“I’ve been given 112 little princesses; what am I supposed to do with them?”
That was a Russian general’s response, at the height of World War II as the Nazis rolled unstoppably into the Soviet Union, when he was presented with what would eventually be called the 46th Taman Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment: an all-female regiment of fliers. One hundred and twelve women who had been flying planes since their teens, who had trained for months for a chance to fight and defend their homeland, and who were less than thrilled to be called “princesses.” They would eventually go on to earn the nickname “the Night Witches” for their spectacular war record against Hitler’s eastern front.
Witches and princesses—all little girls are raised on stories of witches and princesses. 21st century girls grow up with Disney princesses: their candy-colored skirts and passionate Alan Menken ballads, blocked from their handsome prince by a sinister witch in black eyeliner, horned headdress, or tentacles. The Russian girls who joined the Soviet Union’s only all-female night bomber regiment would have heard the story of Vasalisa the Beautiful, peasant girl elevated to royalty by a lovestruck tsar after she outwits malevolent Baba Yaga, the witch with the mortar and pestle. Princess myths tell little girls that if they are patient and good, they will be rewarded with glittering crowns, handsome husbands, happiness in the ending credits. Someday your prince will come; just fold your hands and look pretty and wait.
But at some point, the girls of yesterday and the girls of today get tired of waiting and start doing.
In 1941, the young women who joined the Night Witches were not fazed when they were told the Red Air Force was not accepting females. They barnstormed their way into the fight, championed by famous aviatrix Marina Raskova who was the Soviet Amelia Earhart and who used her fame and connections to get her protegees to the front. Once there, they cut off their long hair, donned the world’s ugliest overalls over men’s briefs (because the USSR did not have military-issued underwear designed for women) and racked up a lethal record against the invading Nazis—who, whenever the bombardment from above was particularly unrelenting, warned each other “Look out, the ladies are in the air.”
In 2020, young women aren’t waiting, either. More young women than ever are postponing family and marriage to establish careers, lining up at the polls to vote on what they think is important, planning on running for office. They’re reading “Teen Vogue” not just for the beauty tips, but for the articles on constitutional ethics. They’re marching in the streets and demanding to be heard…and in return, they’re nicknamed “witches,” too. And other names much more offensive.
But despite our childhood myths, the witch doesn’t have to be the villain. The witch in a fairy-tale is always powerful and ambitious and unapologetic about what she wants, and when the princess clashes with her, she gains a new power all her own.
Young women of today have taken the princess role and expanded it to encompass the witch, just as one hundred and twelve Russian girls took pride in their transformation from princess to witch by the forces of war and self-determination. A Russian general who snorted at the idea of bringing girls into battle was soon handing them medals for bravery in combat, and twenty-first century naysayers are learning just how powerful young women can be when they raise their voices in boardrooms, classrooms, and chatrooms across the world.
More than a princess. More than a witch. Like the women of the 46th, take to the sky and soar.
Nothing fits better in a Christmas stocking than a book. Here are my recommendations for your next shopping trip, eleven of the best books I read in 2019, though not all were published this year. Why 11 and not the usual 10? I didn’t want to leave any of these beauties off the list! Some were written by friends and colleagues, some by authors I only hope I can meet someday—but all were fabulous reads, and would make a great holiday gift for somebody in your life. I’ve even given you some help figuring out who…
I couldn’t photograph the rest of these books, because I read them on my Kindle while traveling!
1. THE BUTTERFLY GIRL by Rene Denfeld
A woman’s search for a killer interweaves with a homeless girl’s struggle to survive in this beautiful, devastating novel of humanity’s lost and forgotten who can so easily fall through the cracks. Investigator heroine Naomi is something of a lost girl herself, lone escapee of a killer who has never been caught, and who may still hold Naomi’s never-escaped sister. That search leads Naomi to twelve-year-old Celia, savvy and cynical, dreaming of butterflies to escape the ugliness of her life on the streets. Fraught topics like child abuse, sexual molestation, homelessness, and murder are delicately handled, weaving a story both poignant and ultimately satisfying.
Buy for: Your retired social worker grandmother. The details here are real enough to invigorate memories of her old caseload, but the hopefulness of the ending will give her the smile she often didn’t have when dealing with real-life cases.
2. MUNICH by Robert Harris.
Everyone knows that the Munich peace conference of ’38 ended with Neville Chamberlain’s famous “Peace in our time”—an illusion all too soon shattered. But Robert Harris brings unbelievable tension to this well-known moment of history, as two old university friends face each other on opposite sides of the diplomatic table: a junior English diplomat fighting to buy his country enough time to arm for war, and a German patriot determined to bring Hitler down by any means necessary, and begging England’s help to do it. You know how this will end, but your heart will be in your throat anyway, as the two men join forces to bring about the impossible.
Buy for: Your dad, who’s tired of reading about young James Bond types. He’ll love these desperate young brainiacs trying to save the world with words rather than martial arts and gunfire.
3. PARK AVENUE SUMMER Renee Rosen
Renee Rosen’s latest stars small-town girl Alice who arrives in New York in the glittering sixties and lands a job for Cosmopolitan‘s razor-sharp new editor Helen Gurley Brown, who sees in Alice the quintessential young career woman who is her new target audience. Alice dreams of becoming a photographer, Helen dreams of blazing a trail in the men’s club of the magazine world which is rooting for her to fail, and both women will lean on each other as they chase their ambitions. A delightful summer cocktail of a read.
4. CITY OF GIRLS by Elizabeth Gilbert
Another “girl comes to New York” story, this one set on the cusp of World War II. Bored, blue-blooded Vivian drops out of college and is shipped off to the Big Apple where her aunt runs a raucous, barely-hanging-on playhouse—a world of showgirls, nightclubs, sex, jazz, and fun into which Vivian flings herself headlong. Her joyous pursuit of life and all it has to offer is funny, maddening, tragic, uplifting, and always entertaining—there are more laugh-out-loud zingers in this book than I can count.
Along with the previous book, buy for: that young girl in your life (daughter, sister, niece) who’s heading off to a new state, a new job, or a new school. There are such lovely meditations in these books on ambition, sex, love, work—and above all, mistakes. Gilbert said she wanted to write a book about a girl whose life isn’t ruined when she makes a mistake—write that on the gift card when you wrap these books up for your young woman, who is undoubtedly headed for some missteps of her own.
5. THE LIE TREE by Frances Hardinge
A gothic YA with a touch of the fantastic. Fourteen-year-old Faith struggles to fit the mold of obedient daughter demanded by her harsh, exacting father, but everything changes when a mysterious scandal forces the family to relocate. Faith, searching for answers in her father’s increasingly erratic behavior, discovers a curious miniature tree hidden among his scientific specimens…a tree that apparently grows on whispered lies, and bears fruits of astonishing truth. The 19th century struggle to find belief somewhere between emerging scientific theory and religious dogma is no less important here than a girl’s struggle to find her own worth in a time that values her virtue over her intelligence. Just magical.
Buy for: That smart kid you used to babysit, who has already powered through all of Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and the Hunger Games. Expect a long fired-up discussion on female roles, parental relationships, and Darwin vs. God.
6. THE SECRETS WE KEPT by Lara Prescott
Two gripping narratives unfold in the pressure-cooker of the Cold War: passionate, courageous Olga who stands in the shadow of Soviet author Boris Pasternak yet inspires him to write a heroine for the ages, and the cynical, equally-overshadowed women of the CIA who help bring Pasternak’s masterpiece “Dr. Zhivago” to bear as a weapon against Soviet oppression. From the gulags of the USSR to the cherry-blossom trees of Washington D.C., the story grips and won’t let go—and the poignant love story between two female spies caught in the middle is the cherry on top.
Buy for: Your mom, who cries every time she watches “Dr. Zhivago.” She’ll love the behind-the-scenes details of the story’s conception.
7. DAISY JONES AND THE SIX by Taylor Jenkins Reid.
Billy is the charismatic drug-reformed front-man of rising seventies rock band The Six. Daisy is the hard-partying wild-child pop-star shoved together with The Six to write an album. Sparks of all kinds fly when two people with every reason to despise each other realize they are, like it or not, creative soul-mates. This is no romance, but a gritty, fascinating examination of raw artistic talent—what it demands of the people who have it, how it torments the people who don’t have it, and how it can create a bond like no other between people who are each other’s best bad idea.
Buy for: Your teenaged nephew who lives for his garage band. He’ll dig the dishy, behind-the-scenes soap opera of rock n’ roll fame, and maybe absorb a few ideas about the darker side of that fame along the way.
8. RED, WHITE, AND ROYAL BLUE by Casey McQuiston.
A funny, moving, delightful romance between a fairy-tale prince and another fairy-tale prince. Ambitious, smart-mouthed Alex already has targets on his back—he’s the half-Mexican son of America’s first Madam President, for one thing—and he knows publicly acknowledging his own bisexuality is not going to help his mother’s re-election odds. But he’s falling hard and fast for Prince Henry, England’s second heir to the throne (a fictional, adorable Harry clone), and increasingly determined to win a happy ending with the man of his dreams as well as a second term for his mother. A romance to root for, packed with laugh-out-loud zingers, election-trail gossip, and pop-culture gags galore.
Buy for: Your politics-and-romance-loving bestie who toggles between Rachel Maddow and Julia Quinn in her reading material. A sweeping romance with political in-jokes is just the ticket she wants to vote for. Bonus: buy an extra copy for the gay-bashing jerk one cubicle down who you somehow drew for Secret Santa, just to see if his head explodes.
9. NO EXIT by Taylor Adams
Almost unbearably tense pacing and once of the toughest, scrappiest heroines it’s been my pleasure to read in a very long time. Broke college student Darby, driving long-distance from school to a family crisis, breaks down in a lonely mountain rest stop with an impending snowstorm, no wi-fi, no cell service, and four strangers…then realizes one of them is transporting a kidnapped child in their van. She decides she will get involved, and my God, what a ride.
Buy for: Your tough-guy uncle who loves Jack Reacher, Jack Bauer, Jack Ryan, and all the other terrorist-fighting tough-as-nails fictional crime-fighters. Expect a 3am text: “JFC, even Jack Bauer never got his hand slammed in a door hinge!”
10. THE STARLET AND THE SPY by Ji-Min Lee
A poignant, beautiful book set in the wreckage of Seoul after the Korean War. The war has been (technically) won, but victory means very little to broken survivors like Alice, who struggles to get by from day to day and tries not to think about what she has lost. Marilyn Monroe, sauntering into the book (and history) on a USO tour, may just provide an opportunity for fragile, damaged Alice to piece her soul back together—I read with my heart in my throat, yearning for it to happen.
Buy for: Your gym buddy who always comes to yoga in a Marilyn Monroe t-shirt. She’ll love this historical glimpse at one of MM’s less famous epochs of life.
11. ONE FOR THE BLACKBIRD, ONE FOR THE CROW by Olivia Hawker
A story of family, friendship, and survival on the prairie frontier. Two homesteader families are thrown together under possibly the most awkward circumstances possible: Cora is found in bed with Nettie Mae’s husband, shots are fired, and when the smoke clears Nettie Mae is a widow and Cora’s husband is in jail. To say these two women want nothing to do with each other would be the understatement of the century, but as they stare down the barrel of an impending Wyoming winter with no men to work their farms and no other neighbors within miles, they realize they must rely on each other if their children are to survive. Quiet, lyrical, lovely, a paean to steel-spined women and the harsh beauty of the big sky country.
Buy for: Your wild-child aunt who lives in hiking boots. She’ll identify with the heroine’s quiet, nature-worshipping daughter whose connection with the earth under her feet is profound without ever tipping into New Age sentimentality.
Get thee to a bookstore, and happy holidays!
It’s finally time to celebrate the release of our novel, Ribbons of Scarlet: A Novel of the French Revolution’s Women, releasing October 1. We’re thrilled to be hitting the road to share the book with so many of you in person. Between September 30 and November 21, all six authors will be making appearances across the country, sometimes all together, and sometimes in smaller groups or solo – and we’d love to see you along the way! See below for all the details – and if you haven’t grabbed your copy of the book yet, do it now!
THE RIBBONS OF SCARLET TOUR:
Note: All events are open to the public unless listed otherwise. Various authors will appear at events; please check each event’s description to see who will appear near you. Events listed as author or book events will include book signings. Please support our booksellers by purchasing books from them. We look forward to seeing you on the road!
~ The Scarlet Sisters
P.S. from Kate: I’ve highlighted in bold all events where I’m appearing!
- 1PM EST, FACEBOOK LIVE, WITH ALL 6 AUTHORS
- 7PM, THE STRAND, NEW YORK CITY, WITH ALL 6 AUTHORS
- Offer available through September 30 – order a copy signed by all 6 authors
- More information from The StrandOCTOBER 1
- TBD, RIVERSTONE BOOKS, PITTSBURGH, PA, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY AND ELIZA KNIGHT
- 12PM, LIVE AT YOUR LIBRARY SERIES, GASTON COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY WITH PARK ROADS BOOKS, GASTON, NC, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 3PM, BOOK REVIEW CLUB, GASTON, NC (PRIVATE EVENT)
- 6PM, FICTION ADDICTION BOOKSTORE, GREENVILLE, SC, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- TBD, AUTHOR TALK, COLLEGE OF WOOSTER, WOOSTER, OH, WITH SOPHIE PERINOT
- 11:30AM, HOLCOMB READING CLUB, SPARTANBURG, SC, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE (PRIVATE EVENT)
- 12PM, MONDAY BOOK REVIEW CLUB, YOUNGSTOWN, OH, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY AND ELIZA KNIGHT (PRIVATE EVENT)
- TBD, KEYNOTE ADDRESS, CONVERSE COLLEGE, SPARTANBURG, SC, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 7PM, AUTHOR TALK, CUYAHOGA COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY, BRECKSVILLE, OH, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY, ELIZA KNIGHT, AND SOPHIE PERINOT
- 11:30AM, LEXINGTON FRIENDS BOOK TALK, COLUMBIA, SC, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 6PM, AUTHOR TALK, CHARLESTON LIBRARY SOCIETY, CHARLESTON, SC, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 7PM, AUTHOR TALK, ST. LOUIS COUNTY LIBRARY, ST. LOUIS, MO, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY, ELIZA KNIGHT, AND SOPHIE PERINOT
- 7PM, HEATHER WEBB IN CONVERSATION WITH ALLISON PATAKI, BOOK CULTURE ON COLUMBUS (AT 82ND), NEW YORK CITY
- 11AM, MOVEABLE FEATURE LUNCHEON HOSTED BY LITCHFIELD BOOKS, PAWLEYS ISLAND, SC, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 2PM, BOOKSIGNING, LITCHFIELD BOOKS, PAWLEYS ISLAND, SC, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 6:30PM MEET & GREET; 7PM MEET THE AUTHORS AT MACINTOSH BOOKS, SANIBEL, FL, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY, HEATHER WEBB, ELIZA KNIGHT, AND SOPHIE PERINOT
- 2PM, IN CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHORS OF RIBBONS OF SCARLET, SHANNON STAUB LIBRARY, NORTH PORT, FL, WITH ALL 6 AUTHORS
- 6PM, BOOKS & WINE, COPPERFISH BOOKS, PUNTA GORDA, FL, WITH ALL 6 AUTHORS
- 4PM, CHAMPAGNE & BOOKS, BOOKMARK, NEPTUNE BEACH, FL, WITH ALL 6 AUTHORS
- 11:30AM, BOOKS & BITES, FERNANDINA BEACH LIBRARY WITH THE AMELIA ISLAND BOOK FESTIVAL AND THE BOOK LOFT, FERNANDINA BEACH, FL, WITH ALL 6 AUTHORS
- 7PM, AUTHOR EVENT, THE LITERARY GUILD OF ST. SIMONS ISLAND, ST. SIMONS ISLAND, GA, WITH ALL 6 AUTHORS
- 1PM, AUTHOR TALK, MILTON PUBLIC LIBRARY WITH BOOKMISER BOOK STORE, MILTON, GA, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 6:30PM, AUTHOR TALK, FOXTALE BOOK SHOPPE, WOODSTOCK, GA, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 6:30PM, AUTHOR TALK, TWO SISTERS BOOKERY, WILMINGTON, NC, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY, SOPHIE PERINOT, ELIZA KNIGHT, AND HEATHER WEBB
- 11AM AUTHOR EVENT, PEACHTREE CITY LIBRARY WITH BOOKMISER BOOKS, PEACHTREE CITY, GA, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 5PM, AUTHOR TALK, THE COUNTRY BOOKSHOP, SOUTHERN PINES, NC, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY, SOPHIE PERINOT, AND ELIZA KNIGHT
- 7PM, AUTHOR TALK, MARGARET MITCHELL HOUSE, ATLANTA, GA, WITH KATE QUINN AND LAURA KAMOIE
- TIME TBD, PANEL DISCUSSION, SOUTHERN FESTIVAL OF THE BOOK, NASHVILLE, TN, WITH HEATHER WEBB
- 10AM – 2:30PM, BOOKS & BINGO, HOSTED BY THE WOMENS’ NATIONAL BOOK ASSOCIATION AND ADVENTURES BY THE BOOK, CORONA PUBLIC LIBRARY, CORONA, CA, FEATURING KATE QUINN, KEYNOTE SPEAKER
- 11AM, AUTHOR TALK, ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY, MD DAR, CROWNSVILLE, MD, WITH LAURA KAMOIE (PRIVATE EVENT)
- TBD, AUTHOR TALK, BARNES & NOBLE, ANNAPOLIS, MD, WITH LAURA KAMOIE
- 1-4PM, A REVOLUTIONARY LUNCH ADVENTURE, HOSTED BY COTE D’AZUR CAFE & BISTRO AND ADVENTURES BY THE BOOK, FEATURING KATE QUINN, KEYNOTE SPEAKER
- 6:30PM, AUTHOR TALK, ADAMS COUNTY ARTS COUNCIL WITH A LIKELY STORY, GETTYSBURG, PA WITH LAURA KAMOIE AND ELIZA KNIGHT
- 4:30PM, SUSAN B. CLEMENTSON AUTHOR SERIES FOR THE BENEFIT OF APALACHICOLA MARGARET KEY LIBRARY, BOOKSELLER: DOWNTOWN BOOKS, APALACHICOLA, FL, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY
- 7PM, FICTION READING EVENT, STRING THEORY YARN SHOP WITH THE CUPBOARD MAKER BOOKS, LEYMOYNE, PA, WITH LAURA KAMOIE
- 10AM – 4PM, FSU PANAMA CITY FRESHMAN READ EVENT, PANAMA CITY, FL, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY
- 10-11AM STUDENT PRESENTATION (PRIVATE EVENT)
- 11:30-1PM LUNCHEON WITH A TALK ON WRITING
- 2-3PM TEA WITH AN AUTHOR BOOKSIGNING WITH BOOKS UNLIMITED
- 3-4PM AUTHOR TALK
- 7PM, EVENING LECTURE, DICKINSON COLLEGE, STERN GREAT ROOM, CARLISLE, PA, WITH LAURA KAMOIE
- PANEL DISCUSSION, CARMEL CLAY PUBLIC LIBRARY FESTIVAL, CARMEL, IN, WITH SOPHIE PERINOT AND HEATHER WEBB
- 7PM, AUTHOR TALK, WELLINGTON SQUARE BOOKSHOP CO-SPONSORED BY CHESTER COUNTY LIBRARY, HILTON GARDEN INN, EXTON, PA, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 6:30PM, AN EVENING WITH A WRITER, SPONSORED BY ESSEX COUNTY FRIENDS OF THE LIBRARY, AT THE ESSEX INN, TAPPAHANNOCK, VA, WITH LAURA KAMOIE, HEATHER WEBB, AND SOPHIE PERINOT
- TIME TBD, LADIES WHO LUNCH, SECCO RESTAURANT WITH FOUNTAIN BOOKSTORE, RICHMOND, VA, WITH LAURA KAMOIE AND SOPHIE PERINOT
- 1PM, AUTHOR TALK, THE BOOK DRAGON, STAUNTON, VA, WITH LAURA KAMOIE
- 7:30PM, RIBBONS OF SCARLET AUTHORS IN CONVERSATION WITH MICHELLE CAMERON, WORDS BOOKSTORE, MAPLEWOOD, NJ, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY, ELIZA KNIGHT, HEATHER WEBB, AND SOPHIE PERINOT
- 11:30AM, AUTHOR LUNCHEON, CORONADO LIBRARY, CORONADO, CA, WITH KATE QUINN
- More information and get tickets on Facebook | Eventbrite
- 6:30PM, AUTHOR TALK, AVON LIBRARY, AVON, CT, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY, SOPHIE PERINOT, ELIZA KNIGHT, AND HEATHER WEBB
- 7:30PM, AUTHOR TALK, WARWICK’S BOOKSTORE, SAN DIEGO, CA, WITH KATE QUINN
- CHAMPAGNE AUTHOR TALK, BANK SQUARE BOOKS, MYSTIC, CT, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY, SOPHIE PERINOT, ELIZA KNIGHT, AND HEATHER WEBB
- 2PM, JOINT AUTHOR PANEL AT THE LIBRARY GUILD OF RANCHO SANTA FE, SAN DIEGO, CA, WITH KATE QUINN
- 2-4PM, BOOKSIGNING, BROWSEABOUT BOOKS, REHOBOTH BEACH, DE, WITH LAURA KAMOIE
- 6:30PM, AUTHOR TALK, CARROLL COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY WITH A LIKELY STORY, MT. AIRY, MD, WITH LAURA KAMOIE, STEPHANIE DRAY, AND ELIZA KNIGHT
- 1PM, BOOK TALK ON RIBBONS OF SCARLET, BALTIMORE BOOK FESTIVAL, LITERARY SALON STAGE, BALTIMORE, MD, WITH 5 OF THE 6 AUTHORS (ALL BUT KATE)
- 3PM, WRITING COLLABORATIVELY PANEL, BALTIMORE BOOK FESTIVAL, MARYLAND ROMANCE WRITERS STAGE, BALTIMORE, MD, WITH LAURA KAMOIE, HEATHER WEBB, ELIZA KNIGHT, AND SOPHIE PERINOT
- TIME TBD, FUNDRAISER EVENT, A LIKELY STORY, SYKESVILLE, MD, WITH STEPHANIE DRAY, LAURA KAMOIE, AND ELIZA KNIGHT
- AUTHOR LUNCHEON, LAKE FOREST BOOK STORE AT DEER PATH INN, LAKE FOREST, IL, WITH LAURA KAMOIE, SOPHIE PERINOT, AND ELIZA KNIGHT
- BOOK TALK, THE BOOK CELLAR, CHICAGO, IL, WITH ELIZA KNIGHT, LAURA KAMOIE, AND SOPHIE PERINOT
- 11:30AM, HIGH TEA EVENT, FAIRMONT CHATEAU LAURIER HOTEL, OTTAWA, CANADA, WITH KATE QUINN
- 7:30PM, AUTHOR TALK, JEWISH PUBLIC LIBRARY, MONTREAL, CANADA, WITH KATE QUINN
- 2PM, AUTHOR TALK, MCINTYRE’S BOOKS, PITTSBORO, NC, WITH LAURA KAMOIE, HEATHER WEBB, AND ELIZA KNIGHT
- 6:30PM, AUTHOR TALK, PAGE 158 BOOKS, WAKE FOREST, NC, WITH ELIZA KNIGHT, HEATHER WEBB, AND LAURA KAMOIE
- 7PM, AUTHOR TALK, BOOKMARKS WINE EVENT, WINSTON SALEM, NC, WITH HEATHER WEBB, LAURA KAMOIE, AND ELIZA KNIGHT
- 7PM, AUTHOR TALK, MAIN STREET BOOKS, DAVIDSON, NC, WITH LAURA KAMOIE, ELIZA KNIGHT, AND HEATHER WEBB
- 5PM, LINGER LONGER LIVING SERIES AT REYNOLDS LAKE OCONEE, GREENSBORO, GA, WITH LAURA KAMOIE, HEATHER WEBB, AND ELIZA KNIGHT (PRIVATE EVENT)
- 12PM, MULTI-AUTHOR SIGNING, NORA ROBERTS’S TURN THE PAGE BOOKSTORE, BOONSBORO, MD, WITH LAURA KAMOIE AND ELIZA KNIGHT
As is now traditional: my recap of the 2019 Historical Novel Society Conference! With four HNS conferences under my belt before jetting off to Washington, D.C., I knew two things going in: 1) There would be much fun and very little sleep, and 2) What happens at the conference, stays at the conference.
Even with that last caveat, there was plenty of fun that’s printable. So here it is: HNS 2019…
I careen into Maryland early thanks to a Monday stop-off through northern California for a bookstore event with the lovely Pam Jenoff. We spend the previous night gabbing about THE HUNTRESS and THE LOST GIRLS OF PARIS respectively…
…and I skate directly cross-country after that. I am swaggering like Captain Marvel because I managed to pack for one week, one conference, three states, four panels, one Koffee Klatch, and an ALA appearance in a single carry-on suitcase–I may not have superpowers, but by God I know how to pack light. The secret is 1) Lots of mix-and-match separates, and 2) Having spent ten years watching your Navy sailor spouse pack for deployments. I’m not as good as the Overseas Gladiator–he could pack an 18th century robe a l’anglaise complete with panniers into a roll the size of a sleeve of dimes–but everything fit in one carry-on, I didn’t repeat a single outfit, and I got out of all checked bag fees. If you aren’t married to a Navy sailor who can give you the tutorial, I suggest picking one up in a bar and offering to buy him or her a six-pack if they’ll show you how to pack a sea-bag. As the OG says, the average Navy sailor will happily work for beer, and you will get a better packing story than if you look it up on Youtube.
I crash the night in the spare room of my beloved writing partner and historical fiction star Stephanie Dray, and since we have a day to kill before heading to the conference hotel, we enact a cherished tradition: head to the nearest Panera with our laptops and put in a day’s work. Future joint projects are discussed, iced coffee is swilled, word-counts are met, and problems thrashed out–Stephanie helps clarify some character decisions I’ve been mulling for my Bletchley Park codebreaker heroines in the upcoming THE ROSE CODE, and I help her debate ending arcs for her WWI heroine in the upcoming WOMEN OF CHAVANIAC. Man, I’ve missed this.
10pm: Thanks to a sudden downpour and a gas stop, it’s nearly 10 by the time we manage to check into the massive, beautiful Gaylord Hotel. I’m bunking with Steph since it’s another day till my room is ready, but we manage to rope in Stephanie Thornton from the lobby and get caught up in our PJs over cans of wine. (Cans. Of wine. This is a thing, apparently? Cabernet with nuances of nickel and overtones of aluminum?) The words are spoken: “Are we going anywhere?” “No. I’m not putting pants back on.” We discuss Stephanie T’s upcoming novel of Jackie Kennedy, AND THEY CALLED IT CAMELOT. I got a sneak peek at this in rough draft form, and I confidently predict that soon I will be pointing at the TV saying “See that gorgeous gal on The Today Show? I drank wine out of a can with her!”
12noon: I check into my room, and realize just how enormous this hotel is. It’s gorgeous…
…but my room is so geographically far from the nearest guest elevator, it’s practically located back in San Diego. Fortunately the service elevator is right across the hall, and I ride down with a basket of sheets for lunch with my Scarlet Sisters. We’ve written a book together–RIBBONS OF SCARLET, out October 1, available for pre-order!–but this is the first time we’ve all been together face to face! We toast our book baby with fizzy pink drinks, and before the opening cocktail reception in the evening, we all get gussied up in scarlet for photo ops. I won’t stop singing “The Scarlet Sister” to the tune of Hamilton‘s “The Schuyler Sisters.” Half me teammates smack me and half sing along.
6pm: opening cocktail reception and cocktail party! I manage to spot Libbie Hawker in Viking gear, Elizabeth Huhn in Civil War hoopskirts, David Ebershoff who was the delightful keynote speaker at a past HNS conference, my wonderful fellow Chesapeake Bay chapter members Matt Phillips and Chris Murray and Elizabeth Bell, my darling friend Anna Ferrell who is dolled up in Tudor garb and having a ball at her first HNS con…and best of all, the fabulous Margaret George who has come as Boudica, complete with red hair and woad!
8pm: Dinner down the street with my agent-sisters–the wonderful Kevan Lyon has probably 20 clients in one place at the same time, and with her in the lead (a string of racehorses following our trainer–she seriously needs to get racing silks for us) we take over an entire room at a local restaurant. I meet the terrific debut authors Bryn Turnbull, Kristin Beck, and Kaia Alderson, greet Renee Rosen for the first time IRL and not just online, and we all decide we should take the collective name “the Lyonesses.” Forget racing silks, we need a House sigil like in Game of Thrones. It’s thundering again, and we all find ourselves relying on Erika Robuck’s rain app to find a gap in the clouds. As far as innovations go, the rain app is much more successful than canned wine.
We snap a pic (this one’s for my favorite book blogger Erin Davies, who isn’t here but made me promise to try to get as many authors as possible into one photo!) and then I’m back to the hotel room where I help my friend Anna practice for her pitch tomorrow. I send her back to her room with firm instructions to sleep and not panic–and the next day I learn she’s had not one but two requests for a look at her novel!
7 am: I’ve got three panels back to back in the morning, and 45 minutes to pull off “polished and professional.” “Vertical and caffeinated” is probably a more realistic goal. Battering my hair into submission with a flat-iron hot enough to forge swords, I observe that the red streaks newly touched up in my hair have bled over onto the blond, and I am looking somewhat…pink. “No time, Strawberry Shortcake,” I mutter, and realize there is no way I can zip up my dress on my own. I put out an emergency call to Heather Webb, and end up sprinting through the Gaylord’s endless halls in search of her, shoes in hand and dress flapping open, wondering if I can convince my panel audience that naked backs are the latest trend. Heather puts up road flares and I manage to locate her for a zip-up, riding the service elevator down with the buckets and mops to make my panel with three minutes to spare.
8am panel: First panel! “Silk Stocking Rebels–Writing STEAM-Powered Women” with Nicky Penttila, Mary Sharratt, and Margaret Porter. We’re up against the industry panel with all the agents and editors which is taking place down the hall, but we have fun with our discussion. Someone in the audience tweets my observation about women of the past usually having to choose between marriage and career, and the bitterness that must have caused considering historical men in the same fields usually managed to have both. I love Mary Sharratt’s observations on the fascinating Alma Mahler, and later someone fills me in on the industry panel: WWI and WWII eras remain popular even with the current market saturation, and so do dual-timeline narratives. This is good news for my future slate of planned projects.
9:15: ” You Mean It Didn’t Rain That Day? Perils and Pitfalls of Writing Modern History” with Stephanie Thornton, Chanel Cleeton, and Camille de Maio. I moderate this one; everyone’s coffee has hit and the group is dynamite. We all agree there’s a lot more to fact-check in the 20th century when so much more documentation survives, so cue the hair-tearing.
— 10:30 panel: I catch up with some lovely readers, then head for my third panel, “Writing The Historical Female in the #MeToo Era” with Laura Kamoie, Eliza Knight, and Heather Webb moderating. Heavy subjects here, all things we discussed nonstop as we wrote RIBBONS OF SCARLET. I talk about writing Manon Roland, a victim of childhood sexual abuse who wrote bluntly about her assault, and we discuss the importance of not taking a victim’s voice away when we so rarely have surviving accounts from historical women in their own words.
–11:30am: Lunchtime, and our first keynote speaker Dr. Dolen Perkins-Valdez. I have been a huge fan of Dolen’s since reading her heartbreaking novel WENCH, and she holds us all spellbound with her speech, which is wry, warm, funny, and inspiring. I lose my heart to this woman the minute she gives us all a humorous look and says “Ya’ll, feel free to make sh*t up.”
1:15 pm: Sit in on “Beyond Rosie the Riveter: WWII Heroines” with Jennifer Robson, Kerri Maher, Sherri Smith, and Kip Wilson, with Greer McCallister moderating. Sherri is hilarious and I mark her new book down immediately for my TBR. Greer gets a big laugh with “The past is not just now, but with hats.” Afterward I meet my former editor Amanda Bergeron for the very first time–we worked together on THE ALICE NETWORK at Morrow before she became executive editor over at Berkley, but have never met in person. We gab happily about books; more titles for the TBR.
3:45 pm: My last panel of the day, “Papal Daughters: women of the Italian Renaissance” with Donna Russo, Alyssa Palombo, and Laura Morelli. This turns into a geek-fest with three ladies whose love for the Renaissance is as great as mine. We debate the Lucrezia Borgia incest rumors and all come down in the “rumor and lies” camp.
6pm: Everyone is at loose ends for dinner tonight, but Berkley is hosting a cocktail party meet-and-greet for any Berkley authors present, and they have my backlist so I head off for canapes. Meet Lauren Willig for the first time–she’s as delightful as I expected–and catch up with the elusive, funny, and fabulous Deanna Raybourn. After that it’s a sushi dinner with my beloved Janie Chang and Jennifer Robson, with whom I first bonded on a book tour cursed with the travel jinx from hell. It’s heaven to see these ladies again, and we end up back in my hotel gossiping over a bag of Reeses Peanut Butter Cups.
11 am: I have coffee in a pool of sunshine with the lovely Beatriz Williams–together with Lauren Willig and Karen White (whom I also have a chance to meet at this con) she helps form the Team W triangle behind my recent fave read THE GLASS OCEAN–and then chat in the lunch line with Rachel Kahan. We talk the #ownvoices movement in histfic; she has a wishlist of things she’d love to see come across her desk. If you aren’t already doing it, follow major editors and agents on Twitter/Instagram/social media–they post their wishlists, and you just might find your WIP on it! I know at least one debut author who got a contract this way.
1:15 pm: After lunch, it’s time for “Double Trouble: Crafting the Dual Narrative Historical Novel” with Beatriz Williams! I’m absolutely tickled to see the room is full-to-overspilling, and veer off to beg the hotel staff if they can pull back the divider and open up to the room next door. They do, and we fill both rooms to capacity (yes!) No one’s quieting down anytime soon, so I pick up the mic and sing a ringing F sharp until everyone spins around–first time I’ve had the opportunity to use my opera-singer training at a writer’s con. After that, Beatriz and I are off and running, and we have a blast, passing the conversation back and forth as we discuss types of dual narratives, the sales pros and cons, and the creative pitfalls of crafting dual and triple timelines. If you missed our session and are looking for the breakdown, here it is.
Afterward, I get a chance to catch up with the lovely Greer McCallister–conferences are all about the sideways wiggle through the crowd as you grab an elbow exclaiming There you are!–and we chat deadline woes. I laugh way too hard when she deadpans “I can write fast when I’m writing badly.”
3:45: Bookstore signing! The alphabet is kind to me; I’m sitting with Margaret Porter, Alix Rickloff, Jen Robson, and Aimie Runyan. A group photo together…
…and then it’s time for a Sestra Selfie as two authors who both wrote books about Night Witches. (Have you read DAUGHTERS OF THE NIGHT SKY? It’s amazing!)
5:45 pm: Cocktail hour–I’m on my way to meet up with my Chesapeake Bay chapter when I run into my stellar editor Tessa Woodward, and before I know it, we’re gabbing away as the Scarlet Sisters get roped in one by one, and we share tales from the trenches of writing a collaborative novel. Tessa, whom I’ve only ever seen in her book-stacked office at Morrow, is absolutely hilarious in a group chat text session. Also wedged into our table are lovely Brits Hazel Gaynor and Gill Paul–finally meeting these ladies in person!
6:30 pm: Evening Banquet. Leslie Carroll leads the entertainment with a series of historic play excerpts by notable historical women (Mae West was a playwright?!) and afterward I’m up waaaay too late in the lobby, watching silent disco, drinking prosecco, and trading gossip with fellow Chessie member Allison Thurman in cutting-edge white menswear, Zenobia Neil in Greek finery (I can’t wait for her book with the Spartan heroine!), and Donna Russo and Sophie Perinot who put us all to fashion shame in cutting edge jumpsuits.
Sartorially I can’t match them, except in the shoe department. I left my red conference stilettos at home, but I’ve got triple-strapped pumps that I like to think Peggy Carter would wear out dancing when she wasn’t chasing bad guys for SHIELD.
8 am: I crawl out of bed looking like I’ve spent the night under a bridge. Spackle on concealer, catch a brief nap in a basket of clean sheets as I ride down the service elevator one last time, and head for ALA with Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie. I see Robin Hoklotubbe who I’ve met many times before in California at library events, and she asks if she can add me last-minute to a book club panel. “I can panel at five minutes’ notice,” I assure her, and they wedge me in between Steph and Laura to talk about book clubs and how to promote them. I share my favorite book club story, a call-in to a group of nonagenerians who started the conversation off with a brisk “Let’s discuss the sex…” as they expertly flipped their copies of THE ALICE NETWORK open to all the bedroom bits.
1pm: Signing copies of RIBBONS OF SCARLET, THE HUNTRESS, and THE ALICE NETWORK at the ALA HarperCollins booth. After this I’m done, cooked, stick a fork in me, and my lovely colleagues are in the same boat, all of us so tired we’d eat frog spawn if someone would just give us permission to climb into PJs and stare at a wall. I’m crashing in Steph’s spare room again, so we drive back to the Baltimore area singing along with Act I of Hamilton–nothing like barreling down the 295 howling “I’m looking for a mind at WORK, WORK!” with your bestie. That evening is nothing but pajamas, an obscene amount of takeout Chinese, and binge-watching the entire first season of “Fleabag” (excellent!) But we also talk about the conference, which is glowing gently in the memory already. It was a great con: I didn’t have a chance to hit very many panels this time around because I had so many to speak on, but the keynote speeches were inspiring, the chance to meet readers was thrilling (Kerri Kerce, I’m so glad you made it!), and reconnecting with colleagues and friends I only see every other year–and some I’ve only known online up until now–was marvelously rejuvenating. HNS 2019 is over, and already I can’t wait for HNS 2021!
I’m newly back from the 2019 Historical Novel Society Conference, and I promise I’ll get my recap up soon–but in case you missed the Koffee Klatch I did with the fabulous Beatriz Williams on how to craft a dual-narrative historical novel, here are the high points.
Why write a dual narrative historical novel?
- FIRST AND FOREMOST–it’s a way to make a less-marketable historical era more marketable. We all know how hard it is to pitch hist-fic that isn’t set in an era deemed trendy, and adding a second timeline set in a more popular era will help. Maybe you’ve seen eyes glaze when you say “It’s a story about an 8th century Benedictine nun in the south of France” but when you add in “combined with a French Resistance tale that links to the past with a long-hidden murder” those eyes may light back up. Think of it as luring readers and publishers into letting you tell the story you actually want to tell by wrapping it in sparkly, on-trend ribbons.
- Your book can be shelved, tagged, and categorized as more than just historical fiction. If your title can also be found under Contemporary, Women’s Fiction, Mystery, Historical Mystery, and any other tag your secondary timeline gives you, then more readers will find it.
- Variety. If you have a grim war-time drama full of rationing and marching, maybe your secondary timeline introduces a shot of glamour or a setting with some sunshine to vary the pace and give your reader a break. Variety is the spice of books as well as life.
Ok, I want to write a dual timeline historical narrative. What types are there?
- A historical timeline juxtaposed with a modern-day timeline. (Beatriz Williams’s Wicked City)
- A historical timeline juxtaposed with a second historical timeline (Beatriz Williams’s The Secret Life of Violet Grant, my The Alice Network)
- Two historical timelines told by the same narrator, generally flipping from Before and After some pivotal event whose details are slowly revealed to the reader (look no further than Beatriz Williams’s The Summer Wives. Two of the three story threads in my The Huntress also take this route, though told by two different narrators.)
You need a link between your timelines. What creates that link?
- Artifacts are frequently the link between timelines–mysterious photographs, antique objects, a cache of letters (although the “I found a trove of letters in a hatbox in my grandmother’s attic” has been done quite a bit, it feels to me). Examples: Susanna Kearsley’s The Firebird or Jennifer Robson’s The Gown.
- Characters can provide the link, often seen as a young person in one timeline and a much older person in the other–I did this in The Alice Network. Family ties count here too, as a younger family member unravels the mystery of a mother or relative–see Chanel Cleeton’s Next Year in Havana.
- Locations can link stories through time as well as space. Stephanie Dray’s upcoming The Women of Chavaniac features multiple generations of women across several centuries who all live at the Marquis de Lafayette’s castle in France.
What are the pitfalls and problems in writing dual narrative historicals?
- Lots and lots of research. If you choose to write two historical narratives in one novel, that’s double the historical research.
- If you have two stories, it is going to be harder to keep your word count to a reasonable length.
- Balancing the stakes in both narratives. Putting two timelines together invites comparison–maybe in a story of her own, your modern-day college student struggling with an identity crisis and the death of her mother would be 100% sympathetic, but when she’s juxtaposed against your secondary heroine starving to death in the Leningrad siege, your reader may be inclined to think “You’re not starving in a war zone, kid, pull yourself together!” and shut the book in irritation. Keep your stakes high in both timelines.
How do you write your dual narratives–each separately or both together?
- You can write each timeline A-Z, then have a braiding session afterward intercutting the two. Advantages: you can keep the voice more distinct while staying firmly in one timeline, and also keep your historical details more consistent if you don’t have to continually ask yourself what era you’re (only after you realize WWII slang has crept across the timelines into your 1880 heroine’s mouth). Disadvantages: It’s easy to over-write if you do the timelines separately, and end up with way more than you need.
- You can write both timelines at once, cutting between them as the reader would in the final draft. Advantages: It’s easier to tease out the parallels between timelines when you’re going back and forth. Disadvantages: Historical detail has a tendency to drift from one timeline to the next when you aren’t firmly anchored in one time and place, see above.
- Ultimately, however, there is no One True Way. Do what feels most natural for you.
The takeaway: A dual timeline isn’t a sure-fire sale, but agents and editors are still buying them, and readers like them. So why not consider it?
Nothing fits better in a Christmas stocking than a book. Here are my recommendations for your next shopping trip, ten of the best books I read in 2018 (though not all were published this year.) Some were written by friends or colleagues, some by authors I only hope I can meet someday—but all were fabulous reads, and would make a great holiday gift for somebody in your life. I’ve even given you some help figuring out who. The list would have been twice as long if I could include the ARCs I read in advance of publication for cover quotes, but in the spirit of holiday gift-giving, I limited my list below to books you can run, run, run to the bookstore and buy right now!
- THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE by Katherine Arden
A gorgeous fairy-tale wrapped in the chaotic history of pre-Imperial Russia, so rich with atmosphere you can feel the snow on your cheeks. Full of wicked stepmothers, fanatical priests, whimsical nature spirits, and brave maidens, this was a book I read in one sitting. Better yet, the adventures of bold Vasalisa and enigmatic Morozko continue in “The Girl in the Tower,” with a third novel forthcoming in January.
2. THE ROMANOV EMPRESS by C.W. Gortner
A book with all the glitter and mystery of a Faberge egg, the outer decadence and beauty of Imperial Russia unfolding to reveal the mysteries and horrors within. The waning days of a doomed dynasty are recounted by the vivacious but tough Danish princess who would become one of Russia’s most revered tsarinas, only to see her line end in war and revolution. Gortner pens a beautiful tribute to a lost world, weaving a tale sumptuous as a Russian sable.
Along with the previous book, buy for: Your hist-fic-devouring bestie who is always complaining there isn’t enough historical fiction set outside World War II and the Tudors. They’ll get a romp through Russia’s history to make their head spin if they start with Arden’s wild medieval woods and then sprint to Gortner’s lavish Imperial court.
3. FOOLS AND MORTALS by Bernard Cornwell
A delightful departure from Cornwell’s usual wonderful blood-and-battle epics, depicting in all its glitter and squalor the world of Elizabethan theatre. The hero is Shakespeare’s younger brother Richard, an actor resentful of his dour playwright brother (the great William is not seen through particularly rosy lenses here) and yearning to graduate from women’s roles to men’s roles. “Midsummer Night’s Dream” is to be performed for a noble wedding, after that “Romeo and Juliet” is being written…what part will Richard get, and will some ugly buried secrets and a feud with neighboring players get in the way? Pure magic.
Buy for: The theatre-mad teenage girl in your life,be she daughter, niece, or younger sister. Expect her to start memorizing whole chunks of Shakespeare soliloquies to declaim around the house. This is a habit to be encouraged at all costs.
4. WHAT GIRLS ARE GOOD FOR by David Blixt
David Blixt pens a heroine for the ages in “What Girls Are Good For,”which follows the extraordinary career of pioneer newspaperwoman Nellie Bly. A pint-sized dynamo who refuses to stay in the kitchen no matter how many men tell her to get back there, Nellie fights tooth and nail to make a name for herself as a journalist, battling complacent colleagues, corrupt institutions, and her own demons along the way. Nellie Bly was a real-life Lois Lane, and I loved every minute of her adventures.
Buy for: Your brother the high school English teacher, who is always looking for books with great women role models to give his students. Offer them extra credit if they read Nellie Bly’s own book “10 Days In A Madhouse” as a companion to this one.
5. GENTLEMAN BASTARDS SERIES by Scott Lynch
Start with “The Lies of Locke Lamora” and proceed straight on to “Red Seas Under Red Skies” and “Republic of Thieves”–Scott Lynch’s series about a gang of high-stakes thieves in a magical version of Renaissance Venice is a hoot. The hero is a skinny hyperactive wheeler-dealer who can talk himself into and then out of more trouble in a single day than most people will meet in a lifetime; his strong-and-stalwart sidekick Jean is much more than just the muscle, and the twists and turns of the adventures these con-artist brothers-in-arms find themselves in will leave you gasping, laughing, and crying.
Buy for: Your bookworm second-wave-feminist aunt who complains that fantasy is all white dudes and orcs. Lynch’s world is peopled with characters of all colors, and capable women in every walk of life and corridor of power imaginable. Just wait till your aunt gets to the black female pirate captain who stalks through Book 2 like a force of nature.
6. MY DEAR HAMILTON by Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie
Don’t throw away your shot to read this rich, meticulously researched door-stopper on the woman who was far more than a mere loyal political wife standing in the shadow of a controversial Founding Father. General’s daughter Eliza Schuyler is a true-blue patriot long before she yokes her star to the dynamic Alexander Hamilton, and it’s her vision as much as his that helps forge a nation, even through family drama, the nation’s first political sex scandal, and the inevitable duel.
Buy for: your cousin who wants tickets to “Hamilton” for Christmas, but come on—you’re not mortgaging your house for someone you see twice a year. Expect her to be babbling about this book when you next see her at Easter dinner.
7. CIRCE by Madeline Miller
The author of “Song of Achilles” returns with a female-centric re-shaping of Greek sorceress Circe, who weaves sinuous and threatening through a variety of myths—aunt of the deadly Medea, jealous lover who turned a rival nymph to a sea monster, island witch humbled by the trickster Odysseus. Circe is much more than that here; an immortal consigned to solitude and using it to hone her witchcraft, play hostess to any number of visitors both hostile and friendly (Odysseus is portrayed with complexity and sensitivity here, not merely swapped into the villain’s role), and over the centuries brood on questions such as “What is it to be immortal? And how can those who cannot die ever hope to change?”
Buy for: Your philosophy-major son or nephew in college. He’ll dig deep into the philosophical examination of immortality vs. humanity, and doing it through the eyes of a woman who has confronted the ugly realities of what it is to be female and helpless at the hands of the Greek gods will be a valuable insight.
8. THE LOST FAMILY by Jenna Blum
A Holocaust story unlike any I have ever read. The focus here is less on the camps and what happened there (although flashbacks make that clear, and it’s harrowing reading) and more on how survivor guilt echoes as it filters through generations and decades: first in glittering art-deco sixties New York with Peter, a restauranteur and Auschwitz survivor grieving the loss of his wife and daughters; then in the moving-and-changing seventies as Peter’s beautiful second wife June struggles with how much of her husband is sealed away from her with the ghosts of the past; and finally in the fast-moving eighties as their teenage daughter Elspeth fights for an identity of her own without realizing how much of her parents’ unspoken grief she has internalized. Moving, unexpected, at times funny, often tragic, beautifully realized.
Buy for: Your grandfather who served as a docent at the Holocaust museum. He’ll appreciate the way the different decades are defined, having lived through them all himself, and stoic, war-damaged Peter is a hero he will honor.
9. WENCH by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
A heart-breaker of a book. A decade before the Civil War, four slave women gather summer after summer at an Ohio resort where wealthy southern men vacation with their enslaved concubines. Visiting a free state raises thoughts of emancipation and escape in all the women, but what about the children most of them have left behind on plantations in the south? I didn’t cry at this book’s heartbreaking finish—crying lets you off the hook; lets you have your emotional response, mop your eyes, and move on. There’s no moving on from this story, which stayed with me and sank in deep.
Buy for: Your mother, because at its stark heart this novel asks the terrible question “What happens when a woman is forced to choose between her freedom and her children?” As a bonus, buy this book for the office gift-exchange, and give it to the guy in Marketing who insisted in a water cooler discussion that “Slavery wasn’t really that bad if you didn’t work in the fields.” If he walks sunken-eyed into work the next day, you’ll know Valdez-Perkins’s four heroines gave him something to think about.
10. A MAP OF DAYS by Ransom Riggs
I was doubtful when I heard Ransom Riggs’s perfectly tied-off trilogy about Miss Peregrine’s peculiar children was launching a fourth novel, but “Map of Days” is fantastic, taking the original mythology and spinning it off into America in a twist that is half frontier justice and half wild west adventure. Teenage hero Jacob is brave, capable, yet believably unsure of himself, and his fierce fire-slinging girlfriend Emma is always a delight. The rag-tag band of peculiar friends are on their own this time, and I can’t wait to see where they head next as they explore the “loops”(frozen time pockets) of the USA.
Buy for: Your picture snapping dad who’s always perma-glued to his camera on holidays, recording every minute. He’ll get a kick at the vintage color photographs that scatter the novel, and how ingeniously they tie into the story.
Get thee hence to a bookstore and finish up your holiday shopping. Happy Saturnalia!
I saw this pop all over Facebook, mostly in the Romance genre, and when I made my own list, it got me thinking not just about the writers I’m lucky enough to know, but what I learned from them–what we can all learn from writers as terrific as these, not just about writing but about how to get along in this weird and wacky business. So without further ado…
1 & 2: Margaret George and Diana Gabaldon, whose work I revered, both very kindly taking the time to read my debut novel and offer cover quotes that knocked my socks off. Superstars like this who reach down from their high, high pedestals to give a helping hand are more inspirational than they will ever know.
The Takeaway: You should never get so successful you can’t lend a hand to someone just getting started in the business.
3. Stephanie Dray, who has talked me off more ledges than I can count, helped brainstorm more books than I can list, given more good career advice than I can remember, and scared more waiters and soccer moms in the cafes and restaurants of Maryland (with overheard conversations about historical poisons and murder plots) than I can recall.
The Takeaway: Your friends in the business will save your sanity, so make time for them and it will come back times three.
4. Sophie Perinot, undoubtedly a Tudor queen in a past life, talented and fiery and the best, most ruthless crit partner any writer was ever lucky enough to get.
The Takeaway: Good critique partners are worth their weight in gold, so hone your own skills in that department and treasure the ones you find to whom it comes naturally.
5. C.W. Gortner, who took me under his fabulous Prada-sleeved wing as a wide-eyed newbie at my very first Historical Novel Society conference, and showed me the fun and scandalous side of this business.
The Takeaway: Whenever you’re at a conference, festival, or event, find a newbie hanging shyly on the outskirts and yank them into the middle of the fun.
6. Empress Christi Barth, who not only writes hilarious romance but runs the universe, and kindly takes time to help her friends run their universes when they are floundering.
The Takeaway: Organizational genius CAN go hand in hand with creative chaos.
7. Eliza Knight, who can always be relied upon to bring wine and to achieve daily wordcounts of which I can only dream.
The Takeaway: Learn wordcount tricks from authors who write in other genres, because good advice crosses genre. Also, wine is a life-saver.
8. Laura Kaye, who can diagram scandalous things on cocktail napkins and then dissect Hamiltonian finance reform, while also mapping a complete book launch marketing plan, without turning a hair.
The Takeaway: It is possible to write both serious and weighty historical themes and steamy sex scenes, and to feel entirely justified in upturning a certain finger at those who would find those talents incompatible, inexplicable, or unworthy.
9. Lea Nolan, for demonstrating that even the nicest most people-pleasing writer needs a hard-edged “I will cut you” New Yorker somewhere inside who can come out and say F*** You to the crazy.
The Takeaway: As much as you want to say yes to everything, help out every enthusiastic reader and fellow writer who asks, take on every new challenge and opportunity, you can’t do it all or you will go nuts. Take care of yourself by learning to say “No.”
10. M.D. Waters, whose can mix sci-fi and romance and action-adventure and mystery with a versatility that awes me.
The Takeaway: Sure, branding is important, but you can enrich your stories immeasurably by learning from other genres and mixing their elements.
11. Simon Turney, who is not only a talented scrivener and a helluva nice guy to hit a pub with, but who emailed me some lovely words of praise at a moment I was seriously second-guessing my decision to write something way out of my comfort zone. I still have that email, for when I need a jolt of confidence.
The Takeaway: Take the time to write a nice encouraging email to a colleague. You never know when it might reach them on a day they’re tearing their hair out and contemplating a career move to fry cook or court reporter or anything, anything but putting words on paper.
12. Donna Russo, who can dial any writer conference to a 12 and who keeps writing tales of the Italian Renaissance which I so love.
The Takeaway: Historical fiction does not automatically mean stodgy. It can also mean stilettos and prosecco and the kind of wild, fabulous imagination that plots headlong chases through historical alleyways and makes this genre fun rather than plodding.
13. Kate Forsyth, a story-teller to hold an entire room spellbound like a faerie queen weaving enchantments.
The Takeaway: Telling stories is the oldest art in the world, and when you strip away the externals like Kindle format and dust-jackets and cover copy and deckle edges, it still comes back to a hushed voice that makes people lean in to breathe “What happened next?” It really is magic.
14 & 15: Jennifer Robson and Janie Chang, the best book-tour travel-mates in the world, keeping their cool and their senses of humor even when the travel gods are slinging car trouble, plane trouble, and bears* in our path to keep us from our book signings.
The Takeaway: It’s good to cultivate wry humor and Zen patience because you never know when this business will start slinging bears at you.
*yes. Actual bears.*
What invaluable lesson have you learned from a writing colleague?
Confession time: every writer knows EXACTLY who should play their book characters in the fantasy movie cast, and if they say they have never given this any thought, they are lying. Because Googling pictures of Tom Hardy or Cate Blanchett and calling it “work” is a time-honored way to pass an hour when the words aren’t flowing.
Now, before I start get any excited readers hoping, the answer is no–so far Benioff & Weiss have not phoned with an offer to make “The Alice Network” into a star-studded HBO mini-series, nor has anyone else, so this movie cast is strictly fantasy. But it’s nice to dream, isn’t it? Here you go: my dream line-up for TAN if I had ultimate casting control…
For my 19 year old pregnant college girl heroine with her sharp chin and sharper tongue, I cast Ksenia Solo of “Turn” (Peggy Shippen) and “Lost Girl” (the adorable punk-haired Kenzie). She’s all elbows and attitude, and she’d play Charlie to a T. Also suggested: Emma Watson, Mila Kunis.
My secondary heroine Eve appears as both a girl of 22 (in the WWI timeline) and a woman of 53 (in the post-WWII timeline) so she’d probably have to be played by two different actresses. Younger Eve, who becomes an extremely effective spy in part by taking advantage of her looks (she appears younger than she is, and her doe-eyed face and hesitant stammer hide her steel-trap mind and equally steely nerves) would be wonderfully played by Mia Wasikowska, whose Jane Eyre had the same combination of iron resolve under surface shyness. Also suggested: Sarah Gadon (after I saw her in “Alias Grace,” I think she’d be spectacular!)
This one made me ponder for quite a while–an actress in her 50s who could play a razor-tongued pistol-wielding ex-spy with a whisky habit, and not make her too cutely inspirational or sweetly motherly? But then a reader came up with the wonderfully tart and beautiful Emma Thompson, and now I can’t envision anyone else. Also suggested: Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Frances McDormand.
LILI/LOUISE DE BETTIGNIES
A French actress would be great for the indomitable, courageous, outrageous Lili/Louise who was the head of the real Alice Network. Look no further than a blond Eva Green—she proved in “Penny Dreadful” that she could be funny, fragile, indomitable, and so charismatic you can’t rip your eyes off her. Perfect for a woman nicknamed “The Queen of Spies.” Also suggested: Reese Witherspoon.
Charlie’s French cousin has a small but heart-breaking part. Elle Fanning would be terrific. Also suggested: Clemence Poesy, Dianna Agron.
For Lili’s tough-as-nails spectacle-wearing right-hand woman and lieutenant in the spy network, let’s have the wonderful Kate Winslet. Because she automatically makes any movie 75% better. Also suggested: Oona Chaplin, Joanne Froggett.
Curiously, this role seems to be the one most discussed at all the book clubs I’ve attended. All I can say is that when I wrote Eve’s taciturn Scottish driver with his war-scarred past and his skill with cars (and broken hearts), I was envisioning Michiel Huisman of “Game of Thrones” and “Age of Adaline.” Also suggested: Richard Madden, Chris Hemsworth.
Eve’s handler and recruiter into the intelligence business, and a classic English gentleman in tweed. Tobias Menzies from “Outlander,” but in his Frank Randall mode and not his Black Jack Randall mode, please. Also suggested: Colin Firth, Matthew Good.
Eve’s nemesis across two wars, a smooth, elegant French restauranteur and collaborator who would sell his own mother to the enemy to get ahead. Very smart, very slick, and very scary…what about Mads Mikkelsen in one of his Hannibal Lecter suits, without the bloody eye from “Casino Royal”? Also suggested: Christoph Waltz, Jean Reno.
Nothing fits better in a Christmas stocking than a book. Here are my recommendations for your next shopping trip, ten of the best books I read in 2017 (though not all were published this year) and just who you should buy them for…
1. Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon. Really stellar. Suspenseful, tightly plotted, and racheting its way to a merciless climax, “Flight of Dreams” takes a famous historic disaster–the explosion of the Hindenburg–and uses it as a ticking clock to power the novel along as a handful of likeable and unwitting characters scheme, dawdle, fret, kiss, drink, smoke, and kill time on the great luxury dirigible crossing the Atlantic, as all the while the reader is screaming at them to get off the balloon before it’s too late. Usually I can pick up clues in books like these and figure out in advance who will live and who will die, but this time I was blindsided. A terrific read.
Buy for: Your office Secret Santa who you don’t know from Adam. There’s seriously no one who won’t be sucked in by this book—your thrill-loving cubicle-mate who loves a mystery with flying bullets, your corner-office feminist boss who likes her heroines smart and assertive, or the barely-out-of-her-teens office intern who will identify with the poignant coming-of-age subplot. This book has something for everyone.
2. Conclave by Robert Harris. A sensationally gripping book covering the tense few days between the death of one pope and the election of another. Who will it be? Harris makes these quiet scenes of old men casting ballots in a locked room unbearably tense, and his hero–a thoughtful Italian cardinal with no desire to be Pope–is a humble, lovable Everyman we can all root for. The end is a shocker.
Buy for: Your relapsed Catholic great-aunt who hasn’t been to confession since Vatican II. She’ll get a kick out of this peek behind the doors of Sistine Chapel.
3. Possession by A.S. Byatt. A dense, delicious, literary puzzle as two modern-day poetry scholars unravel a hidden love affair between a pair of famous (fictional) 19th century poets. Switching back and forth between the Victorian lovers who fall in love via their intense shared love of their work, snippets of their luscious poetry and heart-breaking letters, and the 20th century scholars on the hunt for those same letters and poems, this is a dazzlingly complicated puzzle, an ode to scholarship and poetry, and a tragic love story all in one.
Buy for: Your bookaholic mother, who already has a copy but it’s falling to pieces. Get her a new one just to say a) “You were totally right, I should have read this years ago like you said” and b) “I found a copy with the Burne-Jones Beguiling of Merlin on the cover instead of Gwyneth Paltrow from that crappy rom-com movie remake.”
4. Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang. A fierce, elegant coming-of-age story starring an orphaned Eurasian girl struggling to find her place in the world among the tumultuous shifting tides of the early Chinese republic. Jialing is a desperately appealing heroine, struggling for an education, a job, a husband, anything that will give her a future, and continually having doors slammed in her face. A touch of magic realism makes this one special, as the isolated Jialing’s only constant friend is a mischievous fox spirit who makes her home at Dragon Springs Road.
Buy for: Your hist-fic-devouring pal who has been complaining for years that there isn’t enough historical fiction written outside western Europe. Make her day and give her Chang’s compelling Three Souls too, with a fan to cool her cheeks when the Chinese communist poet sweeps the heroine off her feet.
5. Piece of Cake by Derek Robinson. A real classic of wartime literature: a squadron of RAF fighter pilots making their way first through the idyllic boredom of the “Phony War,” and then being plunged headlong into the hellish dangers of the Battle of Britain. Tragedy and humor and spine-tingling action run side by side in this tale; Robinson pulls helpless laughter out of you with the high-jinks of his adrenaline-junkie young heroes, then turns the pace on a dime and has you mopping your eyes as the cruel odds of aerial battles against enemy Messerschmitts sends the irrepressible fliers you’ve come to love spiraling one by one to their deaths. An unforgettable heart-breaker.
Buy for: Your grumpy great-grandpa with his cane and his WWII Veteran cap. Maybe he’ll unbend after reading, and tell you a few things about what his war was like. Or maybe not. But I bet he’ll enjoy this book.
6. Goodnight From London by Jennifer Robson. Another tale of the London Blitz, this one told from the ground looking up rather than the sky looking down. The terror and courage of London under fire is seen through the eyes of Ruby, a gritty young female journalist trying to make her mark in a man’s world. Ruby’s little band of friends—boarders at her boarding house, colleagues at the office, a certain taciturn fellow who keeps disappearing on unexplained missions overseas—make for an appealing gang to root for in a world where the next bomb may claim any or all.
Buy for: Your tart-tongued grandma who remembers just what it was like to be the only working girl in a man’s office, and will get steamed up all over again at the trials Ruby faces dodging around the desks and struggling to get credit for her own ideas.
7. Between Two Fires by Christopher Buehlman. A curious, fascinating book that mixes fantasy, horror, and history in a deft, riveting blend. In the wasteland of medieval France, riddled by the aftermath of war and the horrors of the Black Death, a trinity of unlikely pilgrims come together: a cynical knight mourning the loss of family and honor, a fallen priest racked by both homosexuality and guilt, and a young girl who is most definitely something otherworldly. As she leads them on a quest to rediscover their own souls and bring an end to the plague, they battle earthly foes (starvation, illness, mobs) and unearthly ones (demons, angels, and some truly hair-raising monsters). Theirs is a rollercoaster ride through demon lands and angel-scapes, and maybe not for everyone–both the violence and gross-out factor are fairly high–but I was spellbound to the end.
Buy for: That teenaged nephew or son who doesn’t read but has a ghoulish imagination (what teenage boy doesn’t?) He’ll get sucked into the gore, the sword-fights, and the spilling monster entrails, and come away knowing more than he ever thought to learn about French medieval history.
7. The Girls In The Picture by Melanie Benjamin. An unabashed power anthem celebrating female friendship and female ambition, wrapped in the sparkling myth of the early Hollywood film scene. Budding screen-writer Frances gets her big break in an unexpected partnership with America’s sweetheart Mary Pickford, a mega-star whose ringlets and dimples hide flinty determination to succeed. Frances and Mary’s friendship may be rocked by wartime politics, scheming colleagues, and jealous husbands, but it’s always to each other that these complicated, powerful women return. Glamour, glitz, and girl power galore.
Buy for: That young woman in your life, be it daughter, niece, or girl next door, who’s just going off to college. This will encourage her to chase her ambitions, no matter how huge they are, rather than apologize for them. Ambition, as Reese Witherspoon said, is not a dirty word.
8. Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye by Rachel Joyce. Newly-retired Harold is quietly having a midlife crisis, left at loose ends with too much time, too many regrets, and a wife gripped by her own internal struggles. A letter from dying friend Queenie jolts Harold into unexpected motion: he decides to cross England on foot to Queenie’s bedside, convinced she will live until he can see her face to face and make amends. The people he meets along the way, humorous and helpful and annoying, sometimes all three, will change Harold as he changes them, and his left-behind wife isn’t just the typical nagging scold but turns out to have an epiphany and a secret all her own. A quirky, delightful, unexpected read with some real tear-jerker moments.
Buy for: Your newly-retired uncle, who will get a kick out of a book where the questing hero isn’t some teenager but a middle-aged guy with a big dream. Buy him a pair of good walking shoes to go with the book, just in case he gets inspired.
9. Last Christmas in Paris by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb. This joint collaboration is a gripping epistolary novel beginning with heartbreaking gaiety at the start of the First World War. A progression of letters flies between a spirited female journalist, a bookish new-minted soldier, and the various bright young things who make up their band of friends, charting the slow, heartbreaking passage of years as war and disillusion grind away youthful dreams and ideals. Humor, love, tragedy, and hope make for a moving, uplifting read.
Buy for: The unabashed romantic in your life—sister? BFF? Aunt Jo?–who doesn’t mind whipping out a hankie over the last chapter and whimpering “No…no…please tell me they don’t die…”
10. Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay. I’m a new convert to GGK’s work thanks to the recommendations of my writing buddy SJA Turney (whose work has also been on my top ten list) and this is a book that made me weep ugly tears. It’s a fantasy version of Moorish Spain, where three factions very recognizable as the Moors in power, the Spaniards in neighboring border kingdoms who eye the territory lost centuries ago, and the Jewish population who just tries to get by in both worlds are poised on the brink of an ugly religious re-conquest. But for the space of a year or so, peace is held and explored through the odd partnership of a Moorish warrior-poet, a Spanish mercenary captain, and a fierce female Jewish physician who bridge the religious and cultural gaps to find friendship, and dare to hope their people can do the same. Transcendent and heartbreaking.
Buy for: Everyone you know. Absolutely everyone. Because this beautifully-written paean to the wisdom of choosing understanding and friendship over the barriers of hatred, religion, and race has never, EVER been more timely.
And for bonus reads: The Woman In Black by Susan Hill, if you love a good Gothic ghost story to raise the hairs on your neck…Crown In Candlelight by Rosemary Hawley Jarman if you like gorgeously lush historic tales with poetic language…The Wardrobe Mistress by Meghan Masterson for a lovely French Revolution-set coming-of-age story… Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King for a Roman epic about a young slave who helps pen one of the world’s most famous gourmet cookbooks!
Get thee hence to a bookstore and finish up your holiday shopping. Happy Saturnalia!
Looking back into my research files today to bring you the story behind one of the pivotal events in The Alice Network. (Don’t worry–no spoilers here if you haven’t read TAN yet.)
In central France, a few miles from Limoges, lies a ghost town called Oradour-sur-Glane. At first glance it looks simply abandoned—empty houses, tram lines waiting for trams no longer running, a rusting car abandoned at an empty fairground—but signs of tragedy are soon evident at a second look. Roadside walls are pocked with bullet holes, stone houses are scorched by fire marks, the church roof is gone from some massive explosion. An abandoned clock lies fire-melted in the street, forever frozen at four in the afternoon. No one has inhabited Oradour-sur-Glane since June 10, 1944.
Wrecked hardware–bicycles, a sewing machine, etc.–in Oradour-sur Glane. Public domain image courtesy of Dennis Nilsson
On that day—not long after the invasion of Normandy, as German forces rushed to meet the Allied advance—a regiment of the 2nd SS-Panzer Division Das Reich surrounded the village of Oradour-sur-Glane. The men of the village were quickly rounded up, then herded into a variety of surrounding barns and garages as the women and children were confined to the local church.
At four in the afternoon, the killing began.
A gas bomb was placed in the church and ignited. When the resulting fire and smoke failed to suffocate the women and children inside, the SS mowed them down with machine guns. The men were systematically shot in their barns and rabbit hutches, the wounded and dying locked inside as the buildings were set alight. Only a handful survived: five men managed to struggle free of a burning barn and escape into the fields, a family of children survived by hiding in an empty hotel, and a boy of eight played dead until he could crawl to safety. There was only one survivor from the church, a middle-aged woman whose daughters and granddaughter died in the inferno, yet who managed to climb out a high altar window and hide in a nearby garden, despite being shot five times.
The church in Oradour-sur-Glane where the women and children died.
Public domain image courtesy of Dennis Nilsson
That night, champagne corks popped in the ruined town. Soon after, the Germans moved north. The town remained empty, combed over by stunned neighbors and survivors. After the war it was decreed that the town of Oradour-sur-Glane be rebuilt nearby, but that the original site stand as a memorial to the massacred dead . . . and ever since, it has attracted horrified visitors and horrified questions. Chief among them, as with any seemingly senseless massacre: why?
The Germans were certainly no strangers to atrocities, but why was tiny, remote Oradour-sur-Glane exterminated with such sweeping finality? The Sturmbannfuhrer who commanded the division so thoroughly exceeded his orders in massacring the villagers that even his own superiors were taken aback; he might have been court-martialed had he not died in action a few weeks after the massacre. So the question remains: why?
French Resistance activity was suspected in the area. The day before the massacre, reports filtered in from the Milice (French informers) that a German officer had been kidnapped by Resistance members, possibly taken to Oradour-sur-Glane, and executed. The division’s Sturmbannfuhrer seems to have assumed the murdered officer was a missing friend of his, and requested permission to mount a pursuit, take hostages, and force the Resistance to release the man or his body. But he made no attempt at recovery or at hostage-taking, simply unleashing an orgy of revenge for his murdered friend.
That’s one possibility, but others abound. It’s possible that the reprisal was intended for nearby Oradour-sur-Vayres, a larger town where rebellious activity was more plausibly located. It’s possible that Oradour-sur-Glane was chosen for extermination simply as a sweeping example to quiet an uneasy region. And there are theories that the massacre was at least partially accidental; that the village church had been storing explosives for the Resistance, and the explosion resulted from machine gun fire igniting the hidden cache.
In the end we will probably never know the reasons why death descended on Oradour-sur-Glane on June 10, 1944. I have woven my own story around it in The Alice Network; the story of the still-abandoned ghost town outside Limoges has fascinated and haunted me from the moment I saw the photographs of its burned houses, melted clocks, and cars parked at curbs as if still waiting for drivers who never returned. Many lives were silenced that day in Oradour-sur-Glane, but their echoes speak loud and clear in the ghost town they once called home.
For more information about the Oradour-sur-Glane tragedy, including timeline, aftermath, and hundreds of photographs, I recommend this excellent website. I found it invaluable when writing the scene in The Alice Network which takes place on those haunted streets.