Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Sentinels: Fortunes of War by Gordon Zuckerman


First Line: Karl von Schagel paced the drawing room. In the last five minutes, he had probably consulted his pocket watch a dozen times.

Set during World War II, this historical political thriller is the story of six wealthy, brilliant economics students who reunite from several different countries and form a coalition to stop the Nazis. Their plan is to cleverly divert money from Germany’s powerful industrialists, who they believe are fueling the war, and use it for their own purposes. They do this by converting millions of dollars worth of gold. But the Germans soon catch wind that something is amiss and the six sentinels find themselves embroiled in intrigue with their very lives at stake.

Although the cover looks as if this novel is another World War II story, it is not. It deals only with the political climate of that era and provides motivation for the plot to evolve.

The story is very fast-paced with a large cast of characters who are so human with their faults and strengths, that the reader is immediately drawn to them. Political turmoil and romance mix together to form a novel of intense action with a riveting plot. It is a well written, well edited tale. The Sentinels: Fortunes of War is the first book in a series about these Six Sentinels. For more information, visit

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Whispering Bell by Brian Sellars

First Line: After the great sickness famine gripped the land, garnishing it for riot and murder.

The Whispering Bell is a novel about Wynflaed, a young woman of Mercia who was orphaned because of a famine that ravaged the land. A good thegn and his family found her, took her in, and raised her with love and kindness.

Wynflaed and her unwavering courage come to the notice of Wulfric, a powerful warrior and leader within the king’s army. He so enchanted by her, that he seeks her hand in marriage. As a wedding gift, Wynflaed receives a floundering lead mine. Wulfric is eager to enter into a lifetime of peace with his new wife and soon-to-be family and vows never to go to war again. But this promise proves too difficult to keep, and encouraged by his father, Wulfric departs to fight one last battle.

Wynflaed is left behind to care for their home and estates under the scrutiny of Wulfric’s malicious brother, Rendil. The mine flourishes and everything is going well. When rumours reach her that Wulfric has been killed in battle, Wynflaed’s world quickly deteriorates and she finds herself homeless, hunted, enslaved, and persecuted.

In The Whispering Bell, author Brian Sellars unleashes a rich, intriguing plot, ripe with emotion. It is a complex tale of woe, which rivets the reader to its endearing heroine whose courage in the face of adversity draws the reader deep into the story. Brian Sellar’s intense research into this period of history is clearly evident, making the story highly believable. The characters evolve with the story, some holding steadfast and others changing in unexpected, very human, ways. Filled with vivid descriptions of people, places, and articles, this book shines as an authentic example of early English history. The Whispering Bell has it all, love, passion, turmoil, treachery, murder, and intrigue.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade by Diane Wilson

I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade opens with the main character as an elderly woman telling her tale to her granddaughter. So while there is never any question as to the main character's survival, this YA book nonetheless captured my imagination and I am not someone who routinely reads YA. Ms. Wilson's fantasy is fluid, descriptive and unobtrusive. You'll never realize she holds the reins. If you rate by the tears-o-meter, it is by far the best book I've read in months.

When Oyuna of the Kerait tribe is mamed – her foot crushed – by a black mare, she is marked forever. Her parents try every treatment imaginable, but there is no cure for her foot, her life or her luck. Still, Oyuna knows she is meant for more than stirring mare's milk into ayrag. She dreams of speed and freedom, but needs a fast horse to win the next great race and make her dream come true.

Yet when her father allows her to pick a horse, her choice is Bayan, a mare well past her prime. But Oyuna cannot turn away when she hears the horse's plea for help. Reluctantly, Oyuna rescues Bayan and their friendship changes Oyuna's life.

The soldiers of Kublai Khan take riders, food and horses from Oyuna's tribe, including Bayan. Rather than lose her mare, Oyuna masquerades as her stepbrother and leaves with Bayan and the soldiers. Oyuna is discovered and she and Bayan are dismissed from military service. They now serve as a currier to the great Khan. This is good news to Oyuna, who knows the Khan has a herd of ten thousand white mares. If she and Bayan deliver his precious message in time, perhaps he will give her a fast horse.

She and Bayan brave many dangers crossing the Gobi, but at last reach Kublai Khan's court. Received well, Oyuna develops a friendship with the Khan, but he wants Bayan for his own. Rather than leave her friend or trade her for the mount she wants, Oyuna stays in her ruler's service. Then tragedy strikes the Khan's herds including Bayan. Only Oyuna can save her beloved mare, but time is faster than any horse.

You must read "I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade" to discover the ending. Nothing will induce me to tell, but be prepared when you read this book. Pack a lunch so you won't have to get up and have tissues close by. You'll need them.

Interview with Cerridwen Fallingstar

Welcome, I’m so glad to have this opportunity to chat with you. Can you share with my readers the essence of the story you’ve penned?

The essence at the heart of these two Japanese novels in the ‘White as Bone, Red as Blood’ series (‘The Fox Sorceress’, which has just been published, and ‘The Storm God’ which will come out next spring) is the contrast between war and peace. The novels contrast the art, poetry and love affairs which characterized the Heian period of Japan with the dawn of the Samurai, the beginning of the Kamakura period characterized by the rise of the warrior cult.

What I found most fascinating, is the knowledge that you drew on your own past-life experiences to learn about and then write this fantastic story. Can you tell us more about this – when did you first learn of Seiko and what happens when you go back in time?

I had my first memories of being Japanese when I was a child; I dressed as Japanese several times for Halloween, cherishing the illusion of re-inhabiting one of my old skins. Memories of two different Japanese lifetimes re-surfaced strongly in my early thirties. By looking through Japanese art books I was able to pinpoint the time period to the 12th century. When I started researching that period, I was stunned to realize that the people I remembered as my friends, enemies and lovers in that life were well-known figures in Japanese history. Going back in time is always a powerful and poignant experience.

What makes this book special to you?

What makes these books special for me is the deep feeling of love it evokes. It is wonderful to re-experience connections with loved ones from another time. Love doesn’t die.

What makes this a book that people MUST read and WHY?

The ‘White as Bone, Red as Blood’ series opens a gateway into a world unknown to western readers; it is a unique window onto that long-vanished culture. If you want to understand the soul of Japan, this book is a must. My books are the only past-life novels which qualify as quality literary fiction. They are essentially posthumous autobiography.

What sparks your creativity? Any tips to help others spark their own creativity?

Creativity is our natural state of being. Just get out of your own way. Adopting a playful, non-judgmental attitude towards your work can help. As Sylvia Plath once wrote; ‘Perfection is terrible. It cannot have children. It tamps the womb.’ Accept that your work will be imperfect—and gorgeous—like you.

What has been the biggest stumbling block in your writing? Can you share some tips to help others get past similar problems?

My biggest block has been the necessity of earning a living, and therefore fitting in my writing around the edges. This particular book was derailed for a long time by my husband’s sudden and unexpected death and by a car accident which left me with on-going pain from injuries. I lost years of work from the combined effect of these events. There is really no way to speed up that sort of unguided tour to the underworld; you can only hope it will provide depth and insight and compassion which will deepen your work later.

Tell me about the most unusual things you have done to promote your book?

I offer a mini past-life journey (using hypnosis) to each group of people attending one of my book signings. People love it!

Each author is different in the way they create a work of fiction. Please describe for us how you plan or plot a story.

For the past-life novels, I make a trance/hypnosis tape to guide myself into the time period I am writing about. Once in trance, I put in a new tape and record all my memories and perceptions. Then I emerge from the trance and transcribe the tape onto my computer. And then, of course, I re-write the material a hundred times, refining it into literature. I also do all the conventional research, visiting all the significant sites in Japan where the books take place and researching the historical events to ensure that my depictions of them are accurate.

Authors are very unique in the way they write, the tools they use, when they write, etc. Please describe a typical writing day for you? How do you organize your day?

I usually write in the morning. Research can happen at any time of the day. The story unfolds organically; I do not outline. Sometimes I am as surprised by a turn of events as the reader.

What is your current work in progress?

I am nearing completion on a non-fiction inspirational book, a ‘Wiccan Soup for the Soul’, if you will. I have also begun work on another past-life novel. This one is set in Minoan Crete.

Can you tell us where to find more information about you and your books and how readers can reach you?

My first past-life historical novel about Witchcraft in 16th century Scotland, ‘The Heart of the Fire’, is still available through Amazon. It has sold over 20,000 copies, mostly through word of mouth. The second book in this Japan series, ‘White as Bone, Red as Blood: The Storm God’, will be released in Spring of 2010. More information is available at I teach classes and give lectures, offer private hypnosis and healing sessions, and lead sacred site tours. Have broom, will travel.

What would you like our readers to know about you and your writing?

Read the books. That will tell you everything you need to know. Don’t loan the books to your friends; you’ll never see the books again. Buy them their own copies. If you fall in love with an author’s work, support them. Literature is being dumbed down into blandness and mediocrity by the consolidation of publishing companies and big-box bookstores. Vote with your pocketbook; buy quality books from independent booksellers. My book can be ordered by your favorite bookstore from Ingram or Baker and Taylor.

Excerpt - White As Bone Red As Blood

Chapter Fifty-Two

I am seated beside the Empress at a banquet honoring nobles from the north who are visiting Kyoto. My hair decorations jingle distractingly when I turn my head, but the Empress gave them to me, so I must wear them. They are shaped like gold flames, swirling around the layers of hair piled on my head. She gave the headdress to me saying it reminded her of my fiery, passionate nature. Sticks of ivory and silver protrude so far from her own hair arrangement, I fear that I will poke my eye out if I lean over and whisper to her. It is hot in the room, and we are wearing a full complement of eighteen robes. In spite of all the fans we are wielding, I feel suffocated. The real reason that women don’t eat much during these banquets is that we are so hot and weighted down by our robes and headdresses we can barely move. It is not uncommon for women to swoon on such occasions. The cold sake is refreshing, and drinking makes one feel less miserable, but one must be careful not to drink so much as to become unladylike in one’s behavior. It seems perfectly all right for the men to become ungentleman-like, pounding on the tables, making obscene jokes that we can hear, or worse, lascivious comments regarding us. They pull serving maids onto their laps and fondle them in full view of everyone, stumble out to the garden and vomit in the carp ponds, challenge each other to archery contests that leave arrows bristling from trees, walls, pillars and doors, or lay on the floor giggling until they pass out. I don’t even know why they invite us to these parties, as they could just place a bunch of stuffed dolls representing us at one end of the table and it would be just as entertaining. I can’t wait to get back to my room to take off all these layers. I smile thinking of how wonderful it is going to feel to have Machiko take off this headdress and brush out my hair. The other huge advantage of fans, besides their cooling properties, is that when you can no longer keep your hot, disgruntled feelings out of your face, you can hold your fan in front of you, conveying an impression of mystery rather than misery.

The only entertaining aspect is the younger women speculating behind their fans about this or that nobleman, how they are in bed, whether they are available for marriage, who is likely to end up with who. The gallants come over and kneel beside us periodically to tell jokes and flirt and beg for dainties off our plates. Some of them are very attractive, and every bit as beautifully made up as we are, wearing fewer layers, but taking just as much care to match their sleeves and decorate their hair with an artful placement of feathers or gems. Because they do not wear as many layers, you can see the outline of their bodies, which makes things more interesting. I get my share of swains; men who pride themselves on their wordplay are always eager to test wits with me. Eyebrows, eyelids and teeth are darkened, our faces bright with rice powder, lips carmine. To one young man pushing up against me like a cat, begging for a kiss, I say;

“Lips a bridge of flowers

Over the dark abyss....

Can such a fall be risked?”

Immediately my poem catches the fancy of the room and the first two lines, “Lips a bridge of flowers/over the dark abyss,” are whispered around the table again and again in a variety of intonations.

As the evening goes on, the poems become more and more sexually suggestive, as the young men test to see which of the women might be receptive to a late night visit. A woman of our class would not risk her reputation by going to a man’s quarters, which makes it difficult. There are so many women housed close together in the Empress’s quarters privacy is hard to come by, and the Empress takes seriously her responsibility to protect the young ladies in her care who have come to court looking for husbands. She makes clear that she disapproves of anyone entertaining men behind curtains in the warren of little rooms and alcoves in our section of the Palace, and houses the young girls two and three to a room together. After a banquet she often has her servants arrange beds for her and the young maidens in the main rooms so she can keep an eye on them. I have one of the most private rooms though it is far more likely I will be carousing with two or three of the other ladies after a banquet, rather than the men who have spent so much time trying to impress us.

Dishes of food continue to be brought, fantastic combinations of fish, fruits and vegetables arranged as gorgeously as Ikebana. I envy the men who are so much less constrained than we are. “I wish I were that morsel, entering between your lips,” sighs one swain as I bring one irresistible delicacy to my mouth.

Some of the visiting nobles from another district have brought a troupe of dancers with them to show off their local customs. In Kyoto, nobles enjoy adding their own fillips and interpretations of the old dances, making them both evocative and modern. The dances we witness tonight seem old-fashioned and quaint by comparison. When you know the people who are dancing it is always an interesting insight into another part of their personality. This performance seems stilted, but the dancers are not of noble birth and must be utterly awed to be in the presence of the Emperor, in such glamorous surroundings. The men applaud loudly after every set. The Empress has prepared gifts for the dancers, as well as many presents for the visiting nobles. It is important to be gracious, since it is the noble families with their fiefs in the countryside who provide the rice, cloth, sake and other goods which keep the court as wealthy and opulent as it is, and the last few years have seen peasant unrest and rebellion in many areas.

The dancers have just launched into another dance requested as an encore when messengers burst in, interrupting the performance. Normally, court messengers are very discreet and subtle in their approach, so I can only think there is some crises. They go directly to the Emperor, Shigemori and Lord Kiyomori. Tsunemasa joins them, frown lines hiking up his forehead, and Munemori struggles up from under three attractive serving maids to join the discussion.

Shigemori is the one who has been talking with the noblemen visiting from the north; they stand near him, legs widespread as if they were ready to take some action, looking alarmed.

Lady Daigon-no-suke, who has been sitting with her husband, Shigehira, comes over and informs us that the messengers are reporting that there has been a serious outbreak of fire in the city. Fires are a common enough occurrence. Buildings in Kyoto are very close together, constructed mostly of wood with thatch roofs. The normal hazards of splattering cooking oil, or a lantern knocked over is enough to wipe out a few blocks, though the soldiers are very accustomed to organizing bucket brigades from the River Uji and can usually subdue it as they would any enemy.

“Well, is it under control?” the Empress asks.

“Regrettably not,” Lady Daigon-no-suke replies. “Apparently the wind is blowing quite hard and it is spreading rapidly.”

Tokushi nods and servants rush to help her stand up; some help rising is required when wearing the formal complement of robes. Shigemori comes around the table to talk with her. I can tell by his gestures that he is saying calming things. He seems to take it as his responsibility to cushion his younger sister from the harsher realities. Shigehira, another of Tokushi’s brothers, comes and stands beside them for a moment, then dashes off.

“The Palace can’t be in danger, can it?” whispers one of the frightened ladies

“Of course not, that’s absurd,” one of the gallants assures her. “We shall keep you quite safe, in any case.”

The girls are concerned about their families who live elsewhere in Kyoto, and all are anxious to find out what area of the city is affected, though the gardens and pools surrounding most mansions generally keep them safe.

Emperor Takakura comes to stand beside Tokushi. He seems serene, as always, and she smiles at him warmly. They give such an impression of a happy couple. He announces that there is a severe conflagration, and apologizes to his guests for the necessity of interrupting the banquet, but that all the men must attend to the situation, and that the guests should quickly leave the mansions in which they are staying and find accommodation closer to the palace.

Suddenly servants are running everywhere. The noblemen are all talking seriously and importantly of who needs to do what. One young man says he will take his horse, Sumi-e, ‘Ink-Painting’, and ride ‘faster than the wind can carry the flames’ to the garrison on the northern edge of the city to fetch soldiers to fight the fire. He strides out stripping off layers of outer garments and tying his hair back. He cuts a heroic figure, and the way the ladies clutch their chests and fan themselves tells me that if Tommayo survives this night, he will not lack for female companionship for a long time to come.

Tsunemasa comes over to us, and speaks softly and reassuringly. He says we should all retire to our quarters. Most of the other men of the nobility scatter to their homes in Kyoto to protect their own families and belongings. Tsunemasa and one of the other men escort us back to our quarters. Tokushi tries to get Takakura to stay with us, but he bows politely and says he must direct the efforts to save the people of Kyoto.

“Then I should stay by your side,” she says.

“No, no. Return to your quarters and keep your ladies calm. That is all I could possibly require of you.”

Tokushi looks disappointed, but claps her hands. “Come ladies, we must leave the men to respond to this crises. We will only be in the way.”

Lord Kiyomori has left to gather troops to fight the fire. Shigemori is clearly in command here. I cannot hear what he is saying to the men he is directing, but his every gesture draws immediate compliance and respect.

“Oh, it is all so exciting. I think I am going to faint,” one of the younger women exclaims.

“It’s probably just the number of robes you have on,” I say. I am feeling faint myself as we move along the hallways back to our quarters. Fire destroyed my life once. There is nothing I fear more. All I can think is how badly I want to get back to my room and strip off all my clothing in case we need to flee. We could never outrun flames dressed as we are; we are like bulky cloth wicks waiting to ignite.

“Just in case, ladies, we must change into our traveling costumes,” Tokushi cautions.

The inside of my mouth tastes coppery.

“Oh, heavens, my Lady, are we in danger?” one of the ladies cries out. Several of the girls are crying for their families, one slides to the floor in a dramatic faint, others are hyperventilating. I breathe slowly and deliberately to manage my own terror.

“No, no, it is merely a precaution,” Tokushi says, trying to calm the girls.

“Don’t be ridiculous, “Lady Daigon-no-suke exclaims. “There is no reason to stay formally dressed anyway, is there? Just take off your clothes, make yourselves comfortable...” she begins barking orders to servants who rush over and begin undressing their charges with shaking hands. The girls whose families live in Kyoto are the most frantic, since none of us knows which areas of the city are most endangered. I am glad my loved ones are far away.

With Machiko’s help, I am the first one undressed and redressed in a simple tunic over divided pants. A piercing shriek comes from the direction of the garden. I run out, though my hair has not been taken down yet. Several of the maids and a couple of the younger women are staring, clenched fists to their mouths, at the city stretching out beyond the Palace. The wall and the Palace roof obscure the view, but a pinkish glow has commandeered the whole sky, flickering and shifting like a demonic presence. We run down the path to one of the moon bridges arcing across the water and climb up to its apex. From this vantage point we can barely see over the tops of the Palace buildings. The wind is whipping through the garden, setting the chimes in my hair furiously fluttering like flags, jingling with the intensity of alarms. Alarm bells are ringing throughout the city, and faintly, I see parts of the city glowing red gold with the advancing flames. One of the girls starts shrieking for her family so vigorously she almost falls off the bridge. I go back to my room, buffeted by the wind kami as I run back across the garden, and take the ornaments out of my hair, yanking them out faster than Machiko can put them away. I wonder how my stepmother and her family are faring. Usually it is the poorer districts, and the area of the pleasure houses where people tend to be drunk which fare the worst, but with the wind like this, nothing is safe. For once I am glad not to be a man, for they are expected to go out and supervise the fire-fighting activities. Machiko takes out the hair extensions and the hair decorations I could not reach. It is all I can do not to shout at her to hurry. I keep imagining the sound of crashing timbers, and I desperately want to go back outside. If worst comes to worst we could go into the ponds and breathe through reeds. Machiko finally finishes, gives my hair a quick brush, then ties it back loosely.

The ladies gather outside in their traveling costumes with simple jackets. I tuck my layers up under my sash in case I have to run. I know I should help Tokushi try to calm the others, but while I may not look panicky I am as bad off as the worst of them, almost frozen with fear. Tokushi sends messengers to find out if it would be best for her and the ladies to take carriages and exit the city.

I see that some of the ladies have retreated to the highest moon bridge in the garden. “I’ll go check on the ladies in the garden,” I say. “Perhaps you should get all those remaining inside to come out.”

“I’ll take care of those,” she says, watching some of the women running around packing hysterically, sobbing that they want to go home. I am afraid to let Tokushi go back inside, but I allow Machiko to lead me back towards the others in the garden.

The ladies are standing on top of the bridge, shading their eyes with their hands. A reflected rose-gold light plays across their faces. Machiko gently pushes me along; I am so rigid it is as if my knees and hips have forgotten how to bend. It is so bright out now, it is like day in the night. The carp mill about expectantly along the edges of the artificial stream and under the bridge, gold and orange, white and black, like fire in the water. One of the girls calls from the top of the bridge; “Machiko, bring Seiko up here. With her height, she can see the best.” By the time we reach the crest of the bridge, my heart is pounding as if we had climbed Fujiyama. Turning towards the city, I understand the stunned expressions on their faces. A huge quadrant of the city is on fire, solid flame for as far as the eye can see. It is still a ways off from us, but if a quarter of the city is already on fire, what hope is there that any will be spared? Why did it take so long before messengers came to the Palace?

I hope Tsunemasa and the other men supervising the peasants and soldiers fighting the fire are safe. How can any number of men passing buckets of water from the Uji River hope to stop such an unquenchable dragon of flame? It just doesn’t seem possible that a conflagration this size could be stopped by anything but a torrential rain. As if she had heard my though, Machiko clasps my hand and says, “Maybe the clouds will bring rain.” But those are not storm clouds swirling black in the tempestuous wind, but billows of smoke; the acrid smell and heat reaching us even here. As we watch, the wind drives huge showers of sparks before it, and where the sparks touch shops and houses, new flames gush skyward.

I want to say that we must leave the Capitol now, while there is still time but it is as if my tongue had evaporated, leaving me with no power of speech. The roaring of the fire sounds like a distant ocean, or the bellowing of a dragon, but there is another sound, that while fainter, is more terrible; the screams of humans and animals. I sway almost over the side of the bridge. Machiko grabs me and half carries me down the bridge, her sturdy frame all muscle as she braces me from falling. I can’t breathe, but not from the smoke which is still faint. An enormous hand is squeezing my heart and lungs together; my mind flickers like a blown candle. I collapse onto my knees at the bottom of the bridge.

“Mistress, mistress, are you well?” Machiko asks.

“No. We get all the women out.” With Machiko’s help I stagger back to the Palace, find Lady Daigon-no-suke.

“We must escape. The whole city is going to burn,” I gasp to her.

Her painted-on eyebrows rear up onto her forehead in alarm. She strides over to Tokushi, who is attempting to comfort a heap of sobbing girls moaning and tearing their hair on the floor, takes her by the elbow and steers her over to us.

“Lady, we must flee here. The fire...the fire...” I stagger, unable to breathe as a fish thrown into hostile air. Only Machiko’s strong arms keep me from falling.

“Is it truly that bad Seiko?” Tokushi asks.

I nod. “We must take the women....before it’s too late...”

“I am waiting to hear back. Until Tsunemasa or Shigehira or my father sends word we cannot....”

Just then a maidservant rushes up, folds over in a bow. “My Lady, Lord Tsunemasa is here with a young page--they are covered in soot...”

“Show him in immediately.” Tokushi orders. There is no time for formalities. Servants quickly seat us on some pillows, and on that instant Tsunemasa and the page arrive and kneel beside us, leaving streaks of ash on the floor.

“Shall we prepare to depart?” Tokushi asks.

“My lady, it is more dangerous to leave now than to stay,” Tsunemasa replies.

I hear my voice croaking, “We must leave immediately.”

Tsunemasa looks at me, alarmed, then gathers himself, takes my hand. “Lady Fujiwara, are you speaking now as a soothsayer...or as a woman who lost her mother in a fire?”

I pull my hand away from him, angry that he should speak familiarly of my past in front of others. He who is usually so mannerly! I want to shout at him but an unseen hand is gripping all the breath out of my throat.

“Forgive me,” he says, “but there is too much chaos; the streets are impassable. The soldiers cannot fight the fire and subdue the looters as well. You are safer here.”

Tokushi bows her head to him. “We put our faith in you, cousin. You are the Master of my Household. Our lives are in your hands.”

“We have just finished burning a large section three streets wide to create a firebreak to protect the Palace,” he says.

Is he mad? They set a fire themselves? This is the person we should trust?

Tsunemasa goes on to explain that by setting a blaze and extinguishing it, the advancing larger fire will find nothing to cling to and will not be able to leap across to continue its carnage.

I do not understand how lighting a fire can stop a fire. He and Tokushi keep talking, but it is as if they had begun speaking in another language. My hair and the back of my garments are heavy, soaking with blood. My hands are raw, abraded from gripping tightly to a statue of Kannon.

Servants kneel before us, offering trays of tea and sake. Machiko pushes the ceramic edge of a cup between my lips. Vaguely I feel Tokushi’s hand on my shoulder. Later, servants apologize for the delay in preparing some food for us, saying that most of the kitchen servants and cooks have fled.

Then we are back outside, though I have no memory of how we got here. Machiko has my box of remedies and is asking which one will help me. I have no remedy for preventing death by fire. We are sitting under a willow by the water. The grass is cool. I look at the reeds sighing in the wind, thinking that we can cut them open to make breathing tubes and lie under the water with the carp. The smoke is thick now in the garden, and women are sobbing that it is the end of the world. It is amazing how peaceful Tokushi continues to be, calming the girls with her soft, authoritative voice. I can tell that Lady Daigon-no-suke must be frightened because she is more gruff than usual, and I have come to see that when she sounds the most harsh is when she feels the most anxious. I am holding Machiko’s hand as tightly as I ever did when I was in labor. Servants continue to ferry tea and sake and small treats from the kitchen as if it were a moon-viewing party rather than an end of the world party.

“Lord Taira Tsunemasa will take care of us, Mistress,” Machiko assures me. “He won’t let anything happen to us.” But I know that no matter how powerful someone is, it does not make them immortal. My mother was killed, and she had more power than all the Taira combined.

No one sleeps, and while the light of the fire made the night seem like day, the smoke from the fire makes the next day seem like night. No one wants to risk falling asleep inside the Palace, so servants bring out layers of kimonos and futons and make beds for us out in the garden. Women sit in clusters crying and praying. Petitions are offered up to Shina Tsu Hime to cease the evil winds that are driving the flames. A brazier of fire is lit and everyone writes prayers on paper and offers them to the flames, conjuring the fire Goddesses Huchi and Fuchi to have mercy on us. Some beg pity from Kannon, others burn pine incense and perform water ablution ceremonies to invoke the protection of Kishi-Mujin, the ancient mother Goddess. Tokushi asks me to invoke protection from Inari, but these forces are not middle counselors to be bribed or cajoled. If Inari could not save her own Priestess, Fujiwara Fujuri, on her own mountain, how can she protect us here? Fire is without conscience; it seeks only to perpetuate its own life by devouring whatever is in its path. My only prayer is to put my hand on the trunk of the willow, to feel her green life force pulsing under my hand, to absorb her calm acceptance.

By evening, most of those who had been sobbing and hysterical have been reduced to weak whimpers. All of us are choking and coughing on the smoke. Tokushi asks me to make up some teas to help all of us with the pain in our lungs, but I am unable to move. Machiko knows the lung formulas, so she enlists another servant to help her brew them on portable stoves that have been set up outside. Tokushi sends messengers to find other healers, and soon two men and a woman are brought to us and start brewing steams and teas over the stoves, and placing acupuncture needles in the women who are suffering most. The sight of even those small fires under the stoves makes me tremble. I am helpless to stop them, since I can neither speak nor move. I can only cling tightly to the rough bark of the willow, and drink whatever Machiko puts to my lips.

Finally I sleep, holding onto Machiko, and wake the next morning to find Tsunemasa telling Tokushi that the fire, while not yet extinguished, has at least been contained. Sixteen mansions have been destroyed, and untold thousands of people, cattle, horses and other animals have lost their lives. Tommayo, the young man who galloped bravely off through the fire is safe, though his horse’s tail has been scorched. All of Tokushi’s brothers and cousins are safe. My lungs feel raw, and like everyone I am hacking and sneezing up soot, but quivering with relief.

A few days later, I find Machiko sobbing. She has just gotten word that all her brothers and sisters and their families survived the fire. I feel ashamed that she was able to be so strong for me in spite of having no idea how her family fared in the disaster. Two of their homes were destroyed, but I give Machiko enough money to see that they are rebuilt. It is the least I can do to show my gratitude for her caring for me while I was lost in the past, and leading me back to my life.

A pall of smoke hangs over the grounds for days. As soon as the fires were put out, the wind stopped as if it had been conjured up by evil sorcerers just to fan the flames. Now that the winds would be welcome to disperse the stench, they retreat, and no amount of entreaties to Tatsu Ta Hime to gently blow away the contamination helps. Many of the women have lung sicknesses, from the combined effects of smoke and sorrow. I am troubled by the apparent sickness of my mind. It seems that I am falling back into that blankness that absorbed me after my mother’s death, and I do not know how to banish it. Chinese physicians come to see me several times a day, stimulating points to heal my spirit and giving me vile tasting concoctions. Shamans come to cleanse the Empress’s apartments, banishing ghosts and evil spirits. Yet in spite of their efforts, if it were not for Machiko brushing my hair, singing to me and talking to me even when I did not reply, I might have retreated to that cold, frozen part of my mind and never emerged again.

Word went out that the same evil sorcerers who had conjured this terrible fire had attacked the Empress’ sorceress, and for all I know, perhaps that was true. A third of the city of Kyoto had been destroyed by the fire. The stench of burnt flesh, human and animal was so pervasive, no amount of incense and perfumes could cover it up. Funeral pyres cremating the remains of those who had not been already reduced to ash kept the smell of fresh smoke drifting. Though they tried to cremate the half-burnt bodies quickly to prevent the spread of disease, contagion spread through the city like another fire, adding corpses to those already stacked waiting for fresh supplies of wood to be fetched from the mountains. The whispering said that Yoritomo and the other Genji must have hired some extremely powerful sorcerers to attack the Capitol magically. I do not have the strength to prevail against these dark forces. I have my mother’s key, but not her powers. The fault is mine. I have failed to help Tokushi produce an heir.

We were not allowed to go out and witness the devastation, as those sights would be far too horrible for the eyes of aristocratic ladies. Often rebellious against the restrictions imposed on my gender, this time I was thoroughly relieved to shielded and sheltered. I remember well enough the blackened remains of my mother’s house.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

White As Bone Red As Blood - The Fox Sorceress

White as Bone Red as Blood – The Fox Sorceress is much more than a vivid portrayal about a turbulent period in Japanese history. It is a gentle coming of age story, one that explores sexuality in all its forms, and the passions of relationships of all kinds. The author, Cerridwen Fallingstar, has weaved an intricate tale of treachery and love that is so realistic, it feels as if the reader is actually a living witness to the tale.

What I found most intriguing, is the fact that the author drew on her own experiences as a shaman and time-traveled to this past life where the story of Seiko was unfolded to her. Because of this first-hand view, coupled with intense research, the author was able to write the story with amazing clarity and a level of detail that held me enthralled from beginning to end. It is historical fiction at its very best, depicting a time and era in history rich with conflict and emotion.

A sequel named White as Bone Red as Blood – The Storm God is scheduled for release in the spring of 2010 and is one I am eagerly awaiting.

Monday, November 23, 2009

White As Bone Red As Blood - The Fox Sorceress by Cerridwen Fallingstar

White as Bone Red as Blood

White as Bone Red as Blood is a historical novel set in the 12th century Japan. It takes place during the Gempei Wars, spanning the end of the artistic Heian Period and the beginning of the warlike Kamakura Era. During the Heian Period, the ‘ideal man’ was measured by how delicately he blended his own unique incense and perfumes, how perfectly matched the colors in his layers of garments, by the elegance of his poetry and the eloquence of his “morning after letter” to the lady with whom he had spent the previous night. The Kamakura Period, which violently ended and supplanted the Heian Period, saw the rise of the Samurai. In this era, the ideal man was one who could knock an enemy off his horse at a distance of five hundred yards with his bow or split him in half with a single blow from his sword.

The story is told in the first person by Seiko Fujiwara, poet and sorceress. Seiko is born to the Fujiwara clan, an aristocratic famliy which was once the most influential in Japan. But now, two warrior clans, the Heike, represented by the red flag, and the Genji, represented by the white flag, battle for control of the throne and the destiny of Japan.

Seiko is the daughter of Fujuri Fujiwara, priestess of Inari, the deity of rice, earthly abundance, foxes and sorcery. The story begins during her childhood as she is raised at Fukushima Shrine on Inari’s mountain, enjoying a degree of freedom no upper class woman, especially a shrine priestess, could expect to have. Seiko is being trained to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a diviner, healer and priestess of fertility rites. Seiko’s mother has aligned herself with Lord and Lady Kiyomori, leaders of the Heike clan, and she is known as their sorceress. When Seiko is eleven, assassins murder her mother and their servants and set fire to their house. She escapes the blaze and is sent to live with her father, a wealthy courtier, and her destiny changes.

Nine years later, Seiko escapes from an abusive marriage by conspiring with her husband’s beautiful concubine to murder him and disguise it as a robbery. She flees to the court, where her girlhood friend, Tokushi, daughter of Lord and Lady Kiyomori, has recently married the young emperor. There she becomes the empress’ closest friend, advisor and personal sorceress. From this vantage point she witnesses and participates in the most crucial turning points in Japanese history.

Seiko describes one such pivotal point that shifts the fortunes of war; “When Lord Kiromori died, a cold wind blew through the halls of the Palace. It was moved with the dry death sound of autumn leaves; it knocked over shoji screens and extinguished lamps. Many said it was the soul of Lord Kiyomori being hounded and harried to the Buddhist hells, but what I felt was this; Lord Kiyomori had been a huge dragon curled protectively around the palace, around the influence and power he had won with his victories. Now the dragon was dead and the gates he had protected swung open leaving us defenseless against the cold northern wind.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Blue Bells of Scotland by Laura Vosika

Back Cover Blurb:

Blue Bells of Scotland
Shawn Kleiner has it all: money, fame, a skyrocketing career as an international musical phenomenon, his beautiful girlfriend Amy, and all the women he wants-- until the night Amy has enough and leaves him stranded in a Scottish castle tower.

He wakes up to find himself mistaken for Niall Campbell, medieval Highland warrior. Soon after, he is sent shimmying down a wind-torn castle wall into a dangerous cross country trek with Niall's tempting, but knife-wielding fiancee. They are pursued by English soldiers and a Scottish traitor who want Niall dead.

Thrown forward in time, Niall learns history’s horrifying account of his own death, and of the Scots’ slaughter at Bannockburn. Undaunted, he navigates the roiled waters of Shawn’s life-- pregnant girlfriend, amorous fans, enemies, and gambling debts--- seeking a way to leap back across time to save his people, especially his beloved Allene. His growing fondness for Shawn’s life brings him face to face with his own weakness and teaches him the true meaning of faith.

Blue Bells of Scotland is both a historical adventure and a tale of redemption that will be remembered long after the last page has been turned.

So begins the Blue Bells of Scotland Trilogy....

The First Line: "'Shawn' means 'self' and 'Kleiner' means 'centered!'" His girlfriend, an English major, flung it at him as an insult.


My What would happen if two men travelled through time and found themselves in different centuries and immersed in each others’ lives? This is exactly the premise behind the novel, BLUE BELLS OF SCOTLAND, by Laura Vosika.

Niall Campbell is a medieval warrior, military trainer, and future son-in-law of the laird of his clan. One day, he will assume leadership of the clan. But as the winds of war brew, Niall and his betrothed, Allene, argue. In a drunken state, Niall falls asleep. When he awakens, he finds himself thrust seven hundred years into the future into the life of a famous musician and womanizer by the name of
Shawn Kleiner. It is here that he learns the fate of his country and his people.

Shawn Kleiner is a famous musician, spoiled and arrogant, who wields his power and money to take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself that will get him what he wants. After a spat with his girlfriend, Amy, he find himself immersed in the life of Niall Campbell in 14th century Scotland.

BLUE BELLS OF SCOTLAND is an entertaining, sometimes humorous, sometimes sad story, about two men propelled into adverse situations, which will forever alter their lives. Laura Vosika is a storyteller with a propensity for lots of details which truly makes this story vivid and believable. She skilfully weaves plenty of tension into the tale as the reader explores Scottish history. The main characters not travel through time, but they find themselves on a journey of self-discovery. As such, they evolve and change in a touching, sometimes heart-wrenching manner. It is this, along with a richness of detail, that makes this story larger than life. BLUE BELLS OF SCOTLAND, is the first instalment of a three book series. For lovers of time travel, medieval, or Scottish history, this story has it all.

Nobilitas by Neil Himsworth

This book is a hefty, rich looking volume whose cover proclaims: A Novel of Ancient Rome. In fact, this story isn’t about Rome at all, but Britannia in the year 470 at the end of Roman rule.

After the withdrawal of large numbers of Roman troops in AD 407, the islands are threatened from within by inter-tribal conflict and incoming ships crammed with Saxon invaders. The remaining legions face a dilemma: to stay on the island where they grew up and raised families, or accept the will of Rome and return home.

Mannius, a trained surgeon and veteran of the legions, chooses to stay in his new homeland, hoping to continue his career. However, when his uncle, the governor, is murdered, Mannius finds the weight of responsibility has been passed to him and the Votadini turn to him for deliverance from the rampaging Picts.

Within the first few pages of this story, we are thrown into an attack by the Picts on the Votadinis at Traprain Law, near Sin Eidyn. Both places are north of Hadrian’s Wall, so they were always going to be trouble.

The fighting doesn’t take long to erupt in full flow and it is soon evident that the entire story is written around the conflict between the outgoing Roman soldiers who try to maintain a tenuous grip on their occupied land, and the internal fighting where the Picts want to kill the Votadini and the Brigantes, the remaining Romans don’t mind who they kill, and an incoming wave of Saxon invaders want to kill everyone.

I was thrown right into the fighting, even before I had a chance to work out the characters, or whose side they were on. After a while though I stopped cheering on the Picts [Eastern and Northern Scots] and Votadinis [Lowland Scots] to concentrate on Mannius’ the surgeon, who finds himself in the middle of a war not of his making.

The female element appears in the form of Princess Caoimhe of the Votadini, who loses her father in the first wave. A young widow with a small daughter, her enquiry of the local wise woman as to whom she might marry next, is interrupted by the Pictish invasion. Caoimhe dresses like a man in preparation to fight for her tribe. Another female distraction is Mannius’s aunt, Felicia, widowed, Britannia hating and out to seduce her nephew. Eithne is Mannius’ devoted slave who is jealous of Princess Caoimhe. Then there is Taran, a druid and his apprentice Una who have their own agenda.

Neil Himsworth paints an authentic and emotive picture of a disturbing time, with a good characterisation of soldiers, legionnaires, invading hordes, tribal royalty and slaves. The Britain of 470 is a place where men’s rights were governed only by which army they had behind them in a land tired of Roman dominance, where as ever, the weakest suffer the most.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lady Vernon and Her Daughter

Thank you for joining me on the Historical Novel Review Blog, Jane and Caitlen, I'm sure our readers are fascinated to hear about how you wrote this lovely Regency Novel.

1. Your website and media blurb say that Jane has been writing for a while but this is Caitlen’s first novel. What made both/either of you want to write in conjunction with someone else? What made you base your novel on Lady Susan specifically, as opposed to, say, an original storyline based on an Austen format?

Jane had written a contemporary series, based at the Jersey shore that, incidentally featured a Jane Austen-loving sleuth, Cat Austen, who has a nine-year-old daughter named Jane! After a few books in the series were published, she started thinking about writing a second series. She happened to be reading Lady Susan at the time, and thought that there were elements that could be adapted to a mystery – the beautiful, manipulative woman who has lost her husband in a circumstance that is never made clear; the young ingĂ©nue, the headstrong young man, a wary sister-in-law, the gossipy London friend. She decided that it wouldn’t really do justice to the work to convert it to the “Lady Susan Mysteries”, and started thinking about reconstructing it as a historical narrative, and asked Cait if she would like to co-write it - Caitlen was not only a serious fan of Jane Austen, but had taken an intensive Austen seminar in college. In fact, the book is dedicated to the professor of that course, Professor Mary Ann Macartney.

Lady Susan is also a complete work, though underdeveloped; we had the characters, the relationships and the lovely, ironic ending to work with, and, of course, translating an epistolary work to a narrative novel was precisely what Austen did with Elinor and Marianne, which was recast as Sense and Sensibility.

2. Which leads me to my next question – why each other? Most mothers and daughters cannot collaborate on a shopping list, let alone a novel.

The problems we had with collaboration had to do with our different circumstances – where we live, how much time we had to devote to the project – rather than issues of personality. When you collaborate with anyone, you have to have the same appreciation of the material, the same commitment to the project, the same understanding of who does what and the same professional attitude – it doesn’t matter if you’re related or not, because in the end, it’s not about you, it’s about the goal; we both approached this with the same goals in mind: we wanted to convert Lady Susan into a novel-length narrative, we wanted to try to reproduce the tone of an Austen novel and we wanted to get it published!

3. The omniscient narrator who tells us what is happening rather than living through the characters is considered no longer fashionable for contemporary novels. However, you remained faithful to Jane Austen’s writing style in the book. Was that a deliberate decision?

Yes. When you write a pastiche, you have to look to the original body of work – in this case, Austen’s major novels – for precedent: prose style, word choice, plot elements. In the case of Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, if we couldn’t find a precedent in Austen’s novels, we didn’t do it.

4. In the early 1800s, women had no protection from the law if their husbands chose to leave them destitute on widowhood. Although Sir Frederick believed he had left his wife and daughter in the capable hands of his brother, there was nothing to prevent his subsequent actions, other than the approbation of his peers. Was this injustice you wanted to highlight with your handling of the book?

What we did highlight was done not because it was what we now perceive as injustice, but because we saw a precedent in Austen’s work. Just as Mr. Dashwood trusts to John Dashwood's family feeling when his son “promised to do everything in his power to make [Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters] comfortable”, Frederick Vernon projects his own notions of filial affection upon his brother and heir and trusts that Charles will provide everything he has promised to Lady Vernon and Frederica. In Austen, you see repeated examples of the “negligent father” ( or "husband"), men who have a disconnect in their emotional ties or financial obligation to their wives and daughters. Mr. Bennet is a case in point; he has no sons, an income of about two thousand pounds a year derived from his entailed property, yet a quarter century into the marriage he still has laid nothing aside for the provision of his wife and daughters. In Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, Lady Elinor Martin observes, "Only think of all the daughters and wives who are cast adrift when property goes from one hand to another?" When you see how the Bates women in Emma, or Mrs. Smith in Persuasion are plunged from comfort into poverty, you can comprehend (even if you cannot agree with) Mrs. Bennet’s desperation to have Elizabeth marry Mr. Collins; when Elizabeth refuses him, plain, twenty-seven-year-old Charlotte Lucas grabs him; her philosophy expresses the reality of the time, that marriage “was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune.” When John Dashwood meets his sisters in London, he remarks upon Marianne's wasted appearance by wondering “whether Marianne now, will marry a man worth more than five or six hundred a-year, at the utmost…” While Austen's heroines ultimately marry for love, marriage and money are inseparable in her novels.

5. Unlike Jane Austen, whose characters may be sly, imperious and unjust, your antagonist, Charles Vernon, definitely struck me as sinister and with implications that he was capable of murder to achieve what he saw as his birthright. Was that a deliberate move away from Ms. Austen’s style for the modern reader, or do you feel her original characters were too mild?

In earlier drafts, there was a stronger implication that Charles Vernon had murdered his brother; we ultimately took it out because, again, we wanted to look to Austen’s work for precedent, and there were no murders in her novels. Vernon, like many other characters in Austen who act maliciously, is motivated by greed – greed for money, property, status. They are not necessarily mild, but have a veneer of civility that passes for mildness - Willoughby, Walter Elliot, Frederick Tilney, are genteel in their address, but cruel, even predatory. Charles Vernon persuades himself that he has been cheated, and it is a very short leap from feeling cheated to considering how you will retaliate or recover what you think is your due. The property and money are almost irrelevant – Charles is no more suited to be the administrator of the Vernon fortune and property than Henry Crawford is to be the husband of Fanny, or Wickham is to be a clergyman.

6: I couldn’t tell where Jane’s work ended and Caitlen’s began in the novel. Was this deliberate, or are you so attuned to each other you didn’t have to think about it?

That may be because we didn’t write alternate parts of the book; we both contributed to the work as a whole. Jane tends to write in sentences and paragraphs, focusing on phrasing and cadence which she think are important but often unaddressed aspects of writing a pastiche. Caitlen writes in scenes and chapters – in larger blocks – and is also the better editor when it comes to repositioning scenes within the manuscript. When a draft was done, we would take turns at revising the entire work, phoning and e-mailing back and forth, so it really was a united effort.

7: Did you base the character of Catherine Vernon on another Jane Austen character or was she entirely your own creation.

Catherine Vernon appears in Lady Susan. Early on in Austen’s work, we learn that she and Lady Susan Vernon have never met. It is rare in Austen to see in-laws who never meet – the only prominent example of it is in the long estrangement that exists between Mrs. Price and her sisters’ families. Since the Vernon sisters-in-law have never met, all of Catherine’s information about Lady Vernon has come to her second-hand, so how she regards Lady Vernon, her point of view until they meet, is based upon her prior prejudices, and even afterward, her prejudice may color her view of her sister-in-law’s behavior.

As to the “hook” in her character, the overriding quality, you see a self-satisfaction, and indolence that is reflective of a number of Austen’s characters – certainly Lady Bertram, but also Lady Middleton and Mrs. Elton, who use marriage as an excuse to discontinue accomplishment – music, in their cases. In a character like Charlotte Palmer, you see a willful determination to mischaracterize her husband’s inattention and indeed, throughout the novels you see married couples – the Bennets, the Middletons, the Bertrams, the Musgroves – settle into their separate, and not always compatible, spheres. She becomes almost a satiric opposite on Caroline Bingley’s assessment of the accomplished woman – music, singing, dancing, drawing, languages – preferring to "write her letters and then proceed to do nothing in peace and quiet".

8: With the release of Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, do you have any other novels planned, either working alone or together as mother and daughter?

We are working on another Austen-related project, but we are still in the very early stages.

9: Now the more frivolous bit. What has been the biggest stumbling block in writing together and getting this work published?

One big obstacle in the writing was that Caitlen was occupied with her masters program, internships, moving to the city and taking her first job, which prolonged the writing time. Nonetheless, writing the book – that was the fun part. Getting published is another matter. There is a lot that determines whether a book gets published or not, and it isn't always encouraging to see how little of it has to do with the work itself. Fortunately, we had wonderful advocates, both in our agent, and in our editor at Crown.

Thank you so much for joining me today, and I would also like to recommend the excellent book trailer you released for the novel available on your website. Which I also note is another family collaboration! Anita Davison

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lady Vernon and Her Daughter

Lady Vernon and Her Daughter is an extended version of Jane Austen's forgotten manuscript, 'Lady Susan'. The storyline focuses on the economic and romantic plights of two heroines displaced when the family home passes to an unworthy heir on the death of Sir Frederick Vernon.

The style is truly reminiscent of Jane Austen, with some of the letters and original text from the novella of Lady Susan. It contains all the witty repartee and poking fun at the mores of society and the fickle minds of the Regency landed classes. The language is colourful, intricate and flows beautifully with some ironic and amusing touches that stayed with me after I put the book down. Such as this little gem:

.....declaring what a fortunate thing it was for a girl when an early engagement relieved her of the tedious business of accomplishment.

Unlike Jane Austen, the villain is a darker, more sinister presence to the two heroines than I have previously encountered in a Jane Austen novel. [Or perhaps I haven't read the right ones] The implication that the antagonist, in the form of Sir Frederick’s brother Charles, is not so much cold and uncaring, but may be a murderer too which adds another aspect to the story.

Dislodged from their comfortable lives, Lady Susan and Frederica have to find a way to secure their own future in a society which has no compassion for the impoverished and dispossessed. Frederica, who is intelligent as well as beautiful, and has aspirations for science, is suspicious of her uncle and detaches herself from him very quickly. This action gives Lady Vernon’s detractors more ammunition to use against her, piling neglectful mother onto her other faults of outrageous flirt and labelling her as being desperate to secure a second husband.

The authors create sympathy for Lady Susan Vernon immediately, and I would certainly not have been able to maintain the aloof dignity and measured silence she did with so many nasty Regency cats dishing unfounded dirt about her, and some not so privately.

Ms Rubino and Rubino-Bradway’s skill makes Lady Susan Vernon far more than a pretty face or a victim of circumstance, who doesn't panic when she discovers her brother-in-law intends to renege on any promises to look after her and Frederica. She handles her situation with aplomb, and I especially like the character of Catherine Vernon, the superior and morally bereft sister-in-law, who is the most outrageously nasty character. I was glued to the book, wondering what the awful woman would say next.

I shan’t reveal any more as I wouldn’t want to spoil a satisfying read, because this is certainly a novel to get lost in.

There is also an excellent, and very professionally produced trailer, by yet another Rubino

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Revelation by C J Sansom

Revelation is the fourth in CJ Sansom's Tudor detective series featuring the hunchback lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, set at the time when Henry VIII is trying to get Catherine Parr to be his sixth wife.

The year is 1543 and Matthew has sworn not to involve himself in any more affairs of state after his last brush with the dubious factions of King Henry's court in ‘Sovereign’.

However his old friend Roger Elliard, a fellow lawyer, is found with his throat dramatically cut in Lincoln's Inn fountain. When the king's coroner appears to be covering up the murder, Shardlake promises Elliard's widow, the lost love of his youth, that he will find the killer. This is a mission he shares with Archbishop Cranmer, who must keep the investigation a secret from the king. If it fails, they could all lose their heads.

Shardlake and his hot-blooded young assistant Jack Barak uncover multiple murders, and find themselves on the search for a serial killer who is on what he sees as a holy mission using the book of Revelation as his guide.

The character of Matthew Shardlake is solitary, cerebral, occasionally flawed and driven by a belief in justice, but he has a sentimental side as his physical infirmities have deprived him of the love he has always yearned for.

The historical research is rich and colourful, so you walk the Tudor streets and into alleys seeing and smelling all their pageantry as well as the filth. Revelation takes a little time to get its main plot rolling but the finale is not a disappointment.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Royal Harlot by Susan Holloway-Scott

King Charles II has been living in impoverished exile for nearly twelve years, and Europe has pretty much given up on him as a prospective monarch of England. However in early 1660, General Monck puts forward the idea that with Cromwell dead and his son Richard a useless alternative, it’s time for the king to return.

Barbara Villiers, born into a notorious family but discarded by her cold mother as a child. Left to her own devices, albeit in a privileged world, Barbara decides her future is bound up with the young, passionate returning king. She knows from a young age what she is, and never apologises for it, though her amoral opportunism loses her friends and her lover, Lord Phillip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield along the way.

She marries Roger Palmer for expediency, but it is a loveless, desultory marriage and when her husband sees Barbara as a useful tool to help return the king to his throne, Barbara is no victim, more a willing participant. Inevitably, her first meeting with Charles II is magnetic, and when he regains his throne, Barbara is right there with him at Whitehall.

Admired by most of the Restoration court for her wit and beauty, it isn’t long before the king must marry and Barbara is relegated to the position of ‘whore’. Undeterred, Barbara wheedles her way into the new queen’s household and bears the king’s children, even claiming paternity for more than Charles fathered. Despite the titles and money she obtained for them as well as herself, her passionate nature doesn’t allow her to remain faithful, and among the men she takes as lovers is her profligate cousin, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham and her lover’s illegitimate son, the teen age Duke of Monmouth.

Eventually, Barbara’s tantrums and demands grow tiresome and she is forced to concede to her younger competition. She converts to Catholicism, which gives her royal lover an excuse to have her exiled from court, leaving me with the impression this was less a love affair than a sexual enslavement and Charles was eager to disentangle himself.

Barbara never apologises, or pretends to be what she is not, for which I admire her, but I also feel her calculating character deprived her of real happiness. Her outrageous and notorious sexual appetite didn’t bring her happiness either, so in many ways I feel sorry for her, as I know she died almost impoverished and alone.
Ms Holloway Scott’s novel is written from Barbara’s perspective, thus her portrayal could have been done for authenticity and the coldness of Barbara’s character not the author’s invention. If so, Ms Holloway Scott did a great job, and I always longed for Barbara to feel more than triumph when things went her way and anger when they didn’t.

She even capitulated to being rejected by Chesterfield, her first lover with pragmatic coolness, which seemed out of place for a young woman not yet twenty. Even the sex, though very well written, was cold, dispassionate as it had a purpose. Then again, I cannot blame the author for that, this may be her interpretation of Barbara’s own inner emotions. Or perhaps, Charles II was the man Barbara really loved, but knew she could not have, for his notorious charm was well documented.

Ms Holloway-Scott’s depiction of the Restoration court is masterly, as is her understanding of political events and intrigues that have confused many before her.

If I expected this book to be a rags-to-riches romance with a happy ending, I was always going to be disappointed. However, as an accurate account of the volatile love between a King and his mistress, this book is a gripping read.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Rage of Achilles Excerpt


The sun has been up a long time, but Paris is still in bed. Light streams in through windows generously large in his house far from the walls. There is no fear of arrows or stray javelins here, high up in the citadel.

He scissors his legs lazily through a tangle of silk sheets still damp from dawn’s lovemaking. He likes watching his legs move. He runs his hands over his thighs and traces with his fingers the big muscles’ divide. He stares at his belly: sometimes it reminds him of his warrior brother’s breastplate, rippled and ridged like a god’s. As he stares at his belly and thighs, the snake between stirs, needing no attention but his.

But it has attracted another’s. She stands at the window wrapped in a robe his mother embroidered a long time ago. “Somebody’s awake,” she says. She has a little lisp. He once thought, long ago, that it would drive him crazy. It never has. She comes to the edge of the bed, near its foot. He smiles lazily and, holding her eye, runs the tip of his index finger down his shaft. The snake leaves its bed on his thigh and starts to strain upwards. Her eyes leave his and drift down. The wall behind her is painted with a garden that never existed on this earth; her head is garlanded with pigment lotus. “No war today?” she asks. A painted fingernail traces his instep.

“No war today.” The snake is throbbing and he admires it. “You haven’t heard the news?”

“I won’t know till you tell me what it is.” The lisp gets a little stronger when she grows petulant. Her head dips and her tongue takes her finger’s place, slipping between his toes and finally down the arch. He whimpers.

“Achilles is out of the war.”

Her head snaps up. “What?”

“Come on,” he laughs, “don’t stop.” Her head stays up. “Don’t stop or I won’t tell you.”

She dives back to his foot and splayed fingers start working their way up his calf. “The spies told us last night. Agamemnon stole Briseis from him. He said it was only fair because he was king and he had to give up his girl to save the Achaeans. Achilles went crazy. He swore he wouldn’t raise a hand again for Agamemnon. Or his brother, your husband. Did you do this for him?” His voice is suddenly sharp with anxiety.

“Never,” she slurs around his big toe.

“Good,” he says. Relaxing against the cushions, he wraps his hand around himself and squeezes. “So this is very good. The Achaeans don’t know what to do, and soon we will drive them into the sea.” He starts to pump himself. “Let me see them.”
Obediently, she releases his toe and sits up at the edge of the bed. She slips the robe off her left shoulder. Shrugging, she exposes it entirely. Even now, near ten years later, her breast affects him as it did the first time he saw it. It is like a mountain, like Olympus itself, pure white and thrusting arrogantly from the plain of her ribs, its crest a peak of coral that tightens and darkens as he watches. Any larger and it would sag to her waist; big as it is, on a woman nearly thirty, its continuing firmness is widely viewed as a sign of divine favor on the Trojan cause.
He moans. “Both.” She shrugs the robe off the other shoulder and it falls to her hips. “Touch them for me.” She smiles and reaches for the pot of oil beside the bed. Filling her hands, she anoints herself, delicately at first, then with a two-handed grip that makes the coral crests an impossible blood red that he has never seen on another woman. Her breath begins to labor and whistle.

She stops and reaches for the oil pot again. She hands it to him, smiles crookedly. “Touch yourself for me.” He grins and fills his hands with unguent.


The sun is directly overhead. The only shelter is in the lee of a canted ship. Two veterans have found it, as veterans will always find comfort when it is there to be found.

One, Cephales, mends the strap of his shield. It does not need mending. The old soldier just wants to be sure; he does not want to go out to face the Trojans tomorrow to find himself with an unguarded left one minute, and the next paying the boatman to take him across the River Styx. As he works, he wonders whether he is weakening the strap with his constant attention, and he gnaws his beard with anxiety. He knows he has been in the lines too long and that his heart is going if not gone. He prays that he will die before his friends know.
Lacademon, not so long in the lines but long enough to find shade when he can, does nothing. He sits on the sand with his back flush against a hull out of water so long that the barnacles might be fossils. He watches Cephales work the braided leather without guessing his purpose or his fear. Once, he glances at his own shield pitched beside him, and decides that the strap will do.

A third, Polycrates, approaches. He plants his javelin point down in the sand and leans his shield against the long, immobile ship, then drops on his ass in the shade and plants his back against the hull. “Hot,” he says. His friends grunt. “Heard the news?” The man doing nothing says nothing. The man fixing his strap must ask. “What news?”

“The boy wonder.”

“What about him?” Cephales has stopped his busy work; Lacademon turns his head.

“You heard that King Agamemnon took his girl?”

“Right. Big deal.”

“Fucking right it’s a big deal. Achilles is acting like he fucked his father. He’s running around screaming that he’s out of the fucking war and he’ll just sit on the beach and get a nice tan while we get our asses kicked.”

“No shit?” says Lacademon.

“No shit,” Polycrates says.

They sit in silence for a while. At last, Cephales puts down his worrisome shield and speaks. “What does Achilles care about one piece of ass more or less? He has a dozen girls and Patroclus, too.”

Polycrates shakes his head. “Brother, this isn’t just some piece of ass. I haven’t seen her, but one of my buddies did. Fifteen years old if she’s a day, tits like melons that stick straight out, and a face like Pallas Athena.” He shakes his head again. “What do you think it means?”

Cephales considers. “I think we will have a very hard time without Achilles.”

Polycrates nods. He turns to Lacademon. “You?”

“I think I’m glad I’m not Patroclus.”

All three laugh. Cephales stops before the others and starts working at his shield again.


The kings’ tents are pitched on hills, or the closest thing—dunes whose sand is anchored by tenacious, long-rooted grass. Still, each can sit on his little eminence and look down on his ships and men and see the other kings on their own dunes.
There is an ox-hide and olivewood stool at Odysseus’ canvas door. From where he sits he can look east to Achilles and west to Agamemnon. Last night he heard the gored-heifer bellowings from the east. This afternoon he looks west and sees Agamemnon, crowned with a wreath of field flowers, strolling with his arm around Briseis’ shoulders while a piper flutes behind them.

Odysseus sits alone and watches. He looks towards Achilles’ tent, from which no sound comes now, nor has it all day. He looks back to happy Agamemnon. He raises a bowl to his lips and takes a swallow of watered wine flavored with resin. He spits it onto the ground before him. “Nice work, shithead,” he says.


Achilles has been on the beach since just after the sun rose. As he raved and wept it traced its long course across the sky and now verges on drowning itself at the rim of the western sea. No one has dared disturb him in this rocky little cove a mile away from the farthest outpost of the shore-hugging Achaean fleet. A few Myrmidons, his very best, nervous equally from Trojan presence and their lord’s despair, at first followed him covertly as he made his way up the coast. His storm troopers, they thought themselves invisible even from him, dropping soundlessly to their faces or fading into brush whenever he even appeared to sense their presence. They thought they could post guard without his knowing. But just as he was about to climb down to the strand at the beginning of the rocky descent from the trail, he turned without a word and loosed one of the twin javelins he carried. It landed quivering between the two men in the lead. They stood open-mouthed, staring at their lord. He raised his arm and pointed wordlessly back down the trail. One by one, his commandos left rock clefts and trees and shambled back to camp.

He has spent the day in grief. He would not let his men hear again what they heard last night, so he kept silent until he drove them away. Certain of his solitude, he howled. At first he raged. Big rocks were raised overhead and shattered into gravel against unyielding cliff. The roaring surf could not hear itself crash over his shrieks. An unlucky octopus, caught in a tidal pool, found itself Agamemnon’s effigy: its eyes plucked out, each foot-long arm torn off slowly as ink jetted down Achilles’ chest, its bag of a head sloppily vivisected with fingers and teeth.

Finally, everything that could be broken had been broken and everything that lived had been killed. He was alone with himself. It was past noon. Achilles turned on Achilles. At first he was crude. He tore at his face and splashed salt water across the bleeding tracks. Shells crunched in his mouth to lacerate gums and tongue, but he could not make himself swallow. He stripped and ground his crotch across a boulder crusted with mussels, watching blood drip from his scrotum into the water. When he shat he rubbed his own filth into his hair and beard and cried out to Olympus to make it all end. The gods remained stubbornly silent.

Twice, he battered his head against rock, not because he wants to die, but because he wants the shame to stop. Yet he lives, and so does his shame. He is exhausted, but he cannot stop. Finally, he sits in the sea and stares at the sun, now an orange semicircle gilding fat clouds. He is slumped, his forearms resting against his thighs half submerged in surf growing colder with each wave. He feels sand shifting beneath him and knows that if he sits here long enough, the tide will rise and take him out to sea. This is not how it is supposed to end.

Finally, he speaks the words he knows he must. “Mother. Mother, please. Please.

Please help me, mother.” He waits. He waits a long time.

The sun is down to a quadrant, less, an octant, just one segment of an orange. The world before him is twilight, the world behind him dark. His head throbs with last night’s wine and today’s multiple stony traumas. He has given up hope and waits for the waves to take him away. He takes comfort in the knowledge that he will be asleep when the big fishes take off his toes and work their way up his legs. The cold water is now up to his sternum and its icy kiss makes him tired. He tries one more time. “Mother, please.”

The water is over his nipples. He thinks about getting up, running back to his clothes and arms, and walking back to the camp where there is a fire and wine. But there is shame there too, and he is tired anyway, and now he is beginning to feel warm rather than cold. So perhaps the glorious death he was promised is here in the water, with his last enemy an octopus not three feet across. The water is at his collarbone. He raises an arm out of the surf and notices that his fingers are blue. He is about to lean back, to recline as though at a banquet, and inhale salt water and drown his shame. But just as he rises up for a last backstroke, the water in front of him erupts. Twenty yards offshore a geyser rises, steam curling a hundred yards into the air, water boiling all around it. Suddenly he is in a whirlpool. Alive again and astonished, he sits up. “Mother? Mother, is it you?”


He stares straight into the heart of the geyser now subsiding into a boiling fountain, knowing that that is where she is. Then, just back from Hades’ grasp though he is, he remembers what it means to look at an immortal, even if he slipped into the world from between her thighs, and throws a forearm over his eyes. The water boils. He can hear it. He steals a glimpse down past his forearm and sees that thighs livid from cold a minute before have grown boiled-lobster red. If the water gets any hotter, the flesh will blister and part from bone. But it does not. The roiling has stopped; so has the geyser’s jet and crash. So too has the surf. Again he peeks at the water and sees it flat as a bath in which he has fallen asleep. He waits.

He thinks an hour has passed, but he knows enough not to expose his eyes. Never curious about anything other than war, he finally notices that no matter how many times his heart beats here in the surf at sunset, the sky grows no darker, as though the movement of the sun stopped with the surf. He knows then that he is no longer in time. He waits. Finally, he can bear it no longer. His back shrieks with his prolonged half crouch; his arm trembles with the effort of shielding himself from the divine. Eyes screwed shut, he drops his right arm into the water and begins to raise his left into its place. Something thick and wet and rubbery wraps itself around his left leg. Circles of cartilage hard as bone bite into his skin. His eyes pop open as a tentacle thick as his own arm wraps its way up to his groin and tightens hard enough to make him cry out.

As though awaiting that signal, the tentacle tightens further and pulls. He jerks forward against submerged sand and his head disappears under water. His mouth, still open, takes in water like a siphon. He claws at air and light. With another yank from the tentacle, his hands submerge as well.

The salt water bites his lungs. He flails and panics and coughs, expelling the last of his air in a few pathetic bubbles that race to the shimmering surface and break and are gone. He does not notice that the dark has yet to gather in his eyes, and so he fights, clutching at the sand and rocks speeding below him and kicking at the tentacle.

He snaps his head forward. Lungs and ears full of water, his groan is something he can only feel. He sees he has been taken by an octopus that must surely be the great-great-grandfather of this afternoon’s victim, fifty feet across with a head as big as an ox, eyes the size of platters, human as his own, that stare at him with neither pity nor reproach. He thinks that he has offended his mother by killing one of her creatures and knows himself to be a dead man taking the long way to Hades. He stops struggling.

The octopus descends. The dim light roofing Achilles’ new world fades. He wonders whom he will see, whether those he sent there himself will mock him, whether the friends who preceded him will welcome him at whatever tables the dead can keep. Still, the octopus dives. The light, rather than disappearing entirely, seems only to have shifted. Now it comes from below, a hazy point of brightness ahead and down. The octopus flexes and jets and pulses towards the light.

They arrive. The tentacle around his leg relaxes and Achilles drifts down to find a seat on a submerged rock. The octopus flaps once more and is gone. Ahead of him is what looks like a roofless temple: a dozen columns of coral, pink and white, arranged in a circle twenty yards across. Within is the source of light: a ball of lightning that rolls and dances from pillar to pillar. Knowing himself dead, he dares to look directly. Inside the ambient electricity he sees what seems to be the shadow of a human form.

He draws his eyes away. What looked like a temple now seems a military camp. Around it circle hundreds of great fish, orderly as cavalry patrols, each bigger than the biggest man, armed with serried ranks of white teeth and festooned with dimly glowing lights hanging from scalloped lips and fins. On the sand around are ranks of infantry: lobsters big as hunting dogs, crabs like wild boar. Clams the size of chariot cars snap open and shut in rhythm like bacchantes banging their cymbals.
Achilles sits and waits. Water seems to nourish a dead man’s lungs just as well as air, and now that he has died, he has plenty of time. He stares at the rolling light in the roofless temple. At length it stills and a voice fills his head. I know why you weep, Achilles, my son.

Achilles is startled. He had expected the voice of Charon.

I know why you rage. The voice comes from the fireball. Achilles weeps, his salt tears blending imperceptibly with the water around him. His mother has come through after all.

The fireball grows brighter. He is bathed in warmth, not of water boiling from the divine presence, but the radiance of her love. Speak, Achilles. You can.
He opens his mouth. It is an effort for lungs and diaphragm to push water rather than air, for teeth and tongue to form words in this new medium, but she is right. “I hurt,” he says.

"I know. I know, my son.

“He has shamed me before the fleet, before all the kings, before all my men, before the Trojans, before the gods.”

I know, I know.

“How can I make him pay?”

The fireball is silent. Poor boy. My poor boy. I bore you for a short life but promised you glory. Not this. Not shame before your friends. But don’t be afraid. Your mother won’t let this happen. I will speak to my father, your grandfather, the Lord of Lightning. He will bring Agamemnon grief beyond telling. And while this happens, you must rest by your ships. Stay out of the war. Let Agamemnon know what life is like without my boy.

The fireball has grown brighter by degrees until he can barely look at it. The figure inside stands out in sharper contrast. This is as close to seeing her as he will ever come. Though the glare around her makes his head throb, he forces himself to look anyway. Don’t worry, son. Do as I say and Agamemnon will regret this. And I promise you that you will have glory before you die.

He is about to speak again, but the light winks out. For a fraction of a second, he knows himself to be alone at the bottom of the sea. Then darkness enfolds him as well.


It is night when he awakens on the beach face down in gravel and sand, fifty yards from the water line, half covered with slimy weed. For a few seconds, he lies there without moving. The beach is bright with a full moon. Little crabs like spiders dance a few feet from his eyes, wondering whether he is dead enough to eat. So does he. Not until the bravest scuttles close and brushes his ear does he move. He rolls fast and crushes it with his fist, then crazed with rage and disgust, spins and pounds three more into twitching pulp before the others scatter.

Weaving and stumbling like a boxer in his last rounds, he staggers to the water and, kneeling in the surf, rinses shell fragments and guts from his hands. Then he vomits gallons of seawater back into its source. Only then does he remember. He walks into the water until it has risen to his waist and splashes his chest and face. When he can stand the cold no longer, he walks back onto the shore and towards the rocks where his clothes and weapons wait.

He will do as his mother told him.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Interview with Terence Hawkins

Terence Hawkins was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and graduated from Yale. His work has appeared in Poor Mojo's Almanac(k), Keyhole, Pindeldyboz, Ape Culture, Eclectica, Megaera, the Binnacle, and the New Haven Register. It has also appeared on Connecticut Public Radio. He is a trial lawyer in Connecticut. His website can be found at

A warm welcome to Terence Hawkins. I'm very excited about hosting you here today. I truly enjoyed your novel with it's "in-your-face" tell it kind of style. I'd like to learn a little more about you and your novel, so thanks for sharing with us.

Welcome, I’m so glad to have this opportunity to chat with you. Can you share with my readers the essence of the story you’ve penned?

Thank you for having me. The book is a novelization of the Iliad in modern prose, realistically told. The Trojan War as a real war, fought by real men.

You’ve chosen a very interesting title. What inspired the title? What inspired the book?

The title comes from the first line of the Iliad: “Sing, muse, of the rage of Achilles.” Oddly enough it took me quite a while to come up with that. I thought about calling it “The Battle for Troy,” or simply “Troy” but ultimately I realized that the book----both mine and the original----were about Achilles and not the war. I think I ignored the obvious because for so much of the book he is so supremely repellent.

As to the book itself, I happened to be reading Christopher Logue’s War Music, a loose translation of the Iliad in modern verse, at the same time I saw “Saving Private Ryan” for the first time. I wondered what the Iliad would look like if it were told with the same kind of realism. And of course being a lawyer I was confident that Homer is way too dead to sue me.

The other thing behind the work is Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Real title, real book. Jaynes theorized that true modern consciousness didn’t begin until language was sufficiently complex to make one hemisphere of the brain predominate over the other, and that before that time people were essentially automatons driven by voices in their heads that they believed to be those of the gods. Based on literary and linguistic evidence----including the Iliad itself----Jaynes believed that this transformation in consciousness took place in Homeric times. In my book, the gods appear as hallucinations, which is what Jaynes thought them to have been.

What makes this book special to you?

More than anything else it was an opportunity to rediscover Homer. Or more accurately discover him; my freshman English class was at eight in the morning and I’m not the earliest of risers. There’s a lot there that I’d forgotten or simply hadn’t noticed. What struck me most is that this is a story of brothers-----Agamemnon and Menelaus on one side, Hector and Paris on the other. And while the beef is between the younger----Paris stole Menelaus’ wife--- the war is prosecuted by the older. Though Homer doesn’t mention them I try to address the humiliations and resentments that must have flowed from big brothers fighting little brothers’ battles. Also, there’s a great deal in the original that is deeply, deeply strange and brutal, and far different from what we ordinarily associate with Classical heroism-----human sacrifice, for example.

Speaking of freshman English, it occurred to me long after I’d written the book that it might be some kind of psychic payback. My first paper at Yale was called “Shame and Guilt in the Iliad.” I think. In any event it got a c minus and a tart observation about the difference between literature and sociology. Guess I showed them.

What makes this a book that people MUST read and WHY?

The Iliad is the cornerstone of our literary tradition. This book makes it new. The original story is incredibly rich and deeply human, but I think its form as an epic poem in translation limits its accessibility. I’m not suggesting that my book is a dumbed-down version of the original----at least it’s no dumber than I am-----but rather an attempt to give its readers the same sense of immediacy and reality it must have had to its first audience.

What sparks your creativity? Any tips to help others spark their own creativity?

I take notes. If I hear something on the street that strikes me as funny I write it down. If I think something I don’t want to forget I write it down. Usually on 3 x 5’s in a Levenger card holder, by the way, though I also use a Moleskine reporter’s notebook. Every so often I go through the notes in no particular order and that seems to get things moving, perhaps by promoting random connections between otherwise disparate ideas. Couple of pops doesn’t hurt, either.

Speaking of randomness and creativity, I urge everyone to watch “Topsy-Turvey”, a brilliantly written and acted film about the first production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” See it, and you’ll see what I mean.

What has been the biggest stumbling block in your writing? Can you share some tips to help others get past similar problems?

I’m a practicing lawyer so time would at first seem to be the most important issue. It is an issue, that’s certain---but worse is having the emotional energy at the end of the day, which is when I have the time, to write. What I’ve done----and I think this only works with a saintly spouse, which I happen to have----is to set aside large blocks of time, like Friday nights, to write. What I’ve also done recently is to set aside an hour to write in the office in the evening after my paralegal’s gone and the phones aren’t ringing. This, though, works better for revisions than first drafts.

Tell me about the most unusual things you have done to promote your book?

I had the first chapter printed up as a chapbook which I then distributed around my various local hangouts. Sad to say there isn’t a lot of interest in the classics in Connecticut saloons, and I can show you a photograph of several of them wadded up to level off a wobbly elliptical trainer in the Yale gym. I also circulated a few among defense lawyers on the other side of some of my cases, just to see how they’d respond. One said, “When I got to the point where he threw her off the cliff, I wondered where your mother had gone wrong.”

Each author is different in the way they create a work of fiction. Please describe for us how you plan or plot a story.

This book was easier than most for the very good reason that the skeleton of plot and character were provided by somebody else. As to the former I changed what I had to in order to comport with military reality; as to the latter I added characters consistent with that reality.

Ordinarily I start a story with an idea----guy sends an email intended for his girlfriend to his wife by mistake----and start writing. After a while I start having some notion of where it’s going to end and begin to work towards that point. Sometimes I know the words that end the story well in advance, though sometimes they surprise me.

Authors are very unique in the way they write, the tools they use, when they write, etc. Please describe a typical writing day for you? How do you organize your day?

When working on a substantial project----a novel or long story-----I try to set aside two evenings a week on which my wife is invited to babysit, so I can work at home. I write for about forty minutes at a stretch. Formerly I would break by taking my dog for a quick walk during which I would smoke about half of a small cigar. Since he died I just take a walk and have half of a small cigar. (I only smoke when writing by the way.) When revising I work either at my desk at home in the morning or in the office in the early evening. No cigars in either event. I used to listen to music while working. No longer; it gets in the way of what’s in my head. I always use word for mac to write; I can’t imagine what they did before.

Incidentally, there’s a piece of advice usually attributed to Hemingway that I stick to-----always stop in the middle of a sentence. Finishing it the next day gets you back into the flow.

10. What is your current work in progress?

I’m now revising my second novel, American Neolithic. It’s a political satire set a few years from now, after a bloodless right wing coup has set up a Police State Lite. After the election of 2008 I thought the triumph of virtue meant that political satire was dead, but the right has proven me wrong. Birthers? Tenthers? Teabaggers? Thank you, thank you all.

Can you tell us where to find more information about you and your books and how readers can reach you?

My writing website is and I can be reached at

What would you like our readers to know about you and your writing?

I like to think the work speaks for itself. As for me, I’ve loved historical fiction since earliest boyhood---when, in fact, I was somewhat improvidently allowed to read Julian at age 12. That book made the past alive for me. I hope this does the same for you.