Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book review: Liberty Silk, by Kate Beaufoy

When I first read the catalog description for Kate Beaufoy’s Liberty Silk, I’d pegged it for a traditional saga about independent 20th-century women, one which would whisk me away to stylish locales and eras and make for an agreeable diversion over a summer afternoon or two.

What I got was much more. I was wowed by this book: by the author’s sparkling language, the wistful ambiance, the stunning settings, and the genuineness of its heroines. Although I enjoy historical novels about glitz and glamour, they often have a heartlessness at their core which keeps me at a distance. This isn’t the case here. The main characters, each of whom is very different, have a vulnerability that remains with them despite the life-changing experiences they endure.

The story intertwines the stories of three women from adjacent generations. Born into a wealthy London family, Jessie Beaufoy follows her heart and marries a handsome artist, only to have him abandon her on the final day of their honeymoon in Finistère on the Brittany coast. An eternal romantic, Jessie is despondent and longs to find him again – but her reduced circumstances and the corresponding shame persuade her to accept a role as muse to a famous painter in postwar Paris and on the Riviera.

Twenty years later, gregarious Baba MacLeod escapes London for a career in Hollywood, reinventing herself as an actor’s personal assistant and, later, as film star Lisa La Touche. Although she becomes a household name, she’s devastated by the rampant hypocrisy and the codes of conduct she’s obliged to adhere to. Finally, in the mid-1960s, Cat leaves her beloved parents in rural Connemara, Ireland, to become a war photographer.

Threaded like a silver chain through both Jessie’s and Lisa’s stories is the theme of how women’s freedom is held in check by men. Only Cat, living through the more relaxed social norms of the 1960s, has the opportunity to direct her life as she chooses.

And, yes – the dress on the cover. One other element linking the women is a custom-designed crepe de Chine gown from Liberty of London that’s “tiered like a Grecian tunic: a classic Doric column when one stood still in motion, a swirl of colour – primrose and geranium and cornflower blue and moss green.” Although it doesn’t play a large role in the story, it comes to symbolize where they came from as well as their connectedness.

Liberty Silk is high-class literary entertainment. The author was inspired by letters sent home from Paris and Italy by Jessie Beaufoy, her grandmother, who must have been a remarkable woman. Her novel makes for a beautiful homage to the real-life Jessie and to all women who aim to follow their dreams.

The novel was published as a paperback original by Transworld Ireland in July (£6.99, 496pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy at my request.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The inspiration behind the women of The Vintner's Daughter, an essay by Kristen Harnisch

In today's guest essay, Kristen Harnisch tells us more about the real-life women who inspired the female characters in her debut novel, The Vintner's Daughter, which I reviewed earlier this month.

The Inspiration behind the Women of The Vintner’s Daughter
Kristen Harnisch

The mother, daughters, midwife, wine maven, and the harlot of The Vintner’s Daughter were inspired by the real women of the time, and in some cases, shaped by the constraints of the late-nineteenth century societies in which they lived.

Sara Thibault, the book’s heroine, struggles to reclaim her family’s Loire Valley vineyard and the life that was stolen from her. Her tenacity and grit were inspired by three women wine-making pioneers of the late 1800s: the Duchesse de Fitz-James, a Frenchwoman who touted the benefits of using American rootstock to replant French vines decimated by the phylloxera louse; Josephine Tyschon, a widowed mother who built and ran the 55-acre Tyschon Winery in St. Helena (now Freemark Abbey); and J.C. Weinberger, the only California woman to win a silver medal at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris for her wine. Sara is passionate and daring, and when author Roberta Rich praised the novel by predicting it would “invoke inevitable comparisons to Gone with the Wind,” I recognized that Sara does indeed share these traits with Miss Scarlett O’Hara. Why are these women so connected to their land and willing to risk everything to salvage it? Because it’s fruitful, predictable, and, as Sara hastens to point out, “It does not disappoint.”

Marguerite Thibault (Sara’s “Maman”), and Sara’s sister Lydia, serve as able foils to Sara. Maman lived through the German occupation of nearby Tours in 1870, and waited anxiously for her new husband to return from fighting the Prussians in 1871—she has endured her share of uncertainty. Her failure to protect her daughters after their father’s death is rooted in fear: her fear of being alone, and her fear of having to start over with nothing.

Although Lydia is the eldest of the two sisters, she is vain and flirtatious, and more concerned about her marriage to the village rogue than the preservation of her father’s beloved vineyard. Despite their differences, Sara and Lydia have shared their childhood and care for each other deeply—they are “two sides of the same coin, one minted for practicality, the other for pageantry.” Maman and Lydia are essential to moving the plot forward. If Lydia had not blindly given herself to Bastien Lemieux, or Maman had ensured her daughters’ safety early on, Sara’s life would not have taken such drastic turns.

Marie Chevreau, the Manhattan midwife and single mother—cast aside by the same man who married and mistreated Sara’s sister—is a go-getter. Her character, in this novel and in its sequel—The California Wife—was inspired by Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree from an American school (in 1849), and who later founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, the school Marie attends. For Marie, a life free of romantic entanglement is the key to her success as a midwife, until the sequel, when her involvement with one of her medical college professors threatens to derail her ambitions.

author Kristen Harnisch
(credit: Alix Martinez Photography)
What can I say about Linnette Cross, the novel’s harlot? She’s a working woman, just like Sara, Marie and Aurora, yet she’s not entirely jaded. She harbors a passion not only for a particular man, but for the plight of the disenfranchised, and the Chinese immigrants, who were frequent victims of bigotry. She started at the infamous Clinton Street House, a real and flourishing brothel in Napa’s history, and she possesses a keen knowledge of her place in the world. However, Linnette has a soulful side, and in the novel’s sequel, we will see it blossom.

Aurora Thierry, I have to admit, is my favorite secondary character. When I was researching the story of Josephine Tyschon, I learned that she enjoyed driving her carriage at top speed, just for the thrill of it (and perhaps to irritate her many critics). Aurora Thierry would absolutely do the same. Aurora is a widow, and a self-made expert in winegrowing, herbal remedies, and husbandry, and she quickly becomes Sara’s surrogate mother when our heroine arrives in Napa. Everyone needs a friend when they come to a new town and who better than a Winchester rifle-toting, straight-talking, fiery, redheaded suffragette?

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the women in my own life—my mother, sister, aunts, cousins and friends—who also inspire my characters’ personalities and the way they handle the obstacles they face. The most joyful part of being a writer, for me, is breathing life into my creations, dwelling in their company, learning their idiosyncrasies, and testing their mettle in new and exciting ways.


The Vintner's Daughter is published this month in the US in trade pb by She Writes Press ($16.95) and in Canada by HarperCollins Canada ($22.95).  Visit her website at www.kristenharnisch.com.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

1933 and 2014: A look at then and now, an essay by Michael Murphy, author of The Yankee Club

Please help me welcome Michael Murphy, author of the newly published Prohibition-era suspense novel The Yankee Club, who's stopping by with an essay which makes a detailed comparison between 1933 and today.


1933 and 2014: A Look at Then and Now
Michael Murphy

My historical mystery, The Yankee Club, takes place in New York City, 1933. Prohibition has been a failure and has led to the growth of organized crime. Banks have failed; twelve million people are out of work. Homes are lost, and hopes are dashed. A polarized society turns to politicians offering extreme views.

I wrote The Yankee Club, a mystery inspired by actual events, as an homage to classics of the Golden Age of Mysteries during the 1920s and '30s. A Goodreads reviewer, Susan Johnson said, “It’s like reading one of the witty 1930s movies where the humor offsets the darkness and you root for the characters. You could almost imagine Dashiell Hammett writing the book.”

As much as I enjoyed writing the novel, I couldn’t escape the similarities between events of 1933 and life in America today. Many will say back then we were in a Great Depression and today we’re working out of the 2008 recession. One definition of a recession I heard is “when my neighbor has lost their job.” A depression is when “I’ve lost my job.”

Today, the unemployment rate continues at record levels, and banks have failed. Dreams of owning a home, which used to be a given, are now out of reach for many. Plenty of people work two jobs to make ends meet. Politicians point fingers at past leaders and each other. Promises are offered, but few solutions are ever enacted. One can’t ignore comparisons between then and now:

Comparisons between then and now how well segments of the country have responded to economic crises of each generation. Charities provided soup kitchens in 1933 and today provide homeless shelters and job training. Our country rose from the depths of the Great Depression. Things have improved since the recession hit in 2008, and a glimpse of history tells me we’ll recover from that as well.

Followers of this blog enjoy historical fiction for many reasons. Readers and authors of historical fiction often compare people and events with life today, so my novel is not unique in this regard.

The Yankee Club has been described as a rollicking mystery. I’m proud of the novel; the story, the mystery, the introduction of Jake and Laura who appear next in All That Glitters. But I’m also pleased I was able to craft a historical novel that provides readers with a glimpse into the past as well as a reminder of the present.


Michael Murphy's The Yankee Club is published this week by Random House Alibi in ebook format ($2.99; see links for Kindle and Nook).  For more information, visit the author's website and his \Mystery & History blog.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Book review: The Vintner's Daughter, by Kristen Harnisch

Harnisch’s satisfying first novel draws readers into two glorious locations, France’s Loire Valley and California’s Napa Valley, with an intermediary stop in New York’s Lower East Side. The timeframe is the late 19th century, and as might be guessed, the characters are involved in wine production.

This industry is shown literally from the ground up: from the land best suited to different grapes and vine inspections through the harvest, pressing, storage (barrels vs. the more newfangled bottles), and sales and distribution. Her thorough presentation also delves into the winemaker’s natural enemies: not only phylloxera infestations and competitors’ cheaply priced vintages but also the temperance movement sweeping across 1890s America.

These instructive details don’t overwhelm the story, fortunately, resulting in a fast-moving romantic saga about two independent, ambitious people hoping to succeed in winemaking. In the French village of Vouvray, Sara Thibault is a vintner’s daughter who wants to be a vigneronne in her own right. After her father is killed while out seeking a buyer to give him a fair price for his wine, the Thibaults find it hard to make ends meet.

Their vineyard falls into rival hands after Sara’s older sister, Lydia, marries Bastien Lemieux, a cruel man who’s easily recognizable as the novel’s villain. After Sara takes a drastic step to save herself and her sister, they escape to America. Sara’s search for a winemaking career eventually sets her on the path to Napa – where she crosses paths with Bastien’s reputed ne’er-do-well brother, Philippe, who owns a sizeable vineyard. Although sparks fly between them, he doesn’t recognize her from Vouvray or know her role in his brother’s death.

There is some stiffness in the dialogue early on, but the pair’s complicated love story plays out realistically, and the regional landscape is beautifully described. This relaxing summer read offers an enjoyable armchair voyage to wine country.

This review first appeared in August's Historical Novels ReviewThe Vintner's Daughter is published this month in the US in trade pb by She Writes Press ($16.95) and in Canada by HarperCollins Canada ($22.95).  Kristen Harnisch will be stopping by next Monday with an essay about the inspiration behind her novel's female characters.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Laura Morelli's The Gondola Maker: a smooth, romantic journey through Renaissance Venice

Laura Morelli’s The Gondola Maker intertwines a trio of love stories: a man’s devotion to his longtime occupation, gondola craftsmanship; his strong affection for Venice, the city of his birth; and his longing for a striking young noblewoman he glimpses in a painting.

The year is 1581. Luca Vianello wasn’t meant to be the heir to his father’s highly respected gondola workshop, but the accidental death of his older brother, who died years ago as a toddler, means his family has high prospects for him. The novel, which he narrates, opens with a dramatic scene that exemplifies societal expectations in the Most Serene Republic and the harsh penalties for those who fail to abide by its moral standards.

From within a large crowd, Luca watches as one of his father’s gondolas is burnt on a pyre, as part of the severe punishment for a foul-mouthed gondolier who disturbed the peace and insulted the wrong person. The man himself is sentenced to ten years as a galley slave.

Through Luca’s observant eyes, readers get an up-close look at the activities within the Vianello squero, or boatyard: the delicate carving of the wood, the selection of the ribs that form the different sections of each gondola, the varnishing and lacquering of the finished product. Morelli is an art historian, and her dedication to authenticity and interest in the gondola maker’s skill inform her work.

Despite their low status, gondoliers play an important part in Venetian life, and it’s enlightening to read about boatmen’s roles as driver and messenger – many Venetians would find it hard to conduct business without them – and the silent language they use to communicate with each other.

Against this classically romantic backdrop, the author creates a beautifully written tale about a young man’s pursuit of a life away from his hereditary duty – and the love for the craft that keeps calling him back. Following a pair of tragedies, Luca is forced to start over on a new path, one which eventually propels him into the company of a talented artist and of a green-eyed beauty whose portrait is being painted. All of Luca’s passions converge in his decision to restore a decrepit old gondola of his grandfather’s creation to its original, seaworthy state.

The plot is filled with descriptions of building façades, navigating and securing gondolas as they glide along the Grand Canal, and people’s dress and appearance. The pacing can be leisurely as a consequence, although all of these details are interesting to read about. While all of the action is seen Luca's viewpoint, the narrative also succeeds in evoking the restrictive, tough lives of women at this place and time.

Just like the gondolas themselves, the language is polished and smooth, and the story is worth reading for its depiction of a segment of society not often placed front and center. Kudos to the author, as well, for providing an atypical ending appropriate to her setting and characters.

The Gondola Maker was self-published this past March (301pp, including bibliography; $9.99 ebook, $16.49 trade pb, $29.99 hb).  Thanks to the author for sending me a copy at my request.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Out of Order: A guest essay by Ken Kuhlken on writing his Tom Hickey series

In reading historical fiction, it greatly interests me to see how characters act and react within their settings, and I also enjoy learning how authors choose what to write about.  The following essay by Ken Kuhlken, whose historical mystery The Good Know Nothing is out this week from Poisoned Pen Press, provides insight into the thought process behind writing his series and developing his characters within that series. Please read on to learn more.


Out of Order
Ken Kuhlken
People ask, "Why the heck didn't your Tom Hickey novels get published in chronological order?"

It's a fair question. From first to last, the books are set in 1943, 1942, 1950, 1971, 1979, 1926, and 1936. When asked why this nonsensical strategy, up to now, I've answered, "Beats me" or, if I felt expansive, "Beats me, it just happened that way."

But the invitation to write this post prompted some deeper thinking, and I've concluded that the reason for the peculiar order comes from the way my mind works, from my priorities. What intrigues me most about stories is characters, people. Settings, especially from the past, I also find intriguing. But people are what most puzzle me and excite my curiosity.

While thinking about this, something I hadn't recognized before came clear: The order in which I wrote the books in my series was simply a product of the same mind that chose my college subjects, a major in literature and a minor in history.

Most of my college reading was novels. And novels, at least the ones called literature, are most often character studies. No doubt those of us drawn to literature are trying to fill some gaps in our understanding of people, especially ourselves. We're like those who choose psychology except we prefer imagination over analysis.

Mary Pickford, mentioned in the series
as the employer of Tom Hickey's mother
On account of the way my mind works, my Tom Hickey series got created and grew like this: The Loud Adios (set in 1943) actually began with the setting, inspired by my fascination with Tijuana and with the WW II period. I can see Tijuana from my backyard and use to spend more than my share of time there. And my high school best friend's mother, who resembled Tom Hickey's antagonist Cynthia Jones, told us dozens of stories about the war years on both sides of the San Diego-Tijuana border.

As soon as I sat down to write about Tijuana during WW II, Tom Hickey came to mind, as an MP at the border. He didn't become a (in civilian life) private investigator until I decided to enter him into the St. Martin's Best First Private Eye novel contest.

Not long after I won that contest, I took my teenaged kids and two of their friends to Lake Tahoe, and one afternoon the antics of four teenagers caused me to ditch them, for the sake of what sanity remained. I left them in the motel and walked on the beach. At first I worried about what they would break and how much I'd get billed. Then I wondered how did Tom Hickey land in the fix he finds himself in during The Loud Adios.

William Randolph Hearst, who appears
in The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles
and The Good Know Nothing

Lake Tahoe is a magical place. About a trip to Tahoe, Mark Twain commented, "This is the air the angels breathe." Well, out of the heavenly air came a fairly complete version of The Venus Deal (1942). And by the time I returned to the motel, I had wondered about, and gotten the answer to, what became of a romance The Loud Adios introduces. The answer is in The Angel Gang (1950), of which the primary setting is on the shore of Lake Tahoe.

Quite a while after those books came out, I got to dreaming about the Hickeys again, and especially about the fate of a new character who enters the world during The Angel Gang. So I wrote that story, The Do-Re-Mi (1971) and during the process discovered Tom's older son, who charmed me so completely, I needed to write a whole book about him: The Vagabond Virgins (1979).

Next, because Tom Hickey played only supporting character roles in the last two books and I had learned to appreciate him more than ever, I found myself asking what in his parentage and youth had played into his development. Out of those questions came The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles (1926) and The Good Know Nothing (1936).

Marion Davies, who appears
in The Biggest Liar in Los Angeles
and The Good Know Nothing
And while working on these latest two books, I have fallen for Florence, Tom's bright, lovely, and wild-spirited sister. So I'm considering a book that centers on her. Maybe I'll set it in San Francisco's North Beach during the 1950s Beat era, another time and place I'd love to return to and explore.

All the times and places of the novels are ones I'm fascinated by. 1920s Los Angeles; 1930s all over the southwest; the WWII years along the border; Lake Tahoe when the gambling mobs were moving in; the hippie years in Northern California; and Baja California when the party that had tyrannized Mexico since their revolution began to implode.

So, it appears my stories, and the order in which I write them, come from an obsession with following characters to places and times I want to live in, learn about, and resurrect for my readers.

Now I'm especially glad that The Good Know Nothing is available, because it fills a gap in Tom's story. Now people can read in an orderly chronological fashion about Tom and a cast of dozens throughout the transformation of California from a frontier into the world's trendsetter.

Finally, from a wandering mind comes sensible order.


Ken Kuhlken's short stories, features, essays and columns have appeared in Esquire and dozens of other magazines and anthologies, been honorably mentioned in Best American Short Stories, and earned a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.

His novels have been widely praised and honored by awards such as the Ernest Hemingway Best First Novel, the St. Martin's/Private Eye Writers of America Best First Novel, and the Shamus Best Novel. His latest, The Good Know Nothing, a Tom Hickey California crime novel, was released on August 5.

Get the whole story at: www.kenkuhlken.net.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Historical novel spine art!

Regular readers of this blog know I love examining historical fiction cover art: admiring it, criticizing it, judging its appropriateness for the book and the genre, even tracking when it's reused.

That said, I haven't written before about the creative and gorgeous spine art I've been seeing on some historical novels, so I thought I'd dedicate a post to it.  Because many works of historical fiction are lengthy reads, publishers and designers have been taking advantage of the added real estate to create art that will make their titles stand out on a crowded shelf.  Let's face it, there are a lot of books vying for readers' attention, so they'll do what they can to grab us.  And it works!

Here are some examples of what I'm talking about from my own collection; I gathered together some good ones and put them all on the same shelf.

You can enlarge the photo at the top of the page to get a close-up view.

Sometimes the designers replicate the images on the front cover in miniature, giving readers a good sense of the full design and using it to set a mood even when the book is shelved spine-out:

From Polygon (UK)

From Howard Books / Simon & Schuster (USA)

And at other times, they create a similar design that elegantly complements the rest of the jacket.

From Douglas & McIntyre (Canada)

From Allison & Busby (UK). 
No jacket; the art is printed directly on the book. Very cool.

Would any of these designs entice you to pull the books off the shelf and read what they're about?