatriz Williams

This smashing summer read introduces two ambitious career women living fifty years apart: Violet Schuyler Grant, an American atomic physicist in WWI-era Oxford and Berlin; and her great-niece, Vivian Schuyler, who defies her posh family to work at a magazine in 1960s Manhattan. While Violet’s courage, drive, and vulnerability make her a worthy heroine, Vivian’s cheeky and whip-smart voice steals the show.

The younger Schuyler gets caught up in a tantalizing mystery when a shabby old valise addressed to Violet shows up in her mail. Vivian also finds romance – a complicated one – with “Doctor Paul,” the dreamy surgeon she meets at the post office. Rumored to have murdered her husband and run off with her lover during the Great War, Violet hasn’t been mentioned chez Schuyler for decades, so Vivian is startled to learn of her existence – even more so when she pries the suitcase open and reads what’s inside.

As Vivian digs into her shadowy relative’s life, with the hopes of writing a dishy story that will be her big break, Violet’s tale of her disastrous marriage and risky affair with her husband’s former student unfolds in parallel. Brilliant but inexperienced with men, Violet is flattered by the attention of her older mentor, Dr. Walter Grant, whom she weds. Her dismay and fear are palpable when she discovers his controlling nature and infidelity.

Williams confidently re-creates both New York in the freewheeling ‘60s and the growing tension of prewar Europe, and she amps up the suspense as Violet’s situation gets desperate. Vivian’s commendable loyalty to her uber-rich friend Gogo adds interest, but the novel’s best part is simply watching the fabulous and always fashionably dressed Vivs in action. By the time she daringly acknowledges the plot’s big coincidence, she already has readers eating out of her hand. It satisfies on many levels, and it’s also immense fun.

The Secret Life of Violet Grant was published in June by Putnam in hardcover (436pp, $26.95 / Can$31.00).  This review first appeared in August's Historical Novels Review.  I loved the author's first book, Overseas, and thought this one was great as well, though the style is somewhat different.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Metifs, Meameloucs, Railway Cars, and The Cottoncrest Curse: An essay by Michael H. Rubin

Lawyer, professor, musician, speaker, and now debut novelist Michael H. Rubin is here with an original essay about the implications of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision by the U.S. Supreme Court and the role it plays in his new The Cottoncrest Curse, a legal thriller that intertwines fictional and historical characters.

Metifs, Meameloucs, Railway Cars,
and The Cottoncrest Curse

By Michael H. Rubin

In The Cottoncrest Curse, a series of gruesome deaths ignite feuds that burn a path from the cotton fields to the courthouse steps, from the moss-draped bayous of Cajun country to the bordellos of 19th-century New Orleans, from the Civil War era to the Civil Rights era and across the Jim Crow decades to the Freedom Marches of the 1960s.

At the heart of the story is the apparent suicide of an elderly Confederate Colonel who, two decades after the end of the Civil War, viciously slit the throat of his beautiful young wife and then fatally shot himself. But his death was not the first suicide of an owner of the Cottoncrest Plantation, and it was not to be the last…Or was this a double homicide, and are the deaths of the plantation’s owners across the decades linked? Suspicion for the murder of the colonel and his wife falls upon Jake Gold, an itinerant peddler who trades razor-sharp knives for local furs and who has many deep secrets to conceal.

So, what are metifs and meamaloucs, and how are they and railway cars involved in The Cottoncrest Curse?

The Cottoncrest Curse explores the dangers inherent in preconceived stereotypes. The infamous Jim Crow laws, which propel the action in The Cottoncrest Curse, were built on the fallacious stereotype that blacks were inherently inferior to whites. The Jim Crow laws were given validity by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, the separate-but-equal case. Plessy arose, however, not as a way to oppress blacks but rather as a test case to vindicate their rights, and a number of characters in The Cottoncrest Curse are involved in the Plessy case.

Jim Crow laws resulted in legalized discrimination against blacks. These laws didn’t merely mandate segregation and unequal treatment of those who “appeared” to be “black.” They attempted to parse bloodlines, so that even if one’s parents and grandparents were “white,” an individual was still considered “black” because of his or her distant ancestors. Louisiana even had terms to describe these bloodlines. Discrimination was legal against “metifs” — those who had just one black great-grandparent — or even “meameloucs” — those with just one black great-great grandparent.

Louis Martinet, a black lawyer who lived in the late 1800s and who appears in The Cottoncrest Curse, came up with a brilliant idea. The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawed slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited states from making or enforcing any laws that would “abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” Yet, Louisiana had passed a law prohibiting blacks and whites from sitting in the same railway cars, relegating blacks to separate cars.

Martinet believed that separate was inherently unequal, and so he recruited Homer Plessy to be a plaintiff. Both Martinet and Plessy were light-skinned; in fact, both could passe blanc — pass for white — if they wanted to, but neither did. Both were proud of their black heritage.

Homer Plessy boarded a railway train in New Orleans bound for the Louisiana town of Covington and deliberately sat in the “white” car. When the conductor came to take his ticket, Homer did not merely hand it to him and attempt to passe blanc. Rather, Homer, who was a metif, boldly spoke up, declaring that he was “a Negro.” He was promptly arrested, as Homer and Martinet had anticipated, and the case challenging the mandatory separation of whites and blacks was underway.

The result, however, was not what Homer Plessy, Louis Martinet, and a host of others had hoped it would be. The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the statute, recognizing that to strike it down would undermine all the Jim Crow laws, and the United States Supreme Court affirmed the ruling with its infamous “separate but equal” pronouncement. It was not until 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education was decided, that Plessy was overturned by Brown’s famous statement that separate is inherently unequal.

While Jake Gold, the protagonist in The Cottoncrest Curse, is fictional, many historical figures — like Louis Martinet and Homer Plessy — are key to the plot. I wanted to create a page-turning thriller that was firmly grounded in historical events, and I’m pleased by the reception it has received so far, with Publishers Weekly calling it a “gripping debut mystery” and James Carville deeming it a “powerful epic” that is “expertly composed in both its historical content and beautifully constructed scenery.”

I hope readers will enjoy reading The Cottoncrest Curse as much as I enjoyed doing the historical research and writing the novel.

About Michael H. Rubin

Michael H. Rubin has conquered many worlds, and now he is branching out into new territory – fiction.

Rubin is a former professional jazz pianist and composer who has played in the New Orleans French Quarter and a former television and radio host. He is an accomplished lawyer who helps manage a law firm that has offices stretching from California to Florida and from Texas and Louisiana to New York.

He has served as an adjunct law professor at the Louisiana State University Law School for more than 30 years, and is a nationally known speaker whose talks on topics such as legal ethics, negotiations, appellate advocacy, real estate, finance and trial tactics have been widely praised throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Rubin has presented more than 375 major lectures and papers. He is an author, co-author, and contributing writer of 13 legal books and more than 30 articles for law reviews and periodicals, and his writings have been cited as authoritative by state and federal courts, including state supreme courts and federal appellate courts.

His latest legal book is Louisiana Security Devices: A Précis (Lexis/Nexis 2011), and his first novel, The Cottoncrest Curse is a legal thriller and multi-generational saga to be published September 10, 2014 by the award-winning LSU Press. The novel will be available nationwide in bookstores and as an e-book.

Friday, September 05, 2014

A short review: Neverhome, by Laird Hunt

Although historical novelists have been slow to honor the brave women who fought in America’s wars disguised as men, several, including Erin Lindsay McCabe and Alex Myers, have recently remedied this oversight. Hunt joins their strong ranks with an enthralling novel about an Indiana farm wife who leaves her husband in 1862 to become a Union soldier; she has her own reasons why.

Don’t expect instructive details on how “Ash Thompson” pulls off this masquerade. Instead, Hunt’s is an exquisitely wrought vision of the terrible ravages of war—on the land, on the human body, and on the mind—as encountered by a tough, clever woman.

As she marches from camp and into battle, into unfamiliar Southern towns and across woodland filled with intermingled blue and gray dead, she bests others and is herself bested. Her journey’s every step is finely rendered in an authentic rural dialect. Readers will encounter eye-opening surprises in both her future and progressively revealed past while avidly living each moment alongside her, marveling at her determination and amazing courage.

Neverhome will be published by Little, Brown on September 7th in hardcover (256pp, $26.95). This review first appeared in Booklist's September 1st issue.  Looking for subject-based "readalikes" for Neverhome?  I've listed some in my post from this past Friday.  There's plenty of action in this novel, though it also falls within the realm of literary fiction, so fans of Cold Mountain and its ilk should find it of interest as well.